On Welcoming the Discomfort of Tears

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“After adolescence, human empathy matures, and adults might cry in reaction to the suffering of others…Strong positive emotions from a reunion, team victory or moving artistic performance might cause adults to cry, too….[But] there are two major consistent triggers for adult crying. ‘The first is helplessness and powerlessness…the second, separation and loss.’

… If you think your emotions are regularly getting the best of you, chat with your doctor about it just in case — an underlying condition like depression or anxiety could be causing you to cry a lot. ‘There is no specific amount of crying that is a problem.’”

(“How to Stop Yourself from Crying,” The New York Times, 15 October 2018)

One of the most influential and venerable sources of information in the country just told me that I don’t have to cry.

It’s an odd article—the author isn’t telling me that I shouldn’t cry, or not exactly. But the framing of the advice, not to mention the fact that both author and at least one editor thought the article ought to exist in the first place, suggest that crying is a bad thing that readers can, might want, and ought to avoid. At a minimum, you don’t want to be caught crying…anywhere? At work, certainly not. 

An accompanying article on “Why you shouldn’t feel bad about crying at work” makes it very clear that you should feel bad about crying at work, as the author and his interview subject explain how, if you must cry, you can downplay its occurrence. We get the idea that while some mild welling up is an acceptable excess of emotion, crying excessively (honestly?) in the presence of others is a sign of weakness, instability, and might (just incidentally) be a sign that an employee is in trouble. Or that the employee is trouble: if you’re crying all the time, “your boss is probably going to worry about how much stress you’re under and whether you can handle the demands of the job.”

What I’m hearing – when I and everyone around me seems on the verge of tears multiple times a day – is that the thing to do with our emotions is NOT examine them for what they can tell us (about, for example, whether our working, social, political, and environmental lives are profoundly out of balance) – but rather, to do what it takes to avoid crying in front of others….Because others might be embarrassed and confused by your feelings? Because you’re not surrounded with people who understand and care for you and want to comfort you, but because you’re an anomaly in a world of otherwise stoic, disciplined people who are all Getting On With It, and your indulgence of frustration, grief, anger, and alienation is just getting in the way…?

“If you identify potentially fraught situations beforehand, you can limit your emotional response.”

Let’s just slow down and examine that oddly disembodied claim, shall we?

Here’s a sample of potentially fraught situations which might prompt me to cry:

  • being tired
  • having your mind and energy colonized by an onslaught of bureaucratic tasks of varying urgency and uncertain purpose
  • not being listened to
  • being interrupted, and still not listened to
  • being lonely
  • promising yourself that you’ll go to dance class to rejuvenate your spirit after an especially soul-sucking day only to find the class has been cancelled
  • being so busy (with what?) that you don’t have the time to eat (or stay hydrated, or close your eyes, or go to the bathroom, or take a pill for the headache/nausea/anxiety that you can’t seem to shake)
  • being confused by what it is exactly that you’re supposed to DO to change ANYTHING and even if you had the least clue, not being sure where to start
  • needing to get somewhere and having all public infrastructure fail you
  • being betrayed by someone you trusted
  • missing someone you love
  • being too far away from friends and family
  • being terrified by the absolute peril facing this whole planet
  • being grief-stricken at the depletion of our environment
  • being outraged by seeing your elected government slide further into fascism and oppression every day
  • witnessing your fellow human beings being disrespected, unregarded, and violated in more ways than you could think possible
  • ignorance
  • cruelty
  • selfishness
  • indifference
  • being really, really tired.

The question I have is not, how do I stop myself from crying? Rather: how is it that we’re all going about our business—working, shopping, investing, sitting in meetings, sitting through tv—as though everything is normal?

Why do I want to limit my emotional response? Why should I? Why should any of us?

I think we need more tears. I suspect that the first steps in trying to enact revolutionary change are NOT

  • saving face
  • denying your own emotions to protect other people’s comfort (and by “comfort”  I mean, a desire not to confront the fact that we’re all going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable if we want to save everything we really love)
  • denying that we care, that the suffering of others hurts.

Today, I think we should all go out into the world, and in exactly those places where crying would be least welcome, least convenient, most messy, most provocative—we should let the tears flow. We should weep, snivel, howl, gasp, cry.

