be a better human, books, information, librarians, reading, social media, strangers

Eye Contact

During warmups for club softball games, I had a tendency of losing focus and completely not noticing when my teammates were throwing a ball at me. It was easy to get caught up in conversation; those girls are some of the funniest, smartest women I know, and I’d talk to the people next to me, or daydream, only to snap back to focus when a ball was in air, midway towards me. I don’t remember if I ever got hit or hurt, but I definitely got embarrassed. I made sure to (jokingly, but seriously) communicate to subsequent throwing partners that they needed to make sure we had eye contact before sending a ball my way. I did the two fingers pointing at my eyes and theirs for emphasis. Though I should reasonably have known that they would throw it to me since we were playing catch, plus I was wearing sunglasses, so they couldn’t even see my eyes, I asked them to call my name to make sure I was paying attention.

These days, my attention is similarly challenged, but instead of social distractions, I have my thoughts. And my cell phone. I notice it most with my cats. If I am looking at my phone, they will stand up and paw my legs, or jump on the nearest surface and try to knock the phone out of my hand. They want eye contact. If I give in, put down the phone (inevitably, I was not doing anything essential anyway) and look at their little faces, they light up. They love the undivided attention. They can tell when I’m focusing, because I put in the real effort (and give the good pets).

Never before one to comment, I viewed people who argue with acquaintances (or strangers) on facebook as people with too much time. My stomach tightens and my heart beats as if I am under attack when even reading people comment on (aka argue about) politics. This week, I delved into this world for a post or two, able to read through all of the comments, racist and reprehensible as well as measured and logical.

Let me save you a bunch of time and energy and say: it’s not super worth it to argue. Post what you’re going to post, and most people will either agree or disagree with you right away. I say right away because there are few people willing to look past their knee-jerk reaction and attempt to see from a different perspective. Every political discussion boils down to the same thoughts, from whichever side you’re on: “you’re an idiot,” “you’re brainwashed,” and my favorite–“open your eyes!”

If both sides want the other to open their eyes and quit being sheep swallowing empty political promises, to what are these eyes supposed to open? As a librarian, I am passionate about finding good, trustworthy information. The ability to identify reliable information is called information literacy, and you likely heard about it with the proliferation of fake news. Good sources mean the difference between fact and fiction/opinion/interpretation/wild conjecture/conspiracy theories. Knowing where to look is only part of the eye-opening though; the rest is critical thinking.

This is what causes the educator in me to cry, because a closed mind asks no questions. Critical thinking is allll about asking questions. Questions like “assuming this belief/fact is correct, who benefits?” or “who is missing?” Let’s practice: people are clearly very frustrated with both political parties for the various paths/candidates they have chosen. A manifestation of this: a person online said essentially all politicians are crooked, so there’s no reason or point in having faith in any party or the process. I believe this is patently false, and beyond that, it is harmful (and this type of cynicism is in itself a tool of voter suppression–why even vote? Nothing matters!).

However, asking some questions of this viewpoint might look like “Who is missing from that perspective?” I would have to respond with a hearty “literally everyone different from the person speaking it.” You are allowed to have your fond feelings for Reagan, and I know there are multitudes of reasons to dislike Bill Clinton. However, your personal experience is not true for and does not speak for everyone. Reagan’s policies targeted scores of public services and groups of people disproportionately. There are millions of people in this country; it is not just yours. What works for you may not work for anyone else! If all of the politicians are crooked, I at least want to support and get into office the ones who will enact policies that help the most people (by which I mean grant the most freedoms–freedom is kind of our thing). The current administration closes its eyes to people of color, immigrants, the poor, the sick, the queer and the gender-non-conforming. To support the president is to ignore the reality of the racist, classist system we have. I much prefer looking at my cats to looking at these harsh truths, but they are necessary to see.

And, I have to say, the educator (and human being) in me is disappointed with all of the constant personal attacks in these threads. I learned to attack ideas, not people, and I find myself asking “who raised you???” which isn’t fair. The question “who hurt you???” seems more apt (though the answer might be the same). Because the bottom line of “you’re an idiot!” is the belief that you are better than the person you are arguing with. Spoiler alert: you’re not. “Open your eyes” is less of a judgment and more of an invitation to ask more questions. If you are telling others to do so, do it yourself. If your beliefs exclude freedoms for people who are different than you, consider why you believe you deserve more. Ask questions of yourself–look for your blind spots. Then look to learn more! Learning is not always fun nor in the form of a worksheet! It takes time and discomfort. And books, y’all. Actual reading. (At the very least, intense listening to people different than you.)

