An Opening, A Turn

Humiliating experiences.
Continual verbal harassment.
Sustained discrimination.
Social exclusion.
Intentional cruelty.
Chronic, ongoing fear and anxiety.
Perception of being trapped.
Feeling powerless to stop an attack.
Repetition of the above.

These are some of the causes of trauma.

Trauma, in the emotional or psychological sense, refers to “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice). According to the nonprofit mental health resource HelpGuide.org,

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

The DSM, in its discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome, indicates that while this condition is typically thought of as resulting from one major event, an experience of violence or extreme horror, PTSD can also come about from an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.” Bullying is one scenario that is noted as a potential cause of what’s referred to as “complex PTSD” (Psychology Today).

What are some of the lasting effects of traumas of this nature – the subtle (or not subtle) forms of non-physical violence that, repeated over time, deeply wound the mind, the heart, the spirit?

Severe depression.
Sadness.
Hopelessness.
Guilt. Shame. Self blame.
Feelings of disconnection from other people.
Social withdrawal.
Shock. Denial. Disbelief.
Edginess. Agitation. Anger.
Avoidance of things, people, places, activities, etc., that remind one of the trauma.
Emotional numbness, coldness, frigidity.
Difficulty in forming close, lasting relationships.
Difficulty in accessing one’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
Abuse of drugs or alcohol.

I mean.

I read all this stuff, and it is my story. Every word of it is me.

I read it and I feel relief. This is what happened to me. I didn’t make it up.

And then I read it again and another voice inside of me says: Hush. This doesn’t mean anything. This happens to everyone. Who are you kidding? You’re not a trauma survivor. You’re an ordinary person living a relatively privileged life. Trauma is rape, war, having your house burn down. Bullying isn’t trauma. … Well, maybe for some people. But not in your case. You were just a kid in school and that’s what being a kid in school is like. Sucky. Now close that door, shut your mouth and walk away.

I have a Ph.D. in American Studies. My specialization is minority literatures. I used to teach about privilege and oppression in college classrooms. I shared classic works by brilliant artists with students who were adult, educated, intelligent, and in some cases, quite worldly. And it was always this: When a writer described experiences of oppression related to their membership in a group targeted for discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or anything at all, the students cried out, “They’re so angry. All they can talk about is how they’re a victim. The mean old world did this, that, and the other bad thing to me, my family, my great grandparents, my group. OK, well, bad things happen to everyone. Get over it. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The contempt, the revulsion, was congealed in and dripping from their voices, their faces, their written responses. Nobody wants to fucking hear it. OK. Point made.

It can be awfully hard for someone who experiences privilege in a certain area of life to understand that some of the things that helped put them in the position they enjoy, occurred at the expense of other people, people they’ve never met, people who may live somewhere else in the world or who may be dead now. That it’s not simply a matter of the lucky-blessed-by-fate and the neutral. Privilege means you got yours BECAUSE something was taken away from someone else. Specifically. And in my experience, just about no one wants to have that kind of responsibility put on them. Especially folks who are privileged on one axis – but oppressed on another.

I’m a fat, lesbian recovering alcoholic whose family background is working class (and back before that, just plain poor). With plenty of serious mental health issues in all the branches of the family tree.

You think I want to say anything that’s going to make someone call me a whiner, a victim, a blamer-of-society-for-my-problems? Fuck no.

And on social media. And among my friends. I don’t want a reputation for focusing on the negative. I certainly don’t want to come across as feeling wronged, limited, or damaged by what I see others as having supposedly done to me. People don’t like people like that – at least people I know don’t.

But yet.

There are these experiences. That shaped who I am. And the way that they shaped me was in the form of trauma.

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment, said, “I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival” (On Being interview).

I don’t want to talk about my trauma as something bad that happened to me, some outside force that stunted my chances for a health and happiness. I want to talk about it as a gift my soul gave me, a core set of lessons in the curriculum of my life, something written into the plan for my earthly journey before I incarnated into this lifetime, one of the cards in the hand I dealt myself before birth – in consultation with the Divine, with my guardian angels, with the highest wisdom and guidance available to my spiritual self.

I want to talk about it as something that really happened.

I want to begin to integrate it. So that I can move on.

Dr. Van der Kolk says that trauma is different from other difficult experiences (even the very most difficult ones of all) in that trauma exceeds a person’s ability to process what’s happening, to cope with the emotions, to sustain a sense of safety and fundamental okayness. This effect is compounded when the social or family environment surrounding the traumatic incident(s) does not allow the person to feel what they feel, does not accept the reality that the person is trying to express, essentially, does not surround the person with love, comfort, compassion, care, and reassurance that they deserve to have healing.

In these situations, a person cannot then integrate the traumatic experience as just another story, even if a painful one, in their self-history. The person can’t create such a story because there is no acceptance for it, neither internally nor externally. The person cannot, then, deal with the consequences of what happened, whatever those consequences may be.

The unintegrated experience remains in the body. In the tissues. In the cells. It is a felt memory, one that a person doesn’t so much recall as relive. The words to describe the experience don’t actually exist – even if the experience itself could theoretically be told about in the most mundane of terms. “He called me this name. Over and over. Everyone else joined in. Nobody would talk to me. It lasted for ten years.”

