The first time I heard of Utopia I was a child. I imagined a magical world with brightly colored plants and animals, rivers and lakes as clear as just-polished glass, and a gentle summer that never ended. Food was easy to pick from trees and bushes that were ever-blooming, every mossy patch under a tree canopy was a comfortable place to spend the night, and there was plenty of space and safety for everyone.
Decades later, I have a much different vision of what Utopia actually looks like, but it shares the same base principles as my youthful imagining. In my Utopia of today everyone has access to delicious and nutritious food. Everyone has a place to live that's safe and protected from the elements within a thriving community of support and opportunity. Education is available and accessible. Healthcare is abundant and affordable. Everyone is dedicated to being in-process, working to see themselves more fully, and actively practicing seeing and supporting others along their own journeys.
My Utopia of today feels focused on very practical considerations. It is also very human. And it is completely possible. There is sufficient wealth and resources for everyone on this planet to have what they need. There is not enough for everyone to have everything, as appears to be the goal of the ultra-wealthy, but there is plenty. Everyone can have a comfortable and healthy life. Everyone’s life can be full of meaning. It can even be a colorful place, with enough rainbow flags.
I do my best work and my best art and my best humaning when I'm well-fed, well-rested, and feeling safe. Imagine if everyone were in a position to be offering the best of themselves all the time. Or most of the time. Even some of the time would be a decided improvement on the bedraggled existence many folks slog through now. A great many humans are over-worked, under-slept, and lacking in self-care. And yet, we carry on. Tired and lonely and with too much tension in our neck and shoulders, we carry on.
Until we can't.
It used to be the only time I took a break from work was when I got sick. That was the cue from my body that it could do no more and I would be taking time off weather I liked it or not. Catching a cold is hardly a relaxing or restorative version of vacation, but it's hard to argue with a wall. When you hit a wall, you hit a wall. And you stop. I would like very much for humanity to figure out how to care for ourselves and each other before we hit a collective societal wall.
There are many examples of folks leaving to create Utopia separate from the rest of society. Intentional communities and hippie communes and off-grid compounds abound all over the US (and probably the world). On the one hand, I like the idea of creating the antithesis of modern society. Of living more harmoniously with nature. Of existing outside capitalism. Of being the change I want to see in the world.
On the other hand, I could not be satisfied because that kind of Utopia doesn't actually solve anything. Sure, if I have access to enough capital I can check-out from society, head into the forest and build a utopia with a select group of friends and chosen family. But that doesn't actually make me any safer in the world. That doesn't make the climate any less likely to collapse. That doesn't make extremist hate groups any less likely to kill people they don't think have a right to exist. And it doesn’t stop any of those things from invading my Utopia and wrecking everything we built.
So it seems like I need to stick around in regular society instead, and do everything I can to craft it into something much more like Utopia. I can make a mini-utopia out of my internal world, nourishing myself so I can offer the best of me to the rest of the world. Then I can have greater influence over my external world, bringing Utopia to my community by helping to build more equitable systems and infrastructure to support and care for all people. Then the community can bring Utopia to more of the world.
Ultimately, Utopia is not a fixed destination; it's a moving aspirational target. The power to cultivate it is within all of us. No one person exists in a vacuum. Just as no community, city, state, or country exists without the influence of others or without influencing others. We have made incredible progress as a species over the course of our human existence. We live today in a technological Utopia of sorts. We can get to a human Utopia if we try. Utopia is just ahead of where we are, within reach if we stretch a little bit
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We are the sum, which is greater. And each of us is also a part of the community in which we live, work, and play. Community is magical and necessary to survive and thrive in this world. There are many things in my life I could not have accomplished without community support. Surviving my tumultuous upbringing, leaving my toxic marriage, earning my black belt, starting my business and keeping it going.
I have been fortunate to have such a high volume of community support throughout my life, in both small and incredibly significant ways. Growing up with a single parent for much of my childhood included many challenges. We lived all the way across the country from the rest of my extended family, so I relied on a local network of adult friends, neighbors, and mentors. Each one of those people touched my life and the culmination of their support is what got me all the way to adulthood.
A family friend gave me my first job, working in the office at her small company. The pair of brothers who lived upstairs looked out for me and my sister just like family long before they officially became our step-dad and uncle. My friends parents gave me someplace to go when my home life became untenable. And a trusting landlady let me move in to with my friends and sign the lease later, once my emancipation was finalized by the court.
Of course my tenacity and my organization and my determination to reach every milestone also caused my accomplishments. But without the opportunities I had access to, my path would have taken different turns and the outcome would undoubtedly have taken a different form. Freshly adult me was the sum of all the parts of my growing up experience.
Years later, I was trapped in an unhealthy marriage by the shame of what my family and friends would think of me if I got divorced. At that time I thought of the end of a relationship as a personal failure. And the end of a marriage as the ultimate failure. Extra level irresponsible. I had bought-in to the narrative that marriage was a serious and irreversible life decision. Like having children or getting a tattoo.
