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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujima

Habari gani, fam?

2020 has made me keenly aware of my place within my community, and how important my relationships are to me. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers and the collective frustration of millions of Americans bubbled over into street protests, it meant a lot that folks checked in on me because that was honestly the one time this year I came close to breaking. When others struggled I tried my best to be there for them however I could — and I had to think of new ways of supporting the people and causes I cared about. Being unable to be physically present with a lot of people made me realize how much I had been taking for granted. I’m walking into next year with gratitude for my support network at top of mind. 

That’s why this year, Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility, feels different. Even though we all went through some pretty heavy stuff, when I look back over 2020 I remember most the ways we became more sensitive to the pain of others and treated one another with more compassion. Maybe it was the fact that our common enemy was a virus, something that transcended borders and most other kinds of division, but most of the time it felt like I was interacting with people who knew we were in the same boat. 

As a culture, we’re far more aware of each others’ problems than we were before. As a cis black man, it was a process for me to learn what women, trans and non-binary folk, other people of color, and people with disabilities have to deal with in this country. There is so much suffering caused by the way our society decides who gets the privilege of being seen as a whole person and who doesn’t. Even though the harm it does takes many forms, the root cause of the problem is the same thing: the curious lack of empathy that allows us to feel a connection to others despite our differences. It can take something like a pandemic to get us to see past that, but it also makes it easier to fight the problem no matter what form it takes. The lack of empathy is the problem; how do we solve it?

Personally, I think we expand our criteria for who gets our empathy, and who we fight for when we see they’re being pushed to the fringes of the community. We can’t leave behind our trans brothers and sisters just because it’s harder for the dominant culture to accept them (or it’s harder for our community to accept them); we fight for them the same way we would fight for anyone else in our family. The problems of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities and mental health issues, American women, QUILTBAG Americans and others are our problems, too — lack of empathy isn’t confined to one specific group or a distinct difference. If we don’t clear it away, it corrodes our connection to other people until we have only the most narrow definitions of who’s within our group. 

I know the fights we’re already engaging in are exhausting. This year has aged me seven for everything that’s happened! And there are so many different fronts that need looking after; it can be easy to feel stretched really thin caring about everything all at once. Enacting this virtue certainly isn’t easy, and I think what it looks like for each of us will be unique to our situation. But, as this year has shown us, we’re all in this together — and we can’t lift ourselves up without lifting up everyone else within our community.

That might mean some difficult self-reflection, checking our own biases and blind spots. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about my less-advanced thoughts on trans people, and I’m glad I’ve gained a better understanding. I have to continually check myself for the deeply-ingrained biases I’ve absorbed about women, and that doesn’t feel great. It’s work to unlearn the bigotry we hold, and it’s almost never pleasant when we learn about it (it’s even worse when it’s pointed out by someone else). But we owe it to each other to do this work. We can’t demand empathy for ourselves and deny that same empathy to others who are different in ways we don’t readily understand. Again, their oppression is our oppression. We can’t be free of it until they are.

This requires introspection, a sense of perspective, and a heart willing to embrace that which it doesn’t always understand. It also requires a measure of trust in the humanity of others; even if it’s not readily visible, or expressed in ways we don’t appreciate, it’s there. We’ve spent a lot of time this year drawing lines in the sand about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and much of that has been long overdue. But let’s not forget our collective responsibility to nurture the best in ourselves and others. That work is valuable, too.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Kujichagulia

Habari gani, fam?

Today we focus on the principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. Any people that have struggled to throw off the legacy of slavery and institutional racism fundamentally struggle for the right to determine who they are themselves, instead of accepting the role the dominant culture pushes on them. As Black Americans, we deal with these false narratives all the time because we live in a country that has not been able to properly reckon with its own racism. We’re not human beings to many people; we’re an inscrutable other prone to behaviors that are impossible to understand. We’re not fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. We’re felons, welfare recipients, gang members, hoodrats. Our individuality is stripped from us every time one of us is pulled over because we “fit the description”, every time someone mispronounces our names, every time our accomplishments are overshadowed by our political reality.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The basic power to define ourselves is under assault every day for black Americans. The dominant culture wants to put us in a box that absolves them of facing history one way or another. Our own culture demands us to be the perfect defiance of that narrative, tells us that there’s only one way to forge our own path. Within these twin pressures bearing down on us, it’s vital to remember that we get to say who we are — no one else. The power of self-determination can only be used, though, if we bear the responsibility of behaving in accordance with what we’ve named ourselves. These labels often only have the power of the will behind it. 

There’s a diagnostic for this concept that I actually really like. In order to truly wield the power of self-determination, we must ask ourselves three questions.

Who am I?

