I’m a self-help scavenger. Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of self-help books. Like many people, I started life off on uneven footing and always had the sense that I had to make up for something that I was lacking – something that was preventing me from being the confident, self-actualized, happy person I thought I should be. It’s taken decades to understand how to make self-help advice useful and how to discard that which is not.
There is a wide variety of books out there, one for every phase or problem in one’s life. The approaches vary and as we all know, so do the results. Some are sweet aunties who love you and just want you to be happy. Others are drill sergeants who bellow in your face. And then there are the shills, who turn basic ideas into a secretive language of high wizardry.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned about self-help books:
The first half of the book usually covers all the concepts.
I will be the first to admit that it is a rare self-help guide that I finish. Unless the writing or the stories are compelling, repetition sets in and then it all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head. I also find that I need time for thoughts to marinate – once I catch an idea I like or that makes sense to me, I’m eager to put the book aside.
The harsher the tone of the writer, the less I trust their ability to understand human nature and therefore offer useful advice.
This is the drill sergeant approach. Take someone who is feeling down and out, tell them what to do, and then suggest that they’re a failure if they can’t make it happen. This is, essentially, what many self-help books do. Throw in a little moralizing and finger-wagging and you get the idea. This is, to loot modern terminology, self-help shaming. What? We told you what to do. If you’re not happy now, there’s something wrong with you.
Some books have a narrator who talks as if they’re in the midst of a bar brawl or on the battlefield. The toughness approach generally makes me want to tear the book in half. I grew up with negative motivation. It means that fear drove most of my behavior. I’m a grownup now and won’t be yelled into compliance. Convince me with logic and reason. Use your indoor voice.
Most self-help books are missing major caveats.
I recently read a self-help book that is popular right now. The first chapter started out with the origin story. The second was a cheap remix of The Secret. The following chapters had a few actionable items. I finally quit at the chapter that characterized depression as some sort of defeatist laziness. The writer was a little older than I, so there was really no excuse for this type of ignorance.
This is not the first time a self-help writer characterized depression as something besides a brain chemical imbalance. The positivity movement of the 1990s, in its self-congratulatory glee and smiley faces, runs roughshod over obstacles to good mental health.
It is likely no coincidence that, despite all of these friendly people telling us to get happy, depression is on the rise in this country. It turns out, willful ignorance and grinning determination is not actually an antidote to mental health issues.
Like most things, the sequels are rarely better.
This is about marketing, not self-help. It’s just squeezing an already-juiced orange.
So those are some of the pitfalls. The biggest one, of course, is believing that you are one constant DIY project. I’ve unraveled a lot of the thinking around that. I like self-improvement pursuits, but it’s very easy to focus so hard on trying to be better, that you fail to appreciate the things about yourself that are pretty good. And when pretty good is good enough.
It’s part culture and part related to whatever messages we get as kids. We get pulled into the advertising of better selves through possession of better things and it can attach itself to that part of our psyche that says whatever we have, whatever we are, it’s not enough.
Using Self-Help to Your Advantage
Self-help advice is like a buffet.
You pick what you like, what resonates, what seems like a possibility. You don’t make yourself eat the beets just because they are next to the chocolate pudding (or vice-versa, depending on your intentions and tastes).
There’s no failure. There’s what works for you and what doesn’t.
If you don’t implement every step the author suggests, you’re not a failure. Has the step you’ve chosen helped improve your life in some way? That’s the only thing that matters.
Sometimes good ideas come from odd places.
Many years ago, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” – the tome associated with Scientology. The one thing I learned was to think about my reactions to situations and whether or not I was reacting to what was in front of me or to other memories and connections related to the situation. That’s pretty much all I got out of a 600+ page book, but it was something.
Change is not a television show. There is no big reveal.
I used to love watching This Old House on PBS. Usually it was a kitchen or basement that got transformed in the course of an hour. Of course, ginned-up versions of this now come in weight, house, and fashion makeover shows. Buses are moved, curtains pulled aside, and suddenly, there’s the after, dramatic and “improved”. Real change takes time and perspective. I’ll read something today that I may not try for years, but it’s a tool in the back of my mind that might come in handy someday. You just never know what might be useful when the time is right.
My Abbreviated History of Self-Help Books
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray
I learned that I hate any self-help books divided by gender – and this guy’s books in particular. It’s loaded with stereotypes and unimaginative solutions. This smarmy trad-dude is from Uranus.
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott
I learned some good communication skills, not just with my child, but with humans in general. Kept it as a reference book.
