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(Writing) Writing and the Anxious Rabbit

Writing 150Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental illness that can be difficult to talk about, mostly because it looks like one of those ‘special snowflake’ disorders that someone claims to have in order to justify certain behaviors. Even with an official diagnosis and some significant time in a group therapy class, it’s the aspect of my mental health that I understand the least but still has a huge effect on my ability to get things done from day to day. I’m not sure what to say about it, though, especially these days when it feels like everyone is on edge for very good reason. Still, I’m going to try to talk about my anxiety disorder — especially as it relates to my quest to develop a consistent and productive writing practice.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is, for me, a constant tension that travels with me every day, all day. It most often settles around performance anxiety — making sure that I send an email just right so the person I’m speaking to doesn’t get offended, or trying to tackle a case at work in a manner that’s quick and thorough, or replaying conversations back through my head to pick out possible indications that it didn’t go at all how I thought, or thinking about all of the things I should be doing, or all of the things I forgot to do, or an undiscovered asteroid that could plow into the planet, or being stopped by the police, or suddenly being fired, or the possibility that I could just lapse into depression or insanity, or something might happen to my husband, or….and so on. No matter what I’m doing, or how happy I might be otherwise, there is always some part of my brain that is screaming with worry.

Now that I know what it is, I know that I’ve had this since I was a teenager. I could never relax when I was a kid, because there was no place that felt safe to me. Even when I was alone, I worried about a home invasion, or a fire, or being abducted by aliens, or… There’s always something that needs to be done, or always a way something can be handled better. The constant pressure regularly becomes too much for me to handle, and I end up doing something mindless for hours because I can’t think about anything without freaking out.

This all happens under the hood. It’s difficult to put across how relentless worry can fray you, especially when you’ve been dealing with it for so long you’ve learned how to function through it.

However, without chemical help (like alcohol), it’s…impossible to relax. I’ve developed coping mechanisms over time, like zazen, ashwaghanda supplements, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but the disorder is still there — I just have an expanded toolset that allows me to deconstruct the underlying thoughts behind the worry, cope with stress, and forge ahead with whatever triggers performance anxiety a bit more easily.

This month I’ve been working hard to build a more consistent meditation and writing practice; I would love to bring more readers to The Writing Desk, have more folks sign up for my Patreon, and submit short stories to various publications. Doing that requires me to confront my anxiety about writing in a very real way. Every day is a battle against that screaming part of my brain that tells me I’ll never be good enough to do what I want to do; that whatever I publish will be mocked as both pretentious and pathetically deviant; that what interests me is not even interesting enough for other people to hate it.

I created my Patreon, for example, as a means to hold myself accountable for producing content on a deadline. For the most part, that’s been a failure. The first serial I wrote was scrapped after 14 or so “weekly” installments over the course of six months, and it’s been really hard to build any kind of momentum with it. The folks who have stuck with me over the past two years are saints of the highest order, and I appreciate them every day. But anxiety clearly has won out here so far. Because of it, there is no way that I can possibly write something “just for fun” — I really wish I could, but everything I put to paper eventually gets stuck in the weight of that self-imposed pressure.

So with the stuff that matters to me, the pressure can quickly reach the point of being unbearable. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to focus on ‘making friends’ with that discomfort, knowing that anything worth doing, anything that would help me to change and grow, would be uncomfortable. It’s a sign that I’m pushing myself to do something difficult. And that has helped, honestly. It’s allowed me to progress — but that progress is still very slow.

The best thing I’ve found to combat my anxiety is to focus on the story I’m telling, the characters that I’m working with, the setting, or structure, or feeling that I’d like to evoke. The more I think about the work itself instead of how it’s going to be received, the easier it gets to push that screaming aside until it fades into the background. At some point, you have to realize just how much about a situation is outside of your control; all you can do is make sure what’s under your control is handled as best as you can. It’s a really difficult lesson to learn, and I’m still in the middle of that process, but it’s worth learning for sure.

I’m still not sure what to do about this anxiety. I think I need to go back into therapy to deal with it and a number of other issues that are increasingly difficult to fight against. But for now, the march of progress goes ever on.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Personal) Moving Forward, Looking Back

sankofaThe picture on the right is a sankofa bird, a symbol from the Akan art culture of West Africa. Sankofa is a word that comes from the Twi language, and it roughly means “Go back and get what was left behind.” The sankofa bird has been a big symbol for a long time in Africa and among the African diaspora, and it stresses the importance of remembering your past in order to ensure a better future. I came across it researching Afrofuturism, and I think I first heard about it in the This American Life episode highlighting the movement. The idea, of course, is that even while we step into the future we keep an eye on the people and events that have shaped us.

