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.

The Lesson You Need

The Lesson You Need

If you’re on “the path,” as we spiritual nerds call it, you’ve doubtless found yourself connecting more intimately with some teachings than others, and that changes over time & circumstance. I have been glued to this one for a few months now, and it’s been life-changing in that subtle, Buddhish way.

I don’t actually remember who this came from – a contemporary Buddhist text or dharma talk, or Ram Dass or one of his ilk, or all of them. But it fits into all of that stuff. There are lots of ways to phrase it, but I like this:

The lesson you need is always right in front of you.

There are lots of ways to interpret this. You can go with the idea that everything is preordained or meant to be. Despite not believing in free will, I don’t find that helpful. For me, it’s another version of the belief that every moment is an opportunity to awaken. But it’s better. Because awakening seems beyond my control. I can’t reason myself into awakening, so perpetual opportunities just seem like missed opportunities. But the lesson I need being here, right now? And not having to sign up for another intensive retreat to experience real spiritual growth? That I can work with.

Basically, it turns every difficult or shitty thing into an opportunity for practice. How can I Buddha my way through this situation? Now that moments present themselves in this way to me, challenges have become a fun and enlightening game.

My partner’s changed our plans at the last minute? Okay. Am I attached to the previous plan & if so, why? Would getting pissed off at this moment improve anything? Teach anything? Cause suffering? What does my past experience tell me?

Someone wants to discuss a topic on which we are ideologically opposed. How can I open my mind while still being genuine? How can I be simultaneously engaged in the conflict and loving? Can I hear what they are saying without shoving them into a pre-labelled box? What is my goal here and what is theirs? Is mine driven by ego or empathy? Can I find a way to connect & namaste either within or outside the strictures of that conversation?

At the State Fair: why do I feel the need to judge my fellow fairgoers? What is it in me that is reacting to something utterly superficial in them, whether it’s how they look, the clothes they wear, or the slogans they brandish? How can I soften that?

Even moments far pettier: I think we’re supposed to cook something one way. The guy thinks otherwise. Instead of fighting him on it or grasping onto my opinion at all, I admit that I just heard my theory somewhere and have no idea whether it has any validity. We carry on from there.

Put another way, in one of Ram Dass’ lectures he recalls requesting a particular type of microphone for a talk he was giving, and when he arrived they didn’t have it. He started to get pissed off, then recognized, “oh, there’s my yogi, disguised as a microphone.”

Some of you will likely think this isn’t even worth sharing; others may find it revolutionary. I haven’t even told you the best part yet: I do this all without self-criticism. When everything is a lesson, I’m showing up as a student, not a fuckup or an asshole.

I can’t adequately express how much lighter the combination of pausing, sitting in not knowing, and the lesson perspective has made everyday challenges. So much of it is about space, which feels to me like a pause paired with a distancing and a refreshing breath. That Space allows the witness room to step in and observe what’s actually happening outside of the ego; outside of an agenda, personal history, or judgement. The witness doesn’t tell me what to do, it just gives me perspective. All I do with the perspective is bring it into my thoughts and actions and see where it takes me. It infuses a bit of wisdom into the situation, which allows me to make better, more conscious, more loving choices. I cannot recommend it enough.

Student Loan Forgiveness as a Metaphor

I heard this frustrating and beautiful story on NPR last week (which is somehow lost in the web). When it comes to issues that actually have more than one reasonable position, NPR will generally try to give voice to opposing sides, so as I listened to this young woman recount the numerous ways (3 jobs while attending school, being hospitalized for exhaustion, etc.) and multiple years she had to struggle in order to keep her college loans low and pay back what she did take out, I assumed she would conclude as so many I’ve heard have, with Why should someone else get a free ride when I had to bust my ass to pay off my loans?

She didn’t. She didn’t want her younger brother or anyone else to suffer like she did.

What makes this narrator so compassionate? Perhaps it’s because she has a younger brother – a face to put to the potential suffering. Perhaps she’s just a generous person. Perhaps it’s because her parents are immigrants, and she’s grown up with the idea that you make sacrifices to make things better for others.

When I think about it, in my memory (utterly bereft of statistical backing) it seems most of the people I’ve heard complaining about student loan forgiveness are middle-class White men. Assuming (against all reason) that I am correct, why would that be?

I think it might come back to the lie of the American Dream. Those who buy into it have to believe, to a significant degree, that we have a level playing field. That we not only start the race from the same location, but with the same strength, speed, quality of coach, abilities, shoes and feet to wear them, instructions, familial and community support, nutrition, etc. They believe this even as they see that others cannot attend college at all, that some can pay for college painlessly, that some are desirable enough to be paid to attend college.

