Letter to my Teen Self

The usual genre of this list is “Advice I’d like to give my teen self” or “15 things I wish I knew when I was younger.” But we’re changing the assumption that our teen selves weren’t already strong and cool. In fact, we think they maybe even knew more about some things than we do now. Here is our three part series, Letters to my Teen Self, imagining a back and forth exchange between our past and present selves. 

To: 15 year old Talia, Oakland, CA

From: 29 year old Talia, Brooklyn, NY
1. You are not naïve for believing in a better world. The adults who say so are confused. I try to learn from your commitment to justice every day.

2. High School is the real world. The friends you make are real, the emotions you have are real, the beliefs you fight for are real, the legs that carry you are real. The purpose of childhood is not solely to prep you for the real world because you are already in it. I know adults say scary things like “You think this is hard, just wait ‘til you’re older!” But they’re just having their own feelings. It’s true, life changes, and change is hard sometimes. But I’m now realizing that you actually work harder than I currently do. The greater task is to learn to stop working, to draw boundaries, to be flexible when appropriate and take care of yourself.

3. You don’t have to please everyone all the time. It’s okay to turn homework in late sometimes, it’s fine if someone doesn’t adore you. For a young Jewish girl, getting people to like you can feel like a matter of survival. But this is misinformation. Getting sleep matters more than straight A’s. Prioritizing the A above all else starts to make you believe your own body is second to (someone else’s definition of) success. You don’t have to believe it.

4. You are not alone. You never have to suffer alone. You can build a whole crew to call on whenever things get hard. You can cry your eyes out and then laugh ‘til your sides split. You can be pissed off and tell people about it. You don’t have to look nice or happy all the time. You can say “Help!” and expect people to come running. You can say “I’m scared!” and expect an embrace. You can say “I’m so proud!” and expect a huge celebration.

5. Things are less scary than you were taught. The adults around you love you and don’t want bad things to happen to you. They may have exaggerated some of the dangers around you, or forgotten to present them with a rational perspective. They said things like, “never talk to strangers” when what they meant was, “I really care about you.” It was the best they could do. There’s a lot of ick, but there’s also a whole lot of good people wanting good things for you. You’re smart enough to suss out what’s safe and what’s not. Trust your gut.

6. I can’t thank you enough for the friendships you are forming. They continue to save my life again and again. I so appreciate how you make time for your friends everyday. I am trying to be more like you.

7. I am re-learning to meet people different from me, like you used to do when you were little.  It used to be easier to make friends with kids who were from different backgrounds. It’s gotten harder. It’s not our fault. Systems of oppression, like racism and classism, are designed to keep people apart. Let’s refuse to collude. Let’s go after friends of all kinds, learn how to be each other’s best allies and how to hold on.

8. You’re a damn good listener, and that’s a powerful tool. But here’s the secret: you don’t actually have to listen to everyone. It’s not your job as a female.

9. Your body is awesome. It will fluctuate in shape and size and that’s just what it is.

10. Don’t worry so much about eating health food. Try to just listen to your body and eat things that taste delicious. The rest will fall into place.

11. You might never stop questioning your sexuality. It’s not a question you are ever obligated to answer.

12. Being messy or disorganized means nothing bad about you. You’re good. End of story.

13. I love that you write poetry and stories whenever you want to.

14. Whatever happens dude, you’ll figure it out.

15. And again- thanks for all you’ve taught me.

For more “Letters to my Teen Self” see here.

Happy Earth Day! How Climate Change, Feminism and Shmita are all Connected

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 22, 2015

blog posting image

In the mainstream, feminism is often defined as equal rights for women. Here at Ma’yan we like to take an expanded view. My co-worker Pippi Kessler says, “At its core, feminism is about yearning for a world where every person gets to be a full human being.” To me, that means that as feminists we must actively fight to ensure that people of all backgrounds not only get to survive, but actually thrive. And the truth is that we can’t thrive without a healthy planet. And that is why, in honor of Earth Day, we are talking about climate justice as a feminist issue.