Women and Self-Esteem by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan
I read this back in the 1990s when I was spending a lot of time on public transportation. It had a chapter about women in public spaces that made me not only function differently in public, but also improved my observation skills of others around me.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Don’t quip corporate terminology, show me what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, or encourage me to buy your extensive line of products. Sigh. I bought one of those stupid planners. I needed to schedule time in my day to fill in the damned thing. Not effective and carries a whiff of corporate bro-ness.
This was my first encounter with this American Buddhist nun and I’ve been hooked ever since. Most of the time I listen to her audiobooks, but I will sometimes pull When Things Fall Apart off the shelf. The thing that always sticks in my mind is the idea of “leaning into the sharp edges” – this idea that instead of seeking distraction and avoidance of unpleasant feelings, to look at them with a clear and present eye. It’s much less destructive.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
I really wanted to like this book, but it was a bit of a clunky read, with anecdotes that were too lengthy and perhaps intended for people who routinely miss the point.
Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold
I read this book last fall and set about immediately making changes (microresolutions). I’m still in the enthusiastic phase. I’ve made changes that are, 8 months later, habits. I read another book at the time that was similar in nature: Mini-habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise. It was a good starter book, but Ms. Arnold’s book included an important piece often missed in goal-setting – teaching you how to pick the right goal for yourself.
The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle
I tried, I really tried. There’s no way around it – the condescension just irritated the hell out of me.
Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
This book stays on my reference shelf. I like writing that makes me feel just a bit smarter. The narrator, a former monk, does not limit himself in sources, drawing analogies from religion, mythology, and culture. His book embraces complex feelings, instead of trying, like so many others, to deny or simplify them.
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
I learned how to change my internal dialogue with this book. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but this particular book resonated with me. I learned how to challenge my irrational thoughts. Not permanently, of course – that’s an ongoing challenge.
I’m going to stop there – the list is getting too long. The books that I have actively disliked (and passive-aggressively not provided links to), might just be the thing that does it for you. And some of my aha book moments may completely elude anybody else.
Do you read self-help books? What have you read that has been useful?
The morning brings an ache
that moves around each day
A back, a knee, a shoulder –
knuckles swollen, as if I’d won the fight.
I ramble along the path with a limp
and an unfortunately located bite from an insect
that was there before me
but as revenge, won’t be there after.
The plants I moved yesterday
slump over, too traumatized by the extra sun
to give a damn, but hungry for me,
the water god, to bring showers.
The sun sears the back of my neck
medium rare with a tinge of pink.
It cares not for the creatures beneath its gaze,
for its sole purpose is to burn, burn, burn.
I bend down to catch another weed
and come eye level with the motor of a bumblebee
I once read that human odors aggravate bees
but I stink of sweat and they ignore me.
I resist gravity and stand up
To witness the aerial acrobatics of Monarchs
Who have deigned to share their royal presence
I pay fealty with large stands of milkweed.
The gardening session is over
I put away the buckets of tools
Punch out for the day, they don’t pay overtime
And leave the manicured wilds to second shift.
Perhaps I’m just a bit miffed that vacation just turned into a road trip into the desert. With wood ticks. Perhaps it is that I’ve been reading too much news or thinking about the impending apocalypse of incompetence that will be raining down on our heads. Perhaps it is that I have gone astray on so many personal intentions that I have decided to externalize my anger. Whatever the reason, I’m blowing the gunk out of my pipes so that I can think clearly again. Welcome to my rants – they’re all the rage.
Shaking My Old Lady Fist in the Air
Memes, Emojis, and GIFs
I ignore/loathe them. Personal preference. I like it when grownups use their words and in the world of social media, those shortcuts to communication are repetitive and pointless. And some of them are very badly done – with misspellings, bad photo editing, and ofttimes, completely and utterly devoid of anything meaningful or useful. Because of their ubiquitous use, they’re simply no longer original, novel, or amusing.
False Idols and Bad Fashion Choices
I don’t care if it’s Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, treating other very flawed humans like they’re unassailable saints is creepy. If you are wearing clothing with their likenesses or names, I don’t trust your judgment. While we have been conditioned to be billboards for all manner of advertising, this adulation for other humans versus policy is off the rails. Don’t become a billboard unless the rental space of your head, chest, ass, whatever, is being paid for. And then I can trust your judgement even less.
The same people who gripe about football players not standing during the anthem are also the ones who kept their beers cold by wrapping them in stars and stripes flag cozies yesterday. If they really wanted to be patriotic, they should have demanded that the government let us know just how many troops are living and dying in Afghanistan, NW Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya and what the plan is there. It’s almost like there isn’t one.
Politics, As Usual
Congressional Traitors and Media Enablers
I canceled my New York Times subscription this morning. It was a hard decision. Much of their in-depth reporting is very good. However, their front page might as well be covered in Trump tweets if they are not reporting on the seven Republican senators who chose to spend America’s day of independence in Moscow. The Moscow Times reported it with glee. Who needs peeing prostitutes when we have Republican senators openly fawning over and courting the government of a murderer and human rights abuser?