They say they worked hard to pay off their loans, as if that act of valor stands in a vacuum. As if others are not working just as hard, or twice as hard, for a quarter of their wages. As if the sacrifices they made, the luxuries they denied themselves, weren’t too extravagant for a large portion of the population to even shoot for, let alone deny themselves. As if people haven’t had to struggle through poor public schools, hunger, poverty, and unsafe environments just to walk through the doors of the college, and walked out with a lifetime’s worth of debt. As if the racial wealth gap weren’t a hallmark of American society and as if thousands upon thousands of Black people with degrees weren’t using their relative success to financially assist their systemically underprioritized, underpaid, and overburdened friends and family members rather than pay off their own loans.

I’m not saying I don’t feel it when things like this happen. I had a pang of bitterness just last week, when I found out that my old roof did not sustain enough hail damage to be replaced by my insurance company, when the house half a block away did. Why does she get the free roof? Why do I have to keep waiting that a giant storm hits before the thing starts leaking and the cost has to come out of my own pocket?

Because that’s just the way it goes. And I’m totally fine.

The idea of fairness on this fraught and complex an issue is, frankly, ridiculous. The world is a bizarre place and the number of factors contributing to someone’s financial and academic success are almost unimaginable. Justice may be possible, though we’re certainly far from that, too. Fairness is relative, at best. Besides, contemporary capitalism isn’t about fairness anyway. Maybe the loan forgiveness objectors should try communism.

And, all that aside, why would we ever want others to suffer as we’ve suffered? Do we think it makes things better? Yes, life is suffering, but Buddhism believes it is undesirable and avoidable thing, and we work on ourselves and the world to alleviate it. How do we alleviate it? By letting go. Letting go of our righteousness, our ideas of fairness, and everything else we’re attached to. It helps everyone, spiritually. And easing the burden of college debt helps everyone in practical terms as well. Without the stress of crushing debt, people are healthier and happier, rippling that wellbeing out to their community and easing the burden of the health case system. Without having to put hundreds of dollars toward payments every month, people could be saving or spending money on the products that “keep the economy moving” or buying healthier food or helping their neighbors or traveling to expand their minds and hearts. Without the desperate need to work a job, the best paying job, to pay off loans, people could be doing what they want to do, going into the fields they’ve trained for at what might be a lower starting wage, becoming entrepreneurs, working at nonprofits. People who came from poverty could start buying homes, building generational wealth, investing.

(the same could be said for universal health care, FYI)

Money encourages us to become very narrow in our thinking, because it breaks real, actual, complex costs and benefits into cold numbers. Perhaps your tally now shows -$100,000 dollars in paid loans and you see someone else at +$25,000 from the government. It looks unfair. But who is it unfair to? Everyone benefits from this, and what you have sacrificed does not change. I suppose you could argue that “my tax dollars are paying for their education.” Is that a bad thing? Don’t we want educated neighbors? Do you know what else your tax dollars pay for? The billionaire-expanding, environment-destroying, war-waging, and plain unnecessary crap we pay for? This seems like a far better investment.

Do I Need a Word for Stupid People?

My employer required a handful of DEI-related readings this quarter. Definitely a good thing, and/but the selections made me confront something I’ve been pushing aside for a while. In the spirit of facing up to my shit, here we go.

The issue is the troubling origins of the words “moron” “idiot” “imbecile” etc. Pretty much all synonymous terms were medical or legal classifications for individuals who did not conform to whatever arbitrary standard for intelligence or behavior was enforced at that time. The classifications were utilized to take away people’s freedom to live where they wanted to live, participate in society, reproduce, vote. The words were consequential and did not just designate difference, but inferiority. Although the usage has changed, the sting still lingers for folks, so removing those words from pointed use seems reasonable.[i]

The question I’ve been avoiding is the one that always lingers in my mind when this group of words is broached,

“But what am I supposed to call stupid people?”

The appropriate response is, of course, “why do I need a name for stupid people?”

“Because there are stupid people out there, and I may need to reference them in writing or conversation.”

Do I, though?

I’ve argued in at least one post and an op/ed that writing off our perceived (often political) enemies as “idiots” is not helpful. It places a nearly impenetrable wall between us and them and, yes, the language itself fortifies the wall. If they are idiots, there is no reaching them, no reasoning with them, no point in concerning ourselves with their motives or wellbeing. If they are idiots, there is no point in trying to talk to them. I’ve argued against this usage with the ride or die Trumpers specifically, because holding fast to a belief in the face of contradictory evidence is something every one of us has done. Maybe it’s not over a political election, but rather in believing in superstitions, practicing harmful habits, defending the  improbable innocence of people we happen to like. The belief that we are rational actors leads us to trust ourselves too much, and to trust others too little, and facing up to our universal irrationality may help us be a bit more forgiving.

