Reflections on the 2017 Women’s March on Washington

Martin Luther King - quote on sign "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

Women in crosswalk walking to the Women's March on WashingtonFeeling surreal with little sleep, I floated briskly in a stream of hundreds pouring off the buses and down sidewalks toward the Washington DC Mall. We were united in motion, people of all colors, many coated in bright pinks and pussy hats. And we were peaceful, even as we passed military tanks, National Guard tanks in Washington DC the day of the Women's Marcharmed men leaning watchfully against their vehicles, their uniforms limiting their humanity; we were peaceful even as we glanced fleeting smiles at the serious faces of traffic cops, men and women in blue enforcing crosswalks and flashing signs; we were peaceful even as our sidewalk-width streams became rivers, shutting down streets and covering parks, converging until we were shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow marchers, oddly silent with loud signs.

People walking to the Women's March rally site
 I remember the first cheer that rose from thousands of throats, rising like an army in charge, swelling to fill the sky and tell the world–we are here

Women's March crowd with signs

Being one in a crowd of thousands pressed close, I felt a simultaneous paradox: I was at once the smallest I have ever felt, and the largest–at one with multitudes. They were friendly and distant. We would talk and joke and compare signs, and then politely excuse ourselves to return to our people, or, as in my case, to find them. Resting after hiking to the Women's March from RFK stadium.We were a mass of companionable, polite strangers. I never pushed, and I was never pushed. I pointed where I wanted to go and asked politely if I could pass, then thanked them as I squeezed past shoulders and backs and butts and faces. I joined chains of people, joined by hands, gently pushing through the crowds. One unspoken rule we all respected: never come between a person and their group. No matter how serpentine the path, we wound our way around families, never through them. The distance from RFK Stadium to the Carousel on the National Mall was only 3 miles, but navigating the crowds took 1.75 hours.  

 The Women’s March on Washington was a singularly transformative and challenging experience for me. I realized that probably, the pre-organization and the majority white presence helped prevent police violence. I learned that while the women who bore signs celebrating their vaginas felt empowered, trans women found the signs alienating, as if they aren’t “real women.” I learned that much of the feminist movement I am familiar with has not been very cognizant of the struggles of women of color (whether black, latina, middle eastern, etc.). I am now challenged to learn more about intersectional feminism

Anti-choice activists yell at Women's March protesters with megaphones and hate signs

Love in the face of hate.

Going forward I will try to educate myself on the struggles of others, and find ways to unify – to find common ground. I am inspired to action. I recognize that young or no, I cannot sit back inactive as a democratic citizen. I believe we are in a struggle for American democracy itself, and I will do something every day to join the fight. I will participate in state and local elections. 

To experience the Women’s March was to experience the majority that was the popular vote. I have felt afraid every day after the election, but marching in unity with thousands of people for human rights has strengthened my resolve.

Women's March signs: "Benedict Donald, Not My President" and "Separate Church and State, My Body My Choice"

We talk as if history and politics are separate from us. Time and space make the stories into abstractions, inadequately pictured in our minds with images and symbols from–related and unrelated–individual experiences. Yes, I know American democracy is threatened or falling, but I still need to wash the dishes and go to work. A white supremacist is running our National Security Council, but I am still “Laurel” and pursuing higher education in ecology. I must exist simultaneously as a body in a larger body of democratic-republic people, watching as our rights dissolve, and as a named-being with limited influence, small with a need to be laser-focused to “get anywhere” or make anything happen.

“The individual, on the one hand, and the world, on the other, are simply the abstract limits or terms of a concrete reality which is ‘between’ them, as the concrete coin is ‘between’ the abstract, Euclidean surfaces of its two sides. Similarly, the reality of all ‘inseparable opposites’–life and death, good and evil, pleasure and pain, gain and loss–is that ‘between’ for which we have no words.” -Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 121

Laurel/World–there is no separation–LaurelWorld. 

