Time, when it is left to itself and no definite demands are made on it, cannot be trusted to move at any recognized pace. Usually it loiters; but just when one has come to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild irrational gallop. – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
We’d made the trip to a mall, because my daughter, who wants to upgrade her wardrobe for high school, wanted to visit Old Navy. This is a store I’ve never shopped at, nor had any particular desire to visit, but then, I’m not 14, nor likely to be accused of having fashion sense. It was, however, located next to a Barnes and Noble and as indicated by my last post, Bibliophile Safari, it served as compensation for being among the shopping marauders of what is, essentially, an Indonesian clothing bizarre.
I believe I have raised my daughter well, but we are a tiresome pair. We hate clothes shopping and swap snarky comments about Old Navy’s connection to child laborers and factory fires abroad. Which leads to a whole discussion about the moral ambiguities of modern living and how it is nearly impossible to live one’s life on a high horse and how we are forced to constantly make choices between our desires and the immoral forces that define them. Still, we leave with three new shirts for her wardrobe.
The bookstore is a surprisingly short trip. She wants something by Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, and we both want a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I am alarmed by the numerous signs and large sections marked Christian literature. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a Barnes and Noble and that seems new. The section next to it is a paltry collection of all other religions and philosophy. Tribalism is leaving nothing untouched in this country.
Nearby is a Michael’s craft store. It’s been a good five years since I’ve been in one, so we took a stroll through. The smell was familiar. My daughter said she remembered being here. Craft projects for her at home and for my volunteer activities once led us down aisles of paper and glue and sequins at least once a week. The days of watching her fingerpaint everything but the paper, tasting each color crayon to see if they had different flavors, and messy science experiments have been swapped for Assassins’ Creed video games, nihilist philosophy, and a viola.
This last week was my official end of summer. The languid hot, buggy days that slowed everything down, until one day was very much like the next, are over. The next couple of weeks are riddled with appointments and meetings and preparation – for the school year, the election season, getting some writing projects off the ground. I filed my candidacy application for a vacated city council seat, and am now filled with the usual anxiety and internal trepidation that precedes doing anything out of my comfort zone.
I know that it’s a matter of days, and I will be looking back on this time with a little sadness. Did I make the most of it? Did I spend enough time with my family? Did I embrace my teenage changeling enough? Family life has patterns. You move in the same space, know each other’s preferences and irritants, but there are days when it just seems like bodies in the same house, unconnected. I see how temporary it all is. In only a few years, it will just be he and I, having to learn to renegotiate our life.
Ofttimes when people talk about mindfulness, they talk about being in the moment and being present. This, to me, is a difficult state to remain in for very long. Sometimes instead of connecting with a single moment, our imagination allows us to connect with all the moments. We see the inexplicable blip in time that our lives are, the pinpoint dot on a radar. There and then gone.
It would be easy to see this as cause for depression, but in my mind, it serves the same purpose as the ocean to our physical beings – a reminder that we are part of something vast and amorphous. This recognition of time, of seeing what has passed and imagining what is before us, is exactly what leads us to the moment. We recognize how unimportant our moments are in the scheme of things, but how very important they are to us. A perspective and defense against ego and wastefulness.
Following my application for city council, I began to experience minor panic attacks. Time is speeding up and I don’t know if I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. I miss my daughter, even as she sleeps just down the hallway. I worry that I won’t be able to make the commitments I’ve made to writing projects, that I will let people down. That the imposter syndrome will become a yappy dog constantly nipping at my heels, never allowing myself to feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter what I do. Faster and faster my thoughts come, downhill, without any brakes.
Breathe. Sit still and silent. Watch the second hand on the clock. Tick, tick, tick. Things come back into focus. Do one thing – one task with a beginning and end. Then do the next thing, beginning and end. Make a list, write some notes, make the amorphous blob of tasks and timing concrete. The knot in my stomach is still tight, but the pounding in my ears has receded. I am here. Right now. It’s okay. Whatever happens, happens. Anxiety wastes energy. The cliches, memes, and self-comforting phrases are now beginning to irritate me. Situation normal. I’ve synced up again.
My teenager rolled her eyes at me. You have a problem. I was leaving the bookstore with seven new books. Piles teeter haphazardly in my study. I read a lot and I read weirdly. I visit the library once a week and I can’t leave a bookstore without new books, even more so when it’s an independent bookseller. It might be a problem, but I don’t care. Today, apparently, is designated Book Lovers’ Day. Uh, isn’t that every single minute of every single day?
This morning my husband asked me why I was reading a university-bound paper on the inventor of the Hmong written language. I shrugged. I was just interested in it. It was too early in the morning to explain the journey. I’d read Mai Der Vang’s collection of poetry, Afterland, which made several references to the Hmong language. I started to look up translations, when I discovered that Hmong written language hadn’t even been invented until 1959 – by a self-proclaimed messiah named Shong Lue Yang, nicknamed “The Mother of Writing”.
