Embodying impact — Susan Raffo

glass, at the moment of impact, as it begins to shatter

Hello, friends. About two months ago, I was invited to create a webinar/an offering for the Embodying Social Justice gathering. When we realized that my schedule and their live recording schedules didn’t line up, they invited me to create something ahead of time. I ended up doing a two-hour workshop on the concept of embodying impact. If you want to go directly to the workshop itself, you can go here. It’s free from January 27 through January 31. After that, if you use this link, you can still get to the workshop but you will pay. I am not sure how much (sorry about that) but you will pay something. And yes, part of what you pay then goes to me. So also thank you.

What is offered here is not the full workshop, as some of what is there is about a guided practice that doesn’t translate as well on the page. Instead, it’s just the general content and reflections. Some things here are the same, and some things are different. Writer voice. Spoken voice. I am also aware that I am posting this on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I remember this as I think of the Catholic lineage of the majority of my lines, as I remember that my people, whether directly or indirectly, were part of the generations and generations of anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic expansion and contraction that made the Holocaust possible. I also remember that on this day of posting is the anniversary of the first testing of the atom bomb in Nevada, of the day when the US Congress forced the creation of Indian Territory and started what became the forced removal of the Cherokee people, the Trail of Tears, were your ancestors forced to leave or have they ever lived in any of the lands that were then “given” to settlers? Today like all days, so many other impacts, large and small, echo out into this present moment. Here, too, and always, there is impact.

There were two months between when I said yes to creating something for this gathering and when I actually put something together. Two months of COVID means about 750,000 more deaths globally. Here on this land, this Turtle Island, this land whose histories include the attempted genocide of the original peoples and the institution of slavery, this British Empire turned independent colony turned US empire that continues to believe and pretend it doesn’t that violence is justifiable in the pursuit of profit, these original wounds have not disappeared and they are harsh right now. This weaving of white supremacy and Christian supremacy and patriarchal rage that has shown up for 500+ years, sometimes loud, sometimes less loud, but never far away. I am writing a piece on impact and I don’t know you who are reading this. I don’t know what the impact on you is or has been of any of things. But I know there is impact. And so before moving further, I want to take a moment to notice that. Along with you.

Right here. Quietly.

Take a moment to notice it, even before we go deeper. You came to this conversation for a reason, for something…. And you are sitting or standing or lying down and looking at a screen or listening to my voice. How are we already impacting each other?

I am long interested in impact, in the ways in which our lives are always connected, in the ways in which we experience or don’t experience this, and in the different ways in which we experience the softening pleasure of connection versus or, sometimes at the same time, the abrasion of something else. We are all connected which means we impact each other. Always.

At its oldest, the word “impact” literally means and it means this only, “to fix or fasten upon or into”. Notice that this is neutral. There is no meaning given to the fixing and the fastening upon. The word doesn’t say anything about how it fixes/fastens, or the context, of anything at all. It just is. A moment of two separates that come together and…. Fasten. Fix. This is from 2000 or 3000 or 4000 years ago, before English was English when we were older.

By the 1600s, a time when those who most often spoke English were involved with a rapidly expanding empire, when the majority of people living in Britain were living in poverty and the rich were getting richer through stealing land and bodies and whatever else they could find, the word “impact” started to mean “to press closely into something or to strike against.” Notice this move away from neutral. Now there isn’t only a fix or a fasten but something done with some kind of pressure. Two separates no longer coming together, neutral until the context is known, but now coming together where, by definition, something is happening where meaning is already assigned. With pressing closely or striking against, the boundary between two separates moves from being a neutral moment between equals into something that has, potentially, a power struggle, a power over, one strike from another. Impact.

And so the power struggle gets stronger so that by the early 1900s, the word begins to mean something very specific: “to strike forcefully against something, to have a forceful effect on”.

The history of a word is the history of a people. The history of the word “impact” is certainly the history of those whose ancestors have lived on the island called Great Britain for multitudes of generations. This history of the English language is, to some degree, the history of English people and culture. And, at the same time, the more generations your people, my people have spoken English, the more the ghosts of that history, the ghosts which show up as the underbelly of culture, the layers upon layers of never-named assumptions, the cellular pivot and turn that happens before consciousness, the more these ghosts impact you…. And your people to come. You might not come from people who lived through this shift from neutral without context to implied force and power, but the more generations your people have spoken English, the more this history shapes you, too.

Impact. In the beginning there is a fixing, a fastening, nothing more until context defines it. For a word to have a space between its meaning and the context surrounding it, there has to be something else here. Consent? Time? I keep remembering that most indigenous languages are mostly verbs and more industrialized languages are awash with nouns; with thousands of words that define a thing down to its specificity. In the beginning, impact was a physical concept waiting for the verbs of relationship to determine how it lives in the present moment. Running, loving, pulling, laughing, rebounding. Forcefully moving, scurrying like a whisper.

