All week it’s felt like “Today in Pecker News”. A Supreme Court nominee talks about his virginal pecker. A sitting president’s pecker is described in a porn star’s tell-all book. A once-beloved sitcom star’s pecker finally gets jail time. Disgraced peckers are finding their way back to stages and directing gigs and political appointments. And we get to hear and read all about it. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, as if peckers think they run the world.
I don’t write much about my feminist views or experiences as a woman. There are plenty of tales to be told and women are telling them. My experiences have been mild by comparison, so I’ve chosen to do what many people need to do – listen. That a second man with dubious character will be appointed to the Supreme Court in my voting lifetime angers me, though. The world moves forward without us, as old corrosive men dig their peckers in to hold progress back and keep their avarice and entitlement unchecked. What happens when power is not a reflection of the people’s will?
The consequences for speaking up and reporting sexual crimes are so extreme and the incidents of false reporting are so low, that as a human being, I believe the women who are speaking. It’s not bias – it’s common sense. I also believe the men who have come forward to say that Catholic priests abused them. Because I believe power and money and secrecy corrupts.
These days I feel a slow-burning rage. Yes, it’s all well and good to settle down, to not be so reactive to every political pronouncement said by people well past their sell-by date. And that date has less to do with age than mental acuity, some level of self-awareness, some level of empathy for other humans. Their neural pathways are as hardened as their arteries – they don’t know how to think or be any other way. I try to imagine what is going on in some of these people’s heads. They must be so completely insulated from the consequences of their actions that they just do whatever the hell they want – whatever their little club wants them to do. Useless peckers.
What do you do with this rage? At this point, I need to shut off the news. The Republicans are determined to put this man on the Supreme Court, no matter what anyone says. It is likely he will be appointed. I have no say in the matter. I already saw the Anita Hill hearings. I don’t need to see another one of those creepy circuses.
I’m voting and encouraging others to vote. I wrote 150 postcards on behalf of the ACLU to latent voters. I joined and actively serve in my local chapter of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization focused on voting rights. I’ve donated to the NAACP, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. I’ve written, called, and emailed my representatives and those outside my state. I’ve taught my daughter critical thinking skills and about her rights and expectations as a human being. I have done what any citizen can do within the confines of the law.
Despite all this, I have a sinking feeling. Congress was too busy worrying about somebody’s pecker business to pass any legislation to protect our elections. They were too busy protecting another white guy to take care of the business of our nation. The contempt I feel for them is corrosive. Whatever respect I felt for their offices, their roles has evaporated. Civility, respect, courage, ethics, morals – these things are mocked on a daily basis by people who call themselves patriots and “real” Americans.
I’ve always tried to be thoughtful, think critically, not allow my anger or my self-righteousness to get the best of me. But that is the luxury of a bystander. And the time for that has passed.
Where I’ve Been
Where I was once lackadaisical, I am fierce.
Where I shrugged my shoulders, I now set my chin.
Where I was generous, I set boundaries.
Where once politeness seemed imperative, integrity takes its place.
Where I laughed a little in discomfort, I now roar in dismay.
Where I was embarrassed by tenderness, I steel myself in intentional kindness.
Where I showed up to help, I now grab the reins.
Where once I pursed my lips at your unkindness, I now teach you.
Where I tolerated your gaze and judgment, I now see you are wanting of character.
Where I stood along the sidelines, I now stand up front.
Where I stayed silent, I now speak up.
Where once I stepped back to be measured in my thoughts, I now understand that all sides do not merit equal time.
You thought you could rely on my manners, my gentility, my introversion, my comfort level, your ideas of obsequious femininity.
That you could keep doing what you were doing and I would stay where I had stayed.
But I have seen the future in the eyes of my daughter. And it cannot be you.
It’s been a long few weeks. This morning, as I watched my daughter walk down the street to high school, I felt the tears well up. It seem like only moments ago, we were holding hands, walking to her preschool and my parenting classes while she bounced up and down off the curb chatting away. Time. Sometimes it seems endless, like a languid, humid summer. And suddenly, it’s autumn.
I packed a whole summer of experiences in the last few weeks. I went to the Minnesota State Fair for the first and last time in my life. I boated down the St. Croix with a friend who has known me for over 30 years. I did the absolute worst interview in my life, which gave me insomnia and crushed my ego into dust. I tried to register voters (the least popular table at a school open house) and wrote pithy comments on a zillion ACLU voter postcards. I frequented bookstores and often fell asleep in my reading chair, book in hand.
I’m a slow processor. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to superglue the pieces of my fragile ego together, after interviewing for a vacant city council seat. There were mitigating factors – it was more like a military board, where there was a prescribed set of questions, no interaction, and a bunch of white guys staring at me grim-faced. 30 years ago, I would have probably aced it. Too many years of learning how to develop rapport and human connection had me little prepared to be interviewed by a room of stenographers, who were literally writing down and grading my answers as I spoke.
I drove away from city hall with the Talking Heads playing in my brain “How did I get here?” I’d tried to prepare for this interview in the way I try to prepare for everything. But I was not prepared to feel simultaneously angry and embarrassed that I had pushed myself to do this thing my heart wasn’t really in – that I’d allowed my ego to speak louder than my gut.