In most countries, climate change is no longer a debate. Scientists understand that we have been playing fast and loose with fossil fuels and we are already starting to pay the price. If we go much longer, we’ll pay an even bigger price. And because of systems of oppression, people of color and the poor and working class pay the greatest price. Those who own fossil fuel companies along with the wealthy elite (whose money is invested in fossil fuels) are not currently feeling the devastation at all. (For more information, I highly recommend the movie, Disruption, a concise and well-made documentary released in preparation for last year’s national climate march in NYC.)

For those of us not affected by the immediate impacts, climate change is hard to regularly pay attention to. Our minds are pulled into emails, bills, advertisements, work, friends and day-to-day realities. That’s one of the reasons why attending last year’s climate march was so powerful for me. I watched all kinds of people walk, chant, sing, and display beautiful creations of art. I was reminded that we all want to survive and we all want to thrive. I was reminded that humans are totally brilliant. I believe that we will figure out elegant, creative solutions to climate change. We just have to put our minds there.

So what’s a Jewish feminist to do?

Draw from traditional practices:

Interesting that the climate action occurred during the Shmita year, the Jewish traditional seventh year in which we are commanded to release all debts owed to us and to let the land rest. I’m guessing the Shmita year would probably not be a good time to, for example, dig up new earth, lay in more pipelines, blast through more mountains, or drill deeper into the ground. It’s probably not the year to scrounge up every last bit of fossil fuel just to keep feeding our oil addiction. And if we are letting go of debt, then it’s for sure not the best time to find new enemies and start new wars. On the other hand, harnessing the power of the wind and sun seems like an excellent Shmita year activity, as does taking time off to rest and plan exciting visions for the “post-carbon economy” (as Naomi Klein calls it).

The Shmita year is also about the concept of “letting go.” So what can we let go of to end climate change?

  • Addiction to fossil fuels: including oil, plastics, and more
  • Investments in non-renewable energy
  • Greed: In this Shmita year I want to examine the places where I feel greedy. Is it with time? Food? Clothes? Travel? I don’t know what the next step is exactly, except to reflect on what my actual human needs are and how best to fulfill them
  • Isolation: the more I seclude myself from others, the less I see what is really happening in the world
  • Numbness: I want to combat numbness and face reality by doing things like going to marches and protests, sharing my feelings with friends, reading about climate change, and writing and making art about justice

Make personal changes:

I am aware that the biggest polluters and wasters are not individuals, but big corporations and industries. These are the places we need to target to effect change. But I’m still opting to make personal changes as well, and here’s why: I’m training to minimize the voice in my head that says: “You don’t matter.” Every time I reuse gray water or recycle, that voice rages loudly saying, “You’re insignificant! It won’t make a difference what you do!” But I am learning to persist. Because the quieter that voice gets, the more my thoughts and actions will be able to align, which will increase my capacity to think and do on a bigger scale. Here are just a few personal changes I’ve tried that you could consider as well:

Ultimately we know the path is about organizing to fight the institutions that perpetuate our systemic greed and over-consumption. The above lists the little steps that help prepare me for this work.

So feminists unite! We still have about five more months of the Shmita year. What can you commit to doing towards climate justice?

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 21st, 2015.
blog posting image

Over the past year we’ve seen an increase in articles by Jews that seek to disprove the concept of privilege due to experiences of anti-Semitism. These writings upset me because they in no way represent my own beliefs as a white, female, Ashkenazi educator and activist. The articles do not acknowledge the complexity of identity that I believe is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace. Here is my response to a compilation of articles:

Dear Taffy, James, John, Seth & Tal

You have all joined the deluge of Jews venting frustration with the concept of “privilege.” I admit my temptation to pick apart your arguments line by line. The number of offensive statements makes my heart race.

But for the time being, what I’ll say is:

You’re right.

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.

And also: you’re wrong.

Experiencing anti-Semitism does not preclude other truths: white privilege (for Jews who are also white), class privilege (for Jews who also have wealth), male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight and cis-gender privilege. None of these experiences of oppression trumps any other; all oppression is painful and unjust.

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.

But sometimes breaking it down feels complex and painful. Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?

In my work with Ma’yan’s Research Training Internship, a big theme we teach isintersectionality: the concept that one person can experience both oppression and privilege simultaneously. It’s complex. But it’s important.