I’m not waiting on Mueller time. It is quite clear that we are in deep with Russia and these are some of the stooges who are dragging us there. While I’m pretty sure that the financial entanglements of Trump et al. are fairly damning, the extortion would not be complete without the complicit behavior of Republican sycophants. We’re in deep shit. I need to brush up on my Russian, because apparently if I want news about what representatives of my government are up to, I’ll be reading it in Cyrillic.
Here is some actual news:
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, July 3, 2018 Report on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference and influence on our elections.
How anyone could read this bipartisan report and not wonder if our Republican Moscow tourists are not compromised is beyond reason.
Mid-terms and Celebrities
Forget about 2020 elections. Keep your eye on the ball. Besides, the way things are going, there won’t be an election in 2020. I’ve heard enough about Oprah and Michael Avenatti to know that some of the electorate have lost their ever-loving minds to the Trump philosophy that winning is everything and that being a TV celebrity is winning. I have a stick up my ass and think most TV is pretty stupid, ergo people who are in that business are not intellectual giants with vision. They just have a job on TV with no relevant political experience.
Stop looking at the shiny objects. Make sure you are registered to vote prior to the midterm elections. I mean it. The way some states are purging their voter rolls, you might not be eligible to vote and not know it. You can verify your voter status and register using Voter.org’s tools.
Onto Writing and Other Truths
While my vacation did nothing to boost my energy, refresh my perspective, or even allow me a decent night’s sleep (did I mention it was 102°F?), it did make me grateful to come home and anxious to get back into the groove.
It was a reminder that no matter what is going on in the world, no matter how dire the news is, there is work to be done at home. I am useless to movements, protests, action without sleep and self-care. The world will not be a better place if I deteriorate or neglect my family and friends.
Writing has been a slog, but I should at least celebrate that I have been writing every single day since late November. Even on vacation, I pulled out my laptop and got writing done. This strikes me as a small miracle and is a testament to the power of daily habits. I started off making myself write 250 words the minute I logged into my computer. Now I write anywhere from 700-1200 words in a sitting, something I could not have imagined before.
Earlier this week, I sat down and watched Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”. I usually don’t watch anything current, but I like standup. Her special was so much more than that – it felt like a call out to humanity. It has me thinking a lot about the nature of personal truth – what we leave out or put in and why we make the choices we do. And how those choices can crush us or lift us up. Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places.
TGS Writers’ Book Club Reminder: The August Selection is a writer’s how-to, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy. Follow the blog for updated selections, writer-reader guidelines, and discussions. The July 15th-31st discussion forum is about There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry (Short Stories).
My week off from blogging served no particular purpose. While I wrote about reading more and chilling, I also had to hit the road to do a two-state tour of family members I hadn’t seen in years. We visited Iowa and Kansas, which welcomed us with open, sweaty arms and no pretense. It was 102 the day we headed home from the Sunflower State.
We stayed in a cabin on a lake near Lawrence, Kansas for a few days to avoid a hotel, furtively dashing from car to cabin in an effort not to melt. I did a fair amount of reading and writing and got my butt kicked at cards and Scrabble, but did alright during lightning rounds of Taboo. There were ticks, spiders, and turkey vultures. Everything lovely had hidden to stay cool.
We thought traveling north would give us some relief, but we arrived home in Minnesota, disheveled and sweaty, to 100°F/37°C. So I am home, not with a refreshed perspective, but sticky and irritable.
While I avoided the news more than usual during the week, I received my New York Times updates. Byte-sized reminders of badness. I inwardly groaned, then turned back to reading the latest issue of The Paris Review. I read a long interview of László Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian writer, who talked about his work as a novelist and his experiences working under a Communist regime.
It’s no coincidence that I have a curiosity about artists working in repressive regimes. I think that we are headed for some high times with authoritarians in this country, where the pall of killjoy conservatism will hang over us for years to come.
There was an editorial by Dave Eggers in The New York Times yesterday talking about our White House being devoid of culture – empty of poetry, music, books, art. These are not valued by members of the current administration. Joy only comes in “winning”. To paraphrase one commenter: I’d feel sorry for the man if he weren’t destroying the world.
I can’t imagine living in a world without music, words, and art to inspire, lift my spirits, and inform my humanity. Appreciating art is about empathy – letting in the words, images, and ideas of others. For people like me, who would rather pretend the world isn’t run based on who has money, art seems less grubby, like I don’t need to hide my greed for it. Unlike the current occupant in the White House, I want my world to have windows, not mirrors.
