I smelled fear.

James Baldwin quote rendered in chalked calligraphy by David Ostrowski, in Newport, Kentucky. Photo by author.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

I was struck this morning by the feelings that came up in a fastwrite about childhood. After reading it over, then turning to a review of recent news, I felt the endless echo of bullying and othering playing out in rallies and in life.

I often wonder where our deepest fear are born; they seem part of us, inescapable. The fears that make us hard-shelled and defensive. The fears that make us withdraw and give up, and/or also make us into playground bullies, ugly-spirited and hurtful, or into the bullies’ sidekicks. It is the sidekicks who truly make this bullying possible.

No bully acts alone.

The chants of recent rallies are primal, terrifying, and I feel them deep in my heart. They are not the healing chants of love and truth.

“Send her back.”

It’s a chant of othering, of ostracizing. It is racist, it is damaging. The enabling of this damage is as bad as the chant itself. Fear-driven, it can feel like your choice is either to join the bullies or be a victim, like a cruel playground game played out forever. Social ostracism is a painful tool of control. Enabling — being the sidekicks, looking the other way, feeling disempowered to speak out — is how it becomes systemic. Hungering to be accepted, we might compromise our values. Do we value love? Equality? Inclusiveness? Or are those things just fantasies to make us feel better as we choose to enable and/or behave in ways that are not loving at all.

We contain our selves at all our ages, but we are not controlled and powerless like little children, unless we permit it. Unless we haven’t faced the fears that drive us.

There is a third way. You can face your enabling behavior. You can rise above your fears, and the people I am most talking to here right now are people who are white, and looking away from blatant racist behavior, hoping to avoid having to choose.

Choose. Choose to be the grownup on the playground, and speak for fairness, for equality, for justice, for humanity. Speak against racism and xenophobia. Do not let the blanket of powerlessness put you to sleep. The world depends on you to be awake. It is not nap time.

The prompt I used was “I smelled fear.” and as always, I wrote from memory and imagination. Maybe you could try a fastwrite on this, too? Or on “Send her back.” Do it as a wake up call, looking at your fear instead of being driven to unforgivable enabling.

For what it’s worth, the fastwrite:

I smelled fear, and I think it was my own fear. It smelled like bazooka bubblegum mixed with Love’s Baby Soft lotion with a cloud of chalk dust mixed in, from the erasers that Angie — dull, backward, awkward Angie — was pounding together. If I didn’t move away from her soon, I’d be branded a social outcast, like she was. Why did she have to come over here, anyway.

I was in grade three, I was new, I said “soda” when everyone else said “pop” — I kept forgetting to say “pop” — and yet even I knew I needed to step away from the sidelines, where Angie liked to hide. I needed to try. Just enough to be marginally accepted.

We were on the playground outside the low-slung flat-roofed elementary school, by the big windowless brick wall where games of Dodgeball raged. Groups of kids were forming; the game was about to commence. At least in gym class I’d be chosen, maybe almost last, right before Angie and Karen and Bob — almost last but not dead last. But on the playground, you could be not chosen. Angie chose erasers, Karen sat reading a book next to Mrs. Schultz, the playground monitor who never looked up from her romance novels, their covers hidden behind ugly floral quilted covers, but once I’d seen a nearly naked lady, swooning backward onto a nearly naked pirate, when the cover slipped. Mrs. Schultz had a whistle around her neck but she was afraid of the boys, and never blew the whistle on them.

Waiting to be chosen, and dreading it, too, I tried to look busy, to look cool. I studied the ants crawling in the cracks of the asphalt by the jungle jim, then worried I’d be branded as the ground-staring-girl. I looked up at the cloudy October sky and worried that I’d never find a friend.

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I try to imagine what the world could be, and see how it really is.

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Elaine Olund

Elaine Olund

I try to imagine what the world could be, and see how it really is.

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