The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

Silence is sometimes preferable to unleashing emotions that are not processed or packaged for public consumption. My silence here, on this blog, has been due to a simmering bouillabaisse of anger, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that I am not alone in this, nor is my angst much different by degree than anyone else’s. I’m either at the edge of tears or letting loose an inextricable profanity.

Cartoon drawing that says "WTF".

I feel frenetically angry these days, to the point that I have a Post-It note below my computer monitor: Be kind. Don’t swear. Listen. Anybody who knows me knows I love some good swearing. But since every meeting or get-together is online, it has become too easy to blur the boundaries between close friends and the board of the nonprofit for which I volunteer. All the faces are flat, the location always my study with multi-directional, disorganized anger banging around in my brain. A mistakenly uttered profanity might be quite jarring in the wrong environment.

Physically, I’m wearing each and every emotion. I wrote this little ditty in my head yesterday when wearing a baggy shirt: All this swathe of cloth, does not have the ability, to hide my rolls of fragility. Yeah, I won’t be reading an inaugural poem any time soon. I’m walking a lot, trying to get back into strength training, but I’m having a hard time making myself care. It feels like something is a little broken, like I’ve just given in to entropy.

Owl in glasses sitting on a pen.

Still, I’ve almost finished my first semester of an MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’ve learned several things. I am further along in my writing skills than I imagined. Secondly, talent doesn’t mean jack if you’re not actively writing. Thirdly, when you solidly believe that everyone around you is better than you at everything, it always comes as a surprise when you realize, Hey, I know something. This has given me some ambition to put together my own low-rent virtual workshop for the fall. 6-10 writers, nominal fee (just so people show up), and covering all the basics of good narrative.

I’ve done a couple of writing competitions, which work like tournament brackets. Thus far, I’ve been given an Honorable Mention, and I’ve just advanced another round in a short story competition. Some competitions offer critiques from judges on your piece as part of the registration fee. One of the comments struck a nerve. You’re a gentle storyteller. In any other world, not littered with my literary ambition, this would seem sweet. But it really stuck with me, because the translation at first in my overthinking noggin was “tepid, mediocre, simple”. Oh no! What happened to complex, rich literary narrative that evokes some intellectual pablum and blah, blah, blah… I’ve already written the New York Times review of my first book. And gentle storyteller does not cut it.

Book open on table in woods.

We all have ideas of who we want to be or at the very least, how we want to be perceived. I’m settling into this idea that my writing will never be edgy or evocative or prizewinning. Maybe it will just be a good story. My current novel was described by an MFA professor as character-driven and a quiet, complex story. That will make for a shelf-grabbing blurb. “Boring. TLDR” – Publishers’ Mistake Weekly. Mark this little tea cozy of a book for the remaindered bin. Still, I don’t want to tell this particular story any other way – I like complexity, nuance, subtlety and if it ends up being a bathtub read for someone, as they fall asleep and accidentally drown, well, that’s just good publicity.

As I waited for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, to see if the Twin Cities will set itself on fire, I thought about violence. About militarized police and mass shooters. As a veteran, I have enough familiarity with weapons to know that I don’t trust them and I don’t trust people who fetishize them. I do know that brandishing weapons makes people lazy. They don’t have to de-escalate, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to use diplomacy. They don’t need self-control or empathy or decency. Like the mafia, like gangs, like uniformed units, they conflate fear with respect and think compliance is the only way they can “win.”

Red spiral like the boring inside a gun.

There are likely few Americans who have not been touched by violence – from war, from mass shootings, from childhood traumas. I have now lived in two places where mass shootings have taken place. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, my afternoon Russian class was moved, as hours before, a man who had killed five people around campus, entered the classroom and shot himself. There have been multiple events in Minnesota since I moved here and that’s not counting the police violence. Even they are not immune. In 2015, just a few blocks away, at the city hall, a man walked in and fired upon police at a swearing-in ceremony. They were injured, he was killed. It’s everywhere. Guns are everywhere.