We’re starting off with the most basic and difficult questions, right? In order to answer it honestly, we have to spend some time getting to know ourselves: not just the people we want to be, but the people we are right now, flaws and all. We have to have a sense of perspective about ourselves that might be humbling. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, of course, but no hero can be blind to the reality of their situation. 

This year I turned 40 years old. I am not who I thought I would be at this age; nowhere near as successful or driven, nowhere near as much wealth as I thought I’d have. I don’t have the experience or talent I wanted to have cultivated by now. I’m a lot more naive than I thought I’d be, a lot less perceptive, a man frozen by fear far more often than I’d like.

I also know that I am incredibly resilient, and I am persistent towards the goals that really matter to me; it might take me a while, but if I want to do something I’ll eventually figure out a way to get there. I’m kind, and earnest, and care a great deal about doing the right thing well. I’m smart — in my way — and I have a natural aptitude for numbers, details that are easy to overlook, and maybe even social dynamics. I’m devoted to my loves, my friends, my chosen family. 

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned to be comfortable within my own skin, with its limitations and destructive loops and vast, unrealized potential. I know that the worst vices within myself are harder to fight because of where and when I was born, and what my culture has decided me to be. I have decided to accept this burden with as much equanimity as I can muster, hoping that the way I live my life can be a refutation of this grave social injustice. I am as decent a human being as I can be, and I am always striving to be more decent than that. I have chosen to tell you who I am by what I say, what I write, what I do.

Am I really who I say I am?

This is the reality check. How do we know we are who we say we are? It’s recommended that we have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign.

But what the hell does that mean?

It means that we must have a way other people can decide whether or not we’re being true to ourselves. Others, trusted within our communities, tell us if we’re actually resilient or if we’re just presenting the illusion of resilience. If we determine who we are as a culture, we have to agree what’s a part of it and what’s not; what others can participate in and what they can’t; how to tell someone “of the culture” and someone who’s not. 

Self-determination, by nature, is an act of artifice. We decide how we want to present ourselves to the outside world, but we also have to back it up with action. We construct ourselves through our words, then by the deeds we perform to back up those words. The way we define ourselves is not how we find out who we really are; it’s merely using a common language to form an image others can relate to. This language is built on what we value and how we reflect those values. If there’s a gap between what we value in ourselves (decency) and how we define decency by our actions (being an all-purpose jerk), we mislead others and make it harder to truly know ourselves. 

I love this check because it marries the theoretical (what we say) to the tangible (what we do). Once I’ve defined myself, it makes my choices a lot easier. If I’m, say, roasting someone online, and I think “Is this who I really am?” — I’m likely going to answer “No.” I am not the kind of dude that just roasts people online. If it’s fine for you, great, I’m sure you have your reasons. But that’s not me. 

Am I all that I ought to be?

Now that you’ve taken care of who you are really, you have to take stock of who you want to be. If you’re exactly the person you want to be, keep on rocking! But what’s the next step in living your virtues? How can you make that happen? What would your life look like if you took the things you cared about to the next level?

This is an excellent time of the year to check in on that. If I’m not really who I say I am, I have to reckon with that and change what I’m doing. If I’m not all that I feel I ought to be, I have to take stock of why not and how that can be changed. 

These three questions also force you to think about what’s within your control and what isn’t. Ultimately you can’t control how other people see you, or whether they accept you or not. But if they don’t see you the same way you see yourself, it helps to think about why that’s so. Are you invisible? Or do the effect of your deeds differ from your intentions? 

It also provides you with a way to think about your ideal self with a built-in reality check. You look at where you are and where you want to be, and you think about how to bridge that gap. It may take time — years, decades — but just the progress is enough to make you feel better about yourself. When that happens, it’s easier to shrug off the pressure of being told who you are. Because you know. You’ve thought through it, and you’ve aligned your will and effort into being your best self. No one has your experience being you, except you. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know what’s true and what’s not. 

At least, I hope so! Living with mental illness means living with the fact that my perspective may be distorted heavily, so I need to lean on the people I trust more than most to tell me when I’m not being who I want to be. For some reason, you may be in the same situation. But, at least for me, the more I check in with myself, the more I practice radical self-honesty and self-acceptance, the easier it is for me to just ken when I’m on my track and when I’m not. 

That being said, I know I’m not all that I ought to be. But I’m happy with who I am, even as I take steps to be better. Being able to define myself, and hold myself to that standard, is a big reason why.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Umoja

Habari gani, fam?

