Work Drama!

Work Drama!

My excuse for my uninspiring job (defensively crafted in case anyone asks) has always been that I work for a company that isn’t doing harm, the work is fine, I like the people, and it minimally infringes on the things I care about more: volunteering, writing, my spiritual growth, my peeps, my life in the world. My theory is that doing plain old work can be as good & ethical as a mission-driven career, and that the nature of the work itself does not determine the Rightness[i] therein (e.g. there are public school teachers who enshrine racist treatment of their students; there are sexist and unethical environmental lawyers). All of this was true for many of my years at Nonprofit, but it has not been true recently. The work is no longer fine: I have been underinvolved in engaging projects, so I find necessary but mindless and soul-sucking data cleanup work to fill my hours. I search for problems to fix. I spend time on my DEI Committee work and documentation of that work, which has been the most important part of my job for the last five years, even though it’s not actually part of my job. I keep being told that I will soon be utilized on various projects which need my considerable expertise, but they keep being pushed back. During a three week, at-home, meditation intensive in April, the downside of spending 1-2 hours every day paying close attention to reality forced me to concede that I have got to leave this job. Not urgently, but eventually. I can no longer pretend that I can hang on until retirement. The work is now doing harm – to me.

And in the last few months it’s been doing harm to others. Our new CEO has demonstrated a firm commitment to toxic masculine leadership. They [CEO referent from this point forward] have led a massive structural transition in the organization with the compassion of Elon Musk, and it no longer feels like a good place to be (though it has, like most tragic events, brought much of the staff closer together, if covertly).

I am committed to being compassionate at work. It is part of my spiritual practice. I do get annoyed when someone sends the same question multiple times or phrases a request in a way that seems demanding or rude, but I recognize my own snobbery and defensiveness and remember my goal of kindness and empathy, and always try to respond with open-mindedness and supportive pleasantries. As far as I know, no one has complained about me in any way for 5 years (prior to that, my directly worded emails were a bit much for some Minnesotans. I checked my communications ego and started adding 😊s and !!!s. It worked! 😉)

The focus of my DE & I work has likewise shifted to the I part lately. As much as I want to push changes in the equity of onboarding and stakeholder analysis and conflict management, since COVID shook up the world I am most concerned about how our employees, in particular, are being treated and included every day. It informs how I run meetings and trainings and facilitate any discussion. I am far more aware of taking the needs not only of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, but neurodivergent employees, including those who exhibit characteristics as common and ignored as introversion, into account.

This commitment to compassion & inclusion, and knowing my days at Nonprofit are numbered, has put me on the CEO’s shit list. When I see Them dismiss employees’ feelings as irrelevant; or take over other people’s meetings to demand that every participant make a verbal comment about an insignificant topic; or accuse Committee members who do not behave, process, or communicate exactly like They do of incompetence, I have felt it is my responsibility to speak truth to organizational power. I am willing to lose my job and other people at the organization can’t afford to do that, because they may not have the financial safety net, minimal familial responsibilities, or other privileges that I do. The times that I have felt compelled to do this (twice in my analysis, but as the CEO may perceive every disagreement as insubordination, maybe 6 times), dozens of staff have reached out to thank me, express their concerns, or share their plans. I won’t say I don’t appreciate that, but that’s not why I did it. Being engrossed simultaneously in my spiritual responsibility to my fellow humans and issues of equity and inclusion for years now, the urge to bring the darkness to light comes naturally. I am as propelled by ego as anyone, unfortunately, but I don’t believe ego compelled my actions in this regard. They were organic, and with the fear of job loss removed, the barrier between desire and action dissolved.

I have zero criticism of any regular staff who haven’t spoken up (though I am disappointed in some of the leadership). Jobs are important. I haven’t heard of many instances of people standing up to Them. One who did, quit. Another was quickly shut down and their competence questioned. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my supervisor told me, a few months ago, that the CEO was questioning what I actually do in the organization. Or when he confessed yesterday that They told him They don’t want me added to any projects. They are actively limiting what I am allowed to do in the organization, apparently in retaliation, since there is no evidence anywhere of me being bad at my job. No one from HR or anyone, including the CEO, has openly responded to, questioned, or formally disciplined me for anything I’ve said or done either – presumably because the objections are ego-driven and indefensible. Instead, the plan is apparently to shut me down or make me miserable or in some way push me to the point where I quit. Because Nonprofit doesn’t want to pay for my unemployment. Or get sued for wrongful termination.

Of course a person without the compassion to care about people’s feelings and relationships and fears, and a person without the humility or self-awareness to apologize or course correct when an error is called to their attention would hold a grudge and use their power to put that grudge into action. It should be no surprise, but it still hurt. Because, let me repeat, I take kindness very seriously, and even though wanting to be liked is a definite weakness of mine, if being liked comes out of an acknowledgement of decency and respect, why should I dismiss it?

So here I am. The new CEO of the company I have worked at for 8 years wants to push me out. It’s weird to know that. It feels so unjust. I was riding an anger rush for an hour or so after I found out (and anger fumes for a few hours more). I don’t love this org, but I like it, and I care about the people in it. And it breaks my heart that in an effort to increase profits at Nonprofit, the board has brought in a person who has built her management philosophy on … I don’t even know enough about this shit to give you another example … how about Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley? … but in an organization where most of the staff makes less than $25/hour. Not to mention the backsliding on goals of universal inclusion. I’m not sure what to do. Part of me wants to hang around indefinitely just to annoy her – to show up and comment on every insensitivity at every open meeting and force her to fire or confront me. Part of me wants to fuck off with all my exclusive knowledge of systems and processes and leave the whole damn place in the lurch. But neither of those is in my nature. I will probably stay for a while, see if my job gets any better, maybe cut my hours, work on my resume, and make a promise to my worthy self that, barring Their departure and other massive changes, I will get out by 2024. I will also, after the next meeting where I ensure that our plans for the future get heard, step away from the DEI Committee entirely. I’ve simultaneously resigned/been forced out of my leadership role on the DEI Committee, which would be fine except that the way it was done felt punitive, and now I know why. Knowing that the DEI Director (a competent and kind woman, but in a role created without consulting or even informing the grassroots DEI Committee) is reporting to Them and their toady, THE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD WHO DON’T LIKE ME 😉, it might inhibit the advancement of good ideas if there is any suspicion they are coming from *this bitch*.

