Isabel Winson-Sagan Educates Herself To Fight The Power

Essay by Isabel Winson-Sagan

I will admit, I love school. So when Trump was elected as POTUS and I suddenly had a much more vested interest in protecting myself and my community, I started taking classes. So far I’ve done a wonderful self-defense course with IMPACT New Mexico, a non-violent direct action training run by local activists, and coming up I’ll be doing a gun safety lesson as well as a Red Cross CPR/first aid course. I am aware that this sort of thing isn’t for everyone (I mean, who loves school like I do? It’s a sick thing) but this has made me feel marginally better about being a person in our current world. The downside is that feeling like a more powerful agent and learning life skills is not exactly the same thing as activism, and I’m often plagued by wondering what else I should be doing. I’ve donated the max that I can afford to Standing Rock and Planned Parenthood. I’ve been to marches and protests. I will go to more marches and protests. I’m going to town meetings. I’m speaking up on injustice and prejudice whenever I see it, even having already landed myself in special “mediation” meetings with my boss to talk about their policy re: disabled employees. I already volunteer in my community, but I signed up for some extra work- like being a clinic escort for planned parenthood, even though it seems doubtful that my particular town will ever have a need for that.
It definitely does not feel like enough. It may never be enough. But I’m pretty maxed out. Even though I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be better ally, I am in several demographics that need allies themselves. I am not a poc or trans (this may be an oversimplification, but politically it feels accurate). I am a woman. I am emphatically not a Christian. I am queer. I am very disabled (not oh! My back hurts sometimes disabled. I’m not trying to put down that experience, but I am wheelchair disabled. I am last maybe 24 hours without medication disabled. I am it’s a bloody miracle that every day I can get out of bed disabled). There is only so much I can do, so much energy that I have. And deep down, I am tired. Beyond exhausted, really. Will taking these classes really do anything? Is making myself feel better even that interesting of a goal? I understand that self-care is important. I even understand that living your life, living it freely and proudly, can be a kind of political statement. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone after the election and he said, “Plant a garden. Buy a gun.” While I do not like guns and do not own a gun (I am in fact afraid of guns, hence the gun safety class), I do enjoy this perspective. I interpret it as “Defend your body, and the bodies of those you love. Live outside the systems of power. Live sustainably.” Maybe planting a vegetable garden is one of the most revolutionary things we can do in a time when big business and agri-business run our lives. As someone who basically lives within the health care system, I wouldn’t mind getting out of there too. Perhaps living within sustainable systems is what separates us the most from the grid of industry, the military, and Trump. I am not saying everyone should have these values, or immediately start doing what I’ve been doing. But I am looking for answers.
These classes, useful in the long run or not, have given me some skills on which I can base action. They remind me of who my community is and who I want to be when I grow up. But they can’t be an end in themselves. This is going to be a long fight (it always was a long fight). I’m trying to get ready. 

The New Study on Pain Killers and Empathy is Giving Me…A Pain

I’m perhaps overly sensitive to the current societal discourse on pain, because it is close to home. I have chronic pain. Or, I’m in it. Let’s just say—pain is me.
So when I read a study saying that pain killers decrease empathy, I get annoyed. No doubt the study will prove to be flawed, unreplicable, like the majority of such health studies. But even if it proves to be right, I just don’t care. That’s because, I know from extensive experience, pain itself does not make you nice.
Pain makes you cranky, miserable, self-engrossed, frightened, and unable to concentrate. Imagine slamming your finger in the car door. Does this flood you with the milk of human kindness? I think not.
Are folks with arthritis or sciatica more like saints or bodhisatvas? I sincerely doubt it. Does breaking your arm make you Mother Teresa? Doesn’t seem to.
I think in part this is because empathy itself is overrated. Empathy is feeling what others feel. A kind of co-dependency or lack of boundaries? Sure, I’m being a bit sarcastic (which ironically is a kind of empathy) but frankly I don’t think my best behavior is based on empathy. It is based on ethics. A ethical code suggests that I follow the golden rule and act towards my fellow humans as I’d like them to act towards me. It doesn’t depend on my feelings—or pain level—of the moment. It is an intention.
I’d rather have a dentist who was drilling my tooth guided by professionalism than empathy. I don’t want the doctor to shriek at my rash, faint at my blood. I want my friends to advise and care—not to feel my feelings with me. In fact, I look to others for perspective, not identification.
I’ve never heard of a woman in labor yelling that she is going off to join the Peace Corps just as soon as this baby gets born. Cursing, yes. Demands for, gasp, pain relief, sure. A bit of blame for those around her who aren’t in labor—certainly. Big time empathy? No.
Without anodynes, I would be unable to work, drive, sleep, exercise, or sit through a movie. I was once a participant in a giant shrine performance and I added my most precious possession to that monument—an ibuprofen. I would take it if it dropped my IQ, shortened my life expectancy, or turned me purple.
I’m also a fan of stronger pain killers. I understand everything that is bad about the over-prescription of opiates but here the conversation makes me downright nervous. I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t really tell what overdose stats really mean. All I know is that the human tendency to addiction doesn’t frighten me personally as much as a puritanical society’s refusal to treat pain. And please don’t tell me to stretch, get rolphed, go to PT, get massage, soak in salts, meditate, do progressive relaxation, and have a good attitude. I do all of these things on a daily or weekly basis. They help, but they don’t substitute for pain medication.
Interestingly, emotional pain seems to work two ways. It can make you self-engrossed, narcissistic, and oblivious. Or, it can make you compassionate, caring, and other directed. Actually, pretty much all of human experience works this way. It’s up to us to choose how we’ll act, day by day, not based on the whims of the moment.
And frankly I’d like to go about each day, with all my flaws and my aspirations, with as little pain as possible.

Walking Crippled in Butler Wash–Miriam Sagan

“Crippled” isn’t a polite term—probably it never was. But it’s the term I privately prefer with myself. About three times in the last year I’ve done something I thought I couldn’t do physically—and yesterday was the fourth. And I did these things crippled.
I did the “easy” mile round trip to Butler Wash in Utah to see the far view of ruins in a cave. Easy for obviously out of shape tourists. Easy for kids in flip-flops. But difficult for me. Up. Down. Sheer rock. Difficult. I took my three legs (my good leg, my bad leg, and my cane) and my 1 1/2 lungs and off I went through the scent of sage. Had to sit on all three benches en route—both there and back. Had to remember that walking, dancing, weight lifting, and thera bands all done on flat terrain don’t exactly prepare for this.
Saw the far view. Made it back. Was it worth it? Well, I’d seen a nice far view of ruins across a river earlier down a totally flat road. And a cave dwelling off the shoulder of the road. And later walked a ruin that was practically in a parking lot. This part of the world is riddled with kivas, towers, ruins of 14 or 15 rooms, buildings in caves.
But yes, it was worth it. Not the view, the walk. The fear, the trouble breathing, the clear air, the trail. It’s better to experience it than not, for as long as I can.
I had Rich take a photo, but I just looked too goofy in my plastic orange sunglasses, my polka dot top, and my hiking boots—not a big surprise! Here’s the ruin instead. Not a polite term, ruin, but in its own way a noble one.IMG_1659