Looking for Hope

A review of ROBOTS WILL STEAL YOUR JOB BUT THAT’S OK: HOW TO SURVIVE THE ECONOMIC COLLAPSE AND BE HAPPY

I picked up this book because despite it being from 2012—ancient in technology terms, and fairly old in terms of economics and politics—the title was too intriguing to pass up. Readers were promised the whole narrative arc: doom and salvation, all in one nonfiction book. And I’m a seeker after happiness, eager to read new insights into this age-old human goal.

The first two-thirds of the book delivers on its promise of doom. Some frightening and disheartening trends are charted by this young author, whose expertise in technology and general intelligence seem to be his only credentials. This is a self-published book, using Amazon’s CreateSpace, but this decision seems to go along with Pistono’s support of open source software and open access to free online education, unfiltered through traditional gate-keeping and money-making organizations.

One of the trends Pistono covers in depth is the exponential growth of computing, with computer power doubling every year. He shows how these technological advances lead to automation and a reduction in jobs for people. Some jobs are, obviously, easier to replace with machines than others, and though we often think of automation in factories taking the jobs of working class people, Pistono points out that “it is harder to automate a housemaid than it is to replace a radiologist.” Again, though this book is now six years old, that statement is still true.

More interesting to me is the discussion of employment. With charts and statistics, Pistono points out the problem of the concentration of wealth at the top, the tendency of newer companies to have fewer and fewer employees, and the overall drop in employment when you take into consideration those adults of working age who are not actively seeking employment. The chapters on economics and work are well worth reading, and the book promises a new way of seeing these issues when it says, “It is time for a paradigm shift, one that will radically revolutionise our social system.” Unfortunately for me, I focused on this sentence and not the next few, which predict what turns out to be my big problem with the book. Pistono goes on to say, “In this universe, change is the only constant. Learn to love it, embrace it, and you will succeed. Fail to predict it, resist it, and you will be swept away by the torrent of change that is about to crush our civilization as we now [sic] it.” (I did point out that the book is self-published, and unfortunately it has several editing errors, which is common in self-published books.)

The middle chapters, on work and happiness, are perhaps the most interesting. Facts about the lack of socio-economical mobility (the poor will stay poor, the rich stay rich), criticism of a “strong work ethic” as a universal moral good, and the fatal flaws of consumerism (the “growth economy”), are interesting points here. Particularly fascinating is a discussion of those people who work in the finance industry: at least one study has shown that among “wealth advisors,” the outcomes of their investments are essentially based on luck, not skill. A person could roll dice and be equally likely to make a good or bad financial call, and the huge bonuses to the “successful” are merely rewarding the lucky. And in a discussion of business executives who make obscene amounts of money, studies showed those executives have much in common with criminal psychopaths: “great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people, egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, and a readiness to exploit others” as well as “lack of empathy and conscience.” While these conclusions seem like common knowledge, it’s instructive to see that some studies back them up. 

Going along, we get some really great stuff about work, money, and happiness. The book quotes Robert F. Kennedy from a March 18, 1968 speech, in which Kennedy points out that the GNP measures “everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Economic growth alone does not mean happier people—for that we need government regulation of profit, so that regular people have access to things like education and healthcare. Among other inspiring things, the book says: “Becoming aware truly of this scam [marketing and the myth of consumption=happiness] can helps us escape the trap, and shift the direction of our lives, towards a more positive, genuine, and real state of well being—one that is based on empathy, collaboration, the thrill of discovery, and the drive to do something meaningful.”

Great! This quote is inspiring and hopeful, even radical. But—then the book gets to its actual “solutions.” The “how to survive and be happy” part. And in this final third, it is profoundly disappointing.

What I expected: we need governments to step in and mandate certain things, such as a shorter work week; universal healthcare; universal basic income; fair taxes to help redistribute wealth; better education; free college education; better public transportation.

What I got: you should need/spend less money; become your own boss and work 21 hours per week (oddly specific number); educate yourself by watching free lectures on the internet; grow your own food; eat less meat; use less energy; get rid of your car; practice mindfulness/gratitude; exercise.

The problem with these suggestions are not that they’re bad. They’re fine suggestions, and go along with many generally accepted ways to be happier. The problem with the way they’re presented is that ALL the responsibility for an individual’s happiness becomes the individual’s. Despite the detailed ways in which we now know the economic, technological, and social systems are stacked against us, we’re supposed to just accept this and find ways to be happy anyway.

Specifically, the author suggests that if you make $40,000 but live on $30,000, you’ll feel rich because you’ll have extra money. However, he also says earlier in the book that money is associated with happiness, at least up to $75,000; over that, and happiness does not go up with wealth. Common sense dictates that this number is not random; it’s a number associated with enough money that, if you get sick or break your leg, you’ll have decent enough health insurance that you won’t go bankrupt with the cost. It’s a number associated with a place to live that feels safe, has some beauty, and has access to green space. For sure the person with this salary is not working a minimum wage job, probably has a budget for work clothes, and has all kinds of other advantages that are associated with quality of life.

As for being your own boss and thereby being able to work less—the “gig economy” is very big right now, with many people cobbling together part-time jobs, working as “consultants,” or starting businesses on top of their full-time jobs. But this is associated with working morehours, not less, in part because when you give up a traditional job (or can’t get one), you are giving up benefits (health insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacation).

