I might be the only political person in the country (aka voter aka person who cares about the outcome of the election) who is not watching election coverage. As someone with anxiety, I have to draw a boundary to protect my mind. I cannot abide the ambiguity. If I were to watch ANY coverage, the calculations, the iterations of the possibilities, the ifs then thises, the going down the rabbit hole….. it would make me explode.
No. That kind of exhaustive extrapolation is how my brain attacks itself, and I’m not inviting that in, because my brain is actually kind of functioning for once! Watching the results would not make me more informed, it would only make me suffer. Give me the results when they are available. I can wait.
I know I have done what I can. I returned my ballot a couple weeks ago, I wrote postcards to Wisconsin and Michigan voters, and I am SO THANKFUL that yesterday is in the past. I have never been more grateful for the passage of time (and my/my family members’ continued health) because the anticipation has been brutal. For more than a year, we Americans have been tortured with the pre-election circus. On top of the psychological torture of a pandemic and the societal torture of administration (and fellow citizens) that don’t care to put in place/cooperate with orders to protect public health so that fewer people literally die.
If I had a nickel for every time over the past months I digressed about public health and mortality………… (fuck this administration, they will rot in hell).
Digression reclaimed: I have done all I can do. I cannot control anything else from here on out. It is now up to time and actions. The actions of good people, both submitting and counting ballots. Time to make sure every single voice is counted.
And I fully recognize that I do not have as much at stake in this election/this year than others. However, it is huge to me regardless. The soul of our nation is at stake. I can only cling to my hope in our country until we have a final tally. I need to believe in the basic and widespread good of my fellow citizens as long as possible.
So no, I’m not watching the in-between part. I’m listening, to music: soothing folk and jazz, and to loved ones’ voices. I’m rewatching a movie about a playwright and finding your own voice. I am basking in the glow of the birthday love my amazing friends and family have shown me over the past week. I am hoping that the good in the country overwhelms the bad in a way that pleases its antiquated system (that drastically needs to be amended, cue my next read Let the People Pick the President). I’m breathing. I’m praying thanks for all the love and joy in my life and clinging to them. I’m treating myself nicely. I’m planning out birthday/holiday gifts at independent bookstores. As per always, I’m writing letters.
And I’m hoping. I’m hoping so hard that people care about their neighbors and science and the environment and voted accordingly. I am hoping the blue wave can drown all this hatred and madness.
And right this moment, I’m going to order a 2021 calendar.
Last week I logged on to my library account, like nerds do, and had only one checked out. An error! I could have sworn I had checked out multiple books. A library insider, I had definitely gone to the building, sanitized my hands, taken my temperature, recorded it in the designated google doc on the designated computer in the designated room, sanitized the thermometer, followed the arrows to pick up two tiny books, and then brought them home. The books were on my nightstand. I had, however, forgotten to check them out.
I was only in the building for maybe three minutes, and 95% of what I did was not part of the pre-pandemic skillset/the typical shift. I forgot to do the 5% that was entirely familiar and library-related. Especially considering it wasn’t the part involving sanitization, I argue that this was not a big deal, and in the regular times many of us have forgotten to check out books before we took them home. I remedied this situation right away once I realized, so no one will be expecting the titles to be available when they aren’t. No harm, no foul.
But, as anyone with anxiety, depression or a perfectionist bent will recognize, this made me question the inner workings of my mind. What is going on in there, as I forgot basic processes?
Likely, I was thinking ahead to the other errands I was running. Or I was replaying all the quippy responses I could have said in any one of the million conversations I run over and over in my head. The recursive thoughts are tough, because they can be anything from actual lived experiences (positive yet finite! Negative but persistent!) to arguments either real or hypothetical, to entertainment, to worries about the election, to worries about the future in general, to an actor’s face or a clip of dialogue that I frantically try to identify. My mind is a labyrinth of past/present, minor/major, dreams realized/dreams deferred. One thing was for sure; my working memory, overloaded by the 2020 of it all, was not working.
Recently, I heard two nuggets of wisdom. The first: “a buried emotion never dies.” It made me wonder how much of my revisiting and reminding and wearing the grooves of my brain to fit memories is in order to keep them comfortable for the long haul versus how much is my trying to work through them. And how much is an obsessive need to categorize (one of my librarian-est tendencies) because I am only as good as the information I can remember. Or maybe whoever remembers the most is the most right?
