Resolution

As a general rule I scoff a bit at New Year’s resolutions. There’s something so arbitrary to me about declaring one point of the year the one where you make changes. I’d rather assess and address as I go along in life. Plus, so much of my life has been governed by the rhythms of academic years that it is only recently that I can recognize any newness to January. Previously it was always September that felt new and that first day of new classes always felt like the time to be someone different. (Of course by the end of the time I was in school it was that pounding hope that I could make this quarter different, better, that wore me down too far to even really enjoy the opportunity of learning that had once been the whole glorious point of those new beginnings).

Nonetheless, I woke on January 1 and began writing a poem that I meant to be about the arbitrary nature of calendars and resolutions but instead became about letting go, change, and entropy. And I ended the day with bits of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” running through my head:

Letting go
In order to hold one
I gradually understand
How poems are made.

There is a place the loss must go.
There is a place the gain must go.
The leftover love.

(from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful, which I’ve posted a link to before, I know.)

And I have to confess, once I’d started down that road of contemplation, of thinking through change, resolutions seemed just one step behind that.  This is not the only time during the year that I ask myself “who do you want to be going forward?”  And I don’t think there’s anything inherent about now that lends itself particularly to these contemplations, but I don’t see much point in denying myself the opportunity to think about change now just because lots of other people are also doing so.

And, thus, I have been thinking of some things that I would like to focus on.

1. Be kinder to myself

I have been working on this, but still sometimes I forget to accept that the foibles and failings of day-to-day life are just part of being human.  I own my mistakes, my insecurities, my weaknesses but there is no point to letting those things define me or control me.

2. Cultivate my strength

I mean this both literally and figuratively.  I need to inhabit my body more and get back to a point where I can comfortably do active things.  This means, of course, the New Year cliche of getting back to the gym.  But beyond that it means focusing on the fact that I am not a brain in a jar.

Even further, though, beyond the physical is reminding myself that I can be brave, that I can be fierce, that I can navigate the world even when it scares me.  The picture I paint of myself these days (both in the ways I speak of myself internally and in the things I portray for others’ benefit) is of meekness.  If you ask me to describe my past, though, the person I used to be, I will focus instead on the bravery, on the things in my life that were the result of hard work, of determination, of risk-taking.  Somewhere along the line I lost that sense of myself as fierce and brave.  I think it comes, in part, from some rough years fighting depression and anxiety.  For the last few years of grad school and a chunk of the time after, I felt like I had failed–and worse that I had failed because I was not strong enough to overcome that anxiety–and it is too easy sometimes to focus on the failure and the fear rather than noting that when I was miserable and floundering I turned off a path I had been on for most of my adult life and started looking for some other way to live.  The change I made wasn’t, in the end, all that drastic.  Professionally what I am doing now is not all that different from what the academic path was leading me toward but I still had to step off into the unknown to get here.  There’s bravery, I think, in recognizing when you’re unhappy and taking the steps (sometimes even just the small ones) to figure out how to be less unhappy.

3. Make real connections

There are so many pieces to this and it connects to that notion of letting go.  My life is brimming with wonderful people, but to a certain extent these are people that I keep at arm’s length, mostly without even meaning to do so.  Those depressed years, those anxious years, those years during which I stopped feeling brave, weren’t just years that felt like failures academically.  They felt like failures socially, emotionally, too.  I’ve always been solitary, been the sort of person to have a small list of close confidants.  And those relationships are often transitory.  Brad and I have been together for just under seven years.   What is striking about that fact is not that it is my longest romantic relationship but that it is also my longest non-familial emotionally intimate relationship of any kind.  So yes, I have always been solitary and transitory but there was a point when  I had two relationships (one quasi-romantic, one purely platonic) go wrong in similar ways in a short period of time.  Those relationships were, at the time, the bulk of my support.  There was a time, during all of that, where I thought maybe my heart might be so broken it couldn’t be fixed.

