What’s keeping me busy at the moment:
We live in a time when we expect to have control over a lot of things. I’m not sure why, but I suspect Googling has a lot to do with it. Never has so much information (and misinformation) been so readily available to so many, and this has left us with the impression that we ought to be able to do know more, do more, have fewer (or perhaps no) limitations.
I see these ideas show up in my therapy practice the way memes show up on my Facebook feed.
One person is concerned with diet: nothing processed, all local, only the most nutrient-dense foods will do. Spinach is out because kale is better. He doesn’t understand why food has suddenly become so stressful and feels “not good enough” because one night he was exhausted after working late and ate pasta for dinner. Another person reads constantly about parenting and child development and fights terrible anxiety about the fact that she’s not home schooling her five year old. She feels responsible for personally controlling every aspect of her child’s education. Meanwhile, she’s sure she’s not good enough at her job, and she has a Pinterest board full of ideas for improving her marriage and feels bad about never having done any of them. A grieving person says her sister died three months ago, and she should be “over this” by now. She wants to know how to make herself feel better, because she should be able to, and somehow she must have just missed an important piece of information because she can’t seem to do it. These clients ask me to work with them on how they can do better, make sure they eat healthy all the time, be a better Mom and wife and professional, get over grief. Now. Today. Ok, maybe that’s not reasonable, but surely we can do it in 6 sessions or less?*
Buying into the control meme sets us up to fail. People come to therapy looking for “tools” and “resources” when the very last thing anyone needs is more tools or more resources. The very landscape in which we’re trying to live is where the problem resides. Often, trying to have that conversation is bewildering, and I simply run out of both words and energy.
So friends, today, a simple thought: What if we are not always supposed to be in control?
*Hopefully it goes without saying: Therapy is confidential. These are not stories of real people but amalgams intended to summarize the various manifestations of this phenomenon I see people struggle with.
A few months ago, the Photographer and I adopted a stray cat. She’s turned out to be a little high maintenance. She loves to be outside, but her instincts for self-preservation leave a bit to be desired. Since she’s been with us, she has managed to have several pretty spectacular falls, eat all available poisonous plants, and stick her head into a storm drain. She has managed to get lost in our basement more than once (which leads me to wonder, is it possible I actually share DNA with this cat?). In short, this is not a cat that can be allowed to roam freely. I’ve never attempted to walk a cat on a leash before, but for this one, I gave in and tried it. She handled the harness ok, but she hated the matching bungee leash that came with it. The Photographer theorized that it was too heavy and fashioned a homemade one out of clothesline. She likes it much better.
I try to spend at least a few minutes outside with her each morning. To let her be as much of a cat as possible, I give her a long lead. I watch her track and stalk. I try to follow without making too much noise. I requires me to move slowly, to pay attention, and to notice what she notices. We must look completely ridiculous, this small, lithe cat creeping and stalking gracefully through the yard, tied with a clothesline to a large, clumsy human. This is probably the perfect metaphor for my own split nature. There is a part that is totally in the moment, guided by instinct. Another part is thinking ahead, aware of possible danger and of time passing. Spending some time getting those two together each morning seems like a pretty decent idea.
The last few months have brought project after project and change after change, all of them joyous in their own way, and all challenging. From May to June, the Photographer and I were working on our back porch, a project we’d neglected, of necessity, during the winter months, but we quickly realized if we were going to be able to enjoy it at all during the nice weather, we’d best get moving. We spent over a week preparing and tiling the floor, only to finish a couple of days before a housewarming party with about forty people, which culminated in some wonderful time sitting on the porch with the last few remaining friends as the day died down. All in all, it was very worth the effort.
Shortly after that, I moved from my therapy office where I’ve been seeing clients for the last four years to a new space, but not before doing some much needed renovation on the new office. The Engineer drove up to help me spend two days tearing up the old floor and laying down a new one, then soundproofing the space. It was a sizeable effort, and I felt extremely fortunate to have such capable help and good company.
After that, a family beach trip, the moving of furniture into the new office, the navigation of all kinds of red tape associated with setting up business in a new space… the list goes on. My most recent project has been talking with authors and editing a book of their essays to be published next month in time for a book release and authors’ reception in September.
