An Interview with MacKenzie Sanders
I recently wrote a blog about how I see the Sacred Feminine walking in the world today– in real people, in me. She walks with an open heart, willing to witness and connect; allowing and healing in all sorts of ways. I know so many folks who embody and express all of those attributes. And so I was inspired to connect with some of them to chat, both to strengthen and to expand my perspective.
I met MacKenzie Sanders about five years ago when we moved into the West Central neighborhood where she and her family lived. For the first few years of knowing her, I considered her a cute, super smart, personable individual. That assessment still stands, but since then I’ve had the privilege of seeing a few more of her layers – both directly in conversations and indirectly in her public speeches and our social media connection (Instagram and Twitter.) Please read our interview below and learn about and from this beautiful, strong, intuitive young woman.
Me: Since this series of interviews is related to the Sacred Feminine, I’m wondering if you have ever heard that term?
MacKenzie: No, I never heard of it before but when I read your blog, it was really interesting to me. There were definitely parts that I really relate to and see in other women and people I know. Particularly the part of living with an open heart and being willing to get hurt. I definitely have seen that in others and me and in the world around me. So it all was easy to connect to for me.
Me: As for living with an open heart…for me it was something that took awhile to understand. A medical intuitive once told me that at times my heart is wide open and then at other times I shut it down – often within the same minute. I realized that I walked through life wanting this open heart, but when there was too much to witness and feel, I shut it down so I didn’t have to deal with it all, but then I also realized that you can’t selectively shut out things. If you shut out pain, the joy leaves too. What part of the open heart writing resonated with you?
MacKenzie: When I was growing up, I was always that sensitive kid. I would cry easily. I still do, by the way. I was also that person that people were coming to when they were having an issue because they felt like I was that person that could help them. I could be with them and help them feel like there was some sort of control there. And in about seventh grade I wrote a journal entry about something that hadn’t gone my way and I was really angry about it and I wrote that I just shouldn’t have emotions anymore because then I don’t have to worry about feeling sad. It was during my melodramatic kid times and I eventually got over myself, but the point that resonates is that I couldn’t stand living like that. I did realize even back then that shutting down made it impossible to help other people. And it cut out all of the emotions, both the pain and the joy like you said, and so it eliminates happiness if you’re not willing to open yourself up to pain. Because one of the things I’ve said is that you never notice happiness unless you’ve been in pain. You can’t have one without the other.
Me: Do you ever feel like you shut down or protect your heart at times? What are the things or triggers you still struggle with?
MacKenzie: There are definitely times when I wish I could shut down. One of my best friends is very logical. He can look through things without emotion. There are definitely times where I envy him. Because I have to think of everything in an emotional way which can be frustrating. So there are times where I wish I was more able to shut it down and times where I’ve tried – like when my parents got divorced. And I live with people with mental illness as well as with it myself so during those times I wish I could just shut down the emotions, because then if I could do that, I could also shut down the anxiety and depression.
Me: So what you’re saying is – it’s not a question of shutting down your heart or keeping it open. Rather, you say you wish you could but you can’t. You live in a space with an open heart and you just continue to live in that space regardless of what comes along. That’s pretty remarkable.
MacKenzie: Thank you. I know that it’s also those things – my anxiety and depression and how I am emotional – whether or not I like it, that are part of who I am. So I need to move forward and work on making them slightly less intrusive, but not take them away entirely. I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t lived through those things fully and openly.
Me: Shifting topics entirely…what are your tattoos?
MacKenzie: One is a phoenix. It matches with my mother. We like the way it represents living through pain and rising from the ashes. And this one is a heartbeat with a heart at the end with the rainbow of colors. It’s partially about the Pride thing that I’m intense and passionate about and also about how the heartbeat keeps going and you keep living through.
Me: You talk about being sensitive. There’s a California artist I follow, Mary Lou Falstreau, who said once that the hardest part about being sensitive is that she knew her sensitivity made other people uncomfortable. Does that resonate with you at all?
MacKenzie: Yeah, for sure. I don’t break down at school anymore. I cry easily, remember, so I definitely try to hide it there. Because when you cry in a public place, no one knows what to do with you. Ever. So they try to help and it’s uncomfortable for everyone. I don’t want other people to think they have to make me feel better because I know that if I wanted the help, I’d reach out for it. But they don’t know that. So they feel like they have to do something which completely makes sense because I would want to do that too in that situation.
Me: That word ‘emotional’ carries so much with it, doesn’t it? For us as women in particular. I also am an easy cryer. And an author and speaker I’ve followed, Glennon Doyle, said we have to get over the idea that it’s weak. Rather it’s that we’re paying attention. We’re crying to normal things that are powerful. We’re canaries in the mine sensing something intense and alerting others of this important stuff. Felt relieving to me to hear that.