I was wrong.  It turned out the pieces could be reassembled, but the cracks do still show.  Those losses made me cautious.  They made me want to be my own support.  They made me scared and sad and slow to trust.  I have spent recent years trying to work my way out of that, trying to figure out which of the walls I built are load-bearing and which are just fundamentally in the way of leading the life I want to live.  I’ve made progress but it’s been slow and I am realizing that I need to work hard on finding ways to let go, finding ways to heal the damage.

3a. Let people know how much I appreciate them

This turns out to be hard and scary sometimes.  You’d think it’d be easy to say to someone “you’re awesome” but I find it surprisingly hard.  Looking back, though, on my relationships that have gone badly I realize that one of the things I regret most is holding onto my caring, hiding it in the folds of my heart, because I was afraid, because I didn’t want to seem like I was asking for reciprocation, maybe even because I didn’t feel I deserved reciprocation.  It is hard too, because many of the people I have loved over the years are people who are not used to having caring expressed.  Pair that with me not being particularly used to expressing it and things get awkward.  Still, practice makes perfect and I’ve been blessed lately with some good role-models in the realm of telling people they’re awesome.

3b. Reach out for hands that are reaching back

I have spent a lot of my recent years building my social life around other people’s invitations.  I stopped reaching out to people to do things because I feared rejection, because I had been flaked on a lot, because I was tired and broken and didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.  I’ve tried to be better about this, but I am still much too unlikely to reach out to people I’d like to spend more time with and say “hey you wanna do something.”  If you never reach out it greatly reduces your risk of being rejected but it’s also pretty lonely.  Last winter I tried to re-cultivate the connection with one of the two people who had been my support pillars that crumbled.  It went, to put it mildly, poorly.  And I found myself tempted to slam all my walls back up, to draw a little circle around the few people I had started to trust and declare “these people I will trust and no more.”  I resisted that urge.  Perhaps I slowed at tearing down walls, but I did not reconstruct my fortress.  Instead I reminded myself that the problem isn’t reaching, the problem is reaching in the direction of hands that aren’t reaching back.  And so, now, I will re-remind myself of that April resolution.  Reach for hands that are reaching back.

Independence

The fourth of July, Independence Day, is not my favorite holiday (ok fine, I’m a curmudgeon who doesn’t care much for holidays in general, but I have more problems with July fourth than most). At a certain level I understand patriotism. Loving the place you’re from, or the place you’ve chosen to live, makes some sense to me. But the history of this country, the history of freedom, isn’t one that leaves me entirely comfortable waving a flag and cheering. Of course, it would be absurd to argue that if a country isn’t perfect you can’t celebrate it. Still, the particular flavor of patriotism that seems to be the norm today is something I have difficulty swallowing.

As a pacifist I also balk at the strong militarism that seems to come out in these celebrations. Sure, the celebration is related to war in a certain sense. But it should, if it’s a celebration of war at all, be a celebration of the end of the war that brought our independence from the English. In my mind, though, ideally one would see it more of a celebration of philosophy, of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not entirely sure how the jets that seem to fly over any municipal celebration of any size play into that.

I’m also, I’ll admit, not big on explosions. I like professional fireworks displays well enough, I suppose. Shiny things in the sky are pretty. But the number of people setting off stuff in my neighborhood makes me nervous. I suppose if I were the sort of person who watered every square inch of my landscape multiple times a week (which is, by the way, a violation of current water restrictions) I’d be a bit less nervous about fire. Even then, though, there’s still a fire risk. Not to mention the fact that all the noise keeps freaking out the cats.

Since I’m so not fond of the holiday, it’s an interesting twist that I made one of the biggest decisions of my adult life on July fourth, 2007. I woke that morning and worked some on the outline for my dissertation proposal. From my department’s perspective I was already way behind schedule and was in danger of being asked to leave the program if I didn’t get my proposal written and approved by fall. I’d been spinning my wheels for a long time, but had finally gotten much of my anxiety under control to the point where I was convinced that I could actually write a dissertation, that I could get my proposal finished in time to not get kicked out.