“Privilege” is a word that sometimes scares people. But it doesn’t have to. Privilege doesn’t mean I’m bad or that my people are bad. It also doesn’t mean I’m extra good. One definition we use at Ma’yan is that privilege is a system of unearned advantages that benefits one group at the expense of others. I have to remember this or else I fall into the trap of believing I have “earned” things because I am somehow “better than” others. But that’s a lie that only further isolates me, and leads me to remain complicit in oppression.

I don’t frame this conversation as “Jewish privilege” because Jewish identity is multi-faceted and complex. When working with white Jews, I talk about the white privilege that we experience as Jews. It’s a subtle but important difference. The experience of being Jewish includes oppression—past and present. And even still some Jews have certain privileges.

It’s particularly scary for Jews to think about the idea of holding privilege because of the history of anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews control the world and therefore their takedown is justified. But I’m not saying Jews are the most privileged.  Actually, we know that the majority of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S are white Christian men. But that doesn’t mean that white Jews don’t still experience privilege. I know I do. Even at the same time as anti-Semitism.

When as Jews we don’t understand intersectionality, it’s a problem for everyone. Not understanding intersectionality means white Jews are more likely to assume a uniform Jewish experience, which keeps us from appreciating the richness of our diversity and perpetuates racism not only to non-Jews but also to Jews of color within our community (not to mention classism, homophobia, ableism and more). Not understanding intersectionality also leads us to believe the myth of exceptionalism: seeing ourselves as the most oppressed, which only serves to further isolate us from the people and movements we could actually be working with. Anti-Semitism is not our fault and it is not our (sole) responsibility to end. But by staying in our narrative of victimhood, we essentially leave ourselves alone and stuck, and we damage other communities along with our own.(For a fuller list of why Jews MUST understand privilege and intersectionality, click here).

“When my Jewishness comes into conflict with my whiteness, I’m not effective in challenging racism,” said educator Randy Clancy in a recent workshop for a group of social justice educators that Ma’yan convenes. We have to embrace all parts of our identity to do the work.

Talking about privilege is just a start. The point isn’t just to recognize it, but to understand our place in fighting for racial justice and ending oppression for all people.

The left also has some responsibility. If lefties don’t understand that anti-Semitism is real, it leaves Jews feeling like they have to prove it over and over again, as we have seen in the articles I linked in the salutation. And wouldn’t it be nice if the right-wing didn’t have a monopoly on defining anti-Semitism for once?

So: Anti-Semitism is real. White privilege is real. Racism is real. These things are linked, but they are not all the same and cannot be compared. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on one while not abandoning the other, and at this moment in U.S history, I see way too many murders of black people to stand idly by. When I say Black Lives Matter, this in no way negates my commitment to ending anti-Semitism. It is not about oppression hierarchies, though we do need to examine the fact that this country was economically built on racism. Ultimately, I believe our liberation is connected. So let’s get to work.

With love,

Talia

P.S. There are lots of great resources put out by leftist people and communities. April Rosenblum wrote a great pamphlet about anti-Semitism and the left. Ngoc Loan TranAsam Ahmad, and others have written beautifully about ending in-fighting among the left.Paul Kivel has also written about being both white and Jewish and showing up in the fight for racial justice. There’s a lot of good thinking out there. Let’s stay in it together.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

Tips for Responding to Offensive Comments

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on March 23rd, 2015

blog posting image

Last week we posted your responses to how you handle offensive comments at parties and family gatherings. This week we’re letting you in on a few of our tricks.

Before even figuring out how to respond, you first have to determine if to respond. When deciding, here are some things to consider:

1)   Who the speaker is and your relationship to them 

Some people find it easier to engage when the offender is a close friend or family member, someone with whom they experience unconditional love. Others fear damaging the relationship most important to them over something seemingly small. But you know your relationships best and can figure out what everyone can handle.

2)   Who else is around to hear it 

We got feedback from our readers that it really matters who else is around. And we agree! If two women start fat-shaming each other in front of younger girls, standing up against internalized sexism sets an important model for the next generation.

3)    How you’re doing/feeling in that moment 

“I prefer to respond when I can be chill about it,” replied one of our readers.

Trying to explain how the history of colonialism continues to play out today might be more difficult after the longest week ever. You are the best judge of whether or not it’s time to engage.

