A Taste of Freedom

A Taste of Freedom

Every once in a long while, I get a glimpse behind the curtain.

It smells a bit like the first whiff of lilacs in spring. It looks a bit like a sliver of sunshine from a door inched open from darkness. It feels like featherweight joy. The casual, quotidian joy of what life could be if I truly recognized it as the experiment it is, a world in which the title I carry, the job I go to, the investment I make or house I buy has no more significance than the paper on which those accumulations are recorded. A world in which the only real consequences lie in how my actions resonate to my fellow Earthlings, human or other. A world in which there is no boredom, no routine, no apathy, but perpetual recognition of the everyday glory of engaging with it as a human being in this moment.

Of course I can apply for that out-of-my-league job or connect with that out-of-my-league person because the leagues are an illusion, They’re part of a bullshit, manufactured hierarchy intended to keep us isolated from one another so we don’t recognize our interdependence and the shared goals of love, happiness, and peace that would allow us to stand against any autocratic, selfish, destructive entity.

Failure is a lie because it implies an end state, a state of perfection not reached, as opposed to an experiment, Every time something doesn’t turn out as expected, that should be a celebration of change and education and novelty. Success is okay, but it carries the delusion not only of achievement, but of Arrival – of an ending. Failure reminds us that we just fucking around trying to get our bearings here, people in a world that is (in my country) constantly mocking, denigrating, obscuring, and flat out denying the truth that there is another option, a more joyful path, a lighter way to live. Sometimes I can see that path, when the fog clears.

And then sometimes I’m burdened with the pointlessness of existence, a heart-heaviness that makes everything seem useless, every meaningful action impossible: a trap of swampy ick that I know I will ideally just acknowledge, not give it unearned importance or attach any other unpleasant emotions to it, but which instead I often wind up waiting out, holding on til bedtime and hoping the next day will be springier, sunnier, better. I will have moments of thinking I am in much worse shape than I thought, that maybe the miasma of loathing is thicker, deeper, more insidious than I choose to acknowledge, that this is not a moment, but a step down to a pit of ever-increasing bleakness.

And then the normal comes back, and sometimes the special.

The brain is a terrible therapist. Much better the body. Sit. Recognize. Breathe. Carry on. This moment doesn’t need a story or a prognostication. It just needs to Be, with the inevitability of change as it’s lowkey mascot.

You thought this was going to be all about awakening and awesomeness, didn’t you? Well, SO DID I. Once again, things have not turned out as I had hoped or expected. C’est la vie.

Anyway, that’s my Sunday. How are you?

Why Work, Anyway?

Why Work, Anyway?

As I struggle with when to leave my job, what I’m qualified to do, and what I want to do, and my partner/roommate deals with the same, I am haunted (or is it distracted?) by the bigger issues. The personal is political.

I don’t need to make a lot of money. I don’t have huge expenses; my mortgage payments are low; I don’t own a car; I don’t have a kid; I’m not paying off college loans and haven’t been for years. I am lucky/privileged/whatever you want to call it to the extreme. If I just had to earn enough to live on, I’d have lots of potentially fun options to choose from – freelancing, working book or grocery retail, working part-time somewhere that doesn’t bore or hate me. But, of course, we aren’t working to earn a living, We’re working to be able to live. Work has to provide not just enough to pay for my necessary and quality of life expenses: I need supplemental income to contribute to my retirement, because social security ain’t gonna cut it; to provide for inevitable major expenses (like replacing my roof), and likely expenses (like treating the illnesses of an aging dog or buying a car); and, of course, in the United States, I need for my employer to provide health care, because in this country medical care is only a given for the rich, the well-employed, the old, and some of those with disabilities. And if you don’t agree to bring the government into your relationship, you can’t even rely on your partner of 13 years to share their benefits, because since the legalization of gay marriage most companies no longer allow employees to pay for the care of their non-spouses.

[Of course I support and supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, but there were several predictable downsides to the legislation. The first, and more minor, was giving companies a good excuse to remove domestic partnerships from benefits packages. The greater issue was the reduction of the gay rights movement to a desire to be just like straight people. Some LGBT+ folks are undoubtedly happy with that, but the more radical and transformative folks were looking towards a future beyond the nuclear family, beyond domestic comfort, to a world of mutual support as well as individual freedom. And that was largely swept under the rug when Gay Marriage became the Gay Cause Celebre.]

