Mia Birdsong, HOW WE SHOW UP

Mia Birdsong, HOW WE SHOW UP

Zibby Owens: I had such a nice talk with author Mia Birdsong via Skype. She is the author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. She’s also going to be a part of my book club on June 23rd, if this is aired by then. I’m not sure. Anyway, Mia will be my guest then. Sign up at Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. Mia is a pathfinder, community curator, and storyteller who steadily engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life. In her work on guaranteed income as senior fellow at the Economic Security Project, she tapped into the voices and visions of low-income people to reimagine the American social contract, which she talked about in her TED talk. Mia was an inaugural Ascend Fellow and faculty member with the Aspen Institute, a New America California fellow, an advocate-in-residence with University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She’s been published widely and speaks at conferences and universities across the country. A graduate of Oberlin College, she loves to garden, keeps bees and chicken, studies herbalism, and occasionally practices archery. She currently lives with her family in the Bay Area.

Welcome, Mia. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Mia Birdsong: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. It’s so ironic, How We Show Up, and here we are. You showed up for our interview, so we’re off on the right foot.

Mia: Hopefully.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Mia: That is a great question. It’s about a few things. Fundamentally, it is a book about all the questions that I had about belonging and interdependence and being in expanse, inclusive, beautiful, caring community. I feel like I grew up with some really amazing examples of how to do that, but felt like as I became more successful — that’s in air quotes, success as kind of defined by the American dream. As I became more successful, it became harder for me to actually be in the kind of family and community and friendships that I wanted. The American dream standard for us defines isolated nuclear families as a model for us to all achieve. So much of what is touted as successful has to do with independence and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I knew that all of those things were nonsense. We are not independent. We are deeply interdependent. When we try to achieve interdependence, we’re actually cutting ourselves off from something that is fundamental about what it means to be a human being. I found myself in this weird middle space where the closer I got to, again, what is defined as success by the American dream, the harder it was for me stay deeply connected to people and to feel like I was experiencing the kind of interdependence and mutuality that I wanted. So I wrote the book that I needed to read.

Zibby: That’s the secret to it all. I feel like that’s where all the best books in the world come from. It was so interesting in your introduction, how you are such a frequent speaker. You go to companies and talk all over. I saw your TED talk, which was amazing. But that people would quietly corner you and say all these secret things, and the one man who made everybody leave so he could talk to you longer about it. Tell me about what people really wanted to know from you and how that eventually made you rethink things.

Mia: My work for the last twenty years has been around social justice. One of the things that I focused on specifically around economic justice was really shifting our understanding of why people experience economic injustice, so why people are poor. The stereotype is that people are lazy or they don’t know how to budget or whatever. That’s not true. People are poor because they don’t have money. The problem is actually wealth hoarding. One of the things I would do is tell stories about the creativity and innovation that I saw in partnering with low-income families. Largely, that was looking at the ways in which people really collectively worked to mitigate their experience of being poor. The stories I was telling were about how people practice this really deep interdependence and mutuality. I did my TED talk. I would talk to people at foundations. I would talk to people at think tanks. I went around talking about this.

People come up to you after you give a talk. They have more questions. I was only vaguely aware of this for a while. Part of what would happen is that there would be this white man, usually, staying back as people were coming up and asking me questions. They would kind of wait for people to leave and finish. Often, somebody would be like, “Go ahead.” They would shake their head and allow — I was like, oh, they’re being really deferential and polite. Then what they would say to me is, they would thank me for the talk. Then they would kind of confess that they didn’t have that kind of connection and community in their lives. For a long time, I kind of was like, oh, that’s too bad, sucks to be you, and went about my business. Then at this one talk, this young man, he was probably in his mid-thirties, he did that exact thing. He waited for everybody to go. He came and he confessed to me about not having community. Then he asked, “What do I do? How do I that?” I gave him some pat answers about, introduce yourself to your neighbors, things that weren’t wrong, but really, I just didn’t actually know. I didn’t know what he should do. It was because I didn’t really know what I needed to do.