A few years ago, everyone was talking about bullying all the time, especially in queer activist circles. A lot of attention was being given to kids, especially queer ones, who committed suicide after being bullied. The whole “It Gets Better” campaign was started by Dan Savage, and it became viral. People started to talk about bullying, to take it seriously.

I could not participate in those conversations.

I couldn’t talk about my experiences of having been bullied. I couldn’t talk about other people being bullied, because that might lead to my having to talk about me being bullied.

Being bullied. Being bullied. Being bullied. I am saying it a bunch of times right now because the phrase has such a charge for me, because it scares me so much. And for some reason all of a sudden today, I am ready to, I NEED to, face it.

I shut the door tight on that period of my life. I can talk about my struggles around self love, I can talk about almost killing myself with alcohol, I can talk about depression and economic exploitation and all this other stuff, I can go on and on, I have a lot of passion for sharing these experiences that I’ve had in the hopes that what I have learned through those challenges may be of some help to someone else somewhere. But I can’t talk about being bullied because I am still so ashamed.

When someone else comes out about their experiences being bullied, I think they are brave – and that their sharing their stories helps make the world a better place.

When I imagine myself talking about being bullied, I feel exposed. I am too embarrassed to even go there. I imagine it must seem so terribly predictable, so cliché, so obvious. I tell myself that of course I was responsible for how people treated me; I was too shy, too weird, too unskillful in my social interactions, yes, too unattractive. I deserved it. Deep down, well, maybe not so deep down, I believe that I deserved it, I brought it on myself. In retrospect I think I could have done any number of things differently and my life in school would have been different. If I had known better. If I had tried harder. If I had forced myself to not be so … strange. So fucked up. Such an ass. So goody-goody. So difficult to like.

I don’t get to talk about being bullied. Because I deserved to be bullied. That’s how I felt when the conversation came up. How I still feel. That’s why I couldn’t say anything – why I wanted to run away when people started talking about this. All this shame would well up from the pit of my stomach and I would have to swallow it down and it just made me feel like puking.

Then today. At work. I read a blog post by someone who was coming out of the closet and asking her readers what it was that they were afraid to share about themselves. And I read this post on my friend’s blog, talking about witnessing others being outcast at school. And then I was editing an essay by someone else about the culture of weight hate. And then I was re-reading this other article on our company website about trauma and weight gain. And all these texts were crossing my path talking about what the body does to try to meet our needs for emotional healing when our minds aren’t actually able to deal with our traumas.

And somehow it all came together and I just wondered what energy would be freed up if I was able to actually look this trauma right in the eye and say:

Yes.

I was severely bullied throughout elementary, middle and high school.

Whole classes called me names, loudly discussed my ugliness, threw things at me, excluded me from group projects so that I had to make up my own solo assignments in order to pass.

I hated my existence.

Going to school was a torment. Any time I achieved an honor – such as being selected for the senior show choir – my actual life got worse, as these groups were full of people who missed no opportunity to mock and degrade me.

As is so often the case, telling adults only made things worse, because they belittled my emotional responses and accused me of tattling.

I was a child. I did nothing to deserve the cruelty that surrounded me.

I was suicidally depressed.

Long after I graduated and went on to become a successful adult, I pictured myself jumping off of bridges.

I tried to eradicate myself by drinking.

Luckily, I failed at that.

And here I am. I grew up fine. I have a life that I love, a sweet job, a wonderful home in an awesome city with my beloved partner and my beloved roommate, creative passions, dreams, goals, purpose, service, positions of leadership, a spiritual path. Many friends. Abundant, nourishing community. I’m utterly surrounded by love and support today. There is just about zero bullying in my life, and what bullying does show up is not personal towards me, but simply the outflowing of someone else’s fear.

And I have this trunk in the basement of my psyche that is tightly locked. I stand on the lid so that it stays down, so that I most of the time never even notice that it is there.

But it moves.

It shakes. It vibrates. It is full, full, burstingly full of energy.

I think the energy has actually grown over time.

I think that if I don’t open it, if I don’t look at the contents and see what is in there, I think it might, one day, explode.

So this is me – stepping down off the trunk, pulling out the key that I’d forgotten was there on a chain around my neck all along, putting it in the lock and

turning

turning

turning

to face whatever comes out.

  

Membership Sunday 

Last weekend I took time out from a women’s retreat I was attending in the mountains to be at Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality for Membership Sunday. Then I stopped at a picnic at the Gender Identity Center to do a set with a newly forming choir before driving back into the mountains to help make dinner, participate in a badass equinox ritual and MC the camp talent show. I got up early and went to bed late and it was just an intense day, full of action interspersed with long solitary car rides. And in the midst of all that, I became a member of the Althea Center.

My relationship with that place has been evolving since the beginning of the year, when a weekly Sufi study circle I belong to started meeting there. My group had been seeking a “home” in Denver for a while, and the people at Althea had told our search committee that they had all this space that they wished would be used by diverse spiritual communities. Multiple organizations with different perspectives but common purposes – supporting people in their journeys of spiritual growth – sharing a large old building that looked like a Greek temple and had been built in 1906 by the metaphysical Church of Divine Science – well, that sounded good!

