With Great Exposure Comes Great Fear

I have been struggling with the amount of attention (and requests for engagement) that have come my way as a result of a couple of blog posts I wrote about intersectionality in librarianship. In an attempt to understand why I felt like I was slowly having the top layers of my skin flayed off, I started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.

You know how you can read a text and find so much that resonates with you that the whole thing glows with highlighter marks and is littered with post it notes? If I were reading a paper copy, this would be one of those books. Alas, it’s an ebook.

Anyway, Brown, if you aren’t familiar with her work, focuses on the ways that shame and a fear of vulnerability keeps us from achievement, whether in personal or professional contexts. Early in the book she relates the story of her journey toward accepting the increased attention she received as a result of her TEDxHouston talk. Her inclination had been to shrink from the spotlight, not because she didn’t believe in her research, but because she was afraid to make herself vulnerable. She writes:

In a culture full of critics and cynics, I have always felt safer in my career flying under the radar.

Seeing this in print had such an effect on me that I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and hobble over to my computer, I had to immediately peck this entry out on my iPhone.

I am as critical and cynical as the next person. That may be why I was attracted to UX work in the first place, and why I feel so comfortable with my position as the Merry Snarkster in #LibrarianTwitter. But if I’m being honest — and I think it’s time I do that for once — the level of cynicism I’ve seen on Twitter, blogs, and library publications of late is disturbing. It’s disappointing, and disheartening and the idea of opening myself up to these well-honed slings and arrows scares the shit out of me.

It isn’t because I don’t believe in what I have to say, or because I believe it isn’t important. I just don’t want to invite the negativity into my life, especially now when I feel ill-prepared to handle it in a mature and emotionally detached fashion.

I think the cynicism is dangerous, and I think it silences just as many people as the fear of racist, sexist, or homophobic reprisal does.

I don’t have any answers, and obviously, this is something I’ll have to keep working on in my own life, but at the risk of losing an audience who expects snark and sass from me, I’m going to do my best not to contribute to the bitter back channel anymore.

And while I’m at it, I’ll also work on stepping out from behind a persona and allowing you to see who I really am, scars, warts and all.

Further Tales (on Armistead Maupin)

I personally have gone from being both a crime and a mental illness to someone whose homosexuality is now my strongest value. — Armistead Maupin

I honestly don’t know if queer folks who didn’t come of age during the time when AIDS was a death sentence, when Queer Nation, ACT-UP, and the Lesbian Avenbers were out in the streets fighting, dying, kissing, and fucking for revolution, can really understand how drastically things have changed in such a short period of time.

I’m reminded in large ways, like when marriage equality passes in a red state, but I’m also reminded in small, very personal ways, like when my boss talks about her (female) partner in staff meetings and nobody blinks an eye.

My mom used to say “Keep on livin'” whenever I made a crack about her advanced age, but now I know she wasn’t only talking about age. She was talking about lived experience and the wisdom you gain through survival.

Awakening

bloom county - oliver wendell jones

There’s something happening in my life that I don’t really feel like I can adequately explain. All I know is I feel a sense of wonder, awe, and hopefulness — even in my darkest moments — about life and what’s ahead.

I dream of grace. I long for community. I long for connection, compassion, and seeing the potential and possibility in everyone I meet and regarding them without judgement. I work toward forgiveness every day, and I try to view everyone I meet with love. I never used to be like this before, but now it seems…fundamental.

Is it religion? Is it burgeoning spirituality? Or is it that I’m just waking up from a deep sleep?

I think loneliness and isolation have taken too great a toll on me, so much so that I’ve forgotten how to be around other people. I call it introversion, but really, what if it’s just an unwillingness to recognize, accept, and love people for who they are, whatever they are, in the moment I encounter them?

What would happen if I stepped away from rational thought, if I threw my arms up and said “I REALLY DON’T HAVE THE ANSWERS FOR ANY OF THIS!” and just threw my arms around the world?

Here I sit, on the precipice of another depressive episode, worried whether this is the one that will send me careening over the edge once and for all. And yet, there’s a tiny glimmer of something so faint, barely pulsating, barely breathing, but so very real and so very present that says “It’s all going to be okay.” What is this thing that doesn’t have a name?

And if it’s what I really think it is, why am I using so much energy on fighting it? Why am I afraid to admit it? I’m afraid that if I talk about this publicly that I’ll lose friends, that I’ll lose favour. I’ve lost so much over the last few years that I don’t think I can stand to lose anything — anyone else. But if by talking about it, what if I gain so much more? More awareness, more love, more peace, more self? Is it worth the risk?

I guess I’ll find out after I push publish.

Bonus:

In Dreams

This one was a real humdinger.

I dreamed I was with my mom at our old apartment, but the apartments had been rebuilt and reopened. A group of very serious women in business suits showed up at the door, and my mom answered. The women were there to see me, to tell me that I’d been selected to complete an interview for a job in Bahrain (!). It was a low-level clerical job, but the job paid twice what I’m making now.