It stuck with me that I gave him these answers that were really not thoughtful or accurate. It really stuck with me for a while. I was like, what should I have said to him? What is the advice that I need to give myself? I realized I didn’t know. Then I was like, okay, so where do I figure this out? It became very obvious to me. I was like, of course, the answers are always in the places where people are excluded from practicing the American dream. I feel like continually whenever I’m looking for answers for issues we face or how to be a person in the world, it is in the places where people have not been successful at what America defines success as because that definition of success is so toxic and is fundamentally racist and sexist and classist. The communities where I have seen the most powerful and inclusive and beautiful and caring examples of family and friendship and community are in my own black community, among queer people, among unpartnered parents, among unhoused people. Those were the people who I went to as the experts for this book. They did not disappoint. I feel like I was transformed by talking with them. Because so many of these people were in some way connected to me, a lot of the folks in the book are my friends, our relationships were transformed just by having those conversations.

Zibby: I feel like sometimes just having a conversation and finding on what’s deeply on people’s minds changes things forever no matter what, but certainly when you talk about things that are so essential to what people are thinking and feeling like their sense of community and belonging which of course contributes to overall happiness. I’m not surprised to hear that. I was really interested in your definition of the American family and how that keeps shifting over time and how that fits into things, and your own story, how you were prepared to adopt a child or a foster child. Sorry, I am so interested in the personal. You were going to adopt a child. You were all hell-bent on that. Then as you were in the middle of it, your husband came along. You met him. He derailed all your plans. Just tell me a little more about that and how you ended up with a family you never thought you would have.

Mia: I was raised by my mom. I totally had a relationship with my father, but my mom was the day-to-day person. She was also raised by her mother. Then her mother died when she was fairly young, like a tween. Then she was raised by her grandmother. Then her grandmother died. Then she was raised by her aunt. There’s definitely lineage of women raising the women in my family. For a long time, I was quite sure I was never going to have children. It was not interesting to me. I did not like children. Truth be told, I still don’t like children as a demographic. I like my own kids. They’re awesome, but I don’t just inherently dig kids. That was not a thing I wanted to do. Then when I was twenty-seven, I vividly remember this, I woke up and I was looking up at the ceiling. It was like a switch went off in my uterus. I was very clear that I was going to be a mother. It didn’t occur to me that I would do that with somebody else, I think partly because I had a model for that, but also because I am very much an only child. The idea of having to make parenting decisions with another person, I was like, I do not want to do that.

I had this whole elaborate fantasy of adopting a little pack of black girls and homeschooling them. I was going to change my last name to Amazing. I was going to unleash them upon some high school at some point. They would be those damn amazing kids because I would’ve raised these little revolutionaries. The idea of homeschooling my children, now that I have actually had to do some of that, is awful. How I would afford to raise a bunch of kids and homeschool them and obviously not be able to work, that was not part of the picture, but I just had this fantasy. Then the reality part of it was I decided, I do want to become a parent, and sperm costs money. Because of, again, systemic racism, there are a lot of free black kids, kids who have been taken away from their parents because of white supremacy and the prison and policing system. I was like, let me adopt a black kid whose parents have been — their relationship has been severed. I actually had to do a lot of research about and think about whether or not I wanted to contribute to a system that was taking children away from its parents. I talked to women I know, lawyers I know who work with women in prison. They were like, “The women I know would rather have their kid in your home,” like me specifically knowing that I would absolutely make an effort to maintain their relationship with their kid than have their kid in a foster home or in an institution. I was like, okay, that makes sense to me.

I had this whole plan. I was going to adopt a kid and had called agencies and was filling out paperwork and scheduling. There are all these classes that you have to take. I was scheduling those. Then I met Nino. I knew within three days of meeting him that I was going to marry him and we were going to have a family. We were going to have kids. Part of me was like, damn it. My timeline is all messed up. I had put all these things in motion, but I was also completely in love with him. I was like, all right. We’re married. We’ve been married for fifteen, sixteen years. We’ve been together for almost twenty years. We have biological children. I ostensibly have a nuclear family, but neither of us grew up with that kind of family as a model. I had my single mom. He was in this amazing community of hippies. He basically had multiple parents and a whole slew of siblings. They would just run around in the rural central valley together barefoot. They were all homeschooled at this collective school. Neither of us had the experience of the insular nuclear family.