4)   Knowledge of subject matter 

Readers reported preferring to have enough information. Don’t feel like it’s a subject you can take on? Check out our resource guide for more 411 on all sorts of topics. Also, if you’re having a gut instinct that something is wrong, you can always share your opinion and follow up with more information later.

5)   Personal relationship to subject matter 

Did someone just say something that directly insults you, your relatives or partner? Depending on how painful the subject is for you personally, your response in that moment may need to be more about self-preservation than education.

Did you decide to go ahead and engage? Here are some strategies you can try out:

1)   Humor 

It doesn’t always have to be serious. Try combatting racist jokes with jokes about racism itself. Or say “I always love comedians who actually expose racism instead of just perpetuating it.”  

2)   Pretending you don’t understand/Asking questions 

My friend Julie has a favorite example: a male acquaintance referred to another woman as a JAP. Fully aware of the meaning of the slang Julie asked, “What’s a JAP?” “You know, a Jewish American Princess,” he said. “Did she live in castle?!” Julie asked with joy on her face, effectively employing both strategies number 1 and 2, and forcing the man to reconsider his language.

This strategy can also be used more seriously if humor doesn’t feel appropriate. When people say “I prefer not to walk in that kind of neighborhood,” asking questions about what they mean can lead to the underlying classism and racism ingrained in those statements and can produce a genuine conversation.

3)   Storytelling/I-Statements 

Often most successful in producing empathy is just telling a personal story. “I don’t like when people say negative things about women’s bodies. My mom used to do that when I was a kid and it made me feel bad about myself. I’m now learning to heal from that and part of my healing is trying not to engage in negative talk about other women.”

4)   Flagging for later 

Sometimes you can keep it simple if you don’t have the energy, time, or necessary information. For example: “We don’t have to get into it now because I know we have a meeting agenda, but I want to come back to this assumption that only rich people donate to charity. I’m pretty sure I’ve read some countering statistics that we don’t have time for. But I’ll be sure to look and send them out with the notes.”

5)   Straight talk 

The scariest for some, the easiest for others. (Bear in mind: humans are strong and capable and can heal from anything.) It would be okay to say, “Hey, when you talk about the Muslim people like that it feels bad. There are over 1 billion Muslim people in the world, the vast majority of whom preach peace and love. As a Jew I know what it’s like to have my people hated and I’m just not down with perpetuating that for another religion. What’s your feeling on that?” And then engage.

What’s the worst that can happen? (And if the answer is: something truly awful can happen, see #6).

6)   Self-preservation/Boundary Setting 

As I said earlier, sometimes the topic might be too painful for you to even be around. You can say you will need to leave if the conversation continues like this. You can actually get up and leave.  Another reader provided a few short phrases she uses: “ouch,” “too far for me,” “can’t hang out with those thoughts.” If you’re up for it, you can also try, “When comments like that are made it triggers these feelings inside me. It may not be your intention for me to feel this way, but I want you to know how I feel in response.”  You get to take care of yourself, and you know how to do that best.

7)   Diffusing 

Having trouble thinking of a response? Feeling stuck? There are still strategies for you! Readers provided responses including “Ok! Moving on!” and the “specifically vague” phrase: “Well, now, that’s a thought!” (which is reported to lead to a subject change). One reader said, “Sometimes I feel that just gently not participating in the conversation or giving any response is enough to register that I’m not agreeing or colluding.” Others reported using body language to show lack of interest in continuing the conversation. Other phrases to try: “That statement doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t feel like getting into a debate about it now, but maybe we could just move on?” “I’m pretty sure that’s inaccurate, but I will look up more info about it and send it to you later!” “I think this conversation is better continued just the two of us at another time.”

Hard stuff, right? The good news is that we don’t have to be perfectionists about it. Maybe we’ll come up with a great response, maybe we won’t. Maybe someone will appreciate what we say and maybe not. What matters is that you made the assessment, you tried something (because even not responding is trying something) and then you will learn from the result.  If it’s not the result you wanted, oh well! The good (er bad?) news is that you will have plenty more opportunities to try again. Additionally, it sometimes feels like the very moment it happens is the only opportunity to respond.  While It is often is easier in the moment, it’s not your last shot. “Remember yesterday when you said that thing? It actually upset me because…” is also valid.

This stuff is also really cultural. People from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds might have different ways of handling tricky moments.  Our way is not the only way, and ideally we all get to learn from each other.

