Tell Me I’m Wrong

Tell Me I’m Wrong

I like it.

I do. It’s new – maybe a few years that I’ve had positive reactions to being accurately corrected – but it feels so good when I do. It actually gives me a physical rush. Maybe rush isn’t the right word. It’s like a piney breeze softly winding through my body. It feels like freedom.

When I find out I don’t know shit…

I don’t know why, but it feels like Freeeeeeeeeedom

(thank you for the only upbeat popular songs of 2021, Mr. Batiste)

Oh, don’t think it’s always been this way. It definitively ain’t. I’m one of those people who has had a lifelong embarrassment of showing ignorance. Not any ignorance: I allowed myself some realms of detached unknowing. Mostly in realms I didn’t care about. You could tease me relentlessly about never having seen a full Star Trek episode or most forms of etiquette or different cuts of meat or fantasy novels and I’d laugh it off. But for a shockingly, shockingly broad swath of topics, not knowing something churned up not interest, but shame. Even some things I didn’t give two shits about, like the names of different kinds of rocks. I’d still feel stupid because I know we covered that at some point in grade school. So I should know it. Different kinds of architecture? Never studied it, but I know educated people often do, so I should know it. Damn near every event in history, every geographic location, every word in Spanish, every philosopher, every person who ever accomplished anything noteworthy, every non-obscure scientific theory.

Everyone who shares this affliction has their own unique backstory, I’m sure. As a child I was shamed and sometimes psychologically tortured for hours if I failed to define a word correctly or adequately explain why a race riot somewhere in Asia was noteworthy. And it wasn’t just facts or intellectual prowess I was expected to excel in, but physical activities as well. If I didn’t rapidly learn how to hit a tennis ball without lobbing it over the fence or catch a baseball thrown with some velocity at my face, I was met with anger and heaping gobs of disappointment. Is it any wonder I mournfully sat out softball while my BFA class got to know each other on the field my freshman year in college? Or wouldn’t partake in any new activity until I had already practiced on my own beforehand? There was also a fun little twist in that my abuser often accused me of “pretending not to know.” I really wonder where the hell he got that one. What kind of masochist did he think I was, to invite hours of soul-crushing confusion and barely contained violence just for fun?

Weirdly, or not, I have treated myself with much the same bad logic. I put a slightly different spin on it: knowing that I don’t know an answer, I’m clearly not faking it, so at least I don’t have that bullshit to contend with. Instead I see my ignorance as a personal failure. For someone who considers herself logical, it really doesn’t make any more sense than my dad’s accusation. If I don’t remember something from high school, did I choose to forget it? Obviously not, so how can I blame myself? More things are forgotten than remembered by every person, every day. And even more things are never acknowledged in the first place. We’d be unable to function in society otherwise. Perhaps I didn’t study hard enough, but considering the overwhelming mass of things I expect myself to remember, “enough” is an unreachable goal. Many crucial facts are things I didn’t even learn in class, things that might have been casually referenced in passing. If I had worked to commit to memory every stupid tidbit I’m expected to know, I wouldn’t have lived a life.

What if my ignorance is, Buddha forbid, just plain old stupidity? I certainly can’t blame myself for that. And if I am intellectually stunted, I’ve done remarkably well for myself.

Why does knowing things even matter? What wisdom or insight or empathy or connection is gained simply by carrying oodles of items around in your head? What real knowing comes of it?

Of course, if talking oneself out of bad habits were enough to erase them, we’d all be a whole lot healthier. My intro was an optimistic exaggeration. There are still too many areas or scenarios in which I feel that shame creeping in, and one of them will be put to the test yet again for the umpteenth time next week. I’m taking a Spanish class for the first time since 2019, and as much as I love the language, relish speaking it, and crave fluency, practice has always been an opportunity for me to start waving that flag of self-loathing. I can rationalize my way out of the wise analysis of previous paragraphs with the simple fact that I have been studying Spanish off and on for decades, so obviously I should know it perfectly by now. I will also be participating in an Mindfulness Intensive program during part of the semester, so I’m hoping that will help me process any fucked-up feelings I’m experiencing.