We should feel.

We should demand that the others around us feel too, as an essential impetus to think.

We should turn to one another for comfort.

Then we should decide what to do next.

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On Exposure

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I guess it was inevitable, something we all knew was going to happen. Can’t stop the march of time and all of that. I’ve crossed some kind of boundary, passed a marker on the path, and the days of naive youth are beyond me.

What I mean is that I’ve entered that phase of life where I can regularly be seen naked in public.

I’ve been more naked, more often, in the last two years than since I was two. 

“But people don’t do such things!” … is what someone always cries out in an Ibsen play right before a major character is driven by overwhelming personal and social forces to do exactly the thing that she oughtn’t’ve, in a shocking fashion.

Exactly. How much of our socialization insists on our NOT being nakedly exposed to the world? The conditioning to keep covered up, literally and figuratively, goes pretty deep, reinforced with threats of the direst consequences. I’ve had that anxiety dream playing regularly in my poor unconscious my whole adult life. You know the one, where you’re walking down a street, or standing in a crowded bar, and suddenly, by some accident, you find yourself without clothes, and very confused about how next to behave (“maybe if I don’t let on that I know I’m naked, no-one will notice…?”), but, oddly, no-one seems to care, until out of nowhere there appears – middle of the street, middle of the bar – a toilet which begins to overflow uncontrollably, and when you try frantically to stop it (somehow it’s all your fault) THEN everyone notices you’re completely starkers, and every neurotic fear of being singled out and judged is happening All. At. Once. In your dreams, people do do such things, and promptly find themselves fleeing from a tide of effluent while the whole world watches. 

My current experiment in public nakedness is not at all like that. There has been surprisingly little anxiety (at least on my part, though I can’t speak for onlookers), and, so far (mercifully), no overflowing toilets. More pertinently, there hasn’t been anything accidental about it. It turns out that, in waking life, professional, respectable, North American, women-who-are-no-longer-twenty must do a certain amount of planning, and often exert themselves considerably, to be purposefully naked in public.

I started a couple of summers ago, by dipping my toes, and a few other parts, in the water, with some innocuous skinny dipping, which I can now authoritatively say is nudity for amateurs (that is, there wasn’t enough of an audience). One escapade took place well under cover of darkness, as part of a very tipsy reunion with dear high school friends, at the beach where we used to hang out (clothed, if any of our mothers are reading this). A few weeks later, at a suburban lake, I was bolder, and bared it all during daylight. Well, I was bare under the water – I only had my bikini off while submerged, and even that didn’t last long, as my companion lost his nerve, worried that we’d make the police blotter in the town newspaper: “Police identified the suspects, found nakedly enjoying a cool swim on hot day, as a once-reputable local businessman in the company of a suspicious woman from the city.”

Nothing too madcap about either of those instances (is there?) – but the seeds of temptation were sown. After a long, cold, overly-layered winter, when the chance to visit a clothing-optional beach presented itself (once, and then again, and then another time after that), I took it. Yes: opportunity knocked, and I opened the door wearing nothing but a sun hat and a smile.

Insofar as youth is wasted on the young, when I actually was 20, painfully self-loathing, and prematurely, dourly, responsible, you couldn’t have paid me (and by you, I mean one – you can stop blushing and looking awkward) to take my clothes off in front of other people. Unlike now, when I would happily strip off for money (in the context of modeling for ART, thank you, because I’m classy like that). Once, in college, my boyfriend and his friends thought it would be great fun to spend the day at Wreck Beach in Vancouver. Once there, everyone in the group shucked off their clothes, and gloried in their lack of inhibitions – which only made me cling all the more stubbornly to mine, plus a few extra on their behalf. I was surrounded by nakedness – I was excruciatingly  aware that, with clothes on, in that social setting, I was being not just recalcitrant, but weird…and having that pointed out to me by some of those smugly-disinhibited friends was exactly what resolved me to stay that way. 

Years have passed, and now, here I am, making other people uncomfortable with my self-satisfied discovery of bodily liberty. Somehow, something shifted in my thinking, and my reasons for staying covered up began to seem less important than my reasons for stripping down.