Later that afternoon I went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. Sitting in her backyard with her family and some mutual friends I found myself wishing that my life had more down-time. I found myself wishing that I had more time for people, for hobbies. I thought “I wish I didn’t have to write a dissertation.” And, slowly, I realized that I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I realized, sitting there with a beer and watching the conversation fly by, that I didn’t have to be an academic. Even if I wanted to do research, I didn’t have to be the primary investigator. Moreover, I realized that I didn’t really want those things. And if I didn’t want to be on the career path that a PhD would take me down, why get one? It was a surprisingly fast decision. Almost as soon as the thought of leaving the program entered my head, I was sure it was what I wanted to do.

Looking back I’m convinced that I’m happier than I would have been had I finished grad school. I do sometimes get a bit wistful. There are things I might like to do career-wise that the lack of a doctorate makes more difficult or impossible. On the whole, though, I’d characterize leaving grad school as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Right up there with going to grad school in the first place. And so, even if I’m not particularly keen on fireworks (and am particularly unkeen on the chaos in my neighborhood right now) today is still a day of personal celebration for me.

Let’s hear it for the pursuit of happiness!

As if.

Early in 2011 I ran into this blog post on the concept of “living as if.” In a nutshell, the premise is that if you want to be something, behave as if you are. It is, at a certain level, a simplistic notion. Just do it, as it were. But there is a power to that simplicity. And there is a power to the idea that if you want to be a good person you must merely act as if you are.

Since reading that I’ve tried to implement the idea a bit. I am trying to live as if I am a person who actually attends to her correspondence. And it seems to be mostly working, in that I only have one lingering email at the moment that I really should answer. And miraculously, by behaving as if I am the sort of person who does things like paying her car registration immediately upon receiving the notice, for the first time in nine years of owning my car I got (and put on) my new tags in March, though my registration didn’t expire until May. I mean really this was a major accomplishment. There’s a reason all my reoccurring bills automatically get charged to a credit card. I’ve never managed to be flaky enough to get any utilities shut off but for someone who fronts as all responsible and adult-like I’m astoundingly bad at things like paperwork and bill paying. I would do well to incorporate some other responsible adult behaviors. Things like scheduling dentist appointments and a check-up with my doctor. I wish behaving as if I were a person who exercises regularly didn’t require the actual exercise part. But that too, I should work on.

For right now, though, I merely would like to be a writer. You know, the sort of person who writes on a regular basis.

And so here we are. I haven’t been writing as much as I would like to be in any form. I’m going to try to move toward a habit of writing something (blog, poem, journal entry, real email, letter, whatever) daily. I have in the past couple of years moved back toward writing poetry, but it is not yet second nature enough that I find myself doing it without setting aside time to do it (perhaps this is just a reflection on how my time is spent now compared to when I was younger and writing easily and often).

Unrelated to all of that, today I discovered that one of the passion fruit vines I started from seed is blooming. I have a plant that I bought from Henry Fields, which flowers prolifically and produces a bit of fruit here and there since last year. But it’s primarily a decorative variety. The fruit is edible but not as good as other varieties. Finding plants is hard, though. So I ended up starting a couple from seed. They’re slow to germinate and a bit finicky (well, really, I’m just not very trustworthy when it comes to taking care of delicate new seedlings). But I’ve got two big vines. I’m not entirely sure which plants are which but they are some combination of purple passion fruit and/or fragrant granadilla. And for the first time, one of the two vines started from seed is flowering. I literally jumped for joy and clapped my hands when I saw it.

I guess that explains it

Earlier today I thought to myself: In retrospect, perhaps opening a box clearly marked “property of Pandora” because I was looking for hope was not the best strategy.

The reason I had that thought is not the point of this post. What’s done is done and I’m pretty well at peace with the consequences of having opened an emotional Pandora’s box. Indeed, I feel as if I am a great deal more at peace with my emotions now than I was before I went digging about for hope. I stand by my choices.