No matter how coarse, cruel, and dull our political life is, art will always matter. Even if stripped of tools, public exposure, and freedom – art has always been the lifeline to the soul of a people. That we are being overrun by soullessness is the irony of the rising power of religious, cash-heavy politics.
There are those who would argue that money, food, health – these are the things that matter and art is secondary. Sure, if you’re dead, you aren’t painting landscapes, writing bad poetry, or fumbling your way through a song. But what’s the point of being alive, if you are soul-impoverished?
I push myself to read and take in culture above my pay grade, while feeling a degree of squeamishness about high-minded snobbery. Growing up poor meant that, with the exception of the public library, much of what is ascribed to culture, was out of reach. It wasn’t until college that I began to branch out, see live performances, go to readings, etc. As I clambered into middle class, had more disposable income, and more access in a metro area, I have taken advantage of the opportunities to see musicals, orchestras, plays, and exhibits.
But art is not just museums, string quartets, and Broadway. If you go into any small town, there are people creating intricate quilts, experimenting with photography, playing with other local musicians. It might just be one weird dude creating sculptures from cow dung, but art is as ubiquitous as our human imaginations.
And it can make a difference.
In Lawrence, Kansas they shot a 1983 film called “The Day After”. Until 2009 was considered the highest rated television film in TV history. It has been described as a cold-hearted, fictional depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. In President Reagan’s autobiography, he wrote that the film was effective and left him greatly depressed. But it changed his mind on nuclear policy and was reflected in the negotiations of a treaty with the Soviet Union years later.
But what if your art isn’t going to change anything on the world stage? What if we’re all plodding along with our bottle cap art, our soggy word missives to the world, our plaintive bloggy bleats? What if the internet is suddenly no longer available to the common person? Or cultural knowledge is limited to what the state wishes us to see, hear, and read?
Do we cease to exist as creators of art? Do we stop imagining a better life, a different life? Do we stop self-entertaining, telling stories, making bee-bop-chicka-boom sounds with whatever we’re banging away at? Hell no. If anything, art becomes more necessary than ever. It becomes resistance to the dull gray repression. It is the color and sound that keeps us human, reminds us of the world beyond suited, greedy men and pious, malevolent women who pull strings to create a world in their image.
While I have not renewed my spirits, I still have fire in the belly to write, to create, to be part of the bulwark against these flat, angry humans who seek to make the world smaller and fear-based. I think we, the poets, writers, musicians, painters, dung sculptors, are going to have to up our game. In the words of Chuck Wendig, we need to art harder. Vote, but create. Resist and protest, but imagine and design and sing and write and dance. It’s on us to keep the world from turning gray.
The Green Study will return on July 1, 2018.
I’ve been writing my ass off the last few weeks, both here and offline. It’s time to take a breather from everything. I have a stack of books, my bird-watching binoculars, and a false sense of limitless time. Perfect for a vacation of sorts.
This is when I go off the rails. And wow, is it exciting. I drink caffeinated drinks, eat a lot of cheese, stay up past 8, and think about how I should probably move in order to get rid of the numbness in my lower limbs. And then don’t, because I want to read one more chapter.
I’ve been writing pretty intensely about civic participation, the current state of politics, and mental health issues. Which means I’ve been writing whichever way the news blows. And boy, does it blow.
The volunteer gigs seem to be pausing for a bit. The Minnesota legislative session ended with a whimper, with anything progressive shot down when they tried to shove everything into a last minute omnibus bill. Honestly, they seem like writers sometimes, or at least this writer, waiting until the last minute to get work done.
I sat last night in a coffee shop listening to a live string quartet and felt my eyes well up when they played Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. For all my stalwart conversation, a part of me feels like having a good blubber a lot of the time. It’s usually an indicator that I need to take a break, re-group, and get back to my personal mission. Which is not, I hope, to turn into a humorless git.
It’s easy to do – to forget how to laugh. To forget that there is love and joy and justice in the world. To forget those who took nonviolent action and succeeded. It’s easy to lose that full spectrum way of seeing the world, because you’re so focused on fixing what’s wrong.
As an introvert, with an out-sized, narcissistic sense of firstborn responsibility, I have to force myself to sit down, shut up, and to stop raising my hand every time someone asks for help. I’ll schlep into a meeting, find a seat near the exit, and hope I can stay awake. An hour later I’m heading a committee, writing a newsletter, adopting children, and rescuing house pets with social anxiety disorders. If I stay long enough, I’ll have donated a kidney – both of them. This would be some lovely virtue signalling if it weren’t so pathological.
Eventually, I feel hollowed out and detached from my life and start disappearing, making excuses, oh, I must have missed that email, sorry, my phone died (as if my phone is a metaphor for ambition), because it feels like I cannot breathe. I’m trying to learn to sit on my hands, stay quiet, and pace myself.