And last soapbox moment, for all that is holy, if you wouldn’t say something while maintaining eye contact with them, don’t put it out into the digital world either. It makes you a coward, a bully, or a dick. Or all three.

I don’t ask others to make sure I’m looking now–I know it’s my responsibility, and so I read (and therefore learn) all the time. I find there’s so much I didn’t know I didn’t know, and more angles to every topic than I could have anticipated. I ask questions, and I keep an eye out for new resources and perspectives.

Still, the immediate reaction to an opinion starkly opposed to yours may be anger and judgment. But after that, look for the holes. Can you consider that you are wrong? Or if not wrong, that you are thinking too locally and excluding anyone who isn’t exactly like you? Can you attempt to see where the other person is coming from? Or is the ‘opposing’ mind too closed and any efforts will bounce right off? Call out lies, call out injustice, but if yes to the last question, maybe save your energy. Closed minds are closed for business (Hannah Gadsby), and I prefer politicians and fellow citizens whose eyes are open to a united way forward out of this divided hellscape.

For required reading, visit the end of this post and add the following:

See below for an eye-related song to which I will not stretch to make a connection:

anxiety, be a better human, let it go

Cooling Down

Hi, my name is Emily, and when the summer turns to fall, I get sad! There is something about the cooler air that carries a bouquet of self doubt and self loathing, reminding me of the falls when I have torn my life apart, made bad decisions or just generally dreaded the winter (which is COMING). Working mainly in schools as I have my whole “career” means that September is a big transition time, full of change and expectations for that change to be positive. More than birthdays or New Years Eves, the start of the school year makes me take stock of how I’m doing heading into the cooler months of the year. This year was already full of taking stock, and the warmth of summer was extra cheerful and hopeful and the promise of sunshine/longer days filled my world with possibility–this could be the year I go camping! This could be the year I find my person! This could be the year I learn to proof emails before I send them! This could be the year I or my life change! And then the cold hits, and I still haven’t gone camping, found my person, or magically learned how to be professional or diplomatic. The season is changing, but my situation is not.

Feels like we skipped right to October, eh?

That said, the past two weeks I have felt off. And then when I felt off, I got anxious about the uncertainty of why. It’s not great enough having anxiety and depression separately, so sometimes they give me the gift of feeling them together! But I didn’t notice until I zoomed out. I didn’t notice how abrupt the air went from warm to cool even as I added a fleece blanket on the bed. I didn’t notice as I unpacked all of my sweaters and packed away my shorts. Something hugely sad happened (as it seems is happening all the time now) and I couldn’t stop crying. Parents shouldn’t kill their children. Police shouldn’t kill unarmed, innocent people. The sky shouldn’t be orange. This shit shouldn’t happen.

The grief is understandable. The sadness and rage are allowed, and, I believe, an almost mandatory human response. I had to let it out (in safe spaces/to safe people) to clear it. Say it with me, people: emotions are better out than in! I sought connection and joy. But even in my responsible processing of that big incidents, I made the minute mistake of thinking that summer joys were the best, if not the only ones on the horizon. The past is the best! It’s all shit from here on out! Change can’t possibly be good!

I understand the allure of memory. Good times are golden. Change after something good feels bad. But, just as with good, so with bad. The power of memory is so strong that it jerks us out of the present, for better or worse. Recently, I consoled someone who moved out of a toxic roommate situation. I saw on his face how even the mention of his ex-roommate brought a flood of bad memories over him, like he was reliving the horrors. I wanted to shake him into the present but all I said was “you’re safe now! You’re on your own!” Memories aren’t now! But I remember that feeling, the bad memories clinging, still too close even though they aren’t the reality anymore.

Seasons change. Relationships change. Good memories are precious, but there are more to be made. Joy is not finite, nor scarce. (Neither, on the flip side, is darkness.) I’ve been clinging to the specialness of the summer and refusing to accept the change of the seasons. Which is, of course, lunacy. Time does not do personal. It just keeps passing, and resistance is futile. The cool weather is not good, but it is also not bad. It just is. The sooner I accept that, the better. Simply identifying that I am having trouble with the transition to fall has helped. (Mindfulness: season edition!) I can’t shut down because summer is ending. Cooling down doesn’t have to mean closing down.