The hardwood floor of the room we’d contracted to meet in, a library-slash-classroom, ended up needing major repairs, and the church, or rather the congregation, had to raise money to pay for it as they went. So for the next several months we bounced around from room to room (of which there were many). Once a month as part of our regular cycle of classes, I lead a chant night, and each month it was a mystery as to where we would sing.

Sometimes we were in an area at the back of the sanctuary with blue carpet, big armchairs, and vast accordion doors that stretched across the whole back of the large hall, but never quite clicked closed.

My favorite, though, was when we met to sing in a little alcove with a rickety table at the end of a hallway of tiny meeting rooms. There was a square window with no curtain or blind that could with effort be opened onto a city alley below. The walls were yellow and there were not really any decorations. It felt old and worn.

This is a quality I love so much in buildings, perhaps especially in churches. It takes me back to St. Joseph’s basement where I performed in a children’s Christmas pageant in a quilted bathrobe, and to my dad’s UU fellowship that had its sanctuary and office-slash-library in the rooms above a rural community theater – where I hung out while my dad was in board meetings, where I took an early stab at novel writing, where I first encountered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

The Althea Center IS old. It was the “mother” church of the Divine Science movement and has been a place where mystical and progressive and metaphysical spiritual perspectives have found a welcome since 1898. It’s fascinating to me to think of the teachers who have spoken there over these years, perhaps some of the people whose ideas influenced people like Sam Lewis, who originated the Dances of Universal Peace, my encounter with which has transformed my life in every possible way.


I’ve been thinking about these connections since I started attending the eclectic Sunday morning services at Althea, which happened when out of the blue I got an email asking me if I might be interested in sharing some interfaith songs and chants there. Seemed their previous song leader had left and someone (a member of the aforementioned study group who helped organize our rental of the space) had mentioned to them that I might be able to help out. I was utterly thrilled at the invitation. I led a couple of chants one Sunday in May and it seemed to be mutually agreeable so I’ve been going back ever since.

It makes me nervous, getting up there with what I consider not the best guitar talent, and I feel very conscious of my imperfect playing, especially with such incredible musicians as play there. The church website advertises the Sunday service as having “world class music” and they are not kidding – though I read that and think, “Everyone but me, of course.” It’s an extra bonus and source of inspiration for me that I get to hear these awesome classical (and sometimes New Age) musicians play each week. And somehow I, with my little acoustic guitar chant singalong, am part of that.

It’s a lesson in getting over myself, all right. If I succumbed to shame and hid away whenever I felt embarrassed about my playing, it would all be over. But it is such a dream come true to be able to actually share the type of music that I do, which is so quirky (and, I often feel, dorky, though I nonetheless am compelled to do it almost without ceasing) with people who seem to find it helpful in some way. It’s shocking to me that I could ever find myself having this opportunity, and I keep thinking that they’ll soon be tired of me and my mistakes and that will be that, but I am so grateful for each and every chance to share this music in this space with this community.

That’s part of why I chose to become a member of the Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality last weekend. There’s also the way the church supports and encourages the arts, especially artists and groups from marginalized communities; the way it opens its space for all kinds of conferences and real, in-depth conversations about the critical issues facing our nation and world today; the way it puts the guiding principle of oneness into action, the kind of action that makes things better.

I thought this part of the membership ritual perfectly captured the essence that I love about Althea. People who were joining the church each lit a candle on a table at the front of the church. But the candles weren’t new candles that all looked the same. They were every different kind of candle in every condition of prior use and semi-meltedness, some practically straight and some bulbous or gnarled. They were all different heights and the long stove matches we were given to light them with didn’t reach down neatly to the burnt wicks but left black marks on the white wax sides.

To me it was like – Look at this motley crew, so quirky and so loved. Each member empowered to give their gifts in full acknowledgement of their imperfection – their uniqueness. It’s such a great vibe and I’m honored and delighted to be a part of it.

So I feel like when I completed that little ritual of joining the community, a door quietly opened somewhere in me. And I am very curious to see where it leads.

Looking up, looking out, looking beyond.

 

Talkin’ ‘Bout Capitalism

Now and then, at the end of the day, my partner and I sometimes end up talking about capitalism — what it is, what it does, what it encourages, what it does and/or does not allow.  We observe that it seems to foster creativity and innovation, but we wonder whether it’s part of its nature to then squash any truly status-quo-challenging pursuits.  We don’t know whether or not it contains within itself the capacity for facing and solving the problems it has caused. These are sincere questions.

capitalism

Not long after one of these late-night conversations, I randomly came across this lecture by Paul Mason, recipient of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize, published in the New Statesman on June 12, and it attracted my interest. Keynes, Mason says, believed that capitalism (barring unforeseen circumstances) would have to end up providing for the well-being of all. But Mason disagrees, or rather points out that the circumstances that followed Keynes’ prediction were indeed unforeseen, and as a result of these circumstances, most recently the rise of information technology, capitalism has evolved into a system that can’t support itself indefinitely. (In my words, I would say that the system is unsustainable).

Mason describes the economic impact of a situation “where large amounts of information are produced and exchanged at negligible real prices, if not for free.”  He argues,

Consider the social implications: if the cost of information goods tends towards zero, and the ability to standardise and virtualise the manufacture of real things also rapidly reduces their cost, the real price of labour will also fall because a) supply exceeds demand and b) the input costs fall.