The irony (so often with the irony) is that I may be right about my language expectations. It is entirely possible that someone who has been studying as long as I would know the language at least comfortably, if not fluently. According to language experts, the main reason I haven’t gotten there is because I don’t spend nearly enough time actually interacting with people in Spanish. And why? Because I’m afraid of being wrong. You see here, that old Buddhist mantra creeping in – you can’t really love others until you can love yourself. Our fears create the scenarios we fear.

Alan Watts, apropos of I don’t know what, once said that the Japanese in Japan were generally excellent English speakers, but an Englishman had to get them drunk to hear them talk because they were too afraid of embarrassing themselves to try when they were sober. I empathize, mis amigos. Your culture of shame is far vaster than my culture of one, but I feel you.

I have come up with a procedure that would get rid of all these self-positioned and self-perpetuating obstacles: just detach the identity from the emotion. Because it’s not the embarrassment that kills you, it’s the shame – it’s the attachment of the embarrassment to one’s sense of self that creates the shame. I deal with this whenever I try to get White people to talk about race and racism, and it does get frustrating. At times I just want to shake them and say, “your ignorance is not your fault/you didn’t choose to be raised under White supremacy/you’re not doing anyone any good by hiding from it/ you can make things better for yourself and others if you just open up, allow yourself to be wrong, and grow.” And of course, I recognize that I am in the same boat, just on a different river.

So I am not there yet. But feeling that freedom of openness, of detaching my mistakes from my identity, of just letting them be and moving on, should make it easier to welcome that liberation with my Big Enemy of the language I should know. We’ll see. I’ll keep you in the loop.

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).

I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.

Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.

I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days.  For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.

If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.

I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.

She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.

Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.

So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

The Darkness of the Womb

The Darkness of the Womb

I’ve been slowly attending a virtual retreat offered by Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember organization and it has done me an ineffable amount of good.

I can still eff it a bit, though.

Today’s speakers included a relatively young Sikh racial justice activist who did some important shaking up of the primarily septuagenarian group. Valerie Kaur challenged the ideas both of accepting things as they are and turning inward for the sake of turning inward, fraught concepts among activist meditators, and the main reason I sought out this retreat. Her greatest gift to me, however, was an image that totally flipped my idea of where we are right now and where we might be headed.

She suggested that we might not currently be in the darkness of death and decay, but the darkness of the womb. What if we are about to be born? And if we, as the United States for example, have not yet been born, what does that mean for our potential?

The seed was planted by the guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, right? That all men are created equal; that they have inalienable rights; that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are among those, that it is the duty of a people to “throw off” a despotic government – these were truly revolutionary ideas. As any fair-minded student of US History knows, they had all been denied, prevented, and/or deliberately perverted even before they were penned by the men who penned them, and the betrayal has continued every day since.

Our “founding fathers” ejected the seed, and then, like many men, they walked away – into slavery, capitalism, sexism, concentration camps, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, voter suppression. What if all of this was part of the germination? You’ve heard of the century plant? What if this is the four-century plant and we are about to bloom?

What if the ideals of the country haven’t been a failure since birth, but have all been shoots navigating through choppy ground, now ready to finally spring forth into the waiting sunlight? What if it’s not that America has never been Great, but that America has never been? That this is all, if not a delusion, then a nascent idea, one that depicted itself as fully formed, but never was? What if what we needed all along, for America to finally be, was the liberation of Black and Indigenous (and disabled, and trans, and all other) people? What if the horrors and revelations of the last few years are the magic ingredient, the secret, obscure symbol, the dance, that, when the moon is full, gives birth to a nation of liberty and justice for all?

What if America is not a mess of a country that Others its own and uses that Othering as a weapon to centralize power for people who look like the hypocrites who wrote down these good ideas, but one that, once it comes to fruition, would horrify people who grasp onto White Male Fear and Supremacy, like Roy Cohn is horrified by the heaven of flowering weeds and beautiful trash and destruction and voting booths and “big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion” that Belize describes in Angels in America?1

What if we have been waiting for the right time to be born? A time when we are recognizing our enslaving, genocidal history and our present-day racism and sexism? A time when we have witnessed the failings of capitalism in the deaths of 200,000 people, the unemployment of millions, the lines of masked neighbors lined up for food and diapers? A time when the revolution will be tweeted and Zoomed?

My favorite metaphor comes from the chrysalis.2 When you cut open a chrysalis, you don’t see a half-butterfly. You see a rotting caterpillar. What if we’ve been the hideous chrysalis all along? We’re still a young country; it’s not that absurd an idea. Change is painful and ugly and we have been pained and rotten.