Of all the virtues to celebrate for Kwanzaa this year, Umoja, or Unity, is the trickiest. This year was marked by sudden and surprising disconnection that we’re all still struggling to deal with. The COVID pandemic made travel — even large social gatherings — impossible, and some of us lost loved ones to it without the chance to come together and grieve. The social unrest caused by yet another incident of extrajudicial murder by the police deepened the political divisions between us around the world. Some people I had considered friends before 2016 are still estranged, and it’s hard to imagine a way to feel OK with repairing our relationship. More than ever before, it feels like we live in a world with a third of its people stubbornly fixed in an alternate reality. Any bridges between our perspectives have been burned. 

But this is why Umoja is so important. In a year that has seen us hyperfocused on what’s driving us apart, now is the time to remember what brings us together. We’re all of us capable of deep compassion and terrible cruelty. All of us — even those of us pushing for an authoritarian regime that would mean the death of their fellow Americans — are human beings who want to feel safe, loved, and respected. Even the things we say and do shouldn’t deprive us of our basic humanity, and while there need to be consequences for those of us who have fallen to our worst impulses, anything that would deprive another person of their basic human rights can’t be considered justice. We can’t build a just world on a foundation of revenge and dehumanization.

The creator of Kwanzaa himself, Maulana Karenga, has a troubled history. He created the holiday in 1966 to give Black Americans the chance to celebrate themselves and their history instead of imitating the religious and social practices of the dominant culture. Because of him, I have the chance to think about my connection to my people and how it shapes my life, how I can improve myself through this reflection. But he was also arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for assaulting his estranged wife and other women. Like so many others, Karenga has been excluded from the human family — either lionized for his activism in our community, or demonized for the horrific acts he’s been convicted of. Either of these viewpoints deprive him of his basic humanity, his capacity for good and evil. Karenga is the father of Kwanzaa, and he is a domestic abuser. He is also a political prisoner, an enemy of the Black Panthers, a doctor, a “sellout” (he was friends with Ronald Reagan), and much more. He is a mere human like you and me, with all of the potential and contradiction that entails.

This year has reminded me that all of us have been going through it for a long time. Life is not easy for anyone, and sometimes it can be especially hard for those who lack the privilege of being able to bypass structural problems, or for those of us who don’t have a support network. For Black Americans, especially, the trauma of past generations is handed down to us — not only through our history, but from the way our elders see the world and build the virtues they see as necessary for survival. Those of us who are soft and sensitive struggle to be as hard and unyielding as our parents have taught us, have chafed at the mold we’ve been forced into by our families. It can feel like we’re not seen as human beings by the people who are closest to us, and maybe we aren’t. Maybe we’re seen as soldiers, victims, guileless innocents, dangerous, frightened, ignorant, the future Kings and Queens of Black America. And, in turn, maybe we don’t see our elders as people who’ve adapted to a country that has sought to eradicate them in multiple ways all of their lives. We don’t see their hard disapproval as a mask for the fear and panic they feel over our safety. We don’t understand their trauma is an open wound made fresh every time a black body is beaten or broken or disappeared by a hostile state. Maybe our elders see the repetition of their painful history and wonder why we reject the tools they’ve made for our survival. 

But the fact is, we’re all living this same trauma. It’s not as wholly different as we’d like to think it is — the same hard grip of white supremacy squeezes tighter to hold onto control. But it’s also not just the same as before, where we must think of white America as an enemy, or that their hatred makes them less than human, or that we can’t fall into the same hatred while being the victim of it. We think we’re alone, often, with our pain. But if we take a moment to look up, to see things through the eyes of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors — even the strangers we see on the street — we see a whole community of us struggling against the same current of history.

That painful history has all of us in its grip, whether we’re black, white, Native, immigrants, Republican, Democrat, fascist or socialist. We all see ourselves fighting against the worst impulses of our own humanity. We all see ourselves fighting to achieve our potential. I don’t make a claim that Republicans, authoritarians, and fascists are actually good people — but I will say that they are JUST people, like you and me. They, like us, have been driven wild with pain by our shared history. They, like us, just want this deeply-rooted pain to end once and for all. Even though it’s clear they think the only means of achieving their goals is our extinction, and that cannot be allowed, it’s also vital to know they want what we want: what’s best for themselves and those they care about. It’s a fundamental human need that all of us deserve. And we can achieve it together, if we realize that’s the only way we can.

I think this is the impulse behind the endless parade of interviews and think-pieces about the Trump voter. Their actions seem inscrutable and irrational because we’ve forgotten the things that connect us to them. We can’t see how we can share the same basic needs but diverge so wildly in what we do to achieve them. We can’t see ourselves in them. And that’s not their problem — though they have many. That’s ours. It’s something that we’ll need to overcome if we have a hope of fulfilling the promise of our first principle. 