Yesterday, the Photographer and I helped a friend move. As I was packing up the last of her pantry and she was dismantling a kitchen table, we talked about the sort of anxiety that rears its head around times of transition. “I’ve been waking up at 2AM, worried that maybe I’ve missed a class and will find out they’re not actually going to let me graduate,” she said. “Yep,” I said, “I keep thinking I’ve probably missed some sort of business registration paperwork and they’re going to slap me with a fine.” We laughed about it, the sort of laughter that comes from having done battle with this kind of anxiety before. But there was a time when it had a completely different grip on me. As a younger person, I hadn’t yet figured out that anxiety has a bag of tricks, and that once you learn to recognize those tricks, you know when it’s just anxiety talking to you, and when it’s actually a concern that you might need to do something about.
Anxiety pops up when we have the least energy to deal with it, especially in the midst of transition, when we’re tired and feeling beat down. It reminds us that there are terrible, unfair, unlucky things that happen, and that if that is the case, probably those things are going to happen to us. All of them. Right now. When I see this kind of thinking in clients, I start talking about anxiety and what it’s up to. I remind them that job number one is to stop trying to problem solve and work on calming the anxiety. Put down whatever you’re doing. Get some sleep. Take a bath. Spend time with friends. Ask for help. If you try to solve whatever imaginary problem anxiety has thrown in your path, you will only exhaust yourself further, and guess what, anxiety has plenty more imaginary problems where that came from.
What power there is in finally knowing that.
Last week I got a rare opportunity to spend some time with my friend Susania (of The Grand Duchy of Susania). I’ve known her a long time. We grew up in the same church and subsequently worked together on various theater productions. She became the big sister I never had and introduced me to many wonderful books, films and British comedies that I love to this day.
Susania and I both grew up with the idea that one’s actions should reflect values, and when we were children, this was understood to mean specifically the values of our fundamentalist church. The concept of spiritual warfare demanded that we “fight” against ideologies that were not our own, as members of a tribe might fight a rival tribe for land or influence. The assumption was that if we don’t win dominance for our ideology, some other ideology will gain ground, and ours will be snuffed out. While it’s typically couched in less spiritual terms, I still encounter this sort of thinking every day, especially on Facebook.
Susania and I talked about values, and the extent to which they change and evolve over a lifetime. Long ago, we both gravitated away from that church we grew up in, and from any other like it. She mentioned her displeasure at the choices many churches have made over where to take a stand on values, zeroing in on some perceived societal ill or another, something “those people” are doing that “we” must fight against, less some sort of amoral, anti-Christian dystopia come to pass. In the process, other values, like love, relationship and non-judgement, get trampled.
It occurred to me that acting in accordance with one’s values is only part of the story. We are always acting first out of a worldview, and that process, often, is largely unconscious. If values are a light, and worldview is the prism through which that light must pass, therein lies a lot of opportunity for damage. As Susania and I grew up, the worldview of our church was one of war, and as in any war, there were plenty of casualties. While love might have been a value, even a strong one, our church’s warfare stance left little room for it to come through.
In recounting a discussion she had some time ago with friends who were against the inclusion of LGBT folks in their social circles, Susania described how she advocated against the worldview of warfare, rather than arguing about values, or politics, or even facts. She told stories about the experience of people excluded from certain circles by virtue of being LGBT and asked her friends to consider whether or not they wanted to perpetuate that dynamic.
It strikes me as a revolutionary choice to engage in that sort of questioning. It seems to me the most toxic thing happening right now is idea that if I don’t have the ability to shut out of my experience everything of which I disapprove, then something is being forced upon me, and something dangerous is happening for me and for my tribe. That idea can only take hold if our primary worldview is one of fighting a war that must be won. Through such a prism, it appears as if any attempt on the part of some “other” to obtain acceptance, affirmation, inclusion,or civil rights is a plot to dominate or an effort to infiltrate.
If we remove the warfare from the equation, it becomes possible to see the damage done to other lives when we withhold basic acceptance and equality, or tacitly grant certain privileges to some groups and not to others. It becomes possible to question the extent to which inflicting those experiences fits with one’s values, and whether we even want to couch values in terms of disapproving of things or people. In fact, when we stop thinking we are fighting a war, there is less of a need to disapprove at all.
I attended a workshop with Dennis Slattery, who writes on the nature of personal myth. His book, Riting Myth, Mythic Writing, uses a series of questions to get at the issue of what personal myth is and how it unfolds across a lifetime. In the workshop, Slattery asked us to explore a two part question that has stuck with me: What assumption (about yourself, the world, or the day) gets you out of bed in the morning, energizes and motivates? Also, what assumption is like an albatross around your neck, stopping you from moving ahead, or making you hesitate to get out of bed at all?