So, what can a gentle storyteller do? Is there a place for that kind of narrative in a world full of trauma and injustice and cruelty? I cannot watch shows or read books organized around violence. I don’t find it interesting or entertaining when it is reality for so many people. I’ve always believed that reading, getting inside a character’s head, helps grow empathy. And if there is anything missing in American life, it would be that. Throw in some critical thinking skills, less hero worship (seriously, when did politicians develop fan clubs?), more responsibility that accompanies freedom, organizing public policy around the common good, then there might be progress.

Image of Tim Kreider's book I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.

It’s a funny thing that I’m a writer, that I’m here now, writing in public. If I could have one secret power, it would be invisibility. Understatement is my brand. I’ve been reading Tim Kreider’s collection of essays, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. This excerpt sticks with me: “…if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” I mean, what is writing, but a wish to be understood, to be heard, to be known and loved? People can go on and on about why they do it, but practically everything we do organizes around a basic human need to belong somewhere.

Perhaps telling tales in a mild-mannered way serves as a counterbalance to the rage. The world does not need more anger. The world needs the opportunity to see the possibilities. That this is not it. That we are capable of change. That cynicism is not intelligence. That we cannot be anything more than what we imagine. So, imagine we must. Even if it is with a light touch.

The Listening Post

The listening post during war was an intelligence gathering station focused on monitoring transmissions. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last month – gathering information. I’ve been reading heavily, eating up news sources left and right, reading in-depth articles. I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re truly screwed as a species. That seems facile. Perhaps I could massage it a bit – we’re in challenging times. Spin it up another notch – it’s a great time for creative thinking.

canstockphoto48358399I’ve circled back to a novel idea that I had a couple of years ago and am now putting my nose to the grindstone and churning out words. The sense of urgency is heightened by the upcoming election. This election is probably the most important election of this American’s lifetime. Not just about who wins or loses, but about the very legitimacy of voting in our American democracy.

The voter suppression tactics, some long in the making (gerrymandering), some that have shown up in the last few years (availability of polling stations), and the more recent, blatant sabotaging of the postal service may break our system. And yes, white people, we’re a little late to this game. People of color have been dealing with voter suppression tactics since 1866.

Anyway, these times right now might be later viewed as the good times. Who knows where we’ll be in a year? Writing must happen now.

28114469I just finished reading Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. It is shocking that this book, written in 1966, did not receive more attention and accolades. The author is a black woman who heavily researched and wrote a semi-fictional historical novel based loosely on her grandmother’s stories. The book, which covers roughly the same period and location as Gone with the Wind, is written from a slave’s perspective. It makes me angry that this masterpiece never once showed up on the recommended reading lists in college or in any other predominantly white literary space.

Like a lot of white liberals right now, I’m knee-deep in books about racism. Many were already on my shelves, because my trek towards deliberate expansive reading began a few years ago. I began reading more works in translation, more works by people who had different lived experiences.

As a white woman, it’s hard not to be depressed by the Karen and Becky tropes. Or the 53% who voted for the load in the White House. Or the ones who are now throwing temper tantrums in stores about masks. I never knew entitlement had created so many whackadoodles. And of course, the Whackadoodle-in-Chief talking about those mythical suburban housewives, of which I could be considered one.

canstockphoto53920997I call him a whackadoodle, but that makes him sound less dangerous than he is. Mostly because I think it’s the enablers that bear my wrath. He’s just an organ grinder monkey.  Set up to perform, to distract, to entertain the slack-jawed masses while our rights are being impinged upon, our votes suppressed, our pockets picked clean.

So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, with a jackwagon at the helm. I am angry nearly all the time. But it’s an anger that has become tempered, redirected, and incisive. This might be useful. Or it could just be more negative energy out in the world, I don’t know. I often say that emotion without action is just so much noise. Perhaps I’ve written less publicly because it is already so noisy out there.

Despite, or because of, this constant seething state, I’ve become wildly productive. The paralysis in the early months of the pandemic has worn off a bit. Perhaps I got bored with being in that lethargic state. Maybe I’ve got live free or die zipping about in my head. The people who use that mantra, usually gun-waving anti-maskers (sorry New Hampshire), would be surprised how easily that phrase can be adapted to an entirely different ethos.

My adaptation is that I don’t want to live in a prison of my own anxiety or fear. I’m going to be louder, more political, intolerant of views that compromise the health, dignity, or rights of my fellow humans. For people who prattle on about divisiveness, it’s an easy muzzle for those of us who have often valued civility over justice, manners over standing up for others. I’ve always been relatively quiet and introspective, but the alchemy of anger and age is creating an element of fearlessness. It’s go time.

canstockphoto12869795It’s go time for all my creative urges as well. In addition to taking 5 million pictures of annoyed birds, I’m practicing/working on The Green Study Podcast. It’s not going well. I’d hoped to give it a try for September, but when I listened to the first episode, I realized how incredibly boring I sound. How’s that for self-promotion? Anyway, it’s still in the works and at some point in the future, you’ll be able to briefly listen to and then abruptly mute, the dulcet sounds of my musings. I might rename it The Sleepening.

How are you doing? That’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? What’s your mantra?  What are your days like? What gets you through the day?

How to Radicalize a Moderate Woman

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.

canstockphoto2216511I 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.

canstockphoto2002566These 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.

canstockphoto57591012Despite 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 wantincanstockphoto15586920g 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.

Things I Learned While Away from My Computer

Blogging after a long break means my words feel as wobbly as a toddler learning how to walk. But here I am.

 

canstockphoto1469876I’ve spent the last month reading voraciously, walking miles, getting sleep, reconnecting with friends and family, working out more regularly, and spending a lot of time staring off into space. It’s been good and necessary and I came away with a brain filled with thoughts and ideas and no sense of what to do with it all.

Think Little

I’ve always been a “This Old House” kind of goal setter. In the course of a few episodes or hours, I plan to completely rip out my old life and become someone entirely new. Someone who doesn’t binge watch bad 80s television or eat an entire bag of Ghiradelli Peppermint Bark Chocolates in one sitting. I will no longer be the person who whinges on about writing and drags myself begrudgingly, bitterly, to the gym. I will like people in general and not avoid them like the plague. And it will all happen…tomorrow.

On one of my random library strolls, I discovered Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold. While I’ve read similar approaches, her process resonated with me.

canstockphoto293181.jpgLearning to meet small goals, to not let their scope creep through ambition, and to whittle things down to the smallest component, is an exercise in patience. It’s walking as far away from the insta-fix mentality that afflicts late night ads and reality TV as possible. I’m in week three of meeting small goals and it is difficult only in the sense that I must resist my urges to go big, to fall victim to my enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations.

Sound and Fury

There’s a lot of dying and death near me now – aging pets, aging relatives, the roller coaster of illness and recovery and diminishing returns. Winter is only tentatively here – killing everything in sight, but without the civility of covering it up with a blanket of snow. Nothing meets this head-on better than reading Shakespeare. Drafty, damp castles, ribaldry, murders, and words, words, words.

canstockphoto3731968.jpgI’m no intellectual heavyweight, so I was delighted to discover the No Fear series of Shakespeare’s plays. It includes the full text of his plays with plain English on the opposite page. So far I’ve gone through Hamlet and Macbeth. So much of our literature, even our conversation, finds its origins with Shakespeare. For people who love words, whether written or spoken, Shakespeare is worth revisiting. It’s Julius Caesar and Richard III next – apropos of our current political climate.

The Politics of Anger

The news during my break is enough to crush one’s heart. Two mass shootings. The cultural dominoes tumbling down over grabby hands and penis exhibitions. The continuing government’s trend towards authoritarianism and the willful embracing of that by a portion of the population, regardless of moral or ethical conflicts.

The natural and unnatural disasters seem to grow exponentially by the minute. Before I took a break, I imagined all forms of apocalypse, found myself ideologically entrenched and rigid, depressed by the widening crevasse between my beliefs and the beliefs of others.

Somehow, it’s different now, because the question I’ve begun to ask in earnest is: what is helpful? Was it useful for me to read the news twice a day, get enraged and depressed and frustrated about things over which I had little control? Did I act upon those feelings in such a way as to change it?

canstockphoto7124977Shortly after the 2016 election, I did what I felt were the right things. I contributed to organizations that supported causes I value, which are being threatened: reproductive rights and women’s healthcare, the environment, and civil rights. I started volunteering to work with English learners at a local public high school, feeling like I was cancelling out a couple of white nationalists in my efforts. I sent emails and made phone calls and wrote self-righteous, heated letters to politicians.

Still, I was depressed and felt little sense of relief from any of my actions. Nothing I’d done up to this point seemed to make a difference, except for the thing I was actively doing. Giving money, emailing, and leaving phone messages (rarely did I reach a person) – these are all relatively passive things. Working with English learners had a real time payoff every time someone proudly showed me a great paragraph they’d written or told me when they’d gotten their first part-time job.

And then, there is this inexplicable thing – a softening in political attitudes and a desire to not be so angry. Anger made me stupid. My thought processes and words had become twisted. I had to step back and regain my composure. I started with my own words. I paid my teenager money every time I swore in front of her and after the first ten bucks, I stopped. I love a well-placed swear word, but my anger had eroded even basic civility. It gave me a sense of entitlement – to rant, to not even try to sound like a reasonable person.

Next, I sought to neutralize the click bait nature of online or televised news. I used a site blocker on my browser to block the news sites I visited frequently. I still read the news online, but now I have to make a deliberate decision to turn off the blocker and many times that decision is to leave them blocked – the delay makes me mindful. I read most of my news delayed now, by getting The Economist (a serious bang for the buck, but get out your reading glasses – the print is small) and The Atlantic (edifying long form writing). It’s amazing what changing the immediacy of news can do for one’s day.

Reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions reminded me that anger cannot stay anger – it has to be something else. In Ms. Solnit’s case, it became some outstanding writing on complex issues. I read an article in The Atlantic, “Conservatism without Bigotry” (online title “Republican is not Synonymous for Racist“) by Peter Beinart that has made me really think about how we talk to each other and how to move beyond the shouting of memes at one another. There are so many rational, reasonable voices to counter the provocateurs who seek to divide us.

Moving Forward

My brain reservoir has been replenished. I am well-rested. And I have a lot of things to write about. I’m glad to be back and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow bloggers, having conversations with readers, and doing my part to contribute a civil voice to the internet.

Bits of Sunshine Coming In

canstockphoto2875377In journalistic vernacular, this is going to be a disjointed fluff piece. For months, I’ve been wrapped up in the turmoil that is political life in America and this week, I’m calling a time out. It’s exhausting and depressing – and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost some IQ points in the process. My practice this week is to not read any news until the evening, leaving my day untainted by a sense of apocalyptic foreboding.

The sun has been shining and we’re having a bit of a warm streak here in Minnesota. Despite a few slip-n-slide sidewalks, I’ve been able to get out and walk and feel some sense of normalcy. I perused my yard, taking note of various garden projects and making lists of supplies. It’s premature. These warm streaks are inevitably followed by blizzards and my notes get put aside for a snow shovel. But still, it’s a break in the cold days and bleak skies. And it keeps the Minnesota homicide rate down during cabin fever February.

*****

canstockphoto9109848I forgot that it was Valentine’s day yesterday. Late afternoon, I stood in line at the drugstore with a lot of men who were clutching chocolate and stuffed animals. It’s a test each year about expectations. I usually have to make up something for my husband to get me, because when I say nothing, he worries that he should do something. Inevitably I end up with some heart-shaped doodad that, until that moment, I didn’t know I didn’t want. I usually ask for spring flowers, which show up in shops around this time of year and are easy to pick up downtown on the way to his bus. We’re a romantic lot here.

*****

canstockphoto7037830If you have a compulsive personality like I do, the real trick is to turn that negative into a positive. I cancelled Netflix and Amazon Prime to curtail a binge-watching habit. I traded it in for a free language training program called Duolingo. I’m not into product promotion, but this is a fantastic online program. I’ve been reviewing, in short snippets, my Spanish, Russian, German, and French every day for the last week. Once I get back into the groove, I would like to start some Hindi and Korean. It’s user-friendly (my 12 year old got me onto it) and is self-paced. I feel parts of my brain light up that were collecting dust.

*****

canstockphoto9229380
If only my cats were this useful.

In my attempt to eat less packaged foods, I’ve been cooking. As a rule, I don’t particularly enjoy cooking. I’m so accustomed to quick food that the preparation, cooking and cleanup seems interminable. A meal from scratch can take 2 or more hours, and it takes my family all of 15 minutes to eat it – even less to grimace on the first bite and make themselves a sandwich instead. It’s not a gratifying experience and I’m stuck eating a soup nobody liked for the next week.

*****

Writing has been going well for me. I’ve been more productive in the last couple of weeks than I have in months. I need a finished manuscript done by April for a writers’ pitch conference. I had to let go of preconceptions about how and when I work. I purchased a cheap laptop which I drag along to all the places where I wait – all my daughter’s rehearsals and lessons and practices.

I finally trained myself to use Scrivener, which I had purchased with a discount after NaNoWriMo in 2012. It’s a challenge to learn it, but my novel and notes were becoming too unwieldy in Word. I’m finding it useful, but there is definitely a learning curve.

*****

As an American, I’m highly trained in instant gratification. Instant entertainment, instant food, instant information. Cooking, reading longer form news, not trying to incessantly fill every space with sound, images and ideas – it seems that this is emerging as a new intention for me. It’s not just slowing down, but giving myself time to unravel all the tight, angry tension that I’ve felt for the last year.

canstockphoto34597907Lately, what I’ve been observing in schools, coffee shops, offices and sometimes in my own home, is that we are batteries that are never fully recharging. Our information comes in fast, short bursts. We lie to ourselves about multitasking. We pride ourselves on odd things like functioning on little sleep or how many emails we get or how many friends we’ve acquired on social media.

I’ve been thinking about the concreteness of life around me, a life not lived ephemerally through my phone or computer. It’s not as interesting or exciting. It defies instant gratification. There is no drama, nothing that inspires rage or jealousy or triggers eating and shopping sprees. I realized how addictive some emotions can be. I’ve felt addicted to anger with all the online reading, an anger I usually reserve for driving. The space left when I turn off all the noise is unsettling.

*****

Useless trivia I will remember instead of where my car keys are:

I watched my daughter’s orchestra perform at Orchestra Hall last week and ended up with a melody stuck in my head. That’s when I found out that a pop song I knew from the 1970s had liberally lifted from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, III. Adagio.  Perhaps, if you’re an oldbie like me, you recognize the tune. The Rachmaninoff estate now gets 12% of royalties due this pop singer. This same singer also borrowed from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18 for another pop single.

Road Rage with Marcus Aurelius

canstockphoto20499175She came through the parking lot at high speed, cutting me off and pulling in front of me at the drive-up ATM. The only lessons I have faithfully adhered to through all my driving years is that you go slowly in parking lots and assume everyone else is a bad driver. She was the not-so-hypothetical reason for both rules.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book II, 1, trans. Staniforth

The sun baked me at 90° F, magnified to 140°F through the front windshield. Even with the air conditioning on, I felt like breathing was an effort. My stomach growled, as it was getting closer to lunchtime. I watched as she conducted transactions with not one, but three debit cards. I was beginning to sweat. The air conditioning wasn’t able to fend off the burning rays. I shut it off and opened all the windows.

She pulled away from the machine, but stopped 15 feet up from the ATM. She was on her cell phone. I finished my transaction and realized that I would have to squeeze through at an angle to leave. Hot, hungry, frustrated, I navigated around her car and then yelled “You could have parked your ass in a better place!” And pulled out of the parking lot.

canstockphoto2020697While I am often a mutterer, grumbler and cusser in the car, I am not a yell-out-of-the-open-window kind of person. What people call “Minnesota Nice” here, is really Minnesota Passive Aggression. Anger is kept under wraps unless you’re a yahoo with no class. Which, apparently, is now me.

I felt immediately ashamed of my out-of-control raging. This is not the person I want to be. I often joke that I become someone entirely different when behind the wheel. It didn’t seem that funny now. I’ve been in checkout lanes with angry people, I’ve heard the muttering and cussing and surly undertones used in post offices and restaurants. I’d think give it a rest, it’s just blah, blah, blah. And wow, they need some anger management lessons. Yes, Hypocrites R Me.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book VIII, 47, trans. Staniforth

When I tell stories like this, people always say “you’re being too hard on yourself”. I assume that they’re being magnanimous because they’ve done things equally awful or worse. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, this is a minor incident, but I’ve been thinking about the roots of violence and aggression a lot lately.

canstockphoto1604923Our knee-jerk response is to beat our drums about mental illness and guns and racism and misogyny. When stories like the latest shootings at a theater in Louisiana and the military base in Tennessee hit the media, the response is predictable and ultimately, empty. Throw out something about the 2nd amendment, about the mental health crisis in our country, maybe the word terrorist. Next.

For a long time, I wondered if violence is endemic to human nature, despairing that the problem was too complex to ever find a single concrete solution. Because that is what we really want. We want there to be a magic reason for violence that would only require a quest, some passion, a petition, and maybe a few hashtags to solve the problem.

Sometimes I think about the steps between thought and action. Every premeditated act of violence begins with a single thought.

What is that thought? Was it a niggling sense of entitlement or anger at injustice? Was it a minor incident that snowballed in the person’s mind? And when did it progress – online in an open forum? At work with acts of petty vandalism? Did this person find people along the way who agreed with the lesser points, supported the jokes about killing ’em all? Laughed about blood and guts in some sort of adolescent gaming exchange?

Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book IV, 7, trans. Staniforth

Or was it the media and entertainment, where killing and crime scenes hook our morbid fascination? Was it the collapse of a relationship? Or financial distress? Was it that the only kind of attention people seem to get is not the kind they really need? The murderers who get dissected by armchair psychologists and talking heads, a punditry that melds both ignorance and verbal abilities?

It’s too much to parse. We continue warily into the world. But I can’t shake the idea that violence and aggression have roots, even if just a tenuous thread between thought and action. Or in my case, words and action. I was aggressive and angry towards a stranger.  I did not know her story. I did not know her burdens or her joys. Maybe my action was a last straw for her. Maybe my aggression only fed hers. Maybe it will be something bigger than I can imagine.

canstockphoto18256337My evening walks don’t always entail philosophical meanderings. Sometimes I just spend the whole walk thinking “Ow, my knee hurts. What just popped? Do I look as hot and sweaty as I feel?” Last night, though, I thought about my own seeds of violence and aggression. How easily I fertilized those thoughts at the ATM. It took only a few uncomfortable circumstances, heat and hunger and impatience, before I acted upon them. Do I only differ from a murderer by where I am on the continuum of aggression and violence?

Try to see, before it is too late, that you have within you something higher and more godlike than mere instincts which move your emotions and twitch you like a puppet. Which of these is it, then, that is clouding my understanding of this moment? Fear, jealousy, lust, or some other?

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book XII, 19, trans. Staniforth

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thoughts as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book V, 16, trans. Staniforth

Choose the seed. Choose the habit. Choose the kind of world I perpetuate. I have some work to do.canstockphoto4439665