I haven’t written much about politics lately, because inevitably any post ends in a stream of invectives. So, so blue.
It’s become quite clear that horrible people get more attention than decent people. Liars get more press than truth-tellers. Diatribes and conspiracy-laden memes get more likes than reasoned arguments. It’s clear that short blurts and bumper sticker sentiments resonate more with people than logical and balanced discussions.
And I’m no better. I can’t read the news without feeling the hostility rising. I’ve found myself streaming too much television for escape from the fears and anxieties and the desolation of feeling out of step and place. It’s made me less intelligent, less rational, less active, less thoughtful.
I hadn’t been writing much lately, because everything was coming out raw and angry and emotional. This is not the person I wish to move towards. If all the world is dying, I still get to make some choices about who I am. It’s really the only power we have. With or without money, under duress or at the height of luxury, it’s the only real power we have – to choose what kind of person we are going to be.
There are some humans who are dirty bombs. Dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption. While many people think the reality television celebrity who is our president has done a good deed in disrupting the political routine, disruption in and of itself is not a positive or negative thing. It’s just disruption. Only the fallout matters. And thus far, the fallout has not been positive, regardless of your political ideology.
Dirty bombs are valuable in that the effects are not immediately known. Long term health issues and cleanup of the affected area have great economic consequences, but the immediate result of a dirty bomb is the fear it inspires. Psychologically, it can keep a population in the thrall of fear and anxiety, leading them to support measures that are politically expedient, but which also carry long term and ill-predicted outcomes.
How does one counter a dirty bomb? For starters, detection of materials needed to make the bomb – conspiracy theories, false statistics and statements, emotional appeals, simplified memes from complex issues, repeating information without verification, choosing partisanship over rationalism, and not verifying sources. It means improving critical thinking skills and using a bullshit detector.
The next step is to maintain protective gear. Protective gear involves learning about issues in-depth, filtering out misinformation, listening more than talking, learning how to parse and construct rational arguments, and weighing the source of information. Protective gear must also have a palliative affect – it must provide comfort. It means taking a break from the news, finding the beauty in art, music, and literature. It means being quiet to keep the inner life rich and productive.
Lastly, and the step I often forget to do, actively recognize those humans around you who are not dirty bombs – who leave the world, wherever they are, a better place. Raise their profile, send thank you notes, shake their hands, call out their good deeds. Look for people who set examples worth following and emulate the hell out of them. It puts attention where it should be and reminds you that love and kindness are truly radioactive and a little goes a long, long way.
I am finding my way back in writing this and have decided that my action to follow is that I will take back my time from some distractions. I’m giving up any television, streaming, videos, etc. for the next 30 days. Breaking the habit of distraction is a tough one, but this might be a good first step.
If you would like to join me in this experiment, send me a note via my contact page. We can check in with each other periodically and at the end of the thirty days, you’ll be invited to write a guest post about your experience and what you learned (or didn’t).
What I’ve Been Reading Lately:
Proof: A Play by David Auburn
Reading play scripts is a fantastic way to help with writing dialogue.
Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work that Reconnects by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown
Not always on board with New Age-y concepts, but there are a lot of useful approaches to dealing with the feeling of powerlessness that I’ve been experiencing lately.
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
Still struggling to get through this work of fiction. The writing is so wondrously dense and well-done that I have to keep taking breaks just to take it in.
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
After following George Lakoff’s blog and enjoying his linguistic take on issues, I bought this book. Admittedly, it’s a little above my pay grade in terms of intellect, but I’d rather read up, than down.
What are you reading?
I took an unintended hiatus when I realized that I had nothing to say. I go through periods like this, where writing words fail to comfort and when I’m so tired of my own story, my own patter, that I go dark. It becomes a time of frenetic activity, physical labor, compulsive reading, long walks where all I hear is my breathing and the sounds of furtive nature. It is a time to refill the reservoir, to get out of my own brain, to seek solace in the words of others, to feel my muscles contract and expand, to roll up my sleeves, and wipe away the sweat.
I’ve spent a lot of time just standing in my garden, watching butterflies and frantic bees. We’re experiencing the largest migration of Painted Lady butterflies in 30 years. It’s the time of year to start cutting and clearing and preparing for the winter, but warm temperatures have offered a reprieve to all those creatures with long to-do lists: gathering stores of food, laying eggs for the spring, building overwinter shelters, making the long trip south.