Responses to this were incredibly varied. Some people wrote about feeling they can make a difference in some positive way, that their presence matters. Some of those same people wrote about the pull of depression or inertia, or a sense of unworthiness, a “why bother” sort of feeling.
Personal myth sounds like a big concept, but on its simplest level, it’s the assumptions we make, which inform the terms on which we meet the world. The assumptions that inform personal mythology can be subtle, complex and contradictory. For my part, I wound up writing about the assumption that it does make a difference whether I’m in the world or not, and therefore, it’s important to be here as fully as possible, to not hold anything back that could be given. I know it makes a difference to the people I love. I know this all the more clearly because I’ve suffered the absence of people who couldn’t see how much their presence mattered. I aspire never to make that mistake.
I also wrote about the feeling that comes just on the heels of that, that there is so much to do in this world that no matter what I can finish, it will never be enough. Friends, that thought is enough to make me want to stay in bed some days. It’s certainly enough to keep me from writing some days. But apparently, not today.
If we’re lucky, we have friends we may not see for years, but when we pick up the conversation like it’s been no time at all since we last spoke. Recently one such friend reached out to me and asked how I was doing and what was most fulfilling in my life right now. What a great question. I didn’t have to think about it much. My therapy work is very fulfilling. And bread baking, which I have written about before, has been especially lovely lately.
I once heard Robert Bosnak say that the difference between talking to a therapist and talking to your friends is that therapists ask better questions. But it would be great if we could all ask better questions. Recently I read an article suggesting we should find a better way to introduce friends to one another, something more meaningful and real than leading with what that person does professionally, as if that were the whole of a person’s identity. My friend Bethany is exceptionally good at this. She has a story about everyone in her life, and always introduces me as her first hospice volunteer from the days when she was volunteer coordinator. She sometimes talks about how I met my husband, just because it makes for a fun story. These are things I like being known for. She never mentions where my current paycheck comes from, because it isn’t important to her.
If we were to replace the question, “What do you do” with something else, I think, “What’s most fulfilling in your life” would be a great candidate. Friends, what other good questions do you have? What else should we ask?
This Advent season the overwhelming theme has been injustice. Living in the city where Mike Brown was shot, I’ve been working hard to understand more and more fully all the aspects of injustice at work as events unfold around me. I’ve been challenging myself to try to have difficult conversations with people about it. As a member of the white community that has been so problematic here, I have no right to just give up and walk away. White people have been doing that collectively here for a very long time, and that, among other things, needs to stop. In the midst of a heated group argument about racism recently, a friend described how seeing the depth and breadth of it is like seeing the image in a magic eye picture. Once you see it, it seems so obvious it’s difficult to imagine how people can not see it. And you yourself can never choose not to see it again. For some people, that picture still has not come into focus, and even after all these years and a lot of work, I have no idea what to say to people for whom that is the case. I feel utterly useless.
In the midst of that uselessness, my brother, the Deacon, shared something a friend of his had written about the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She imagined “home” in the song as a feeling of truly being at home, safe and cozy, pre-trauma. If only we could go back to that feeling. I suspect that has a lot to do with why we don’t want to allow that magic eye picture to come into focus. If we are fortunate enough to live in a safe, cozy, pre-trauma world, where we can still imagine that the world is just, of course we want to stay there. Who wouldn’t? A wise friend of mine who engages deeply with difficulty spiritual questions and knows the sense of loss one encounters upon realizing the answers we once held to no longer work, “I really envy people who have never left the garden. For me, it wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t able to stay.”
Advent is about asking ourselves once again, for another year, what it is of the Divine that wants to be born in (or through) us. It’s about waiting in the dark, and saying yes to the incarnation. That is more difficult to do once we’ve seen the magic eye picture, experienced real loss, or trauma. I have a vague kind of faith that it is possible to find a new sense of “home” again, even from this place of such difficult awareness. I’ve seen glimpses of it. In the meantime, there is something meaningful about waiting in this particular darkness, in the aftermath of death and of riots, calling out for the Divine.