That is what I think underpins the surprise outcome of the neoliberal revolution: the impoverishment of the developed-world working class. It looks like the outcome of class struggle and defeat, but it may also be the product of a one-time technology event.

Mason goes on to point out specific ways in which the phenomenon of the concentration of wealth constrains people’s movement, speech, choice, and wellness.  The examples he gives, like the protester being kicked by the official, resonate with his analysis; really, they are just a very few of the many possible events, public and private, that could be cited.

Yet Mason also notes that the new information technology and culture have led to a flourishing of “non-managed, peer-produced, non-market activity based around information” — all the content and all the software that people are creating and giving away for free.  “Non-market activity”!  Those are good words, to me.  Activity that exists outside of the market?  Really?  It can exist?  What an important site of production.  Mason thinks that it has the potential, if not the destiny, to unravel capitalism itself.

What most stood out to me in this lecture, however, might have been nothing more than a quirk of phraseology.  Toward the end of the essay, he writes:

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

It’s this language of imagination that compels me.  “Creating the world of abundance … decoupled from the question of …” What he’s calling for, or maybe just observing the need for, is a paradigm shift.  Can we imagine a world of abundance?  One that’s based on something other than the working models of the current economic system?  Can we imagine that?  I think we NEED to devote a lot of our attention to imagining that, and imagining the tools that we would need to get there.

I love the last line of this passage.  It points to the idea that power, as it is currently aligned, stands in the way of any type of paradigm change.  It states that “the better life,” hopefully the sustainable life, is something that needs to be envisaged, visualized, envisioned (or held as a vision), and created, emerging from our creativity, imagined and brought into being.  My interpretation: that the practice of envisioning a better world, of a different order entirely, must be nurtured and spread, until so many people are doing it that it begins to have power of its own.

Post-capitalism.

Mason ends the lecture by claiming that “the true Keynesian thing to do is to imagine a humanist future based on abundance and freedom, and explore what tools we have that might make it come about. There is no better time to imagine it.”

Social change needs imagination right now.  Ok, it needs a lot of things.  And one of those things is imagination.  From school to business to personal relationships.  From science and technology to human services to politics.  Everybody has imagination.  It is a truly vast, undertapped resource (here in America in the present day).

If imagination were truly valued in America, would we stand for companies buying out promising innovators with planet-saving solutions simply to shut them down? Or companies like Monsanto buying the research firms that test their products for safety?

Would we cut every imagination-developing class from our public schools?

Why does anyone wonder why we haven’t yet imagined, on a mass scale, a sustainable society?

And who does the status quo serve?

It is said that every system does exactly what it is designed to do.

What is our system doing?

Is that really the best we can imagine?

Sherlock Holmes and the Book Club of the Departed

Series 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock went off the website last weekend, but not before I’d watched all three episodes twice. I’m hooked on this show. It combines all my favorite elements: brilliant, angsty young Englishmen in enviable coats; very funny banter; irresolvable sexual tension; dramatic rhythm guitars; and a very realistic and impressive method of incorporating text message conversations into the narrative. (Weirdo that I am, that last thing may be what sealed it for me.)

As a matter of fact, I’ve never been a huge fan of mysteries, either in literature or on TV. It’s just not a genre that I can really get into, and I couldn’t even tell you why. My partner loves mystery shows, especially old ones, and now and then I sit down and watch one with him. They’re great: campy, intriguing — sometimes they even make pithy social commentary, but after an episode or two I just get bored. So something about Sherlock‘s killer combination wins me over IN SPITE OF my anti-mystery bias. I like it so much it feels like a guilty pleasure. (But really, the true guilty pleasure is my computer wallpaper featuring the lead actor’s face and the quote, “Why can’t people just THINK?” Let me tell you, we commiserate about this quite frequently.)

Lit nerd that I am, I finally couldn’t resist picking up the books. I read A Study In Scarlet aloud to Sam during a road trip a couple of weeks ago (the trip was just long enough to finish the book! Yay!). (Also, yes, I’ve sucked him into the whole Sherlock thing. He thinks I’m a little silly, but he also thinks Moriarty is hot.) We had great fun with the first book (even the Mormon interlude — Brits writing about American expansion — fascinating! to me, anyway) and thought we’d go on to the rest. So I emailed my mom to ask if there might be any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books lingering around the house.

See, before this ever started, way before there was Sherlock-the-show (ok, the recurring miniseries), my family has had Sherlock baggage. Well, maybe baggage isn’t the right word. Sherlock was always a presence. My grandfather, who made an appearance in my last post, incidentally, was in love with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t think it would be quite true to say that the Sherlock Holmes books were the ONLY books he ever read — he read the Bible, and some other classics, mainly Victorian from what I can gather — but he read and reread the Sherlock books over and over and over.

He hadn’t gone to college but he believed in education, was impressed by degrees and what he saw as general smartness. (My mom had that, and he was impressed by it, but they never had an easy relationship.) He wanted what was best for his small family but was often way off on what that was; he was an old school Italian-American patriarch, though, absolute ruler of his little parcel, and his word was final.