What was the point of tracking down any book I could find on the guy through inter-library loans? Curiosity. I’ve written that I’ve begun to see reading as part of my job as a writer. But this was reading without purpose – my absolute favorite kind. I just unraveled a story, sought out the threads, and now will know something I didn’t. It doesn’t end there, though. Like getting caught in endless link-hopping through Wikipedia, I now have more books I want to read. The Shong Lue biography weaves mythology into historical events, so I’ve requested books on Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
At some point, I’ll be done following the threads and pick up entirely different ones. This organic reading process gives me great joy. It combines my love of research and reading and surrounds me with a kaleidoscope of ideas.
So in honor of yet another made-up holiday, here’s a list of some of my all-time favorites:
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Candide by Voltaire
- Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, or Margaret Atwood
- The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
- The Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
- Anything by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and James Baldwin
I have eschewed all social media except for this blog, but have decided to become more active on Goodreads, because reading is so much my happy place. I’m trying to update my lists and will write only nice things about books I like, so I intend on being completely useless as a critic. That being said, I’m not sure how it all works, but if you send me a friend request, I’ll be happy to connect.
What are some of your all-time faves?
Summer tends to be my season of discontent. More so this year than ever before. The curated insouciance of sun, sand, and vacation photos mean nothing to me. We wait as a relative passes from known to unknowable in the haze of Alzheimer’s, punctuated by endless rounds of teenage school clothes shopping. Insouciance in its current form means a “casual lack of concern”, a version of being “cool”. But I play etymology operator, passing through French and Latin origins, landing on an uneasiness of mind. This seems more apt.
My last post left on a dark note and I could not make myself come back from that. Exhortations of it’s not that bad or it could be worse (a very Minnesotan way of saying turn that frown upside down) served to irritate and isolate me. I knew I was in a rut, growing ever deeper the more I tried to pull myself out of it. Solitude is curative but nearly unattainable during the summer. The garden provided little solace as the late summer heat and bugs make every moment uncomfortable.
I could not complain. Every whinge would be met with “first world problems”, a phrase that has the desired effect of shutting someone down. I curled inward with books. I started with Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I moved onto another of her books Rising Strong. And then I read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. I was slowly reading myself out of the rut. A suggestion by a blogger friend, Donna at A Year of Living Kindly, led me to Wayne Muller’s How, Then, Shall We Live?
These are gentle books, language unmarred by politically expedient shortcuts to label, categorize, and dismiss a person out of hand. They spoke the language of vulnerability. I have come to a point in my life where the defenses and protection I worked so assiduously to develop, are no longer working. It’s the outcome of shuffling across the middle age line, when thoughtfulness and evaluation about the years ahead are needed. It’s a magical time, when you realize that you must make conscientious decisions with the knowledge you’ve attained – that it’s time to put away the primer, training wheels, and excuses.
I used to think I had the vulnerability thing down. I’ve certainly written enough about my personal history and flaws on this blog. I got comfortable with the feedback that I’m authentic and honest. The funny thing about telling stories is that it is one step removed from owning the stories. I could write about my father’s suicide or the domestic violence I grew up with, no problem. I could write about bad boyfriends and awful jobs. I could talk about mental health issues and depression. I could joke about being a writer who procrastinates and struggles.
But I couldn’t write about the ache I felt when my daughter, in her toddler years, would ride on her father’s shoulders. The times I’d brush away tears and get on with things. I couldn’t write that growing up, never knowing from minute-to-minute how the adults around me would react, made me pathologically empathetic, to the point where I’d recognize how others felt before acknowledging my own feelings. I couldn’t write about the shame I sometimes feel that I am the way I am – that every subject becomes a think piece. These things get put aside, so I can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
The thing I’ve learned from my reading these last few weeks, is that because I have refused to integrate my stories into who I am, they own me. When you are owned by your stories, it’s hard to see the possibilities. You live your life defined by the limitations of those stories and not in the realm of choice and opportunity. As a response to my lived experiences, I built armor and exploited my stories as narrative, never allowing myself to feel them and grow beyond them.
About the time I began unraveling, a couple of months ago, I stopped working out. I got soft and pudgy. I’d always been determined to be strong. After I left the Army, I spent years afterward running, weight training, doing workout videos, training in the martial arts, going to the Y. There was an urgency to stay physically stronger, as if to protect the tender insides with bands of muscle. It was protection against anyone having power over me, against ever letting anyone hurt me.
I thought about how hard I would push myself, of all the injuries I’d gotten over the years, and how the outcome was the same as if I’d done nothing. I was still a pudgy, middle-aged woman with knees that hurt on rainy days. That I was motivated by what might happen if I didn’t exercise is ass backwards. I had taken something that could be joyful and enjoyable and made it mandatory or else.
