Linking self-care to community

Linking self-care to community

This is a lesson from the Integration and Care module in An Unexpected Light. (Each of the six themes in An Unexpected Light includes a narrative therapy module, a curated reading module, a writing module, and an integration and care module. This lesson comes from the Kinship and Community theme.)

I thought that this exercise might be helpful for those of us who are in isolation or physical distancing, because it invites us to think about the connected histories of our self-care actions. When we’re feeling alone, and floating through our houses with a sense of detachment or powerlessness, it can help us narrate the history of the small actions of care that we are relying on, and can reconnect us to small actions of care that might sustain us through this hard time.

These videos were recorded months ago, and don’t directly reference COVID19. They also both reference inviting someone over for tea – obviously this isn’t accessible to many of us right now! But video calls, phone calls, or across-the-street teas might be.

The full transcripts for the videos are included at the end of this post. If you find these videos helpful and you’d like to sign up for the next round of the course, you can find that information here. (As of March 25, there are still 15 spots available in the upcoming session of An Unexpected Light. All scholarship spaces are filled, but sliding scale is always available.)

An Unexpected Light – Actions of Care

This video introduces the idea of “actions of care” – all of the actions that we take that care for ourselves and others. This video challenges the idea that “self-care” happens in isolation, and instead locates it within a history and a community of caretaking and caregiving actions. This is part one of the lesson.

From the video:

Drinking tea is sort of a trope when we talk about self-care: “Make yourself a cup of tea”. Tea and writing is also something we think of as going together. That’s one reason why I wanted to use London Fogs as the example. 

Even if making a cup of tea is what you do for self-care while you’re writing, sometimes it can be helpful to go through a process of mapping how you learned to use tea as a self-care strategy. 

Who taught you that? 

Do you remember the first time someone sat you down with a cup of tea? 

Do you remember seeing relatives or friends or strangers looking serene in a coffee shop and thinking ‘oh, maybe I could use that skill for myself’? 

Is there a way that you can take your actions of self-care that often happen on your own and link those to your community; link them to a history and a legacy of using those skills? 

What does it mean to be tied to many other people who also use this skill? 

Is that a way that you can feel connected, and are there ways that your self-care skills and tools can actually help integrate you into your communities? 

Are there ways that you can do those together? 

Even if that just means talking about them on social media? Or texting a friend and saying ‘hey, I’m gonna have a bath. I haven’t had a bath in a while, I was thinking maybe you would want one too’. That was a really weird example; I apologize for going off the rails there, but, maybe bathtime with friends is a thing? 

But, is there a way that you can take your self-care strategies and connect them so that it’s not about you as an island; an individual isolated person having to care for yourself in a way that cuts you off from other people, that puts your needs ahead of other people’s when actually we’re all working together. Or ideally, we can all be working together. 

There are lots of things that you are doing during this time of isolation and physical distancing, both for yourself and for others.

You may be limiting your time on social media – how? why? are you connected to other community members who have taught you the value of this, or who support you in this?

You may be doing drive-past visits and chatting across a safe distance – why? whose idea was this? who is involved? how does this make you feel? what does it make possible?

You may be baking, or brushing your teeth every morning, or setting timers to keep yourself focused – how? why? where did you learn it? who does it connect you to?

Any action, no matter how small, has a history and exists in a social context. Mapping that out can be a powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness and loneliness.


If you really enjoyed that first video, this next one expands on it to offer a deeper-dive into the narrative practice behind this idea.

An Unexpected Light – Histories of Care

Part two of the lesson introduces the narrative therapy practice that will guide you through tracing the history of your own actions of care, and putting these into a social context.

Linking actions to histories

There is a foundation of skills, dreams, and values in your history.

Although this is a bonus narrative practice, it sets the foundation for the final month in An Unexpected Light, which focuses on legacies of action. Think of this as an invitation to start thinking about your own legacies of action!

Think of a circumstance in your life that has been challenging for you; something that has required you to access self-care or coping skills. Give the problem a name. (For many of us, this problem right now might be named coronavirus, or capitalism, or isolation. If the problem you’re facing is brand new, like coronavirus, you might want to think about times in the past that have some resonance with this experience – other times you’ve felt isolation, other times of scarcity, other times when you have worried for your or your community’s health.)

The actions that we’re connecting to here do not have to be big, impressive actions. For me, it was London Fogs! They can be small things – a letter, a practice of self-care that keeps you going. The idea is to connect to the history of these actions.

The action: creating a unique outcome

As you think about this problem, has there ever been a time when you faced this problem, or a similar problem, and you responded differently than usual? Think of a time when this resulted in a unique outcome. What did you do differently?

Where were you when you took this action? 

Were there other people supporting you? If yes, who were those other people? 

What made it possible for you to respond differently in this way?

Why was it important for you to respond to the problem in this different way? What might it say about what you want for yourself and your life? 

What were you standing for when you responded differently? Can you give a name to what you are standing for, or to what you were valuing? 

The history

Have there been other times when you’ve done something similar to this?