MacKenzie: I like that.
Me: And sometimes it’s the opposite for me. For instance, when I watched the video of the killing of Philando Castile. Yes, it was alarming and then I continued my day. Me. I’m not having a total meltdown and crying for a week? What’s wrong? Not what’s wrong if I do cry. What’s wrong if I don’t? Am I desensitized to what’s happening? What do you feel about that?
MacKenzie: It’s kind of terrifying to a point. It worries me that it’s the new normal. It reminds me of my memories and processing of the Orlando shooting last year. At first I was unfazed. Somehow. I don’t know how, but I just kept going. Then as time went on it pushed further into me and I broke down over it. And then recently I started losing sleep over it when the first anniversary came up. But that scared me a lot to have that reaction at first as though it was a normal event. And it’s become ‘just another one of those stories’. We move forward. We used to have big stories and giant problems and now we do drills in school for school shooters and kids are laughing at the videos that are telling us what to do if a shooter comes into our school. In eighth grade I remember crying during those drills while everyone else moved along…part of our normal daily routine. And that’s the part that terrified me – not the drills, but their reaction to them.
Me: Why do you think that happens?
MacKenzie: It’s that open heart thing again. It feels like we’re shutting down and pushing down emotions because we’re not supposed to have focused on them or if we do focus on them we’ll fall into a pit of despair. To a point that is true…you don’t want to lose yourself in them. But you do need to process it all and the emotions and you can’t do that if you’re pushing them down.
Me: Here are a couple of words I’d use to describe you – colorful, bold, brave. I say that in a very respectful and admirable way. I was not like that when I was 17. I was your friend trying to keep it all together and trying not to make anyone uncomfortable. So I really admire that in you. Do you consider yourself bold and brave?
MacKenzie: I have been told that before, that I’m bold and brave, and I deeply appreciate that, but I almost wish that being so ‘me’ didn’t have to be considered bold. I don’t do things to be brave. I’ve given speeches about mental illness and one on the Day of Silence at a Pride event, and people have said that was really brave. And I appreciate that that’s the feeling that comes from it. They do scare me a little bit to do, but that’s not why I did it. And it does scare me to be myself sometimes. Like I’ll wear an LGBT t-shirt somewhere in Indiana and I’ll worry that I’m going to go somewhere and they’re going to ask me to leave or won’t serve me. Or I’ll wear something feminist and worry that I’ll get funny looks on the street. So there’s definitely fear there that I have to overcome. And I guess there’s some bravery to that, but I don’t think it’s inherently brave. It’s more about working toward something that I want everyone to be able to see. And I want this to be visible and I don’t want people to be able to ignore it and I don’t want people to be able to put it past us and forget it exists.
Me: Right now, people ‘coming out’ is considered a bold and brave act or when just being who you are – holding certain beliefs, sharing truths, putting yourself out there in any way to be judged – is considered bold and I wonder what it would be like if that was the norm rather than the exception. Won’t it be awesome someday when it’s just a matter of fact in someone’s personhood to be who they are rather than a big declaration?
MacKenzie: Right, yes, I wish my sexuality and my feminism weren’t statements. It reminds me of an Amy Schumer quote: “One thing you don’t want people to say when you post nude pictures of yourself on the internet is that it was a really brave move.” You don’t want to feel like you’re such an abnormality that it’s brave to be who you are.
Me: So not necessarily that you don’t want to be considered bold or brave, but you wish just being yourself and doing things with meaning to you wasn’t considered a bold act.
Me: Another important aspect I see in the Sacred Feminine is discernment – when to speak and when to listen. When to take up your cause and fight for it or just hold space for others to do it. Does that resonate for you?
MacKenzie: I went to Canterbury for a really long time. It is a religious based school and there are people of all religions. I am atheist. My parents didn’t raise me in a religious way. Had I chosen religion they would be fine with it, but I haven’t made that choice yet. So going to Canterbury, it took me awhile to figure out when I needed to stop talking. There were other atheists who would just trash on religion. Particularly in religion class so it slowed down the class and we couldn’t learn what we were there to learn. They were constantly trying to prove a point. So it was distracting. And it also meant that people like me – other atheists – who weren’t doing that, were getting a bad name just because we were in the same category of atheist. So in that case, it became something more rude and disrespectful than trying to be who you are.
I see it on the internet when people keep fighting at something when there’s no more need to fight about it. Any comment section ever turns into a debate. There are times to just hold your tongue. You can’t always change people – definitely not over the internet which is frustrating. Particularly for someone like me who likes control. But there’s no reason to unlike or unfollow – I can just let myself not get worked up. And then I don’t lend a bad name to my cause by aggressively fighting – saying that anyone who doesn’t agree is inherently awful or wrong. That’s not how it all works or how conversations work. It’s important to me to not overstep my bounds and continue to fight when it’s not necessary.