Because the thing is, the past two weeks have not been tortured, awful or ones where I replayed golden memories of relationships or summer or the times I should have said or done something differently. I didn’t spend every minute wanting to crawl out of my skin. There were moments of that, sure, but the universe forced me to see all the good happening around me. I celebrated and marveled as two of my best friends in the world brought new babies into the world. I cooked for them and myself. My aunt continues to be a formidable Words With Friends opponent. In the closet transition, I’ve gotten rid of a ton of clothing and made some money off of it. Two of my amazing friends consistently ask me to go on walks. I bought a new puzzle, and fell in love with it, and finished it. I went to kundalini class and though it was 50 degrees, I did not suffer. I just wore a fleece. There is magic in the outdoors no matter the weather.

Sad Negative Emily wailed to her therapist that the world is ending, only for her therapist to reply calmly and patiently “the world is not ending, it is transforming.” And that is the kind of woo woo hopeful shit Upbeat Grounded Emily says when she’s feeling normal!

I deeply appreciate that the Jewish new year is happening right now (Shana tova to my people!) It feels like a more natural transition point than January 1, and I’m taking the opportunity to set some intentions. I am going to remain open and curious (and hopeful though sometimes that’s the first one to go), and continue to ground myself through the hellscape that is the remaining weeks before an election. I am going to take care of my body, mind and spirit, which means I’ll continue to speak up when I see injustice, and shout my gratitude for my amazing family, friends, and the occasional stranger who does right by me.

So in that vein, this was the summer I went into the outdoors when it was all degrees of precipitation. This was the year I paused to breathe (more, not always :/ ) on the phone with my family. This was the year I learned that “hard work” means anything you are putting your energy towards, emotional energy included. This was the year I actually got involved in civics, signing more petitions and donating more money and writing 200 postcards to voters in Michigan and Wisconsin (and I seriously hope they don’t all go straight into the garbage). This was the summer I learned not to take it personally when someone doesn’t want to keep dating me. And this was the summer I was reminded again and again what special people (and animals) I have in my life whether on my street, in my workplace(s), on the phone/zoom/discord/hangouts/facetime or in the mailbox. We are all going through it. We’ll get through this shitstorm together, one way or another.

community, joy, meditation

Cruisin’ around town

Yesterday, I bought a new bike! I have to admit, I haven’t tried to own one in a long time–where would I store it? Where would I ride it, and in what free time? The last time I owned a bike was the Jeep bike (Jeep makes bikes?? Not a great sign…) I bought when starting grad school–it weighed a ton, the seat kept sinking no matter what I tried to fix it, and New Jersey drivers are often terrifying when I am also in a 2,000 pound metal box so no thank you, I would not be riding an airbag-less stick to class.

I got rid of the bike. Grad school would not mean a return to the joys of my childhood and riding around all day, earning a stripe up my back after it rained. In the pre-coronial world, space was limited, I was averse to the elements, and I depleted my energy by working all the jobs.

Fast forward to now, and the world has changed. I have time. For the first part of quarantine, I dated a good person who likes bike riding and invited me to join by providing a spare bike of his and a helmet. I saw how simple it was to get up and go outside, that there are paths everywhere, and that riding on the streets is okay if the streets are wide enough. The risk isn’t absent, but minimal and manageable.

But I also discovered that bike handles, much like the computer, stress my wrists, and my old-lady back needs more of an upright seat. Surely, this type of bike is harder to come by.

Nope! It’s called a cruiser, and I am not the only one whose back needs to not bend over for the bike riding. And walking in to the used bike store yesterday, there were many of them! And now one of them is mine. I didn’t even notice until getting to the park that it has a perfect, functioning, loud and cheerful bell, and I squealed with joy. This might just be the return to that level of childhood glee.

I wasn’t actively looking before, and since this was the first place I visited that actually sold them, I wasn’t expecting to find this perfect (to me) bike. After all, there is something of a bike shortage–stores are sold out, and there was quite a line to get in to the secondhand place. And yet, despite the expected scarcity, there were plenty to choose from. It was practically a bike emporium. I have been through enough bikes that didn’t fit to know what I needed–I found mine really quickly, but something about it spoke to me! The choosing wasn’t hard. The cruising, the enjoying it wasn’t hard.