The interview process was quite stringent. They would not only look into my credit history (always a fear of mine), but they’d look into my personal history as well, trying to find any instance of dishonesty, or a time where I displayed questionable moral choices. I signed the waiver giving them permission to look into my personal history, and they left.

The dream cut to a large meeting room, where the women were coaching me for the interview. I was to have read several well-known business books to prepare, but I hadn’t, so the women had presentations, poster boards, and cheat sheets. They were even acting out parts of each book to help me retain the information. Then the wall of the conference room opened to reveal an darkened auditorium.

The theatre was packed. We sat in the back of the house and were treated to a madcap musical revue that was part Annie, Get Your Gun, part Damn Yankees, and part You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I was enjoying the singing and dancing, but didn’t understand what this had to do with the job interview. That’s when the ladies dropped their bomb.

I had to perform on stage as part of the interview. They’d hand me sheets with some lyrics on them, a few props, and a costume, but I had to portray the lead character in the musical in front of a packed house. I sang, I danced, I flubbed lines. The score was missing several pages of lyrics, so I had to rely on memory to finish the closing number. I twirled batons, told jokes, and danced until I literally dropped. No really, I collapsed and fell off the stage at the end.

But the audience loved it. The coach ladies were proud of me, and the executives of the company in the front row (!) had honest but helpful criticism on my performance. They offered me the job.

And then I woke up.

Chronic Illness and the Self

methotrexate injection

When you are some degree of unwell every day like I am, it becomes really difficult to determine when you should really take a day off, and when you should suck it up and go into work anyway.

I’m in the middle of a rather large, strategically important project at the library. The project is going fairly well, and I’m proud of the progress my team has made, how my direct reports are starting to become more confident in their own abilities and decision-making, and I’m proud of myself for keeping a relatively level head and not flying off the handle (publicly) during frustrating moments.

But this project isn’t only important to the library, it’s important to me, personally and professionally. My performance shows that I can rise to the challenge. Managing the project has given me the confidence boost I needed, and the strategic and theoretical underpinnings of the project helped solidify a number of deep-seated beliefs I have about service through technology. I’m under a white-hot spotlight at work as a result; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the success of this project could affect my trajectory at the library. Yes, it’s that big.

Because this project is so significant, I’ve found it hard to step away when my body demands it. I downplay my RA symptoms because I don’t want pity, but the days that I phone in sick are days when I literally can’t walk more than the distance between my bed and the bathroom, or days when I can’t shower or dress myself because the pain in my arms and hands is too great. Even then I make the effort to check email, communicate with the project team, my manager, and the vendor via email, phone or chat. My manager once told one of the library directors “That’s the thing about Cecily; if she says it’ll get done, it’ll get done no matter what.” I felt proud in that moment, but maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe it was a caution? A moderated expression of concern from a colleague?

I’m writing this because I’m having a very rough day today. My calendar is blissfully empty except for one quick status meeting first thing in the morning, and I know this would be the perfect day to step back, rest, slow down the adrenaline that’s surging through my body, and just rest. My attendance record is pitted and pockmarked with numerous absences. I’m in danger of running out of sick leave. But my fear is that these absences, these days when my body forces me to press pause will impact my career aspirations. I’m scared that I’ll get a reputation for not showing up, not being able to do the work, not being available.

Being constantly fatigued and in pain demands a lot of energy. Some days I can draw on my reserves and make it through the days, but today isn’t one of those days. Yet here I am wasting precious cycles by worrying that my position is slipping, that I’m letting my team, my supervisor, and the entire library down if I don’t at least show up every day.

My workplace has shown me tremendous support and kindness throughout this illness. I only wish I could do the same for myself.

Related: see Colleen Harris-Keith’s excellent post on chronic illness in the workplace.

Scare Tactics

intimidate
ɪnˈtɪmɪdeɪt/
verb
gerund or present participle: intimidating
1.
frighten or overawe (someone), especially in order to make them do what one wants.

Since moving to Vancouver, I’ve had more than a few people tell me that they were intimidated by me when we first met. This is laughable to me because most people read my aloof bearing as snobbery or superiority when in fact it is masking a severe lack of confidence and a fear of rejection.

Hearing it again the other night made me want to try to unpack this reaction. What is it about me that makes people feel cowed? Is it my size? If I were smaller, would people feel less threatened by me? If I were more outgoing and less reserved, would that put people at ease?

If I spoke more haltingly or appeared to be more uncertain when sharing a professional opinion, would people relax? If I did that, it would fly in the face of the kind of professional advice women are usually given, e.g. be more assertive, don’t hedge, use I statements, etc.

Some days, nothing would make me happier than to be anonymous, to blend in, to be thought of as engaging, approachable and friendly. But even when I consciously try to adjust my body language and tone of voice, I still don’t get it right.

Best Laid (Lazy) Plans

a photo of cecily reflected in a mirror

I had great plans for this day.