I will tell you, even though that was not the model we have, we have to be really vigilant to not sequester ourselves. There is so much built into our cultural norms and the design of our lives and the benefits that exist that really support insular nuclear families in this way that we just have to be really vigilant to not let our family become isolated. I will say it’s particularly hard right now because of course we’re all in the house together. What it’s meant for me is really clarifying for myself, what are the roles of the people in my life? There are certain things that I get from my husband, but there are lots of other things that I get from other people. Part of what is challenging about marriage is that the story we are told about it is that you’re going to meet somebody who is your other half. You already start out as half of a person. That person is then going to be your everything. They’re going to be the person who you’re attracted to and have sex with. They’re going to be your best friend. They’re going to be your roommate. They’re going to be the person you manage a household and finances with. If you have kids, they’re going to be your coparent. They’re going to be your travel buddy. They’re going to be your confidant. All of these things are supposed to come from this person. I’m sure there are a few people who are able to have all of their needs fulfilled well mutually by each other, but that’s mostly not what happens.

I think a lot of people end up in marriages trying to change the marriage to fit into that idea as opposed to be like, what are we actually good at for each other? How do we be in this thing together and fulfil the roles we actually can fulfil and then get our other needs met elsewhere? We started out without really thinking through all of that, so a lot of our stuff is just intwined. I am a terrible roommate, for example. We live in the Bay Area. Housing is expensive. We can’t not live together. If we’d thought about it, that potentially would be a role we would not actually share with each other because I’m not a good roommate. I’m messy. I take too long to clean things up. Part of how I think about family for myself is to try to continually reexamine what my assumptions are about what family should be. My kids, we have lots of chosen family. They have deep relationships with other adults that are not us and that they’re not biologically related to. We also have a lot of people just holding us and considering us. We’d do the same for the other folks in our lives.

Zibby: You wrote about in your book, this fantastic welcoming system which you posted on Instagram as well where you have friends come over. It’s essentially an open house where you’re like, come on over. I’m not setting up. You’re going to help me set the plates. Then we’re all going to clean up, and you’re going to leave. I’m going to kick everybody else out of the house and get my fill of that girl time or the bonding. When I read that, I was like, oh, my gosh, I love this woman. This is my dream that I would be able to do this and pull this off every week. I love that. I just loved it.

Mia: I have a multitude of — again, these have been adapted now that nobody’s allowed in my house. I have this multitude of ways in which I get to gather with the people who I love. I have two women’s groups. There’s one called Black Women’s Freedom Circle. The woman who I started it with, Amaka, we would meet at my house or at her house. Then I have another women’s group started by my friend Courtney Martin. She lives in cohousing. They have a common area. We always meet at her house in that space. Both of those, pre-COVID, were meeting once a month. Now they are both meeting virtually twice a month because we all are feeling the need to really connect with each other. I think especially because we actually have established these relationships where we are doing a lot of examining of our lives and processing of things, it actually is the perfect venue for us to be dealing with both the global pandemic and this most recent cycle of white violence. So I have those. Then the other thing that I started because I kind of liked — it’s called drop-by dinner. I kind of liked the idea that my friends would just come by. We would chat and have tea or whatever. Then I actually really hated the idea that people would show up unannounced to my house. I was like, I kind of want that, but I really did not. I was like, I just need to create a container around it. I need to have a day or an evening that people are allowed to do that.