And as a former college professor and current independent educator, it’s dangerous to get me started on the advice to “watch free online lectures to learn.” People learn in all kinds of ways, and being lectured to is just one small part. Class discussion and teacher feedback are other essential components. In addition, the author suggests that watching free online videos is how everyone who loses a job should retool themselves, so they’re able to get jobs at places like Google. This reinforces the idea that education is merely a job-finding tool, completely discounting the value of the humanities and the arts, not to mention the whole range of science and engineering.

But I’ve already gone on too long. Suffice it to say that the book is an interesting and fairly quick read, but I found the “solutions” part to be infuriating. Of course I believe in finding meaning in life besides consumerism. Of course I believe in mindfulness—I’ve written two books on it! I can’t say anything against growing your own food, getting rid of a car (at least in areas where there’s sufficient public transportation), or getting exercise. But the naiveté of these suggestions when taken apart from the systems oppressing everyone but the ultra-rich is staggering.

Maybe I’m just prone to fury because I live in America during the age of Trump. The policies enacted by this administration have me heartbroken or enraged or both on a daily basis. It is difficult to feel hope while in the midst of this absolute mess, and I was looking for some hope.

Don’t worry. I’ll keep looking.

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The Worlds We Live In

I am living on two levels these days. Or, I should say, these days more than I ever used to. On one level, I’m sitting on the couch, typing on my computer, or looking out the window at birds, the air conditioning humming. Maybe I’ve got a cup of tea to drink. Maybe I’m thinking about my elderly dog and elderly cat, and how they’ll do while I’m in England for 3 weeks visiting my husband’s family. Maybe I’m thinking about what we’ll have for dinner, or the book I read recently. On this level, I inhabit my daily life.

On another level, I worry about whether my husband and I should be fleeing America. I am wondering if the misogynist world of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a popular tv show now but was a dystopian book I taught in the 1990s, is actually coming. On this level, I become enraged when I read the news, my own government separating innocent children from their families, condoning police violence, actively seeking to disenfranchise voters, spurning both the rule of law and the Constitution. I genuinely worry that the U.S. is going to cease to become a democracy, that money will go continually into the hands of the ultra-rich, that more and more poor people will simply die on the street. I feel sick to my stomach, and helpless, and angry, and afraid.

I am accustomed to living in multiple worlds: I am a reader and a writer. The inner and the outer lives have always taken different paths, intersecting and then going off on their own loops and curves. But this feels different. The political fears underlie both inner and outer worlds. No novel or television show is ever a complete escape, though it can be a temporary relief. And when I bring myself back to the concrete world of daily life, the couch seems vaguely transparent, unreal, with the images of human and environmental pain and loss magnified by this political present superimposed.

As someone who meditates and promotes meditation, I know one solution is to try to truly ground myself in the here-and-now. To meditate more, and to practice mindfulness, to try to quiet the regrets about the past and fears about the future. To recognize that we live in this moment, not the past or the future, and that we have little control over the future and none over the past.

I think one of my problems with embracing this good advice is that I know, in the present moment, terrible things are happening in this very country where I live. The noise that distracts me from a central, calm self that is greater than my own private worries has swelled with the voices of people and animals hurt because of specific policies and actions taking place in my own country. These horrors are not happening far away in either place or time. They are happening now.

Meditation, then, begins to feel more selfish than selfless. I can sometimes mute my own personal worries, but the larger chorus goes on. I don’t know how to mute that chorus. I don’t know if I should.

And yet, and yet. What good does it do the world for me to descend into depression and fear? Even if it does the world no good for me to stay afloat, it surely cannot do harm. My vote, so I want to believe, matters.

I am nostalgic for the time when my worries and sorrows felt more personal. I am nostalgic, as so much of America is, for leaders who seemed, at least, ruled by logic and law, if not always the greater good. Whatever I do, I alone cannot control this political fear in which I live. So I will do the one thing I can control: meditate, so as to give myself momentary relief. And encourage others to give themselves relief as well, in the ways that seem best to them.

Endure. Be kind. Resist. Vote.

 

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Will Making Art Make You Suicidal?

Are artistic people prone to suicide and depression? Does being a writer cause despair? Is there anything we can do about it? Listen as two award-winning writers and writing professors discuss the myths and realities of artists, depression, and suicide and brainstorm ways to cope, stave off depression, and help you hang onto your seat at the table as long as possible–and enjoy it. Listen to our discussion here.

The view ascending the Sunshine Skyway.

The infamous Sunshine Skyway Bridge is so steep and high that it creates the optical illusion that you’re on an infinite highway up to the sky. If you’re brave enough to glance over the sides, you may see the remnants of the original bridge. In one of the worst bridge disasters in US history, during a blinding storm, a freighter crashed into the bridge and wiped it out. Thirty-five people couldn’t see far enough ahead to notice that the bridge was gone and just kept driving, right into thin air.

The new, hauntingly beautiful 430-foot-high bridge is a major suicide attraction. There’s even a website chronicling them. As beautiful as the bridge is, jumpers hit the water like concrete and drown in mangled agony. It’s not pretty, and somebody has to fish you out. Don’t do that to them.

Someone took this photo a few minutes before I drove by. 6/15/2018

Just after dawn on the morning of Friday, June 15, 2018, as I drove over the bridge, cars were breaking hard at the apex. We slowly passed three police cars and one passenger vehicle, a small blue car. Officers had exited their vehicles to bend at the waist and peer over the rail. As I crawled by, I hoped to see a driver in that small blue Honda.

I’ve never seen a car look so empty.

The Sunshine Skyway suicide website confirmed that someone had jumped right before I passed–sensors on the bridge dispatch police officers the instant a vehicle stops on the bridge. A body had been recovered, but not yet identified. I’ve been shaken ever since. At one of my lowest, darkest times, the Sunshine Skyway had called to me.