Have these previous actions also reflected the hopes or values that allowed you to respond differently to the problem? 

When was the first time you took an action like this?

Where did you learn that this kind of action is possible?

If you’ve never taken an action like this before, can you see other times in your life when other actions have reflected your values? (For example, your action may have reflected a value of “community” or “integrity” or “caring for others” or “creativity” – are there other times when you’ve taken actions that reflected this value?)

The witness(es)

Out of all the people you’ve known, who might be most pleased to know that you’ve stood up to the problem in this way? 

Why would they be pleased? 

What might this say about their hopes for your life? 

Are there people who also hope for the things that you hope for yourself? 

Would this person say “I knew you could do this”? 

What might they know about you that inspires their confidence that you could do what you did? 

Would this person be surprised that you did this? If yes, what might they be learning about you that they didn’t know before? What might you be learning about yourself? 

The future

What are you taking with you from this exploration of what might be a very small thing? What are you going to take into the future from this exploration of one experience of responding to a problem differently? 

If you wrote up this takeaway and posted it in a place where you’d be reminded of it, what effect might that have on your future? 

If you had a way to remind yourself that you have these skills, that there are people who know you have these skills and who support you, that there’s a foundation in your history of these skills, what might that mean for you? 

(Adapted from work by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs.)


Transcription of An Unexpected Light – Actions of Care

Okay. This is a video about care-taking and care-giving and actions of care, and how our self-care is something that’s connected to our communities and to our histories.

In this course, I’d like to really challenge some of the ideas about self-care being something that we do in isolation, as little islands; making tea for ourselves, or having a bubble bath, and this being framed as somehow contrary to community care or meaning that we need to prioritize ourselves over our communities or our histories. I’d like to think about care as something that happens within our social context; something that we learn to do together; something that we do in community even when we’re doing it on our own. 

I’m going to use London Fogs as an example *gestures towards cup of tea on the table*. London Fogs are a tea beverage. They’re one of my most important self-care tools. A London Fog is basically strong Earl Grey tea. I use vanilla sugar and vanilla extract and some kind of frothed milky beverage. You can use milk, but you can also use coconut milk or almond milk; whatever, but that’s the basic recipe. 

I learned how to make London Fogs when I was in the year between my fibromyalgia symptoms becoming debilitating and when I got the diagnosis of fibromyalgia and started figuring out how to navigate that experience of chronic, ongoing pain that occasionally and at that time frequently flared into something that kept me basically in my house and on my couch. It was quite a socially isolating experience, and I found that London Fogs were something I could do even on a high pain day. I could usually bring a chair into the kitchen and go through those steps of making tea, frothing milk with a little battery-powered handheld thing and making something that was soothing. There was a ritual around it, and it was something that people would come over and we would have a London Fog together. It gave me a sense of my ability to still have value in my community despite what was at the time a new experience of disability that I’d found really challenged my sense of who I was. 

Drinking tea is sort of a trope when we talk about self-care: “Make yourself a cup of tea”. Tea and writing is also something we think of as going together. That’s one reason why I wanted to use London Fogs as the example. 

Even if making a cup of tea is what you do for self-care while you’re writing, sometimes it can be helpful to go through a process of mapping how you learned to use tea as a self-care strategy. 

Who taught you that? 

Do you remember the first time someone sat you down with a cup of tea? 

Do you remember seeing relatives or friends or strangers looking serene in a coffee shop and thinking ‘oh, maybe I could use that skill for myself’? 

Is there a way that you can take your actions of self-care that often happen on your own and link those to your community; link them to a history and a legacy of using those skills? 

What does it mean to be tied to many other people who also use this skill? 

Is that a way that you can feel connected, and are there ways that your self-care skills and tools can actually help integrate you into your communities? 

Are there ways that you can do those together? 

Even if that just means talking about them on social media? Or texting a friend and saying ‘hey, I’m gonna have a bath. I haven’t had a bath in a while, I was thinking maybe you would want one too’. That was a really weird example; I apologize for going off the rails there, but, maybe bathtime with friends is a thing? 

But, is there a way that you can take your self-care strategies and connect them so that it’s not about you as an island; an individual isolated person having to care for yourself in a way that cuts you off from other people, that puts your needs ahead of other people’s when actually we’re all working together. Or ideally, we can all be working together. 

I don’t know if this video turned out the way I was hoping it would, but that’s what I was wanting to talk about. 


Transcription of An Unexpected Light – Histories of Care

Okay. So, let’s say you watched my earlier video about linking your self-care strategies to a history and community, and you think that sounds exciting but you don’t know how to do it. This video is a bonus narrative therapy practice for you. I’m going to walk you through the same questions that I would ask someone in a narrative therapy session, and the questions that were asked of me when I was in my Master’s program that actually helped me recognize my connection to London Fogs for being as complex and nuanced and beautiful as it is. I will also write these up in a handout for you, but I thought a video might be kind of fun. 

Think of a circumstance in your life that has been challenging for you; something that has required you to access self-care or coping skills. 