In order to be unified, all of us are going to have to find a way to make peace with our shared history. There have to be consequences to the long-standing, institutional injustices we’ve faced as Black Americans, and the people who have knowingly participated in furthering them need to be brought to justice. But justice isn’t a term that should be taken lightly. Justice, to me, is a way of mending the bonds that have been broken through injustice. It’s finding a way for us to be whole again, as an individual and as a society. How do we find a way back for the people who’ve so badly wronged us, who are even now disconnected from us within the tight grip of white supremacy? How can we build a society in which both the victim and the perpetrator of injustice can feel united in common purpose of benefit to all?

This is a question we’ve struggled with for thousands of years, and it won’t be answered by a weekend blog post. But I think remembering that all of us share our humanity is a good start. The moment we think of the people we disagree with as less than human — as monsters, or animals, or insects, or filth — is the moment we’ve failed this first principle. If we were a human being who had been driven insane by the pain and hatred of past generations, how would we want to be brought back to sanity again? What penance could we pay for the terrible things we’ve done while in its grip? How can we acknowledge the pain we cause and do our best to repair the damage it’s done? Thinking on these questions, and maybe acting on the answers we come up with, is how we honor our ancestors today. This is Umoja.

 

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A Mindful New Year

Buddhism 150Hey, it’s (sort of) the first day of the new decade! Er, depending on who you ask. Judging from the many, MANY “Best of 2010s” articles I’ve read over the past few months, the consensus seems to be that decades begin at Year 0. Since the significance of these markers is completely artificial, that’s a good a sign as any to declare this the official start of the 20s. Between you and me, I’m glad that we’re looking back at the 2010s instead of living them.

It’s been an exhausting few years. There is no shortage of things to fight about, from systemic racism to climate change to our favorite pop-culture obsessions, life online has become a battleground instead of a refuge. Even those of us who use the Internet as an escape of sorts have found ourselves entrenched in the wars of the day. Furries have had to reckon with the rise of the alt-right in our ranks, addressing the constant and unapologetic toxic behavior of a few popular artists, and dealing with the increased visibility of the real-life marginalizations our fellows have to endure. It hasn’t been easy, and we’re still figuring out how to deal with very real issues as a community. So far, though, the work has been promising.

There’s still so much to do, though. In the United States this is a Presidential election year, so the tone of political discourse will grow louder over the coming months until it’s a constant bullhorn in our ears. Whether we believe in it or not, climate change is still pushing our weather into unpredictable and dangerous territory. Vast wealth inequality will likely increase, meaning that a very few people will have outsized influence on our government, businesses, culture, and even our diet. Our problems are so huge and so varied it often feels impossible to know just what we can do about it. The options that seem to be available to us are “go crazy” or “ignore it” as much as possible.

I’ve gone mostly quiet because I don’t know if my voice actually contributes to the solution. This isn’t a bid for compliments or reassurance; I’m not entirely sure anyone can contribute to the solution with the way things are right now. Everyone is shouting for their voices to be heard, but so few of us are actually listening. You can’t have a discussion without that; otherwise, we’re screaming into a raucous and deafening void.

I spent some time with my husband’s family over Christmas, and it was both wonderful and draining. My in-laws are a big clan, with a lot of different personalities carrying personal (and generational) baggage into any conversation. One brother is a Trump voter, but also someone struggling with anxiety and self-image issues. Another has recently defected from the Republican Party after the rise of 45 and his brand of politics. A sister is fairly liberal, but wrestling with the loss of her Christian faith. Even though they’re quite different and building families of their own, their love for each other keeps them in each other’s orbit through the inherent tension of clashing perspectives. It was a reminder of how important it is to accept people as they are, even as you push them to do better.

That’s not a popular message right now. There’s so much anger over where we are as a nation (even as a species), so much frustration that we haven’t solved so many long-standing problems, and it feels like our biggest priority is figuring out who to blame. While I certainly agree with my fellow progressives about where the fault lies, I’m no longer sure it’s productive to keep beating the drum of demanding consequences. I think the best thing we can do is accept the situation we’re in and figure out how to do the best we can from here.

This doesn’t mean that people should not be held responsible for the awful things they’ve done. We should prosecute the people responsible for putting children in cages and breaking up families at the border; they should be held accountable for the deaths suffered under their watch. The current President and his administration should absolutely be put on trial for their corruption and abuse of power. We should continue to call out bigoted speech and behavior in our spaces, and make it clear that won’t be tolerated. We need to continue fighting against the degradation of compassion and empathy in the public square, wherever it appears.

But we also have to focus more on what we’re building with our speech and actions. If we spend all of our time focused on what’s going wrong in the world, we train ourselves only to see these problems. We have to start thinking about what solutions look like, what kind of world we want to build. Instead of highlighting and excoriating toxic behavior, we should start building consensus on the behavior we need to replace it with and embodying the virtues we value instead. Shifting our gaze towards the things we want to love and encourage could have a powerful effect on how we fight against the injustice and corruption plaguing our society.