However, after thinking that, and considering writing it down somewhere, I went and looked at the Pandora’s box entry on wikipedia. I had no particular reason for doing so other than the fact that I was waiting for some analysis to run and had pretty much exactly enough time to read a wikipedia entry. The thing that struck me was this sentence “Many interpretations of the story overlook the fact that Pandora’s Box contained all things evil that would plague mankind and Hope was inside this box, thus completely missing this second lesson of the Myth.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard that interpretation of the myth. I’m not saying I buy it (as either an interpretation of the Pandora’s box story or as a truth about life). But it did make me pause for a moment and go “Oh!”

The ice cream of happiness

I have been suffering lately from a bit of a case of BADD (that’s Being an Adult Dysphoric Disorder for those of you who don’t regularly make up maladies and their acronyms). I’ve transitioned to full-time at work, which is great except it means driving across town five days a week instead of only three. I’m also working on two new projects, which brings the stress of figuring out new data and new bosses and all of that. I’ll get the hang of it all eventually but right now I’m just exhausted and feel like I have no time because not only am I spending more time in the car, my time at work feels terribly unproductive some days because I’m still getting up to speed on the new projects and am re-learning different statistical tools with which I am not as efficient. Pour on top of that a generous helping of emotional malaise surrounding a situation that falls squarely into the “things I cannot change” category and you get a cranky, melancholy Sarahliz who becomes prone to trying to come up with cute names for what’s wrong.

Last night on the way home I detoured to cash some checks and stop at Trader Joe’s for bread. Of course when I got to the Credit Union I discovered that I had not actually put the envelope with the checks in my purse (meaning I still have to make a special trip to take care of that). Then as I was walking the aisles at TJs I started doing the mental “so what am I going to eat tonight.” It was already late and I didn’t feel like making anything. Plus, as per usual for the past couple of weeks, I was cranky. So I bought some frozen gnocchi, figuring I’d heat that up and have it with salad. I also bought coffee ice cream because I’ve been taking my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad and have generally been feeling pretty virtuous in my food choices. (Yes, it’s possible that the super crankiness is also influenced by the fact that I’m trying to lose a few pounds and save some money so have been bringing my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad).

Ok. We all see where this is going, right?

Yeah. I ended up having a HUGE bowl of ice cream for dinner. While taking a hot bath. It was awesome. And I woke up a great deal more cheerful and relaxed. Apparently I stumbled onto a fairly effective treatment for BADD. It helped a little with the feeling of being overwhelmed by work since part of my bath time was spent reading a work-related article that proved helpful. And I woke this morning with the sudden conviction that I actually will be able to accept the thing I cannot change with a modicum of adult grace.

That emotional malaise and the anxiety of facing a thing I cannot change has resulted in images from Alice Walker’s poem “Did this Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot” tugging at my brain. Of course as they were tugging I could remember which poem it actually was. I remembered the bit about weeds coming up through the cracks. And I remembered the gist of the last two stanzas:

Whoever he is, he is not worth all this.
Don’t you agree?

And I will never
unclench my teeth long enough
to tell him so.

That was, after all, pretty much exactly what I was feeling as I hopped into the tub with a huge bowl of ice cream at my side.

So this morning I went looking for the full poem, with the hope of giving the rattling in my brain a little more form. While looking for it I found this article, an interview with Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. I think I had encountered things to suggest that the Walker mother-daughter relationship was strained. I just hadn’t read anything that really made clear how strained, or why.

It was striking to me to read this article today because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how one balances a desire to change the world with a desire to live a happy life full of strong relationships. They obviously aren’t goals that have to be at odds, but fighting for change is hard work. Even just figuring out what issues one might tackle, what solutions might be best, is more than I seem to be able to manage. I can’t imagine the time and effort involved with actually going to rallies or doing things that might directly cause change (I’ll confess I find rallies and protests and civil disobedience perplexing at times because it is so hard to trace out what they actually do).