Words, words, words … He was a lectury kind of guy. He liked to, you know, hold forth. (I can’t say I didn’t get some of that from him!)  His discourses on such topics as the reason Italians eat squid at Christmas or how everybody pronounces a particular word wrong, showing their grammatical sloppiness and thus poor chances to advance in life, were generally repeated many times — like PBS shows, I suppose, there was always an encore performance. He would get an idea in his mind and insist on it — factually accurate or not. He had his own way of reasoning.

This could be why he resonated with Sherlock. He liked that the detective had so developed his capacity of deduction. It made sense to my grandfather (whom we called Nono, or sometimes No-no — improperly-spelled Italian, but perfect in symbolism) and I think maybe it gave him confidence in his own self-education, his own lifelong striving to improve his own mind. In a way he surely saw himself as a fellow traveler with Holmes. Both, in their own ways, crabby men who looked down on the majority of people around them, both idiosyncratic in the things that gave them joy — both lovers of the life of the mind, both trying to figure things out.

Then, after my grandfather passed away in 2006, those members of my family who believe that our loved ones and guides can communicate with us from the other side — my mom, my partner and I — got some more insight into Nono’s journey and personality while he was in the “living” plane.  My mom has had the most contact with him; she’s come to understand that he lashed out in anger and clamped down control over his family so much because he didn’t know any other way of dealing with the burdens of his life.  She says he’s actually very sorry, now that he can see things more clearly, for all of the hurt he caused.   For me, too, the impression I’ve received of his transformation through death is one of unburdening.  I felt him as an exuberant kid, running around and shouting “whee!!!” in the joy of letting go of materiality.  So maybe it was also the sheer adventure of the stories that spoke to him, to the boy reading a dime novel who lived inside of him.

When I asked my mom if she still had any of Nono’s books, she said it was funny I should ask that, but she was unsurprised.  She had herself suddenly gotten into the Sherlock Holmes series soon after my grandfather died, and read them all online at Readsherlock.com.  Then about two years ago, she said, my brother had become obsessed with the Sherlock books and wanted to know if she had any of Nono’s books.  As it happened, my grandmother had given them to Goodwill, so she bought a used deluxe annotated edition and sent it to him.  I said I’d had the funny feeling that when I read A Study in Scarlet, he was reading over my shoulder.  I guess maybe he still loves it and still enjoys reading it again and again!

And to add another layer of intrigue to the story, it so happens that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a strong and vocal advocate of the spiritualist movement  in the early twentieth century.  That’s the one that created spiritual communities based around the idea that they could explicitly communicate with the dead.  These communities were apparently the target of police harassment, which Conan Doyle protested, according to Andrew Lycett in this great article written from a curious skeptic’s viewpoint.  So I can just imagine, playfully, if there is some place where souls of the formerly living can greet each other — my grandfather, upon dying, quickly seeking out his revered favorite author.  From this association he might become exceptionally good at making contact with those on the embodied side who might be actively looking for his signals.  Hey, it’s a thought!!!

At any rate, I approach reading the books as a way of learning more about him, and a chance to wonder what about his personality drew him so strongly to these stories.  It’s my way of continuing our relationship.  My mom tells me that my grandfather really wants to help us in any way he can.  I know that he loved me very much, and I feel that there’s a lot I can learn from him still.  I feel closer to him as I enter Conan Doyle’s fictional world and roam turn of the century London with my attention on the mysterious.  It’s a damn entertaining journey, and I welcome his company.

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me.  I heart recycled books.  She said it's the same edition she had bought for her father.  The original illustrations are amazing.  I love it!!!  Thanks, Mom!!!

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me. I heart recycled books. She said it’s the same edition she had bought for her father. The original illustrations are amazing. I love it!!! Thanks, Mom!!!

Right Brain Friday

This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach.  I’m taking Drawing 101.  I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff.  So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again.  And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!

I am actually learning how to draw.  But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of.  One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind.  I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing.  Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do).  The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.

For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed!  The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all.  The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.”  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.

So I took a break.  I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is.  I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over.  And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate.  Not exactly like it, but more like it.  And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.

What did this feel like?  It felt like Wow!!!  I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse.  It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night.  Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy.  I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud.  Yeah!!!

The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education.  The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking.  And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future.  I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important.  BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.  

Art is not a luxury.  Art is what makes science GO.

(steps down from soapbox)

Anyway.  Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom.  In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects.  (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.)  As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class.  I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.

Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain.  My mind became as a blank whiteboard.  All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????”  Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where.  By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.

But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart.  And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five).  And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.

And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months.  Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain.  I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use.  And I feel like a million bucks.  And I can’t describe it any better than that.

face

room

Some Thoughts Can’t Be Expressed As Statements

Remember watching The L-Word?  Maybe we were less picky about our entertainment back then.  Anyway, there was one point in the show where Bette, going through a personal crisis, took up meditation.  She wasn’t entirely unconvincing.  At the peak of this period she went on a week-long silent retreat at a gorgeous, swanky retreat center in the Pacific Northwest.  Man, it looked nice up there.  But it turned out that much silence was not what Bette really craved.  The episode ended like a dam breaking as she poured out her pent-up words into someone’s voice mail: “I want, I want, I want…”

This scene, and this line, have stayed with me.  I sometimes find myself thinking those words, in that same heart-filled voice, without really being able to finish the sentences.  Sometimes it seems as though what I want doesn’t exist yet, so how could I know what it is called?