I’ve spent so much of these past several years being angry, despairing, overwhelmed. I’ve lived it enough to know that I can’t actually help anyone that way. I have to find the things that make me hopeful about the world we live in. I have to spread the things that make us feel less afraid and alone. I won’t ignore the terrible things that happen, but I will change how I respond to them.

Today is the final day of Kwanzaa, and the principle we focus on is that of Faith (Imani). Faith is not a popular idea in the circles I run in. Those of us who have escaped the orbit of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity have had a poisoned relationship with the idea. But after all this time, I’m re-examining it. Faith, after all, doesn’t mean blind devotion to an unprovable higher power — or even the people who claim to speak for it. It can be a choice, in the absence of evidence, to believe that there are more good people than bad and that we will do right by each other…eventually.

But faith without works is dead. Having faith in the goodness of people means we must behave as if people are good — even when they do bad things. There has to be a way back into the light for those who voted for Trump, who have been shameless with their bigotry, who have done awful things. Even if someone has crossed an unforgiveable line for us, they have to be allowed some way to repent and rehabilitate. We can’t keep punishing each other and expect a better society to rise from that. We can’t keep shaming people into being better.

We must show them how by being the people we want them to be. We have to imagine how we would want someone to call us out and how we would want to be forgiven when we mess up, and extend that same kindness to others. We can’t get through our problems by forcing the people who’ve caused them to accept blame, by making sure they’re punished for what they do. It might be necessary for our sense of justice, and I won’t argue with that. But it doesn’t solve the problem, and to me that’s the most pressing priority.

In 2020 I will try my hardest to be the kind of person I think there needs to be more of in the world. I will do my best to be kind, as compassionate as I can be, honest and earnest, loving, joyful, equanimous. I will be firm in denouncing harmful actions, but I will engage the people who take those actions as gently as I can. Anger can be fuel, but we still have to be careful about where it takes us. I want my anger to fuel me towards a better world, and I want people to be mindful of how they’re spending their fuel as well. Let’s learn to sit with our anger, until we’re sure we’re taking a proper stand with it.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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A Worker’s Prayer

Buddhism 150After a couple of months out of work, it feels really good to be gainfully employed again. To respect the privacy of this secret burrow location, I won’t say exactly where I’m working. But I can say that what I’m doing now adheres to the practice of “Right Livelihood,” which means I’m not making my living by causing or contributing to harm. As I grow older, it’s an increasingly important precept — likely because it’s becoming much more difficult to observe in too many areas of the country. During my time off, I got to think a lot about what I would be willing to do for a paycheck and what I would avoid for as long as possible. But a lot of us don’t really have that luxury. In order to pay the bills, so many of us are forced to do unfulfilling work that doesn’t do anything to make the world a better place. Some of us even have to take jobs that make things worse. That’s because so many of us lack the power to choose the work we find most fulfilling, that calls to our purpose in life or at least lets us help our fellow beings.

There are so many barriers to being able to land a decent, fulfilling job. Just pulling from my background, my family wasn’t in any financial position to send me to a private school and I was exceedingly lucky to be placed in whatever ‘gifted and talented’ programs were available. This gave me opportunities most children my age couldn’t get — like learning Latin, gaining access to extracurricular programs that furthered my studies, even meeting teachers who were lively and dedicated enough to make sure my lessons stuck. In high school I floundered because I had never learned how to study properly or work past frustration. My home life was a shambles, and there was no way to deal with that. I was woefully unprepared for college, and didn’t have the institutional, community, or familial resources that most do to get help. I never got a degree, never developed a network in the workforce, never learned skills that could be applied to different positions. Now I’m a 40 year old black man without college education or any certifications. If it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of my professional network, I would have been in serious trouble. My age, my race, my education, my mental health — all of them are working against me in the job market. I am so, so grateful to have such good friends and colleagues, and I’m mindful that so many people like me don’t have the resources I do.

Having a job that doesn’t fulfill you, or that you believe is harming your community — it wears on you in a way that few other things do. It can poison your self-image and rot you from the inside. Being forced to deal with immoral people without the ability to assert your values is a quiet devastation of the soul. It changes the way you see people, and the way you see the world. In order to survive the experience, most of us either have to adopt the mindset of the colleagues trapped in such a system — the attitude that life is a competition, and we all have to do whatever it takes to make it. This may include backstabbing our coworkers, lying to customers, damaging relationships in order to get ahead, compromising our integrity. We might quell the disturbed voice within us by adopting a new mantra: This is just the cost of doing business.