Notice what is happening inside you right now as you hear me. There are all kinds of ways of talking about impact. Stories of being depressed, overwhelmed, lost and how it was when, like happened to me not that long ago, someone calls you out of the blue and loves you awake again…. the impact of the wildness of the world around us, even when it is most visible as a dandelion hoisting itself through a crack in the cement….. the impact of seeing and knowing children, of elders who remember your name and are able and willing to tell you stories that help you remember that you are part of a people, the impact of food cooked with love, of an exhale after years of lung tightness, and of what love feels like when we let it light itself through us, one cell at a time. That is impact as well. That is impact as well.

There is impact with violence, there is impact with pleasure, and then there is what happens after that impact, the echoes that carry forward.

Every single system of oppression and supremacy, every single moment where someone chooses to rage their entitlement or rage their despair, every educational curriculum that teaches either love and connection or hate and categorization, every single moment has a relationship with the moments before. The wound of Western progressivism, this idea that the future can be better stronger faster without being in relationship to the past, this is a kind of great cultural and collective override, as though each of us were a superhero, able to leap over the past and present to get to some unattached future.

When I ask you to pause and notice, it is an invitation to listen internally. To notice what wells up, from the depths of those 52 trillion cells that is your physical/energetic self. Noticing might mean anything: a temperature, a sensation like buzzing or numbness or movement or stillness, a memory flash that comes up rather than the coming down of the mind reflecting, a desire to move, an emotion that feels like yours or an emotion directed at me, at its most basic, and notice this right now, as you hear my words, a noticing of a lean forward, a pullback, a hovering in the center.

When I invite you to notice, as I will often in this piece, here is the practice: to notice what arises and then, as and if you can, to pause before interpreting and giving it meaning. Like the earliest sense of the word, what has fixed or fastened upon you from my words….. A stirring inside or nothing at all…..notice what happens with your aliveness, leaning away, moving towards…………. Look around and be curious about what else in this moment is contributing to this impact, this feeling….. Just let yourself notice the impact and then wait…..

Right this second, what did you notice? A positive feeling, a negative feeling? Or a suspension, a waiting….. Suspension as stillness and grounded waiting? Or suspension as vibrating brace, waiting to see where this all leads. The felt sense of not quite trusting the moment. Just notice.

Notice right now if you want to continue reading this piece. Right this second, make an active choice. If you don’t, then close it, without regret, just close this page and move on.

And now, if you are still here, notice your yes, if it is here. What is making you stay with these words? Where does this yes, I will stay come from in you, how do you know it is there, what does it feel like? Is it strong, is it light, can you not feel it all? If the feeling is curiosity, a mind interested in what is happening, then remember that your mind is still a part of you, what, in this moment, does curiosity feel like?

If somatics, if embodiment does nothing else, may it do this: support each and every one of us to feel and know, in the deepest upwelling part of ourselves, the clarity of our own aliveness saying yes and saying no. Not the shoulds and musts that come from conditioning, from the vigilance that says in order to be safe I must say yes here or no here. Instead this, the upwelling truth of your aliveness saying yes or saying no, this internal sense that is there, even when systems and situations outside say the opposite. This is the root of doing this work on impact — our ability to feel the physical emotional energetic rooted alive truth of yes — which is a pull, arms or gaze reaching out or just the feeling of it, yes, I choose this ….and no, which is a push, a boundary, I don’t choose this at all or not this close, pull away, I only choose my yes when my no first comes in to say what the yes will look like. And then in the middle of all of this, the neutrality, the pause, of not feeling either.

Now pause and notice. How is your aliveness right now?

Impact exists across histories and generations. Each act of violence, no matter how massive the impact, is made up of thousands of actions and inactions, in the present moment and in the generations before, people exactly like you and like me, like the ones you hate and the ones you love, making choices or feeling they had no choice, in whatever their present moment is. Each of these actions and inactions layers up, like sediment, loose and gravely at first until over time, with enough pressure, that sediment turns to cement, to rock that feels like bedrock as though nothing else was underneath. Real people in real-time just like you are, just like I am.

We are here to make cracks. To find, deepen and make cracks in the congealed thickness of generations of harm, of generations of impact that started as violence and then, over time, became normalized into the way things are, held in our bodies as internalized oppression and internalized supremacy. Addressing impact at the largest scale is where we join together to build collective power. Belonging to something bigger than yourself, something life-giving can be a form of healing, particularly if it is about connecting you to others around you, attentive to something bigger, a bigger connection yet. Building collective power to decimate others or to force others to be exactly as you are, that is not collective healing, that is just the shapeshifting of a power struggle.