In honor of my Life Themes, I made myself take a moment after the anger subsided to ask what this series of events was teaching me. Even though I grew up with activist parents, one of whom was repeatedly beaten and thrown in jail for their activities; even though I refer to John Lewis as a personal hero and have undying admiration for anyone who sacrifices their wellbeing for the greater good, there is some weird little thing inside me that seems to think I will be appreciated for doing the right thing, who believes justice will prevail, and who somehow, bizarrely, thinks that the world in which I move carries more or less the same make of moral compass as I. I can’t defend this position intellectually or historically, but perhaps because I sometimes view the world from a place that is beyond human frailty, that higher, irrefutable, eternal truth may get blurred into the realities of our fucked up world. If I am generous to myself, I can put myself somewhere in the ranks not of Gandhi & MLK (topical reference!), but of those who point out that maybe we should make the effort to caption this meeting for folks with hearing loss, or say, hey, Bob, do you realize that you just repeated what Ngozi said without acknowledging her? or suggest that we provide a range of times for Parent-Teacher conferences, so that parents can attend regardless of their work schedules. I see you, friends. You may be punished directly or indirectly or not at all or praised for your actions, but they matter. Moments of deliberate kindness and inclusion matter. I hope you know that.

[i] In the Buddhist sense of Right Livelihood; much more on this in an upcoming post.

Theme(s) of the Year(s)

Theme(s) of the Year(s)

I can’t help it. My little human brain loves the idea of fresh starts and propitious dates and all that bullshit, no matter how much I try to ignore them. I don’t make insanely detailed resolutions like I used to (terrifying lists of quantified, specific behaviors designed to make me more likeable to myself), but as a human clawing my way to enlightenment, I also can’t pretend that I’m fine with the way things are. The great dichotomy: everything is perfect and things are fucked.

… which brings me to my theme of the year. 2021’s was the embrace of Non-binary truth and Not Knowing. Of all my Buddhist study in 2021, the many talks I listened to, all my own practice, that was the lesson that resonated most with me. As an Western intellectual (in focus, if not … intellect) who is primed to seek non-ambivalent answers, it was clearly a lesson I needed to learn, and continue to learn. It’s drawn me further away from politics (not that I needed much nudging) and closer to people, and has helped me dismember a lifetime of shame around any ignorance I have around any topic on which I think I should be well-informed. So fucking liberating, y’all. When I admit to Not Knowing the answer to the urgent question of the moment, I feel the spine-crushing weight of identity-based inadequacy falling to a harmless heap at my feet. I feel my mind open up and my curiosity let loose. This Not Knowing was the foundation of what became my spiritual theme of 2022: The lesson you need is always right in front of you. More about that here. I’m not entirely free of the burden of intellectual pride, but I know how utterly useless it is in moving me forward on either spiritual or intellectual paths, and I recognize how gross it makes me feel.

Ah, feelings. The first play I did in Minneapolis was called Why We Have a Body. I loved the script, but couldn’t answer the implied question until a few months ago. We have a body to experience the world. And yet so many of us, me foremost in my mind, go through our lives not trusting the messages of our body. Or, rather, we believe the messages we shouldn’t, and ignore the messages we should. It’s understandable that we would trust what our eyes tell us they see, and our ears tell us they hear. We don’t witness the intense work that goes into crafting our visual or aural experience, the interpretation that precedes our perception, creating the illusion of reality when what we are actually experiencing is the filter our brain has chosen for us. No judgment here, I know we’d likely be overwhelmed into a silent, frozen scream if we perpetually absorbed all of the stimuli available to our senses. But what we perceive is not an objective reality, and it’s not really trustworthy.

Meanwhile, our body regularly sends us essential messages which we generally ignore, or only acknowledge in the form of emotional reaction, bypassing the message itself and skipping directly to the response. We don’t do this consciously, either. Those of us caught in this cycle of obliviousness (which I’m guessing is most of us) think we’re having reasonable, defensible reactions to the given situation. My spouse is home late, so I’m angry. Makes sense, right? Not to everyone. There are plenty of rational people who don’t get angry when their spouse is home late. If I recognize that, I might be tempted to follow that logic: if everyone doesn’t get angry when their partner is late, then I don’t have to be, either. This is not a universal response; this is not the fear that rushes through my body when I slip on ice. So, do I want to be angry? Maybe in the past; but nowadays, No. So where is the anger coming from? If I stop, if I slow down and honor my body when the clock ticks past the presumed arrival time, I might notice a tension in my gut, something I can recognize as fear. I’m afraid that he’s dead. This is not his problem, but mine. I can acknowledge the feeling and move on without a reaction that would make me tense and make my partner unnecessarily chastened once he arrives intact. (How dare he.)

But how? How did I exercise this magical power? Same boring answer: MEDITATION.