The second, from a piece of poetry I heard aloud: “we are all radiant, but sometimes we forget.” It’s true with eating right, it’s true with anything where you know the right thing to do and choose not to do it when push comes to shove until it fades from importance. As usual, mindfulness is key–to recognize the slide between what I prioritize and the choices I make or the memories I’m holding onto that keep me from living like I want to.
One anchor I’ve been cultivating relates to my childhood friend who three of us traveled to be with almost exactly one year ago. We had gone to school together as kids, and she was a marvel. She also happened to be dying. I have always run away from the hard stuff, or at least, if I have shown up, I do it quickly or from a distance (ie, with a letter). Sitting with and truly facing discomfort is not my strong suit, my own or anyone else’s. Walking up the stairs to her house for that weekend was sad and scary. When she opened the door, seeing how much weight she had lost from being sick and undergoing treatment was sad and scary. Watching her talk about her illness and mortality was sad, but it was not scary. It was inspiring, and noble, and unifying in a way only things that break you open can be. It was so deeply human.
The memories of her that pop into my mind are not all from that weekend, but many are. One is sitting next to my two friends watching her give that interview, all three of us beyond the help of tissues. One is of the only twenty minutes the two of us were alone the whole weekend, and she was warm and happy to have our company, to be together after more than ten years. The feeling was mutual.
During that conversation, I mentioned 10% Happier and she lit up, saying she had worked on that team. I froze briefly, but went with it, saying yes, it’s a great resource for new meditators. This was something we had connected over; half a year earlier, I had opened a listserv email to discover an essay with her name in an email digest and reached out to her afterwards and we had a nice chat. As loving as her energy was, she had forgotten. Justifiedly so! We hadn’t spoken in the ten years before she got sick, and she was in constant pain with limited energy. Her body and mind were under siege. I am the archivist in my friend group, and I try to document/preserve/remember everything, so sometimes gaps like these hurt. However, I understand that the connection meant something to both of us at the time, and we were together in that new moment, with or without it. We were connected and present, making another memory, regardless of not sharing the old memory. We are only human after all, and all we have is now.
Anyway, all this to say, I think about her a lot, and how she eliminated the gap between how she wanted to live her life and how she was living it. She had to do this. She had to say what she needed to say because she was running out of time. And often, this meant she was a terrible texter/user of social media. She was present for the people lucky enough to be closest to her.
There is a LOT happening every day both locally (within my intimate circle and various communities I belong to) and nationally/globally. Society has gone off the rails, and there are so many things to think/protest/speak out about. Depending how you use social media, it is mostly photos of lifestyles you may want (ie babies, spouses, houses) or political outrage. I shared all the things to be mad about, all the injustices, and… It’s all just screaming into a void unless people take their actions to the real world. And it’s so easy to completely overload maintaining a woke/activist presence on the online. As a huge empath, alive in the weirdest year and approaching the most contentious election, I had to change something. Something had to give.
So, I dropped off the face of the media. Gone are the Twitter and Instagram apps from my phone. With the help of my best friend (identifying my post-breakup behaviors as obsessive), How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price, and depending where my passwords are saved, I may never get back on… If it’s not in the Skimm/Mel doesn’t think I need to know, I may not need to know. My philosophy is not that these sites/apps are all bad, despite how much I want to fully remove myself after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The idea is that I use the media for specific purposes because I choose/want to, not because I am compelled to/addicted to them or they are the default time-filler. Closing the gap between how I want to live and how I am living. Facing the memories jostling around in my head, retiring the ones that don’t serve me out of active rotation, foregoing the social media presence in order to make sure I can function and cultivate presence in real time.
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:
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.
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.
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.
These deserved better
The source of shame
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.
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.
Fullness and decay!
