We are supposed to protect the children

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I spent last evening with a group of people who were in ceremony, in practice, honoring the dead from a range of traditions, being intimate with the concrete truth of death and with the bodies that death has already claimed. This is new to me. I experienced a lot of death as a child. We went to funerals (sometimes) and told stories about the person who died in those immediate months after their passing (sometimes) but we did not practice intimacy with death.

My daughter was there at the ceremony last night. She's 15 and has her own life and privacy so I won't give too many details except this: for the first time in her life she had the experience of grieving a recent (violent) death within a circle of intimate strangers and feeling that transformation that happens when heaviness around death turns to something different, more connected, less isolating. I watched this happen and wondered what it is like to experience this for the first time at 15 as opposed to 54 or 3. I watched this happen and placed it in the context of the next story.

As we were telling stories about those who had passed, one woman, a friend, began to talk about a grandmother, a woman who does not know how to show the love she might feel in her heart. This friend talked about her grandmother's emotional distance and about the impact of this on my friend's feelings about her grandmother's eventual death. Then my friend said something that touched everyone in the room: she reflected on the chain of broken relationships, about what happens when a parent is not able to show their love to their child, that raw steady unconditional love. She noticed what this child does - and doesn't learn - and then what happens when this child becomes the parent and again, does not know how be that deep steady resource for their child's living. And on and on again, this line of grief and disconnection that becomes culture, family and the marker for what a person can most expect from the world around them.

That reflection visited my in my dreams last night: a parade of families, of adults stepping up and showing themselves, showing the reasons for why that deep steadiness of love might have disappeared. This really is one of the ways that supremacy and oppression hijacks the body's survival responses. We live to love. Period. We are here to feel and deepen connection with ourselves, each other, the land and spirit around us. Last night I remembered every attack that supremacy has used to isolate and destroy children within their families, from the original wounds of attempted genocide and the institution of slavery, to every act of deportation, incarceration and forced migration, every moment of unsupported poverty and normalized sexual and physical violence.  I will say this over and over again until I hear us saying it everywhere: every time someone's deep-rooted relationships, long evolved languages and cultural traditions are force-taken away, it becomes harder for the kin network to make sure the children are safe. It becomes harder and sometimes impossible for elders to pass along the steady grounded stories that tell the children who they are and why they are here on this planet.  This kind of certain safety and story telling is part of the chemistry of unconditional love. No single one of us should have to figure out for ourselves the meaning and experience of our life upon this planet or to be watching, alone and moment by moment, to make sure our bodies are safe

The ACE study uses research to prove what all of us know by instinct: if you do not protect the children and keep them safe, then they will be hurt and that hurt will translate to many kinds of pain in their later lives. All of the ways that adults are not able to care for and sometimes are violent towards the children in their care, this generational chain of harm, is at the root of each child who grows up to be an adult who causes harm to their own body and the bodies of others.

One of my teachers talks about the difference between targeted trauma and matrix trauma. Targeted trauma is when a specific act happens to your individual body: you are in a car accident, you experience a racist attack, you are physically violated. These are targeted acts against your body that have a beginning and an end (in the concrete sense, not in the experience of their impact). Matrix trauma is what never ends; it's the ongoing everyday seems-almost-like-the-air-you-breathe systemic attack. The constancy of this is like a slow burn erosion of a person's - and community's - internal clarity about the importance of their own life and connection to others. All systems of oppression are a form of matrix trauma: ableism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homo- and transphobia. They are always there, working to constrict the expansiveness of individual and collective life. Tightening it. Policing it. Controlling it. Matrix trauma can sometimes be invisible, can feel like culture. We say it's just how we do things forgetting that how we do things evolved so that we could survive. This is what happens when the intensity of trauma gets embedded in our kin networks and then passed forward from one generation to the next.

There are multiple forms of cultural trauma that have impacted how children are raised. My friend, who is multiracial raised white, was talking about hers: this emotional disconnection between adults and children that freezes the loving heart, which will protect children when it's in response to protecting the stories the family tells about themselves, but will not protect or even see when the harm is coming from those who are supposed to be there to protect and care for them. This is the trauma which, within the cycle of violence, turns to perpetration and such are systems of supremacy maintained.

What does it mean that, outside of culturally-grounded and connected space, our movements are largely absent of children? I see portable babies in movement spaces, lives that are still in the enmeshment stage with their adult and so are held tight against the body, nursing or bottle feeding or sleeping on one lap after another. This is beautiful and right. I see far fewer children who are at the question asking stage, the interrupting, slow things down, let's play stage. Around age 2 or 3, they start to disappear from many and possibly most places of (non-culturally rooted) movement work. My question isn't just a form of inclusion politics, it's a question about how we imagine and experience community. And my asking is a form of linking arms with everyone reading this and looking at the question together. Even as a parent who has that special eye contact moment with other parents when organizing spaces are so obviously not centering the fact of children, I don't always know how to do this differently.

This is what happens when we don't do this work differently; the children disappear. And things happen when the children disappear - from mild disregard to deep and dangerous violence. That wound of separating families, of professionalizing or formalizing spaces, of putting the care of the children into a different category from the care of the communities: it continues forward, a kind of culture that was at one point the best way someone knew how to survive.

I had an experience at Standing Rock that has impacted me forever on all of this. Irna Landrum does an incredible job of describing what happened, but the bare details are this: all of us at the camp were awakened in the middle of the night to be part of a potential search party for a little girl who was missing (quick assurance: the little girl was found safe and ok). All of us, a moment in the camp when that meant hundreds and hundreds, maybe even thousands of us. We all got up, not knowing exactly what was happening, wondering if we were being raided, and went to wait on the road. While we were waiting, a white woman standing next to us complained about being awoken when people weren't sure if the child was actually missing. "Why couldn't they wait and wake us up when they knew for sure?" she asked. Many of us turned to her and said versions of, "I would rather be woken up for a false alarm than not being woken up and have that child turn up hurt." We were sleepy and not sure what was happening but many of us, including myself, were shocked into being awake by that white woman's question.

I want to live where I can assume that you are going to come and bang on my door when your or someone else's child is missing - or your grandmother or the person you never met who lives alone at the corner but there are now three days of mail sticking out of his mailbox. This is the normal that I want.  It matters so much that my daughter, even just now at age 15, got to experience grief as a collective held and normalized thing, to not let the fact of a violent death go unwitnessed and uncared about. It shifted what happens after, and not just for her but for the small ones that she might someday be in relationship with. Healing justice is many things but to me, it's also about creating the conditions that support the deep shifting of unfinished survival histories that are held within the tissues of our physical selves and the tissues of our shared cultures. It's about remembering the descendants, not as someday concepts but as real live breathing small people who are tugging on our pant's legs and asking us to remember them, play with them, keep them safe from harm.

Written in deep care of so many of the adults I know who are living with and caring for small children every single day, theirs and others, while also working to pay the bills and working to change the world. All at the same time.

Susan Raffo