I might sometimes go starkers (as in “bare naked”), but I haven’t gone starkers (as in “barking mad”). The climate where I live is inimical to nudity, if not fatal, for a good portion of the year, and forbiddingly uncomfortable for most of the rest of it. But, with the right combination of sun and water (preferably in combination with travel, where the weather’s better and no-one knows me) being naked outdoors is really quite nice. I still think those friends were smug all those years ago, and should have just accepted my modesty without making me feel badly about it – but they were right about the pleasures of having nothing but a LOT of high-SPF sunscreen between you and nature. 

And you often get a lot of that nature almost completely to yourself. There are certainly places (not the American Northeast) where nakedness is no big deal, to the extent that nudists, naturists, and the naked-curious can spread out their, um, belongings in designated sections on the most crowded public beaches. But in parts of the world where going au naturel is considered de trop, the clothing-optional beaches tend to be thoroughly off the beaten path. Once found through word of mouth, nowadays the internet makes them easier to research and find, but you have to be be looking for them, and usually involves a lot of truly-harrowing hiking on steep cliffs to get to them. This is where the exertion comes in, along with motivation, and a profound determination not to end up a regrettable headline in a Google search about all the weird ways in which your compatriots have died in the world: “Canadian killed in fool-hardy attempt to flaunt naked body in hostile natural setting.” Having survived the trek, you can’t be blamed for feeling a certain sense of entitlement, that you’ve earned the right to be however clothed or naked as you damn well please. And, thanks to that same remoteness, there really aren’t many people there to protest. Interesting social effect: people determined to remain dressed are made so uncomfortable by determinedly-naked people that, combined with the relative inaccessibility (and, often, dearth of bathrooms) the former happily cede the field to the latter.

Many naturists – and I, apparently, have become one of them – believe, earnestly if eccentrically, in the elevating experience of being completely at one with the elements. Recent research has found that nature bathing has a measurable effect on both physical and mental health – and it stands to reason that if you get some benefit even while swaddled head to toe in quick-drying technical pants and no-wrinkle camping shirts, those benefits can only increase the less you have between yourself and le plein air.

So, total immersion in natural splendor is definitely one of the more appealing reasons to seek out a clothing-optional beach. But—obviously—they also make for fantastic people watching. You get to see, well, everything, whether you want to or not. There is no better place to do anthropological field research on contemporary trends in body hair. At a minimum, you’ll see ALL the variations of male genitalia and you’ll have your suspicions confirmed, that men like to keep track of where everything is by holding onto it. Often, that’s a completely benign action (I’ve had this conversation, where a male friend says, “what, you mean women don’t watch hockey or The Great British Baking Show with their hands down their pants?” to which I reply on behalf of all women, “um, obv, NO, gross.” To which he replies, with genuine sympathy, “that’s too bad!”) But sure, it’s possible (likely) that you’ll see some creepy guy out of the corner of your eye (don’t look directly!) and not be quite sure what you’re looking at, but, yep, that’s what he’s doing all right – hanging out on the beach, just masturbating, NBD. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly (with that previous image still in mind), the politics of the gendered body follow us to the nude beach. You see more naked men than women at clothing optional beaches, and fewer by themselves. The beach itself might be quite safe, but it’s hard for women to feel safe, alone, in any kind of public space; and if it’s one thing to fend off uninvited conversation, let alone unwelcome advances, when you’ve got a parka on in the middle of the rush-hour commute, it’s quite another – more than many of us have the energy for – to deal with that behavior when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on at all. So it’s more typical to see women at nude beaches in a group, or at least (and this is not an endorsement of patriarchy, just a resigned, pragmatic concession) with a man. Even so, you have to remain vigilant, and, again, determined to avoid the headlines: “Canadian killed on remote nude beach after accepting kind offer from stranger to show her an interesting view from that isolated stand of bushes over there.” That’s where it’s useful to have some company, preferably male, at a minimum someone who’s a bit more alert and worldly than one’s trusting Canadian self.