We are incredibly adaptable creatures, capable of surviving and thriving in any environment. But sometimes, our efforts shouldn’t go towards thriving in a harmful environment — it should go towards removing ourselves from it, or, barring that, changing it. Most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving jobs we don’t like, so transforming it is often our only choice. That is often lonely, exhausting, thankless work. Without some sort of validation or recognition, we can fall to despair. Why even try to change things when we know it’s not going to work? We’re not going to be able to make a company think more about ethical behavior and less about money. Who are we doing this for?

Ourselves. We may not be able to transform the world around us, even with hard work and persistent effort, but we can make sure that the world doesn’t transform us. At the very least, we can take stock of our values and do our best to make sure we’re handling our jobs in a way that aligns with them. That is difficult, I won’t lie. It might require some creativity. But making the effort to transform our relationship with our work is an overlooked act of self-preservation. If we can’t do what we love, we can find a way to do what we have to with love.

In the United States, we’ve largely shifted from an industrial economy to a service economy. A lot of us work for companies that put us in contact with people all day, every day. We encounter others who present themselves angrily, with unyielding expectations and an air of entitlement to treat us as terribly as necessary to make sure those expectations are fulfilled. Sometimes, both of us are trapped in a system neither of us want to be in, forced to protect a company’s profit over true service to our fellow beings. Many customers see us as nothing more than an adversary, an obstacle in the path of the just treatment they deserve.

And despite the names of the systems that trap us, like ‘customer service/success/care’, the systems themselves force us into that adversarial relationship. Often, the customer isn’t given the right information at the right time to understand a company decision. Sometimes, the decision itself is terrible and we’re tasked with justifying it. Sometimes, someone feels cheated and we have to protect the company that pinched their purse. When someone comes to us, the expectation is to deny what’s being asked for and try to make the customer feel good about the experience regardless.

When a customer rails at us, they are bringing that story with them already in progress. It can be incredibly easy to accept the role we’ve been given and become enemies, especially if we feel attacked unfairly or the demands of our job has already drained our self-image. If we feel isolated in our lives, unsupported by our colleagues, and bound to anti-social company practices, our frustration only has one way to go — towards the person attacking us. It can even feel like a karmic righting, denying someone who dares to treat us so poorly.

That’s a spiral I’ve been down, and desperately want to stop. The anger I feel about our current social conundrum or the helpless loneliness I feel doesn’t go away with perpetuating unkindness. Those feelings become fossilized with those actions, and we begin to not only accept the role of enmity we’ve been given but the whole story — our customers are our enemies, and the lot of them are stupid, ignorant, entitled. It’s a horrible story that brings out the worst in me and denies me the chance to change the course of our interaction from combative to collaborative.

But, in order for me to do that, I have to change the way I think about…well, everything. I am not an agent of a company. I am a person with the ability to help another person who has come to me for help. I don’t have a list of policies that determine what I can’t do to help our customers; I have a small suite of tools for assisting people who need in the best way I can manage. I am not here to be screamed at by a customer; I am the only one who can hear this person’s frustration with the system we’re both stuck in, and I can offer a way out.

For me, Right Livelihood isn’t just about making sure the company you’re working for does no harm. It’s also about making sure your work doesn’t poison you into spreading harm. Some of us have a lot of work to do if we expect to retain our compassion and equanimity in the face of a difficult situation; it’s best to recognize where we are with that and do our best to proceed accordingly. Sometimes, the way out of the wrong situation is simply changing the way we respond to it. Even if we can’t be in a place that does no harm, we can decide to help as much as we can, in any way we can.

This Labor Day, I pray that all of us finds a way to find contentment with our work, and to keep striving to transform ourselves and our communities to the best possible versions of themselves. Each of us has the power to connect with our fellow beings, to change the hostile narrative we’re trapped in, to encourage an attitude of love and helpfulness. I’ll keep working on that here, now that I’ve been given another chance to.

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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We Need To Talk

Politics 150The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.

Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.

One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.

These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.

And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.

But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.

Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.

We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.

I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Building A Better Buddhist in 2019

Buddhism 150If there is one thing in 2019 we are sorely in need of, it’s more compassion and empathy. I know this has been the rallying cry of many different corners of our society for a while now — some have even weaponized the idea of civility as a means of shutting down dissent. But look at where we are these days. On the right, people are trying to justify breaking up families of migrants and abusing children in the name of national security; creating hardship for thousands of government workers so we can spend billions on a wall that no one wants; and indulging in a culture of bigotry against any minority you’d care to name. On the left, we’re engaging in the usual infighting between groups that have problematic perspectives; alienating well-meaning but ignorant people who just need guidance; and rejoicing in the suffering of people we’ve deemed truly deserving. Our social discourse has become so consistently, exhaustingly hateful that it’s hard to see any chance of reconciliation.