Do you have a name for it? You can name it whatever you want. It might be “depression”, it might be “anxiety”, it might be “interacting with a challenging family member”, or whatever. It could be a feeling or relationship variable, or a cultural or social problem like racism, or heterosexism, or fatphobia, or ableism. Or, it could be a unique metaphor that has meaning for you. It might be, you know, “the gloom”, or “the blues”, or “the zoomies” if you have that sense of frenetic energy that becomes problematic for you. 

As you think about this challenging context, has there ever been a unique outcome? A time when whatever it is could’ve taken you over, but you managed to get the upper hand or you managed to escape from it, or you managed to shrink it down to a manageable size. Where were you when this happened? Were there other people around? If yes, who were those other people? 

So, really think in some detail about a time when that problem has been managed in a unique way. What do you think made it possible for that to happen? 

When I was asked this question, I was thinking about pain as the problem. My unique outcome was a very specific memory of inviting someone over to my house that I really cared about; that I actually had quite a significant crush on, and making that person a London Fog, and knowing in that moment, even though the pain was still present, I had an experience of feeling myself having a little bit of control and agency in my life. 

You want to make sure that the unique outcome represents a preferred experience. It is valuable to talk about times when the unique outcome has been uniquely terrible, but that’s not what we’re looking for here. We are looking for times when it’s gone unexpectedly well. And then, we want to give that some meaning. 

So, why was it important for you to respond to the problem in this different way? What might this say about what you want for yourself and your life. What does it say you stand for? Can you give a name for what you are standing for? 

For me, when I was talking about London Fogs it was important to me because I was feeling really isolated. And in that moment of making a choice to invite someone into my space and to offer to share this new skill with them, I was valuing community and connection. I was also valuing reciprocal care. I think of all those things as being connected to a really strong value of community. 

So then, once you’ve kind of mapped out this unique outcome and what it says about you, think about a past time that has something in common with that unique outcome. Were there other times when you’ve done something that reflected these hopes, values, or commitments? Describe one of those times. It might not be connected to the problem; now we’re thinking about how it connects to the skills or values or commitments that you used in responding to the problem. 

Then, you try and link that unique outcome (for me that was when I invited this person over for a London Fog and had an experience of feeling like despite the presence of the pain, I was able to act in ways that brought community into my life) to past experiences where I was also valuing community. I was able to think about the fact that I’ve been a community organizer for quite a few years before the pain showed up in the same way that it had. That means that my value of community and connection has a foundation that predates the pain in my life. Then we link that unique outcome and those skills and the foundation to significant other people in your life. 

Out of all the people you’ve known, who might be most pleased to know that you’ve stood up to the problem in this way? Who would be pleased that you are standing for whatever it is. For me that would be community. Why would he/she/they be pleased? What might this say about their hopes for your life? Are there people who also hope for the things that you hope for yourself? Would this person say “I knew you could do this”? What might they know about you that inspires their confidence that you could do what you did? 

When I was thinking about this in relation to the London Fogs, I was thinking about that, at the time I had two partners, and they had both been very confident that I would figure out what was happening. They never wavered in their support for me. And, although I don’t think either of them would’ve said: “London Fogs are gonna be the key to this unique outcome”, I know they believed in me. 

Would this person be surprised that you did this? If yes, what might they be learning about you that they didn’t know before? That can be really important, too. If you were doing something; if your skill or your foundation is something that cherished people in your life might not expect, what are they learning about you? What might you be learning about yourself? 

And then you can bring this into the future. What are you taking with you from this exploration of what might be a very small thing? Making a fancy cup of tea is quite a small thing, but it connects me to a whole history, and maybe it will connect you to a whole history as well. What are you going to take into the future from that conversation? 

And, importantly, if you wrote up this takeaway and posted it in a place where you’d be reminded of it, what effect might that have on your future? If you had a way to remind yourself that you have these skills, that there are people who know you have these skills and who support you, that there’s a foundation in your history of these skills, what might that mean for you? 

So, yeah! That comes from my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work documentation from the Dulwich Centre. It’s adapted from work by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, who are fantastic. I will include a link to that with this video. 

An Unexpected Light in a pandemic

An interview with Kay, a participant in the first cohort of An Unexpected Light

A few weeks ago, before COVID-19 blew up like it has, I had the opportunity to interview Kay about their experience in An Unexpected Light. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on answering concerns that folks might have about taking the course. The transcript is below.

Although we didn’t talk about COVID-19, I want to write about something that Kay brought up, and why I think that we need to find ways to imagine possible futures right now, despite the chaos and fear and the way that this pandemic is highlighting just how precarious so many of us are.

For example, why didn’t the stock market set aside three months of savings and give up avocado toast before this? Honestly, irresponsible. (I can’t take credit for this joke, but I do love it.)

In our interview, Kay says, “I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to imagine dystopia. And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This [course] is kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.”

It is so easy to tell the dystopian stories, to picture the dystopian future, to imagine the many ways this is awful and getting worse. And it is awful, and it is getting worse. But those dystopian stories do not help us move forward.