Afrofuturism is an idea that exemplifies this attitude: we go back to retrieve the things we might have lost along the way, the things that are worth preserving, in order to take the best of ourselves into the future with us. No matter what we think about the past — that it’s irrelevant, or that it doesn’t define us — it’s as much a part of us as our self-determination and our idealized selves. We can’t escape it, no matter how much we try, but we can learn from it and take those lessons with us to build a better future.

Personally, this means going back to pick up all those things I dropped when I fled Baltimore: the black part of my identity; the trauma and complicated feelings I have around my family; the fact that there are so many people still trapped in poverty and hopelessness in our inner cities; addressing the problematic attitudes that alienate so many LGBQTIA brothers and sisters. It’s important to hold all of this with me as I forge ahead with my writing and my life. They’re a part of who I am, and I can’t hope to make an honest future without them.

Culturally, it’s so important for us to recognize and accept our history. The United States has abandoned the lessons of our history — and knowledge itself, it feels like — because acting on those lessons means hard work, discomfort, and acknowledging truths about ourselves that can be really difficult to admit. None of us are as altruistic as we’d like to think. We can be selfish, mean, willfully blind. But not taking an honest look at the worst within us will always lead us to justifications for some truly monstrous shit: take a look at the political rhetoric burning through our population right now and tell me I’m wrong.

Our past is called our roots for a reason: our experience, culture and traditions ground us firmly in the world and give us something to hold on to when the wind kicks up and storms are lashing us. We obviously don’t have to keep every little thing from our pasts, but I think we’ve swung too far in our desire to look forward. We’ve lost something valuable, and it’s time to look back and retrieve it.

 

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(Writing) A Future With Me In It

Myth 150It’s getting harder for me to look at the news these days without feeling like I’m staring into the void of our own self-destruction. The current US administration seems obsessed with assuaging the bruised ego of the President, making the lives of the poor and working class as difficult as possible, and letting the rich and powerful get away with whatever they want. It’s times like these where I need an escape more than ever, and science-fiction/fantasy provides a wonderful avenue for that — up to a point. It’s also getting harder for me to ignore that most characters in science-fiction and fantasy stories don’t look like me or even share a lot of my same experiences. That’s why I need to read and write Afrofuturism stories more than ever; I want to have characters like me going on adventures, and I want to imagine a future where people like me can thrive — but most importantly, I want to be comfortable in my own skin and tell stories from my particular perspective.

There aren’t a lot of characters of color in modern science-fiction and fantasy, even though there are a lot more than there were. The biggest thing going in the genre right now is arguably Blade Runner 2049, the incredible sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece. While it’s wonderful to be sure, you see more Asian writing on the screen than actual Asian characters; there are only a few black characters who are never seen beyond a single scene; and Hispanic characters are limited to a cameo appearance or two. Like so many movies in the space today, people of color are used to fill out crowd scenes and give the appearance of diversity, but the characters you spend the most time with are overwhelmingly white — with a few exceptions. American Gods and The Expanse, I’m looking at you.

We never get to read a portal fantasy where the protagonist pulled into a strange new world is a person of color, or how their race and background experience would influence their reaction to such an incredible event. We don’t often get to see people of color doing their thing in some far-off future, especially in stories where we extrapolate the history of their culture into that distant imagining. When people of color are stripped out of these stories by casting directors, the pushback against the outcry revolves around not making everything about race; whenever people of color are added to these retellings, people often complain by posing the hypothetical question of taking one of “our” characters to illustrate how silly that is. “When do we get a movie with a white Black Panther?” “I can’t relate to Rue as much now that you made her black.” Boosting our visibility is always decried as political correctness run amok; erasing us from a possible future or an imaginary past is never a big deal, though.

The #OwnVoices movement has been in full swing for a little while now, at least, and we’re starting to see stories told about people of color, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, and all kinds of other minorities, written by members of those groups themselves. The space is changing, and these stories are getting recognition for introducing us to different ways of thinking and being — not only in different times and places, but right here and now. That’s tremendously exciting to me, and I want to be a part of that. I want to read and promote stories that center on non-white experiences; I want to write stories with non-white, LGBQTIA protagonists, or characters with disabilities. I want to promote worlds in my fiction that has a place at the table for all of these people, that present the world not as we wish it to be, but as it IS — a diverse and wonderful place filled with folks from different backgrounds. Poor, inner-city black geeks deserve to go to Narnia too.