I have come to believe that people may believe stupid things, perhaps, or make stupid decisions, but no one is an idiot. Do we need a demeaning word for someone who is incapable of thinking the way that we do? Perhaps you’re wondering about people with intellectual disabilities, diagnosed or not, apart from any ideologies you might have. Would you call those people idiots? I wouldn’t. Those words imply some element of will, not a different intellectual capacity, and all of the words synonymous with idiot have a tinge of insult and judgement that hang on them. It would never cross my mind to call someone with an intellectual disability an idiot. Besides, our definition of intelligence is far, far too narrow. Everyone who is conscious has some kind of intelligence, whether it be the ability to make something, to love well, to appreciate beauty. None of us excel in everything, and there’s plenty of variety to go around.

What if someone is unwilling to apply their intelligence? That makes them stubborn, right? Or willfully ignorant. Not stupid.

So do we need a word like idiot? Do we need a word that takes what we perceive to be the circumstantial inferiority of a person and turns it into their entire identity? Do we need a demeaning word for people with disabilities? Do we need a demeaning word for Black people? For gay people? For women?

How might the world shift if we did not have a demeaning word for people who are intellectually disabled or make harmful or ignorant decisions? Would it force us to look at them as people with flaws, like us, instead of demons? What would it look like if, instead of saying, “Those Trump supporters are idiots,” we said:

Those Trump supporters believe something that has been proven false, or

Those Trump supporters are being manipulated by greedy, ambitious people, or

Those Trump supporters are being led by their fear.

I immediately feel my compassion extend towards those people, in a way in which I wouldn’t with a mob of idiots. Which ones could you relate to? Who is worth caring for? Who might you be willing to talk to? Each one of those descriptions contains within it a clue to solving the perceived problem. Does that opening put too much responsibility on our shoulders? Is that what we’re trying to avoid?

An idiot is a person who is not like us, a person not worth considering. A person whose motives we don’t even need to think about, because even if they did have motives, why should we learn about them? They’re stupid, after all. We separate from them in word and deed. We lock them out of the human club by naming them as something other. Separation is a method to shut down compassion and a lack of compassion separates us from our companions in this journey.

I think I can live without it.

As for my use of crazy… that’s for the next therapy session.

[i]

I don’t argue that these or any words be removed from the language entirely. This is about mindful speech & writing.

3/4 of a box step

3/4 of a box step

I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately.

My new volunteer gig is frightening and wondrous. The easiest and hardest volunteering ever: literally nothing I have to do [exhale] … except hang out with people I don’t know [gasp], and infinitely rewarding.

And I’ve developed a new superpower: CHANGE. As some of you may have read in The Fireworks Guy anecdote, I (yes, the writer you know and love) have the ability (it’s okay: you can touch the hem of my garment) to stop doing destructive shit! Not only have I stuck a wrench in the churning hatred of Fireworks Guys (so successfully that I don’t feel any anger even when surprised by one of the little bombs anymore, just … surprise), I also preemptively stopped myself from falling into passive-aggressive relationship patterns twice last week.

The magical source of this newfound talent? Dumb old meditation. The best explanation I can give is that I’ve grown accustomed to my thoughts, or to observing them. Instead of just reacting to a perceived offense thoughtlessly, my response sits in the center of my vision like a dog in need. I can get off my lazy metaphorical ass and try to figure out what the issue is, or I can ignore it, fester in my angry/grumpy/bitter automation, while it slinks off and waits for the next opportunity to bump me out of inertia. In both recent scenarios, instead of just thoughtlessly plodding along as I usually do, I had a brief debate with myself over my choices:

I’m gonna be withholding now.

But why?

Because I didn’t like that.

And will clamming up make you feel better?

… no

And will it make him feel better?

… no

And will it teach anybody anything?

… … … no

So?

Fine. Forget it.

And that was it. I just didn’t do the pointless, harmful thing. Twice. I was so excited about my new superpower that I had to share it with the Practice Check-In group at my local sangha on Tuesday. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fucking cool. Not braggy cool, just quietly proud cool.

And then today I felt like shit. Depressed. Surly. Trapped. Drained. I took a short nap. I worked out. I logged out of my work computer. I listened to some Lizzo, did some dishes, took a walk. Everything helped a little, but I still feel shitty. What is this need for control? For consistency? Why do I panic whenever I’m down? I suppose there is some fear of feeling the way I used to when I was younger, of struggling to get out of it. And I have a need for answers. I have a few – an unfulfilling job, some bad news about a project I’m working on, eating too much sugar this week. But those answers don’t help me right now. Just sitting with it is probably the best thing I can do. But part of me wants to be better than that. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of the “good” things (my superpower, for example) as a step forward and the bad things (depression, criticism) as a step back, and see it more as a dance, a sidestep, an expansion into more, rather than better.

Writing helps, too. Thanks, friends.