So even though I knew my marriage could not continue as it was, I could see no way out of it. Until I was out with a friend having our weekly post kung fu bagel when, out of the blue, he said to me “I see how Blank treats you and how it makes you feel. I just want you to know you’re not alone. I see you. I am your friend and I have your back if you need anything.” And he meant it.
I was stunned. I had been working quite diligently to cover-up all the dreadful aspects of my marriage because I thought I was supposed to be able to fix it all. But in that moment, I knew there was at least one person who saw through the facade and loved me regardless. I was completely disarmed, and I told him everything. Including my fear that if I left my husband I would be abandoned by everyone else in my life.
That conversation saved my life. It gave me the perspective I needed to see my situation a little more clearly. I was staying in that relationship to meet other peoples expectations. I was sacrificing my mental and emotional wellbeing to avoid discomfort for other people. I did not want to disappoint all the people who spent time and money to come to my wedding. Those are not good reasons to stay married, and they are not healthy relationship practices.
When I ultimately decided I needed to leave, my fear of abandonment turned out to be completely unfounded. Community supported me through the entire transition. A friend with a spare bedroom let me stay rent-free until I found my own apartment. Friends helped me pack my things and move them across town. Friends invited me to dinner and took me out and offered me counsel and comfort. How fortunate I was to have access to community with resources and time and energy enough to spare some for me.
Many years later, I am in an incredibly fulfilling life position and community continues to contribute to my experience of safety and stability. Most of my business comes through personal referrals. Colleagues and connections send projects my way regularly. And just this week another friend offered me a significant amount of help completely out of the blue.
It’s overwhelming to think about all the parts and pieces that come together to create my life experience. I am incredibly grateful and keenly aware of how much I have that many people don’t have access to. And I am just as grateful for all the opportunities I have to support others and give back. From seemingly small things like smiling at a stranger to helping a friend move to much larger interventions like offering shelter to an un-housed person. I am part of a larger community, many in fact. Community is powerful, and I want to use that power for good and not evil.
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Lately it seems just about everything is taking place at the 11th hour. I'm hastily flowing from one manner of deadline to another, panting across each finish line just before they close the race. And it's not just me. Everyone I interact with seems to be just keeping up. Friends, family, clients, and strangers are making last-minute decisions, sending last-minute communications, completing house chores, work projects, and getting out of bed at the last possible moment.
The most present for me this week is Friday's looming individual tax deadline. This is the last minute of the last hour for taxes. The final approach to the extended deadline. More than the usual number of my clients have provided documents much later than they ever have before. Everyone who will get filed before the deadline will be wrapped up and transmitted just under the wire. A few people are planning to file after the deadline. Very unusual.
And although it's out of the ordinary, it makes perfect sense. Everything about the future feels so uncertain right now, there almost isn't any other way to function. The downward trajectory of Covid cases is hopeful, but it won't stop affecting all public engagement any time soon. There has been a positive shift in global political rhetoric about the urgency of addressing climate change, but sweeping public policy has yet to be enacted.
The last minute can be a fine time to take action in many cases. It's technically still on time. And if that's how everyone is coping right now, fine. But it does speak to something larger and possibly longer lasting. A great and impending General Delay. Like everyone else, I've heard much on the news recently about the global supply chain disruption. All around the world there are manufacturers waiting for raw materials, finished goods sitting on docks waiting for transport, and retailers selling out of things that have not historically been difficult to keep in stock.
Arguably, since the pace of western society is breakneck, a bit of a slow-down might do a lot of people good. However: we're not set up for it, it isn't applying universally to all things everywhere, and we're definitely not doing it on purpose. All signs point to an issue that needs resolving by deliberate effort, rather than a temporary trend that will work itself out.
Maybe the global shipping industries will rally together to restructure with climate change foremost on their agenda. Maybe the global supply chain will completely disintegrate before any action is taken. Maybe some mix of temporary fixes and long-term realignment. Regardless, it's such a complex and many-layered problem, that it's not likely to get resolved until it absolutely must be. In other words, at the very last moment.
The end of the line can also be quite inspiring and revelatory. When I was a Union Steward throughout my career as a federal employee, non-members would sometimes join the union when faced with the prospect of disciplinary or adverse employment action. We insensitively called these folks deathbed converts. It took right up until the last minute when they might lose their job before they suddenly recognized the value of union representation.
In some situations it's unclear that action is truly needed until the very last minute. Take the example of Leonard Matlovich, who heard and read about fellow members of the US armed services being discharged because they were gay. In 1975 he outed himself to his senior officer to challenge the government's position and take a stand for gay rights. At the same time and on the other side of the country, actor John Amos could see the all white writing team for the TV show "Good Times" had no idea what an actual Black family would be like. In 1976 he vehemently opposed the racist portrayal of a slice of American reality he actually understood as a real live Black man and he was fired from the show.
In the 2008 remake of the 1951 classic movie "The Day The Earth Stood Still," Keanu Reeves plays an alien who comes to Earth to deliver an ultimatum to the world: get your act together or be exterminated. There is no arguing, no negotiating, no effective way to resist. It's the end of the line for the people of planet Earth. The only thing that saves humanity is a couple of folks showing the alien our remarkable ability to resolve issues at the eleventh hour. The alien halts the apocalypse because "at the precipice, we change."