We must find a way to be present with the difficulty of this moment, without losing our ability to act on hope – not the flimsy hope of “everything will be fine!” but the robust hope of action and intention. Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark, writes, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

“To hope is to give yourself to the future… to make the present inhabitable.”

We need that hope.

We need to act – to be connected to a sense of possibility, to a sense of ourselves as acting in solidarity with each other when we stay home, to a connection to the earth and our non-human relations. There is hope to be found in this time, and we must reach for it.

You don’t need to take An Unexpected Light in order to find that accessible hope.

You don’t need this course to bring that light into your life.

But I do think that many of us need the light. Whether it comes from a course or it comes from our communities or it comes from forgotten books on our own bookshelves.

I am in the process of converting some of the content in An Unexpected Light into some free lessons that I’ll be sharing on this blog, and into a ‘light’ version of the course that will be less costly and meant for folks who are in quarantine or isolation.

And in the meantime, find the unexpected light.

Find the people on the margins who are writing about possible futures.

Find the voices that are guiding us through to more justice, to more community care, to collective action.

Here are a few places to start:

  1. Kay references Vandana Singh’s essay Leaving Omelas: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and the Future. It’s one of the essays we read in the course, and it’s fantastic. In the time of this pandemic, this essay is even more relevant. Singh writes, “We are taught to unsee the connections, to look at the world in chopped up, disconnected little pieces. Our Omelas constrains our empathic imagination to small personal circles, and to short scales of time and space. Science fiction should enable us to see structures of oppression and control, to make us aware of and question the things we normally take for granted, and to expand our imaginative reach. But more often than not, science fiction simply reflects the world in the image of the overwhelming paradigm.” COVID-19 is forcing us to see the connections, and it has the potential to expand our empathetic imagination. That this essay was written in 2018, about a story written in the 1980s, should tell us that there is guidance to be found in our history. There are maps that we can follow, even in these new and terrifying times.
  2. Consider spending some time with the Destroy series – a set of special issues in Lightspeed, Fantasy, and Nightmare magazines that includes People of Colo(u)r Destroy; Queers Destroy; and Women Destroy. Start with People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy (And within that rich wealth of stories, consider starting with Darcie Little Badger’s pandemic story, Black, Their Regalia.)
  3. Another essay included in An Unexpected Light is Lewis, Arista, Pechawis and Kite’s essay Making Kin with the Machines. We are realizing how critical our machines are – our internet, our ventilators, our computers and phones. This essay brings Hawaiian, Cree, and Lakota perspectives to the idea of machines as kin, as part of our network of non-human relations.
  4. Read Brairpatch Magazine’s article, Mutual Aid for the End of the World. “There is so much latent strength in communities of disability when we rely on each other to survive with each other,” says Jim, an autistic trans man with disabilities who is mixed-race Indigenous. (Jim asked that we use only his first name, for privacy.) “Able-bodied people who have the choice to go it alone without consequence, or who have wealth and influence or access to resources that enable them to make it on their own – it’s a choice for them to do this work [of prepping], not a necessity. We rarely learn hard lessons voluntarily.”
  5. adrienne maree brown (who is, truly, the core of An Unexpected Light even though she doesn’t know it! Her work inspired this course and her writing is central to the course) shared a collection of resources in this blog post.
  6. Included in that blog post but worth it’s own point on this list, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has created a whole google drive folder of resources, available here. Of particular note, and sources of hope: Half Assed Disabled Prepper Tips for Preparing for a Coronavirus Quarantine and Pod Mapping for Mutual Aid.
  7. Mo Willems Lunch Time Doodles on YouTube. As my beloved Nathan described it, “Mo Willems may be the Bob Ross of this moment.”
  8. And last, consider backing Hugh and Nicole’s COVID-19 comic. Their work is fantastic, and this will be an excellent resource.

Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be sharing content from the course, as well as ideas and resources for moving through this time.

If you want to take the course, get in touch! You can also register at the Thinkific course page. (Note: all of the scholarship spaces have filled, but sliding scale is still available.)

Either way, become phototropic – turning towards the light. And if you can, become bioluminescent, creating light for others to turn toward.

As Kay says, hope is a beautiful thing, and it’s more accessible than people may realize.

Transcription:

TS: So if someone was kind of on the fence about taking An Unexpected Light, what do you think is the most important thing for someone to know about the course if they’re debating whether to take it? 

KO: Hmm. Cause like a lot of different factors can go into somebody debating whether or not like, am I a writer? Like identifying as a writer would be a big one. Like, I know that that was kind of a contributing factor and I mean, there’s no pressure on you to do that, and like, if you’re like, “am I a reader? This seems overwhelming.” Same thing goes, like there were certain parts of the course that I like just couldn’t deal with, so, I mean, I just put them off [laughs] indefinitely. 

TS: That’s fair. 

KO: You can skip over stuff. If accessibility seems like an issue, like financially, I know I worked out a payment plan with Tiffany that worked for me, and my money, my financial situation, so that’s another really awesome option for people and that I know Tiffany’s open to. 

TS: Mhmm. 