Sometimes taking a break means shutting up. When my internal monologue starts snapping back at me, shut up already. Criminy. Give it a rest, I know it’s time to go dark, stick my nose in a book, and let things marinate. Right now, my brain is shouting shut yer pie hole!
In the interest of pie holes and maybe pie, I’m going to take a break and leave you with some unwanted thoughts.
I caught the song Chainsmoking by Jacob Banks being piped in somewhere and desperately tried to remember phrases to Google later. He’s got one of those voices that reaches down into your soul and sets off a dirge of melancholy.
I want to read all the books
I have three ridiculously high stacks of books that I’m working through. For my break, though, I’m indulging myself with The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway and Betwixt and Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully.
Lately I’ve been doing so much reading for research and knowledge, that I’d just like to sink into something that doesn’t require a lot of me, except to turn the page.
The voice of the rising tide
When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, and anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and others.
The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh
And I leave you with a song for the weary:
Have a lovely week!
There is an argument I consistently have with myself regarding civil discourse. In theory, I believe in civility. I believe in thoughtful discussion. Whatever vulgarity or cuss words I’ve used here, have always been of my own volition, albeit I have taken more opportunities of late to use them. I am an angry person. I believe in justice and I loathe deliberate ignorance.
For all the understanding and tolerance we are supposed to extend to people who tell us liberalism is a mental disease and that they’re giddy about these current circumstances, we get very little in return. The message is that we are to fall in line and adore their great leader or else what? They’ll call us names? Vote in spite? Threaten us with violence?
Reading comments from people who seem to adore the president and his mafia, I am completely baffled by the appeal. But I’ve never understood celebrity worship or the idea that being unfiltered is somehow preferable to being thoughtful. I’ve never invested my sense of self in strangers on TV or politicians bloviating over donuts. I don’t get my news from Facebook or Twitter. I know that reality TV is curated bullshit. I’m not going to wear clothes with people’s names on it, whether it be Tommy Hilfiger or Trump. I am no one’s standard bearer or billboard.
And that’s what I find so baffling. I grew up in a poor working class family. I learned several skills or beliefs in this environment: 1) That nobody is going to fix my life 2) How to spot a bullshitter a mile away 3) Television is fake and politicians lie. I met people all along the way with the same beliefs. Those are the people who progressed, got out of poverty, worked hard to get an education and most, if not all, are solidly middle class now.
When I saw the chanting crowds in Minnesota yesterday during another feed-his-ego rally, it made me feel ill. There were so many people at the church of Trump. So many people slavishly cheering and grinning and repeating tired mantras. So many people worshiping at his feet. It must have been very gratifying for him, that he could say or do anything with impunity and people would still hold him up as a false idol, clap and cheer and act like glorifying him would somehow raise them up. It was grotesque.
Does it make a difference that there were protesters, yelling, carrying signs? Not to the Trump supporters. Those protesters are for people like me – letting me know that I am not alone in my disgust with this administration, encouraging me to wage protest in my own way. Protesters are important to those of us who eschew crowds, but feel isolated in the face of authoritarianism. It’s a public message – we’re not laying down for the jackboots to march all over us.
But it does bring us back to the issue of public discourse. I’ve been having a come to Jesus moment with myself (which is a really funny thing for an atheist to say). I keep thinking of that Martin Luther King quote:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963
The idea of negative peace and being devoted more to order than justice is something that plagues moderate middle class white people. We’re not all inherently cruel or uncaring, but we mistake the lack of violence or strong language or raised voices to mean that things are quietly being worked through and that if something really bad is going to happen, the government will prevent it. We were raised to believe in Big Daddy and that there would be things that wouldn’t happen in our beloved America.
But that is not the case. Most people of color, women, chronically ill, vulnerable children and the elderly know that the system turns a blind eye to systematic abuse, gaps in care, and cries for help. That power and wealth corrupts absolutely and disconnects people from their humanity. That leaders, those who can truly maintain a balance between personal ambition and that amorphous concept, the common good, are far and few between.
What we don’t get is that we are the stopgap, the brakes, the safety net, the protection against authoritarianism. We have to choose not to be bystanders, not snapping selfies in front of tent cities on U.S. soil, chatting up the ICE agent while fearing the bogeyman foreigner. What does our country need from us now?
Many of the words I read from Trump supporters are no longer part of any rationale. They’re mainly spewing cutesy insulting names, parroting lies with no underlying facts, sending links to un-sourced, biased news stories, using the polemics of either-or for every single argument. Gun control = no guns. Pro-choice = drive-through abortions. Civil liberties for all = war on religion. Free speech = no consequences for said speech. Political correctness = silence, not civility. They’re digging in, not listening, not thinking.