Hollywood is full of stories of the human race coming together to overcome disaster, often against all odds. I have seen this phenomenon take shape in real life, so I know it is possible. I have also seen people get to the edge and completely fall apart, resulting in utter calamity, so I know that is equally possible. It feels like we have arrived at the last minute for a few things, global climate collapse chief among them. Climate change feels a lot like a precipice. I know we are capable of amazing change. I just want us to actually do it.
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In roll-playing games, I often play the fighter. Partly because I am a fighter in actual reality and I relate to that role. Mostly because I think it's really fun. Not because I'm itching to get in lots of fights and kick a lotta ass, but because I like to keep people safe. If I can stand between danger and a friend, I will gladly do so. And if I get to play with cool weapons while I do it, so much greater is my satisfaction.
In real life, I was raised as a protector. I grew up protecting my mom from parts of herself, and from people who didn't understand her way of being in the world. I protected my sister from having to grow up too quickly. Later I protected my husband from the weight of his own emotions. It's not easy to live in a tumultuous home in a volatile world, so I learned to protect myself from abuse and neglect by hiding parts of my self away from the world.
Since leaving that kind of home life, I have spent years unwinding those self-protection patterns and stitching the parts of myself back together. Leaving those relationship dynamics was my first step. Shortly after my divorce, I tested for my brown belt. In preparation, one of my teachers told me I needed to really show my junkyard dog. I needed to be the fierce protector who will keep getting back up, no matter how many times they are knocked down.
So that's what I did. Nothing could stop me that day. I was exhausted, I was out-matched, and I was hopped-up on martial spirit. It was just me out there facing all those challenges. So what was I going to do, give up? On myself?! No. Fucking. Way. And in that very moment, when I decided to keep going instead of throwing in the towel, that was the first time in my life I really felt like I was worth protecting. Not because I was useful to someone else or because someone else needed me. Just because I was worth it to me.
That embodiment of my own self-worth was the bridge I needed to get from highly technical martial practitioner to the next phase of my training. And it was what I needed to get to the next phase of my life. I have come a long way since then. Now I am more like a dragon than a junkyard dog. Although instead of a hoard of treasure comprised of gold coins and precious gems, I am guarding a collection of precious people and meaningful principles to live by.
As with many things I am practicing, it's important to review from time to time. To take a look at what I've been doing and how that's affecting the world around me. This week I am reflecting on what I am guarding, and what I am guarding against. I still spend a decent amount of my life protecting. I'm protecting myself or protecting someone else or protecting an important idea. I want to be sure I am doing it in a way I feel good about.
The world is a challenging place and there are many delicate things in it. Sometimes my protection manifests in very mundane ways. Like taking care of tools, clothing, or dishware so they don't break or wear-out too soon. Sometimes it feels more important. Like standing up for labor rights or speaking out against laws that erode the precious progress we have made as a society toward various flavors of equity. And sometimes it comes with unintended consequences. Like pushing back too intensely against a perceived threat that isn't actually there.
It's hard for a lot of people to simply exist in the world. I am pretty privileged as a white member of the middle class. Even still, as a femm-presenting and small sized human, there are some places that are legitimately unsafe for me to be. Despite all my self-defense knowledge and skills, size and strength still matter in a physical fight.
For the most part, threats to my physical safety are clear and I am well-practiced at identifying them, so they are largely avoidable. Other kinds of threats are more elusive, unfixed, or covert. For example: even though I have a degree and various certifications, some folks in my industry do not think I belong there. My opinion and my work is sometimes valued less than that of a male-presenting colleague.
Some of the ways members of the dominate group seek to diminish me (and similarly situated humans) are well-known and have been identified as unacceptable by community or greater society. Others are harder to spot because they are new iterations of old power games or they are shrouded in the language of liberation or consent. The further along my own personal journey to identify the ways I elevate myself or diminish others, the more clearly I can see it happening all around me.
This is both a blessing and a curse, given the default protect mechanism borne of my personal history. On the one hand, I can use my ever-developing spidey-protection-sense to call attention to problematic and dehumanizing behavior. Thereby offering someone an opportunity to grow and put some healthier humaning out into the world. On the other hand, something that's minimally threatening can sometimes feel an awful lot like big danger. And when I'm not on my emotional A-game, I might lash out intensely against that perceived attack, which ends up being harmful instead of helpful.
As an ethical martial artist, I seek to use only the exact amount of force required to neutralize a threat. That requires a clear perception of what is actually happening and a certain level of competence with threat-neutralizing techniques and tools. Applying that same principle to mental and emotional threats is a challenging and constant process.
I appreciate my tendency toward protection. It feels like a caring gift I can offer the world. And although it was forged out of love, it was honed in a dark and dangerous place so it has many sharp edges. In wielding such a powerful weapon, it is my responsibility to always watch where I'm pointing it. This gets easier the more pieces of me I incorporate into greater wholeness. Deepening my self-connection expands my awareness of what trips my alarms and makes it easier to decide whether I just need a hug and when it's time to breath fire.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.