Lately I’ll admit I’ve been judging myself through eyes that aren’t my own. And those eyes have been judging me very harshly indeed for my lack of real action in the world. It is perhaps the case that, in channeling that judgment, I am actually judging myself much more harshly that said person would. Still, even knowing that, I was deeply troubled for awhile. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how to find more time, exactly what to give up, and exactly where to focus some world-improving energies. The truth is that I fully know that I need to do more to make the world look like I want it to. But, as I thought about it more and more, I realized that though I respect the person whose voice I was internally channeling a great deal, I have no desire to emulate his life. I have no desire to structure my relationships the way it appears to me that he has structured his. In short, after scribbling my way through circles of angst in my pen-and-paper journal, it suddenly dawned on me that my relationships to the people around me are more important to me than grander notions of social justice. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am selfish and think my life more important than others (though perhaps I am, and perhaps I do). I mean, rather, that if I focus all my energies on saving the world only to fail to feed and sustain my closest relationships, then I have failed. In doing so I would have undermined not only my world, but the worlds of those people close to me as well. I would, in short, have contributed to the circle of society closest to me to not looking like my ideal.

One could argue, of course, that the good that Alice Walker has done in the world–the positive effects she has had on people, myself included, through her writing–outweighs whatever negativity comes from neglecting her relationship with her child. I recognize that argument and recognize how, for some people, it is enough to justify consuming focus on activism. For me, though, it’s not the way I want to live. It’s not who I want to be when I judge myself through my own eyes rather than focusing anxiously on the judgment of others. I still feel guilty about not doing more, for remaining so inwardly focused. But ultimately I am slowly forming a better picture of who I want to be and how I want to live. And that picture involves a lot more focusing on real meaningful relationships than it does marching in the street.

Consider the Muse

Those readers who are particularly observant may have noticed a new link in the top navigation bar. The poetry page.

It’s been at least six years since I’ve had a public facing poetry page. The process of creating a new one has filled me with misgivings. I don’t remember the process of selection making feel quite so vulnerable in the past. Perhaps because in the past I had the sense that most of my readers were strangers. Perhaps it is because I feel as if I should have made some progress in the quality of my work since 2000 (which is basically when I was last writing regularly). Perhaps it is an issue of subject matter. My poetry of the past eight or so years feels very different to me than the body of work that came before, though that may be because the work from before is far enough away now that whatever rawness is there feels less immediate.

I think part of the issue is that I feel differently now about my sources of inspiration. There has been a reappearing muse who weaved his way through my work from about 1991 onward. He’s much less of a presence now than he once was, but I still sometimes write things that bear that influence. Aside from the enduring muse, though, my early work had a lot of fleeting influences. The themes that populated my poems remained similar over time but the details changed. It was like I was always building houses, but with different floor plans. And because my sense of self as poet largely matured with that early muse in place, I’ve never felt particularly conflicted about sharing the work drawn from that source of inspiration.

I’m not sure I ever really even thought that much about it until sometime a bit over a year ago when I had an exchange with that early muse in which he took some serious issue with someone (not me) who had invoked his name in the telling of her own story. I was a bit stunned by his anger. I think I had always thought of my poems as being primarily my story with the inspiration as sort of an unrelated piece. More than that, though, I think I’ve never much worried about it because my fleeting influences tend to fade into one another and become unrecognizable within the body of my work (indeed looking back over the years there are many poems I can’t remember the original circumstances of). And when it came to the muse I didn’t worry about it much because I’m no longer making public most of the work that bears the stamp of that influence. Even if I were (and eventually I would like to revise some pieces that touch those stories) I’d still be largely invoking events and emotions of nearly twenty years ago. It’s hard, in those circumstances, to worry too much about the line between one’s own story and the story of others.

In the last seven years, though, a large portion of my work has traced its way back to another source of inspiration. This is the first time since my teen years that any one person has woven their way through this many poems (or, at least, through this many years of poems). And I’m much more conflicted about my relationship to this muse. For the first time it feels weird to tell stories that are not, in many ways, entirely mine to tell. In part this is because the emotions are newer. In part it’s because a lot of the emotions I’m pulling from in these pieces are not healed over, are still very tender to the touch. Unlike the inspiration of my early years–with whom I exchange occasional notes and telephone calls–the recent muse and I are, apparently, quite definitively no longer in each other’s lives. And somehow, again in a way I haven’t experienced before, that makes it feel weird to put those emotions out into the world to fend for themselves outside the context of some ongoing interaction.