And then there are the things too painful to name, or at least to call them by the words everyone else uses.  The real names of these things, maybe, are silent; these other words only code, because the real names, when spoken, are unbearably sad.

Sometimes all I can bring myself to do is ask questions, and let the many possible answers hang unvocalized in the air like invisible memorials.

Here are some questions that I would like to offer:

Who owns a neighborhood, who owns the streets?  Who has authority to say who belongs there and who does not?

Why is a life of so little value that people are allowed to act with lethal force toward anyone who scares them?

Why have we created a climate in which violence is so quickly reached for in every uncomfortable situation?  Is there any way we can uncreate it?

Why are alternative solutions suppressed?  Why do we stand for it?

When will our nation encourage people to take responsibility for the hurt they cause, purposely or inadvertently?  When will our nation lead by example?

Would different standards have been applied if the one who died had been a white teenager?  Can anyone ever be honest about this?

What if those deciders had observed their own reactions and sincerely asked themselves, why does a policeman “just sound more convincing” to them?

Will our collective inclination to be generous and compassionate toward one another ever overcome our collective defensiveness?

How can anyone say the gun did this?

How can anyone say race is not involved?

Does it mean I support the US criminal justice system as it now exists if I wish that some punishment had been assigned to this person who survived the fight?  Even though I know in my heart that jail causes far more damage than it heals?

What’s a better way?

What can we do?

What can I do?

Let me be explicit here that while a certain “case” (if that’s really what we want to call it) has been in the news so much that even I have heard of it, and while I am truly saddened by the end of this particular story, this “case” is an EXAMPLE of one localized outcome of the values of violence-before-compassionate-action that permeate American society, and that’s why I feel sorrow for our country as a whole.  Other outcomes are other young people’s deaths, within the borders of the US and around the world.  That’s why I have chosen not to mention any names in this post, even though I hope it’s clear what national conversation has inspired these reflections.  I don’t know the specific people involved and I would hate for any of them to feel that I used their names for personal gain or publicity.  But I do recognize patterns.  And on occasion, throughout our history, certain other murders that were widely covered by the press (to the exclusion of thousands of similar stories; why those few get chosen, I don’t know) have served as motivators for change, as instigators for discussion, as alarm clocks for consciences.

When my own words can’t be found, songs sung in other languages can be comforting.  In the ardor of the singer’s expression, I can imagine whatever grief I’m feeling coming out in the music, too.

I remember listening to this African music show called Motherland Jam on KOPN, the community radio station in Columbia.  The host began each installment with “Shosholoza,” a South African folk song.  I always loved the sounds and melody of this song, even before I knew what it was about.  In fact it’s a song about working in the mines.  It came on my MP3 player while I was writing this, and it felt like medicine to my heart.  According to Wikipedia, it was sung traditionally sung call-and-response style by all-male groups in the Ndebele language to “express the hardship [and] heartache” of that deep, dark, dirty work underground and in camps, separated from families, abused by bosses.  The word “Shosholoza … means go forward or make way for the next man … It is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity.”  The article continues, “In contemporary times, its meaning is to show support for any struggle.”

The lyrics alchemize the trials endured by the miners into poetry:

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Wen’ uyabaleka

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume Rhodesia

Go forward

Go forward

on those mountains

train to South africa

Go forward

Go forward

You are running away

You are running away

on those mountains

train from Zimbabwe

So if I may place one thing on the altar of the memory of this one particular almost-man who was killed, and whose death, for whatever reason, allowed America to engage in a conversation, even if the conversation hasn’t yet led to any answers, I would make it this song.

“American Tune”

A couple of days ago, I was listening to the last episode of the NPR call-in show Talk of the Nation.  I’ve never been a huge follower of the show because I’m not usually driving around listening to the radio at midday, but I did always enjoy it when I heard it, and even though I’ve been accused more than once of being unsentimental, I did feel a slight welling up of emotion at its going away.

Host Neal Conan had Ted Koppel on as a guest on this series finale, doing a look back over the hosts’ lifetimes (since 1940) and speculating about whether America as a nation is better or worse off than it has been at other points since World War II.  The question on the table, for both Koppel and the callers-in, was, are you hopeful about the future?  Are you optimistic or pessimistic?  How bad are things now, compared to other times in the history of the nation, and what’s “bad” about what “things”?  One way they asked it that seemed to resonate with a lot of people was, “What keeps you up at night?”

Koppel stated in no uncertain terms that he was not hopeful about the future.  He had a series of reasons why he thinks the nation is in great danger at this moment, in some ways more even than in the Cold War days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

While listening, I thought of a friend who’d recently brought up this topic, from a different perspective.  She’d heard a speaker at a community gathering who’d totally changed her thinking on that question.  This speaker (whose name I don’t know) had listed many OTHER reasons why he saw things as getting continually BETTER, and noted that globally speaking, we humans are living, on average, much safer, healthier lives than we did earlier in the 20th century, with many fewer of us dying violent deaths or succumbing to epidemics.