I don’t think meditation is the solution to every problem. I don’t think it will bring enlightenment (though I still hope!) and I’m sure there are other ways to achieve similar ends. Yoga may do it. Breathwork. Reiki. Psychedelics. I really don’t know. I can only speak to my own experience, and meditation has trained me to be aware of my own body and to pause before blindly reacting to an impulse. These have been essential to my PRESUMPTIVE THEME OF 2023: My Body Knows Shit.

I’ve been an Instinct Denier for most of my life. I witnessed the fucked up magical thinking that people attributed to instinct, and I decided that, while good instincts may exist, they are so muffled by our own biased thinking and life experiences that we don’t have the ability to access them in an unsullied form. But with years of meditation and study and most recently the book The Extended Mind, I see that the body doesn’t actually lie. That the body is not subject to the same biases and fears that our brain (protectively) forces upon us. That if we actually stop and listen to the body, it can often move us in the right direction. (Not always, I’m sure. Physical addictions definitely bring this theory into question, though I don’t know that somatic awareness would never work even in those extremes.) It’s giving me a trustworthy message, I’ve just been interpreting it all wrong. I’ve been playing with this new way of living, and it’s been magical. I find myself in situations I’ve probably repeated thousands of times (the late partner example, to wit) where I can now stop, feel what’s happening, and bring some wisdom into the scenario before I go off on some reactive tangent. It’s a pretty impressive superpower, folks. And one I’ve only begun to explore. I can’t wait to see what my body tells me in 2023. I HAVE INSTINCTS! It’s really exciting. Like having a supersmart, inspirational new friend. And, despite the Minnesota ethos, everyone can use another good friend.

Jesus Gets It

Jesus Gets It

I pulled the Bible off the shelf a few months ago, with the goal of finding all the awesome Jesus stuff that led Neem Karolyi Baba to weep when asked about him, the stuff the Buddhists and Hindus and, yep, even some Christians, talk about that actually speaks to me. I haven’t entirely given up yet, but Jesus, that book’s a slog. “It’s just so poorly written,” says B. Maybe that’s why the Catholics went the authoritative interpretation route: if they let too many people try to read the Bible themselves, they’d bore them out of the religion. I haven’t entirely sworn off it yet, but for now I will let wiser, more patient interpreters call my attention to worthwhile passages. It’s not like I don’t have enough to read.

For example, I’m halfway through a collection of Dr. King’s writings. In the piece Love in Action, he begins with Luke 23:34.

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

The Reverend is most impressed with the Then. That after he was condemned, tortured, mocked, and left to die, he begged for God’s forgiveness when he could have asked for revenge, for obliteration; for anything, really. I mean, it’s his dad, and he’s dying, for Christ’s sake.

But Jesus doesn’t do that, because he’s not like his dad. There are so many times in the Bible when that God took the low road, when he destroyed his own people for disobeying him, or others for inflicting harm upon his chosen ones.

If I look at the Bible as a work of literature (focusing on the content, not the godawful style), a noteworthy difference between Father and Son is the difference between Judgment and Empathy.

And I thought, if there were a distinct entity that were the God of the Bible, and Jesus was his son, that father had a fuck of a lot to learn from his kid. And why? What was the ultimate difference between God and Jesus? Jesus was human. God may have loved his people, in a way. He may have pitied them, and occasionally others. But he had no empathy, because he had no idea how hard it was to be human.

Jesus lived as a man. I find it so odd that some Christians honor the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, because it’s his humanity that makes him exceptional. I assume most Gods could endure torture and opprobrium and temptation pretty easily if they really wanted to, because they’re Gods. Certainly there are Greek & Roman & Hindu and other gods who exhibit human frailties, but the Biblical Judeo-Christian God, omniscient and omnipotent, doesn’t have those problems. So how could it have real compassion, real understanding, for its people? How could it forgive them, when it had no idea what they were going through?

The more simplistic Christian evangelists who’ve testified to me over the decades love to pull out John 3:16 as if it will make me fall out in tears and praise: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. I never understood why this was such a big deal. Again, God doesn’t connect with other humans the way we do, doesn’t feel pain the way we do, doesn’t suffer the way we do, so watching his son die doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it would be for us, especially since God knows he’s not really gone, and is quickly reunited with him. Maybe the big change here is that he now loves the world, and not just the Jews? That eternal life is now open to all, not just those who lucked out through culture or heritage? I guess that’s nice, though “believes in him” is sooooo ill-defined that it could mean almost anything, and does.

It seems to me that the exceptional part of God giving his son to humanity is that God now has to learn from his son’s experience and play by his rules going forward, or even step aside to let the youth assume power. Jesus is so different from the God of the Old Testament that it’s sometimes hard to believe they’re related. And they’re really not: less than the relationship between an absent biological father and the son raised in an entirely different family and culture. Jesus’ culture is largely material, his dad’s is strictly spiritual. So it’s not that the Biblical God changed his mind about how people should act & treat each other & how he would treat them in return and decided to plant a kid on Earth to impart his new message. It’s that living in his adopted family, the family of humans, Jesus gained a completely different understanding of the world, which led him to the philosophy of universal love and forgiveness and interdependence and generosity. Living as a person and with people guided Jesus to a kind of wisdom that the immortal God could never achieve on its own. Christians believe that this newfound grace then became the spiritual law, which would mean that Jesus either changed his father’s perspective, or his dad stepped down and ceded power. Either way, the Biblical God then recognizes the limits of his knowledge or power or both, and must have operated with some level of humility.

It’s not dissimilar to Buddha’s story. While Siddhartha Gautama was not the son of a God, he was a prince, and with his rich and powerful father blocking his exposure to any suffering, the future Buddha lives much like a god. Once he is exposed to death, illness, and aging, his curiosity leads him to escape his confinement of comfort. Only then, living among regular people, experiencing their suffering and their attempts to cope with it, does he come to his understanding of how to live in the world.