Humans have their own to-do lists: cleaning gutters, clearing gardens, trimming trees. In addition to all of that, I think about what will get me through the long six months of winter. These days, the Twin Cities hasn’t really had a severe winter in a few years. And the upcoming one is predicted to be mild. This bodes well for getting outside more, but there is still a sense that keeping the mind a fertile garden might require a little effort.
So, I’ve signed up to get re-certified in Adult and Pediatric CPR/ First Aid and for a weekly Spanish conversational class. My book piles are high and at the ready. My Y gym membership in good standing and my list of indoor house projects long and unwieldy. It’s not enough to say I’ll get some writing done. I need to feed my brain, grow my skills, move my body, and let in other voices besides those repetitive ones in my head.
In my dreams last night, I was once again a vigilante, interrupting a knife attack. I knew the first step: control the knife hand, but was frozen on the next step. Eye gouge? Kidney punch? Cross sweep? Foot stomp? I woke up thinking I need to train. It’s a funny thing, being a middle-aged unpublished suburban housewife and having a brain wired with longings to be a superhero (while knowing the reality would be awful and violent and demoralizing).
I’ve been having vigilante dreams off-and-on since my early teens. As a child, poverty and domestic violence made me feel powerless. I daydreamed a lot about taking that power back. Those conquering daydreams fed my subconscious and my imagination and eventually, my sleeping hours.
As an adult, I’ve tried to honor those impulses. I joined the Army, I did martial arts training and took self-defense courses. My husband gently mocks me about the fact that I’ve never had a physical confrontation except in generally safe sparring scenarios. Despite this, I’ve heard him brag on occasion that in the case of danger, we would defend him (my daughter also has martial arts training).
Perhaps it’s the fight-or-flight instinct, so lost and beleaguered in modern society, that leads some of us to workout intensely or put ourselves through rigorous physical testing. Part of me has an apocalyptic bent – everything is done in preparation. And perhaps it is worth questioning if all this preparation adds to or detracts from one’s quality of life. Until I figure it out, I keep returning to training.
I’ve been reading erratically, surrounded by piles of books and magazines. At least six books have bookmarks in them. I had to give up reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Good writing, a little heavy on metaphors, but the subject was a tough read – a combination of family and natural disaster, dog-fighting, and cringe-worthy sexuality. I recognize that sometimes my need to be comforted outweighs reading for the art of it.
So I return to those voices that resonate with me: James Baldwin, Arundhati Roy, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Adler, Anne Lamott. I read a rather funny piece by Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish Writer, late 1700s) called “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”, inspiring me to write a modern version. I also have started to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. It’s a work of fiction on a topic I have no interest in (horse racing), but the writing is pure bliss.
I find sometimes, that when I’m in a reading streak, talking seems like a waste of time. I can remember being a child and not wanting to put my book down, only engaging with people because I had to, and returning to the pages as quickly as I could. It’s a joy when you rediscover that feeling as an adult. With so many things that demand one’s attention, it’s a delightful luxury to think Not now, I’m reading.
I had a conversation with someone the other day who only gets their news from the television. When we started talking about a political situation, they spent a lot of time saying, oh, I didn’t know that or that or that. Was I any better off for having read The Economist or only getting my news from online curated sources? In the scheme of things, what was the difference between knowing a little or knowing a lot?
Then I thought of a new Suzanne Collins series called The Brain Games. To-the-death trivia games. I’d make it up the bracket a ways, only to be killed off by the photographic memory guy. Information is power, photographic memory guy would say, reminding me that he was paraphrasing Francis Bacon from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae, shortly before skewering me.
I hope that I can stop flittering about soon and settle down to write coherently. But the sun is out, my garden is full of butterflies, and I have some reading to do.
I’ve been living a summer in quiet desperation. Fall is creeping in around the mornings. I smell it in the air and see the frantic scurry of squirrels hiding their winter stores of food. Usually, it brings with it a sweet melancholy that makes me more creative and introspective. This year seems different.
I turn 50 shortly and it’s clouded my mind in all the expected ways. Ways that seem like stages of grief. I’m in the bargaining/rationalization phase. Initially, I mourned that there was less ahead of me than behind me. Then I tut-tut-tutted myself. At least I’m alive. It seems a banal reassurance, because if I weren’t alive, I’d hardly be agonizing over the fact.
This could be the beginning of a long diatribe about the visceral signs of aging now creeping up on me. It’s all been said before – gravitational pull on body parts, the decrepitude of the mind, the regrets of a life half-lived. But I stop myself mid-wail. That is not my story, because that could be anybody’s story.