Interestingly, the same debate came up in my class the other night.  It was an extended tangent away from the original topic of violence and competitions for dominance in society, where those forces come from, and whether or not they should be read as any sort of problem.  One guy, a returning student and Iraq war veteran in his 40s, stood up and insisted that first of all, humans are nothing more than animals with a VERY thin veneer of “culture” or domesticity, and we are inherently and appropriately violent beings, right down to our genetic cores; and, second, those elusive “things” in this country are going to get worse, and worse, and worse. “The world is never going to change,” he said adamantly.

As the class split up at the end of the evening, he lingered to wrap the conversation up with me.  He mentioned something that he would do when he ran for Congress.  I asked him if he really planned on running for Congress, because I could imagine him realistically doing so, and I like to encourage people to pursue their dreams.  He said yes, maybe someday, and would he have my vote?  I laughed and said I would have to see his whole platform; that I would have to reserve my judgment.

This is how I feel about the “what’s going to happen to us in the future” question, the debate over whether things are getting worse or getting better.  I do not really know, and anyway I suppose the standards of measurement are fairly suspect (“things”).  Many of my students, and others around me, express their anxiety about the future in terms of whether American will be able to keep its status as “number one.”  They see the possibility of other national currencies supplanting the dollar as “strongest” as a harbinger of future humiliation and economic hardship.  Meanwhile, others frame the problems of the present in terms of the United States’ refusal to prioritize the survival needs of the people and the planet over the survival needs of corporations.  So the jury is still out on whether we humans WILL make things better.  But I do wholeheartedly believe that we CAN.

I am hopeful about the possibility that humans can evolve, make new choices, and become less harmful to each other and to the planet.  There are other parts of us, besides our animal instincts, which give us the drive, in the face of extreme inconvenience, to create ever more just and compassionate social systems and ways of interacting with each other in every area of life, from the family to the industry to the market to the international stage of diplomacy.  I don’t know where this human journey is going, but I know it’s going somewhere.  I believe it’s our destiny to evolve.

It has also been many other species’ destiny to evolve—and some of them did so to the point where the original species became unrecognizable.  In a sense, thy evolved themselves out of existence.  And in at least some cases, I’m okay with that.

I’ve been called unsentimental because sometimes I have the ability to let go, without too many tears, of things that are no longer functioning, or no longer the most beneficial, or no longer meeting the need they were created to meet because the need is no longer there.  At least sometimes, I can recognize that it could be better to have a vacant space, into which something new and better suited to the present moment might come, than to hang on to the old thing, which, though it might still be providing some benefit, when weighed in the balance is really doing more harm than good.

So I’m led to ask, could this idea about America always being number one in the world be one of those things?  To question this assumption, I know, sounds bad.  But I’ve always believed that to hold someone accountable for their failures is an act of love.  Maybe it’s more the idea that America must be number one in the world–in everything–for us to feel secure that needs to go.  Because first of all, we’re not.  We’re not handling our internal affairs in a responsible way, and corporate preferences continually triumph over public good in our political, economic, educational, and cultural spheres.  And second of all, “the winner of everything” is a very insecure spot to be in.  When one’s sense of self worth is tied to beating everyone else in everything, one has to be constantly on the defensive and pour all one’s energy into maintaining one’s status.  And then one ends up forced to endorse the idea that all others are, in small and large ways, lesser than oneself.

In that same Talk of the Nation interview, Koppel and Conan talked about Nelson Mandela, who was at that time in the process of dying at age 94 in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa.   The journalists were calling him an exceptional leader, a great leader in a historical period that’s been mainly absent of noticeable greatness.  The source of Mandela’s distinction was the way he approached nation-building and national healing in the years after apartheid.  He and his party promoted a policy of “Truth and Reconciliation,” through which those who had benefited from the regime and brutalized the Black South Africans took responsibility for their actions, while those who had been oppressed and terrorized were treated with respect, and their suffering and grief and anger were given space to be heard.  It was not a reversal of the existing hierarchy, with the formerly colonized group now ruling over the old colonizers.  Instead, it was a process of actual peacemaking.  I daresay it involved everyone courageously forcing themselves to see everyone else involved as humans, attempting to find out what they all needed as humans, and seeking to meet those needs when possible, thus allowing each other to let go of some of their fear and defensiveness and pain.  It was a process whose goal was to lay a framework for lasting and continuing peace in that nation.

Voices around the world have been practically unanimous in acclaiming Mandela as a hero and visionary.  Yet none of our leaders have been willing to follow in his footsteps, rejecting the path of revenge on those who have been constructed as our enemies, those who we believe have done us harm.  None of our leaders, when faced with other nations, groups, or individuals behaving towards us in a hostile way, have stepped up to begin a discussion by taking responsibility for the many actions of the United States that have undermined the liberty, autonomy, and well being of people around the world and within our own borders.  In interpersonal relations, this would be the stance of a strong person, a brave person, a person trying to do what is right to the best of one’s imperfect ability.  In international affairs, such an approach is trivialized and called weakness.