Does it make a difference if I call the president a bastard? Have I, too, come to mistake strong words for strength? Have I adopted a bully’s approach to discourse? Or will I be the moderate white person – choosing peace over justice, order over resistance? And am I succumbing to the unthinking, blind rhetoric of both sides, falling prey to the false equivalencies equating those who fight for justice and those who just fight?
These are tough questions that have been unraveling in my brain over the last week, because I am trying to find a better way forward. Not for peace, but for integrity and progress and so that someday, I can look back, and know that I didn’t just let it happen.
What do you think of the public discourse?
Is fighting fire with fire necessary or is there a better way?
What truly makes a difference?
It’s only Wednesday and thus far, the week has been exhausting. My calling and letter writing and meeting-going has drained me of inner resources. In order to effectively make calls and find the right rhetoric regarding the immigration policy separating children from their families, I’ve had to read a lot of news stories, look at “other side” arguments, and really dig in.
Yesterday I stumbled through calls, likely irritating already overworked congressional interns. I popped more old-fashioned letters into the mail, intent on contacting senators every way possible, phone, email, and U.S. mail. I attended a voters’ rights meeting, which was more social than working, but found myself tapped out by the end of the evening, followed by a heavy dose of insomnia.
This morning, after reading another round of damning news, I was blurry-eyed and tearful. The U.S. pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council. Since 1989, we’re the only country that has refused to ratify the Convention on Children’s Rights. For all the pro-life bullshit spouted in this country, we’re really not. But that is not the point of this post, merely the pile of bad news on which it is built.
But it gets worse. Let’s start with the phrase tender age shelters. Then, our vicious, useless reprobate of a president is bringing his corrosive self into my state today, where a large amount of people will don red hats and make him feel adored while shouting cult-like phrases in his direction. Lock babies up! Lock babies up!
Today I’m taking a break. There is much to do and much urgency in doing it, but I’m headed for burnout and I haven’t been sleeping and I need to rally my mental troops, because there is a lot more work to do. Plus, if I have to see that bastard’s face one more time today, I’m going to punch my monitor.
To recharge, I’m doing some very basic things:
Not reading the news until this evening.
Cleaning up my study, which has become a large pile of camouflage for car keys, that graduation card I forgot to send to my niece, Spanish vocabulary cards that exploded when the rubber band gave up on life, research articles, and ambition.
Flopping in a chair and reading something humorous. I’ve picked John Hodgman’s Vacationland.
Writing fiction. Sometimes it’s good to be in a land where things work out to my satisfaction. I’m working on short stories and not the novel, because it quite unexpectedly (or maybe not a surprise at all) landed squarely upon immigration issues.
Gardening. After days of rain, my tall tomato plants need to be staked, carrots thinned, peas trained on a trellis. To use a bad pun, there is something very grounding about getting dirty, having sweat drip into my eyes, the smells of thyme and lemon balm, the aerial show of dragonflies (mosquitoes have arrived). It is as present in the moment as I ever get.
Cooking. While I’ve focused on being all civic-minded, my family has foraged in the kitchen like a pack of rabid wolves for their meals. Cooking forces me to slow down and be a little more thoughtful about nutrition. Feeding the soul is great, but feeding the body makes it all happen.
Sitting and doing nothing for moments at a time. This will likely lead to a nap or ten.
Having coffee with a friend. We always have a laugh and I get to talk about other things than the news.
Making the list. I have more calls, emails, and letters to write tomorrow. Having a call list and addresses ready will make shorter work of things.
Preparing for and going to bed early. This is where it all begins – getting enough rest to knock out the next day.
Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Much like writing, one can assume that activism requires constant productivity, but we are not robots and we are better writers or activists or humans, for taking the time to allow our brains and bodies to rest, recuperate, refuel. Quantity does not indicate effectiveness and the best ideas often emerge out of fallow times. Off to get some energy and good ideas. And maybe a nap.
How do you re-energize yourself?
I’ve been reading about the U.S. immigrant situation and the separation of children from their parents for the last two weeks. My response, from the safety of my own study, has been to sign petitions, send money to the ACLU, write testy letters to my own representatives which, in a purplish-blue state, involves preaching to the choir in some cases. It’s not enough.
I believe the inhumane immigration policy enacted by this administration is the Japanese internment camp of our time. It will be our national shame for years to come. While we’ve already replaced our human rights high horse with a jackass on the world stage, I fear our grandchildren will ask “What did you do when they started putting the children in tent camps and warehousing them in a vacant Walmart?”