If I am going to call myself poet again, though, I need to reassure myself that I am writing poems, that I am moving forward. Taking the deep breath and making them public to the world, letting them go about their way, is part of that process. And so I am trying to let go of my discomfort.

I spent a long time, though, while choosing these poems thinking about what consideration I owed their inspirations. In the end, I decided that, in the case of the poems that were troubling me, I felt most comfortable communicating their existence to the one that inspired them. From there it is out of my hands.

I was amused, then, the morning after having made that decision to read through a backlog of stories from six sentences and come across “The Plagiarist” in which the author plays off the notion of invoking real people in one’s stories as a sort of violation of intellectual property. There is something comforting about knowing that I’m not the only one who worries about my rights to my ghosts.

I know some day I will look back at many of these pieces and cringe the way I look back at things I wrote fifteen years ago and cringe. I hope when that day comes I will still be writing and will have better things to replace them with.

Flirtatious fish and wasted lives

Driving back from a camping trip in the desert weekend before last I noted a hand-written sign along the side of the 395. It read (approximately):

Coy – Goldfish
Available here
Need a Home

I was turning to Brad to ask “what do you suppose makes a goldfish coy” when suddenly it dawned on me that the sign was intending to advertise koi and goldfish. The image of the coy goldfish caught me fancy, though. I imagine a goldfish rendered sort of cartoonish, with a bow on its head, and big fluttery eyelashes. It left me thinking a bit about this piece of Stephen Fry’s where he argues that language should be enjoyable and that pedantry is mostly pointless because we know what people mean even when they say it wrong. (If you prefer the written version, the video is excerpted from this, which I’ll confess I have yet to actually read in its entirety since his use of language appeals to me more when read with an actual British accent rather than the poor substitute in my head). I’ll note that in this case I actually didn’t know what the Coy Goldfish sign meant until far enough down the road that if I’d been looking for koi I might not have bothered to turn back. But still, I take his point. Delighting in the notion of a flirty fish is more fun than railing against spelling errors.

Then last week I was flipping through The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, which I recently picked up off paperbackswap for sentimental reasons. My mother has a large collection of Idries Shah’s books and the Nasrudin stories lived on the side table by the big chair I used to regularly sit in to read. So when I was out of books or otherwise bored, I’d read those. I read them more for entertainment than with any eye to their meanings as teaching stories. And, honestly, I think I picked up this volume with the same intent. It’s a comfortable and entertaining reminder of home more than anything. Nonetheless I paused when I came to a variation of this parable (the text of which I have taken from here):

Grammar

Nasrudin was ferrying a traveler across a lake. As they spoke on various subjects, Nasrudin made a minor grammatical error.

The traveler remarked, “You who wears a turban and calls himself a Mulla-have you ever studied grammar?”

“No,” Nasrudin admitted, “I have not covered that subject in depth.”

“Well then,” the traveler replied,” you have wasted half of your life!”

Several minutes later, Nasrudin turned to the traveler and asked, “Have you ever learned how to swim?”

“No,” the traveler responded.

“Well then,” Nasrudin replied, “you have wasted all your life-for there is a hole in the boat, and we are sinking!”

There are numerous things one could take from that story. The ISHK website offers the explanation that this story shows Sufi rejection of the purely scholarly approach. As someone whose life takes a pretty scholarly bent, I’ll admit I chafe at that sort of interpretation a bit. I think I’m more inclined to read it as an indictment of the sort of thinking that supposes that one sort of knowledge is always essential and should be pursued, even at the cost of other sorts of knowledge.

Aside from that thought–and an additional reminder that I would do well to let go of some of my language pedantry–it took me in the direction of thinking about how to live a life that isn’t wasted, a life with purpose. For many people the work they do for pay is both the thing they spend the most time on and the thing that they hang much of their identity on. I’m fortunate to be able to do work that I think benefits the world a little. I know “statistical programmer” doesn’t sound like a world-changing career path but I do feel like the project I’ve been working on and the ones I’ll be starting on shortly do have the potential to inform public policy and potentially play a part in small changes. It’s not much but it feels more meaningful to me than, say, marketing research. I also happen to enjoy my work a great deal, so on the whole I feel pretty lucky. My work could be more “important” in some sense but it makes its small difference and is challenging, interesting, and leaves me sufficient time and brain power for the rest of my life. In short, I like my job a lot and I am happy.