I sit here typing, and simultaneously, the concrete, grass, trees, oceans, sands, mud are baking in the sun. I sit here typing and beyond the oceans, sands, and mud, people are starving to death, bombed, raped, or running for their lives. If I did not look at the news, I would not know that our new President fired the acting attorney general for doing her job. I would work quietly, maybe have a garden, read books, and defend the order of my limited world. 

But, we do not live in a world where we can close our eyes to what is happening across a continuous expanse of life and death. We live in a world where all of that is real, all of the time, and it is real for us as soon as we recognize it is happening. 

The Women’s March, above all else, taught me the depth of another paradox: history is real, and I am a part of it. I lived the Women’s March, and now I hear people lying about it, slandering the women who were there. Yet, their unfortunate reactions are tied to the March now, too–though they were not at the Women’s March, they lived it too.

When the World Trade Center came down, I remember my babysitter deciding first that we should see what was going on, and then that it was too much. I was 10 years old. She took me to the couch and taught me to crochet while the younger kids played with toys on the floor. My eyes were shock-dry. I thought about people dying as I wrapped yarn around a hooked needle with my small hands.

Why Coffee & Contemplation?

When I created Coffee & Contemplation, I envisioned open, welcoming discussions into the meaningful. I thought it might be small at first, just one-on-one conversations, sometimes about philosophy in its academic sense but more often about philosophy applied to living.

I am interested in creating a safe space for intellectual intimacy. I believe we spend a great deal of time in human interactions skimming the surface on already casual, playful topics. We try hard to keep things positive and light. We are frightened, perhaps, of what we might find under a rock that has lain dormant for days.

What do I mean by “meaningful?”

We don’t have to look into dusty philosophical tomes to find meaning worth talking about. While I always bring some book of philosophy I’m reading at the time, I don’t bring it because it contains what I want to discuss. Coffee & Contemplation is not a class in philosophy, and you don’t have to have had a single class in philosophy to attend. It is intended to be a casual discussion group.

I watched a grim video documenting common practices in the meat industry this morning and cried ceaselessly for twenty minutes. Maybe, if anyone is interested, I will bring up the topic of moral standing today. A being has moral standing when it is determined to be worthy of ethical consideration. How do we decide whether a person or creature has moral standing, and what does that mean, ethically, for how we should treat them? I wouldn’t try to lecture my guest on the American meat industry, but I might ask them who they think has moral standing and why.

I might like to talk about the possibility and difficulties of intersubjectivity. Can two people truly ever understand each other? Does empathy really give us any kind of accurate insight into what another person is experiencing or thinking? If I cannot know, ever, what another person is experiencing, can I at least have a relationship with them that is genuine, authentic, and mutually respectful? Intersubjectivity is one of my favorite existential topics.

But before I volunteer a topic of discussion, I always ask my guest what she or he is thinking about lately. I spend so much time thinking about topics I’m interested in on my own as it is, I would just love to listen to what you have to say instead. I am confident that together, we can dive deep into whatever you care about most in your life.

Coffee & Contemplation is held from 2:30-3:30 pm, at Lucie Monroe’s in Christiansburg on the first and third Saturdays, and at Our Daily Bread in Blacksburg on the second, fourth, and fifth Saturdays. Please come find me – drop on in.


Alan Watts and Why it is Difficult to See Abusive Relationship Cycles

“Were you born to resist or be abused?” The Foo Fighters 

Identifying an abusive relationship is nearly impossible to spot in the early stages for a number of reasons. I am interested here in discussing the liminal region between normal conflict and emotional abuse in romantic relationships. I believe this grey area is a key influence in why abuse is difficult to spot at first. A quote from Alan Watts provides further insight into the reasons behind this ambiguity.


Many of us hop from one romantic relationship to the next, looking for that perfect fit, but I suspect there is no perfect romantic fit without mistakes, healing, and a lifetime of persistent work. Sometimes people require years to gain the self-awareness and knowledge required to manage conflicts skillfully without damaging one another. Many people grew up without a healthy relationship modeled for them. People may have attachment disorders, mood disorders, and addictions among other mental health problems, all of which make a romantic relationship almost prohibitive.