Even if you don’t know the victim, suicide has a dreadful reverberation. We all felt Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams. After learning of a suicide, writers like me and many of my friends will recall Hunter S. Thompson, Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and wonder if it’s a curse, or a destiny.

Does making art make you want to kill yourself? Or are depressed people drawn to creative pursuits? What’s up with the whole tortured artist thing? Experts like Dr. Michael Clarke of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine say creativity is correlated to depression. In an article about comedians and suicide, he claims that “creativity and mental illness often go hand in hand.” So does intelligence.

An article in Scientific American will trot it out for you. The article notes that the relationship between intelligence and mental illness is correlational, not causal. Just because they’re found together doesn’t mean one causes the other.

Poet Katie Riegel, who wrote powerfully and gorgeously about depression in her influential post, “Depression is a Trip,” sat down to talk with me in the wake of the Bourdain and Spade suicides. There aren’t easy answers or remedies. Suicide rates in the US are climbing, especially among women, particularly in our age range of 45-64. Katie and I do our best to identify possible causes and effects of suicide in creative people, in hope of saving ourselves and our fellow artists.

Listen to our discussion on SoundCloud here, and we’d love to hear your thoughts and stories below or on our Facebook page.

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Six Reasons to do NaPoWriMo

April is National Poetry Month, and many poets take on the challenge of writing a poem every day. It’s similar to NaNoWriMo (November), but fewer words. We’re a third of the way through, but the truth is, you don’t need to limit your writing challenges to a single month. Here are some reasons to do a 30-day poetry writing challenge.

 

  1. You’re unlikely to generate 30 really good poems right off the bat—but you’re going to generate more good poems than if you don’t take on the challenge. For some of us, we get 30 drafts that can later be turned into decent poems. Others end up sifting through and throwing out the drafts that don’t offer enough possibility. Either way, you’ve got new material to work with.

 

  1. Writing a poem every day is like a workout for your poetic muscles. You’ll notice the world differently, looking for those lines or images that trigger a poem. You’ll listen to language more intently, hearing the music and the nuances of conversation. Ultimately, the poems will come more naturally. It’s the reason athletes and musicians do drills and scales; the practice makes you better.

 

  1. You’ll learn not to wait for inspiration. This is one of the best lessons a writer can learn. Of course inspiration can be part of the process for any artist, but haven’t you ever been inspired to write a poem just when you don’t have time to do so? Or had time, but couldn’t think of anything to say? Whether you write at the same time every day or won’t let yourself go to bed before writing your poem for the day, you’re working to break your dependence on the fickle muse.

 

  1. It’s an antidote to writer’s block. Thinking of each day as an assignment takes the pressure off having to write the “best” poem. You wrote a poem; that’s all that was required. If it wasn’t “good,” then no worries. You wrote something. William Stafford famously said that the trick to beating writer’s block is to lower your standards. Once you have something down on the page, you have something to work with; revision then becomes your friend.

 

  1. Writing a poem a day for 30 days is fun. It’s fun in part because other people are doing it, and there are numerous informal and more formal groups you can join and websites you can follow. You’ve also got some accountability, whether from your friends who are doing it or from yourself. Many of us do better at a voluntary task when others are expecting it and/or cheering us on.

 

  1. You may surprise yourself with what comes out. Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Maybe you’re tired of your “usual” style or topics. Maybe you’re feel generally bored with your own poems, or you’ve finished a project and are lost in terms of going forward. A change in your usual process can jumpstart a new project. The last time I did NaPoWriMo, I ended up with a chapbook that won an award and got published.

 

So whether you start now and go for 10 days into May, or choose another 30 day period, get to writing those poems!

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On Mattering

God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.

–Quincy Jones

I think a lot about mattering. Do I matter, how can I help other people know that they matter, what matters to me in my life. Our culture makes it easy to measure ourselves this way: how many likes did I get on social media? How successful am I in my career? How much money do I make? I used to get my “I matter” fix from teaching, which I did for over 20 years until I left my job for love (an oversimplification, but also true). Now I get it from the poems I publish, as well as social media. But I don’t have the career or the money anymore, and I don’t have the high of telling students that their thoughts and talent and writing matters. I have realized that I depended on that “fix,” and I struggle to figure out how to cope now.

Buddhism has an answer, which is helpful for me and might be for you. This philosophy suggests that our desire to “matter,” to be someone important, is all ego—and that ego contributes to our suffering as human beings. Certainly that makes sense: when I think about the upcoming writer’s conference I’ll be attending, the big one in America that’s attended by something like 12,000 writers, I cringe when I measure myself against the other writers there. When I think that I’m “nobody” compared to other writers with bigger reputations and more prestigious publications, I find myself dreading the conference. But when I ease my grasp on the ego, stop privileging the idea of “mattering,” I find myself looking forward to seeing my friends and meeting new writers.

Of course it’s not as simple as just “letting go” of ego. And, in fact, it can be hard to recognize why we should, when so much in our culture tells us that’s the only way to measure value. However, Buddhism goes on to point out why ego can contribute to our suffering. First, it denies the interconnectedness of all beings; ego relies on separation between people. Science recognizes interconnectedness through quantum mechanics (which I admit I don’t really understand) as well as the facts of the building blocks of the universe being the same. It’s often said, but humans are made of the same stuff as the stars. 