I didn’t sleep well last night, so I thought I’d get up at dawn, go for an early morning ride and wait for the sun to come up. Then I’d come back home, tackle my chores, and maybe have a well-earned nap at mid-afternoon.

Instead, all I managed to do was lounge around for far too long, hobble over to the drug store and the supermarket for a few necessities, and sit outside on the plaza for a few minutes, breathing fresh air instead of Ella’s and my recirculating breaths. I should feel guilty about this, my lack of motivation, but guilt is wasted on me. Guilt isn’t a powerful enough motivator for me to change my behaviour. Plus, sometimes the bed is too warm and cozy, your pajamas are too comfy, and you’re too deeply engrossed in whatever book you’re reading to move a muscle. I get it. I do.

There’s no real point to this point except to say this was one of the laziest Sundays in recent memory, I stayed in my pajamas until 2:00, and I am little more than a languid, Cecily-shaped lump today. And I am perfectly OK with this turn of events.

long grasses dancing in the breeze

In Circulation

a photo of autumn leaves with a bridge in the distance.

Last night I went out on Halloween, something I don’t think I’ve ever done in my entire life. I was with a group of people, most of whom were total strangers, and we gathered to take in a play at the Arts Club on Granville Island.

I sat next to one of the strangers who told me that she’s trying a new thing; she’s making an effort to be social with friends at least a couple of times a week. “If I don’t,” she said, “I just go to work, come home, sit in front of the TV or Facebook. It’s too easy to lose yourself in that.” I nodded in agreement.

I’m trying to be more social and circulate more, but I can’t seem to get out of my own way. When I connect — really connect with someone, I want to be with them all the time. Henry Rollins described it as the OCD part of a relationship, and I know that level of intensity can be off-putting. So I play it cool. I withdraw. I refuse to reach out when there’s nothing I want or need more. Time passes, and the connection is broken and I’m left with nothing to show for it but my own neuroses.

Now that I’m older, I have less tolerance for playing games, but the motions feel so familiar that I make them by rote. What would happen if I said “Look, I really like you, and I’d like to be friends”? Or what would happen if I just hugged someone, personal barriers be damned, just to truly feel a connection that’s more than just emotional?

We have so many ways of creating and sustaining artificial distance between each other. We can ignore texts, pretend we didn’t receive emails, let chat messages go unanswered. I think these technological mediators have made it entirely too easy to forget about the people at the other end.

So here’s a deal I’m making with myself and with you. If I reach out my hand, will you promise not to slap it away? If I circulate and get out there, will you meet my gaze with no expectations or hesitation? I promise to do the same for you.

Life is far too short and far too precious to be coy.

Why I Don't Want to be Your Black Friend/Your Black Expert

angry black woman or resting bitchface?
angry black woman or resting bitchface?

Remember the encounter with the Morris Men from earlier this year? It turns out that a graduate student at UBC is making a short documentary film about the Morris men that “(examines) the the discussion that emerged from the controversy” (quoted from email).

I wrote back to the student and thanked her for contacting me, but declined to participate.

A good friend asked me a while back to help her with a project she was putting together to talk about sensitive conversations that have helped her grow and shift in her thinking. She’s a very warm, wholehearted person who has a huge capacity for understanding and empathy, but I told her that while I’m happy to have those conversations with her as an individual, I wasn’t interested in broadcasting my words to the world.

You see, I don’t want to be Your Black Friend. I don’t want to be The Black Expert.

Often there comes a time in situations like this where a white person wants to make a point about whether such-and-such opinion about black people is rooted in fact, that person will use me as a reference, as if to say “Well, my black friend Cecily says this is OK.”

I’m nobody’s get out of jail free card.

I can’t talk about the incident with The Morris Men anymore because I’ve said all I care to say about it. I’m not interested in having this conversation with The Morris Men or anyone else if they’re not interested in talking about themselves and their role in the perpetuation of racist thought or actions.

I don’t want to talk about this because I don’t want to stop being a librarian, a woman, a Southerner, an American, a Canadian-by-Choice, or someone who rides bikes. I don’t want to stop being black, but I don’t want to be a stand in for an entire group of people either. I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I don’t want to become “That Black Chick” in the eyes of the world.

There are a lot of books you can read about race, popular culture, and the intersection and interplay of both (most notably bell hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation amazon|library), and as a librarian, I will gladly help you pull together a reading list. But that is where my responsibility ends. I am not here to educate you, particularly if you haven’t put in the work to unpack what “whiteness” means in our larger society and what it means in your own interpersonal relationships and the way you see the world.

I am not your passport. I am not your certificate of accomplishment.

I’m Cecily.

Is This Happiness?

It occurred to me that I feel legitimately happy for the first time in years.

Oh sure, money woes are never ending, and my health is uncertain, but somewhere along the way over the course of the last few years, I’ve learned to see my way through to the other side.

I’ll never be a grinning, empty-headed optimist, and I’ll always be serious minded and realistic, but I can see and feel a warm glow around the edges that feels comforting and centering.

It’s nice here. I think I’ll stay for awhile.