I created this thing called drop-by dinner. I was very specific about who was invited because it was not for all of my friends. It really was for people who I felt like — I wasn’t going to clean up for it. I wasn’t going to actually prepare a meal. I was like, here’s when I’m going to be home. I will be making something for my children. You’re welcome to whatever that is. But also, bring something because if a whole bunch of y’all show up, I can’t make grilled cheese for everybody. I invited people to come by. I was really clear that, like I said, I was not going to clean my house. I might be wearing my pajamas. I don’t know what kind of mood I’m going to be in. I’m not trying to prepare myself for hosting. That was part of the point, is to not have the pressure of hosting. I was like, you can tell me you’re coming over if you want or you can just show up. You can tell me you’re coming over and not show up and not tell me that you’re not going to show up. There’s no expectation around RSVPs because it’s not a party. I was clear. I was also like, you can’t bring anybody. This is not for your spouse. This is not for your best friend. This is not for your Tinder date. Except for kids. I was like, I don’t want you to not be able to come because you can’t bring kids. Then the other thing was, I was like, if you come to my house, do not leave my house messier than it was when you got here. If I resist you cleaning up, tell me to be quiet and just take care of things. What I would do is I would send an email out to this group of a people a day in advance, a week in advance, depending on what I felt like I could commit to.

It was amazing. Sometimes fifteen people would show up. Sometimes three people would show up. Everybody cleaned up after themselves. The conversations that we were able to have and the way in which my different worlds kind of collided in that space was so extraordinary for me. It really challenged me to — theoretically, having people show up at your house when you don’t clean it and you’re wearing your pajamas, I was like, I like this idea, but it also made me uncomfortable. Part of what I wanted was to really push myself so that I could let the people in my life see me. It was really about creating some space for authenticity and vulnerability where I wasn’t trying to perform some version of myself. That, for me, was one of the most powerful things, is that people actually got to see my house a mess and me sometimes in a crappy mood because of whatever had happened in my day. I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was okay if I wasn’t okay. I think that especially right now in the COVID era, it’s a blessing that I was able to practice this because I feel like so much of — I don’t know about you, but I don’t ask people — I don’t say, how are you? and expect that people are going to just say fine or good. I’m like, how are you actually right now? What’s going on with you? I feel like none of us are really okay. Having practiced that feels like — I’m just glad I got a little practice in before COVID descended on us.

Zibby: I guess I say how are you? but I don’t really expect — then I ask my next question, which is the real question. We’ve got to get the pleasantries out of the way. Then I’m like, okay, come here, let’s chat. You are so accomplished. You’ve talked to so many people. You have so many thoughts and ideas, and the interviews and everything. What made you want to turn this into a book? When did you get the idea and say, I want to sit down and write this book, I want to do all these interviews? How did it become a book?

Mia: To be really real, I had not really — an editor approached me and said, “Do you have a book in you?” I was like, “I have like twelve books in me.” We met up and she just asked me really thoughtful questions. It helped me understand that there was this thing that I was trying to home in on, this stuff I’d been thinking about and trying to understand for myself. She helped me bring those questions to the forefront, which is what a good editor does, and really helped me understand what it was that I wanted to ask and what it was that I was curious about and what it was I wanted to figure out. That’s the honest answer. I feel like it’s kind of unsatisfying.

Zibby: Not at all. Why is that unsatisfying? I think it’s great.

Mia: I’m not convinced I would’ve actually written a book if an editor hadn’t asked me, “Do you have a book in you?” Now I’m clear. I’m like, oh, I have several other books. Of course while I was working on this book, I thought of all the other books that I want to write because that’s what happens. Now I’m clear about that. I have clarity about some other books that I want to write. This first one was really something that I feel like she helped pull out of me.

Zibby: I think that’s great.

Mia: Okay, good.

Zibby: It was like the universe speaking to you. The book was going to come out one way or another. That’s just the way it came out. It sounds like you really enjoyed it now that you have this long list of other ones.

Mia: It was also terrible. Let me be clear. It’s a lot of words. It is very challenging. I asked, because this is what I do, I was like, let me not figure out how to — I mean, I googled how to write your first book. I know lots of authors also, so I asked all of them. I got two different approaches to writing books. One was the people who — the insufferable people, let’s admit it. They get up at five in the morning. They sit for three hours straight and they write. Then they take a break to do calisthenics or something. Then they come back and they edit what they’ve written. They just do that every day, and then they have a book. There’s those people. Then there were the people who I thought were my people. This is what they said. They were like, you deliberate on it. You think about it. You talk to people about it. Then you sit down the month before your deadline, and you write for like twelve hours and you crank out a book. A friend of mine was like, “How do you usually do things, Mia?” I was like, “At the last minute.” She’s like, “Well, that’s how you’re going to write your book.”