Second, ego and the building of a self that “matters” contributes to the false idea that we are not supposed to change. If we create a self that is defined only by certain things—being famous or wealthy, for example—then we can become trapped by that vision of the self. And yet we know from observation that everything changes. To recognize and embrace change is to minimize suffering; to resist it leaves you hurting when change inevitably comes. For me, this is an important lesson as I make the transition away from teaching. My life is going to change, and though I cannot help but grieve some things about how it used to be, I can let go of some of my pain by accepting the change. Whatever’s next for me—independent poetry workshops, online teaching, much more time for writing—is a natural part of the way things are and should be.

Third, allowing ego to drive us can lead to the trap of never feeling good enough. If we must be more famous, more successful, in order to matter, then we can never recognize our own basic goodness. If you’ve ever really gotten to know someone you perceive to be more successful in your field than you are, then you’ve seen that they do not consider themselves successful. They, too, worry about how much they’ve published, how much money they make, whether they matter. You may recognize that other person’s inherent goodness, how they are just fine as they are, right now. But they may not. The endlessness of the struggle for success—if you buy into it—can rob you of the knowledge that you are perfect, just as you are right now.

All of which brings me to the Quincy Jones quote I used as an epigraph. If you’re an artist of any kind—writer, musician, dancer, visual artist, etc.—it might be good to bear in mind that fixation on money or success can drive away innovation and inspiration. That art comes from a different part of the self, not the ego but someplace deeper and more mysterious. So if we shift what “matters” from us to the work itself, we might not only mitigate our suffering, but get closer to whatever grand mystery we each believe in.

 

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4 Shows to Watch When You’re Depressed

First I thought of the title of this post, because when I’m depressed, I find myself binge-watching shows on streaming tv. Then I listed the shows I wanted to talk about, and realized immediately that they have one thing in common: death. I know, I know—that’s a grim and dangerous topic to take on when you’re also talking about depression. But it seems to me just as dangerous, if not more so, NOT to take on that topic. Whether or not your depression has you actively thinking of suicide—and please, if it does, TELL SOMEONE—death and life and what it’s all for are tumbling around in the minds of many depressed people. In fact most people consider questions relating to death and life and what it’s all for. Art itself—and whether done well or poorly, television and movies are art too—is precisely for the consideration of these questions. For me, watching these shows makes me feel less alone, because I know someone else thought about death and the afterlife. Whether we come to the same conclusions or not is irrelevant.

I also want to preface the list by saying this: please don’t beat yourself up for whatever you’re watching while you’re depressed. You have a disease. You don’t deserve the self-criticism. People who say, “Just get out and ________” don’t understand. Even if they’ve also suffered from depression and pulled out of it through exercise or socializing or medication or therapy—all good things!—it doesn’t mean the exact same approach will work for you, or work for you all the time. Some days are just going to be crappy, and you’re going to find yourself on the couch.

Also: I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I’m so very sorry. And I’m right there with you.  

So, the shows:

  1. Dead Like Me. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0348913/) A girl who’s fairly uninvested in life gets hit by a flying toilet seat and finds she’s been assigned to be a reaper. She brings her somewhat detached, sardonic, sarcastic approach to interacting with her fellow reapers and is always pushing against the rules. It’s funny, snarky, weird, and doesn’t glorify the afterlife—at least not this particular corner of it. Also: Mandy Patinkin is glorious as the brusque, “the afterlife sucks but do it anyway” boss. Only 2 seasons, unfortunately, and about 14 years old, but worth it.

 

  1. Glitch. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4192782/?ref_=nv_sr_1) People come back to life and climb out of their graves in a small town in Australia. They’re not zombies, it takes them time to remember things about their lives and themselves, but they’re definitely alive. Veers between science and supernatural. Not a comedy, and in fact some of the relationship stuff veers towards the soap opera at times—but it’s hard to stop watching, and the Australian accents and mostly outdoor sets keep the soap opera feel to a minimum. Two seasons so far, and I’m still watching the 2nd season, but it’s addictive in part because it feels like it’s building towards some revelations about the rules of life and death.

 

  1. The Good Place. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4955642/?ref_=nv_sr_1) Definitely a comedy, and yes, there are laugh out loud moments. But it’s insidious in how it gets you thinking, too, about the afterlife and people’s expectations and hopes, as well as our behavior while alive. After I binge-watched the first season on Netflix, I discovered—too late—that there’s a second season in progress. It was such a pleasure to watch in progression that I’m going to wait until the whole second season is available and not try to jump in partway. If you’ve seen the first season or read about it, don’t spoil it for new viewers! Ted Danson is actually hilarious and it doesn’t hurt that the actor has always reminded me of my brother.

  1. Wristcutters: A Love Story. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477139/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm) Ok, so this one takes the issue of suicide head on. Sometimes that bluntness is what you need when you’re depressed and obsessing over life and death. The weird thing is: the quirkiness of the movie, its writing and comedic cameos, and its overall arc are really enjoyable. Obviously it’s not a “you should do it” take on suicide, but it’s not sappy or cliché in presentation either. You’ll surprise yourself by becoming fond of the soundtrack. The whole movie is strange, for sure—but then, the afterlife should be strange.

 

Finally—please tell me in the comments what you watch when you’re depressed, and why.

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An Ordinary Life

To be happy, I need to hold on to the thought that I am ordinary.

It sounds wrong, I know, when everything tells us to be extraordinary, when everything we aspire to do seems so hard only extraordinary people could do it.

But a great deal of my suffering comes from the thought that I have made it this far in my life without doing anything of particular note, especially when compared to others. I know “comparison is the thief of joy,” and when I am not comparing myself to people I know, I’m comparing myself to people I read about or, worst, the person I thought I would be when I was younger. I find it difficult to stop comparing, stop blaming myself for my failure to become extraordinary. I am neither famous nor wealthy, not someone to whom others come for wisdom, not a best-selling author, not not not.