KO: Another thing would be like, “am I gonna be graded on this?” The idea of like, learning or doing or making… I came from an art school background. I got a BFA from ACAD [now Alberta University of the Arts] and I really like the approach and style of this course because there’s no grading unless you want feedback for your writing and even then. I was just a reader and did a little bit of feedback for people and then you get the chance to read some really amazing stuff. 

TS: Yeah, as the person who got to read everything that was submitted and then only sent it out to the folks who volunteered to be readers, yeah, the writing that has been shared in the course has been fantastic. And if folks are worried that you’re not a writer, I can tell you that some of the most profoundly moving pieces have been written by people who don’t see themselves as writers and who maybe hadn’t even written speculative writing previously. Because we’re thinking about the future and hope and possibility and justice, and I don’t know, the course just, this cohort of the course has been full of brilliance. 

KO: Cohort!

TS: And that Kay’s word. Kay came up with that at the Shiny writing group. 

KO: [laughs] Everybody was jumping on it and I love it. “Cohort” is just like a really, you know? It’s just like, I love it. Everybody’s in this, you know, bumping shoulders, “Kay, what’s up?”, bumping elbows…

TS: Yeah. Trying to imagine futures together. 

KO: Exactly.

TS: Would you recommend people take the course? 

KO: Oh my God. I haven’t stopped talking about it since before I was taking the course. I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to like, imagine dystopia. 

And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This is like, kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise. 

TS: Yeah. 

KO: And like, I never would’ve really realised that Indigenous people had already lived through the end of the world if I hadn’t been a part of this course, so. It’s weird to think about, but that’s just a history that we’re not introduced to; it’s not a perspective that you hear. It’s like, no First Nations really did live through the end of the world; their world, everything they knew. So, that’s a huge takeaway in and of itself, so. Anybody who is talking about decolonising anything should probably know that. 

TS: Yeah. And I think it really serves a colonial, capitalist narrative to imagine that the apocalypse we’re facing now is “the” apocalypse, and to ignore the fact that you know, first contact was an apocalypse and the transatlantic slave trade was an apocalypse and is an ongoing apocalypse. And the inaccessibility of care to trans folks is an apocalypse. 

KO: Yes.

TS: And ableism in our culture is an apocalypse, and each of those communities not only is surviving the apocalypse, they are figuring out how to build possible futures. 

KO: And everybody it seems like is survivance. That was one of the things.. I’m about it now; it’s not about simply survival, it’s about vibrance, it’s about…there’s levity there, there’s joy to be found there, and there’s future to be found there and so, like, it’s not just about surviving it anymore. Yeah. [Kay gives two thumbs up]

TS: Yay!

KO: [laughs] Take the course!

TS: Yes! Take the course! [laughs]

KO: I feel like I always get off track so that’s my takeaway: Do it. But only if you want to.

TS: Yeah. Yes. 

KO: No peer pressure! [laughs]

TS: Is there anything else that you wanted to say, either about your experience writing or your experience in the course that you think you’d like to have in this interview? 

KO: Hmm. Lemme think. Nothing immediately comes to mind other than the fact that I really liked the idea of, I loved that you kind of had Octavia’s Brood at the core of it because that is some stuff. Like, there is some brilliant writing in there. And the essay, is it Leaving Omelas

TS: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. 

KO: O-mel-AS? 

TS: I think? I don’t know, actually. 

KO: Yeah, I wasn’t sure either, [laughs] but I say it both ways just to…

TS: But, you’re talking about the essay by Vandana Singh? 

KO: That was, like, one of the most.. I think that was a point of clarity when I read that, it kind of put everything in focus for me. And that was when I really stopped to think about what I was writing. So, I don’t know if it’ll ring true for other participants like that, but, it really, it’s an incredible essay. And even just the dynamism in it, and talking about like, what is it? Newtonian physics? 

TS: Yes. 

KO: And like, that being a thing. It’s just so good, everything about it. It’s an excellent essay. 

TS: It’s an excellent essay. 

KO: And, what was the quote that you say, like “writing science fiction is like, everything…”

TS: All organising is science fiction” which is a quote by adrienne marie brown.

KO: And that was something that I’d also like to leave with anybody that’s considering this course and not sure. It’s like, getting together to, online, to talk about this, emailing Tiffany your work, considering this course, like, all of it is creating possible futures and maybe bringing something into the world, so. [sings]: Science fiction! [laughs]. It’s not all just like ancient sexist Star Trek! [laughs]

TS: It’s true. It’s so much more than that. Awesome. Thank you so much. 

KO: No worries. I’m happy to be here. 

Succulent zine call for contributions

Succulent zine call for contributions

Call for contributors!

After writing an update to my patreon supporters yesterday, wondering whether we could do some kind of small collective document or zine, I decided that, yes, I do want to do a little zine about how we are handling covid19.

I haven’t made a zine in a little while, and this is a pretty big issue that has lots of us worried and in our feelings. In my experience, writing and co-creating something can help us alchemize those big and overwhelming feelings into something that feels possible, into paths forward.