It’s hard to come back from failure and mistakes. But I am my own Spin Master. And my efforts to be an activist, to be engaged in politics, had taken over a good portion of my life. I’d been getting progressively miserable over the last couple of years and while the President would be delighted to take credit for this, as he does all things, I’m not giving it to him. Because we are, no matter what the state of the world, ultimately responsible for the state of our selves. It’s easy to shelve that responsibility when larger causes are on the horizon and to become a mini-martyr in the course of things.
There is an argument that to make a difference, you have to put some real skin in the game. We see the costs throughout history – those who died and suffered or the famous humans who ignored their children, cheated on their spouses, had secret fetishes and addictions of every ilk, yet who made a difference, who went down in history for the one thing that they did really well, whatever it was. But that’s not the path for most of us.
I remember being very irritated by something Brené Brown wrote in her book, Rising Strong. “The ego has a shame-based fear of being ordinary.” She went on to say that this was how she defined narcissism. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being narcissistic, albeit there is a huge difference in degree. But some of us, most of us, are quite ordinary. We’re not building bridges, curing illnesses, climbing whatever tall things we can find. Most of us will never write literature that will be read into the next century or be called the greatest anything (except by those we love, on t-shirts and coffee mugs).
I’m at the age where I know who I am – that I will never enjoy huge crowds of people, I am prone to/revel in saying the wrong thing when I’m irritated, I am never in the moment more than when I am writing, I need shitloads of solitude, I adore my family, and I want to perpetually learn. But then there is my ego. Martyrdom? Sign me up. Hard labor? Tell me where to dig. Endless devotion? Here – have an organ. These are not sacrifices for me. This is business-as-usual, not altruism.
Despite all the jokes about men and their vehicles and overcompensation, I’ve realized that I have my own Hummvee – doing good in order to make up for not feeling good enough. This is ego. This is thinking that it be critically important I be seen as being good – that appearances are more important than the infrastructure. I let my ego take me to a place where I would not thrive, because it sounded important. More than ordinary.
It’s been a messy, messy epiphany – one that I’ve experienced before in varying degrees, but at this stage in life, it really needs to stick. The outcome is that I’ve put some limits on activism and volunteerism and I’m working to change my time to reflect activities that feed me. I joined a local writers’ group, pulled out the many unfinished writing projects, and am getting down to the business of being ordinary.
That’s how I wrapped up my summer. How was yours?
The Green Study will return on September 4th, 2018.
It has become obvious from my last few posts that I’m in a bit of a mental muddle. I turn 51 shortly, which is neither here nor there, but makes me think I could do for a birthday break. The dog days of summer are now here. The cicadas drone on all day and the mornings roar with the croaking of toads and the chirping of crickets until the oppressive heat slows all living creatures to a crawl.
I’ve hit my social interaction saturation point, where the sound of my voice is like that old Volkswagen commercial, except the lyrics are: blah, blah, blah. This week I went to a garden party, which sounds more posh than it was – a fundraiser for a state representative. The governor was there. Being a political junkie and writer, I like to go to these sorts of things and observe politicians in their natural habitats of glad-handing and smiling relentlessly. I hung about the edges of the lawn just watching people and slipped away at the hour mark. I’m toast.
In the midst of civic engagement (how I’ve begun to loathe that phrase), I went to the funeral of a man whose 100th birthday party I attended a few months ago. At the time, he was smiling and laughing and talking to all of his friends and family. It was hard to see the funeral in a tragic light, when he left the world on the heels of feeling surrounded by love after a century of life. We should all be so lucky.
Yesterday, my daughter and I worked at a food shelf distribution center, sorting and packaging 10lb bags of potatoes. One in ten people experience food insecurity in Minnesota. As a child of government cheese and butter lines and food stamps, it feels like a good way to spend a morning, but I am tired. I think about this social media idea of virtue signaling and how I’ve exploited it in my writing, talking about civic values and volunteering. I’ve become cynical about my attempts to be a good person, which is a signal in its own right – it’s time for a break.
The field of candidates when I filed for a vacant seat on city council expanded in the last few days from 1 to 12, so I’m bracing for failure. Bracing for Failure is the title of my unwritten autobiography. There is a certain panache to losing well. I always find the lesson, sometimes even before failure has been ascertained. I’ll know in the next couple of weeks where I stand and I’m sure I’ll be back writing about it then.
Until then, I’m withdrawing into my shell with a pile of books, a list of house projects, and a penchant for belting out blues songs without provocation. We’re replacing our deck which has become a regular haunt for woodpeckers, due to the rotting wood and the bug buffet it hosts. Another DIY project that will involve arguments and injury and will be a relief when it’s over.
I hope to return in a couple of weeks recovered from burnout and with a better sense of direction. My energy is going all over the place these days. It’s not anything particularly interesting – just life coming at me from all directions and I need to retreat, rally my mental troops, and prepare for the next charge, wherever that may lead.
Wishing you the happy last dregs of summer!
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?