I understand why this is so, and I don’t want to give the impression I’m drawing a false equivalence here. What the current administration is doing, aided by the Republican Party and its base, is reprehensible and in no way the same thing as some of the worst tendencies of the left. But it feels like we in the liberal sphere have focused so much on hating the perpetrators of these atrocities that there’s no more room for us to feel compassion for its victims. The anger we feel is indeed fuel for the sustained fight we’ve engaged in for the past two years, but more and more it feels like this has come at a cost.

This year, one of the main things I wanted to focus on is being a better Buddhist — but what does that mean? Well, my particular Zen is one that prioritizes comfort and connection. I prize these things because I know how difficult it can be to change, and in order for people to make the adjustments we ask of them they need to feel comfort and support while doing so. Most of us flinch away when someone brings up one of our negative qualities, and the instinct to get defensive is so deeply rooted it can be impossible to deny it. So many of us can’t distinguish between a criticism of certain behaviors and a criticism of who we are as people; our self-identity is so deeply tied to our habits and beliefs we think of them as one and the same.

It takes empathy to translate that tendency in ourselves towards other people, to imagine how we would feel in someone else’s situation. If, for example, someone roasted us on Twitter for something we’ve said and any apology we could make just makes the situation worse, wouldn’t it be hard for us to resist the urge to defend ourselves? Maybe we’d double down on the behavior we think isn’t a problem. Maybe we’d call the whole affair silly and insubstantial. Maybe we’d chalk up the “drama” to “haters” who have nothing better to do than bring others down. Social media has been little more than an ideological battleground for years; in order for effective dialogue to happen, we have to shift our paradigm away from war and towards something else.

That is admittedly not easy. I know I still have this knot in my stomach when thinking about people I know who have voted for Trump, and I get intensely frustrated with people who don’t understand why issues like Black Lives Matter are so important to me. I haven’t been able to engage with many people about the news of the day because it genuinely makes me too upset and angry. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed my social circle get smaller and my general mood become more withdrawn and suspicious. I don’t want to be that person.

So it’s time to open myself more, and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t mean engaging with people you know are acting in bad faith, or wasting your time with people who aren’t ready to entertain the idea that change might be needed on their part. But I think we could do a better job of filtering between the hostile and the merely ignorant, and I think it’s worth the time and effort it takes to educate our allies towards nuances they may have a blind spot towards. If we truly believe that our values are the right ones, then finding better ways to explain them or convince others to prioritize them is one of the best things we can do to help them spread.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the books that really made me take a good, long look at my behavior and a fundamental flaw in my perspective that caused the less desirable aspects of it. There are so many things that I can’t tolerate within myself, and that self-judgement closes emotional doors that would better serve me if they were open. Learning to accept people and situations as they are can help us become less angry, see things more clearly, and affect change more efficiently.

This not only requires empathy, but also mindfulness. Meditation is a bit more than just learning to be still in the present moment; it trains us to watch the pattern of our own thoughts and recognize when a particular framework doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. Armed with this self-knowledge, we can catch ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking things that solidify division and allows us to take a beat to find some other way of dealing with people that might get us closer to the world we want to live in. Acceptance of bad behavior isn’t excusing it: it’s putting it into perspective so that we can address it holistically, in a way that is more likely to stop it.

I know a lot of us are tired of having to moderate our emotions or check ourselves in order to make progress with contentious situations. A lot of us know that it isn’t fair to have the burden of being the better person consistently fall to us. It’s draining, and in a just world it wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in. We have to do what we can, when we can, to build that just world. Sometimes that means accepting an unjust situation while working to make it better.

This year I will try very hard not to get caught in that sense of outrage and despair. It’s not who I want to be. In order to build equanimity, I have to be mindful of my own tendency to dig in my heels and consciously soften my reaction when I feel it happening. I have to push myself to feel empathy and compassion towards the people who want to deny me and the people like me our basic dignity as human beings. If I don’t, then we will continue to resist one another and that disconnection will only deepen. Fighting the awful things that are happening in our world requires firmness and the willingness to say ‘no’, but it’s important to resist from a place of mindfulness and love. It’s so much harder, but I feel it’s the only way to really win out.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2019 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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A Letter Of Intent

Self Improvement 1502018 was a challenging year for a whole lot of different reasons. The biggest, of course, is the challenge of watching our society continue to fracture and become more acidic under the “guiding hand” of the Trump Administration. The frequent attacks — from all quarters — against people of color, QUILTBAG individuals and allies, religious and cultural minorities has been exhausting. Over the past two years, the persistent stress of making it through America today has made me angry, colder, more withdrawn. It’s been difficult watching myself let fear and anger take over my actions, and I don’t like the person I’ve become. That’s why this year I want to renew my focus here and elsewhere. I want to use stories to spread peace and compassion through this blog by sharing my experiences coping with mental health, writing, and social justice; sharing thoughts and lessons about being a better writer and reader; and deconstructing the stories I read and watch to discuss their impact on me and the wider world.