It is, unquestionably, an issue of morality. Not biblical morality, which is as whimsical and cruel as the humans who brandish it. Not legal morality, which seems to be enforced in varying degrees based on your skin color, financial means, or just who happens to be in charge at the moment. But the morality of decent humans who understand the difference between right and wrong. The morality of humans who have experienced love and separation and grief and fear. The morality of humans who understand that there should be no borders on decency.
I believe that our government is being run by the worst of the worst now – white collar criminals with deliberate ignorance and venality as their guiding policy. Attorney General Sessions is a spiteful person who uses religion to underwrite his malevolence. President Trump is a malicious narcissist who is corrupt to the stupidest degree. The evidence is in. Rich and powerful people aren’t always rich and powerful because they are smart. It is because they are often amoral and weaselly and believe the rules don’t apply to them, moral or otherwise.
Immigration policy and surrounding issues are complicated. The policy of separating children from their parents is not. The process of warehousing thousands of children on U.S. property is not. I have no patience with the vicious people who say that humans attempting to come into the U.S. are criminals, especially the many asylum-seekers. Seeking asylum at our borders is NOT a crime. Treating people as automatic criminals, traumatizing their children, and setting up situations that will be rife with abuse, mishaps, and fatalities is bad policy.
I’ve read defense of this policy and it always comes down to well, they broke the rules and deserved to be punished. To the malevolent vipers who think this is just desserts, I’m sure you’re the ones who also say, “my parents used corporal punishment growing up and I turned out alright”. Um, no, you didn’t. You got the decency beat out of you.
The other argument is that it is a deterrent. This supports the wave of nationalist sentiment that somehow immigrants are what – taking jobs? You mean the jobs that remain unfilled, because there are Americans who think they’ll get a job based on 1950s criteria (you know, pasty white and possibly with a penis) and don’t bother with education, training, or moving to where the jobs are. Those jobs? Not to mention the jobs that are based on dying industries. Pure and utter bullshit.
And the value of whiteness. Look, as quickly as we’re destroying the environment and the ozone layer, melanin-gifted people are going to be the ones who survive. Pasty white people will have to live in underground tunnels, evolve some night vision, and hope that brown people don’t decide to play whack-a-mole on our asses every time we pop our heads above ground, because we’ll deserve it. Whiteness will eventually disappear and those of us who remain will be that special albino exhibit at the zoo. Get over it. We have no inherent value because of our lack of skin color.
We know the president is using these children at the border as a bargaining chip to get his Lego wall built. We know that he wants to build that wall, not because he is remotely concerned with immigration issues. He needs red meat for his base. Every word and action from this person has indicated a need for affirmation, adoring crowds, and unquestioning loyalty. He is a bad person, a likely criminal, and all his jokes about wanting to rule like a dictator are not jokes. This thin-skinned man has no sense of honor and he is not funny.
I wrote after the election that this was an opportunity to become heroes – to match every evil action and word with more compassion, empathy, and courage. I flailed a lot, feeling the outrage spikes until they became so numerous and frequent that they stopped moving at all. I have not become a hero. I have not exercised enough courage. I am still a rather complacent middle class lump. It’s not enough.
It’s exhausting watching consumer and environmental protections being dismantled, education being denigrated, staring slack-jawed as government representatives blatantly and repeatedly lie. Listening to the racists and misogynists preach atop the rocks they used to live under, the Luddites in Congress talking about Facebook and net neutrality, the marginalized being recast as criminals, the press being attacked. It’s damned exhausting. And there seems to be no end in sight.
It’s time to re-calibrate. I’ve joined and donated to organizations over the last three years in response not only to this corrosive administration, but as a necessary antidote to privilege in the face of the suffering of others. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve written, called, and emailed congressional representatives. I’ve curated and paid for my news. I’ve taken a more active role in my community. It’s not enough.
So it’s time to come up with a bigger game plan – time to give my anger more form and shape and rhetorical fire. It’s time to ignore the shit show that is our national political life, shake off the distractions of meme-parrots and conspiracy freaks and get down to business.
I am the citizen of a country that is being represented by the wealthy and deliberately ignorant. Cowards in Congress abound. Bad people have undue influence. Foreign intervention is being downplayed in favor of political expediency. Much of the citizenry prefers to be told what to think and is, like the denizens of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, bewitched by screens, prone to the doublespeak and nonsensical logic of inarticulate leadership.
Where will it end? Are we as complacent as those who waited, only to see their neighbors carted off to camps or slaughtered by machetes, or forced into workhouses and labor camps? We are not as prescient as history will blame us for being. If we err, I’d rather be blamed for taking actions on the side of decency and good intention, and not serving the ego of a petty tyrant.
Support the Keep Families Together Act, contact your senators.