Beyond the fucked up political forces that force us into work, or into more work than strictly necessary, there is a culture of work in Western society that I find, frankly, toxic and malicious. According to our culture, Work

  • gives my life purpose
  • fills my otherwise dull and empty days
  • makes me a good citizen
  • is the center of my social life
  • is where I learn new things

Most jobs don’t do most of this shit, and many jobs don’t do any of it. I know this. And yet even I, the enlightened one, buy into so much of our work-obsessed culture. I feel guilty about leisure, especially anything I can’t clearly tag as helping others or educational. I feel guilty about working less than 40 hours a week, and have to supplement my paid work with enough time volunteering to make up the difference. I feel guilty for being in a financial position where I don’t necessarily need to work 40 hours/week. I will do mind-numbing, soul-sucking data cleanup for hours rather than take time off because who am I? too special to do shit work? I feel I haven’t lived up to my potential because I don’t have a career. I feel unsuccessful because I can’t easily categorize my work with an admirable label. I won’t pull every trinket out of the box of bad thoughts, but you get the idea.

The tragic drama of the pandemic created a crisis response that had so much potential to change this country (all countries, probably, but I’ll just speak to the US) for the better. We could have come out of it with

  • universal health care
  • universal sick leave
  • a universal basic income (UBI)
  • flexible, or at-home work for many jobs

Instead, we only got the latter, and only because companies realized it was a great way to save money. Child poverty plummeted during the pandemic. People were able to pay off haunting debts. Workers were able to step back, take a breath, and look for better – more remunerative or more satisfying – employment. People took classes and pursued degrees. Parents were able to spend more time with their children (and children were sometimes traumatized through social isolation from their peers – that’s another story being told by other people).

But we obviously don’t value wellbeing, family time, health care, financial security, education, or children, because we did not, as a voting public, prioritize policies that would allow these basic benefits to continue. I think this is emblematic of our obsession with work. We actually believe that paid work bestows value on people. That belief has allowed us to diminish the value of at-home moms (and, now, dads), to create sweeping “welfare reforms” that take away people’s ability to buy groceries if they’re not working, to see disabled citizens as a burden, to shut the unemployed elderly away from society in facilities where they wait to die, and to mark any other officially unemployed folks as lazy, greedy, stupid, and generally worthless, whether that state is due to mental illness, lack of opportunity, time consumed with providing unpaid work to others, or simple choice. We talk a good game about individuality and personal freedom in the good old US of A, but woe be to they who do not tow the capitalist line. You are here to earn money, and then give that money to others (ideally large corporations) in exchange for things you need and, most importantly, things you don’t need but which will make you feel better about yourself, since you spend most of your time working or exhausted from work and can’t actually live a life that would be sufficiently fulfilling to you.

Allow me to correct myself. We did get more than the *freedom* to work at home. We got lots of exposure to the culture of young adults who have not been fully indoctrinated, have learned from changing ideas of relationship and gender to question everything, or have just been through enough economic instability to challenge the expansive depiction of work. Whether its the refusal to stay *loyal* to the unfeeling entity that is a place of employment, an insistence on more flexibility and free time, unionization, doing only what is required of your role, or simply extracting their identities from their jobs, I applaud all of it. I hope the movement is understated in the media. I hope we keep calling attention to it. Because if we deprogram ourselves from the cult of work as a society, it could move so many other things in the right direction.

For example, if we stop buying into the lie that work makes us full members of society, we might rebel against the American standard of tying healthcare to work – we might reject the idea that we are only worth caring for if we are bringing home a paycheck. People who don’t spend all their time working might have more energy to invest in their communities, their kids, their interests. Do we want more mediocre, amateur guitarists cluttering our neighborhoods with Friday night porch concerts? I fucking do. A recent Harvard study determined that deep relationships are the key to happiness. How much time do we commit to them?

Yes, of course we need some workers. And some people truly love their work. I know teachers and PCAs and computer programmers and construction workers and entrepreneurs, and of course the lucky artists who get paid, who would do what they do regardless of respect or compensation, but most of the folks I know are either neutral or averse to their employment. And yet they have to keep going.