My story, my peculiar little piece of navel-gazing, is my disappointment that nothing has changed. No grand epiphany about grabbing life by its nether regions and hauling off to Nepal. No reawakened sexuality turning me into a feral alley cat. No heartwarming reunions with high school chums or estranged relatives. No grand realization that turns my nonexistent career into a lecture tour, Times book review, or even a paycheck. It’s still just me.
That’s a little disappointing.
Everyone has a life narrative that they tell themselves. Mine was always that I was a late bloomer. It was an easy pattern to see – everything always happened with my friends first – college, marriages, babies, careers. I started college late after a stint in the Army, married in my early 30s and had a child when I was 37. And I never had a career, just jobs. I could joke about how my whole narrative was one long procrastination.
At 50, the late-bloomer story is starting to wear a little thin. And I have to ask myself, if 50 years of action (and inaction) didn’t lead me to where I want to be, is it time to change the destination? And shouldn’t the journey be a little more enjoyable?
It’s funny when you’re younger. You assume by 50 that things will have been settled, that where you end up is where you intended to be or at the very least, where you’re okay being. But just as society has begun to write me off, I’ve started feeling my oats.
Hatred and empty noise! Old, faithful companions of the strong, the essential.
Hatred is the murderer.
Empty noise is the gravedigger.
But there is always resurrection.
Vasily Kandinsky, On Understanding Art, 1912
Over the last few months, wallowing in a micro/macro depression (woe is me and doesn’t the world just suck?), I’ve realized what a coward I’ve been. It’s a harsh, but necessary realization. I’ve been so distracted by the empty noise. And I’ve wanted to be distracted, because if I weren’t paying full attention, I wouldn’t have to take full responsibility.
If I were to describe the perfect me of my intentions, it would be a physically fit polymath with strong, loving relationships, charitable works, and a steely sense of integrity. If I were to describe the real me, the one I live with everyday, the picture is quite a bit lopsided, inconsistent, and always, irritatingly, a struggle. That damned human element.
One would imagine I have grandiose plans moving forward. My opening gambit on turning 50 is a real gob smacker. I’m going to stop taking vitamins.
Now hear me out. People say that taking vitamins is like insurance for nutritional deficiencies in our diet. The science doesn’t support that, yet even knowing those facts, I have still been taking a multivitamin and flax oil supplement for years. Does taking those pills make me less diligent about eating a nutritionally dense, well-balanced diet? I would say yes. The backup plan has become the plan.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea – all the insurances we put in place. I’ve been so set on being safe, carrying all the right insurances, having backup plans to the backup plans, that I’ve filled my life with safeguards for a life I really am not living. Because while I fearlessly fail on a daily basis, I’ve not allowed myself to fail spectacularly. I’ve not put anything on the table worth losing.
So today, I take no vitamins. Tomorrow I submit a short story to a lit mag. Or at least I eat some leafy greens.
Lately, I’ve been reading Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. Vasily Kandinsky began his professional career in law and economics. He chucked it all at 30 to begin painting studies. All art in this post is his – a testament to his openness and intellect in exploring art. I bet he didn’t take vitamins, either.
This post will be moderated per The Green Study comment policy.
There is a moment in each day now when I imagine the decimation of my country. I grew up with the idea that America represented ethics and values that I could get behind. I didn’t always agree with politicians or administrations, but I respected that it was an honorable thing to serve this country. My eyes watered hearing The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I put my hand on my heart and believed that there was something of which we could be proud.
When I was in high school, I went to state speech contest with a fiery “The Loss of American Patriotism: Where Are the Voters?” I spent hours listening to the comedian, Rich Little, do presidential impressions. I loved learning about government and American history, reading the biographies of the men and women who shaped this country.
I joined the US Army near the end of the Cold War, became a Russian linguist and served four years of active duty and another four on reserve duty, retraining as a Combat Radio Operator in preparation for the first Gulf War. I love my country. I feel fortunate for having been born here. I love that there are so many opportunities to learn and that our diversity brings a richness of culture.
My patriotism matured, though. I read about slavery and bigotry and the resistance to equal rights. I read about My Lai and the Tuskegee experiment. I read about Watergate and watched the Iran Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. I payed attention to the corruption, the sexual scandals, the misappropriation of funding, and the misjudgments that cost military men and women their lives.
Maturity required that I pay attention, that I vote, that I believe the foundations of government to be well-reasoned and guided by the rule of law. It required a degree of cynicism while maintaining the belief that no misdeed would go unpunished. It required me to support my community, follow the laws, and contribute where I could.