We also deserve to go into space. We deserve to have the lands of our ancestors share in future advancements, have their economies explode in ways they never thought possible, reach the stars and explore the galaxy on their own terms. There are so many futures written where black people are all gone, or alluded to as poor sods worse off than the protagonist for some reason. There are so many books where Africa has been left out of the unified government taking humanity into its next phase as a multi-planet species, or where African scientists are simply along for the ride as exceptional examples of a culture that still hasn’t ‘caught up’ to the rest of the world. Even those stories that feature Africa as a technological power — like Black Panther, for instance — finds ways to skirt around spotlighting the culture and history of the continent, or the astonishing variety of civilizations that flourished before being stamped out or forever changed by European colonialism. One of the only SFF movies I can think of set in Africa, District 9, used aliens as a metaphor for the actual treatment of people of color in South Africa and refugees of color all around the world.

There aren’t many stories that spotlight African culture without exploiting the problems or historical bloodshed that has taken place on the continent. Where are the stories that feature a healthy, confident African diaspora honoring their culture and traditions while also embracing the future? Does every story that centers on blackness have to be about slavery, rape, poverty, or war? Where are the hopeful stories about what Africa could be? About what her many children all around the globe could aspire to?

We desperately need these stories. All around us, there are these markers that point to how little progress we’ve made overcoming the historical disadvantages forced upon our ancestors. The natural resources of Africa are being plundered to increase the wealth of foreign corporations; the many African-descended people who live elsewhere around the world are forced to suffer continued institutional racism that others refuse to even acknowledge; in America, so many of us live and die in hopeless poverty, unable to believe in the possibility of getting a fair shake. We need to be able to envision a world where that’s true if we hope to make it so. Stories give us that power, a signpost to work towards. We have to conjure hope for the people who have none.

This deeply matters to me, personally. I grew up in inner-city Baltimore as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I never felt accepted by the culture I was raised in. At school, my religion and my geekiness made me an easy target for the students who fit in more easily to the black experience; at the Kingdom Hall, my family situation and lack of social skills made it impossible for me to be accepted by my peer group. I grew up thinking that my own culture was hostile and dangerous, that there was nothing there for me, that my only choice was to leave and never look back.

Now I see that’s not true. There are a ton of black geeks out there with varying experiences and relationships with black American culture. It’s been a revelation to me, the idea that I could be myself — a gay black Buddhist furry — and still embrace my culture and background at the same time. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t stop until I make it real.

That means learning how to absorb my personal history and accept what happened, putting it in the context of the societal pressures that drive that behavior, and teasing out the lessons that I can take from that to improve myself — but also talk about how black American culture can be improved. We limit ourselves by adopting the limited historical perspective of the past; we dishonor our own values by denying our brothers and sisters the right to self-determination; we keep ourselves down by continuing to dismiss and demean those who think and believe differently. We are so much more than what we have been; we could be so much more than what we are now. Wild, imaginative, authentic stories could show us how.

Afro-futurism is more than a genre to me; it’s a lifeline. It feels like the thing I’ve been moving towards all my life, the thing that will give me hope at a time where that’s been so hard to come by. It’s a framework I can use to understand my past and imagine my future; it’s what I need to have a complete sense of myself. It’s a beautiful, complicated, contradictory thing. That suits me perfectly.

 

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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Texas

Myth 150After two weeks in Belgium, I flew to Dallas, TX for the final week of my training. It was a pretty wild swing from one place to the other — Belgium is almost stereotypically European, with tons of small stores, few chains, narrow streets and close spaces; Texas, on the other hand, is wide and flat and full of box stores. I’d like to say it was just the thrill of being back in somewhat more familiar settings, but Dallas felt wonderful while I was there, and I learned a few things as I visited friends and re-adjusted to American portions. Texas felt like an extension of the discomfort I felt leaving the bubble of California, a place not as shockingly different as Europe but strange enough that it didn’t feel like home either. One of the things I love about the US is how enormous and varied it is; you can learn so much by going into these environments with openness and acceptance.

The cheeseburger really is a distinctly American food.

Belgians are big on French fries. I had assumed that since cheeseburgers were such a ‘natural’ complement for them they’d have a pretty solid burger game — but I was wrong. The patty is formed as a puck, maybe two inches thick, with the dense and highly-processed consistency of compressed pate. It sits there in a bun too large for it, unseasoned and laying it wait to spread misery to the poor unsuspecting diner who takes a bite of it. I was fooled not once, but twice, by this devilish concoction — though to be fair the second time was at an establishment that had advertised itself as a “burger bar”.