I can’t tell you how many unfunny jokes I’ve recently heard from broadcasters about Chat GPT taking over their jobs. Do I want a robot as a news anchor? No. And they probably don’t want to leave. But how many jobs do people actually want to do? Why are we fighting over AI replacing grocery store checkout workers and fast food cashiers instead of asking whether those workers really want those jobs and giving everyone a universal basic income instead, and letting them figure out what they actually want to do? No, I’m not an economist and I don’t have the deets on how we could pull this off, but if we sufficiently taxed the companies that replace workers with machines in order to support those who’ve lost their jobs because of automation, we might do alright. The CEOs could still make a fine living. Tim Cook just took a widely lauded 40% pay cut, and this year will earn only…

$49 million dollars

Who needs that much fucking money? People with lavish lifestyles, multiple homes, etc. Of course. What if we lived in a world that just didn’t allow quite that much excess? What could we do with the rest of that money? What if we kept CEO salaries to 20 or 30 times more than the median worker instead of 350 (average) or 3500 (high) times more? What if workers were paid a good wage that allowed more of them to own homes, take vacations, work little enough that they could pursue hobbies or supplemental education? I have certainly been less irritated by unexciting jobs that paid well than by the same job where I was scraping to get by.

Sorry – off track again. I’m not saying it will be easy or quick (barring an apocalypse!), but I do think it will serve us all better – the employed and the unemployed, the abled and the disabled – if we stop tying our self-worth to our employment. It’s an oversimplified and ridiculous point system, where workers are valued more than non-workers, but workers who put in 70 hours a week but can’t pay their expenses are valued less than people who, with a few hours a week shuffling investments, have money to burn. We value workers who literally keep people alive and healthy – nurses, PCAs, hospice workers – less than people who spend their time making more money for rich people. We value people who spend their time doing petty, mindless, paid tasks more than people working for free to improve their communities. How long can we keep going like this? Who does this serve? Who does it harm?

And yet I keep putting in my hours and hoarding my PTO that I may well wind up cashing out. Out of fear. Indoctrination is hard to overcome, friends. One of my favorite Ram Dass anecdotes: he comes back from India, a guru in his white robes, very high on the spiritual plane, teaching and lecturing and being a Karma Yogi. And then he goes home to visit his dad, and his dad asks, Do you have a job? and everything falls apart. He’s defensive, he’s irritated, he’s not loving or forgiving in that moment. If Ram Dass, post Baba Neem Karolyi, can get thrown by the culture of employment, I guess I can give myself some grace in crawling out of this mire.

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)

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.

Sitting in the Shit

headAnd sometimes you just have to accept that you’re in a bad place, and try not to spread it around. The compulsion is to try to justify it with the things you’ve failed at, the ways you feel you’re not supported by your partner or community, the demands of your job, the horrors of the government, your kids, climate change. It is all of that and none of it, but addressing any of it while in this state is downright dangerous. You can justify anything – any outburst, any insult, any rebellion – but that’s just because you’re clever, not because you’re right. And the outcome of any reactive interaction in this state will likely hurt you or someone else.

So maybe you bike it out, or drive around yelling with songs on the radio, or have a few drinks or some weed, or play video games for hours, or watch a pointless film, or ideally, just sit with it and meditate; but don’t blame it on anyone, including yourself. If you decide that anyone’s actions can significantly worsen your wellbeing, you’re reinforcing the idea that you have no choice in how you react to the world, and if you believe that, then why bother meditating, anyway? If you decide that, well, this one time it really was Joe’s fault, or Trump’s fault, or my fault, then you will also feel compelled to keep defending that position, which again reinforces the idea of your own passivity.

It is as much everyone’s fault as it is anyone’s fault, and as much no one’s fault as anyone’s. You are constantly touched by everything you interact with, but that touch doesn’t have to knock you down, and it doesn’t force you to push back. If you make up some excuse for the present state, it’s just going to prolong it.¬†Accept the shit, try not to say too much, and know that, like everything, it will change. The less you attach to it, the easier it is, and the sooner you’ll move past it.

Now you’re going to publish this piece, have a shot of cucumber vodka, and quietly watch Game of Thrones with the partner and the dog. Then sleep. And see where you are tomorrow.

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.

How Winter Kills*

winterWoman & Guy go out for dinner & a movie at the art museum. Pleasant conversation follows – good film, bad audience; good food, bad waiter – as they join the line of cars waiting to exit the parking lot. Woman, sitting in the passenger seat due to her low tolerance for alcohol, looks at her sideview mirror and remembers she got the car – finally, right?! – washed today. Did the mirror get moved? She asks the man if he can see out of her mirror. He doesn’t answer. She waits. She calls his name. He responds with mild defensiveness. She sighs, “it’s just … exhausting!” She presses her palms against her face, hard, and wills herself not to cry.

And just like that – winter depression makes its grand entrance! Continue reading “How Winter Kills*”