The people who are sketchy at the nude beach would be sketchy and unwelcome anywhere. What’s really cool about nude beaches, and the naked world in general, is just how respectful the majority of people are. It’s not that such spaces exist in some kind of edenic, prelapsarian, asexual innocence; on the contrary, if we’re prone to sexual speculation when we’re in fully-dressed company, or when we’re only partly dressed (you know, like at the beach), then being naked amongst naked people isn’t going to make such thoughts any less likely. I mean, you can see them, and they can see you – sex is going to cross your mind. But if you believe that “clothing-optional” guarantees “a seething mass of infamous and perverse behavior” where neither adults, children, or pets are safe from molestation, you’ve been looking at too much fictional nakedness on the internet. Of course, there are clothing optional beaches which are popular for their, um, social potential; I’ve been told that there are resorts set up with the explicit (in all senses of the word) intention of facilitating shenanigans between consenting adults. But for as many people who want to get naked there are as many who simply want to get naked, and do nothing more racy than eat a ham sandwich, read The New Yorker, and enjoy the sunshine. Here’s a mind blowing idea: sex – do you feel like it, do you deserve it, can you enjoy it, are you safe from it, do you just want to forget about it for 5 damn minutes – is more of an imposition, a problem, when you’re surrounded by confused, shamed, shaming, clothed people, than when you’re one naked person amongst many.

You know what kind of people go naked in public? Mostly, just ordinary types like me or you, of all ages, shapes, and conditions: college kids, families with children, couples, groups of friends, those who are beautiful because of fitness and good fortune, those who are beautiful in their honest, unapologetic humanness.

When, at 20, I refused to take my clothes off on the nude beach that was because, in a fundamental way, I thought my body was ugly compared to the others I was with – well, compared to all others, really. I hate that I felt that way then, and that I’ve wasted so much mental energy, passed up so much fun, feeling that way about myself ever since. I wish I’d been able to see, then, what I’m learning to see now: those naked people – this naked person – can be happy in their nakedness. It’s a relief to just BE, amongst other people who are also just there to BE. Of course, there’s still observation and comparison and competition playing in the minds of at least some of us – that’s the mindset too many of us are trained in, and deprogramming yourself doesn’t come easily – but this is important: being naked with all these strangers, you find that trust and acceptance (of them, of yourself) comes much more easily than judgement.

Last year, a friend and I took part in our first World Naked Bike Ride (yep, it’s a thing, and I did it again this year). We spent an hour going back and forth between talking ourselves into it, and giving one another a chance to back out – but finally we gripped hands, took a deep breath, and the next thing we knew, we and a couple hundred of our neighbors were wearing a lot of body paint and few to no clothes, riding our bikes through the streets of our city on a Saturday night to raise awareness for cyclist safety and body positivity. People stopped in their tracks; they left their tables and rushed to restaurant windows; the kitchen staff left dinners on the stove and ran out onto the sidewalk; college girls looked with desperate awkwardness at their phones; twelve-year old boys gawked in grateful amazement. We sang, we danced, we took off more clothes, we made an absolute spectacle of ourselves. We were seen – and photographed, and filmed, and posted – by I-don’t-even-know-how-many passers-by. It was absolutely exhilarating. We almost certainly offended a good many people, and confused a lot of others. But mostly, onlookers were cheering, and laughing, not with derision, but with delight – did they think we were crazy? almost certainly. Did they also kind of admire us for our brazenness? I’m pretty sure they did.

More importantly – I admired us for our bravery. I admired myself, exposed to everything, ashamed of nothing. 

Naked.

Too often, we dress and undress not to protect, adorn, celebrate, or show respect, but to exploit, shame, and police ourselves and one another. Why? Don’t we have better, healthier, kinder things to do? I’d be the first person to point out that there are plenty of very good reasons (weather and chafing, for starters) NOT to take one’s clothes off in public; indeed, sometimes, for some of us, modesty can be the more powerful, radical choice. What matters is that, whether we choose a lot of clothes or few, we get to decide; we get to ignore the disapproving, shaming voices around us, within us, and, instead we can make the conscious, deliberate, terrifying, exuberant choice about how to care for, live in, and love these fabulous bodies of ours. 

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On Being an Immigrant in the New Regime, January 28, 2017.

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XVII


I’m not a citizen, but I have lived in this country for many years, obeying its laws, investing in its economy, shopping in its malls, paying its taxes, and – incidentally –  working to educate its youth. About five years ago, I also finally managed to navigate my way through this country’s byzantine immigration laws, moving painstakingly from one category of visa to another, achieving permanent resident status.