I would never have expected it, but if someone had asked me what I missed most about the United States I would have to go with a good cheeseburger. The very first thing I did with my coworkers once we got through customs in DC was go to a restaurant and order a big, greasy cheeseburger. It was the welcome home meal I needed in the worst way, and I now have a greater appreciation of this humble, ubiquitous, American food.

Texas is much more purple than you think it is.

If you don’t live in Texas, most of what you hear about the state is its politics. This is, after all, the place that gave us Rick Perry and Ted Cruz; it’s been the epicenter of a legislative attack on women’s reproductive rights, LGBQTIA issues, and home to very troubling incidents of police brutality against people of color. This is the state where James Byrd, Jr. was killed being dragged from the back of a car; where Alfred Wright was found mutilated in the woods just three years ago. If you don’t live in Texas, it’s easy to see the state as a theocratic nightmare where people of color could be killed at any moment.

I’m not here to downplay the very real issues Texas has both politically and socially, but we also tend to forget just how many people of color there are in the state, how many activists, artists, political operatives, liberals and fighters who are working hard to change the state from within. Most of the state’s population lives within cities — around 85% in fact — and those cities are liberal and open. I was surprised to find Dallas was so diverse, with a thriving artist, student and geek scene. The city council removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent park the week I was there; while it shouldn’t have been up there in the first place, the fact that it was so quickly and decisively removed is a sign of progress, however small.

Texas isn’t perfect, but then neither is California. The people there aren’t all gun-crazy yahoos, doomsday preppers or unmitigated racists. It’s easy to start believing the stereotype you’ve been fed over time; now I’ll take less offense when people characterize Californians as health-food-obsessed, neurotic hippies.

There is strength in staying put to fix a hostile home.

A good friend of mine took me to an author event at a brand-new bookstore opening up in Dallas, Interrabang Books. The author was east Texas native Attica Locke, there to promote her new novel Bluebird, Bluebird. I was really taken with Locke almost immediately; her prose is so evocative and distinct, steeped in the history and culture of her ancestral home. She clearly loves where she’s from, but she’s not blind to the fact that there’s a long history of racism inextricably tied to it. That clear-eyed affection informs her work and allows her to open the rich, complicated tapestry of the state.

One of the things that struck me is that there is a clear respect for the people who stay behind to make a hostile territory better instead of leaving for greener pastures, and it’s something I had not thought about before. I left Baltimore when I could because I couldn’t imagine a good life for myself there; it fascinates me that there are people who not only can, but are willing to fight like hell to get from where things are to where they ought to be. It takes strength, resolve, and dedication to community to make that choice, and I honor the people who still claim Texas as their home while working hard to change it for the better at the same time.

It’s also OK to opt out of a situation that causes you stress.

While we were in Dallas, one of my coworkers was chosen to drive the rental car we got for the trip. He was, to put it bluntly, not a good driver. On the drive from the airport to our hotel he got lost multiple times, nearly crashed twice looking at directions on his phone, and even went the wrong way down a turn lane because he couldn’t navigate a construction detour. Even after that, he had a tendency to slam on brakes, look down at his phone way too often, and he didn’t take directions or criticism well. Things came to a head when he recommended we just not complain to him about his driving; after that, another coworker and I decided to take a Lyft to the airport. Our driving colleague was not happy about it, but I still feel it was the right decision.

It’s OK to choose to leave a situation that is more stress than you feel it’s worth. There will never be a completely stress-free choice in life; everything we do will require discomfort, especially if it’s worth doing. But there are times where we need to give ourselves permission to walk away from something that is bringing us unhappiness and very little else. Choosing what those times are isn’t easy, by a long shot, but it’s important to know that it’s an option. It’s important to look after our own well-being; it allows us to be better than we would have been otherwise.

Take what you need, but only what you need.

The portions in Texas are as oversized as the ones in Belgium are smaller than I’m used to, and it was almost impossible to actually finish a meal whenever I ate out. I think this trip cemented a tendency I had been drifting towards for a while now — simply opting out of the push to eat everything on my plate. It really isn’t necessary, and it gives you a warped sense of what you need to be satisfied. Filling yourself to bursting just to ‘get your money’s worth’ isn’t the best move most of the time; moderation is a much better way to go.