If only we weren’t humans, needing, yes, needing love and attachment for health and happiness, right?

I suspect I am not alone in not wanting to judge myself, my friends, family, co-workers, and lovers who struggle with managing conflict as incapable of learning or improving. If we love, we expect some damages, and we give each other one, two, three, five chances to try again, hoping we will receive the same mercy when we mess up. Love requires forgiveness.

Yet abuse, emotional as well as physical, is real; abuse in relationships has real effects on real people. Emotional abuse is perhaps equally dangerous as physical because it is so insidious, creeping into that liminal space, normality, with which we reflect on the severity of persistent conflict in a relationship. Normal conflict appears to be a subjective judgement, and if we were to plot peoples’ definitions on a continuum of unpleasantness, I think the grey area would end up being very wide indeed.

I interpret The Foo Fighters quote we began with as rhetorical, highlighting the absurdity of the idea of being born a victim. The song is intended, I think, to inspire a person into resisting abuse. (Ask not is it abuse, ask if you are your best self: is someone getting the best of you?) I believe people are taught to be victims, and that early teaching is difficult to separate from genetic influence. So, pending evidence to the contrary, I believe we are all born to resist. Unfortunately this very quality can cause us to be complicit in our abuse. Precisely that within me that does not want to be a victim will assume responsibility even for things over which I have no control. By assuming responsibility, partial or total, I mask the aggressor, an operation abusers encourage or even instigate. Horrifyingly, by trying to resist becoming a victim in this way, I become a victim.

No line exists between normal relationship turbulence and emotional abuse; I have not and still am not able to draw it. I can only bracket those parts I experienced, subjectively, as intolerable and pointless suffering. Perhaps I can recognize it if it repeats over time, and if I experience symptoms of the abuse.

I think emotional abuse happens when normal relationship power dynamics are twisted, and one seeks to remain in control of the other through a variety of techniques, including gaslighting, crazy making, unrelenting  criticism, and failure to validate. (I wonder if abusers are often unaware they are being abusive.) Where we draw the line between bad behavior and abuse seems to depend on our personal pain tolerance over time (I am likely a highly sensitive person, and my emotional pain tolerance is rather low), an ambiguous notion complicated by something I’ll call temporal discounting.

Typically temporal discounting is used to refer to the way we put greater weight on present rewards than we do on future rewards, even if the future rewards are greater than those in present. Here I am using the term to recognize that our memories of pain are sometimes experienced as less over time when compared to present pleasures. When my lover treats me with devotion, proclaiming everlasting love in the midst of treats and favors I may forget he was bullying me and stonewalling me twenty-four hours prior.

Abusive relationships are known to take place in cycles. An abuser can be charismatic, even wonderful in the reconciliation phase after an abusive event, trying to show the abused that he or she can and will be different. The trouble is, behaving with contrition after making a mistake is normal human social behavior. How can I know whether the bad behavior, the abuse, is going to repeat or if the person I love is going to learn from his or her mistakes? What is the difference between holding a grudge and seeking to remember so as not to allow something to repeat?

If the abuse is extreme enough or continues long enough, I may develop Stockholm syndrome, experiencing even a respite from abuse as kindness.

While reading Brain Pickings, a delightful site full of musings on and inspirations from great thinkers and artists, I came across a piece on Alan Watts. The article focused on achieving presence and, through living with presence, ultimately attaining a happy life.

An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence

What struck me, however, was a quote about the inseparability of memory from present experience:

“But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.” – Alan Watts

Our memories are not perfect vaults of factual information which we may consult at any time without sullying the records. In the first place, memories are heavily influenced by our emotions at their genesis. In the second, they may be influenced by the present experience within which they are recalled. If our memories are a form of present experience, as Alan Watts asserts, we will not be able to retain the exact force and nature of the original experience untempered by the present.