Of course, one thing that Gautama’s and Jesus’ humanity implies is that we, fellow humans, could be as good as them. This is a hell of a weight for the true acolyte to carry, even if it is occasionally fortifying. I prefer viewing it from the flip side, knowing that without the hell that being human can be, those dudes would never have cultivated the wisdom they did. They knew how hard it was not to cling to the beautiful and terrible things of this world, which was how they could offer parables and paths to help us out of that attachment. It helps me better understand why we meditators use the body, the breath, sounds, all the things offered only to to the creatures of this earth, as a way to connect with the eternal, the infinite, the entities not of this earth. This fucked up, breathtakingly gorgeous, heartrending, boring, overwhelming life is not a pit stop on the way to enlightenment, it is the only vehicle that will get us there.

Finding Refuge

Finding Refuge

If you’ve studied any Buddhism, you may be familiar with the concept of Taking Refuge. If not, don’t fret! This is not a post about formal Refuge or any formal Buddhist practice. Refuges are everywhere, and it is our skillful or unskillful use of those that intrigues me most.

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This is done as a formal ceremony, but can also be performed as a private practice or affirmation. If you know my blog, you know I gravitate towards the informal route.

I’ve mulled over the three treasures on occasion. It’s not much of a stretch for me to get there, depending on whose interpretation I adhere to. The hardest for me to get behind, ironically, I guess, as a Buddhish type, is the first. What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha? For me, it is either the idea that a being without illusion and attachment could exist, which is heartening; or the idea that Buddha nature is in all of us, which is even better. The dharma, the teachings, are obviously instrumental in guiding my life and decisions; and the sangha, which for me is my community of like-minded practitioners, be it the Western Buddhist leaders whose writings I rely on, my online sangha left over from the UPAYA Socially Engaged Buddhist group, or just the world of fellow meditators who are trying to live a life free of inflicting or indulging in suffering.

Nonetheless, when the Refuge-focused, 3 week intensive with my local meditation center started, I didn’t really have any idea of what Refuge meant outside of these strictures and the dictionary definition of the word. When we were encouraged to consider where we find refuge and where we don’t, I really didn’t know where to begin. A lovely Buddhist teacher couple whose daylong retreat I attended in November came to mind — they had asked us to find a place in our experience or memory that we could turn to when times were difficult. I have good, safe memories, but none that stood out as worthy of developing or grasping, and isn’t the point to be good with where we’re at?

So now I was being asked to look at my places of refuge again. Have I completely misunderstood Buddhism? or are we, mere mortals, being invited to indulge in stopgap measures while we float in the moat outside of enlightenment?

I eventually listened to the talks we were assigned (usually a good idea) and realized I was more aligned than I had thought. The idea was not to find more places to take refuge, but to recognize the ways in which we try to find safety in helpful, impermanent, silly, or even destructive things. I have plenty. Here are some choice ones:

  • food – a constant battle: eating out of boredom, depression
  • filler noise – podcasts while I do repetitive, mindless work
    • What’s the harm there, you might say? Well, one, that I stay in a job in which I am regularly bored; and, two, there is ample evidence that when humans try to distract themselves from unpleasant tasks, they always feel worse, not better: the task is more demoralizing the less you engage with it. This also gels with Buddhist beliefs
  • drama – there’s been plenty of that at work lately, and I can feel myself being energized, maybe made frantic, by it. The drama is destructive. It is causing real practical and emotional harm to many people, and I don’t like that, but I do like how it makes me feel. I am not bipolar, but I have so much sympathy for folks who don’t want to give up the mania in order to mitigate the depression. It’s enlivening.
    • I used to feel this way about anger – what is more invigorating than anger? – but I couldn’t handle the hangover. I couldn’t control it, so it controlled me. It was so destructive that I couldn’t help but recognize the harm it was doing and to loathe the feeling it generates in me. But I still like drama.
  • sleep – not a bad thing, but in winter I can prioritize sleep and just lying in bed over pretty much anything, if I let myself
  • reading – again, not bad in isolation, but as a substitute for doing things that need to be done it’s still an issue
  • gossip – I don’t think of myself as a big gossip, but it’s been tied up with the drama at work. If only we got the same thrill in praising others as we do in talking shit about them…
  • exercise and cleaning are both immensely beneficial to my wellbeing; I don’t know how I’d get through winter without them. I suppose they only become a false refuge if used as a substitute for facing up to truth. I believe even meditation and retreats can be false refuges if done for any reason other than awakening. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I saw long before I started meditating that still sticks with me: a man meditates, looking peaceful, while a closet bulges off the hinges behind him. I couldn’t find that one, but there’s some gooood meditation comedy out there. Here’s one (courtesy of Ginny Hogan & Jason Chatfield).

I have certainly used sitting to avoid one thing or another. One challenge for me is distinguishing a false, harmful refuge from a simple, mostly harmless, or even beneficial, distraction. If I sit now instead of doing that work thing, won’t I approach working more mindfully? Eventually? If exercise staves off depression, doesn’t that help me update my resume? Someday?

The truth is, I’ve been doing this for long enough to know when something I’m doing is avoidance disguised as meaningful action. I may not know why. I may not be able to stop it. But I can feel it when I’m efforting all around the problem and pushing life further down the road. Ugh. Consciousness is hard.

Even harder is forgiving yourself and letting your fuckups just be. The oxymoron is almost as confounding as the belief of the Socially Engaged Buddhist: nothing to do in a world that is fine just as it is, and everything to do in a world of prevalent injustice.