I am ordinary. But—and here’s the important part—that is all right. 

I am not sure how to explain it. Accepting my ordinariness keeps me from beating myself with the weapons of “not good enough” and “try harder” and “be different from what you are” that society provides on a daily basis. Accepting my ordinariness allows for failure without the feeling that failure is a betrayal of who I am.

All this may sound arrogant, and for this I apologize. I thought I was lucky: my family and teachers told me constantly how smart I was. They said I could do anything, be anything. There was a lot of optimism in those days, the 1970s and even the 1980s, long before folks started to realize that the gap between the rich and the rest of us was widening exponentially. As I said, I was lucky—my family loved me and wanted me to succeed.

New studies show that wording makes a difference. It’s not so useful to tell someone that they are very intelligent; it’s far more helpful to say that with hard work and determination, they can learn anything. Because the world we live in now requires versatility, with many people having several careers. Someone who is innately intelligent may not feel equipped to make the necessary changes. I know I don’t. I feel left behind by a job market that’s moving as fast as a flash flood, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

My issues have to do with career. But I am lucky again—so very lucky—that I don’t have to figure it all out yet, or perhaps ever. Because of a non-judging husband with a good job, I do not have that pressure.

Yet that luck made me feel even more pressure to be extraordinary, to do something with my time that would change the world.

Which brings me back to my 2018 mantra: I am ordinary. And if I am ordinary, I am allowed to stumble. To write things that are banal, or cliché, or just stupid—as well as, if I’m lucky, some things that have some merit, that might be good, might help someone, even one reader. If I am ordinary, I am allowed to be introverted, to loathe selling things, to sleep more hours per day than most people, to be chubby, to post numerous photos of my pets on social media. If I am ordinary, I am allowed to wish I lived again in a time before computers and cell phones, and also to check my email obsessively, several times a day.

This freedom makes me think of Walt Whitman, and this wonderful quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” So much of Whitman gives us permission to be our own strange, wonderful, unexpected selves. He considers it sacred, the self. I suppose that’s what I’m working towards, when I say I consider myself ordinary. Not the definition of ordinary that makes it, by default, a bad thing. But a definition that frees me from a cage created by my younger self and by society, the cage of being extraordinary by standards I cannot possibly reach, and may not even truly value.

2018, I am ready to be ordinary. To walk my dog, vacuum the house, talk to my sister on the phone, pop to the grocery store for bagels. Also to read, to dream, to write. To live an ordinary life, with generosity, gratitude, and hope.

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Woman’s Meditation on Taking Down the Christmas Tree

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The boxes, stacked in the garage, seem new to me, plastic with clip-lock lids, but we’ve had them for years. They’re dusty and drizzled by Floridian garage-fawna. They don’t look like the cardboard boxes I used to carry to the attic up north and store on parched pink clouds of insulation. They’re different, until I fill them again and see what’s inside.

P1060178One box holds all the ornaments I once gave to my daughter, a new horse for each new year. They’re  now holding their breath in their static prance, waiting for her children, who may, or may never, arrive. I blink and for split second, see through my daughter’s future eyes. I see her hands reach for the tissue and wrap the papier-mâché horse, and, in that second, I am she, remembering me.

In another box go the holiday cookie tins, aprons, dish towels, and platters my aunt mailed to me, my aunt whose home we used to visit on Christmas day when I was a girl, whose home isn’t the home it was when it wasn’t what it once was, back then, before. Back then I once reached high to set her table. The fork goes here. The dessert spoon there. I polished her silver and finally got to sit with the grown-ups, photos of whom are now in plastic boxes, with clip-lock lids, forgotten, snowed under a blizzard of digital images.

P1060175The tree rains down needles of piney Christmases past. I lift off my new bird ornaments, years old now, cradle them, wrap them in tissue, tuck them into the box. Where dangled horses, now hang the birds my mother gave me. Birds because my family used to keep birds–racing pigeons four generations back, parakeets two generations back, parrots one, finches mine. Because bird-watching is my family heritage. Because my mother loves them. Because the tree was once alive with living birds. Because precious, fragile, fleeting, flown.

P1060176I reach around the tree, a stiff and respectful embrace, step back, reach again, the dance of the tree and me. I’m unwinding the lights. I remember winding them weeks before. I remember winding and unwinding a year before. And so on, alone. I remember the shortest days of the year, the fear and the fight against the dark, candlelight masses, candles in trees, bonfires, pyres, the controlled burn that is life.

Ever since my first marriage, I’ve made the holiday alone–the tree, the garland, the food, the presents–driven by a force I don’t understand. Create and destroy. I am Santa, I am keeper and transformer of tradition, I am Kali of time and change, I am of the Mōdraniht, the Night-mothers, commander of the credit card and the tape gun. When you’re not looking, I bring the cornucopia; when you’re not looking, I take it away. I am daughter of the goddess of the Yule.

P1050859Year after year, on one of the longest nights of the year, I sat alone but for the dogs that are gone. Christmas Eves, I would tuck my child into bed, wrap last presents, arrange them artfully below the tree, and leave crumbs on Santa’s plate. Today I crawl beneath the tree, suffering a hundred needle-pricks, and unscrew the stand, releasing the tree and remembering the faces bright with photo flashes reflected off torn wrapping paper. The dopamine-fix of acquisition. The dopamine-fix of giving. I remember my little girl happy to see a new rocking horse, my grown girl happy to see a new book. I watched the faces happy to see each other but everywhere seeing, remembering, the missing.