Shriveled nubs of formerly full irises
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)
I exited a conversation with my best friend this week. We were chatting about how sickened we are that Minneapolis police murdered a nonviolent black man, George Floyd. I do not know how anyone under any conditions feels justified in taking another human life, much less when that individual is not threatening their own, much less begging for air. She lamented how depressing it is that humanity isn’t getting any better, that we don’t learn from history and continue being awful to one another. The conversation was too big and heavy for me to deal with during the work day. I felt my panic rising. Because that sense of futility, of hopelessness that nothing is getting better–those are my deep fears. Neither of us want to live in the type of place where police exercise deadly force without a threat to their lives. My brain grabbed for that one essay/chapter of a book where someone smarter than me addresses this concept and how it is a fallacy, but I came up short of the title. I tossed out a “think of the big picture” comment about how even though it feels that nothing is improving, I believe, as horrifying and terrible as every new racist murder is, overall the country is getting better.
It’s getting better because we are looking. This country was built on ugliness, on the trade, subjugation, brutalization and exploitation of enslaved people. Exploiting and murdering people of color is a truly evil and despicable part of this nation’s history, and though I don’t claim to be an expert, I know that race-based violence was far more mainstream and accepted the farther back you look. Now, we have the technology to record and share abuses of power with the world. Yes, racism is alive and well, but now we can expose it to the light of public opinion and demand change.
We are connected in our reactions (horror, mourning, rage) and our actions (signing petitions/calling/emailing the DA to demand that the people who perpetrated and who allowed the perpetration of this murder to be held accountable. Though I don’t condone destruction, I understand why Minneapolis is burning in protest. This is a reckoning.
What I didn’t have the time or the emotional energy to remind my BFF is that, as MLK made famous, the moral arc of history bends towards justice. This is not to say that the arc is a straight, ever-upward line. There are setbacks and tough times, and race-based violence has certainly increased since 2016. But systemic racism hasn’t gone anywhere, hasn’t decreased or increased. It is invisible. It is only there if we look. People choosing to stand up and mobilize on behalf of decency and good and refusing to tolerate bigotry and hate and inequality.. that’s how we bend the arc towards justice. Critical mass engagement.
I didn’t set out to write about this. I wanted to write about this amazing book I read called Kiss the Ground. Without getting too into the weeds, (is dad humor acceptable now that I’ve changed the subject?) it dealt with soil’s role in the carbon cycle, and it made me want to start a small farm and harvest it with my hands. I wanted to write about how nature is healing during the corona shutdown. I wanted to share a laugh at the “nature is healing / we are the virus” photos online. In case I haven’t been clear up to this point, I very much believe that we are the virus. We are the problem human-to-human, and human-to-environment. Our consumer- and profit-driven culture is killing the planet (specifically the heavy use of chemicals/factory farming and the omnipresence of plastics).
In this way, I have been so grateful for this insular time. (Yes, I am aware that being grateful for the pandemic is a privilege and acknowledge that I have an income and a yet-able-ish body.) I have barely driven my car, eliminating my guilt over burning fossil fuels. I have supported local businesses rather than monoliths. (At this point I almost entirely avoid Amazon, because this amount of money is sickening, crisis or not, when you consider how these companies pay SO little in taxes and how so many Americans are literally going hungry right now.) It isn’t easy to have our culture completely halted, and there’s that nagging fear that any time we leave our houses we will contract and spread a fatal disease, but the Earth is benefitting from this break from our fossil fuel addiction. This shutdown has disrupted our resource-guzzling autopilot.
Because yes, it is inconvenient and scary and uncomfortable being forced to stay at home and stop production/socializing/life as usual. But the air is clearing. Mount Everest is visible from 120 miles away whereas usually pollution obscures the view. This time is an amazing opportunity for clarity, for stillness. For observation and for recharging. But this clarity can only move those who look. When the world resumes again, we have the opportunity and responsibility to rebuild. I, for one, do not want to resume life as usual. I want something better. The status quo does not work for the critical mass.
Yes, there is a lot of turbulence right now, and it’s true that anger and violence in and of themselves don’t solve anything. But we have to take stock. We have to look at the problems we’ve been keeping in the dark. To recognize inequity, imbalance and their resulting rage. People in power can’t keep exercising ultimate control over other people, and they can’t keep exploiting the Earth’s natural resources. We can come out of this recentered, with a more inclusive, sustainable, equitable and engaged populace. I am appalled at how our government has responded to this crisis, and at how my fellow Americans are willing and eager to tolerate or perpetrate racist hate. If we look around, we must recognize that our country is not as great as we thought. We have to do better, in so many ways. If we look, we have to recognize that all people want and are made of the same stuff.