But sometimes I wonder if that’s enough. I wonder if I am doing enough to make the world a better place. I wonder if I am using what skills I have in useful ways. Leaving graduate school, and my aspirations of academic life, has given me a lot more time to develop hobbies and interests outside a narrow intellectual focus. I feel like, in terms of the story above, my current life gives me room to learn both grammar and swimming (as an aside I’m mostly self taught in both areas, but have amassed enough skill in both to survive most pedants and boats sinking in gentle water ). The problem is that, having relatively recently chosen a life that involves a great more leisure time than the life I once aspired to, I’m selfish with that time. I’m doing the things that I felt like I didn’t get to do while I was in school. And I’m enjoying living, figuring out who I want to be. That’s not a life wasted, that much I know. The question is whether it’s a life that’s insufficiently generous.

That I’m even asking the question, I think, is an indicator of my answer. I don’t feel generous enough. I feel like even if I’m shaping my little corner of the world into a better place, but that doesn’t extend beyond my walls. Sometimes I think it doesn’t even extend beyond the boundaries of my skull. And it should. But I’m not sure where to start, what I want to do given that my energies are limited and I’m, frankly, greedy with my time.

One solution I’ve considered is going back to the church I was once a member of. There’s a new minister and some things that troubled me while I was there seem to have changed. When I was there I was deeply involved with the leadership of the congregation but not with anything else outside the church. Still, being tied to a community where the notion of social justice was important is something that I miss and if I went back I would work harder to find ways to also improve the world outside the walls of the church. I’ve written here about the process of leaving. The reasons I left are complicated and many. Some of it was simply time. Brad and I had started spending our weekends together and since that’s the only time we saw each other I was loathe to take time out of my Sunday. Plus I was exhausted due to my various roles in the church and what my involvement on the board meant in terms of how I experienced the years of institutional churning the church was going through at the time. Both of those things are problems that time has, essentially, solved. There were other things, though, that made me leave. One was feeling like my presence there was appreciated for what I could do rather than who I was. Much of the rest had to do with my ability to navigate certain types of personal relationships. When I was there I was one of the only (if not the only) women under 30 in the congregation. It made me a lightening rod for a lot of interactions I am generally poor at dealing with. Even just playful flirtation is a dance I don’t perform particularly gracefully, when it takes any sort of creepiness my abilities to cope are pretty taxed. Of course since I’ve left two things have happened. I’ve aged (though at 32 I doubt I’ve come even close to aging out of any sort of creepy attention) and other women under 40 have joined the congregation. So many of my reasons for leaving have at least lessened in their importance. There are still, though, pieces of hard hurt in my heart that I’m not sure I can see around.

The years I was there were hard years for me, emotionally, academically. The friends who meant the most to me during that period in my life proved themselves repeatedly unreliable and having to face the various complications that came with my place in spiritual home left me battered and bruised both emotionally and spiritually. I am unsure ultimately whether going back would help bring catharsis and healing or whether it would be a source of new pain and hurt. It is clear to me, though, that the walls I built around myself in those years need to start coming down. I need to open myself more to the friendships I have built since then. I need to find a way to feed the spiritual parts of me that have largely atrophied in the five and a half years since I started cutting my church ties.

Part of me thinks I would be infinitely better off finding someplace to volunteer that is wholly unconnected to that old life but the idea of building new connections is intimidating to me, as is the idea of finding a place that I feel fits me. On the other hand, the idea of starting fresh has its attraction. Of course, there are also other Unitarian Universalist churches closer to where I live now and clearly I could start looking there for spiritual fulfillment. Still, my old church was my home and there is a part of me that longs to go back. I like the new minister a great deal, and when I look at the service schedules I often find myself interested in his sermons. I miss that particular community, even if there were aspects of my relationship to it that were problematic.