And me, watching the three young women–my daughter, his daughter, his son’s lover–and wondering who will be the first to give Santa new life.

P1060180My husband’s adult children opened gifts on which was written, “From Dad and Lisa.” Awkward, murky, but pleased, they thanked only me. They understood, as I understood back then, before, when I aimed my thanks toward my mother, stepmother, aunt. Santa is a woman. But they don’t know how much it really costs her. Not yet.

I carry the boxes back into the garage and stack them. Hours have passed. This is silly. It’s trivial. It’s a lot of garbage. It’s a big expense. My fingers are sticky with pine sap. “Whoa, the room looks empty,” my husband says, kissing the top of my head.  “It’s a lot of work, eh? But you love Christmas. You made it special.” I get out the broom. He makes us tea. “Thanks for cleaning up after yourself,” he says over the edge of his cup, and ducks back into his office to get back to work making our living.

“Christmas Rush,” by Norman Rockwell

Am I cleaning up after myself? Is that what I’m doing?

Was all this Christmas just me?

If so, why, after his remark, am I livid?

We Santa-women take turns on the night watch, alone but not lonely, cleaning up, laying out, stringing up, taking down, thinking, “It’s not worth it,” knowing, “It’s all that matters,” dragging the tree and the last of its scent to the curb, breathing in, “We’re alive together,” breathing out, “Good-bye.”

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The Dog Park

Savvy begins to bark before I even have my tennis shoes all the way on. She’s excited! We’re going to the dog park! Hurry up! Time for a walk! It drives my husband crazy, but usually I laugh at her. She barks when I call her to get her harness on, asking her to lift first one front leg and then the other so I can fasten it. She barks when I check to see if I have clean-up bags, and when I fasten her leash, and when I open the front door.

Savvy mid-bark. (No, that’s not her frisbee.)

Then she stands on the small front porch, the wind lifting her ears, and just waits for a moment. She’s taking in the day, readying herself. It’s a rare moment of calm.

*

Savvy is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a long royal name for a 20-pound dog who’s cuter than she is smart. She’s a lapdog with long, fine fur that collects every dead leaf, weed seed, and cocklebur within a mile.

I inherited her from my mother. My mother had three dogs when she died, and my sister took two of them—the Cocker Spaniel and the Bichon Frise, both senior dogs. I took Savvy, who was three. My sister and I both had dogs of our own, but we managed, for years, with multi-dog households. Now I just have Savvy, over thirteen years old but still happy.

*

Before we even get into the dog park, Savvy has to smell all the places the other dogs marked on their way in. One of my friends joked that it’s like dog social media, with each new lift of the leg being a “like” on some busy post (often literal) filled with information only the dogs can read.

My sister’s Great Pyrenees, in his role as King of the Curly-Tailed Dogs at the dog park.

Inside the gates and let off her leash, she continues checking old news, even when other dogs are right in front of her. Meanwhile I gauge the other dogs for the likelihood of them coming over to be patted. Most adult dogs are too busy with their own smell duties, or investigating other dogs, or watching the ball in their owner’s hand. But young ones—oh, the puppies will come to you in all their goofy clumsiness, wagging their tails and doling out kisses. That’s the biggest payoff at the dog park, the one I tell my sister about on the phone. “A Golden Retriever puppy?” she’ll say. “Did you get a picture?”

*

My husband—my 2nd husband, who I’ve known for 4 years—has a cat. When we first got married, I had two dogs and he had two cats. They managed together surprisingly well, my oldest dog too old to chase, and his oldest cat too old to run. Now Savvy and the remaining cat are the only two pets, and though they are both spoiled enough to want my undivided attention, they mostly like each other. My husband would say that the cat tolerates the dog, but I have seen them lying next to each other, seemingly comfortable in proximity.

*

If you’re not a pet person, you might ask, “Why does all this matter? Details about dogs and cats—their breeds, their ages, who you had when, their personalities, how you got them. Who cares?”

Mud puddles are fun.

If you’re a pet person, no reason is necessary. Any opportunity to talk about pets, to think about pets, is something to grasp onto. You know what pets give you: the perfect example of mindfulness, of living in the moment. The unconditional, unfettered love. The daily teachings in how to be both hopeful and grateful.

But here’s the real reason all these details matter: when you have pets, your life is measured by them. Savvy belonged to my mother. Savvy loves everyone, and expects everyone to love her, but she prefers her One Special Person. My mother was Savvy’s person, and now I am. In this way, among others, I have become my mother. In this way, my mother’s love is still with me, daily, physically, on my lap and in muddy paw prints on my clothes.

But our losses and griefs are also measured by our pets. I had Savvy when I was still married to my first husband, someone who is, luckily, still my good friend, but also still a loss. My current husband had this cat when he was still married to his first wife. These shorter, furry lives overlap our other milestones. They’re woven through the other connections and disconnections, the other timelines marked by apartments or schools or jobs or presidents.

*

I recite a litany of the dogs in my life, telling my husband about them, in order from the first one I remember: Sergeant, Hawk, Amber, Briar, Andrew, Bonny, Mick, Ginger, Charlie, Savvy. And that doesn’t count the dogs owned by my family members, dogs I also loved. They come up in conversation—old friends who knew my old self. Sometimes I dream one is still alive, but only I can see him. Sometimes I dream they are all out in the back yard, waiting for me to come outside.

*

My husband considered himself a cat person, his last dog a German Shepherd that his family had when he was a kid. His mother was a veterinarian, so they had dogs and cats and even the occasional bird—rook or hawk—in and around their house. She tucked the needy puppies into bed with his brother; the sick kittens in with him. So when I showed up with my two spaniels, he thought he would be nice but distant; as he cleans the litter box, so I would do everything dog-related.