I haven’t committed to this intensive practice period as much as I would have liked – there are so many things going on this time of year, and so many things going on in parts of my life, that I’ve only gone a wee bit beyond upping my daily meditation time. But it still helps. It helps me deal with the demands for attention and the temptations and the cold and the sadness for the people in the cold. I’m grateful for all of it. And for all of you who let me write about it. This blog is definitely a refuge for me.

How to Be Depressed

How to Be Depressed

meanwhile, two weeks ago…

I used to be good at being depressed. I knew what to expect from myself and others knew what to expect from me. I was that girl. It was almost a joke, although I was miserable and did feel truly alone, worthless, and angry.

I don’t know how to do it anymore. Monthly, when my hormonal changes peak, I just try to get through the day or days, knowing it’s temporary, knowing I haven’t fallen into a pit, but just tripped on a gopher hole. Allowing myself a little more distraction or a little more morbid indulgence than usual: dark fiction, climate reports, BoJack Horseman.

This week has been different, because it’s just not ending. I wake up in literal and figurative darkness – not despair, just not really looking forward to anything. That’s really rare for me, and it is a bit scary. I really think that’s the worst part of depression. No matter how bad things are, either because of brain chemistry or actual horrific life situations or both, the worst part is never the thing or feeling itself, it’s the fear that you will always feel like this. Like Kimmy Schmidt said, “you can do anything for 10 seconds.” Just keep restarting at 1 and you might be able to trick yourself that it hasn’t been so bad for so long. And since our slow-to-adapt brains are wired for patterns, we can tell ourselves that since it hasn’t gone on forever, it won’t last forever.

And then, of course, the occasional depressive looks for answers. Explanations. I’ve gathered a few: my job is boring me into an existential crisis. The additional job I’ve agreed to take on for the next 9 months is feeling like a terrible idea and gives me anxiety whenever I’m reminded of it. I seem to have finally entered recognizable peri-menopause, much later than my peers, after skirting around the edges for years, which may be the chemical cause of 90% of this current state, or the sugar I’ve been eating more of lately. And then there’s winter: white and greyness everywhere, shocking cold for this early in the season, concern for my homeless friend and discomfort with my own comfort; the isolation of being carless most of the time, of working alone from home everyday. And as supportive as my partner is, he’s the one with chronic mental illness. He’s not accustomed to being the light in the room. He asks if he can help, and I have no idea what to suggest.

I know it will pass, or at least change. I am an acolyte of impermanence. But it’s hard. It’s not as hard for me now to shed the identity by which I usually define myself (able to find the beauty in everyday moments), as it is to see the world so differently. How can the stupid shit that brought me joy yesterday leave me dry today. Why do the tricks that usually perk me up for hours (exercise, human interaction, good music physically enjoyed) now just serve to remove that weight for the duration?

Next week is Thanksgiving. I’m sure it will be lovely and I’ll feel fine. And after that I’ll adjust my diet and either tackle the tasks that make me anxious or give myself permission to let that go for the rest of the year and give myself some grace. As much as I don’t want to be in this place, I don’t want to have this perspective, I don’t want to feel like this, I am grateful. I do forget what it feels like to feel like this. While I’m sympathetic, I can find it hard to relate. How can others not see the beauty of life? the game of life? the joyful ridiculousness of life? the impossible connections we still manage to find among each other? The how doesn’t matter. The why only matters to the extent you can change the why. The isness is all there is when you’ve tripped on that hole, or fallen into it.

What remains? What wisdom can I carry from brightside Z to darkside Z? Just the impermanence and the not-knowing. I’ve done a bit of curling up and indulging in the surrounding darkness – I read Sabrina from start to finish on Tuesday night. But I am trying to stay open and let the cold sunshine in. I don’t know when this will end. I don’t know what will bust me out of it, or if it will just go missing some morning, but I am trying to stay open to the possibility that something might help. I go out. I volunteer. I watch sitcoms. I will do something very scary this morning that might do wonders or might leave me anxious, awkward, and alone. But I’m going to try it. Because something’s gotta give sometime. It always does.

later that day…

The scary thing was Dance Church: an unstructured, come as you are, leave when you want, pay what you can, DJ-accompanied space for people to move on a dance floor. Maybe it was that, maybe the philosopher I watched on YouTube, maybe reading part of Dr. King’s Strength to Love, maybe just the passing of time. Probably a combination of all those plus something unquantifiable. In any case, I’m out of the pit for now. And hopefully a bit more empathetic for it.

(Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash)

Feelin’ It

I recently finished a fascinating book called The Extended Mind. (If you’re on Goodreads, you can find my review here.) It covers all sorts of realms where we store intelligence, adaptation, knowledge, and wisdom beyond the skull, starting with the rest of our own bodies. I’ve been all up in listening to my body since I started body scan meditation over a decade ago, but interpreting that as a kind of intelligence is new for me. The combination of body awareness, interpretation, and situational analysis has had some interesting results of late. Here’s one example.

I did a session of “below the belt” exercises yesterday, following my virtual kickboxing platform, and decided to perform the dead lifts I usually skip because they always hurt my back. They weren’t so bad this time, but I still had some pain. B was up when I finished, so I mentioned it to him. I showed him what I was doing & asked what could be wrong. He said I was bending my back. I said I wasn’t. He demonstrated. I didn’t see the difference. Eventually he said I should tuck my butt more, and that made sense. I tried it. He might be right. Pretty dull scene.

Behind the scenes: drama! When he said I was doing it wrong, I immediately got defensive. I noticed this when we were moving cedar planters in the yard over the summer, too. B said I was lifting with my back and I responded maturely with something like, No I’m not! or So’s your mom! and left both of us mildly annoyed. I was just as defensive this time, but decided to be “adult” and power through it. Once the instruction was over, I took a shower and sat down to unpack what had actually happened.

