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Distractions, Threats & Little Birds

Today I tried so hard to do good work. I really did. But I couldn’t vanquish the demons of distraction. The endless checking of email with no real momentum. The vacuum of social media, Pavlov’s red notification button. It’s not that I don’t have important work to do. I do. The list is long. But I’m scared. Scared of getting it wrong. Scared I won’t get it done. Distracted by so many different words, most of them not mine, coming at me from a zillion directions. Confused by conflicting desires. Uncertain. Unsure.

The smartest thing I did today was leave my computer early, to sit in the park a little before my next meeting. It didn’t feel smart to get a pastry but I did. A rich buttery croissant. I sat on the roots of a thick tree and resolved that I would do this act, at least, mindfully. I put away my phone. I smelled the croissant. I felt it on my skin. I ate my first bite. Enjoying the flavor, the texture. Realizing how, eating in this manner, I would have little need to eat the whole thing. And then I noticed the birds.

Pigeons, mostly, and wrens and starlings, they were all attracted by the sounds of the bag, the crumbs. New York City birds are such expert scavengers. I broke a bit of the croissant off and tossed them, attracting even more birds to me. For the next 15 minutes I delighted in the presence of these creatures, darting so skillfully to capture their prizes. I noted the differences between them, stark and subtle. The rainbow of colors on the starling feathers, the pigeon who was shivering, another with a wire stuck to his foot. As we finished the croissant they lost interest and moved on. A bold little wren was one of the last, coming close for the crumbs just under my lap. In this time of communing with the birds I felt more alive than all my hours on my computer earlier today. I noted that observation, and felt into it.

Then I noticed a man coming into my space, an energetic shift, a fleeing of the birds. Tall, broad-chested & muscular, of indeterminate age and background. At first I thought he might be suffering from a mental illness, and perhaps he was, but mostly he just felt menacing. He walked past me, just a few feet away, and growled “cover up” and other threats I couldn’t quite discern. Who was he talking to? Himself? I looked around and realized he was speaking to me, and his words were effective, because I immediately wondered if my bare legs were somehow exposing more than they should. They weren’t, but that hardly mattered. The intensity of his hatred was palpable. It was beside the point to assess its validity.

To move through the world is so complicated, isn’t it? As I write this sentence I think about how much sad news there has been in the US the past few weeks simply related to that — how many people face incredible struggles to move through the world just as they are. For so many women near and far it is much more of a challenge than my general experience has been. And yet I’ve spent time doing deep work with women with much different experiences than me. I remember interviewing Burmese refugees living in the poor suburbs of New Dehli, facing constant threats, harassment, abuse and violence every time they stepped through their doors. For three years I worked with women in Haiti who lead networks of rape survivors, women with incredible stories at which I could only marvel. But on a day to day basis, I don’t personally feel unsafe moving through the world as a woman. I know this is due to many factors, including my white skin, cisgender status, perceived sexual orientation, class, etc. And perhaps it’s due to more subtle things as well. I’m not a petite person, and growing up with brothers taught me how to defend myself. I feel comfortable traveling to new places and walking streets at night. Learning journalism and doing international work at a young age how to connect with people very different than I am. Much of the time when I receive unwanted male attention (sexual or not) all this privilege allows me to find creative ways to engage and shift dynamics.

But most of all, I think the reason I’m generally unafraid to walk through the world as a woman is this: I’ve simply been really lucky. And that makes me feel sad, to think that sexual and gender-based violence is so normalized, such an entrenched part of society that my general lack of fear can be attributed to luck rather than the right all people should have to not live in fear of violence or attack for some basic aspect of their identity.

I wish that for the world. And today I was given the smallest dose of a reminder of what happens when one feels endangered for something over which they have no control. In my case, today it was being a woman wearing a dress sitting in a park, when an aggressive man came to threaten and growl at me to “cover up.” Even as I write that I feel an instinctual shame, as though maybe, just maybe, he was in the right and I was in the wrong, for daring to sit by myself in a dress in the park. I know that’s crazy, which is also how I know how deeply this stuff goes, that I should feel shame for something I had 100% the right to do.

Normally, I might have ignored him. Not today. Oh I wanted to fight back, to challenge him, to show him he couldn’t intimidate or scare me. I wanted to stop him in his tracks, to end his behavior. Or simply pretend he didn’t exist. But instinct kicked in and I knew neither option was safe. He was so close to me and his large body so tense — it was like he was waiting to spring. I knew better than to give him a reason. I gathered my things, stood and walked away from the man and the tree, straight ahead to a woman who had been watching with concern. We spoke, and then I walked on. I looked over my shoulder, to make sure he hadn’t followed. I wasn’t panicking, and I wasn’t behaving irrationally. I was taking steps to protect myself. And as I walked away from that area of the park, I reflected on how easily he could have hurt me. Inside him was a rage like a caged animal, cruel and snarling. How sad.

Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know, it’s just what I experienced today. Deep communion with the birds. A quick reaction and escape from a dangerous situation. The chance to reflect on the larger threats people face while writing this piece. Stepping out of the sisyphusian cycle of digital communications into the face-to-face richness and complexities of a 4×4 foot patch of grass in Central Park.

(cross-posted from Medium.com)

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