In the past I have experienced weeks of borderline abusive conflicts. Liminal, I still don’t know whether to call them abusive or normal. In telling a friend later, about the three days of peace between conflicts, I said, “yes but he was nice to me for weeks!” And truly, those few days of happiness for which I lived felt like an eternity. They felt worth putting up with anything.

It’s not so bad, really. Right? Maybe I’m too sensitive. Other people would not have had such a problem with what he did or said; I was overreacting. Besides, it won’t happen again. He is a good person and even good people make mistakes.

Maybe he is.

In the last analysis, I would rather not be a victim. I would rather assume responsibility for everything I reasonably can, because I was neither born not raised a victim. I was raised to lead and like everyone else, I was born to resist.

Goethe, Kant, and Hegel by Walter Kaufmann in Review

Goethe, Kant, and Hegel by Walter KaufmannI would like to give you fair warning in advance, dear reader, that this post is essentially a précis of a book I recently finished by Walter Kaufmann: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel. I find it helpful not only to take notes on books of philosophy, but to write a synopsis of its main points in my own terms after finishing it in order to retain its essence for quick reference and review in the future. If you are a student of philosophy or a person interested in the influence of Goethe, Kant, and Hegel on theory of mind, perhaps you will find this piece useful to determine whether you’d like to read the whole book for yourself. Much as a photo is, in part, a photographer’s take on a particular situation, this post is my snapshot of Kaufmann’s book. [Read more…]

Addiction Is Not a Fringe Disease

These days I am like a spider – not one crutch but six. I pull myself forward on props and fantasies, jumping obstacles only to live for my moments of escape.

My real dreams are broken nightmares, when the stress I’ve repressed takes my fragile self over in sweat. I trade them for adventures in the morning with a book of my choice. I gulp caffeine and sugar to force my mind into focus.

I get so tired sometimes, I could sleep forever.

The truth is I try on ideas like clothes to see how they wear in the world. For as many days that I voice passionate views I have nights in numb suspension, watching the flies of my thoughts struggle over sticky depression. I cheer the ones that fly. I share them with you later. [Read more…]

Why the Hell Would Anyone Study Philosophy?

I have loved philosophy since I first knew it existed: a whole discipline dedicated to exploring, examining, and questioning the world with logic.

Oaklandazulasylum album cover

Album cover of Oaklandazulasylum by Why?, an unusual indie rap band headed by Yoni Wolf.

At bottom I am convinced of its value, but as I have peered around from my crossroads of 24, I hear turbulence from the path of philosophy. Many people are just as convinced that it is a waste of time. I have even said it is a waste of time, in moments where my habit of questioning had me questioning even that.

[Read more…]

Women Are Still The Second Sex in 2016

I was taught by American author, Ed Falco, that what we love most about a story is the well-developed character. You know, the ones that walk off the page into our lives and inspire us like Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes. In a sense, my life is a story I am writing moment to moment, sometimes with choices and plans forshadowing far into the future. I am writing my own character development too, and learning as I go.

Walk with me into the real world for awhile. [Read more…]

You Are Invited to Coffee & Contemplation with Laurel Sindewald

I love the unflinching atheism of Sartre and other existentialists, but one of my favorite existential thinkers happened to be Christian: Gabriel Marcel. Particularly, I love his three, inter-worked concepts of presence, availability, and creative fidelity. To keep things brief:

  • Presence is that state of being so familiar to monks and artists where you are wholly invested and engaged with the world around you.
  • Availability is a state of openness, within presence, so that you are able to recognize opportunities and important connections with others as they happen.
  • Creative fidelity is, to be simplistic, action and constant work to maintain presence and availability for others, so that we may see others clearly. Instead of creating a necessarily false representation of a person as we begin to know them well, we do the work to remain present and available as they change.

I must be content in my very slow process of developing these skills. Perhaps you would find them helpful, too. My favorite way to practice is to have engaging dialectical conversations with others about the topics we care about.