Building collective power to change law and policy, to surround a group of kin to keep them safe, to join together so that we have other ways of loving those in crisis that doesn’t depend on calling the police, those are big cracks.

And then there are, alongside the big cracks, scores of smaller cracks, the choices we make in the present moment or don’t make, the arcing expansion towards connection and love and telling the truth rather than the habitual contraction that says I am not safe, I am not safe even if there is nothing dangerous taking place at all.

Someone I name as a teacher, Marcie Rendon (read her books), she tells a story about something she has only ever experienced in native spaces. It might happen in other spaces, although none that I have been in. What she describes is how, before coming together to do something collectively, including to make a plan, respond to an act of violence, organize a celebration, anything, the first thing that folks do in the room is to attend to the harm that exists between them. Here is how I have gotten in the way of your liberation. Here is how my acts have impacted you. Here is how the intensity of my breakup, the way I have left my children, my hyperfocus on my job, my drinking or using, my hiding in my own home, my steamrolling this conversation, my grief, my rage…….. I know that I impact you. Marcie describes the time spent before anything can happen, time to be together with these impacts, to talk and fight and cry and get stuck and be with them until something…. something….. some kind of enough has passed so that we in the room together can then turn, together, towards this thing we are about to do. “Enough” doesn’t mean all better… it just means enough connection and repair and “we” has emerged that we can move forward. Together. And this takes all the time it needs to take because there is no moving together until enough of that sense of we, of readiness is in place. Ignoring the repairs needed between us means getting in the way of the possibilities in front of us.

Imagine it, for a moment. It is likely if you are reading this, you have never experienced this. Or maybe you have, in the occasional time, but not, I would guess, as an assumed practice. Imagine what it would be like if this practice, with your family, your kin, your friends, before organizing anything, before before…. anything where we were supposed to move together, imagine if we assumed that we would take the time. Imagine if each of us knew, all the way through us, that the time we would take together to do this is more important, is a necessity, for us to then do anything at all, particularly anything that is about change. And that, in the doing, we are not going to leave you. Unconditional belonging that is built together.

Moving at the speed of trust. When I first heard these words from Adrienne Maree Brown, I thought of this story that Marcie had shared with me.

Notice what is happening with you right now. Do you lean towards this story, towards what you could imagine? Do you pull away? Do you sit neutral and still or braced and waiting there in the middle? What do you notice?

A few years ago, I heard Malidoma Somé tell a story. I wish I could find where that story was so that I could share it with you, but I can’t. This also means that my remembering of this story is on how this story came through and has been held by me, rather than a literal retelling. He was reflecting on indigeneity and he said something like this: Westerners or non-indigenous people get very confused about indigeneity. We carry this idea that being indigenous is about living in balance with all life, all of the time. He was laughing while he said this and he described how we non-indigenous people romanticize indigeneity as a state of perfect balance and connection. He then said, well, of course this isn’t true. Indigenous people like all people misunderstand each other, intentionally and unintentionally cause harm, have bad days, and things get out of balance. The difference, he shared, is that being indigenous means that you know that the reason you are here is to attend to relationships. Most of our time, he said, is spent on attending to relationship imbalance, between people, between people and other living beings, between all of the different ways that one life, human and not, impacts and is impacted by another. Being indigenous, explained Malidoma Somé, is about taking relationships and impact seriously and giving the time needed, the attention, to support balance to re-emerge. We create the conditions for those moments when suddenly or not suddenly, there is balance. We feel, together, the truth of our deeper connection, with each other, with all life. And it is here, and it is felt and then something happens, there is impact, and things go out of balance and here we are again.

Lying in bed this morning, I was awake but not ready to get up. For a wee bit of time, everything felt exactly right. The sound of my partner breathing and her warm body, the soft feeling of the sheets, the gray winter light, that muted feeling when it has recently snowed and the air still holds that heaviness. It was enough. Just exactly enough. And then my mind started doing the thing, my brain started waking up, plans and thoughts and I could feel that separateness come back in, muscles and neurons all clicking together towards the doing rather than that unexpected wee moment of connection. I have a friend who is very good at holding that moment. We sit in a group that opens with song and sometimes, after we have all been singing together, there is that suspension again, the echoes of sound still in the air, deepening the silence. She sits there, savoring it, being with it, while I notice how, within seconds after the end of the song, my mind starts spinning towards the next one. Not always, but more often than she does.

This is the practice, the waiting. Waiting for the suspension…. The deepening. It’s the reason why the first step in healing is ending violence . There is no suspension, no deeper waiting, that is possible when the body must shield itself from active or echoed violence. Then there is bracing and protection, of course. There has to be. Dealing with the impacts, from the massive and generational to the small and personal. Supporting them to sift away from striking with force to the spaciousness of fasten and fix.