What if the “rough beast/ its hour come round at last”3 is approaching its birth, but the second coming is not one of fire and brimstone, but of justice and compassion and equity and those things that Jesus appears to advocate for in the New Testament, the ideals that every religion seems to hold at its core, the ideals that our country has been waiting to realize for hundreds of years?

Look, all I’m saying is we don’t know. As much as it seems to many of us like the end of all we hold dear, we cannot help but notice all the love generosity and compassionate action that surrounds us. We do not know what will happen. This is a mysterious place.

Today I’m indulging in possibility. Happy Labor Day.

  1. Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika; Act 3, scene 4
  2. Rebecca Solnit introduced me to this image in A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  3. William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming, of course
  4. the image is Georgia O’Keefe’s Flower of Life II

Climate Concern or Clever Self-Loathing?

mr yuckI understand Climate Depression; I’ve definitely sunk into it a few times this year. (The More You Know!) But what haunts me far more frequently is Climate Anxiety. It manifests as a pair of equally insidious Mxs. (plural for Mx.) Yuck-type parasites that sit on my shoulders, choking off any organic action, shouting contradictory half-remembered rules before every eco-related decision I make, and squeezing out any space reserved for the mythical good angel, who would tells me that I am okay. Well, eco-decisions can’t happen more than a couple times a day, right? Oh ho ho, if only you were right. You see, the indomitable bond of too much climate knowledge and too much self-criticism is far more powerful than either one alone, hamfisting its way into my consciousness in countless ways. For example:

You should go work out so you don’t get depressed

  • but that just burns more calories, so you eat more food
  • and leave a bigger footprint
    • jesus, are you kidding? what good are you when you’re depressed?
    • what good am I when I’m not depressed?
    • well, for one thing, you’re less likely to eat chocolate picked by enslaved children in Africa and shipped half way around the world for your pleasure
      • you know, the world’s running out of chocolate: do you need the chocolate? doesn’t someone need that chocolate more than you?
    • fine, I’ll go to the gym
      • you’d better bike
      • I’m going to bike
        • yeah, but you were going to go to the hardware store later; maybe you should go to the gym on the way; it will save time so you can get more accomplished today
        • too bad you’re not a real environmentalist – then you’d find a way to haul that lawnmower home on your bike
          • *sigh*
          • fine, I’ll drive; but it’s only on the way if I go to the other hardware store
            • is that one farther? then you’re contributing more CO2
            • yeah, but doesn’t the closer one engage in more unethical practices?
          • Shut up! I’m biking!
            • good
            • yes
            • even though you’ll use the time it eats up as an excuse to get less done today
          • My bike bag’s filled with crap
            • careful what you do with it!
            • what kind of crap? recyclable? compostable?
              • some kind of plastic
                • recycle it! Wash it out first.
                • No, don’t! That wastes water.
                • you have to wash it so it’s not tainted
                • is this even recyclable anyway?
              • there’s food in it…
              • COMPOST IT!
              • damn, you waste a lot of food; you should be ashamed of that
                • I am
                • not enough to stop doing it
              • but what about the plastic? what’s the number on it?
              • can you even read it? your eyes are terrible. probably because of all the sugar you eat; sugar’s destroying the swamplands, you know
            • Fuck it. Just throw it all in the garbage. The world’s ending anyway.

… leaving the door open for climate depression.

So that’s about 5 minutes of my life. Not every day. No… every day, but not always that bad, or maybe it will only happen 5 times a day. But on days like yesterday and today, when (hormones? low iron? gray skies?) I am walking that fence between depression and functionality, there’s barely time to regroup between episodes. I can literally do no right, so it’s difficult to do anything without a looming sense of doom.