We can’t keep looking away from the problems in our country (same goes for the plethora of human rights violations around the world). Our government and industry have the power to create new jobs dedicated to sustainability and we the people have the power to elect leaders who have the powerless’ best interest at heart. Leaders who care about tomorrow and not just about profits today. Now is the time to reach out and help. To talk to people, even if they are hard conversations. To come together and demand change with this new clarity. If you look, there are plenty of people who share your fears, beliefs and hopes. Find them. Shine your light with them.
Though it seems like in many ways, we are getting used to the ‘new normal,’ there are plenty of ways this drastic change continues to be upsetting. My friends continue to have panic attacks and breakdowns of all sizes, and my empathizer heart is hurting. On a small scale, all my basic needs are met, and yet.. Fear looms large, and it blows my mind/fuels my rage/makes me sad that our food system is so broken that more people than average (!!) are going hungry right now in this country of plenty. I’m reassured that our quality of air worldwide is improved due to fewer cars on the roads and less pollution from closed-down industry. But more on my hippie tears at a later date.
I’m going to write about what has been helping me to cope, and what is inspiring me to change. As sometimes happens, I read the perfect book at the perfect time. After all, how many of us are simply struggling with how Not to Do the Things? How to deal with the limitations/unavailability of most everything but the virtual world.
How to Do Nothing made the hairs on my arms stand up. This woman artfully (she is an artist, after all) emphasized that our culture has largely lost our connection to place and our need for context. This is true on an ecological level; we need to get outside more–into our surroundings, to become familiar with the land that we occupy and the other creatures that also do. This grounding/contextualizing shows us that we are not the only ones here. We are part of a system and the system deserves our attention and respect.
This need for context also appears in our social [media] interactions. Modern comforts and technology have made it so we can curate our daily lived experiences and only have to interact with people who agree with us on nearly all points. [Information silos, old news.] The media lives on sound bites that are designed to enrage and distract us, further driving us into our polarized opinion camps. I took the time to manually transcribe this part of her book because it spoke to me. She states that if we only interact with people who agree with us we:
“never run the risk of being surprised, challenged, or changed. Never seeing anything outside of ourselves. Including our own privilege. That’s not to say we have nothing to gain from those we have many things in common with, on paper. If we don’t expand our attention outside of that sliver we live in an I-it world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we are less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe… Those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it. Of course having encounters entails risks that not everyone is willing to take.”
Holy wow, yes. Now is the time for change. If you haven’t done Anything Different this entire quarantine, who even are you? It is a time for thought and discussion. For dismantling the egocentric views we hold. To interrupt our regularly scheduled programming and do Something different instead. Something caring, something creative. Something revolutionary.
Because when I’m worried about the Fate of the World and all the big, Capital Letter Things, I have to focus on specific actions to take. I have to break it down into manageable, actionable pieces. What can I do? What effect does staring at my phone, scrolling through instagram or facebook really do for me? What can I do instead? Do I really need to buy more clothing/home goods/products? I understand the temptation to hunker down and feverishly, anxiously repeat the usual distraction purchasing patterns (and I am very guilty of doing this myself). But if you have the expendable income to spend right now, I hope you consider others. I hope you donate to organizations that feed and care for others. Because just as thinking too large-scale is harmful, so is thinking too small-scale. Think outside of yourself, and consider that this is a terrible time for everyone, and that your help for others will help them and you. No, I do not mean to minimize your suffering. I am just saying we are all suffering. And suggesting that you contextualize it, and allow it to serve you and others. Allow your suffering to help Something. Ask for help. Reach out. Do something different.
So I’m doing some familiar things, and some new ones. I’m talking more than usual on the phone with my family. I’m reading. I’m wildly busy at work, so I’m doing overall less mental berating of myself. I’m playing Words with Friends, going on walks, fighting with the skunk who keeeeeps spraying directly outside my window (not all nature is good, I concede), cooking, baking, or just making macaroni from a box and not judging myself about it. I’m not immune to the simple allure of tv (but try to be social and talk about it afterwards). I love exchanging letters with people, so I’m trying to do a lot of letter writing when I’m in the mood, especially because I know people like getting fun mail. Because I’m not always in the mood to be my best self. I’m trying to work out/journal/meditate one per day, but sometimes I am lazy and cranky and don’t. I have virtual therapy appointments, and I’m still moody and easily irritated and mad at myself for trying to multitask (usually looking at my phone). I too do not particularly trust the person who is living their best life at this weird, isolated time. But if that’s you, good for you!