I was out of town for the weekend when Michael Brown was shot and protests started up in Ferguson, very close to where I attended graduate school to study counseling. But when I heard on the news what was happening, it made sense to me. Something that had been brewing for a long time was clearly boiling over. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear to me from talking to people who don’t live in my city (and even some who do) that what was happening seemed completely surprising and incomprehensible. How could we have this much race-related conflict, in this day and age, not even in LA or New York but in a midwestern suburb?
As a white, middle class person, I could pretty easily live my life with the belief that the civil rights struggle ended a long time ago. I could assume that, apart from a few extremist types, we are largely done, as culture, with racism. I could choose to think that I, personally, don’t see race when I look at people, that I am just in my judgements and not influenced by any sort of race-based assumptions. I could make those choices because there is nothing in my life circumstance that forces me to confront some difficult truths. So, if I am really going to live my values, I have to choose to confront those truths. And let me be clear: To get to choose is a privilege. Plenty of other people are smacked in the face with difficult truths every day of their lives.
If you are also a person with the privilege to choose, I ask you to make the same choice. Remember The Matrix, when Neo is confronted with the choice of taking the blue pill, which allows him to wake up in his comfortable bed, believing what he wants to be believe, or the red pill, which will open his eyes to some harsh realities but give him a chance to fight back against an ugly and exploitative system? When you saw the movie, did you tell yourself that, of course, you would be a person who takes the red pill?
Some difficult, “red pill” truths:
1. Racism is a force that can influence any person and any institution. It’s no longer segregated buses and water fountains. It’s lurking in seemingly acceptable assumptions, beliefs, policies, and attitudes. It’s in truck commercials where “real American” is presented as young, strong white men in cowboy boots and “family values” is often a phrase associated with images of white suburban families.
I have heard people in St. Louis, my own age and younger, voice their belief that when African Americans move into a white neighborhood, property values will go down, that this is “just the way it is.” Recently a local filmmaker made a documentary about Spanish Lake, a nearby suburb that has seen better days. He talked about how real estate companies in the 1970s perpetuated fears among white residents that an influx of African Americans into their community was going to wreck their home values. This tactic allowed them to buy up homes at low cost for resale at a higher value, and it perpetuated the “white flight” into western suburbs that are, to this day, mostly white. This idea, that property values depend in part on the racial makeup of a neighborhood, that this is “just how it is,” is still very much alive and well in this city, and it is predicated on the idea that having African American residents in one’s neighborhood is not going to be a desirable thing to the majority of home buyers. People still act on this belief, thinking that they themselves are not racist, of course. But this is racism, friends. I have also encountered a lot of people here who truly value and would like more diversity in their neighborhoods, and it can be hard to come by. If racism were no longer a factor, it would not be so. Well meaning people can be and are influenced by racism, and unknowingly perpetuate the problem.
2. We cannot assume that what we’ve concluded about the world based on our own experience is universal truth. We all tend to generalize our personal experience and make conclusions about the world based on that experience. That’s human. I’ve been stopped by the police because I was speeding, because my tags had been stolen, and once by a very courteous officer who merely wanted to make sure I knew one of my brake lights was out but had no intention of citing me for anything. Based on that experience alone, it would seem reasonable for me to assume that the police are largely fair, just, and there to serve. If they stop people, it’s because they have good reason. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably untrue in plenty of cases. I know people who have been stopped, questioned and even frisked simply because they looked “out of place” in a given neighborhood. A friend’s Mexican neighbor had police come onto his property because they drove by and saw him replacing the lock on the front door of his own home. (They had assumed he was a thief breaking in.) All sorts of writers are sharing experiences, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, about their own experiences with racial profiling or frightening and humiliating run-ins with police officers who stopped them with no discernible cause. I doubt most of the police officers involved in these incidents consider themselves racist. Perhaps they see themselves as merely protecting the neighborhood, acting on a hunch, etc. But what role do race-based assumptions play in that “hunch?” Statistics indicate that African American drivers are five times more likely to have their car searched during an investigative traffic stop (where there is no alleged violation of the law) than white drivers. What assumptions and beliefs underlie that statistic?
There seems to be a tendency among affluent white people who have not experienced this directly to think that these accounts are not true, that they are blown out of proportion, or that there must be some other explanation. We have no reason to disbelieve these accounts other than simply because it’s uncomfortable to believe them. Terribly uncomfortable. We don’t want to think that this is going on. Yet, the evidence is clear. When we discredit people who share their stories, tell them they are jumping to conclusions or imaging things, we perpetuate the trauma and unfairness of those experiences, and we send the message that we, as white people, know more about the world and about the experiences of racial minorities, than they do. This is patently demeaning.