Many of those who have always been citizens here have no idea what’s involved in getting that “green card.” Some believe that to be a permanent resident is the same as being a citizen (nowhere close); it’s a common assumption that getting a green card is as easy as getting a twitter account, and about as expensive. It comes as a surprise to many Americans when I tell them how complicated and burdensome the process actually is. You have to get a special medical exam (and not from your own doctor – you have to a special, certified doctor, and it’s not covered by insurance). You have to prove that you don’t have any communicable diseases, such as the leprosy or yellow fever well known to be endemic in Canada. My lawyer was, I thought, recklessly confident that I could get an “expedited” green card if I applied as an “outstanding researcher/professor.” We pulled it off somehow, thanks to her cunning, and my labor: I had to assemble a massive dossier on myself, 300 pages of every credential I’ve ever possessed, from my birth certificate to my doctoral diploma, and every professional thing I’ve ever written, along with ten reference letters about my productivity and character. There was a criminal background check (I came up clean). I had to testify, on the application form, that I was not a communist or a terrorist, and that I had not been a member of the National Socialist Party of Germany between the years 1936-1945. And, because I was sponsored by neither a spouse, a relative, nor an employer, and because there was no way an ordinary person could penetrate the arcane mysteries of US immigration law, the fees for this whole process, paid in part to the government, but mainly to my  lawyer, cost me about $10,000.

In other words, it takes a lot of time, work, privilege, and money to get a green card, which is why lots of immigrants never get one at all, why they can’t get one. It’s also why, when you encounter an immigrant to the US in possession of a green card, you can rest assured that 1) they have been very, very thoroughly vetted; 2) they don’t have leprosy; 3) they were very earnestly committed to making a decent, safe life for themselves in this country.


When I got my green card five years ago, according to the little letter of congratulation that came with it in the mail, I had ceased to be merely an “Alien” – here on suffrance, regarded with suspicion – and instead was acknowledged as a “US Person.”

Up until a few hours ago, I assumed that being a card-carrying Person, had, in fact, guaranteed me legal personhood – that I and this country had a formal agreement whereby I would meet my obligations to it, and in return it would grant certain basic protections to me. I thought we had some kind of deal; I naively assumed that we had a contract.

Except earlier today, I and hundreds of thousands of other green card holders – US Persons, remember – just found out that that was a dumb assumption indeed. Thousands of US Persons have just been denied entrance to the country where they have jobs, property bought via those jobs, obligations, friends, lives. The explanation from the government is that these US Persons are, in fact, not – they are bogeymen, monsters, threats, made hateful because of their difference. Purporting never to have heard of any comparable, grotesque precedent in history, this government has summarily denied US Persons their human and legal right to be treated as persons.

This action is supposed to make this country safer, stronger, more great – as though denying human rights ever makes anything better. And if you think that a wall here, a registry there, this little police action, that little act of totalitarianism is no big deal, that things will be all right (as I have been told by well-intentioned, complacently-safe, white, male, citizens)… are you sure? Because if you think that government will stop with just those people, and that people like me have nothing to worry about, because people like me are just like you, and that surely our rights are safe…well, history would tell you otherwise. When some “people” seize the power to define, categorize, register, and limit who gets to be a person – you can comfort yourself that you are “us” and not “them” all you like, but you’ve already lost your rights, along with theirs, and mine. What you would like to think is safe, secure, legal – is not, not when it gets in the way of those driven by power, fear, hatred, and violence. Your safety, and that of your neighbors, is just about as inviolable, as inalienable as a 2×3 inch piece of green, laminated plastic.

That’s what happened today. Let’s brace ourselves for what happens tomorrow.

 

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On Deeds, Not Words

Today, I’ll be walking, chanting, listening, and generally being with thousands of people like myself—that is, humans who care about one another’s wellbeing—at the Women’s March on Washington. 

In preparation for this demonstration—and for the sister marches taking place throughout the US, and in many cities around the world—many of us felt we had to explain #whyimarch. In various social media sites, on t-shirts, on signs on our office doors, on the posters we’ll carry with us, to friends, to family, to staffers of elected officials on the other end of the phone line—we tried to articulate the many, many reasons motivating us. You know—surely, you know by now—the details. You’ve followed the news, the analysis, your friends’ Facebook posts; you’ve become exhausted by the exhaustive coverage of the seemingly-inexhaustible supply of outrages perpetrated, or threatened to be perpetrated, against the people of this country by its most recent batch of elected officials. 