I saw a meme on Facebook once that posed a question similar to this: The war in Iraq has cost the US government over 800 billion dollars so far (that’s according to CostofWar.com as of 6/30/13; click to see what it’s up to now).  What if, instead of going to war, just half of that money had been spent addressing as many of the needs of the Iraqi people as possible, that is, building sustainable civilian institutions to bring the best possible public services to underserved regions?  Would there be a conflict now?  Would there be an unstable situation?  This scenario is unimaginable to most people; it’s outside of the currently dominant paradigm.  And I’m not saying there has been none of this, but I am saying that the investment in really meeting the people’s needs has been tiny compared to the investment in fighting the people.  For all the dozens of military veterans I’ve met in my community college classes over the past three years, I’ve never met one person who’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan on any kind of peace mission.  The US has approached the situation from a military point of view only; our nation, at the government level, is just not capable yet of looking at an international conflict from a healing point of view.  But if they could, I’ll wager they’d see a lot more progress, a lot more resolution, a lot more stability and security, a lot more freedom for both “them” and “us.”

That would be greatness, America.  Living in fear that the dollar may not be the international standard any more is not greatness.  We’ve had that distinction for a while, and we should feel honored; but there are other countries in the world whose citizens know something about economics, and maybe have been doing some things better than we have lately.  What’s so bad about that?  Don’t capitalists supposedly love competition?

If we follow the line of reasoning that says that in world politics, one nation must be permanent leader (and it must be us) out a little ways, we begin to sound suspiciously like the sort of people who get called “dictator” in the mainstream media when they are in charge of other countries.  And if we look inside of that argument, we realize it depends on the assumption that if there is a permanent top dog, then everyone else must necessarily be an inferior dog, at least in the eyes of the top.  In other words, the culture of dominance in which one group has to be on top implies that all the other groups are 1. submissive, 2. subservient, 3. dependent, or 4. enemies to the ones on top.  Is that really the relationship we want to be in with ALL of our neighbors on the planet?

As you may be able to infer from this blog, I’m a terrible one for picking favorites (favorite word? favorite book?  I just can’t answer).  But I do have a favorite songwriter: Paul Simon.  After I listened to that Talk of the Nation finale, his 1973 song “American Tune” came into my head.  What I love about that song is that, for me anyway, it perfectly captures the frustration and the optimism, the quiet necessity of moving forward even with a broken heart.  I hate to quote a single line or verse, because the song is such a complete whole, but here’s the bridge:

And I dreamed I was dying

Dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly

And looking back down at me

Smiled reassuringly,

And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying …

The mystics of all religions teach us that when we become something new, we do die.  Indeed, as we are continually changing, we let go of what we were, continually dying and being reborn while still living this life.  When we transform into something really different, when we take a big leap forward in our evolution, our old selves die in a more dramatic way, and that’s one reason why it’s really really scary, and takes huge courage, to allow ourselves to grow in those important ways.  As we reach toward the best that we can be, we necessarily shed old identities that no longer serve us.  Those identities may have served us for a long time, and become full of routines, relationships, ways of doing things, answers.  Letting go of them can be really damn hard.

But as the song suggests, I do believe we individuals have souls, and our souls are on a rising journey.  Our souls are heading upward; the more we get our egos out of the way, the faster they rise.  And I do believe that’s the way forward for groups of people, too.  There has to be a desire to become better—when the fire of passion for being the best one can be is awakened, we find the courage to let go of old paradigms that no longer serve.  We find the will to push ourselves to do difficult things, or things that scare us because we don’t already know what the outcome will be (because we’ve never tried them before). We can do it because we come to want so badly to become better than we are.

The concept of “hitting bottom” is illustrative here; an addict, after all, is just someone who’s become extremely dependent on a way of coping with life that’s actually much more destructive than beneficial, though it may at first seem otherwise.  Hitting bottom, losing or being truly threatened with the loss of something that it would feel unbearably painful to lose, is the most tried-and-true way that addicts have found to begin the sincere search for recovery.  Hitting bottom puts us (not just drug or alcohol addicts, to be clear here; we might include people addicted to bullying, or to being in control) in a humble frame of mind.  It gives us a yearning to transform for the better, and makes us willing to do anything it takes to heal ourselves and our relationships.  Ironically, hitting bottom can be the most powerful source of courage.  Maybe we reach this place when we finally look around and see all the suffering we’ve caused – something happens that’s so dramatic, it becomes impossible for us to continue to be willfully blind to our role in the destruction.  Maybe we reach it when we take a big hit from the world, get knocked out, see stars.  Suddenly we see ourselves with clarity and realize that our ways are not sustainable.  We need to change or die.

And, out of utter necessity, our minds become open to receive ideas from a new paradigm.  What was impossible to conceive of doing before now becomes a lifeline.  This is one way in which I can imagine nations like America evolving.

Of course, some addicts go through their entire lives without ever hitting a bottom that makes them seriously question their habits.  Many nations have risen to power and fallen to the next in line for dominance.  There’s no guarantee that anyone will ever “change” in the sense of becoming willing to undertake a difficult process of transformation—from the inside out—in order to bring their life into greater accord with their soul’s purposes.  But some do suggest that the more of us individuals undertake those efforts, the more collective energy will build, ultimately lifting and carrying along others who might not have come to that process on their own.  So that, for me, is a starting place.  It’s not an end.  I’m actively seeking ways to support and promote my nation’s process of healthy self-examination and change for the better.

Happy Independence Week, y’all.