I discovered that I do do things at the last minute, but I also cannot really — for more than a couple days, I cannot sit for twelve hours and write. Writing for me was very much like I would sit for twenty minutes and then I could feel, it was like the words were coming out and then as soon as I started to write garbage, I was like, oh, it needs to simmer some or percolate in some way. Then I would go and fold laundry or get on social media or go down various rabbit holes. I would go water the tomatoes, just do something else. Then I would come back to it. Whatever it was had cooked, and then more good words would come out. People would ask me, “How’s the writing going?” I’m like, “I’m not writing a book. I’m making a book.” Eighty percent of the time, for me, was not writing. It was talking to other people about it. It was thinking. It was doing completely unrelated things so that whatever happens in my brain would work on it and then I would be able to make words happen. Now I know that. My process is last minute and very slow and largely not writing.

Zibby: I think that’s what’s so interesting, is that everybody approaches it so differently. Just because you’re not waking up at five in the morning to write doesn’t make your process any better or worse.

Mia: My process is great. It’s the one that works for me, and now I know that.

Zibby: What’s coming next? Did you figure out what your next book is going to be, or you’re just — I know that now is such a crazy time.

Mia: What’s coming next? That is a great question. One of the things I’m working on right now — this book is not a how-to book. It’s not a guide. It’s like a vaguely sketched out map. It is like a compass. One of the things I’m working on right now with some folks that I love to collaborate with is a guided journal for the book so that folks who want a way to put into practice some of the things that they see in the book or to ask themselves the kinds of questions that will help them figure out how they want to examine and create family and friendship and community in their own lives — I’m hoping I’m finished in like a month or so. It’ll just be online. It’ll be free so that folks who read the book can reference that. I’m trying to make it as — it’s not a thing you have to go through from start to finish. You can pick the things that work for you. That’s been really fun to think about, what are the things that will elicit some new thinking? and then actionable things for folks. I’m working on that.

What else am I working on? I’m working on my garden. That feels really literally and figuratively grounding right now. Right before shelter-in-place happened — I’m not a prepper, but I definitely think about the apocalypse quite a bit and think about how I’d be prepared for it. I totally put in a whole bunch of food. I was like, I don’t know what’s going to happen to our food system in a few months. We have tons of kale and collard greens and all kinds of other greens that we’re eating from. We also have chickens, so there’s lots of eggs. I feel solid. I’m also just thinking about, what are the things that I learned from the book — I’m learning more as I talk to people about it. Part of what I feel like I’m doing is actually deepening the practices that I have been working on since doing the research for the book. As far as next actual projects, though, I don’t know. I’m not there yet.

Zibby: That’s totally fine. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Mia: What’s the advice that other people don’t say? I do think, especially because this was my first book, writing a book is hard, but also figuring out how you write a book is hard. I think it’s great to ask other people how they wrote their books, but I feel like there is a way in which I had to really do some self-examination to understand how my creative process works. It wasn’t what anybody told me. It really was my own thing. Then I think it was about, and I think especially for folks who — I don’t think of what we call procrastination as a bad thing. I feel like the way that my creative process works is actually antithetical to the culture of capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy. I think most people’s creative process could use extracting those things out of their process so that they’re allowed to move at their own pace. I think one of the big challenges for folks who are trying to create things, there’s a timetable. There’s a deadline. There’s a way in which we’re trying to force our creative process into a box that is usually too fast. A lot of what felt important to me was to actually figure out what the pace of my creative process is and to be mindful. When am I actually avoiding stuff or being sucked into Twitter versus when am I pausing from the actual writing of it to do something that feels like it’s allowing, like I said, my brain and my spirit and whatever to percolate and to deliver, through writing in this case, whatever it is that I’m supposed to be saying? I feel like we actually need to be much more patient and gentle with ourselves around our creative processes.

Zibby: Excellent. Mia, thank you. Thank you for sharing your story and the story behind the story and all the rest of it. Thanks for coming on my show.

Mia: Absolutely.

Zibby: Thanks.

Mia Birdsong, HOW WE SHOW UP