I love the comic about how we are basically houseplants with complicated feelings, and it got me thinking about how isolation means we need to be succulents, able to survive and thrive in conditions of scarcity and intensity, and how fear also turns out lives into deserts, and how precarity does the same.

So I thought we could use that metaphor, and make a little zine about what gets us through, and how we get each other through.

What are our skills of survival?

What are our strategies of mutual aid and collective action and care?

How are we keeping ourselves going, and what can we teach each other?

Many of us are in communities with generations-long histories of succulent lives in deserts of ableism, transantagonism, queerphobia, colonialism, white supremacy. Oppressed and targeted communities know the way forward.

If you’d like to write something about how you’re feeling about the news, the health guidelines, the government response, your own experiences of isolation as a result of disability or illness that were not accommodated and how this has given you insider insight into what gets you through… let me know!

I won’t be hosting an in-person narrative conversation about this (because social distancing is what we’re supposed to do!) but I was thinking that maybe we could host an online narrative chat about it, and turn that into part of this collective document.

Let me know if you would be interested in that, too.

Send your submissions to sostarselfcare@gmail.com.

Responding to problem-saturated stories

Responding to problem-saturated stories

This is a narrative therapy post! 

It’s about how we respond to recurring stories that focus tightly on a problem or complaint, whether the storyteller is ourselves or someone else. What I hope to do with this post is to describe how we might use narrative therapy practices in our responses to ourselves and each other, in order to help the storyteller feel stronger in their story. This might mean strengthening the storyteller’s connection to their own values, or inviting the storyteller to tell the story of how they responded to the problem in addition to telling the story of the problem’s influence on them.

Many of us have experienced recurring stories that focus on a problem. These recurring stories tell the story of an experience, a person or a relationship, where the problem has significant power and is central to the story. Problem-saturated stories are notable because they tend not to leave room in the story for recognizing agency, choice, and response. The problem happens to the storyteller, and throw the storyteller off course in a way that is disruptive and distressing. They are often stories of injustice, or of a social context that suddenly goes off the rails.

These stories can be distressing to hear, even if we’re just hearing them from ourselves! It can be hard to know how to respond, and sometimes we respond by shutting the story (and the storyteller) down, changing the subject without engaging in the story, asking (or demanding) that the storyteller focus on the positives, or downplaying or dismissing the impact of the problem because we don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the problem story again. Sometimes these responses are based in self-preservation, but they are not often helpful for the storyteller. The goal of this post is to offer us some other possible responses.

A problem-saturated story tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. Our goal with these responses is to flip that around, and make the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem more visible. People are not passive recipients of hardship – we are always responding. This post is about how we help the storyteller make those responses visible.

I want to add some really important caveats right at the beginning of this post:

First, this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy. I think this is at the heart of all therapy, really, though different therapeutic methods approach it differently. This practice is about listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. It is hard and important work, and it is not only trained therapists who do this work. Many of us, therapists or not, have deep skills and insider knowledge when it comes to listening and responding to the stories of problems, and all of us have skills and knowledge when it comes to responding to problems – one of the core beliefs of narrative therapy is that nobody is passive recipient of trauma or hardship.

In sharing this post, I’m not suggesting that we should all become therapists for each other all the time. Even though this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy, and it can be a therapeutic process, it’s also just part of how we can be in relationship with each other. We listen to each other tell the stories of our lives, and the stories of our problems, all the time. The goal of this practice, especially when we’re bringing it into our non-therapeutic relationships, is not to “fix” the problem and it is definitely not to “fix” the person. 

The goal is to invite the storyteller to tell the story in ways that feel strong. It is about highlighting and making visible the skills and values and responses that already exist within the story. That’s a really important orientation to the story (and the storyteller) because it involves curiousity rather than education. This practice invites us, as listeners, to locate the storyteller as the expert in their own experience, and and it invites us to carry a pre-existing belief that there are skills, values, and responses already present in the story. 

Second, I want to acknowledge the importance of complaint in our lives. Complaint is not a bad thing, and telling stories of complaint is also not a bad thing. Complaints, including retelling stories of problems in our lives, are often critical steps in standing against injustice. So when we respond to each other’s complaints, or to our own complaints, it is important to keep in mind the value of complaint, and to honour the insight that allows someone to say, “this happened and it was not okay.”

Sometimes it takes time to get to the point of saying it so clearly, and what can come across as “whining” or “fixating on the negative” can be part of an important process of sifting through an experience to understand what happened and why it feels bad.

As Sara Ahmed points out, “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.”

So, before I invite you to use these practices to respond to complaint in a way that shifts from the problem to the response, I first want to invite you to listen with care to the complaint. Is the story being told over and over to you because the storyteller (perhaps yourself!) has been “blocked by the collective will not to hear”? How can we “acquire a feminist ear” in our listening to each other (and ourselves)?