Donations to Charities Helping Kids at the Border
“Here’s How You Can Fight Family Separation at the Border”, Slate, 06/15/18
Please review The Green Study Comment Policy. I will not provide a platform for false information, conspiracy theory, memes, or moral equivalency on this issue. Comments will be moderated.
This post is about suicide and mental health issues.
I was listening to the live stream of Roxane Gay speaking in New York last night at the PEN World Voices Festival. She said “When you write and gain attention for it, it can be really overwhelming because everyone thinks they know you when they do not.”
She writes about very personal issues – of her sexual assault, her body issues, her feminism. Even with some intimate issues subjected to the public eye, she is a private person. She said that what she puts out in the world, she’s prepared to have out in the world. Managed discretion. Personal boundaries.
I began to think about how much I’ve written on this blog about my childhood and my personal development struggles – about what gets edited out, the issues I skirt, the misdeeds that I leave in the recesses of my brain, but mostly the dark moments when I think I just want to rest. I don’t want to struggle anymore. I’m so tired of feeling this way.
I’m at a point in my life when I recognize this creature, this mental hobgoblin that lures me with the idea that it could all stop. It took my father in his late 30s, nearly took my mother in her teens, called to me repeatedly as a teenager, and beckoned me to sit on the bathroom floor with a straight razor in hand when I was 23.
Once, when I talked about my depression with a friend, she asked if I wanted her to call a crisis line. She didn’t realize that she was the crisis line. This embarrassed me and felt like a betrayal of intimacy, this lack of understanding. Some people don’t know that to say something out loud is to lessen its power in one’s head. Perhaps it is an unfair burden. That incident stigmatized me for several years, made me crack jokes even as I felt the darkness descending.
People are still surprised when those with celebrity status and/or material fortunes commit suicide. It doesn’t surprise me at all. That suicide is on the rise in this country is also not a surprise. When we know people by their production values, their presentation, we don’t see the cutting room floor. We don’t see those moments of despair when the cameras are off and the distracting crowd goes away.
The only value in me writing about this perhaps lies in the fact that I am still here, at age 50, over a decade older than my father when he composed a 17-page suicide note, closed the garage door, attached a hose to the exhaust, and asphyxiated. I am here, writing, reading, living with a family who loves me. I am here, still in the struggle to stay out of the shadows. I am here to experience joy, surprise, delight, and sometimes a comforting sort of melancholy that does not overwhelm me, but fills me instead with words.
The odds were against me. My parents met as patients at an outpatient psychiatric clinic. My family history is riddled with mental illness. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to self-medicate with booze. A drunk who could go from an acquaintance’s bed to brawling to blackout in the course of one evening. I leaned on compulsive tendencies to fill this inexplicable void – a void that leaked like a sieve.
On the outside, I showed up on time, I worked hard, I laughed and smiled. I had friends and boyfriends and ambitions. Then there were the weekends when I could not get out of bed. I would not answer the phone or the door. The curtains were drawn closed. Every nerve was dulled. I stayed in a cocoon of darkness and silence, because anything else took too much energy.
This absence of life, of feeling, this moment in space where nothing matters, is the stage needed for the hobgoblin to do his act. It starts out with the idea of darkness that seems warm and comforting compared to all the pain, the sharp edges, and the endless road of sameness ahead. It gives us visions of our futures – futures filled with the same kind of wounds we are experiencing at the moment. Why go on?
The thing is, we’re not very good at predicting outcomes and depression lies its ass off. I had no idea that I would go on to a life that gifts me every day. I had no idea that I would feel loved or that I’d wake up feeling pretty good. I had no idea that I’d get opportunities over and over to create a better life for myself. In the darkness, I could see nothing, just those emotions I had in that minute.
Like so many people, I’m tempted to write good advice, post suicide prevention numbers, go on about the state of our mental health system. That information is out there, everywhere now. But for the person who is in that moment, all of that means nothing. It takes energy and wherewithal to call a number, find a therapist, get help. Those are all good things to do, positive things to do, but those things rarely happen on the razor’s edge.
I am here now, because I waited.
Perhaps I understood something, because of my family, not in spite of them. I understood the volatility of emotion, the impermanence of situations, the idea of nothingness – the space where nothing would ever change again. I waited. And when I was able to get off that bathroom floor, it wasn’t with clarity of purpose. It was all based on maybe. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, maybe something will be different. I was not prepared to give up my maybes.
When I was strong enough, I sought help. I learned tools to cope with the vagaries of my mind. I built a gentle life that gave me room to care for myself in those darker moments. I asked for help. I learned to give words to these feelings and found people who did not shy away when I spoke.
I did not know where my life would go and I don’t know what it will be in the future. Circumstances can change on a dime. What I do know, is that no hobgoblin gets to take away my maybe.