These days, my patriotism falters. I don’t know where we’re going to end up. I view my fellow citizens with suspicion, appalled that so many have willingly embraced incivility as the norm. Disgusted that so many have the I got mine, you can just suffer mentality. I’m astonished at the number of people who are comfortable deriding education and science. And so incredibly saddened by how quickly hate rises when beckoned by someone who has never served anyone but himself.
Common good is no longer part of the conversation. Who is our military fighting for? Defense contractors and antiquities thieves and soon, it will be minerals. Maybe it was always like that and I was too immature to see how easily people in power waste the lives of those who aren’t. Our system is awash in tainted lucre, crusty old men, and greedy shareholders.
The conservative class is polluted by religious fundamentalism, photogenic faces with acidic, twisted morals. Lying has become de rigeur and shamelessness, a casual smirk worn with defiance. Winning at the expense of fellow Americans. Trading in an empathetic sense of right and wrong for showmanship.
Liberals are being bogged down by the attention-seeking behavior of the deliberately ignorant. Unfortunately, they’ve been thrown so far off balance and are spending so much time compensating, that the message is lost. They don’t need new bumper stickers. They need to step outside a cycle of reactivity. They need imagination and originality.
I don’t feel at home here, a country I was born in and raised to love. Now there’s this rise of white nationalism, a soupy crockpot of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, all blaming someone else for their lot in life. All the religiosity is scary and the anti-intellectualism reminds me of other regimes that went after intellectuals, scientists, journalists, readers. Me, with my secular humanism and library card – I’ll end up on a list. My inability to be attractive enough to seduce or wealthy enough to bribe anyone – unable to get in the right line, check the right boxes.
Apocalyptic views are often roundly mocked. But we’re watching bedrock institutions having the legs knocked out from under them, while being undermined, and ridiculed by a man who is wily, but not intelligent. We’re watching our President begin to strip away the rights of our fellow citizens in order to cater to his minority of supporters and to distract us from his other nefarious undertakings. Our leaders used to be people who recognized that the higher duty was to country and not themselves. We used to want people who were smarter, more talented, better read, better educated, and more well-rounded in their American experience than we ourselves were.
Now we have a bully who has been pampered and flattered from cradle to grave, who has turned national discourse into a manipulated reality show dialogue. The Ugly American in all its stomach-turning glory. Meanwhile, every dictator on the planet has bellied up to the bar to have a missile measuring contest. It’s good times for them. The rogue’s gallery of murderers – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, all happy to see that America is now completely unmoored from even a pretense of moral leadership.
And what can I do? I vote, I follow the rules, I donate to causes I support, I volunteer, I call my representatives. I work to understand the issues. I try to see different perspectives. All from my little house in a midwestern working class suburb where life, at the moment, appears unchanged.
A Muslim family moved in across from our neighbors, who are religious home schoolers. Down the street, one neighbor finally took down their Trump/Pence sign. We still keep up our “We Choose Love” sign, a faint reminder of idealism in the recent past. Will this diverse neighborhood survive or will we come to blows? Will we need hidden rooms and underground railroads and forged identity papers?
There are too many dominoes coming down all at once, too many lies to keep track of, and too many morally-destitute people with the power to be destructive at the helm. Threats from without are being matched by threats from within. We can only protest and resist our captors for so long. Without money or power, we’re just left to negotiate for bathroom breaks – after our gender is checked. This is what a small percentage of our fellow citizens wish for us and there is simply no denying the sheer malevolence of it.
This is about as pessimistic as I get about things and it’s not a place where I plan to stay. Lest you think I’m giving up, giving in, or content to sit in apathy, the events of the last weekend and the national dialogue surrounding them have given me pause. It all requires more thoughtfulness and wisdom than I am capable of at the moment.
It’s hard to write when you don’t even want to talk. I was surprised that it had been nearly three weeks since I’d written a blog post, despite the fact that they have seemed interminably long weeks. I’m here, because I’ve been inside my own head for too long and at some point, it makes it hard to be in the world.
Instead of connecting with people, I’ve been reading, gardening, and walking. It’s made me more intolerant of small talk than I already was and I know that is not a good thing. I’m in the middle of reading The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto and The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden. At breakfast, I pour through the tiny print of the most recent issue of The Economist. At night, I’ve been reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
I decided a few weeks ago to concentrate on reading and fitness and to let everything else fall by the wayside. On the heels of a lengthy depression, movement has become the antidote. I’ve been walking, biking, and running every day. I’ve dropped some weight, which is a nice gift to my knees. But all the focus and grim determination means that I feel a bit brittle on the inside.