This is despite knowing that most of the things I agonize over have little impact on the climate. Little enough to be functionally zero. And that on the flipside, the incessant agonizing itself can be debilitating, preventing me from making any decision, let alone an ostensibly “good” one, and injecting a cloud of fear into everything I do, climate-related or not.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s not about climate. It’s about self-loathing. There’s a theory (which has worked for me) that a lot of back pain is psychosomatic – real pain created by your brain to distract you from difficult feelings. It manifests as back pain because your brain is an avid trend-follower, and knows that lots and lots of people have back pain, and the sources are often inscrutable and cures unsuccessful, so it creates back pain. My brain is doing something similar, and gadblessit, it’s trying sooo hard to protect me. Just as it used to do with my back pain. But instead of throwing a blanket of physical pain over me to distract me from anger and sadness, it’s trying to make me perfect so that I will be lovable. It’s not about the environment. Eco-morality is a convenient rubric by which to judge and critique and guide and advise me into becoming a good and worthwhile person.

I know this, too. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing, right? I’m going on vacation in a few days, and I was thinking of trying to take a vacation from Mxs. Yuck as well. To see if I might be happier, more productive, ultimately better if I refuse to indulge the voices that are trying to make me better. I’m thinking about it, but it’s hard because the Yucks are almost always right. What right have I, a middle class American White woman, to stop worrying about ethics for a week?

  • But, Z, you’re just making yourself miserable. What good does that do the world?
    • What good does abandoning morality do the world?
  • You couldn’t abandon morality if you tried.
    • But that’s because of Mr/s Yuck.
  • No, it’s not. You have to trust that it’s in you.

Trusting yourself. Another thing the Sloathed (for self-loathed: I’m trying to get this trending: hah? haah?) suck at.

What would it take for me to unplug the voices and let it all go for a week? Massive amounts of mind-altering substances? Positive reinforcement? Will the world survive if I stop yelling at myself? Of course it will, but I still feel nauseated just thinking about it.

 

 

 

Prescription: The End of the World

elephants climateThere’s a theory that one of the reasons humans are so depressed and anxious is because life is too easy. We are animals, and animal subconscious is primarily consumed with 3 duties:

  1. keep from getting killed
  2. keep from starving to death
  3. keep your species alive

Evolution and our awesome brains, whatever other neat directions they may have pushed our species, haven’t moved us beyond these primary concerns. Nowadays most of us (let’s make this “us” middle class white people; whites are also the biggest US consumers of anti-depressants) don’t have to worry about 1 & 2 on a daily basis. (3 will have to be its own blog post.) The theory is that we are hard wired to be on the alert for threats and scarcity, so when they doesn’t exist, our brains help us create them with anxiety and depression. Similarly, allergies are your body reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist in a way that hurts you (making a poison out of a peanut), and also rarely happen in countries where bodily threats like malaria and intestinal worms are real and the immune system is kept occupied.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmful tendencies of the brain and how to negotiate with them. I formulated this particular negotiation because I’ve been tasked with creating some Climate Change content for a State Fair exhibit. Here’s a question:

What if we really, truly internalized the threat of climate change?

What if we woke up every day and calculated how every action we took increased or decreased our risk of decimating humanity? What if we did that every moment? What if our every action was a conscious meditation on fossil fuel reduction or carbon capture or community education? What if we lived our lives on a scalding planet the way Robert Redford does on a sinking ship in All is Lost? Have you seen it? I’m not the only person who had this experience: after watching the film, for a too short period of time, every physical thing I did felt deliberate and important; every dish washed, every door opened, every piece of clothing placed in the laundry felt glutted with meaning.

What if we could live every day like that? Would it give our restless brains something to do? Could we stop being anxious and depressed about nothing in particular and focus that energy on the survival of the species? Do you think this Anti-Depressant Marketing idea might get people to give a shit? CLIMATE COMPULSION FOR MENTAL HEALTH!

I have my doubts about getting this past the MN State Fair committee.

Derailed by a House

homeSeven houses, more precisely. Seven houses I didn’t get. And to extend that precision, I am not literally a train, nor have I even figuratively been thrown off the primary track of my life, having never chosen one. However, since I started actively looking for a house I have slept less, drunk more, eaten worse, shortened my meditations, and written almost nothing. House hunting in an inflated seller’s market, in a good economy, is fucking with my Qi. How embarrassing. Continue reading “Derailed by a House”

Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?

Zoe and I were sitting around a bonfire at an open prairie campsite when a chipmunk cautiously ventured from the tall grass onto the mowed trail next to us, grazing for crumbs. The little guy was easily spooked, darting undercover at any sudden movement, but who could blame him? Birds of prey hovered constantly overhead, scanning. Our chipmunk lived under relentless threat of death from above. Continue reading “Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?”