It is not easy dealing with mental health issues under our current political environment, and I hope being more open about my particular struggles will encourage more of us to discuss them openly and without judgement. My depression, anxiety, and ADHD all combine to express in fairly specific ways through my experience, but one aspect of this expression I share with many others is the feeling of isolation, of being invisible. We see this all the time on social media; those of us in bad spaces crying out to the dark and hoping that someone understands what we need. What makes these times so hard is not having a clear idea of what it is we actually do need; sometimes it takes sitting down and examining our thoughts to figure that out. I hope that being open about my process will help someone else as they untangle theirs.

This is especially true when it comes to my writing. The anxiety that’s been bundled up in my craft has prevented me from being productive for far too long, and I want to devote a huge chunk of my focus this year to learning how to deal with that. I realize I’m still in that space where I’ve thought a lot about stories and I know what well-told ones look and sound like; but I haven’t practiced nearly enough to polish them to the point they shine. Learning to let go of my perfectionism and anxiety is as necessary as it is hard. Learning to become a better writer means working harder but caring less about the result. Figuring out how to do that will be a big topic for me this year.

Of course, my writing has been and will continue to be political — social justice will be at the top of my mind because how could it not be? I’ll be writing a lot about that here, too; putting down my thoughts about the state of the union helps me not only figure out what I think and why, but it provides an underserved perspective that needs more light on it. I’m under no illusions that what I think is correct or even that interesting. But I’m in a unique place not only in the furry and sci-fi/fantasy communities, but also the Afro-Futurist and African diaspora. I know I have angles on things that most of us might not see. I hope that by talking about things as I see them, I can encourage others to pay more attention to different perspectives.

I’m hoping that my perspective will be challenged, and that I can use those challenges to temper my beliefs or discard them if they don’t hold up to scrutiny. I’m also hoping that these discussions will help me figure out my own writing process. I’m still figuring out the best way to actually produce stories that I’m proud of, and in order for me to do that I’ll need to write about experiments and insights that have worked (or not worked) well. Since writing is such a subjective and personal practice, what works for me might not work for others; what hasn’t worked for other people might be just the thing I need. I want The Writing Desk to be a place where we can compare notes and encouragement, to share ideas that might leads us all a little further down the path.

The most important way to improve writing, besides talking about it at length, is reading a LOT. One of my major goals for 2019 is to read at least 25 books; I’ve spent far too long away from being an avid reader, and I think that’s seriously hurt my ability to write but also be engaged in the world around me. It’s way too easy to become insular and inert as we age, and reading the perspectives and stories of other people is an excellent way to remind ourselves to be a bit more mentally spry. I sincerely believe that art is dialogue, a continuing conversations artists have with society, other works, and their own audience. Being a part of that dialogue is necessary in order to be a well-rounded artist.

So I’ll be doing my best to write specific reviews more often here — not just of books and short stories, but of movies, seasons of TV shows, comic books and the like. Making these reviews a more regular practice helps to train me towards thinking critically about stories as well as thinking more clearly about what sorts of impact I want a story to have. If I know what I find most important in the stories I fall into, then I have a stronger guiding principle towards my own writing. Reviewing reveals as much about the reviewer as it does the work, as often as not, and I’m curious about what my reviews would reveal about me.

Eventually, I want to start talking about popular culture in general — the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and what can be gleaned about our society by looking deeply into that. If art is a conversation, then it pays to look at what our conversations tend to be about. What does it mean if, say, fantasies have fallen out of fashion, or if werewolves are the hot new monster? How does our celebration of the latest “It Person” reflect on us? How does the tone and content of our condemnation reveal our collective values? To be honest, overthinking pop culture is one of my favorite things, and I’m hoping that by putting a personal focus on how I relate to it I can begin developing the vocabulary to really dive into that.

This year, I want The Writing Desk to be a place where people go to find perspectives they haven’t encountered before. I want this to be a community of good friends having interesting conversations about what we love and what it means to love the things we do. I want to frame genre fiction and pop culture through a Buddhist lens to show how universal it is to center compassion and mindfulness. I want this to be a mechanism through which I know myself, and come to be known by others. If you’re along for the ride, welcome. I’m really looking forward to our conversations, all year long.