In suburbia, even in the older neighborhoods, walking is one of the most solitary activities there is – no one is outdoors except in transition from house to car and vice versa. On the rare occasion when I pass a walker or biker on the sidewalk, my smile feels strange, the muscles unused for too long. I wonder if it looks as creepy as I imagine it does.
Walking serves as meditation. Thoughts are allowed to come and go as they please. No attachment to outcomes or items to be added to a list. It occurred to me that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know what I need. That maybe this moment, this padding along the pavement is it for now.
At first all is dark and each walks alone. What they share is only the feeling of remoteness and desertion, of having marched for miles and miles, of having lost their bearings, of a restless urge to find water. Gradually for each in turn darkness begins to dissolve and their vision to take shape.
W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Each time I return from a walk, I do not return the same as when I left. I remembered someone from long ago. I realized a feeling that I’d been ignoring. I saw where I’d been, like peeking into a series of rooms in a large building, to see if I was in the right place. Been there, never want to go there again, that was a nice visit, maybe the next one.
If I were to look for something specific, I would be thorough and systematic. I am the finder of things in our household. But walking means that I am the discoverer of things and that I have no control over what they might be.
“…it is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
No great epiphany has hit me. I’m in a time of life of unknowing – who I am becoming, who I will be, what will happen. There are no plans, no driving forces working their will upon me. I’ve done it all before, sometimes repeatedly. Enough to know that letting go is the last frontier, that everything that has weighed me down, made me hold my breath, kept me on the sidelines, no longer carries weight.
I’ve realized that I can maintain my awareness in the world without getting caught in the cycling of outrage and lies. I can positively contribute without lying awake nights wondering how so much hatefulness can exist. I can look into the dark heart of humanity and still choose to embrace joy and love and kindness. I must keep walking until the shadows recede and the light warms my face.
In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints?
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
It’s hard to write from a place of depression. Whatever anyone thinks they know about depression, they can really only know their own. Mine comes in many shades. This particular one is a verdant green. The gray dullness I feel is made more pallid by the contrast of a lush Minnesota summer, when the rain has come at all the right times.
Already I – have become tired of such a deep-colored summer.
In the grove the masses of royal fern – have grown up to
their full height and
I suppose such things as beetles, frogs, and blue-green
dwarves are walking.
This greenness like a sea
must have totally dyed the expression of my eyes.
Sei Itō, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry
It’s like being in the middle of a really great party, but no one can hear or see you. I feel untouched by happiness, retreating further into the recesses of my mind. Life becomes this out-of-body experience and I used to fear that if I didn’t hold on, force myself back out, I’d just drift away. But my energy is low, even while my brain generates worst case scenarios by the second.
I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that I should feel this way or that. This is emotional freedom. My life is now constructed in such a way that my depression isn’t a spectator sport. I can pull weeds without expression, fold laundry mindlessly, make a meal in silence. I can think my dark thoughts and not have to apologize or try to ameliorate the worry of someone else. I can go dark and quiet and unnoticed.
My experience gives me the edge when it comes to the regular dead space that overtakes me. I know it will end. I’ve been through this so many times, that I know I will likely wake up tomorrow in an entirely different place. This keeps my depression from becoming something more dangerous. It makes it less dramatic or interesting, which is something I don’t take for granted.
Some depressions I slide into, requiring days of numbness to finally force my acknowledgement. Some, like where I’m at now, happen snap-quick when an incident knocks away my self-assurance, uncorking tumble-down thoughts that I was filled with at a young age. I am not good enough and making mistakes just proves that.
In this case, I said something that I thought was funny, but I hurt the person’s feelings. I apologized and maybe in a differently-wired brain that would be the end of it. We moved on from it, but I stayed with the thought that I am mean-spirited and that I can’t trust myself to be around other people. That I can’t trust other people.
It triggered an anxiety attack. I would not be loved unless I made myself more worthy. How do I make myself worthy? Strive for perfection. Strive to be better. I put myself through a punishing workout. I worked harder getting the house in order. I tried not to speak unless necessary. Intellectually I know I’ve gone off my nut, but intellect is only one part of the human operating system. In less than 24 hours after an innocuous exchange, I am in the murky waters of depression.
Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger. I never know if I’m in the beginning or at the end, until the fog lifts.
I have a family history of depressive and personality disorders. Some of us have chosen medication and some, like me, have willingly allowed ourselves to live with it. And in some cases, embrace it. Not being a hugger, I’m willing to give it a pat on the arm and think, get on with it.
It may be my superstition that if I give up the fog, I may not have the sharp clarity and energy that follows. It’s a common rationale for manic-depressives, unwilling to treat the depression because the treatment dulls the mania. With a milder version of it (cyclothymia), I am less willing to give up those moments when intricate thoughts wend themselves through my brain and words hurl themselves onto the page.
To an outsider, it might seem an untenable life and in the early years, when my life was less stable and circumstances more dire, it was. I would desperately try to medicate myself – booze, smoking, men, food, shopping, gambling. But at some point I made different choices and one of those choices was figuring out how to make room for my brain chemistry. I found people who didn’t press when I wanted to be alone. I sought help when I couldn’t help myself.
I learned to give myself permission to just be and observe. It has become a meditation unto itself. I unwind the monologues that run through my head, acknowledging with gentleness each twisted perspective, diatribe, miscue, mistake, and loads of dubious self-pity. I’ve learned to tease myself “Yes, yes, you are a horrible person. Yes, that trip to Greece with the drunken boyfriend was a huge mistake. Yes, you really are quite the lumpy hausfrau. Yes, the world is an awful, awful place.” Yes, dear, lay it all out on the table.
And all these things that have been tucked away, the failures and the embarrassments, lay there, inert and powerless. And I see them for what they are – old stories. It reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections: Stories to Stay Awake By, Stories to be Read with the Lights On, Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. These are my depression stories and I know them by heart.
And soon, they will shuffle back to their shelves, the fog will evaporate and I will remember the other stories where I do the best I can and that is enough.
Lately, as the airwaves and data bytes have been poisoned with yet another presidential online freak out, I’ve been reading the comments from various sources. People say things like if you get hit, you hit back harder and he’s just fighting fire with fire.
It’s emblematic of any toxic relationship I’ve ever had – from a friend or family member or romantic partner. It’s that person who overreacts to any slight, who doesn’t speak to you for days or even years after you disagree with them. It’s the one you laugh nervously with as they castigate and upbraid someone who crossed them. It’s that person who jokingly hints if you upset them in any way, they’ll tell your worst secrets to anyone who will listen.
Sometimes they’re hard to recognize. They’re overly effusive and friendly and you slip into what you think is a comfort zone. And then you disagree with them or suggest that something they did was perhaps unkind. Snap. First a momentary chill, then fiery hot words meant to wound and hurt and dismiss. If you’re the target, you have that sick knot in your stomach and if you have any introspection at all, there’s the potential for gaslighting, so shocked by the reaction. Maybe it was me.
I’ve long ago left behind or limited relationships that contain that kind of toxicity. It’s fairly astonishing to hear that people think this is a legitimate or healthy way to conduct oneself in the world. But we see and hear this in a lot of disputes – the escalation of property disputes, road rage incidents, the excess use of lawsuits, and workplaces where employees are kept in check through vindictiveness and emotional intimidation.
Growing up where retaliation was swift and disproportionate, intended to diminish and wound, rather than teach, I learned to be a soother. Never too offensive or loud or noticed. One hates to admit that the dysfunctional childhood lessons help in some ways, even while hindering in others. I have a radar when it comes to toxic people and a skill for walking on eggshells, which sometimes deluded me into thinking I was special, until the day I said the wrong thing.
People rationalize an awful lot of behavior in order to support a political ideology that is unable to stand on its own without tipping the table, confusing the issues with personality, and turning the public discourse into a cesspool of grudge matches. There has been a lot of talk about this last election, that people voted values, not policy. This particular value sticks out at me – the idea that no slight go unchallenged.
Some of the people who say things like hit back harder purport to be religious. The whole turn-the-other-cheek philosophy a vague lesson best left to the wussies and pacifists. I think about how little courage is required to react and lash out and allow your anger to go unchecked. And what fortitude is needed to pull back, take a breath, think about the issue at hand, and respond civilly. Or not at all.
Despite my ideological leanings, this kind of behavior can be spotted all along the spectrum – the lashing out, name-calling, and pointing out the behavior of someone else to justify one’s own. This is where I call bullshit on those who advocate bootstrap personal responsibility from everything from economics to health care, yet accept no personal responsibility for being utter wankers.