What actually happened is that when he corrected my form, he used a tone he doesn’t use often – slightly excited, slightly loud, and with a bit of upspeak at the end of the sentence. My body immediately went defensive. I could feel it: a tension that my brain interpreted as a threat, and to which I immediately wanted to respond with denial. I assume it’s a holdover from childhood, from a father who responded to every mistake and demonstration of ignorance as if I were deliberately fucking with him. This would lead to a long (sometimes hours long) narcissistic and inane lecture or interrogation in which I was not learning or growing or investigating, but just desperately trying to come up with the answer that would get him to stop.

The response is different with B – I don’t see him as a threat, but the physical tension motivated by the tone caused me to react with a defense of my intelligence, an ego defense that makes it impossible to learn. I didn’t forget about the yard incident; I knew my response was not ideal, but I assumed it was embarrassment, not wanting to be wrong. The thing is, I like being wrong these days; I’ve actively worked on detaching any ignorance I unwillingly harbor from my self-esteem, or from myself at all. It’s been incredibly liberating, and these days I usually don’t have to work through much of my own shit before I can come to a place of openness and acceptance. Why was this different? Well, it turns out I’m more forgiving of content than style. If B had said the same words with a different inflection, there would have been nothing to overcome. I memorize the exact phrasing of every singer or every song I’ve ever liked, and apparently the exact tone of every phrase that has ever hurt or humiliated me. The ears keep the score.

Though I didn’t fully understand why it was happening, I was able to observe my body with just enough distance to recognize that my reaction yesterday was unreasonable and unhelpful. I couldn’t make it go away, but I could decide how to react to that feeling. Instead of saying, “you’re wrong” again, and giving into the amygdala hijack that was taking place in my monkey brain, I decided to white knuckle my way through it and take the imperfectly articulated advice.

Progress, but still not ideal.

Once I figured out what had happened, I talked to B about it. I said he had used a certain tone that he doesn’t use often, and that probably came out of concern for my physical safety, but which my body interprets as a threat to my intelligence. My reaction to that type of threat is to get defensive, which makes it hard for me to reap any value from what he’s saying. He said he wasn’t entirely sure where the tone came from, and didn’t know if he could stop himself from ever using it again. I agreed, but said I wanted to explain what was happening so that we would each have a better understanding of the dynamics underlying those interactions in the future. I think we both walked out of the assessment without any wounds or additional defenses, and with a better understanding of each other.

I don’t know whether his tone was caused by fear, if he uses it with other people, or if investigating that fear might help him modulate his communication style in similar situations with me or others going forward. That’s his journey. For my part, I now have an ally in breaking up similar chain reactions going forward. That’s potentially one less wound, one less grudge, one less bitter pill to carry around and cram down someone else’s throat.

Healthy for me? check

Healthy for this relationship? check

Good for the world? check.

Is this ridiculously boring? It sure feels like it might be. (Ever listen to someone talk about meditation? I sat without moving! I observed my breathing! Jesus.) To me it is thrilling. It’s like I’ve been hauling around this box of tools for decades, and I suddenly know how and when to use them. All these gifts, all these answers that I didn’t know were here all along.

Still haven’t found the tool that fixes my employment situation. More on that another day.

Apocalypse Pfffffth

Apocalypse Pfffffth

So many people are so freaked out about the elections this week. If I allow myself to indulge in the lists of potential consequences of a Republican Congressional takeover, I am one of them. But the wider view has, weirdly, mitigated my fears quite a bit.

Our government has never been truly representative. In fact, outside of White men, most adults in the US have not been represented for most of our country’s existence. We passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the sixties, then spent the next two decades dismantling the path to democracy those laws laid out. Slashing the highest tax rates, union busting, the defeat of the ERA, the abolishing of the Fairness Doctrine, redlining, starting a war on drugs to incarcerate young Black men then denying them the right to vote once they’d been released. Let’s not forget AIDS and the stigmatization and abuse of LGBT folks and the legal right to deny them jobs and services. Just look at the 80s clothes and hairstyles and you can surmise the shittiness of the politics. There were no Good Old Days of American Democracy. There were better days than today, perhaps, and better days than what we fear is coming, but marginalized groups are much more visible now than they were in my childhood, and their voices are much easier to hear (sometimes even coming from positions of power), so is representation really diminished? Or just different?

And are we as a country so much worse now than we were 20 years ago? Or are our failures just more obvious? Trump didn’t create racism or xenophobia or conspiracy theories, he just welcomed them to the surface, and in doing so gave those people a sense of community. He made them feel loved. Twitter and Facebook loved them, too. And love makes you feel strong, and bold, and chosen, and driven. I don’t deny that there are people who would not have been raiding the Capital on January 6th if Trump and other liars hadn’t egged them on, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been vulnerable to someone else, to another narcissist trying to profit off their vulnerability. Loneliness and fear make you easy pickings.

I agree that things are not great. I agree that every election seems more consequential than the one before. However, the threat is not as new as people pretend it is. There has been a war on Black and Native people going on pretty much ever since White people arrived here. Often on women and immigrants and Queer people as well. I’m not saying that BIPOC and LGBTQ folks aren’t concerned about this election, I’m saying that the unique terror of our times is really only unique if you come from a place of historical privilege. Is it the apocalypse?

The Jews had their apocalypse.

