Four years ago, Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the horrifying event broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, while her tiny four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. Bearing live witness to the egregious injustice, the Twin Cities erupted in protests. I think about Philando Castile often, especially when I drive down Larpenteur Avenue on my way to my bank, or to one of the best-kept secret dog parks in all the land. Falcon Heights was first, forever imprinted in my DNA in 1986, when I moved to the inner ring St. Paul suburb just out of high school. My friend, Jen Bochman and I shared a one-bedroom apartment at the intersection of Fry and Larpenteur, back in a time where my life was difficult for a lot of legitimate reasons that did not include the color of my skin. Thirty years later, directly across the street from that tidy, unassuming brick apartment building, Philando Castile was killed.
Without a doubt, this singular event (which was, as is everything, an inexplicable alchemy of endless forces and sources converging into a single a-ha moment), cracked me wide open. A shocking, yet necessary and long over-due bitch-slap to my consciousness—a sudden glaring awareness that there are two starkly different realities playing out in America. One I didn’t have to think about because by design, it took great care of me; the other, I didn’t have to think about because by design, it didn’t directly affect me. Membership definitely has its privileges; you don’t even have to think about them to benefit, all you need is the right skin tone. I was just another run-of-the-mill case of “you only know what you know,” a convenient, easy, yet rampant, debilitating malady—when you’re not forced to interrogate further, when you exhibit no overt symptoms, you get to claim innocent as the disease progresses, continuing to claim lives while hiding in plain sight in your life. Philando’s death forced an existence into my consciousness that I could no longer, easily or conveniently ignore.
I am not the first to experience or write about such epiphanistic (<–I just made that word up!) moments in a life. For Susan Sontag, it happened when she discovered photographs of WWII concentration camps: “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, perhaps the only revelation people are granted now, a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July, 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Ever since then, it has seemed plausible to me to think of my life as being divided into two parts: before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after. My life was changed by them, though not until several years later did I understand what they were about.”
The universe continually present us with such profound, life-altering, teachable moments; it’s our responsibility as humans occupying this planet, to not just look for them, but once we find them, fashion a semblance of meaning from them. This work is not for the faint of heart. I wonder if this is why I abhor the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” because most people skip out on the hard, necessary work behind “the reason,” and instead use it as a cop-out, a distraction of sorts—if we’re victims (perhaps more accurately, beneficiaries) of circumstance, “the reason” can be brushed off as a mystery that no human will ever figure out, no need to interrogate further.
I consumed news coverage of Philando’s murder, which talked at length about who he was, how loved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, which was just down the street from where I was living at the time. Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic; instead, he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I read the comments after the articles (I’ve since learned that if I don’t want to not just ruin my day, but completely obliterate all hope in humanity, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS); I saw on social media what people—people I knew even—were saying about Philando and his girlfriend, about the newly emerging Black Lives Matter movement; that, coupled with the toxic energy that the 2016 election campaign was stirring up, added fuel and nourishment to my newly-forming awareness.
I marched in peaceful protests, I wrote to and called my representatives to express outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, so much reading…in the process, I am learning, piece by piece, about the systems of oppression that binds our nation tightly to a debilitating status quo. Even though I’d lived in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando Castile’s funeral. These seem like useless acts, but we have to begin somewhere. One of my favorite sayings is, “in order to be great at something, we have to start out sucking.” Right now, I have a blackbelt in sucking, as far as knowledge about systemic racism in our culture is concerned, but I’m working to change that. Each step I take moves me a step away from privilege, and closer closer to a more profound empathy and concern for people and reality I will never, truly understand, yet by the effort, increases my love for all of humanity exponentially. I’ve never been good at math, so you’ll just have to take my word on that equation.