Me: So that discernment in knowing when to speak was evident in the speeches you’ve given. I’m going to cross out the comment of how brave they were given the last few minutes of chatting. But I watched them both on Facebook. And I know that you hope this speaking is a normal thing and you just being you, but they truly are a big deal. One of them was at your previous school that you mentioned – Canterbury – where you spoke to the whole student body, yes?
MacKenzie: Yes, I did.
Me: And you were a freshman at the time – 15 years old.
MacKenzie: I didn’t realize at the time, but a freshman had never spoken to the whole school before. We had chapel every morning and someone would go up and give speeches and it was always seniors who did this. Every senior gave a chapel. But freshman didn’t. And I didn’t even think about that. I just knew I wanted to do it, so I just emailed everyone I thought I needed to in order to be allowed to do it. And apparently it was a much bigger deal than I thought it was. It was just really really important to me.
Me: And then you left that school.
MacKenzie: Right, so it felt like there were fewer consequences to that since I was leaving.
Me: I know it was two years ago, but can you recall your emotions or feelings and why it was so important to you to do it?
MacKenzie: Well, when I was there, the school and the people there didn’t have a handle on mental illness as a whole and it really, really bugged me as someone who had mental illness and lived around mental illness and having a mother who works in mental illness. So it was really important to me that somebody said something. I would see people with scars on them and would see people walking around clearly with emotional issues and clearly feeling like they were alone and it hurt so bad to watch other people go through that when I knew exactly how they felt. It was terrifying.
And it was terrifying to tell the whole school that there was a time in my life that I had cut myself and done all of these things, but it was really important to me.
Me: What was the outcome?
MacKenzie: Frankly, I was kind of anonymous before it. At Canterbury I wasn’t the same bold person I am today. But afterwards people told me it was a great speech. I had people come up to me and tell me that they had felt they were the only ones there that felt that way and how reassuring it was. So yes, it was terrifying to open myself up to people like that that I had never opened myself up to before. Especially as a freshman.
Me: I think it’s really telling of who you are that you only focused on the positive outcomes in talking about it now. Were there any negative responses?
MacKenzie: There were definitely people who were annoyed at being called out. And all of my teachers went really easy on me for the rest of the year which I thought was really funny. And I thought I should have done this earlier in the year. Teachers who had thought that I was just lazy but I was just incredibly depressed and didn’t know how to get out of bed every morning, let alone do all of these classes and all of these things. So it was less that people that came up to me and gave me a negative response, but there were definitely people who were uncomfortable and who felt a little bit guilty about the way they had acted. And honestly that was really important to me as well because part of it was that I wanted people to realize that they couldn’t keep being the same way that they were without really hurting others. And I hope that things have slightly changed since I gave that speech. I don’t know because I don’t go there anymore, but I hope things have changed a little bit since I did that.
Me: You may never know. I know for myself though, when the power of one mattered. When one sentence or one quote I read or a snippet of a movie or a comment from a speech that made me have an increased awareness to shift maybe just two degrees to the right. So who knows how many people you shifted who then started walking in a different direction. They may not even be aware of it entirely so you may never get that direct feedback, but I’m sure it happened. And I don’t think you’re done doing that for people.
MacKenzie: I hope not.
Me: I’m also intrigued by – getting back to an open heart – your willingness to see. You could see people hurting. When something is so automatic or obvious to us, we think it is the same way for everyone. But it’s not. Your willingness to see and to hurt for someone else – that’s empathy. Or perhaps since you have been in their place, it’s even deeper than empathy. How did you feel when you were done with the speech?
MacKenzie: I started out shaking. If you watch the video you can see that. And when I was done I definitely felt better. I felt a high. Truthfully pushing privilege out of someone else’s head for even one minute is very satisfying. If they’re lucky enough to not have dealt with it, then that’s amazing, but they still need to know that it happens. So it feels powerful to be able to feel like you’ve done something to move everyone forward.
Me: And then your other speech was at Headwaters Park on the Day of Silence. The audience there was like-minded folks who were eager to hear you speak. Was it a whole different feel?
Note: Both speeches are linked at the end of this article.
MacKenzie: For sure. It feels totally different when people are forced to be there (as in everybody having to go to the school’s chapel every morning) or when they’re there because they’ve chosen to be there. When they’re forced to be there, you feel like you’re lecturing them and when they choose to be there you feel like you’re commiserating with them since you feel like they already know the feelings.
Me: So the whole intention of the bridge speech was more of a rallying cry.