I’m still not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure I need to be branching out with my energies, reinforcing the connections I have to my current communities, and building new connections.

Swimming lesson might not hurt either. There are, I think, worse things to resemble than coy goldfish.

More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.
Continue reading “More Alert”

To be a poet or not to be a poet.

I’ve been fickle in my choice of reading material lately. I’ve been slowly plugging away at Cadillac Desert for months now. I’ll finish it eventually but it’s not an uplifting read so I take it in small pieces. For Burning Man I retrieved Yes Means Yes off my bookshelf. I’d read the intro and first chapter when I first bought the book but then set it down. I think there’s a lot of interesting useful stuff in there (and some of it I’m sure I’ll eventually write about) but I’m sort of not in the mindset to sit down and devour academic arguments about sexuality all in one fell swoop. So again, one chapter at a time. Meanwhile I also started Kara Kush right before Burning Man. This novel about the Afghan war with the Russians is something I’ve meant to read for ages but never quite got around to it. A week in the desert seemed the perfect setting for it, but so far it’s not grabbing me. I may set it down for awhile and come back when I know I can just spend a day reading and see if getting far enough in makes it more interesting. And so I set Kara Kush aside for something “lighter.” For some reason Alice Hoffman’s The River King seemed like it would fit the bill. Don’t get me wrong, Hoffman’s stuff is lovely and generally an accessible read but light it is not. Her work is beautiful but deeply sad. I’m about halfway through and will likely finish it this week but in the meantime I was moved to grab and reread Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.

This is one of my favorite books in the world. * It is beautiful and sad. There are places where the imagery is simply devastating. She paints complicated pictures of people, interactions, moments. This time through, though, the things that grabbed me most were simple one-line interjections. Things that made me stop, mid-page and think “Oh. Yes. This!”

Continue reading “To be a poet or not to be a poet.”

The secret of joy

Through high school and much of college my walls displayed a collage of various imagery clipped from calendars and other cheap sources. The exact mix of things varied, but one element that was pretty much constant was the hand-written reminder “Resistance is the secret of joy.” It’s the conclusion from Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. I don’t remember exactly when I first read it. It was sometime between the last half of eighth grade and the end of my freshman year of high school. The novel deals with the issue of female genital mutilation and I think it can safely be said that I was not old enough to really deeply understand the horrors being described. Already, though, I had begun to cling to the notion of resistance. I think if I had to describe my experiences from the ages of about thirteen to eighteen in one word, an obvious choice would be “besieged.” I resisted.

Looking back I am sometimes astounded by how hard I fought in those days. I was quick to call out the boys who insisted that women were weak and worth less than men. The physical was harder to deal with. I was less adept, even then, at dealing with the violations of my physical space than I was at fighting back against verbal challenges to my worth. Still, I resisted as best I could. I did not trust the social and institutional structures in place to support me in claiming my right to not be touched when I did not want to be touched. Sometimes, though, I forget that I claimed that right anyway. At fifteen I was scared and angry but I stood my ground and said “you will not touch me again or I will make a formal complaint.” And I did not mean simply that if he ever touched my breast again, even in a way meant to look accidental like he did the first time, that I would scream bloody murder. No, I meant if he ever touched me again at all I would tell that story, and others, to any school official who would listen. And he spent the next three years taking a step forward for every step I took away, leaving me afraid of being backed into corners. He said things to his classes that were terribly sexist and obnoxious. But he never touched me again. And looking back, I often regret not finding a way to feel safer in those years, not having the courage to fight back harder, not having the courage to the things that might have gotten him out of my life completely. But the truth is I did the best I could. I resisted.

That, though, was unrelated to joy. I took no joy in the times (two spring to mind) that I took a deep breath and said “this will stop NOW or else.” Perhaps I took joy in the pockets of peace that resistance sometimes bought me. But mostly for me, in those days, resistance was the secret of survival. Joy was uncharted water. The mantra no longer graces my wall for exactly that reason. At some point, I decided I wanted a different type of joy.
Continue reading “The secret of joy”