Savvy with my husband’s 17-year-old cat; rest time is important, too.

But he finds himself holding spaniel ears while Savvy licks a plate on which cooked lamb was placed, because otherwise her ears would drag in the juice. When there’s a thunderstorm, Savvy makes her way across the bed to his pillow, lying across the top of his head. And at the dog park, when she insists on getting in the muddy, stinky pond—channeling her inner Golden Retriever, I always say—he remarks on her cheekiness, saying she’s a different dog from the overly sensitive, fearful little thing he remembers. He doesn’t know that it’s he who has changed, seeing her differently as he becomes fond of her.

Sometimes we talk about what sort of pets to get in the future, after these two are gone. It used to be him persuading me of the virtues of cats, and me insisting we needed one consistent pet in the house, one that wanted attention when I wanted to give it. But now he picks out his favorites of the dogs we meet. One day it’s a huge gentle Rottweiler, holding back his strength as he play-wrestles with another dog; another it’s a bouncy mutt who would need multiple daily trips to the dog park to release her energy. It’s the walks that have convinced him, the need to exercise the Funny Little Red Dog meaning we have no excuse to stay on our butts in front of the tv.

*

I know what year it is. I know that I am living in an America perilously close to the kind of authoritarianism that has caused oppression and death in other countries within the modern era. I feel that fear and dread and anger—equality no longer even the stated goal of those in charge, civil rights curtailed, bigots and bullies emboldened, climate change hanging over us all like a bowling ball dangling from fishing line.

It is precisely because of this that I must go to the dog park, explaining to every person I meet that Savvy barks because she’s happy. She barks a lot in the dog park, especially when she’s about to meet another dog. I’m a little embarrassed about her barking, when almost none of the other dogs bark, but going to the dog park is worth it. She’s so happy! Everything’s exciting! She has to tell everyone about it! And I have the power to make her this happy, just by bringing her here!

And on every dog’s face there, in their movements as they form loose playgroups and swirl around owners with tennis balls or sticks thrown into the ponds, is joy. We humans cannot help but be infected. So much doggy joy! I cannot live without it.

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Counting on One Hand

I always used to pride myself on being the kind of person who does not attract trouble. My three brothers were in hot water routinely for things I got away with, clean as a whistle. I never got too much negative attention for anything, and being an average white female, that innocuousness grows with age. An old white lady becomes more and more invisible, and that’s not a totally bad thing.

But recently, every time I see a woman’s face on TV forcing herself to go public about the most uncomfortable and sometimes most traumatic times of her life, I am grateful to her for reliving those worst moments in our deeply sexist culture, telling her truth for the common good. To remind me of a few times in my own life—long held in a kind of secret shame—were trouble and troubling. To people who think this whole sexual misconduct thing is overblown. Let me assure you, it is NOT.

I can count my events involving sexual misconduct by men on one hand. Aren’t I lucky? Of course, this does not count the catcalls, the uninvited groping at college parties, the misogynistic jokes among male co-workers, the terror of walking in front of a group of men on the street and hearing them judge you as if you were a farm animal at the state fair. Or the fear every woman experiences while walking to her car alone at night, anywhere.

No, my big bad moments are few, only four, but they are indelible in my memory and in my body. They were life-changing moments, the terrible kind. The kind that girls and women of my generation were often shamed, ridiculed, and even threatened out of telling.

ONE. Dateline: Gainesville, Florida, late 1960s. My family took part in many tailgate parties before football games as my dad was a Gator through and through. I loved these events, until one Saturday as I trekked with the rest of the mob from the grassy parking area to the stadium, a man behind me put his hand up my skirt and between my legs. I froze but somehow kept walking. At 14, I never imagined anything like this happening. Broad daylight, tightly packed crowd, my mother two steps ahead of me. I felt his breath on my neck. He eventually stopped when I slightly turned my head to see his hat down as he turned away. A full-grown adult man. I trembled through the entire game and never told anyone. Hadn’t I been told it was up to me to keep boys’ hands off my body? And to respect the authority of adults? In my confusion and shame, it was impossible to speak for hours. And I made up my mind to try to forget. I did not understand the feelings that would follow me for years after this shocking, personal, and sick intrusion. Who would do that? Why? This was my first touch by a male on a private area, and it made me sick every time I thought about it. It still does.

TWO: Under duress from the first national bank of my parents, I found a job as a sophomore in college that fit my schedule. It involved cold calling potential insurance buyers in an office full of women for 20 hours a week. The boss, a middle-aged guy named Dick (not kidding), sat in his office nearby with a door that closed. Starting the very first day, Dick began to call me into his office frequently. The reasons were various and stupid. Finally he just started asking me about myself, my life. I hemmed and hawed as I stood in front of his desk. The next day he called me in and closed the door. He asked a question that I guess any boss needs to know about an employee. He tilted his head to one side and said, “You don’t really have to wear a bra, do you?” I turned and walked out the door and back to my desk, my face burning with confusion and shame, the other women staring, as if they knew.

That night I mustered the nerve to call my parents while they were in the middle of dinner and told my mom that my boss was making personal comments about me and kept calling me in to talk to him about nothing. I told her about the bra question. She said just stay away from him and as long as there are other people around, you’ll be OK. But if he touches you, run. Two minutes later my dad called back and said “Don’t ever go back there. I’ll give you some dough until you find a better job.” I never went back, never even called, but the creepiness stayed with me from that day to this.