We are all connected. Every single thing we do has impact. What you do for your own self-care has impact on those around you. The fact that it has impact doesn’t contradict your need for it, it just connects your need to the need of others. Western science is slowly remembering these things as well as research finding after research finding says the same thing, whether we are oak or swallow, dolphin or elephant, human in whatever place, we are all connected and we are born with the capacity to feel and be that connection, whether we are raised to savor and appreciate it or to be afraid of it. Mirror neurons. Vagal system. And more and more.

We all have impact. We cause harm. We are impacted. We are harmed. And oh, there is also pleasure, so much pleasure here. Connection. Impact is not always negative, it can be stunningly illuminating. Or neutral. It’s the word itself that asserts the boundary-crossing of force. It’s the word itself that has closed in around the acts that it has the hardest time letting go of. A people, an ancient people with a cycle of violence, the early Englishness that lost sight of the neutral because the force was overwhelming. Did you know that in the early 1000s, approximately one-tenth of the entire population of what is now called Great Britain was enslaved, rising to one fifth in the West Country (thank you to Nell Painter and her book, the History of White People). Enslavement was a deeply embedded part of the British economy, including as part of the economy of the British Catholic Church. This evolved over generations, to this day the British national anthem includes a line that says Britons will never again be enslaved… and so a cycle of violence continued as whiteness emerged as a way for the enslaved and slavers within the class system of that island to override and act as though this history had never existed, instead hoisting the pain of this violence on to the bodies of others for 500+ years. And impact moved from fix and fasten to strike with violence, hiding away the history that moved this meaning. Impact = harm.

For many of us, for most of us, there is shame around knowing how we have caused harm. Shame is a contracting away, a moving away from connection, a survival strategy that is there for a reason. Notice if there is a contraction that comes up for you, one of the body’s clues, when you imagine telling someone the story of how you have caused harm, then you fully let yourself be in the vulnerable strength of telling this truth. Just notice.

So many of us struggle with an inability to acknowledge the impact we have on each other, from a place of dignity and truth. Being able to say yes, this has happened, this is happening. I did this. My people did this.

This is different from grieving the truth of it. Or feeling anger or rage about the truth of it. Those are important, too. This is something different. This is about being in the middle of your own life and saying/being.. Yes, this, too. This I have done, this fastening, this fixing turned forceful. This, too. I see it. I admit it. I know it. And I am still connected to you, right now, you who I or my people have harmed. I am still here with you.

And then waiting… within this space of connection and truth. Waiting. If you have caused me harm and you are telling me this, then at one point, when I am ready, I will have something to say. You might never hear it, it might never be to you. I know the impact is here. I have heard you. And what comes next…..

This is the hard thing. To say, to be, to cellularly claim and know the impact and to stay in the middle space, not leaning away from it to minimize it, not pressing forward to try and control what happens next, but staying in the middle… waiting and connected.

As I said, we practice me in bed this morning, sitting in a room after the end of the song and feeling the pleasure of it… the suspension. It’s the same practice, this waiting.

As I am writing this, there is a litany of unaddressed impacts in my own life that are flickering through my mind. Harms I have caused that I am either leaning away from (avoid avoid) or am overly leaning towards (fix fix fix). Most often, I have been a fixer. Rush in with words and deeds, anything to help settle what feels unsettled so that I can come up to feeling like I am a decent person. I am writing this and feeling all kinds of internal hitches, the contradictions in my own self. I have to practice, oh god I have to practice, just like everyone else.

At the root of every system of oppression and domination is relationship betrayal; generations and generations of relationship betrayal. Relationship betrayal is what happens when there has been harmful impact, the most recent use of the word, a forcing upon, and then that impact has been ignored, minimized, or claimed by the dominator as their own pain or their own story or just their own. There are two sides to relationship betrayal, the echoes of those whose people have betrayed and the echoes of those whose people betrayed. Many of us have both circulating through our bodies, shaping us in our earliest youngest times, before we have cognitive awareness. The wash of histories in the bodies of those around us that we emerge within, become within. The eddies of relationship betrayal and relationship longing are there, always, threading through our movements for liberation, our calls for accountability, our moment like this one, where I am writing words on the page and you are reading them.

Notice what is happening inside you, how you are feeling, what your aliveness is showing you, right in this moment.

Stay with it. Suspended. Listening. What are the sensations that are coming up right now? The stories, the people, the situations that arise, those moments when you are on both sides of impact, actor and acted upon. Just listen and notice. What feels unfinished? And then, right now, in this moment, without rushing or leaning forward, and without hanging back and dragging your feet, if there is one, in this moment, what is your next most elegant step?

Originally published at https://www.susanraffo.com on January 27, 2021.