I think the best advice we can offer is just to notice. Does your heart race? Do you sweat? Do you get really angry? Do you repeatedly choose not to engage? How do people generally respond to what you say? Try to notice without judgment and keep track of patterns. How come I usually feel tongue tied? What am I most scared of? Start collecting information. The more information you have, the more likely you can make rational decisions in the future (hm, I notice that Im having that body sweat thing again. I remember that that means Im scared. But there is no real threat here. Okay! I think I can respond!). Be gentle with yourself and keep at it. And if you yourself said something offensive, you can be gentle on yourself too and learn about it for next time.

There’s also something in all this for you: every time you speak up, you get to have the experience of seeing yourself as someone who acts on the things you believe in. This is not for self-kudos, but for the experience of inner-alignment. And the more you practice, the more you build the muscle.

By the way, if you are an educator, we lead a workshop on this stuff! It’s called “Evaded Issues” and was originally developed by Naomi Less and Shira Epstein. The workshop is designed to help educators with strategies to engage when tough topics unexpectedly arise in educational settings. Let us know if you’d like to schedule a workshop for your school or organization!

Written by Ma’yan staff: Talia Cooper, Shayna Goodman, Andrea Jacobs

I Never Dreamed of a White Christmas: On Gilmore Girls and Christian hegemony

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on December 16th, 2014
blog posting image

On October 25th I heard my first Christmas song of the season. I’m not exaggerating. A week later, said song weaseled its way deeper into my brain, nested, and made only brief escapes out the hum on my lips. Damn.  Christmas.

Recently I’ve been bit by the Gilmore Girls bug. Yes, it’s true, I hopped straight on that Netflix binge-watching bandwagon of the TV show featuring the fast-sass-talking, big-eating, small-town-living ways of Lorelai and Rory. As a pop culture-loving feminist, I note things like the racist portrayal of Mrs. Kim and how the fat person is characterized as clumsy, and file them in my brain under “TV references of racism/sizeism I could use in a workshop one day.”

Here at Ma’yan we’ve been reading Penny Rosenwasser and Paul Kivel. We are learning about anti-Semitism and also Christian hegemony—the system that normalizes the Christian experience, and marginalizes all other religions. Just a few light topics that were on my mind as I watched the Gilmore Girls. The portrayal of Jews in the show is certainly cringe-worthy; there’s Brad (a minor character), the dorky, unlovable schoolmate, and then there’s Paris, the hypertensive, hyper-competitive, hyper-allergic, power-grabbing rival of Rory. Yikes. That’s some serious brain-file material. But for me, the real ick moment occurred in Season 3.

In Season 3 (episode 10), Paris’ boyfriend invites her to celebrate Christmas. When she returns, Rory asks about it. Paris gets this dreamy look as she relays the scene: wreaths everywhere, a 12 foot tree, the wafting smell of cinnamon, the eggnog, the cider, “It wasn’t just nice,” she says, “It was perfect.” She explains to Rory: “I never had a Christmas tree before. One year I asked my mom if we could get a Chanukah bush, and she made me watch Shoah the rest of the week.” She then continues: “I’m looking at this mound of gifts and I’m thinking, eight days of Chanukah? Who’s the skinflint that thought of that deal?” “Don’t the eight days symbolize something?” Rory asks. “Yes, they symbolize eight days of ripping off the little kids who can’t have a Chanukah bush,” Paris retorts. “You’re making me sad,” Rory says. The scene ends with Paris declaring her commitment to return for Easter.

Watching this dialogue unfold I felt queasy, and I realized: that’s it. That is exactly my fear: that Christmas celebrators everywhere walk around feeling sorry for Jews and all those who miss out on the quintessential American experience, and that if we are lucky enough to get to celebrate Christmas, we’ll feel whole, restored, and at last accepted.

Like Paris, I too have been welcomed into a Christmas celebration by someone I was dating. The meal was fun, and I enjoyed it like I do any holiday dinner with family. Adorning the tree was sweet, rather like decorating a Sukkah. The presents felt overwhelming. The fireplace was lovely. Stuffing stockings was awesome. I did not feel wistful or deprived for never having gotten this before. I have never secretly longed for tinsel and candy canes, for jingle bells and reindeers. Jews every year talk about how annoying it is that people say ‘Merry Christmas,’ or even ‘Happy Holidays’ (because we know what that actually means). But that’s not my real beef here. For me, the issue is that Christians think I want it. I have never felt short-changed in my dearth of Christmas celebrations. As a woman I don’t have penis-envy, and as a Jew I sure as hell (pun intended) don’t have cross-envy.