THREE and FOUR happened on the same day. The first a fluke of timing and bad luck, the second a serious and devastating violation that I realized later was a real crime. I was a single mom of 28 with my first master’s degree in hand, and had landed a great job at Tupperware World Headquarters in advertising and PR. One of my first fancy business trips was to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I was to give a presentation to a gathering of factory managers on how the product they make is sold. When I arrived by taxi from the airport at the event hotel late morning, I realized I didn’t have any stockings with me—a must for the 80s business suit. We had a dinner meeting that night to coordinate all the events the next day, and I really wanted to make a good professional impression. I asked the desk clerk directions to a convenience store within walking distance. On my way back, a nightmarish thing happened. A big truck containing three large men pulled up next to me, at high noon on A1A. They cruised as close to me as they could get, saying unspeakable things. But I kept my eyes forward and ignored their catcalls and orders to get in the truck. My lack of eye contact enraged them. They turned the truck in front of me to stop my progress, now angry and calling me even more unspeakable things. I ducked around the back of the truck and ran across the street, hoping a cop would come by and stop them. My heart pumped at convulsive speed, and they seemed to enjoy the look of terror on my face. They were laughing and yelling now. I got to the hotel a few steps ahead of them—two had jumped out and were chasing me—and ran gasping through the glass doors of the lobby, where they did not follow. I breathlessly asked the clerk to call the police, that I had been pursued on the road by a truck full of creeps. He glanced up, looked out the window and mildly said “Where? I don’t see anything. What’s the license number?” I said never mind and ran to the elevator.

When I got to my room, I called the man I was dating back in Orlando and hysterically sobbed out the story. I could hear the helplessness and outrage in his voice as he tried to calm me. I tried to put the whole trauma aside, but every hour or so a wave of absolute horror would hit me as I wondered what might have happened if those monsters had caught me.

Joining me on the trip were other executives from the headquarters, mostly men, including Jack T., Tupperware’s vice-president in charge of human resources, which we used to call “personnel.” After the dinner meeting that night, Jack sat next to me at the hotel bar where we had gathered for drinks before turning in to rest up for the big day. I had one glass of wine and announced that I needed to get some rest, especially since it was my first time in company presentational mode. Jack said he would walk me to my room since he wanted to call it a night too. He was a soft-spoken, southern accented, paternal type who had offered encouraging tips during the meeting that night. After the mid-day adventure, I was actually touched by his old-fashioned gesture to see me safely to my room. There were kind men in this world after all, I reminded myself. Men who would provide safety from harassment on the street, who respect women because we are half the human race.

After we exited the elevator on my floor, he put his hand on my back to kind of steer me down the hall. I realized he had had quite a bit to drink and was slurring his words just slightly. When I got to my door, I was now nervous about a possible weirdness, but all mystery ended when I put my key in the lock and he leaned hard against my back, pushing his crotch against me. As the door opened I jumped inside and pushed the door back against him, but he shoved right past me. He pulled me onto the bed and laughed, like it was all a big joke.

“Mr. _______. You need to leave right now.” I tried to sound authoritative but I think I was just squawking. He got right on top of me and ripped off my cheap L’eggs pantyhose I had bought hours earlier. My skirt was no protection whatsoever. What happened next was rape, pure and simple. I was amazed at my lack of ability to stop it. I always thought I could, if it came to this. He left quickly afterward, me chalk-faced and shocked, my arms bruised where he held me down.

The next morning at my presentation he sat in the front row, grinning like an idiot. I was nauseated and shaky, but this time I did not call my boyfriend and cry. I think I was in a daze of shame and fear. How could those two terrible things happen on the same day? It was incredible, ridiculous, and something must be wrong with me.

As I got to know more people in the company, I found out that Jack had quite a reputation for coming on to female employees, especially when traveling, which was a big part of our jobs at Tupperware. I don’t know if any other women were actually assaulted, but nobody ever raised a formal complaint, because his was the department you would take your complaint to, and frankly, nobody believed women when a powerful man was involved. Oh, and bonus, he told racist jokes. Funny how sexist creepiness and racism often go hand in hand.

I needed this job. I had a career to build and a little boy to teach how to be a much better man than I saw around me a lot of the time. I told my friends about the sudden attack, but for years I told it differently. In my revised version, I won. I closed the door on his face and he never got in. “That bastard,” everyone said. “Thank God you prevailed!” But now I realize the power the truth holds, and the power that secrets can have over you if you don’t get the poison out. I have never told the true story until now, because I didn’t want anyone I love to live with this knowledge. Nobody wants to think about their mom getting raped. And I wanted to forget it myself. Good luck with that. I ended up leaving the company years earlier than I might have if not for him. I stayed clear of him much of the time, but he was always there, leering and lurking. I hated him. He’s dead now.

I tell this story finally because I am so f-ing sick of it. I cannot believe we have a president who brags about grabbing women’s genitals and I cannot believe the state of Alabama may well elect a known sexual predator. I don’t want harassment and abuse to happen to my daughter, my granddaughter, or all my beautiful, hopeful female students of the last 20 years. But guess what—it already has, to many of them. This problem is common as dirt, and we have to face it. Good men out there, we need you to help change this culture. I know many of you are soldiers of this cause already, but if you are a guy imagining this has nothing to do with you since you are not a predatory creep, listen up. We need you in our corner, on our side. We are your moms, sisters, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, friends. We need you to speak up for us, to get in the way of those predatory creeps and be a role model to other men that might be confused about what is not cool where aggression toward women in concerned. Help us.

 

 

 

 

 

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