If it is the case that the storyteller has not had the opportunity to tell the story without being “blocked”, then the storyteller first needs to be witnessed in the grip of the problem and the complaint. For example, if the problem story is about experiencing racism, transantagonism, queerphobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny, or any other problem related to structural oppression, chances are very good that the storyteller has been “blocked” by the collective ear, and naming the injustice is a critical part of that person’s survival and self-affirmation. In those cases, it is so important to listen compassionately and with the “feminist ear” that Sara Ahmed invites us to develop in ourselves.

That act of listening carefully to the problem story is one of the most important practices of narrative therapy (in my opinion).  Michael White referred to it as “lingering with the problem” and it can be deeply uncomfortable, but also incredibly valuable. Often, only once we have been witnessed in our struggle, and the harms and injustices that we are facing have been named, can we consider moving past this to other stories.

So, if you’re the listener, and you recognize that the storyteller might need to be witnessed in the struggle before they can move to other stories, and you just do not have the bandwidth to hear the story (sometimes for the fiftieth time – some stories are very sticky, and we try many times to find the right audience or the right way of being witnessed!) it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now. Can we switch the topic?” 

You can say this to someone else, and you can also say this to yourself. Being a supportive friend (to others and to ourselves!) does not mean that we have to always extend ourselves past our limits. Being able to say, “I don’t have it in me right now” can invite consent and accountability into our relationships, allowing us to say yes to the hard conversations more openly and intentionally. This is particularly important if we are also feeling weighed down by our own contexts or problems.

So, with all those caveats and assuming that you have the bandwidth to spend some time in the problem-saturated story and you’d like to try and engage in a narratively-informed conversation with the storyteller and try to shift the story a bit, here are some ideas.

As I mentioned, the goal of responding to these problem-saturated stories is to make those values, skills, choices, and responses visible, or at least to invite the storyteller to reflect on them. This means that we’re not trying to change the topic (though that’s valid – it’s just a different thing!), we’re trying to change the lens on the topic.

Note: the storyteller might be yourself.

Additional note: This might be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable.

Third note: If the storyteller, especially if it is not you, appears uncomfortable with your questions and with this approach, take a step back. If you feel like you have to push to get anywhere with this, it’s best to stop. Narrative questions can be so valuable and so rewarding, but they can also be so full of pressure and friction. If it feels hard and bad for either of you, take a breath and pause. The storyteller may not be ready to shift the story, and that’s okay! That’s not a failure on their part, and it’s not a failure on your part. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the same story again – you have the option to decline the conversation, to change the topic, to take care of the relationship in other ways.

So, the actual practice.

Listen to the story and think about the following questions, and consider asking them if an opportunity arises:

What skills made it possible for the storyteller to get through that experience? 

For example, if they are telling the story of a relationship that has ended, and they are lingering in the stories of pain that they experienced, what skills allowed them to keep going in their life despite that pain? How did they get through the relationship up to the point of it ending? Where did they learn these skills? Who taught them, or showed them it was possible? When did they first realize that they had these skills?

As you listen to the story, you might notice moments when the storyteller did something in response to the problem. Is this connected to a skill that can be named, and whose history can be traced?

In an example like this, be mindful of not cooperating with victim-blaming discourses by suggesting that they should have had different skills, or that the hurtful situation was a “blessing in disguise” because of the skills they developed in response.

What values did the storyteller hold onto as they moved through that experience?

For example, if they are telling the story of how workplace bullying has invited problems into their life, what have they held onto that allows them to get through that experience? What do they value or cherish about themselves in a work context – do they have a value of integrity or collaboration or justice that has allowed them to keep showing up for work despite the problems? Can you see these values evident in the story, such as in the way they choose to treat coworkers with care, or in the way they do their work? What do their choices say about what is important to them?

Sometimes problem-saturated stories are so sticky because they are stories of times when our values have been violated – if we have a value of integrity or honesty and we have been lied to, this can feel like a very sticky problem! Sometimes the complaint itself highlights the value, and it can help to witness this actively. This might sound like, “it sounds like you really value treating people with compassion, and that value was not extended to you in this situation.” If this is the case, then you can ask about the history of that value – where does it come from? Is this a value that they share with anyone in their life? Have there been times when they’ve really seen this value being expressed in actions?

In an example like this, be aware of the fact that talking about our values can invite feelings of guilt or shame if we have acted out of alignment with our own values or if we feel that we’re not able to express our values through our actions. Focusing on what is important to someone, and framing it in terms of how they have held on to that being important despite contexts that don’t support it, can be one way to sidestep the shame. 

How has the storyteller responded to the problem?

For example, if they are telling the story of how sickness or disability has impacted their life, how have they responded to the ableism that they’ve faced, and to the changes in their body and social context? 

In an example like this, be especially conscious of not downplaying the impact of sickness or disability on a person’s life within our ableist culture. Naming ableism, capitalism, lack of social supports, and other structural and systemic problems is so important, because sick and disabled people are so often invited to view ourselves and our bodies as the problem. To quote Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, our bodies are not the problem, ableism is the problem. 

And also, when our ability changes, this can bring grief and loss, and those feelings are valid! But the person, and the person’s body, are still not the problem. 