I’ve developed an annoying, enormously inconvenient affliction over the years (that I think it’s always been with me, but took off in earnest after the death of my husband in 2011, and has been taken to new heights with Philando’s death, then the 2016 election, and then, and then, and then…), trying to trace connections between seemingly unconnected things; sometimes it takes a long while to untangle the threads, sometimes I think I’ll never get to the end, but it doesn’t stop me from trying, because the payoff is always worth it. It’s in the trying that life-altering events begin to take shape. My life has become a living testament to the wise words of naturalist John Muir: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
I quit drinking in January of this year, and by “quit drinking,” I don’t mean that something horrible happened to force me to this place; I mean, I finally acknowledged that things have been uncomfortably, inexplicably incongruent for a long time in my life; I mean, I decided maybe I should stop doing what I’ve been doing and see if doing something else might yield different results. I mean, I’ve done and continue to do behind-the-curtains work to face-off with my long-held beliefs about alcohol, to hold them up to the light of facts, which curiously, often results in these long-held beliefs disintegrating into vapor upon exposure, because they’re just that—beliefs, not facts. When exposed, they have no substance, no structure or scaffolding to hold them together; it is a magic show that I’ve conveniently, willfully played along with—pay no mind to the man behind the curtain, ignore the sleight of hand. To learn otherwise, that alcohol has really done nothing except suck the soul out of my life has been heartbreaking, heart healing, mind-blowing, mind mending, soul wrenching and soul-freeing work. In other words, fucking hard (because it’s everywhere), but the results continue to be profoundly worth it.
I’m not saying that this is an anti-alcohol campaign, I’m not saying that I’ll never drink again. Today, I have no desire to drink, even in the midst of the neverending shitshow churning around us (if that POS in the WH gets elected a second term, though, all bets—alcohol and otherwise—are off); today, I’m the curious observer, collecting new data in the form of new, alcohol-free experiences, taking copious notes about what my life can be like, pure as it was when I was a kid, it seems, before alcohol came into the picture. Today, even as alone as I am in the middle of a pandemic, it’s about as peaceful as it’s ever been in my head and heart, and for that, I’m profoundly grateful.
I’ve learned that addiction is not a hard line, but a continuum: if you can’t imagine your life without alcohol (I’m not talking about a 30-day “dry July” stretch; I’m talking for the rest of your living, breathing, heart-beating life), you are on that continuum. Simple as that. This is not a judgment call or fear mongering, it’s just a fact about how addiction works, that there are gradients to the fall. Maybe you don’t drink—if not, you’re not on the continuum; maybe you never move from your place on the continuum or you move so slowly it’s barely perceptible. Maybe something happens in your life that pushes you so hard, you lose your footing and stumble deeper into addiction or maybe nothing really pushes you, you just suddenly find that alcohol has insidiously taken your life hostage without you even noticing; maybe you live your life like everyone else, hovering around the “normal” or “not that bad” or “but I’ve never” or “I’m not an alcoholic because I took an online test/I quit for 30 days/I’ve never had a DUI/I’ve never lost my job/fill in the blank” territory on the continuum—if what you do is no different than everyone else you know, there’s no motivation to change. Maybe you don’t question why wine has somehow become entwined in every facet of your life, from birth (yes, you can buy wine-themed baby onesies), to mommy wine culture, (Laura McKowan, in We are the Luckiest, speaks of the special vitriol reserved for mothers who drink) to yoga class, to widow and other grief experiences. Maybe you fail to make the connection between alcohol and your insomnia, or your glucose or cholesterol levels, or your dried up sex life, or that strange stubborn skin issue or gut problem that won’t resolve no matter what you eat or don’t eat or what prescription you try to cover it with, or the undercurrent of low-grade depression that never leaves or the nagging dragging feeling that “this is all there is?” to life, even if you’ve accomplished spectacular things. Maybe you buy into the adage that all of that is just the inevitable consequence of a stressful life, genetics, getting old. Or maybe you really like things just as they are—don’t barge in here uninvited with your sanctimonious temperance bullshit, missy—because ignorance really, literally is bliss, and we all want to desperately believe that everything really does happen for a reason. If you take away alcohol, the real reasons might be exposed, all those beliefs you’ve held tightly to, that (barely) held you up, or hid you, will disintegrate in thin air. Then what? And by “you,” I hope you recognize I really, only mean “me.” Any resemblance to you is purely coincidental.
Words matter, significantly, in every aspect of our lives. For reasons I’m still working to understand and am not sure I ever will but I’ll keep working at it because I’m a persistent li’l missy, alcohol has been extrapolated from all other addictions and treated as its own separate thing, with its own separate language. Instead of recognizing alcohol as a toxic substance that’s potentially addictive to every single human (anyone who has ever been drunk or experienced a hangover, knows, at least implicitly, of its inherent toxicity; anyone, under the right circumstances can become addicted), we’ve divided the world into two groups—the majority who can drink, and those few who have a disease, or a genetic problem, or a weakness, or an allergy, who can’t, a dangerous dichotomy that keeps so many people from seeking help because they’re not “that bad.” We say that the alcoholic wages a lifelong battle against alcoholism. We don’t apply this twisted logic to, say, cigarettes, or heroine or cocaine; we don’t say that those substances are fine, hell even great! in moderation for most people, but not for a few select, flawed individuals who have a disease, or who can’t handle cigarettes, or hard drugs. Holly Whittaker posits that this has to do with the culture that’s been deliberately built around the substance; it’s so infiltrated every aspect of our lives, we don’t even notice it until God forbid should we challenge this culture and decided to quit it. Instead of saying the culture is the problem, and normalizing addiction, we’ll narrow it down to a few problematic individuals, and keep the party rolling.