This is what Christian hegemony does—it normalizes the lives of Christians, and it makes it seem like the experience everyone has, or should have, or at the very least should want. And some do. But not all of us.

I should clarify: I am not the Semitic Lorax. I do not speak for the Jews. There are plenty of Jews who have longed for Christmas, who love Christmas songs and decorating ginger bread houses. There is truly nothing wrong with that. Not to mention the many multi-faith households that embrace multiple traditions as their own. I’m all for it. But multi-faith households that include Christians are not adding tradition where there was none before, but rather layering on to an already beautiful tapestry. For me, learning new traditions doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been missing out all along.

So here’s my message to Christians: just because this holiday is the federally recognized one, the one associated with the religion that fuels so many of the thoughts, opinions and attitudes in this country, does NOT make it the holiday we all inwardly wish we were celebrating. But I do wish you the very best, and I’ll gladly partake in a little eggnog and cookies (if you’re offering, that is).

An Alternative Al Chet/Confession List*–For Parents and Educators of Jewish Girls

This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog on September 29th, 2014
blog posting image

A new year is coming: a time to reflect, refresh, renew. We have raised our children as best we could, given them the tools they need to grow strong and thriving, shown them love as only we know how. Yet we too have missed the mark.

We have missed the mark by exercising power

We have been jealous, incredulous or doubtful of young peoples’ power

We have pushed youth to take on more more more

We have left youth alone too much

We have missed the mark through our inner thoughts

We have told young people to love their bodies while silently poking and prodding at our own flaws in the mirror

We have idealized the beauty of youth

We have experienced feeling unheard, unnoticed, misunderstood, and perpetuated this feeling onto the next generation

We have missed the mark through harsh speech and hard-heartedness

We have made scoffing remarks about “kids these days”

We have told young people they’ll understand when they’re older, to do something because we said so, or to wait until they’re in the real world

We have been too terrified to ask young people about the things we know are on their minds: bodies, sex, sexuality, social life, money…

We have made decisions about how young people should spend their time, without their consultation

 

We have missed the mark without thinking

We have neglected to model the possibility of living life to its fullest vibrancy, at every stage, at every age

We have not involved enough men in the rearing of children

We have not modeled relaxation and self-care

We have missed the mark by degrading parents and teachers

We have forgotten to see our relationships with young people as a two-way street, with infinite potential

We have missed the mark by denial and false promises

We have passively watched the media parade pictures of photoshopped women, flaunt princess narratives and promise better lives with more purchases, without rising up and fighting back

We have pushed our own hopes and agendas onto the next generation

We have been uninvolved in the fights against racism, climate change, homophobia and other important issues, with the hope that the next generation would take care of it

We have missed the mark by arrogance

We have cared more about being liked and cool than being a real ally to young people

We have allowed logistics, schedules and to do lists to get in the way of genuine connection time with the young folks in our lives

We have missed the mark by confusion of the heart

We have neglected to reflect on our own inner-child, to offer her the same nurturing we provide to the young people in our lives

We have been hard on ourselves, we have not forgiven ourselves for the mistakes we have made, we have not reminded ourselves that we too deserves compassion

For all of these things and more, help us find the strength to forgive and keep going. Help us remember that we are not alone in this loving, necessary, difficult and communal work of raising up the next generation.

*A traditional Al Chet/Confession List is read communally during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur

Talia Cooper is Ma’yan‘s Program Director.  Contact talia@mayan.org

No Lotions, Potions, Diets or Pills: Here’s One Tip on Aging You Won’t Wanna Miss!

This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog

blog posting image

Description: 

Talia Cooper explains how combating ageism can be a remedy to our fear of aging and obsession with youth: “We say age is power, but only to a certain point. We have young people trying to look old and old people trying to look young. Where does this leave us?”