Native Americans had their apocalypse

African-Americans, too

The Irish had their apocalypse

The Armenians

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden

Gay men had their apocalypse

Our friends and our enemies, the extremists and the mainstream press, are all feeding our fears. Can we absorb the information without the stench that goes with it? Can we be motivated to vote without terror and hatred? I’m trying, and sometimes failing. Whatever happens with the numbers this week, I know what I have to do: say hi to folks I pass on the street, chat with the community at Peace House, meditate, spread joy, donate, participate, try really fucking hard to see god in everyone. Fear walls us off, and what we need now is connection to our people, and they are all our people. We can build communities of love the way Trump has built communities of hate, but not with hate as the foundation. Monsters come to life when we believe in monsters.

I want a good government more than I can express. I want housing and healthy food for everyone, and restorative justice and sustainable business practices and universal rights and healthcare and reparations and loving, honest education and disability justice and ALL OF IT. I vote for whatever will bring us closest to that whenever I can. But the government won’t heal us. We heal us. Disenfranchised communities have been caring for themselves forever. The more the powerful marginalize us, the more we can recognize our affinity and interdependence, and learn to lean on and support each other. I don’t want the US to become less democratic, but if it opens people’s eyes I’ll be there waving hello.

Get out and vote. Smile at the folks in line. Eat well. Be good to each other. Love,

she walks in beauty

she walks in beauty
this was in Seattle’s Japanese garden last year, but the colors are comparable

Autumn has arrived in, and nearly departed from, the Twin Cities. We were out of state for the kickoff and I was afraid we’d missed the best of it, but as with most fears, this one was unfounded. It’s been a particularly weird fall: 80 degrees on a Tuesday, highs in the 20s the following Monday, record high today, 6 days later, and finally retreating to normal temps tomorrow. Everyone was out cleaning gutters and raking leaves in the gorgeous, sunny, 70 degree Saturday, which I find kinda sweet, in the same way that I feel connected to all the folks shoveling as V and I walk past the morning after a snowstorm. There is something about living in a place with real seasons that creates a landscape for community in a way that living in LA did not. Of course, the relational fertility of this climatological setting is marred by the repressed nature of the culture, so it may be a wash.

I haven’t done any formal, deliberate leaf-peeping this year (anyone else find that term creepy?), but my meditation-ripened mind has been just overwhelmed by the beauty of the trees I encounter in my everyday travels around the neighborhood. On the first snowy morning (yes, we had that too in these wacky few weeks) we walked under the stunning red maple across the street and I could hardly stand it – the ruby leaves dappled with and descending into white snow was almost too beautiful to bear. Again yesterday, walking under a waterfall of apple and orange colored leaves as the wind dragged them off the branches, I had to stop and, weirdly, close my eyes. I felt like I was in some kind of fantastical landscape, some sci-fi world in which photosynthesis produces a vast array of colors and this evanescent beauty is the norm. How long would I live there before I failed to appreciate it?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter where you are. There is always beauty to be found (though I know in some places you have to have exceptional vision), and humans can become accustomed to anything. Take the weather in Los Angeles, the mountains, the ocean. Yes, people who live there will say it’s perfect, say it’s beautiful, but in my experience Angelenos are just as susceptible to taking that beauty for granted as folks are anywhere else. It often takes a change, a newness, an outsider to really get it, to see what is performing right before our eyes.

It’s the watcher, right? The observer. Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Buddhism’s witness. It fills that crucial role of observing without judgement, but there is also the secondary purpose of experiencing with minimal baggage, of seeing with fresh eyes, of childlike love and appreciation. When people ask me what I’ve gotten out of meditation I have a lot of guesses, but the benefit I am most sure of is the exponential increase in moments of spontaneous joy and gratitude. Not because I’ve worked on it or talked myself into it, but because meditation has simply allowed it the space to enter in.

Being Ram Dass

Being Ram Dass

Hello, dear readers! I’ve really missed you, or my perception of you, which is writing and publishing here.

My partner and I took 2 vacations in September, after going almost nowhere for nearly 3 years, and then for whatever reason I haven’t had the mental space or inclination to write much lately. But I can feel it changing. Something typically Z-ish will come out soon.

In the interim…

I finished (nearly – it was an audiobook & I had 30 minutes left when the library took it back) Being Ram Dass this week. I’m not a big biography or memoir person, but we had a long road trip and we’re both fans, so I made an exception. He was working on this with Rameshwar Das right before he died. Since I didn’t hear the ending, I don’t know whether he considered it complete when he moved on, or if Rameshwar Das filled in the final bits, but he does talk quite a bit about dying, which I always find compelling from someone who is actually on that edge, especially someone like Ram Dass.

I’ve heard many of, and weekly listen to more of, RD’s talks, so the really good stuff, the funny, vulnerable, human, loving Ram Dass stuff was nothing new to me. And if you want that, I’d recommend the Here and Now podcast instead. What I valued most in this book was him returning, again and again, to fucking up.

My first reaction to the stories of him getting wrapped up in ego, or power, or non-spiritual drug use, or blame, or self-pity, or self-criticism, or lies, or disingenuousness, was discouragement. I mean, if Ram Dass, who had known Neem Karoli Baba – who had known universal unconditional love – who had been guided by some of the highest beings on the planet and devoted his career to the pursuit of truth kept falling off the path, what hope is there for me?

But the flip side of that interpretation is (you already know the answer) that when we keep fucking up, we are just like Ram Dass. Human life is an institution not designed to cultivate spiritual development, but it’s the only school that would let us in, or the only one our guidance counselor told us about. So if that’s the major we chose, we just have to make the best of it & get what we can out of the curriculum. Much like the Acting BFA my former classmate & I were deprecating a few days ago: it wasn’t a great program, but we’re grateful for what we managed to take out of it. Unlike the Acting degree, we don’t have any other programs to compare it to, so living is truly the best and worst option available to us.