This time is unique in that it is allowing us more than ever before to hone in on what matters, and to opt out of the parts of our society that do not serve us (or anyone). It is providing us the opportunity to help others, to reach out and strengthen personal ties, time to heal ourselves and our brains and how we think of ourselves (as helpless or capable, isolated or part of a community). There is not much else to do other than go outside and walk or run, familiarizing ourselves with the species in the area. Noticing that we are not alone. You have neighbors, and postal workers, and all sorts of animals and plant life around you (some of which might be blooming these days). It’s a time to make the best of what’s around. It’s not easy, but there’s no getting around it. We have to go through!
Today, something fun happened. On my lunch break, I made a sandwich, perilously close to the start time of meditation. I debated not “going” to meditation. Instead, I reasoned that being three minutes late and eating a sandwich did not bar me from virtual attendance where I would have my camera and audio muted, so I shuffled back to the computer, finished eating and closed my eyes.
Not long after, the gentleman who guides the meditation paused from his regularly scheduled broadcasting about breathing and addressed the group. Two people had their sound turned on, and he asked everyone to check that it wasn’t their own. Barbara and Aaron did not check. He asked them by name to silence their computers. Another few moments went by, and Barbara still did not check! “Barbara, please silence your computer!” he implored again. And again.
And I loved it.
Now, before you think I am picking on Barbara, or you want to give her the benefit of the doubt (maybe she had stepped away from the computer), no. The default was not to display video or audio (because only one person needs to be talking, and it is awkward to display yourself on camera when all you are doing is closing your eyes), but Barbara had enabled both. I watched her keep her eyes closed despite the guide speaking her name. Eventually she fumbled with the phone and after a bit of phone-fumble-breeze sounds, then a view of her ceiling fan, she was gone.
Nay, it is indeed human to make technological mistakes. Though it is rude to not consider your impact on those around you (especially in a silent setting), this Babs thing made me chuckle more than anything! I appreciated the person in charge for his quick action to resolve the issue. He knew that everyone was in the session to tune out as much noise as possible, and didn’t want to let any extra in on his watch. He defended the peace! Non-judgmentally, directly, and quickly!
I’ve been in many meditation sessions where this is not the case. Even the best teachers may not recognize or know how to handle the conflict of one participant causing a distraction/disruption. And maybe it is easier in the virtual class, because all are equally muted, contrary to, how is someone supposed to police the volume of another’s breathing? (However, one could argue *cough, I would argue* that when an instructor says to breathe quietly, the person taking giant lion breaths and sighing forcefully is knowingly being a dick.)
Or maybe it’s just quieter right now! Ordinarily a cough or other auditory distraction will pull me out of precious silence, out of focus, and make me mad. The bonus of workout/meditation classes from home is that no one has to hear anyone but the instructor. Everyone is free to do their own thing (but should all be paying attention, if this is a work video call ;). In theory, this applies to work, personal life and projects too. Less noise = fewer distractions = more focus. I have a task to complete, and if I need to call or email someone to complete it, I can, but otherwise, it’s all me. Obviously, some days it’s easy to get out of my own way, and sometimes it’s incredibly not. Yes, in the case of meditation, the Equitable Mute was threatened, defended, and ultimately upheld. (Justice!) BUT: what if the loud exhaler is me? What if the loud background noise is coming from inside my head?
Several of my close friends deal with anxiety too. A few of the ones who identify as introverts are having a really tough time with self-isolation. One told me, “okay, yes, I like to recharge away from people, but… now I’m fully charged! What am I supposed to do?” Another is struggling with boundaries; as much as she resented interacting with unpleasant people at work, she has to defend a new boundary of people calling and emailing her nonstop because they can now. Yet another told me she was cutting back on watching the news. THE NEWS! During a pandemic! Where the conspiracy theories, political vitriol, and uninformed opinions are flying all around!
There is such thing as too much information!