Coffee & Contemplation at Our Daily Bread in BlacksburgAllow me to extend to you a standing invitation. I am interested in holding open office hours every Saturday, during which I would love to be surprised by a meaningful discussion of whatever is on your mind. Perhaps you have read something that inspires you, perhaps you have gone through a major life change, or perhaps you would like to keep it real with an organic, heart-felt conversation.

I will be there, reading a book or writing my thoughts and enjoying an afternoon coffee boost, from 2:30-3:30 pm, at Lucie Monroe’s in Christiansburg on the first and third Saturdays and at Our Daily Bread in Blacksburg on the second, fourth, and fifth Saturdays. Please come find me – drop on in.

Setting My Course for the Far Side of the World

– or joy, whichever comes first.

As an academic, I am chagrined to say that I learned something important from a fortune cookie paper. I was rushing around in my usual way at Golden Corral half a year ago, taking little real notice of a nice couple at one of my tables. When they left, I hurried over to clear my web and wait for the next fly, and found that their five dollars had a friend laying on top.

“Happiness is a direction, not a destination.”

I twisted a smile. I actually stopped moving(!) – financial death for a waitress.

I am an idealist and a dreamer. As a child, I thought that “lala land” had been invented by my father because my name is Laurel. Naturally, in process of growing into a woman I still have a vision of what my perfect self would be like. I considered happiness to be a state of being at which I would arrive, and having arrived, inspire everyone.

Is it usual for every writer to aspire to a book? Is that why we have so many in the world we could die underneath them?

Patrick O'Brian - The Wine-Dark SeaFor fifteen books I have sailed the seas, traveled the world, with Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, heroes of Patrick O’Brian’s famous 20 book series. Though women were almost always forbidden from Jack Aubrey’s ships, I was there for every word and did not resent the historical accuracy. Surely I am not alone in recognizing Patrick O’Brian for having achieved one of the most life-like, absorbing historical fictions ever penned.

Patrick O’Brian did not write those books as discrete dramas. Unlike many novels, which encapsulate a life or major event within a single volume, O’Brian’s story sprawls for hundreds of pages such that the covers between his books are only arbitrary.

A person’s life is very like this series. Our stories are so varied and complex we could never contain them in one or even twenty books. Sure, we have our origins at birth and our ends in death, or so I believe. We do not, however, have a single traditional plot arc.

In contemplating life and Patrick O’Brian’s works, I have come to consider two particular truths:

  1. There is no ultimate reason for life, except what we decide to value. Values are culturally-influenced choices, acts of creation.
  2. Life is a constant turning of fortunes, the highs followed by lows. If the ship is becalmed in the doldrums you can bet that within the next 100 pages or so our heroes will be in the midst of hot action, killing for glory and riches. The crest of each wave is followed by a trough, and in high seas sailors must scud or be overwhelmed.

I dread the end that is coming in 5 and a half books, though I will probably read all 20 again in my lifetime, maybe twice again. It is not just that these books are well written, and it is not that they contain such unique or ground-shaking truths that I must read them to rote. (Although I did learn that one living on ship’s biscuit must always choose the lesser of two weevils.) I simply enjoy living in that world, on a ship in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars with two of my most favorite characters.

There is not a minute to be lost! I am only ever setting a course in life, royals and topgallant sails flying, knowing that some of what comes will be surprise or sorrow, and some will be as regular and comforting as toasted cheese and music in the evening.

To be is to move, and moving is happiness.

Reflections on Inclusive and Exclusive Taste

Every now and then in life someone tries to teach us a lesson that we know, viscerally, is flat wrong.

When I was squeaking along at the age of however old I was in the fifth grade, I learned from my brother, John, that music can be divided into two categories: “good” and “bad.” He was convinced, for example, that the Spice Girls CD my friend had given me was just about the most embarrassing thing since farts and he was determined to drown it out (possibly with Linkin Park, which is hilarious in retrospect). Of course, my younger brother jumped right in, being my older brother’s mini me, and we spent many an obnoxious afternoon jacking up the volume on our little stereos in fruitless attempts at triumph. [Read more…]