Part I: 28 and ¾ Years-Old

My dad likes to wax nostalgic about a story I wrote when I was little featuring a “24 and a ½ year old” protagonist. Why is it that as kids we are proud of every month of our lives? At what point does that stop?

Well now I am 28 and ¾ years old. In other words, I’m in my late 20s. In other words, I’m approaching 30.  That’s around the age that people start to think about aging more negatively. After all, turning ten equaled new adventures in double-digit land and 20 was a step closer to 21. But 30? That’s some real stuff. My friends have already started to point out gray hairs, new wrinkles, sagging skin and deep-colored-veins.

As a young girl I would spend time looking in the mirror, pinching the skin next to my eyes in hopes of developing crow’s feet like the ones I saw decorating the faces of my mother and her friends. To me, these lines were like magical rivulets, or like flowers bursting from a trumpet vine. I tried to explain this to adults but their laughter taught me that wrinkles were not okay and were not to be wished for.

So now, like many my age, I’ve started to feel a little nervous. How much longer do I have in my youth? If I obsessively go to the gym or drink lots of water or eat chia seeds or use oxygen cream on my face, can I extend my youthfulness?

And then it hit me. There is only one, soundproof, fail-safe, air-tight way of combating this aging process. But we’ll get to that later.

Part II: I Won’t Grow Up!!

Why are we all so obsessed with not getting older? It is documented that older men and women have increasing difficulty finding jobs. A friend of mine, who’s in her 60s, told me she would gladly leave her hair its natural white color, but she gets significantly more professional clients when she dyes it brown. The media loves to demonize pop stars for the “work” they get done. But when an increase in age leads to a decrease in job opportunities—can we blame them? Ageism is real and pervasive. And when you mix ageism with racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and/or other such goodies, you get quite a stew. No wonder this aging thing gets a little scary. Then again, being too young is no good either.

As an educator and youth organizer I’ve spent years learning and teaching about adultism: the way society treats young people like they are less than full humans. I remember being in high school wondering what life would be like when I finally got to “the real world.” I’m only now understanding that things were just as real back then. We may worship youthfulness, but we sure don’t worship our youth; we deny them the right to vote, we prescribe them pills and curricula without their consent, and we treat them either like scary monsters or shallow beings obsessed only with gossip and social media.

There’s this funny thing about age: if there is in fact a sweet spot (not too old but not too young), it doesn’t seem to last very long. Either you’re young and not real yet, or old and irrelevant. What does this mean that we praise youthfulness but devalue the young? We say age is power, but only to a certain point. We have young people trying to look old and old people trying to look young. Where does this leave us?

Part III: A New Premise

What if we start over, all of us, with a new premise: every person deserves to live and be treated as a full human being. To us at Ma’yan, this is what it means to be a feminist. What could that new premise look like in terms of age?

What if young people were asked what excites them and how that can be incorporated into their broader learning? What if people of all ages were encouraged to experiment with new activities, ideas and creative endeavors?

What if older people were asked for advice and valued for their experience? What if people of all ages made decisions for their future (and the future of the planet) based on the assumption that they have a full, rich life ahead of them?

What if all cities and institutions were up to date with the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring equal access? What if respectful and loving care was widely available to the elderly at affordable rates, and the domestic workers who provide it were also treated with dignity? What if people did not automatically assume that older people or people with disabilities required help? What if no one was ashamed to ask for help when they needed it?

What if we always complimented people for their whole beauty as they are now (not how beautiful they will become or how we imagine they once were)?

What if employers appreciated the different contributions of people of all ages? What if older people were not forced into early retirement? What if we worked to end the system based in capitalist notions that humans are valued only according to their productivity?

What if doctors always assumed they can speak directly to their patient, no matter how old or young? What if voting laws became more inclusive? What if young people formed committees to serve as advisors to government?

What if there were more intergenerational friendships and collaborations?

What if we were all proud of having made it exactly where we are?

Part IV: Anti-Ageism Heroes!

I’m aware as I write that readers might pay more attention to a piece on ageism from someone like me, who is approximately still in the ‘sweet spot’ (old enough not to be young, young enough not to be old). Marjorie Dove-Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, encourages us all to be “unlikely allies,” active in causes that might surprise others and make them notice (Gasp! She cares about older people!).But I would be remiss if I didn’t share that there are amazing people out there doing incredible anti-ageism activism, and they want you to know they are old and proud!