I’m typically the last to know everything, and I have been keeping more current with news since rules and standards are changing by the day and I don’t want to get turned away from the grocery store. But no way will I watch the news. A) I don’t like certain people’s voices, and those people are often featured. B) having more information is not going to improve any aspect of my life. Ultimately, I choose to tune out the theories and focus on the facts (what to wear/do when out in public), seeking information that will serve me. As long as I get the bottom line/know the safety regulations, I am tuning the rest out. I donate to charities, I purchased gifts and stamps from the USPS, and I sign the petitions about absentee ballots, incarcerated populations’ release and whatever I can mentally handle.
I’m not checking out, or sticking my head in the sand as if this isn’t happening, but choosing where to look for what types of information. I’m also trying to send out more than I take in (mostly in the form of mood-boosting things like letters and phone calls). This tuning out of non-essential information is helping me to pare down and tune in to the essentials: what I need and how to connect with/be “there” for my friends and family. A wise lady recently told me that this pandemic situation is all about who you are in a room by yourself, and I’m determined to enjoy the company.
As the clock struck midnight on January 1st, I sat, like many others, watching the ball drop. As the cameras panned the crowd at Times Square, an announcer held a microphone in front of a group of young women who exclaimed it was “SO CRAZY!” how it was a new decade. I laughed with someone I don’t know well but respect, as he said “it’s not crazy! It’s how time works!” My thoughts exactly. Literal! Practical!
Though it’s easy to critique merrymakers in varying states of intoxication, and though in general I am an advocate of remarking on wonder whenever it strikes, time really does work minute by minute and hour by hour.
Anxiety would have me fast forward through future days/hours/minutes until I know all the answers and the ways everything plays out. Depression and obsessive thinking would trap me in the past days/hours/minutes and replaying all of the cringeworthy mistakes and missteps I made, all the people who I lost. And it’s easy to look at a month, a year, a decade, in those terms.
Ten years ago, I was reeling from the most traumatic and destructive event of my life. I was paralyzed by fear, doubt, isolation and loss. I could not let go of the plan I had made and outwardly insisted I was fine, marching forward into the worst year of my life up to that point.
It is my hope that over the last ten years (especially the past one), I have learned to let go of the controlled plan and to deal with reality before I move forward. To stop forcing it. It is my goal to take each day as it comes and do my best with it, which is to say mindfully advance through, while prioritizing my needs as well as the people I care about. It is also my hope that when (not if!) I fail to do that, as I feel about this holiday season, I won’t punish myself with a constant stream of internal criticism but instead show some compassion.
And some of the minutes/days, compassion is out of my reach. I get trapped in my habits. And those are the days when I need to surround myself with the amazing humans in my orbit. New Year’s Eve was one of those days: I needed a shock out of my head. And I got it, in the form of social connection and warmth. (Note: NYE was not exclusive in this–I needed and got social connection and warmth over the holidays as well, from my amazing long-distance friends too.)
A lovely co-guest at my amazing friends’ dinner party brought a jar of questions for us all to answer, ranging from light and conversational to reflective and emotional. We were talking about the tribulations and triumphs of the year, the people we are grateful for and the lessons we’ve learned. And, like any good event, we quoted Titanic (to making it count!) It was a great end to the year, and it did feel crazy that I was into this sentimental, sort of mushy activity. It felt crazy and wondrous what a difference this decade has made.
And speaking of counting, 2019 was the first year of the decade that I didn’t meet or exceed my reading goal. I couldn’t be prouder of this shortcoming, because it means I was doing other things! Some fruitless, some counterproductive, but overall I was trying to take in a variety of media, and to output/create to counterbalance what I took in. There are many ways I can do more, or better, or more compassionately, but at the close of one HARD year and the start of another, I am okay with how I’ve done. A far cry from being in love with my life and free from fear or regret, but at least on that side of center.
Last week at the library, an older gentleman approached me and asked if we had a certain title. I helped him, and he challenged me to guess how old he was. He was excited and proud to show me his drivers license, stating his birth year of 1926, making him 93 years old (2 years older than my grandpa would be if he were alive). I was shocked, considering how mobile and lucid he was, and he wanted to share his ‘secret:’ he swims and rows 3 times per week, and has for years. That, and he dyes his hair 🙂 He seemed, overall, to be in love with his life.