That being said, it’s important to take time and space to give yourself what you need. If you need more food, eat. If you need space to be alone, find your solitude. If you need to plant your foot and demand something, do not be moved. It can be difficult to know what you need and harder still to ask for it, but it’s vital to our own self-care. Respect really does start from within; we have to learn how to respect ourselves before we can respect anything else.

My three week business trip taught me a lot more about myself and how I’ve come to see the world than I thought it would. (And I thought it would teach me a fair bit.) I’m still absorbing these lessons, trying to find a way to shape them in ways that serve best, but I can safely say it was definitely life-changing. I have a clearer sense of self-worth and what I find important; I know more about just how different people and societies can be; and I have a better appreciation of my home and the cultural forces that shape the people here. I know travel is often seen as a luxury, and I see why. It’s expensive, and people tend to talk about it in terms of enjoyment or self-actualization. But in today’s climate it’s imperative to be exposed to different experiences and viewpoints, to accept them and reflect on them. Nothing gives us the opportunity to do that quite like going somewhere we’ve never been.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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(Personal) Crescent Shadows

Myth 150Yesterday a rare event grabbed everyone’s attention — a total solar eclipse. While these happen roughly every 18 months or so, they tend to happen in unpopulated areas or on the open sea. What made the 2017 eclipse so special is the fact that the totality line cut a swath across the United States from Oregon down to South Carolina; twelve states were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the totality in all. The next total solar eclipse to hit the US won’t happen until 2024, and even then only states east of Texas will be in the path of the moon’s shadow. The next coast-to-coast eclipse won’t happen until 2045; the last one before this was 1918 — almost a hundred years ago.

It’s really neat to be swept up in an event that the entire nation can talk about, especially if it has nothing to do with the current political situation. On Twitter, my feed was full of pictures of people marveling at the shadows of the leaves in their backyard, videos of countless viewing events around the country, retweets of breathtaking views that could only come from NASA, high-end equipment, or lucky people in an airplane while it was happening. Quite a few friends were in Oregon and Colorado and Missouri for the sights, and one guy lost his mind when he took perfect shots of the moon blocking the sun, an eerie corona peeking out around the edges. People described yesterday as eerie, beautiful, cool as fuck — for a moment, we were entranced by a celestial event that most of us simply don’t get to see.

It was a really lovely day. Around these parts, my husband and I stepped outside of the burrow to watch the quality of the light change around us. Over the 30 minutes or so it took for the moon to pass over the sun, we felt the temperature drop and a persistent chilly breeze whisper through; we noticed that the birds went largely quiet and still; and that the swaying leaves left rippling, crescent-shaped shadows on the sidewalk. It was eerie, to be honest; it made me think of what it must have been like before we understood what was happening, for random people to notice the shadows changing shape and the animals getting really weird about the weather. If you were in the path of a total eclipse and had no idea what was happening, it would be so easy to think the world was ending or that some supernatural thing was stealing the light from the cosmos.

That made me glad for all of the knowledge we’ve gained over hundreds of years. We now know that this isn’t apocalyptic, or even supernatural — it’s simply a very rare thing that happens only when the conditions are just right. Eclipses are something to be celebrated, marveled at, instead of feared. And around the country almost every American got to take a moment to do that — look up at the sky in wonder, reminded of just how fantastic it is to be alive on this planet with the ability to appreciate the beauty and rarity of what we witnessed. These days, with the myriad problems and divisions we face in our daily lives, we almost never get to come together and feel this way — humbled, happy, appreciative — but we did yesterday.

I think, moving forward, while it’s probably not possible to create this kind of feeling across the nation for everyone, it’d be nice to find smaller ways to call it forth in our communities and personal relationships. There is so much beauty in the world still, and so many wonderful things — it’s just as important to take a moment to stop and appreciate them as it is to fight for their preservation. All too often we focus on the things we’re fighting against that we don’t fully absorb all of the things that we’re fighting FOR.

That’s an essential part of resistance to me — holding on to the things that give us joy and hope, that remind us of what the world could be. I know that I don’t let myself feel that kind of honest, earnest joy nearly as much as I used to because everything is so heavy, all the time, and if you allow your heart to feel light for even a moment it’s like you’re not taking things seriously. But that’s not true. I know what’s at stake; moments like yesterday, that happen all too rarely as it is, disappearing entirely from our world.

I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Just take a minute to remember the things that make you truly happy. Allow yourself to feel joy and ecstasy whenever you can. Encourage that feeling in others. Expressing and spreading happiness is vital, and we tend to overlook that.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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