The practical stuff (ie. the transporting it home) was hard. I’ve watched my dad install the trunk bike rack hundreds of times, but not in a while, and I doubt I’d ever helped. It’s harder than it looks! But I was thankful for the providence that I needed one, and the used bike place happened to have (only!) one to sell. The universe was looking out for me. Despite a clumsy installation, the marvels of science allowed the bike to not fall off the car before the trail, or before going to the local bike shop (support local businesses, even when they are sold out of bikes!) and buying a lock (and having the wonderful employee adjust the bike rack).

And so, though working from home has compromised my wrists and I certainly need more leg strength before completing longer or more challenging rides, I now have the capability to get out there and move, to feel the breeze on my skin.

All this to say, after many months of mostly staying in one place, I’m getting out and about in safe ways. After many months of zoom, my kundalini class now meets in person, outdoors! It’s a half-hour drive, so not a chance in hell I’m biking there, but it’s even more majestic and centering under the shade of tall trees and to the tune of frogs and bugs chirping, and the day I ventured to the new location was humid as hell but full of bright blue sky.

I appreciated the meditation and stretching and the company of people I hadn’t seen in person since March, but I also appreciated the drive there and home. I passed the farm that has the fall festival where my best friend and I bought peach wine and apple cider donuts and locally grown blueberries. I passed my favorite little intersection with the weird-angled streets, greenery, and cute farm/houses on my way to a job where I used to be miserable. I knew the “caution: fox crossing” sign would still be at that sweet curve in the road just beyond and I hoped, as ever, that people were taking care and slowing down. I almost missed the turn in to this special little oasis because of how overgrown and non-commercial the winding gravel driveway is, and I oozed gratitude for having found my way past, through, around everything in order to get there.

Yesterday was bike day, and today it is raining and cold and my poor little bike is locked up out in the rain. Things at present locally and nationally are not looking “up,” not getting back to normal, and everything is perpetually in flux at best, but I’m trying to find ways to move (and sit still.. #meditation) that work for my body and brain during this phase of treading water. I know my next purchase will be a bike cover. Dare I say, the outlook actually looks pretty good!

anxiety, audiobooks, be a better human, books, empathy, lists, reading

I go outside now

Strap in, people. There will be heavy-handed metaphors. Due to what can only be called the 2020-time-vortex, the past two months have felt both like a year and a week. In late May, I looked at the thistles growing through and above the bushes in front of my door, and decided to tackle them. I had seen one too many neighbors walk by and admire the beautiful irises only to visibly judge the massive weeds overtaking the whole plot. The leasing lady had told me that tenants can either garden for themselves or the maintenance crew would do it. Based on the height of the weeds and my recognition that their only method was a weed whacker, I took matters literally into my own hands. This would take time and effort, and no one was going to put in the time and effort but me.

Did I properly outfit myself first? No. I attempted, but the gardening gloves I got were not made for thorns. The thorns attacked my hands and thus they lived to see another week.

Did I endeavor to start under proper conditions? No. I first tried pulling the weeds after a stretch of warm, sunny days. The weeds immediately snapped at the ground. The roots stayed in the soil, to regroup and grow again.

Did I learn and watch out for ideal conditions? Yes. Did I get impatient and decide then to jump on ideal conditions despite not having proper equipment? Heck yes. Before long, it was raining for an entire night and morning. Did it look like an ideal day? No. Did it look like an ideal day…for pulling weeds? YEAH BUDDY. I grabbed my lil cat-grooming gloves (non-permeable though not optimal) and went to town.

And it was GOOD! The blooms were so heavy that the stalks couldn’t hold them up–their beauty forced people to look at them, if only to walk around them. I knew these flowers deserved less toxic neighbors. It was righteous work. The damp conditions made the soil more forgiving. Some of the bigger, more established weeds were still resistant, and I had to let it go when they snapped instead of coming out completely. I would just have to try again later. The medium/small ones came out, though, roots and all. I thought about how our brains are gardens, and the food we put into them has the power to influence or dominate. I thought about how efficient it would be to pay attention to small distress signals/thoughts, face and address them. How they’d give up their hold before taking root and growing powerful and entrenched.