This year, I’m going to take a page from him. I’m going to capitalize on any youth or strength I feel and celebrate the (sometimes painfully few) ways my body serves me. I’m going to be open and friendly with people I know and people I don’t (within boundaries). I plan to take pages from my friends and family, by creating (artfully or not) and putting people and pets first; from my colleagues by thinking before speaking and taking pride in my work.
This decade, I’m reclaiming my time. I’m getting my shit together, and keeping it that way. I’m falling in love, with my life if not more. And as long as I can, I’ll be working on being mindful and making this happen every minute and every day, because that’s how time works.
The last women’s meditation, I wasn’t feeling it. And that’s okay.
It started off wrong. As a gluten-free individual in a world of free sandwiches, I rely on salads. This salad, however, had wheat berries and croutons mixed on in, and there weren’t allergen statements on anything else to ascertain safety. The event took a safe, familiar salad and made it toxic to me. I recognize the privilege of being served a free lunch at work, and I don’t want to complain, but this made me sad because the salad they usually have is delicious. Why mess with a good thing?
The actual meditation started out fine enough. The theme was “excitement” and the leader asked everyone what they were excited for this month. The obvious answers (family, food, time off) popped up. Someone got close-to-personal as her voice quavered as she said “I’m not feeling excited right now, and I am having trouble trying.” I said giving gifts, because I like doing that and it’s not too personal of a statement to share with a room of strangers (friends/family would get a different answer :)* When someone at the end of the circle said “making gifts” (emphasis spoken), I felt immediately that I had an enemy (aided by the fact that this particular person never acknowledges outside of that room that we have been in the same room many times). She was one-upping me. Okay, fine. Don’t let the negativity stick.
Then the instructor began, telling us about how excitement manifests not only in positive ways, but that when our systems are ‘excited’ by stress, we feel it, and we feel it too when our systems are defeated and succumb to the rest and relaxation when we are sick or just over it. I appreciated that she talked about how she was feeling under the weather and stressed over an upcoming final project she has in her yoga teaching program. She’s a human, and I like when people share more than just the positives.
She lost me after that. She guided us through a meditation about the seasons, and what we wear/eat/do during the seasons.
….um, what? How is this exciting? Not that she had to perform for us, but I didn’t see the connection to excitement at all. I was too excited to pay attention to her!
But, whatever! I was there, and that’s all I could do. Instead of judging her (or really even listening to her enough to get annoyed by the meh-ness) I just did my own thing and thought about what I actually needed right then. And I had that. I had a colleague sitting next to me, I had a warm and sunny space. I had a job and coworkers I love waiting on the other end. And following this disappointing event, I had a great conversation about real shit.
I had lots of positives going on, but when the facilitators invited everyone to share their follow-up feelings, I passed. My positive feelings had nothing to do with what just happened. In fact, I felt not positive about that. My nemesis had only one word, “free,” said with a smug smile. And this part of the event always irritates me. It feels like a performance, and an easy line of delineation for who the meditation “worked for” and who it didn’t, aka a line between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” The person who started off by conveying her fragile and unexcited state was yet unchanged as well.
The same day, I went to kundalini, because it had been weeks and I kept making excuses not to go. The movements were physically challenging, and I had fed myself not enough, not nourishing food (see: the two bags of chips I ate for lunch). Also, the class was directly after therapy, so I was already mostly depleted.
Needless to say, it was an off day.
As I gave up midway through almost every exercise, I was surprised to find myself still happy. I thought about how typically, I would have been pissed at my subpar performance. I thought about how annoyed I get when people (usually dudes) are too loud or off-key with their breathing or chanting or singing. Instead, I realized that there were so many off-key singers that even I couldn’t calibrate my voice. I couldn’t even carry a tune for the very basic chants, and yet. How different that I was okay just to show up to class. To be in the room. To be.
At the end of the day, after a full day of being slightly off and when I tried to show up for arguably too much, I was totally accepting my limitations! Killing the mindfulness thing!
If my nemesis ever decides to show up to my precious yoga class, though, I might snap. (And I accept this about myself.)
*This specific reason for excitement is no longer applicable due to the three-week gap from when I started writing this to the actual completion. Really gotta write more often.