Addiction arrives in our lives by many vehicles; alcohol is just one way. It shows up in other disguises—food, gambling, power, sex, internet, religion, exercise, drugs—the list goes on. Often, some kind of trauma precedes addiction, though it’s not a necessary ingredient; success can be as likely a culprit. I sometimes think of addiction as a protective measure gone haywire, a coping mechanism that serves its intended purpose but then didn’t take the hint to take a hike after the crisis had passed; instead, it settled in for a long stay. Addiction is a response to a desire that can never seem to be filled, most often, the root of addiction is a significant feeling of loss—of control, of connection, of peace, of love. I can see now that, given where I was at the time of my husband’s illness and death, drinking effectively numbed the horrific images of what I saw him endure—the fucked up side to fight cancer that no one ever tells you about, that might have very well killed me, too—and helped me stay by his side and fight for him, when he was unable to do so. I don’t know that I could have done what I did, where I was at that time in my life, had I not had that coping strategy. For a very long time, I harbored tremendous guilt about this, which only served to drive drinking even deeper into my life; today, I can look at that time with authentic forgiveness, grace and wisdom—that I did the very best I could with what I had available to me then, a significant turning point for my thoughts about drinking and my motivation to do different, and better, going forward.
The parallels between addiction and racism are at once startling and so obvious, it’s almost comical if it weren’t so deadly. I’m coming to believe that America is addicted to racism—that we’re all afraid we’re going to lose something, should we do different, whether that loss is a perceived loss of power, of a familiar life, of control (who wants to be exposed as an ignorant jerk? No one, that’s who)…we are all sitting at various points on this continuum and until we come to terms with this reality, it will continue, like a terminal disease, to destroy us. I’m still painstakingly making my way through this tangled mess of an idea—racism as an addiction—trying to find where I sit on the scale, what my role is in being a part of the change that is desperately calling out to us, what I need to do. Maybe Im completely off about it, but at least it’s giving me some traction to my thoughts…Awareness is a powerful tool to instigate action; I recognize I have a place on the racism continuum; that, like my relationship with alcohol, I still have a lot of work to do, that right now everything I do or don’t do is going to feel sucky. It’s exhausting, frustrating, infuriating, humbling, and foreign, but like quitting drinking, every step I take moves me a little farther away from sucking and a little closer to something more divine.
Today, a memorial garden has blossomed at the place where Philando took his last breath, an organic, evolving symbol of agony, outrage, grief, community and hope. While at the candlelight vigil last night at the garden, honoring and commemorating Philando’s life, I listened to his mother, Valerie Castile speak, in awe of how this woman has been able to take this epic tragedy and turn it into a living, breathing movement that’s taking on a life of its own. Still, I heard the agony in hers, and other speakers’ voices, over the most recent, senseless loss of George Floyd’s life, and too many others, by the same oppressive system that robbed her son of his. I’ve been reading WEB DuBios’ The Souls of Black Folk; I think about how his words, written in 1903, are the same age old laments and outrages forcing people to take to the streets today, and I understand, at least a little, why protests and riots happen. This compels me to join. I think how, for all the astounding advances in technology, medicine and other systems of our world, the systems of oppression of his times are still very much alive and doing better than well—they’re not just still running the show, they’re now in the white house, not much different than when DuBois was alive.
Still. I learned from Valerie Castile and others last night, that there are forty Black women on the 2020 ballot for various seats in our government, that a significant reason for the rage and the riots are that by the people, for the people, even today in 2020, does not include all the people. The city of Falcon Heights declared July 6 Restoration Day and July 7 Unity Day, community-wide efforts to start bridging the expansive gaps between residents that became glaringly apparent with Philando’s murder. In light of the loss of life, it seems like such small step toward unity, it hardly seems worth it. The only thing we can do is trust that it is.