As Edward Abbey wrote, “Life sucks? Compared to what?”

Write at you soon, loves.

Memorial for a Drunk

one of Frank’s memorable signs

The center where I volunteer on Fridays – let’s call it The Gathering Place – held a memorial for one of our community members last week. The Gathering Place serves a hot breakfast & lunch M – F, but more importantly serves as a place for low income, and unhoused, and other folks in the area to hang out, get some coffee or Gatorade, and be in community with each other. Being there has become my favorite part of every week, and I feel more welcome there than pretty much any other place in my life right now. More about that another time.

Today I’d just like to share a bit about this memorial for a man called Frank. I’d only seen him twice – my guardian volunteer tried to introduce me to him but he was pretty drunk & disengaged both times. She told me made great cardboard signs, but the one he attempted when I was there was incomprehensible. She also told me that there was a period of time when he would regularly lie down in the very busy street outside of the center, and the director & other folks would have to stop traffic & get him back on the sidewalk. And that he currently had a place to live, which was “a miracle” given how hard it was for non-sober people to get stable housing.

So that’s all I knew about Frank.

He was hit by a car & died last week. He wasn’t much older than me. And they held a memorial for him.

K suggested that folks write tributes on pieces of cardboard, since he was famous for his signs. (One offered “Ble$$ings” for donations on left side, and TRUMP STILL SUX on the right.) Many did. Signs like, everything is free in heaven, but you can come back here anytime, and you are so loved and already so missed/ your spirit is with us forever in your Gathering Place community, and my prayer for you is good food for lunch every day in your afterlife. Many people spoke – some of the volunteers who had known Frank for years, some of his friends among the community members at the center, and some of his loved ones from elsewhere who had come to share their grief with others who knew and loved him.

L talked about how Frank helped him when he got out of prison, how much L’s family cared for him, and the ritual he and his brothers had performed for him earlier that week. He also said he’d spent the night crafting a beautiful cardboard sign in tribute, but as he got up to fetch another marker, he’d knocked his coffee all over it. He decided that was appropriate, because Frank’s signs were never too neat.

“Frank spilled the coffee!” someone offered. Laughter.

K talked about how kind Frank was – how he never had a bad word to say about anyone, and “I wish I was like that.”

“No you don’t!” from a neighbor. Laughter.

“It takes all kinds” from another.

The guy who currently runs the center told us that one day Frank was hanging out, drunk, and getting a little belligerent. He was thinking he might need to ask him to leave when Frank said, “I gotta go to detox.” He & K walked Frank the two blocks to the familiar treatment center, and while they were waiting to get checked in, Frank was telling them a story. About breaking into San Quentin. He was slurring his words, so they weren’t sure they heard him right. “Breaking into San Quentin prison?” Yep. He managed to pull it off, but “getting in there’s a lot harder than getting out.”

He then read us a letter from a family member, talking about Frank’s relatives, his youth breaking horses in South Dakota, his many skills, and the people who loved him.

A friend who came with her two young children spoke softly about how Frank was more than a brother to her, that he was kinder than her own family, and how important he was to her kids.

C read a poem about the last time he cut Frank’s hair – cut it all off at Frank’s request, after a period of sobriety when he wanted a new start. He spoke of how we all try to be better, and how often we all fall short, and try again. And he spoke of Frank’s hair falling to the ground and being carried by the wind to line the nests of birds. Tears.

A volunteer painted a cardboard sign, “Spirt of Frank – Living on in kindness and humor and all his many friends,” and said she realized after she finished that she had left an “i” out of Spirit, but Frank often had misspelled words, so she decided to leave it. She remembered how Frank would bring his signs to J and ask if words were spelled correctly, and once J said, “no, but leave it; you’ll get more money that way.” Laughter.

J is possibly the least liked of all the regular participants at the center. He’s narcissistic, rude, and shows signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He’s a hoarder who lives in his car, parked in front of the center, and pisses and throws garbage all over the front lawn, then complains about the volunteers who clean it up. He rubs grease on the pole where another member parks his bike. He’s full of conspiracy theories, particularly about how the government and law enforcement conspire against White men (LOL). He’s not threatening, as folks there occasionally are, he’s just, as a sweet, older volunteer there summarized, a jerk. I’ve never seen him say or do anything considerate since I’ve been showing up, and he’s always there. But not only did he, apparently, help Frank out with his signs, he actually raised his hand to speak kindly about him during the service. He had to be a bit of an asshole – saying that Frank just wanted people to care about him and no one did, despite ample evidence from the previous hour of testimony that many people cared for him. Regardless, he recognized Frank as a funny, honest, and admirable person – a loving guy who was kind to others, and that more people should be like him.

I mentioned my shock to the two lovely ladies I volunteer with later in the day. They pointed out the irony of that last statement, which of course was not lost on me, but I had to persist with my own recognition that he had the capacity to be kind, caring, and respectful, which I had thought far beyond his reach. Not that I had any high hopes for J or his future potential, but just that there was something there which I hadn’t seen, something Frank had gently dragged out of him.

Every day at the center teaches me something, opens my heart a titch more.

One of the volunteers suggested we sing a song to close the ceremony. When no one else had a suggestion, he started I’ll Fly Away, a spiritual I only know through Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and which I had just listened to for the first time in years on our road trip last week.

I sang for Frank, wherever he flew, whatever culturally appropriate song accompanied him there. I felt honored beyond description just to be there and listen to this tribute. No one denied he was a drunk, no one judged him for it, and no one gave it any more weight than it deserved – as a part of his human identity. A part he tried and perhaps failed to let go of, but a piece of the funny, kind, creative, generous, beloved man he was.