In my world, I assume that any words coming out of my mouth, regardless of what is being said or done, are my responsibility. The justification of they did it first never worked in elementary school and it sure as hell shouldn’t work in the grownup world.
Sometimes I whinge on about writing. Sometimes I whinge on about aging. Today, I do a little of both over at Kasmin’s Redesign Life for Real Change blog with “The Writer and the Tortoise”.
Since it’s summer, my family and I have indulged in some low rent binge watching – namely the profligate Marvel Universe on Netflix. On the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., humans undergo a process called Terragenesis in which they evolve through one method or another into inhumans – humans with enhanced powers. In the show, The Ghost Rider is another character who gains the skill to become a fire-hurling head of flame.
My head has felt surrounded by flames on and off for a month now. I’m going through peri-menopause, on my way to being done with my childbearing years. Every two minutes, I feel like I’ve just opened an oven door in front of my face – prickly heat, the sweat, then the cooling off and chills. Insomnia is putting me on edge and writing is interrupted by chaotic thoughts hopping through my head, like frogs on lily pads, leaping from one random word to another.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother writing about “lady issues”. But there is some glee in doing so when we have a president who is viscerally offended by any bodily function of a woman. He’s expressed his heebie-jeebs about menstruation, weight, breastfeeding, using the restroom, children – anything that mars his puerile focus on beauty queen attributes. I’m not really interested in reading about other people’s bodily functions, hygiene or bathroom habits, but I know they exist and don’t act like a ten-year old afraid of girl cooties.
It is euphemistically called a change of life. Metamorphosis is the word that keeps cropping up in my mind. Will I shed my skin? Will I become something worse, lesser, weaker, older? My body seems no longer under my control, with the unregulated thermostat turning the furnace on every time I get the least bit comfortable. Now that I will no longer be a fertile being, is this the time when primordial husbands look for eggs elsewhere?
My body has been through a lot – all the running, marching in combat boots and gear, martial arts training, childbirth, endless menstrual cycles. I calculated that in my lifetime, I’ve had a period at least 400 times. 400 times of hormonal changes, fat loss and gain. 400 times when sappy commercials made me cry, I’ve blurted out the wrong thing, I’ve lain on the couch with a heating pad, bottle of ibuprofen, and a box of tissue. My body has been in a constant state of change, but this time the change will stick.
Death anxiety has been keeping me awake as I approach my 50th birthday. All that time under the bridge and I can still feel the rapid heartbeat of knowing that in an instant, I could be dead. I’ve had death thoughts all my life, part and parcel of a family gene of mental morbidity. They mostly come to the surface when I’m under a great deal of pressure or anxious about something. They pass as I finally get sleep and eventually wake up to the day with gratitude – that I made it through the night.
I don’t dwell long in that place – I know it’s not helpful. But these days the thrum of my anxiety isn’t waning. It is staying at a rather constant, exhausting level. This is where the desire to do something drastic and different arises. Anything to relieve the idea that this is it. That my life has culminated in a mere pittance and that any hopes or dreams I have are on a timer. It gets dark in my head, before a challenger arrives.
The challenger is this moment. In this moment, I get to sit in my study and write. I look past the happy cat snoozing on the window seat, into a green space with grape vines and flowers growing. My teenager is whiling away the morning in a horizontal position that seems to shift only slightly throughout the day. My husband, who has surely had his own death thoughts, is downstairs working, on the phone with his colleagues. I’ve had a good breakfast and there’s a full coffee pot.
What is it that would make this experience better? Do I need something or have I become so accustomed to scrabbling for more, I don’t know when to rest? The idea of rest, of not fighting so hard to be disciplined or accurate or on time or willing, bothers me. Yet I wonder if it would make me kinder and more joyful and less anxious. I’ve always wondered if we all aren’t just trying too much. And maybe that is the secret to being happy as one ages. To not try so hard.
I think about my lifetime pursuits thus far. What was I looking for? For me, it has often been safety. This is a sad realization on my part. I would do anything to be safe, not surprised, not noticed – just safe. I grew up with unpredictability, so I needed to be my own rock and I’ve spent a lifetime being careful. I keep waiting for that crushing, regret-filled moment when I see it all so clearly – what I’ve missed out on because I was safe.
That moment may never come. I will likely never be a wild woman, a revolutionary with fiery ideals and bold actions. I won’t be making history. As I sweat through another hot flash, I think about what might be released from my pores – fear, anxiety, pain, old memories, regret, disappointment. Perhaps this is the change that is really happening – that I am becoming unknown to myself again, because everything that has defined me is subject to question.