This was a mindful act. I observed the spots of the soil that were more rigid (near the concrete sidewalk) and the spots that released. A wasp landed on a flower next to me and I nodded at it. We coexisted. The wasp did its wasp thing, and I left it alone and did mine, taking care that I didn’t bump/ripple the plant it was on. I saw those teeny tiny green bugs crawling on plants, on my arms, and then had the feeling they were crawling on me for the rest of the day. I pulled so hard, squatting over the plants, that I fell backwards when the target thistle relinquished. I laughed because of course I tried so hard and yanked so aggressively that I ended up hurting my butt.

All in all, I loved it. It was great for anxiety because it was mindful, sensory, tactile and it was a patch of green that I felt some level of control over. Not total control, because weeds are living things who are programmed to survive too, but I was glad when with each effort, the pile of thorns got bigger and taller. I made a visually measurable difference. I cleared the shame-weeds! I made room to honor beauty!

But yeah, a lot has been happening. Much political, some personal, but the common thread in my pandemic survival (in addition to/to balance out limited social encounters) is being outside. For YEARS (high school + into adult life) I would only be outside in transit or playing softball or when the sun was at an amenably low position to eat dinner on a patio. At some point I developed allergies, so the incentive to go outside for being outside’s sake dwindled even further. I’m a monthly supporter of the Sierra Club; I didn’t have to go outside to show my support of nature. Doing so might mean subjecting myself to sweat/precipitation/moisture. Best to avoid the whole thing.

Then this year. I had to get outside, if only because that was where/how I was allowed to see my friends without fear. I need my people, and the people were outside! If you had told me prior to this year that I would voluntarily go on walks, I would have thought you were crazy, but now I look forward to them. The outdoors is a place for observing and chatting and overall just being anywhere other than in my apartment, in front of my tv or computer. It can be lightly raining; I don’t care. I’m walking. It can be high 80s; I don’t care. I’m walking. I’ve made peace with my less than ideal conditions. It’s almost like I cannot control the weather, so I gotta do what I need to do to make the best of my day. Best not to avoid the whole thing.

To be clear, I have not become a professional or even a hobby gardener. I have planted zero plants. I have weeded two times in the last two months; the initial weed-slaughter was all I needed. But this experience made me put my hands on plants, and thus appreciate them. The strangest part is that I didn’t even have to go far to ‘find’ the nature/beauty. It was literally at my fingertips. Nature isn’t only found in far off destinations, full of hiking trails and recreational watersports or whatever else people take instagram photos of. It was within three feet of my doorstep.

IMG_5471

So, obviously, plenty (both political and personal) has happened since this initial glorious gardening outing. The flowers have bloomed and shriveled in that cyclical way they do.

I realize it’s an abrupt shift of topics, but…the country remains on fire. I used to just rail against the system of capitalism and the various ways corporations exploit their workers/the environment. This is to say, I thought I knew/did my part to be aware. But what I was ignorant of was that in this country, systemic racism (which is to say white supremacy) is interwoven into all of this. I used to avoid the discomfort that comes from learning about racial injustice just as I avoided sweating. I recognize this comes from a privileged place. But it’s time to face it, which starts with learning and leads to discussion, activism and change. The past two months, I’ve mostly just been reading and learning and talking to loved ones and just being human. If you want to know what I’ve been reading/watching with the frame of how to improve the country/world, here is a list:

Racial – film (included on service indicated, can rent on other platforms)
Racial – book
  • White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (longer form of the ideas in 13th)
  • How to be An Antiracist – Ibram Kendi (he also co-wrote Stamped from the Beginning with Jason Reynolds, more condensed, for YA audience)
  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • So You Want to Talk about Race? – Ijeoma Oluo (Her upcoming book is called Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America)
  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor – Layla Saad
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own – Eddie Glaude (Teaser article in New Yorker recently)
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America – Richard Rothstein
  • Women, Race & Class – Angela Y. Davis
  • Anything by James Baldwin but my favorite so far is The Fire Next Time
Sex/Gender
  • Good and Mad – Rebecca Traister
  • My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem
Environment/Sustainability
  • On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal – Naomi Klein
  • Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Safe our World – Josh Tickell
Economics/ Politics (connects to other categories as well)
  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right – Jane Mayer
  • No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need – Naomi Klein
  • The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap – Matt Taibbi
  • The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It – Robert Reich

IMG_5470 (2)
Why I care (spoiler alert, it’s because everyone is just a human doing their best and not caring is so so so harmful)

IMG_5560

From “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo