Nonsense poem…

 

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rhizomin’ the night away…

Threat. Who works well under threat? No one, really. Every action becomes extreme because the situation pushes at the seams. Threat. Duress. Pressure. Tension. Tension? I don’t think tension gets at it. Pressure is also not quite it. Pressure can produce interesting things. But too much makes things break.

 

Do we need pressure to thrive? I get that we need a degree of stress or anxiety. I need the fright before being on stage, the bolt of energy that makes you invent and elevate into someone else. It can be fun, like the thrill of figuring out a “whodunit”. It can be inspiring, validating, exhilarating…when it works. It’s a pretty big crush when it doesn’t.

I guess I have to admit to a wee extent that those of us who are prone to existential angst also need that charge to remind us we’re alive.

But how much is enough? Truthfully I’m not asking a philosophical question. Even with all the bad things I am aware people are capable of doing, I still just don’t quite get why we tend to be bafflingly, predictably, unabashedly, mean and petty towards each other.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” Is it really such a whiny thing to say…and yet it also seems dismissive to reduce our everyday experiences of injury into a childish sandbox fantasy. I’m not really expecting people to get along. I do expect people to convey a degree of respect, act with a smidgen of decency, and maybe – just maybe – treat each other with some sliver of courtesy.

For fuck’s sake, we do all live together. For one moment in time, it would be refreshing to see people remember that fact and treat each other as though we actually want each other to be there, instead of perpetuating all our Freudian envies and drives toward replicating our impotencies.

I am angry, I am sad. I don’t really need to be recognized. I would occasionally like to be noticed. I wager most people want to be noticed. It is so easy to do, and yet we so often refuse. Why is it so hard?

Do we really think if we stop paying attention to ourselves we will just disappear into nothing?

Is nothing so bad?

Misanthrope, curmudgeon. Bake me a cake or go away.*

 

*yes i stole that line. or maybe I noticed it.

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Rise…

Doubt has been following me for a while, it seems. I say that as though this is an unusual occurrence. It isn’t; doubt comes around regularly and usually has something important to say when it shows up. What strikes me is this version of doubt has been creeping around in the background, slowly rumbling into my belly without being noticed.

The last couple of years has been like running a marathon uphill – no, not uphill, up a mountain, a towering Everest that leaves one limping oxygen-deprived for the last three miles. I suffocated more than once, and I don’t really remember how I managed to breathe again. But I did, and it would seem that would be enough to restore confidence.

Yet here I am, realizing that my confidence is indeed, shaken. Daily living continues; breakfast is made, work is attended to, sleep appears (sometimes)…so it doesn’t seem as though doubt has been hanging around too much. Thus, I am surprised to notice that I am not as sure of myself as I have been before. I would like to tell myself that these hesitations are simply connected to being yet-again new, to learning the unknown, to meeting the unfamiliar. But I know intuitively there is more to it than that.

What catches me is how this feeling hisses in the background. I was expecting doubt to be as it had been before – loud, irritating, shouting in my face to sit down and be quiet. I suppose I have learned a thing or two about telling doubt to knock it off. Doubt doesn’t tantrum as it once did because there’s enough of me to know better.

So this lurking presence, this tone that hums like white noise, is mildly startling. I am not knocked off my feet or blown into submission. But I do hesitate, and I realize it is because I am fearful of steeling myself for criticism, rejection, abject humiliation.

I get the oddity of that phrase. I’m afraid to prepare myself. What it really means is I’m afraid of the possibility that situations could arise where I need to prepare myself. I wish it were an irrational fear, but the conditions of the kind of work I do mean other people’s opinions will be foisted upon you regularly.

It sounds rough – I’ve blogged about it before. If you write, you will face readers who hate your papers. If you talk, you will face an audience who hates your words. If you do something, someone will tell you it is wrong. If you do nothing, someone will point and laugh. I do accept this is what you sign up for if you’re going to do this work; of course, I also think this is sort of what happens if you’re going to live at all. I had to prepare myself long ago for the unkind gaze offered by so many ill-mannered critics, and I’ve even learned how to take some of that and learn from it.

But right now, the prospect of stepping into that again makes me want to go back to bed. And in truth, I don’t really think I’m walking into the same level of vitriol I lived in for the last couple of years, or any vitriol for that matter. I think I’m back living in “normal.”

Trauma has a way of making all your gauges run slightly askew. That’s what I’m figuring out now, that my meter is a little off. Doubt slinks around the way it usually would, and probably should, but the part of me that can usually recognize the extent of doubt’s threat is seeing a rattlesnake instead of a length of rope.

So fuck off, rope. Yep, I’ll make more mistakes, and someone will complain about something I’ve done or said. I will remind myself that “safe” ideas are also bland and often untrue. Eventually, confidence will show me that when I fall, I learn to pick myself up again.

Damn you, Batman.IMG_6644

Nice Rocks

Pressure is the stuff that is supposed to create diamonds. By now I’ve experienced enough pressure to own my own mine. Such silver-lining statements aren’t very good at assuaging the storm of emotions that accompany difficult life experiences. I’d likely become more happy if people would stop making such comments altogether.

There is the crisis that occurs in the moment, whether it be an instant or a sequence of events causing the ground to crumble away beneath one’s feet. Such experiences shock, surprise, gut us into so many unpredictable states and reactions we often stun ourselves with the words that erupt from our mouths. We mobilize into action, or hide away, or wait silently – the fight, flight, or freeze responses biology instilled in us to try to keep us from dying out after the first generation. A modern, digital society doesn’t erase the need for these defenses; rather we just develop newer and weirder ways of employing our protections.  Even in our not-so-social media we cling to our illusions of control via tweet-storms or mass Facebook-unfriending.

Action, in any of these forms, is greatest when danger first makes itself known. The threat demands a response and we move like bees to guard the hive. But many threats don’t end once the emergency is over, in spite of our “get it done” society. There is no fast-food formula for addressing the longer lasting experiences of prolonged duress.

So – back to pressure. What is to be done once the emergency subsides, and we are left with the dawning realization that the source of our angsts is not going away any time soon? Or the possibility that our disturbances may never go away? Stuck is not always a state of mind; sometimes it is a condition of existence.

Enter the platitudes: it builds character, it tests what you’re made of, it’ll make you stronger. Goody goody gumdrops. As though you don’t have enough character, thought you were made of jell-o, or were too weak to lift your own eyelids. Is it necessary to experience the bullying effects of hardship or trauma in order to become a better human being? Is this meant to demonstrate that any God that may exist prefers cosmic irony?

Truthfully, this is why I think the Why questions don’t really matter. If we were to find out that all this were to make us better, or if it is the case that this is all meaningless, what difference does it actually make. You’re still in the same stuck and it isn’t going anywhere.

I do think it is an oddly American cultural discourse that suggests pressure, stress, or whatever is somehow “good” for you. That may just be our need to put some ridiculously cheerful spin on the bad things in life. Maybe it is an extension of our natural tendency to want to explain things. Or maybe all this searching is simply a distraction, the existential equivalent of chain-smoking.

I don’t have an answer. I am currently living in multiple states of pressure and dealing with it in my multiple useful and selfish ways. Writing this is an attempt to hold on to creativity, the energy that gets stolen by simply surviving. My projects have taken on the fury of a caped-crusader, but there is a reason why superheroes have insomnia. Commiserating with similarly affected friends builds community, but also grows the waistline while diminishing consciousness. Resistance walks a fine line against self-destruction. 

Is there a bottom line? Maybe, but perhaps that’s part of the problem, there is no bottom line to be found. Perhaps this is what living in a paradigm-shift is like. Churning in the crucible, we will not know what the end could look like because it is beyond what we are currently capable of seeing. Some pieces will burn away leaving only charcoal and dust. Other parts will forge into something unusual, awkward, but new. Hopefully some of those chunks will be welcome. Others will likely bring their own sharp edges and distorted veins. And likely some contorted bits will turn out to be jewels, gemstones with properties not understood but worth investigating.

That is as close to a silver lining as I can offer – stick this out and maybe we’ll have some nice rocks. But in the meantime – yup, it’s going to be one long, hot summer.

Religious Histories…

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I was never baptized. This was largely due to an oversight by my parents; basically, they forgot to do it. Now before the Freudians leap into writing dissertations about what this implies about my upbringing and its connection to my infinite personality flaws, my parents’ ignoring of my eternal soul was likely one of the better things they did. My course was set early on towards figuring out this thing called religion.

Even though my childhood lacked expected rituals, I was not without the presence of religion. My mother is Catholic, even though she doesn’t quite know what that means. She was baptized and given communion when she was growing up in Taiwan. Since the mass was given in Latin at the time, she had no idea what was going on and just went with it. Of course since my mother was raised in a very traditional Chinese home, she didn’t really need extra lessons in shame to begin with, so Catholicism in another language likely felt pretty familiar to her. This is probably why there has always been a Catholic influence in my life, but no one really understands it.

My father was supposed to be either Pentecostal or Baptist. He was dunked in a bathtub and ran after that which is why the choice was never really made. Religion terrified him, death terrified him, and women terrified him, which explains a great many things. When I was little, he announced he would never go to church again, and that was the one promise he delivered on. He also later divorced my mom so he could date as many women as he could find and adopted an attitude of “do whatever feels good.” Unless of course you were one of his children, and then the rule was, “if it feels good, NEVER EVER do it, see it, or think it again.”

Even though dad declared never to set foot in church again lest he burst into flame, I recall spending plenty of time there when I was young. Well not in any one particular church, but rather many, many churches. I didn’t know what to call my family because we simultaneously attended Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal churches at different times. This might be why I never really understood why Catholics and Protestants bicker amongst themselves over which one is “right” about Jesus, because when you’re 6 it all looks about the same; it’s just a question of which one makes you stand up the most.

I went to bible school on a regular basis. The school I attended the most had a fire-and-brimstone preacher who scared the living Christ right out of me. I have no idea what he was talking about because my strategy was to stare like I was listening so he wouldn’t shout in my direction. But I knew I wanted nothing to do with what he was selling. When he wasn’t looking, I would pull out the Old Testament and read it, trying to figure out what “begat” meant and why those old guys had so much of it.

Somewhere in my adolescence, my mother remembered I was still sinful and wanted to get me baptized. By then I’d decided to become an atheist, but mostly because I listened to a lot of punk rock. So my mother ordered me to the minister at the church we happened to be going to at the time, and made me talk to her about what would happen if I continued to deny God.

It is likely the minister had a more well-rounded version of one’s relationship to the almighty than my mother did, or perhaps she didn’t know what to make of the girl with spiky hair, black coat and combat boots sitting across from her. Either way she simply asked me what I thought of my relationship with God, to which I replied that I didn’t really know, but I didn’t want to sign up until I had a better idea of what I was getting into. She thought that sounded pretty reasonable and sent me on my way, offering to talk more if I wanted to. I skipped off with my get-out-of-jail-free pass validated, and I realized I really did want to understand God better. I wasn’t really an atheist, I was just angry, and talking to someone who wasn’t was, in a word, helpful.

I had quit going to church(es) on a regular basis but continued exploring the tough questions. Somewhere in early adulthood I decided to get pretty serious about it all. I suppose being surrounded by priests at a Catholic university had something to do with that. But this time I wasn’t having threats shouted at me from on high, rather I got the chance to learn. Religion is, amazingly, much more interesting when it is presented in relation to culture, history, ethics, art, and relationships. And surprise! This thing called theology invites questions and no one will go to Hell as a result.

But I never committed. I came very close on several occasions. It was sort of like showing up on the wedding day, looking down the aisle, but when the music started to play I would say, “nope” and turn around. And this was not due to a lack of belief; it is fair to say belief and I were good friends. I did well with a conceptualization of God that permitted me to challenge Him on a regular basis and I could accept Him challenging me back. But to get more specific – to make a declaration of faith – never quite happened. I recall praying with a priest, who was preparing me for formal entry into Catholicism. I was anointed, and afterwards he asked how I felt. He was disappointed when I replied, “Umm, a little weird.”

“Why?”

“This wine is corked.”

So it didn’t go very well after that; apparently some priests do get upset when you start questioning whether or not Catholicism is the thing for you. And some take it kinda personally when you decline communion, and some get downright offended when you suggest you’re not really into Jesus Christ after all.

Which brought me to one of my realizations of adulthood, that theology is great but religion, not so much. The people of religion didn’t always live up to what they were supposed to, and the Institution can engage in some not so great stuff.

I grew up in an area where priests’ abuses against children were first exposed. I initially didn’t grasp it. It was hard to know what abuse even was because when the authority of God sits behind the man, you are led to believe that everything is love and you do what you’re told. Victims get labelled as heretics and speaking up becomes a crime. The Pope gets the last word, but is he really infallible? The problem existed longer than anyone ever guessed and continued well after it was claimed to have stopped; the scope was not limited by borders and a community’s crisis was actually a world’s crisis. We had no idea how to reconcile this and the subsequent bad decisions: hiding priests, hiding children, hiding stories, hiding answers. The only people who seemed to walk away without injury were the men in black.

We watched The Church ignore the very people it was supposed to care for, we tried to keep hope even when they kept the problem going by simply rotating instead of rehabilitating. We extended forgiveness when promises were made about making reparations but one has to wonder about the true price of silence. Eventually we say, “fuck off, any god that wants these men for his loudspeaker has a serious inferiority complex, or is simply a figment of your imagination.”

I became a Buddhist. The thing about Buddhism is, you don’t actually have to do anything to become one. It’s just how it works. This fits with my inability to engage in ritual. Buddhism also didn’t put all its faith in men. This is likely because Buddhism teaches that individuality is an illusion. Collectivism means if I injure you I injure me, and we are therefore injured. That was a refreshing sentiment.

Buddhism fueled me for a while. I wasn’t a very good Buddhist; I ate meat and rarely meditated. But I could live in a world where good and evil were the same, because that matched my lived experience. I didn’t want to lose suffering because suffering was at the root of existence; we couldn’t really learn to love until we could accept the heart of pain. That worked for me; I also didn’t have to rewrite my identity in order to fit the mold because there isn’t really a mold to begin with.

And yet…I didn’t stay there. I haven’t abandoned it, but then again I haven’t abandoned any religion. I’m no religion these days. I don’t like the word spiritual because in the USA it seems to be linked to scenty candles. I am still very concerned about theology, morality, and ethics. I am not seeking a “good” life though, rather searching for a human life. I don’t know if God is there, and I don’t think it’s possible to know. So I’ve stopped looking. It has become less important to have an answer to that question, “what is God,” or “who is God.” But if there is a God, I don’t think they’ll be too upset that I haven’t been baptized.

Next stop…

Let’s begin at the end. I’m somewhere over an ocean, flying home after 3 weeks abroad. For some reason, I don’t sleep on planes. Perhaps that’s because planes are ridiculously uncomfortable to sleep on. It is basically sharing a bed with about 200 people, but the bed fits really only about 3. And the other 2 you’re stuck with are people you’d rather not be in bed with.
So I don’t sleep on planes.

I did however sleep more often than usual while abroad, given that when I typically work at the institute we direct each summer, I average about 4 hours of sleep a night. Whether it was because I had my children with me this time, or perhaps because staying up all night comes with much greater consequence than it did when I was 20, I slept. And I needed it since the last several months have been extremely, irrevocably, exhausting. Granted this trip was work-related, but it was also the vacation I’ve been waiting for. 3 weeks of letting the rest of my life disappear from my brain.

The sign of a good vacation is when the answer to the question of, “what day is it” is answered with, “I don’t know.” While I still had to check email from time to time, I declined responding. Admittedly, I could not totally divest myself of social media and managed to post a few pics of our journeys. But otherwise I was “off the grid,” and glad of it. What the rest of life back home thought was important I could ignore and instead focus on what was in front of me, which was typically either a vista I’d never seen before, or a pint. Win-win all around.

I hiked as far up a hill (created by a volcano) as I could, which means I almost got to Arthur’s Seat. I could see it, but my eyes started wobbling at the height and I had to stop. But I did look over the edge as far as I could, which is pretty good for someone who can’t look down the Sears Tower. I rediscovered the joy of walking along an unknown path, even if it sometimes resulted in running away from the velociraptor we imagined lunging at us in the tall grass. Paddle boats can be cool. Humidity is not. Late night conversations with friends is still the best way to end an evening. Your kids can ask some really good questions, even if you never have answers to them.

And then there are the random conversations, the ones had with strangers like taxi drivers, ticket collectors, waitresses, museum docents. People who are interested in talking especially when you’re interested in listening. While parts of me started to blend in, I realized my foreign oddities might be just as interesting to the locals the way their idiosyncrasies are interesting to me.

Edinburgh is a pretty cool place.

Tour groups drive me completely bonkers.

It’s a curiosity how we try to bring back pieces of our experience with us when we travel. I like to take photos, but the irony of photography is it can detach you from what is directly in front of you if you let it. We wander into endless shops to bring back the trinkets (even though I never got my highland “coo”) but really it’s just stuff, things that mimic the real. What you’re really hoping to bring back is the feeling, the parts that don’t have words and can’t be quantified or totalized, but simply must be lived. The experience goes away but hopefully the effect stays.

So what do I go home with? Ask me again in a couple weeks. I am ready to be in my own home but I miss where I was. “Missing” is the fuel that can keep a hope burning.

I’ll return sometime. Mind the gap.

Untitled nonsense…

So the thing is, I’ve not posted much lately. It’s one of those vicious cycle things; life is too busy, so I don’t write, but not writing makes all the thoughts collect in my head, and the aggregate effect is life feels stressful, so I don’t write, and on and on and on…

That makes writing my version of exercise. Okay, I exercise too, but only because I have to or else things will stop working. But I guess that’s the point of writing, if I stop writing things will fall off my brain and I’ll get all lopsided.

So I’m making myself write so some of the crud works itself out of my bloodstream. Mindstream. Headstream. Whatever fucking stream happens to be pooling up there.

I don’t know what to say. I have too much to say. I don’t feel like saying it to anyone. I want to be left alone. But I want friends! Don’t leave me alone, take me to a pub, have a pint. As Dylan Moran once said, “do you want to be sane? Or not lonely.” Give me some cake. I’ve had too much cake. Give me some cake followed by some broccoli. It’ll all even itself out.

I still haven’t written the stuff I’m supposed to be writing. I think I’m in a sort of denial about how much academic writing makes me want to vomit. But I have managed to collect all my pieces in preparation for writing, which means I’m slowly running out of excuses to not write.

Thus now is the perfect time to write about writer’s block-busters, or here’s a list of ways to get past that blank page staring back at you, daring you to put words on it:

  1. Gather your sources.
  2. Organize your sources.
  3. Make an outline of your sources’ points.
  4. Come up with some snappy headers, like “Introduction” or “Discussion.”
  5. Take a tea break.
  6. Realize that a tea break needs cookies.
  7. Notice there are no cookies in the house.
  8. Leave the house to get cookies.
  9. Notice about 64 other food items you simply must try.
  10. Go home, put away all the stuff.
  11. Clean because of all the dust on the shelves where you put the stuff away.
  12. Sanitize the entire bathroom; realize you have no toilet paper.
  13. Go back out. Notice your favorite shoe shop is having a sale.
  14. Buy an entire outdoor furniture set, including matching fire pit, at neighboring store having a super end of year clearance event not to be passed up.
  15. Stuff furniture in your economy-sized car because you’re too cheap to pay for shipping.
  16. Call all your friends for help because only the pillow fits.
  17. Go for drinks with friends and tell the shop to ship your furniture anyway.
  18. Go home.
  19. Sleep.
  20. Wake up, hung over.
  21. Shove toast in your face and recall you still need to start writing.
  22. Sigh. Sit at computer.
  23. Google something.
  24. Cry.
  25. Write random words on your document.
  26. Spellcheck.
  27. Submit.

See? Whoever said all that stuff about publishing being hard…was absolutely correct. How do you really get past writer’s block? Just start writing, even if it is untitled nonsense.

(And if you need a little more writing inspiration, watch Bernard and Manny try to write a children’s book:)

 

Happenstance Happens…

I never knew how to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We seem to ask this of young children even though the likelihood of getting a coherent answer is minimal (“garbage collector,” “spy,” or “space ninja” are common responses). And growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the available models were not very well-developed; I spent some time believing a girl could only be a nurse, a stewardess, or a Charlie’s Angel.

As a working adult and mother of two, I get a new version of this question which is, “how did you know you wanted to be a ____________.” I admit having the fortune of  a highly active and fulfilling career, and I love and appreciate being a parent. But my answer to the question is somewhat of a letdown: “I didn’t know.” I was never one of those kids who had such certainty about what they wanted to do when they got older. Plans were often foisted on me, but they never really worked.

There were all kinds of things I was supposed to be and certainly things I wasn’t supposed to be. Not all of these impositions came from my family, by the way – society had a few words to say about what young, dark-eyed, dark-haired, biracial females can and can’t do. And let’s not even get into the whole not-conforming-to-stereotype gender thing. All of that is likely a different post, but the fact that I am not the typical face displayed on the postcard of success is likely why I get this question fairly often, particularly from women and pretty much anyone else who still colors outside the lines. It’s a question that really asks, “if you were able to find a place in the world, will I?”

Krumboltz developed the career theory called, “Planned Happenstance,” where career paths are established through unexpected events and experiences as opposed to a carefully directed linear plan. When I was in school, this theory was presented to us as the theory that doesn’t really work. It was probably taught this way because the theory contradicts the good ol’ American Dream, whereby with fierce determination one can achieve all goals as long as you stick to the plan, never quit, and take the heart medication necessary to keep you alive while you pour 125% of your lifeblood into reaching these goals.

It’s no surprise The American Dream never really worked for me as my dreams usually included visions of lying on the couch and watching television. This might explain why I silently questioned the dismissal of Krumboltz’ idea. Also this was the first career theory I’d heard that made sense in relation to my life, especially while taking a course in a degree program I had no idea about whether or not I actually wanted to finish. I was in graduate school, true, but partly because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had to do something after finishing undergrad, and as I’d ended up in one of those fields that doesn’t get you very far with just a bachelor’s, graduate school was likely. I ended up in this particular degree program because 1) they accepted my application and 2) my then-fiance was also going to attend that university. But had I embraced the idea of becoming the Thing you were supposed to be after you completed the program? Not really. I wasn’t against it, I could explore it, and it definitely beat getting micromanaged at a desk job (I realize plenty of other people would’ve been fine with option #3, but I already had some glimpse that living as an office jockey would’ve resulted in me peeling my skin off flake by flake).

But as it happens, I got lucky – I found the subject intriguing and it led to a redefinition of purpose. I met some very good teachers who could show me why their career mattered to them. This particular program also challenged me in new ways, so I started learning very different kinds of skills. My interest in the arts found a way to mingle with my interest in science and there was a greater chance I could earn a living. There was still a great deal to learn but this little accident was working to my advantage.

Even though I graduated, the chicken was only half cooked so I decided to try for a doctoral degree program. At least this time I knew what to look for, but because I decided late about applying I had missed the deadlines for many programs. But luck struck again – one program still took applications, invited me for an interview, and accepted me. I guess they liked my responses to the question of where I saw myself in 5 years. I’m pretty sure I made up my answer, borrowing from something I read about a week prior to the interview about a particular specialty needing more people with doctorates to do such and such work. I wasn’t really interested in it, but “I’m just along for the ride” usually isn’t an acceptable reason to an admissions committee for getting into a program.

It is also possible the committee noticed that in spite of being a rudderless ship, I love learning. If I could’ve gotten paid for being a student, I’d have found the perfect job. So doctoral study suited me pretty well. However, doctoral work also cracked my naive veneer as I got my first taste of academia not being all that academically inclined. Feeling lonely and weird, I was the youngest in my class and many seemed to delight in reminding me of that fact. Freely generating my own ideas was exciting, but I still felt as though I was missing something. I promised myself if after a year I hadn’t found “it,” I would get out of the program and chase something else.

Something happened the semester before that year ended; it was as though a switch flipped and everything turned on. I found meaning in what I was doing and somewhere this thing called confidence crept in. A specialty revealed itself, connecting so many dots I wondered why I hadn’t seen it earlier. I liked what I was doing and I was certain I would continue in a clincially-focused career…until I took a class towards the end of my program that uprooted that illusory path.   I found a whole new interest that made everything point towards academia. Thus I birthed a dissertation and applied for professor jobs, again later than I should have, and yet managing to get an offer enabling me to literally defend my dissertation and move all in the same month.

That should be the end of the story, but really it was just Part 1 of the trilogy. The twists and turns that have taken me to today create a complicated and familiar tale. Volunteering for the unknown and stumbling into unexpected situations is the norm, not the exception. I suspect Part 2 is coming to a close, but Part 3 is still a mystery. I have no idea what the title, setting, or plot will be. Happenstance has become for me, a way of life.

I never knew what I could do when I was a kid because I never knew what I could do. That’s the unself-conscious world kids live in, though.  I was capable of everything and yet also capable of nothing. The people in my life said take it all and take nothing, shouting everything is right as long as you don’t do anything wrong. I had potential, and was reminded daily that squandering it would be a tragedy. But these expectations didn’t belong to me; they were prescribed by entities who insisted they knew better. Living someone else’s possibilities made others proud, but my identity scattered to the winds, floating away like burning leaves. But every time I stepped off the path, a new piece of me came into focus. When I tripped into the unknown, I discovered what was missing. A series of mishaps, stumbles, and wanderings created the rhizomatic stem that has become my “career.”

I’m an uncoordinated bumbler, adept at staggering into accidents. Pretty good way to make a living.

 

 

Line Dancing

“The terror of failure can make you feel like a failure. So a bunch of people think you’re not very good at your thing. How much do you invest in what they say? How much do you care? Failure is not putting yourself on the line.” – Dylan Moran

Jane Elliott (Eye of the Storm) spoke at my campus recently and I finally was able to see her. I have shown her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes “experiment” in my classes and used her work to help students understand how racism and privilege get created and perpetuated. In short, Jane Elliott is a pit bull. She takes no “guff” from anyone and speaks the truth of racism bluntly, directly, and fearlessly. For example:

I admit, I’ve used that line in my own classes. It works. It also takes a good amount of guts to do it. I am not able to deliver my stuff the same way she does, but of course it would be foolish to try to be a copy of her. Her way of doing things is exactly that, her way. But my way can also be direct, challenging, controversial, and make everyone in the audience as uncomfortable as her audience. It is not an easy thing to do because it invites people to really, unreservedly, dislike you.

The thing is, I do like it when people like me. It’s kind of nice. But my adult life has been full of realizing that being liked and being respected are two very different things that often don’t lead to each other. And that means I get a lot of people not liking me.

What has baffled me about this is most of the time though, I’m not really intending to be controversial. Challenging classroom scenarios aside, most of the time I seem to set people off just by asking a question or making an observation. Lately I seem to be getting serious criticism because I keep noticing when someone breaks the rules. But even there it is a matter of me saying, “what did you do?” and then someone curses me with the fury of their ancestors.

It isn’t always that naive though, as I’ve written plenty of times about needing to speak up in order to identify injustice or highlight bias or instigate change. That definitely doesn’t win popularity contests. So there I am choosing to enter a situation where my likability will be questioned, even threatened. And I often find myself thinking in the middle of an altercation, “why the heck did I do this again?” If I would just keep my mouth shut, people could just like me and I wouldn’t have so many sleepless nights.

Except it wouldn’t really happen that way, I think. It’s true that if you spend your time being pleasant and conciliatory, you’ll have way fewer arguments. But what would really get done? In my own experience, I had plenty of times when I went along for the sake of going along. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the crowd, or was afraid of an argument, or not sure if my stance was worth defending. I could just say the thing that makes someone else feel good, or the thing that distracts from what is going on, and keep things simple. But it never really did make anything simple, because then I’d leave and think to myself, “why did I do that. Why did I go along with that stupid thing.” And when my eyes opened up to see how keeping my thoughts to myself mostly allowed other people to be overlooked, ignored, or even mistreated, it became much harder to justify why my comfort was more important than their humanity.

So I learned to say things. I later found out that many people do actually appreciate me saying things, whether I am deliberately controversial or innocently inquiring. Some have even said that it was validating, because they found out that someone else had the same thought they did. This led to me eventually building the confidence to keep talking. After enough arguments, it also led me to realize that the worst thing that happens in an argument is: having an argument. People get mad and say dumb things. The truly hard part is staying cool and not saying dumb things. But I learned I can do that too.

But it does mean I spend a good portion of my time being disliked.

What people don’t realize is that even when someone like me learns how to take such experiences as the norm, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get hurt in the process. It is not fun to have someone shout at you, call you names, criticize your work until you want to bleed from your ears. I get filled with doubt, I want to go home and hide under the duvet and not come out for several years. I will ask myself over and over again, what is wrong with me. Just shut up already. No One Cares.

I’m writing about all this because lately I have felt particularly disliked. It is not easy to bounce back and sometimes I don’t want to. I have spent several sleepless nights of late debating in my head if I should just pack it all in. Things were supposed to get easier, and yet I think it all really got harder. Will it ever end?

And then I get to see Jane Elliott, up on stage, telling it just as hard as she ever has and letting that audience know she is not fooling around. Okay, so I don’t agree with every single point she says, but that is insignificant. Because what is real is her passion, her fire, her fury, and she has been doing this for 48 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. And she has sacrificed and suffered, and definitely not been liked. At the end of a very emotional 2 hours, she shares:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations… can never effect a reform.” – Susan B. Anthony

I am reminded that the important stuff is never easy. Because if it’s easy, it means you’re just going along, riding the current. It also suggests there isn’t anything needing to be changed. And if you’re okay with that, then keep on going along. But if you for a moment think that something looks, smells, feels, seems, just in the teeniest bit askew…

Then get ready to be disliked.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name…

Moving is in that top 10 list of life stressors, along with things like marriage, divorce, childbirth and death. Some say it takes 3 years to really “move-in,” the point at which things become familiar and your home is really yours. You know where the grocery store is, how late you have to leave to get the kids to school on time, and what corner of your bedroom has morphed into the unofficial laundry basket.

But I haven’t been here 3 years. I’ve been here 6 months. And even though this was a move for many good reasons, moving still, in a word, sucks. I used to not think about the effects of moving and considered myself something of a rambler. That’s likely because from 18 on, I moved roughly every two years (with the exception of my longer 5-year stint in Chicago) until I was 32. Moving was the norm in my life, and my mind had adapted to living in an existential suitcase. Friendships were of the moment, to be grabbed by whoever could be found, because you or the other person might be leaving at any time. Carpe Diem made practical, not just philosophical, sense.

And then I had that 10 year lag…the one where I had things like children, mortgages, pets, parent-teacher conferences, annual holiday parties, restaurant special nights, season passes, oh and that job thing. The one where I showed up at the same job for 10 years, the first time in my life I’d had the same job for that long, went to the same office, saw much of the same people. Drove to the same places, saw the same buildings, taught the same classes, walked the same halls. Attended the same stupid, pointless, mandatory start of the term meeting every year. Crossed my eyes and doodled on my brain during the same committee meetings in the same boring rooms with the same glazed over faces dozens and dozens of times for 10 years.

Routine.

As much as my younger self recoiled at the thought of ever having a routine, the bottom line is I had one. Even when it included the things I didn’t like doing, it was still a routine. I learned how to navigate that space; I didn’t just know how to get around, I knew the backroads including avoiding the train that regularly blocked the entrance to my subdivision. I knew everyone in my neighborhood because my dog and I had walked the same route twice a day for several years and we met everyone who also walked, ran, or biked that route. When I was bored at work, I knew who to waste time with. When I didn’t want to get into a pointless conversation, I knew who to avoid.

Without realizing it, I had created “roots,” even though I wasn’t too pleased about where those roots were. I knew a long time ago I wouldn’t spend my life there, but in spite of that roots still developed and anchored me to a place and a way of life that was, for all intents and purposes, “normal.” It was what I knew.

I have been completely derailed therefore by the experience of knowing absolutely nothing now. Perhaps it was naive`, but I presumed I would bring something familiar with me. I still had my furniture, clothes, car…my family were still the same people and even the dog was still with us. It would just be a matter of changing the scenery, adapting to a different backdrop. I would still be teaching, reading, writing, and all that regular stuff. Life couldn’t really be that different, could it?

Wrong. I have watched every tiny piece of familiarity slowly dismantle itself as it walks across the threshold. The furniture I brought doesn’t fit in the new house. The car doesn’t work. The clothes are for the wrong season. And my family – still the same people, but now as turned around as I am. We bump into each other regularly because we haven’t figured out what direction to move in.

This is figurative and literal; when I get a moment to myself now, I still haven’t any clue where to sit in my own house. I haven’t found “my space.” When I find a spot, I don’t know what to do because I’m not sure how to fill that time. Even the little things I used to do, the hobbies, the activities, the ways of killing time and stretching through boredom just don’t exist the way they used to. Even my job, the teaching thing – it’s true there is an encyclopedia in my head that was written over the last 10 years, but I can’t deliver it the same way I used to. The format I teach in is nothing like what I did before, and every day is an adaptation to a new context. I have had to remind myself that I can put together a sentence and work a room, but my audience is not the same one I had before and I am learning them all over again.

It’s a weird kind of identity crisis. I’ve found myself wanting to volunteer for almost everything, things I’ve never even heard of because I don’t know where I belong. Outfits that I wore in the past don’t seem to match anymore. I am constructing an image all over again and I don’t know what it is supposed to look like.  This is an experiential lesson in social construction; the context of myself is impermanent, my knowledge of me fluttering constantly with the unrecognizable mirror of my unfamiliar social sphere.

I don’t have a clear answer out of all this. And it may seem surprising when I say I like being here. But I have made myself remember things like patience and temperance. Slowly the new little things are making themselves known to me; I recently ripped out a lawn feature left from the previous owner because I could finally say, “that isn’t mine.” I bought 4 pairs of shoes too many in trying to figure out this new fashion only to settle back on my old, reliable set of doc marten’s. I’ve abandoned local television to Netflix binge old seasons of House, the show I was addicted to (curiously) 10 years ago when I moved and started my last job. I bought a new car, and I blast 80’s music on my drive to work.

My spaces are still being developed. What’s it going to look like? I don’t know. Check back in 3 years.

There’s a Post in There Somewhere…

Should I talk about depression? Potential posts tend to start poking at my insides, enough to bother and eventually distract me from whatever I should be doing. And then I sit and write, as I am now, even though I really should do the thing I’m avoiding.

Avoiding isn’t quite the right word though, because today there isn’t A Thing I’m avoiding but rather many many things I should attend to. About a year ago, I had enough projects going on where I could easily write on a different one every day for several months and still not be finished. That’s the mess I made and I am finding myself in a very similar one right now. Except I did manage to finish all those projects, which might have made my current situation worse. Meaning I successfully completed everything then, so my inner little mad scientist knows I could do it again if I had to, and that is likely adding to tendencies to procrastinate.

But procrastination also isn’t the right word. Admittedly, I do, have, and will procrastinate. I have always believed at my core I’m a rather lazy person wrapped in a high-achieving blanket. So occasionally I cast off the blanket and YouTube binge, or engage in some sort of Fallout 3 marathon session, convincing myself that once I become level 25 strong I’ll finally have what it takes to finish my article. That’s true procrastination and likely some self-preservation, because otherwise I will workaholic myself into oblivion.

I have had to admit to myself though, that this latest bout is likely tinged more by depression, and less by my typical carnal self-soothing interests.

Now let’s pause on this word, Depression. I am qualified to talk about depression from a professional perspective, but I don’t want to. Largely because I don’t find such conversation particularly useful, inventive, or meaningful. I don’t really want to get into the “here’s your symptom and here’s your cure” dialogue, nor do I want to share the multitude of platitudes my field and culture expell on a daily basis whenever someone even hints at being “off.” Depression for me, rather, fits in as a strange visitor who came to my house and never left. He can be a nuisance, but for the most part he sits in the corner in his moldy old chair and grumbles to himself a lot.

Essentially, Depression is really Father Jack Hackett from the series, Father Ted.father-jack

The first time I noticed Jack was when he crashed into my house. I was pretty young at the time and wouldn’t have even known this visitor just barged in. But he didn’t exactly sneak past the guards, so to speak. I think the doors at my house would’ve been wide open to let a figure like Jack in, someone who could show with some amount of force just how unpleasant things had become. And he was a serious pain in the backside, driving me to a great deal of isolation and avoidance, and likely a few self-destructive tendencies.

But as with most uninvited guests, eventually a time came when I told him to just up and fuck off (how I did that is material for a different post). And I thought he did, but really he just hid in the basement for a while. A good long while. He was likely very good at living off the vermin and stale air. I was very good at not paying attention to the odd, occasional banging noise coming from the pipes. Granted, at the time I didn’t know such sounds could emanate from a crazy man in the basement because I didn’t think people lived down there. But looking back, I can see how he cleverly survived in that cellar and even enjoyed himself, prying into all the odds and ends one keeps in a basement.

He emerged, triumphant, in my early adulthood and proceeded to rearrange all the furniture. He also took the liberty of smashing a few pieces while tossing others out, without asking, and was pretty happy to relocate his soiled ratty wingback chair into the middle of my living room. He drank a lot and shouted his all too familiar, “arse, feck, gaarrls” over and over again like a bad nightclub song. I couldn’t help but notice him this time as his frequent appearances prompted panic attacks as well as the desire to hide in the closet. One day I found myself screaming for no real reason, so I decided to enlist some help at dealing with my unexpected roommate.

I don’t remember how long I saw my counselor before she used the word, “depression” for the first time. I do remember being surprised by its use; it was casually introduced by way of, “oh that will help with your depression,” suggesting depression was a) there and b) I needed help with it. This was news to me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with it, nor found my counseling experience bad. It was simply the first time You Are Depressed was bestowed upon me, and I felt the burden of such a mantle. I had a “thing,” to be “helped,” implying it could also “get worse,” and I was supposed to do something about it. Ideally I was supposed to get rid of it.

Jack wasn’t exactly too happy about that proposition and we engaged in battle for the next several years. I made my bed, he tore it up. I wanted friends, he didn’t want anyone inside. I used reason, he threw tantrums. There were several occasions where I successfully tricked him outside and locked him out. But then I’d find him sneaking through the bathroom window, or sliding down the chimney, and we’d go round and round again. During this era, the self-help industry exploded. You could find a support group to help match your socks or pick up inner child workbooks while filling up at the gas station. Socially, the message I kept getting over and over again about Depression was clear: it shouldn’t be there, and if it comes back it’s your fault. Work harder, try harder, believe harder, talk harder, whatever the fix was do it harder and your affliction will disappear if you follow the plan.

The fallacy of all this inner talk proselytizing though was that Jack Hacketts really don’t give a fuck if you do anything harder at all. They just sit back, drink, and laugh at your misfortune. You say, “get out,” and he says, “make me.” In fact, the harder you push the more that big lump will suck himself to his nasty chair and throw cups of tea against the wall. What you’re left with is the nagging feeling that you are to blame for your depression, which is Jack’s biggest victory – convincing you that every time you can’t get the energy to move, it’s your own fault. If you were a better person, you never would’ve let some creep like Jack move in to begin with.

I thought I moved him out again for some years. But then a life crisis brought him charging back, more determined than ever to stay and take over the house. He is incredibly childish, because the first words out of his mouth are, “told you so, you can’t make me.” And I felt the desire to let myself be defeated, to just accept that this unhygienic blob was going to lie in the middle of the floor, farting and drinking all the booze. In my life that translated into pure numbness, like I was sitting through a concert but with speakers unplugged. I wanted to get some incurable disease so I could sit in a hospital and let someone else decide what would happen next. Go ahead, Jack, throw a party. I. Just. Don’t. Care.

Jack did throw a party. A hell of a party, a great big whopper that drew a few noise complaints and likely brought the police around. And that’s when it hit me like a gong.

I sat up and said, Jack, you have my attention.

It occurred to me that I had spent so much time trying to kick Jack out that I hadn’t bothered to find out why he was there in the first place. His arrival wasn’t an accident; he walked in because a space was open for him, and that space had been created by circumstances beyond my control. I realized Jack wiggled when something tried to hurt me, and he made noise when something tried to silence me. He drank when I needed a break and he slept when I needed to go outside. But none of that was revealed to me until I started talking to him.

Becoming friends with a gross ogre of a thing is not easy, nor did it happen over night. But it did begin by changing a basic premise: recognizing all that popular speech about “getting rid of” your problems was really part of the problem. I didn’t need to get rid of anything. Having Jack around wasn’t a reflection of personal success or failure, rather it was simply an expression of circumstance. I live with a crazy roommate. He can be a handful, but he can also liven up the place and keep me from taking things too seriously.

Father Jack still keeps a chair in my living room. These days he sleeps most of the time, but we’ve got an understanding. Recently another life transition had him moving about, but he doesn’t cause the damage he once did because he doesn’t need to. We can talk (sometimes shout) to each other but there’s no battle for control because control is no longer the goal. In fact, the first thing that settles Jack down is recognizing and relinquishing the illusion of control and just allowing the flux of emotions to wash over us. We might be sad, angry, ecstatic, irritated, frustrated, enthusiastic, enraged, passionate, or lethargic – but we are not numb.

I quip that Depression hangs around my life, poking fun at me and cracking jokes. It puts me in embarrassing situations at times and nowadays I laugh or tell it to piss off. And sometimes it does slow everything way down, telling me to say “no” and my worth isn’t conditional on being liked. We’re buds. I don’t expect Depression to go anywhere and I don’t think I want it to leave anyway. It is, after all, difficult to be a socially observant existentialist without your own cup of Depression steeping away on the table.

So Father Jack, what do you say to a cup of tea?

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