MacKenzie: For sure. It was more about knowing that we’re there for each other. Which is super important to me because sometimes you can definitely feel alone. And that’s the whole point of Day of Silence – to let people know that they are not alone. And it’s super important to me both at my school and with the rallies in the community with Fort Wayne Pride and such. It’s about knowing you’re all there for each other. There are people besides you who feel the same way.
Me: The Day of Silence honored people who have taken their own life, particularly in the LGBT community. Have you ever been there? Have you ever considered that?
MacKenzie: In seventh grade, as I mentioned before, I self harmed a lot and I was in a really bad place. That was when my depression hit for the first time full force like that. My grades started slipping. Everything started falling apart and I just didn’t know what was going on. I had some bad friendships at school and that was part of it, but overall it was just that mental illness took hold of me that year. So there was a point definitely where things started to feel that bad and I was mildly suicidal. And all of the sharp stuff was taken out of my room so I couldn’t hurt myself. The door was taken off of my room so that I could not hurt myself. It was a terrifying place to be. And I’m very glad – and proud, honestly – to have gotten past that and to see the people around me who have gotten past really similar things.
Me: Aren’t you so proud of your older brother, Owen, for graduating high school with all he’s been through.
MacKenzie: Yes, he’s been through a lot and I’m so proud of him and he pulled through at the end.
Me: Wasn’t your speech at Canterbury partly related to him? He had been there and had to leave at that point due to ongoing bullying, right?
MacKenzie: He had, yes. There was a very limited understanding of him as a whole of a person, with his Asperger’s. They just made no attempt to understand. That was part of what it was – it was a big statement that this is a thing that you need to recognize. It was very important to me and my family that this was something they recognize because they didn’t feel like they had to.
Me: Who are your role models, your inspirations?
MacKenzie: So many people are incredibly inspiring to me. There’s my mother obviously. She is a giant inspiration for me because she’s pushed through so much and she’s helped me to push through so much. Then people like Gloria Steinam. I just learned about her this year and I don’t know how I’ve managed to go 17 years without knowing about her fully. I just knew of her, but that’s all. She’s just super cool. Then Gavin Grimm, right now, who’s fighting for transgender bathroom equality. He’s awesome.
Laverne Cox and people like that who have been fighting the fight for so long and gotten it to a point that I can continue it. And my Grandma and Granny, my dad’s parents, who have dealt with homophobia for a really long time and have brought things past places that I will never have to see or live through or live the same way because they continued to be who they were and push forward.
So basically I’m inspired by everyone who has brought the fight to where it is now so I can continue fighting them is really really important to me.
Me: Your sentiment reminds me of Angela Davis who reminds us that we’re part of a larger movement and our only job is to keep the movement moving. We take what has come before us, do what we feel inspired to do, then release it to the next.
Me: Is there anything else you want to share about yourself or your causes with whomever reads this?
It’s really important to me that the LGBT community is inclusive because at this point in time, we’re having a lot of trouble with that. There are certain people who consider themselves LGBT, but then those people say, for instance, that bisexuality or whatever doesn’t exist – that that’s not a thing. There are some people that say that if you’re bisexual and in a straight relationship, then don’t go to Pride. You’re not welcome. It’s insane to me that we can be a group of people who consider ourselves existing when outsiders don’t think that we exist and yet, we can still say to each other, “No, that’s not a real thing.”
And I consider myself pansexual which everyone doesn’t know what that means…it’s attraction regardless of gender…since there are more than two genders…there’s male and female and things in between. So pansexual refers to all of that regardless of a gender label. So there are a lot of people who say that that’s not real or that it doesn’t exist.
And in my school, Carroll High School, I’m very active in the Gay Straight Alliance and there are so many people I see who feel like they don’t exist until somebody tells them that they do. They feel like they think it’s just a phase, or maybe that it’s not a real thing, so they discount themselves because of one thing someone said to them or something they heard from someone else. And it’s so unhealthy to me to see that within a community of people who are seeking solidarity within society, knowing that they’ve been pushed out by parts of society, that can’t demonstrate solidarity within. If we can’t have solidarity within our own community then how can we seek it elsewhere? So that’s why that’s so important to me. Personally. It’s really important to me to have inclusive communities that include everybody.
Me: Wow. Your statement that “there are so many people I see who feel like they don’t exist until somebody tells them that they do” really gripped me. You know, I spent a lot of time in my earlier years staying small so the world wasn’t uncomfortable. It gives me hope that you already know that’s not what the world needs. You’re willing to be authentic and help others do the same. You’re willing to be bold. I’m so grateful. Thank you for your time today.
MacKenzie: You’re welcome.
Below is the video of MacKenzie’s school speech referenced in the interview above.