3. Institutional racism is real. When a significant number of people who have drawn similar conclusions about the world based on similar experiences have the power to form rules and policies, institutional racism (and/or sexism, or ageism) is a strong possibility. This is why diversity in organizations and in government is desirable. It is not about individual people being racist; it is about lack of awareness. If I have never been the subject of racial profiling, for instance, and am not aware of that possibility in my day to day life, I am not likely to be able to imagine how to enact policies that can prevent it, or even to be aware that such policies need to be enacted. I may even unknowingly enact policies that perpetuate the problem. This is how we get situations like the Mayor of Ferguson claiming that there is no race relations problem in Ferguson, even as massive protests break out on the streets. It’s why the fact that Ferguson’s police force is almost overwhelmingly white is such a problem. We need voices and influences from people of a variety of different ethnicities, genders, ages and cultural backgrounds in order to effectively govern a multicultural society.
This is scratching the surface at best, and there is so much more that can be talked about. Other people have spelled out possible actions better than I could, most notably Sarah Milstein who asks us to consider, among other things, “When did you first become aware you were white?” and Janee Woods, who suggests 12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People.
You may notice, I have not said anything about the actual events leading up to Michael Brown’s death, or the possible culpability of the officer involved. Those things deserve to be investigated and talked about, but that is not the purpose of this post. I’m talking about looking at how race relations impact the lives of everyone rather than viewing this as a minority problem. I’m talking about understanding how and why things escalated in Ferguson in the aftermath of this incident, and what might have been under the surface long before turmoil erupted. I’m advocating for using events in Ferguson as an opportunity to take the red pill.
I got a call from my friend Rebecca, who I had not heard from in person in quite some time. As we caught up, she asked if she could tag me for the Blog Tour. I had no idea what this meant, but as she explained a little more I said sure, ok, I have not been so great about writing blog posts in awhile, so yes, by all means, tag away.
When I saw that this would involve answering some questions about my writing process, I cringed a little. I have not been so good about writing for at least the past year, maybe longer. You can tell by how scattered these posts have become, but even apart from that, I’ve been far too sporadic about writing. Rather than shying away from the subject altogether, I decided it was time to embrace it, perhaps by way of writing about it. So here goes.
1. What am I working on now?
The biggest thing I am working on is buying a house, packing stuff, and planning some renovations. This is a big and overwhelming job. I wrote in April about how we were looking for something along the lines of Mrs. Marker’s house, and I think we finally found it, which is excellent news. But I am also realizing that the big difference between moving into another rental space and moving into a house like this is the huge amount of transitional work that has to be done. At a certain point, I took one look at it and felt like going back to bed, and I’ve been fighting that ever since.
I’m also working on getting the word out about an essay contest, planning a study group on poetry for late August, learning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and in general finding something resembling balance between all these different demands. Writing wise, it feels like the job is to try to find bits of time here and there for the practice.
2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?
What genre might that be, exactly? I really don’t know. Several years ago, I wrote about my irritation with a lot of online writing and promised my readers this blog would contain no lists of tips, no round ups, no best-ofs and no five-steps-to types of posts. None of that stuff that’s supposed to make for successful blogging, in other words. That is probably the single biggest difference.
3. Why do I write what I do?
That one is easy. I write not to get lost.
4. How does my writing process work?
To be honest, lately it doesn’t. Perhaps I’ve reached a transitional point where the process needs to change. I count this about item number five hundred in my mental list of things you don’t learn in arts education programs: Your creative process (or meditative process, or any other kind of process) is not something to make an identity of. The path changes sometimes. Sometimes the trail you are following through the woods disappears and you have to find (or forge) a new one. That’s all part of the deal. It’s not a failure. I’m not lost, but I’m in a bit of uncharted territory right now, creative process wise. I’ll let you know what I find from here!
On that note, I have to confess I can’t bring myself to “tag” anyone, at least not directly. So how about we do this a bit non-traditionally: If you feel moved to write a post on the subject of creative process, whether or not you want to specifically answer the three questions above, consider yourself officially tagged. And if you are further compelled, leave me a comment so I can read what you have to say!