Like Ashton Applewhite who blogs about ageism at This Chair Rocks and says:  “I know I’m not young—do not call me ‘young lady’—but I don’t think of myself as old either. I certainly qualify, if oldness is measured by time from birth or defined by my laptop’s dictionary: ‘having lived a long time.’ I prefer ‘older,’ which emphasizes that age is a spectrum. I reject the old/young binary: that imaginary line in the sand after which it’s all supposed to be downhill. The problem lies in equating ‘old’ with diminishment alone. The reality, as experience proves, is far more nuanced and positive.”

Maggie Kuhn, founder of the intergenerational education and advocacy organization called the Gray Panthers, said: “Old age is not a disease–it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.” (She also said “Sex and learning until rigor mortis.”) In her work for justice, Kuhn hoped to have older and younger people connect over the shared experience of ageism.

Part V: The Big Reveal: My One and Only Trick on Aging

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the media frenzy and want to minimize my own aging process. But when I take a moment to breathe, read the thinking of people like Applewhite and Kuhn, I don’t see anything wrong with getting older. After all, each decade of my life has been better than the last, and they’ve all been pretty good. I fully expect this upward trend to continue as I grow and learn.

So I’ve realized that if I, myself don’t want to experience the harsh ageism I see lobbed at older folks daily, I have only one real course of action.  It’s not a special diet or cream. It’s not a surgery. It’s not any product I can buy. You ready? Here is my one and only trick on aging: fight to end ageism.

As Ellen Snortland says:  “At any age, to partake in ageism is to lay the foundation for your own irrelevancy.” I have no intention of doing that.

Part VI: Taking Action

(Pictured above: Talia Cooper and her grandmother Dorothy Gartner)

A few actions we can take to fight ageism:

  • Interrupt ageist and adultist comments when you hear them (such as “I’m having a senior moment” or “all kids bully each other on social media.”)
  • Start treating people of all ages as the full humans they are (this includes yourself).
  • Get support to work on your own feelings/fears about death and disability.
  • Create alternative advertisements and birthday cards that exhibit a joy in the aging process
  • Practice both living in the moment (assuming you are extremely important just as you are RIGHT NOW), and assuming you have a long life ahead of you.
  • Get involved in campaigns to protect the planet for the long haul (such as the work of 350.org).
  • Take action against employers with ageist hiring and firing practices, and support organizations and unions doing this work, like JPAC and NYSARA.
  • Lobby congress to institute stricter policies against ageism in work and housing.
  • Work intergenerationally. Don’t assume anyone is too old or young for responsibility. Don’t put all your hopes and un-accomplished dreams on the next generation.
  • Find safe spaces to vent feelings of hopelessness—do not ask the next generation to hold this.
  • Make art that exhibits pride in your own age.
  • Encourage school systems to listen to students’ voices.
  • If you want to know a kid’s age, start by telling them how old you are (“I’m 52 years old, how about you?”).
  • Stop complimenting people on their youthfulness.
  • Insist that Hollywood hire people to play their own age.
  • Get involved and support organizations who work for the rights of older people to age with dignity and care, such as Caring Across Generations and Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
  • Check out the youth-made movie Ma’yan’s recent Research Training Interns created resisting oppressive media messages!
  • Ask people of all ages their thoughts and advice on aging.
  • [Insert your creative ideas here.]

When I asked my Grandma Dorothy Gartner (who’s almost 90) her advice on aging she said, “Love the preciousness of yourself, keep that alive.” When I asked my friend Anya Tucker (who’s almost 13) she said, “Take the passing years not as a sign of being closer to death but as a sign of your growing wisdom.” I would like to imagine aging like a tree: sinking my roots in deeper and stretching my branches further than I ever thought they could grow.

Ageism is harsh and pervasive—even more so when mixed with other -isms.  It is difficult to combat the societal messaging. But when I think about it, doesn’t getting older actually mean I have the enormous privilege of living another day?

Talia Cooper is a musician and the Program Director at Ma’yan. She has been working with youth for seven years. She has led workshops for people of all ages on the topic of ageism, and is interested in thinking more about the complexity of intergenerational work. Want to know more? Contact talia@mayan.org. Talia will be 29 in September 2014.