The school bus had been gutted, seats replaced by plywood that would make a table and then a bed platform and then a bathroom stall. My stepfather was always coming up with creative ways to use cheap things he’d acquired, a forerunner of the reuse and recycle crowd before it became trendy. The school bus into a camper was the most odd, and where we’d end up living for a time while he turned an old gas station into a house.
Our first vacation in the bus was to a lake and campground in Iowa. As a child, it all seemed a grand adventure to me, unaware of the incongruity of a school bus parked amidst RVs and tent campers. I think my mother and stepdad were heady with accomplishment, even as my mother snapped at us to sit down and stop making so much racket, a common refrain in the early years.
It must have been an adventure to my parents, too – lit with the possibilities that if a school bus could be a camper, then all the other things could be something else, too. Every dream was fraught with danger, though. The gas station cum family home became a prison to us and we had to leave him and it. For years the school bus camper sat, incapacitated, off to the side, a centerpiece in a garden of weeds.
This year, my husband, daughter, and I decided to rent a cabin a few hours north, where we’d been many years ago, when my daughter wasn’t yet afraid of spiders or boredom. The cabin is primitive by Minnesota standards, where cabins have quickly taken on the size and cost of a second home.
It’s early in the morning. I ended up sleeping on the couch to spare my husband the jet engine snoring that has become a hallmark of my middle-aged years. It suits me fine, since I can get up at 4, make coffee and write without waking anyone. There’s a chill in the air this morning, but I sit outside comforted by the rustle of birch leaves and rat-a-tat-tat of a yellow-bellied sapsucker that has chosen a metal sign to announce his presence.
On our way to the cabin, we stopped at a restaurant to get a late lunch. We’ve had this habit over the years of avoiding ubiquitous Subways in favor of the local habitats – diners that are also collectibles dealers and bus stations and post offices and, in the past, the only Wi-Fi connection in town.
This particular diner had a bar downstairs. At two in the afternoon, patrons slid past the diner counter mumbling “Is the bar open?” as if it were the password to a speakeasy. We sat at the counter instead of a table, something I insist on, having seen too many 1950s movies and knowing in my writer brain, that it’s where we witness more.
Small town diners remind me forever and always of a diner I worked in as a teenager. Almost every small town diner has the taped-up, yellowing handwritten signs letting you know that they don’t take checks or that you can buy whole pies for a very hopeful price. There’s the shelf of mugs for the coffee club, handmade goods at the front counter, embroidered framed pictures about your biblical blessings and others that bless the meat you are about to eat, by covering the surrounding walls with dead animal heads, watching over you as you eat their progeny.
Part of me takes a mocking view, but it is the mentality of an escapee. The bad outweighed the good in the small town I went to high school in – I only associate it with the times the police were called to our house, the very public way in which a family disintegrates. Everyone knows, which is just about as horrifying as it gets for a self-conscious teenager, mortified when kind teachers or employers offer her a place to stay.
The diner I worked in was a refuge of sorts. The owners were terrible business people, but kind and generous to a fault. I was allowed to stay after closing time, playing Ms. Pac-Man on a gigantic arcade machine in the corner with the boss and eating free pie. As in most diners, there was an elderly woman who came in and baked pies every week – hand-rolled crusts lovingly worked at for hours, only to be filled with canned fruit. Best pies I ever had.
When the waitress comes, my husband and I get the meager salad bar. My vegetarian daughter tries to order their breakfast croissant without the meat and egg, with just cheese. The order confuses the waitress and she launches into a long discussion with the cook. They hesitantly deliver what looks like a fried croissant, no cheese. We fare no better. The tomatoes taste as if they’re going south and there is fish next to them – pickled herring, which my Scandinavian husband says is a thing for putting on salads. The pie in the jewel case that taunted us throughout the meal tastes like an under-cooked, soggy Pop Tart.
We cannot revisit the nostalgic comforts of youth, due to either flawed memories or absent any context. Maybe the pie of my teenage days was exactly the same, but in the context of the constant anxiety I had about what was happening at home, it was something of sweet, predictable comfort.
It makes me think how we rarely understand other people’s attachments and are so quick to condemn them. It is only now that I see the optimism in that old school bus, the reason that I’m drawn to diners, the sundry ways we lean this way or that. It means we must tread lightly in our criticisms and mockery, for what we see as frivolous or cloyingly sentimental, could be something else entirely.