This serves as an apt metaphor for the mental protection I’ve learned. I’ve learned to be suspicious of joy, because something bad will happen in the next minute. I’ve learned to never let myself be too happy for too long, because then I won’t be steeled against the next moment when hell rains down. When opportunity comes along, opportunity that can open doors for me, I tamp down my enthusiasm, in case it all goes wrong. In all cases, the outcome is the same. I kill the follow through and I don’t enjoy the process.
I’ve railed against my own defenses. Just be happy, dammit. Can’t you enjoy something for five seconds, before you think of all the downsides? But this approach has proven fruitless.
There’s only one thing left to do. Because if I’m going to feel shame, fear, anxiety, and hyper self-criticism, I’d at least like it to be because I’m playing offense – because I’m making amazing attempts to do things I’d never imagined I could do. Because I’m laying it on the line, writing books that don’t sell well or running for public office and losing or reaching out and connecting with another human. If I’m going to feel shitty feelings, I’d rather it not be because I’m hunkered down and safe.
I started working out again, but less from fear and more for self-care – the world did not come crashing down, all pudginess aside. I’ve said yes to some new opportunities, collaborating on a writing project, mentoring, getting politically engaged with other humans. I feel like a walking bruise, literally and metaphorically. But to be vulnerable is not just opening yourself up to pain and failure – it’s allowing all those other, unfamiliar beasts in – joy, happiness, enthusiasm. It’s going to be a weird, awkward ride.
I’ve been overwhelmed the last couple of weeks with the social interactions required to be an activist and volunteer. I found myself saying well, when this is over then I can retreat…Except that it’s not going to be over for a very long time. The times and years ahead look to be very bad ones in terms of politics, economics, and violence. We are at the simmering point in our society. Things are going along as if nothing has changed, but in the last few years, it feels as if everything has changed.
There is an awareness of this moment that runs through my brain. Summertime. There is food in the stores and in our fridge. The heat finally broke for a few days of rain and cloud cover. We can still go to the doctor or hospital if we need to. We are able to go outside after dark. There are no armored vehicles on the streets. My daughter and I can go places unaccompanied, wearing whatever we’d like. Our neighbors don’t report us to the authorities.
I think about the days when my husband and I will be old and infirm and wonder if we will reminisce about abundance and cool temperatures. Will I miss books? Will he shush me, afraid that I’ll be overheard, when I whisper my angry protests about the evil that people do? Will I remember long ago poems and songs and recite them under my breath? Will I kill someone defending my family against scavengers and marauders? When I die, what kind of world will I leave my beloved daughter in?
Part of fighting for change or resisting bad policy is the impetus of doom. It’s seeing the precursors and imagining what comes after and after and after. It’s knowing enough history to know where things begin. There is a confluence of dangerous events – natural disasters relating to climate change, the rise of autocracy in America, the weakening of our national will to be innovative and inspired, the unpreparedness for biological disaster and warfare, the jellyfish spines of people who have spent too long being entertained into mindless drones, pecking away at our smart phones.
But then there is now. If disaster is on the horizon, then what do we make of now? If the times that are coming will be of scarcity and secrecy and savagery, how do we live now?
We’ve been chicken-souped and memed to death about living every day as if it is our last, but what does that mean? And how is living on the razor’s edge sustainable? I don’t know how to work towards a better world, without imagining the bad things that could happen. I suppose part of retaining one’s drive is to focus on positive outcomes instead of the river of fear that flows beneath them. But even that misses the moment. We focus on the future either way.
There is always a call for balance, but I’ve come to believe that it is not the balance of the moment, but the balance over a week or month or a lifetime. It is difficult to step outside oneself and see if there is an equal number of tick marks in every column. What is balance for one person, is not for another. Some people can stay fired up and inspired for years at a time. Some of us can only manage an hour here or there.
Much of this questioning involves a constant recalculation of our locus of control; the measuring of the time between our actions and the results of those actions. What is the value of the time I spend with my family now versus fighting for the time it may spend in the future? In this moment, should I write another letter to another congressional representative that will be tallied and shunted aside or should I take a long walk and refresh my senses? The meaning starts large on my end, but means relatively little on the other. Just a number. Just a moment.
There is, at the root of these little arguments I have in my head, some core values. I believe in service to others. I believe that we are responsible for the damage we inflict on the planet and its creatures. I believe that we are defined by our choices. I also believe that we are weighed down by the fears we carry. Perhaps being present is when we lay down those burdens, if only for the moment. Perhaps it is the time when we get to remember what it’s all for.
These days, joyfulness sometimes eludes me. Prone to depression, desirous more often than not of solitude and quiet, I am outwitted by my impulses. I am perhaps not well-suited to activism, to recruit others to a cause, to lead a charge, but I can’t seem to help myself. I’ve come to accept it, but have not learned how to do it without feeling hollowed out after a time.
So I approach the moment with humility. I remember that I am not the solver of all things, the fixer of the world. And I come back. There are things that bring me back. My family. The garden. A passage in a book. A conversation with a friend. The reservoir refills and I straddle both worlds again. Balance is an illusion.
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.