If you are looking for stories of response, you might ask things like – what do they do when the problem shows up? How did they respond when the sickness or disability arrived, or as it has changed over time? What has allowed them to respond to the problems that have come? 

Who has witnessed the storyteller experiencing this problem? Who has supported them?

This is such an important question, because the problems in our lives can isolate us, leaving us feeling alone. But we are not alone. Even if the only person we see on our team is a fictional character, a pet, or an ancestor… still, we are not alone. We are always in relationship, and there are always ways to find connection.

So, for example, if they are telling the story of being hurt by someone else, were there any kind witnesses to this hurt? Even if nobody witnessed the hurt, are there any people in the storyteller’s life who, if they had witnessed the hurt, would have recognized why it was so hurtful? Have they seen anyone else hurt in this way? If so, what did they think of that? How would they respond to seeing someone else hurt in this way? Who has supported them, or responded in the way that they would want to respond?

All of these questions focus on finding the moments of agency, choice, and response. 

It’s about finding the strong story that already exists as a shimmering thread in even the most sticky, muddy, problem-saturated story.

We are always responding to the hurts and injustices and traumas that we face. These responses come from somewhere. They might come from witnessing someone else respond in a way that we want to emulate, or in a way that we don’t. From our own past experiences. From the values that we learned in our favourite books or games, or from our family members or culture. From so many places!

Telling the story of our response can help us find a sense of agency and choice – we did respond to that injustice, even if that response was to roll our eyes or go complain to a friend. We did something in response!

We all have values – things that we consider precious and worth holding onto even in the face of obstacles. These values have histories. Those histories can help us feel connected to others who share our values, and can help us feel less alone.

We all have skills – ways of acting that allow us to respond to the problems in our lives. These skills also have histories! And they may be connected to our values, and together these values and skills shape our responses.

We all have connections and community, even when we are distant from these. We all come from somewhere, and we all have people who have been a positive influence in our lives (even if those people are pets, or celebrities, or fictional characters). We are not alone.

These questions aren’t about downplaying the problem or the impact it has had on the storyteller’s life. They are about making visible what the storyteller has done in response, and what has allowed them to do this.

If you end up using some of these strategies and questions in your life, I’d love to hear about them!

If you’d like to learn more about narrative therapy, the Dulwich Centre has two free online courses – an intro to narrative therapy, and a free online course focused on Aboriginal narrative therapy (taught by Aunty Barbara Wingard, who coined the phrase “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger”). You can find those courses here.

Our current economic, environmental, and political devastation offer plenty of problem stories for many of us. I offer An Unexpected Light, a six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course focused on telling stories of futures full of care, collaboration, justice, liberation, and possibility. The next session starts April 2, 2020. Find more information and register here.

The Ally Bill of Responsibilities #1

(Cross-posting from Facebook – I’m going to be posting over the next couple weeks as I work through Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.)

If you are non-Indigenous and feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do as you watch the ongoing colonial violence committed on Wet’suwet’en lands, consider this an invitation to find one specific and tangible action to take.

You can start with the Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit 2020, which is full of resources and ideas. There are places to donate, articles to read, historical and contemporary information to learn.

If that feels daunting for you, and you’d like a single specific task, you can join me in spending some time with Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.

There are 16 responsibilities listed in this bill, and I’m going to be working my way through these, focusing on one per day, for the next two weeks.

The first responsibility is –

“Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures.”

This requires us to examine our own hearts and find where guilt is our motivation. This is hard work, but it’s important.

What do you feel when you read stories and articles about what is happening on Wet’suwet’en land? When you read the racist and anti-Indigenous comments on articles and scattered throughout social media?

I think that many white settlers, like myself, are feeling guilt in these situations, and we know that we are implicated in the violence because we are part of the dominant group.

How can we recognize and validate those feelings of guilt, but NOT keep those as our motivation for being in solidarity with Indigenous communities?

Acting from guilt positions us as the ones with agency, the ones who can take actions to make things right. Acting from guilt can lead us to think that we’re the ones with the power to harm, and therefore the power to heal. It can lead us to think that our job is to “help” Indigenous communities. But this isn’t right. These larger oppressive power structures harm everyone, and challenging them is not an act of charity towards Indigenous communities, it is an act of mutual aid towards our mutual survival.

How can we shift our motivation so that we are acting from an awareness that these larger oppressive power structures must be challenged?

What will help us stay connected to an awareness of moving towards justice, rather than simply moving away from guilt?

Acting from guilt can also lead us into trying to gain absolution from our Indigenous friends and community members. Trying to be reassured that we’re not “bad”. Seeking out comfort for the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

But acting from genuine interest in challenging oppressive power structures means that we can just do that work, without asking for reassurance and comfort from the people we are trying to be in solidarity with.

For myself, this responsibility feels more possible when I have other white settlers to discuss my feelings of guilt with, so that I’m not just ignoring or dismissing those feelings, but I’m also not allowing them to be the motivator of my actions. Accountability companions who share my white settler privilege and won’t be harmed when I talk about my guilt are important.

What helps you with this responsibility?