So very many words, expressing dismay, disillusionment, disgust, hatred, fear, hope, and urgency: we can’t let this happen; it mustn’t happen; it is happening and we have to stop it now (surely we can stop it…what if we can’t stop it??). 

Speaking for myself—well, actually I can’t. Speak, that is. This…situation (crisis? disaster? dystopian tale come to life?) has left me mute. Words that once tumbled onto the page like so many eager puppies, now refuse to come, hanging back, recalcitrant, unbiddable. 

For months before the election, I was feeling a sense of menace, dragging at the edges of my concentration. Through a determined process of distraction, I could keep the dread at bay, though at the cost of the attention necessary to write anything more complex or effective than hectoring work emails. When I woke up to the inconceivable-made-manifest in November, I initially assumed that my shock wouldn’t last. “Shock”?: not even. This has been the stunned, concussing, blankness of being hit by a boy on a swing, leaving you lying on the ground waiting to inhale after all the air has been suddenly crushed out of you. I’ve been waiting to get my breath back ever since, assuming that, eventually, that hysterical tendency, that slight nervous depression, would recede, allowing me to say something, to use my skill, my small reach, to write Important Things about where we find ourselves, how we got here, and where we can hope to go.

Nothing doing. 

Words fail.

What is there to say, after all? 

A person (and I use the term grudgingly) has lied, and connived, and injured, in plain sight, HIS WHOLE LIFE—and is was just sworn in to the highest political office, whereupon he is authorizing the most appalling band of misogynist, racist, queer-phobic, anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, unethical bridge trolls to carry out more lying, conniving, and injury. This should not have happened, and yet millions of people in this country made sure—actively and passively—that it did, that it will. 

Again—you know all this. If you’re reading this, it’s almost a certainty that you and I have read, watched, and heard the same things, and have had the same reactions, and want the same things—namely for these horrible people to sink back into the mire and leave the rest of us to get on with the business of caring for one another. 

But that’s the problem—what can I say to you, that you don’t already know, or fear, or want? You’ve been informed, and persuaded, by better, less tongue-tied writers than me. Anything I say now will be repetition; any agreement that you offer in return will be almost reflexive. The best result I could hope for would be that we would feel some gratifying sense of commiseration, some sympathy, in the exchange—but I can’t move you to believe differently, because you already do, and we already agree.

And look how far that got us. 

Even if hundreds of thousands of us affirm our shared commitment to our progressive manifesto today–what if it’s not enough? It might not be anything to all those we don’t know (or whom we once knew, but have, out of disgust and exasperation, cut from our lives). We couldn’t reach them with the most informed, well-intentioned, impassioned arguments before…because we were never actually talking to them anyway, nor were they inclined to listen (they, them, those people who are not like me, who now want to disenfranchise people like me). All along, when we thought we were reaching everyone, we were only reaching one another—which matters, of course! it counts for something—but which, it turns out, was doing as much harm as good.

Researchers in behavioral science (whose funding will doubtless be on the chopping block next week) have found that once people (regardless of ideology) have adopted a position—about politics, for example, or health—they get perversely, intractably stubborn about accepting information that might change their minds. We get vain about our knowledge, insecure about admitting we’re wrong…and very skilled at filtering out troublesome information, only allowing in what confirms and validates what we need to think is certainty.

It’s very, very hard to change this kind of committed, focused, narrow-mindedness (of which one is never, oneself, guilty). And in this current situation/disaster/catastrophe/dystopian Dark Timeline, even if I could summon the skill to make the attempt, I don’t know where any of us could reach that benighted audience; nor can I summon the optimism that those people—who don’t appreciate being called “those people,” never mind “benighted”—would let their guard down enough to listen. 

That said—or rather, painstakingly NOT said—there are strategies that work. (One feels the need to offer some positive strategy, at least). It’s not easy though—you can’t stay comfortably, non-confrontationally, introvertedly insulated behind the written word; rather, you have to meet those other people, and talk to them as though you and they are not so different, as though you and they want and need the same things. I know. Right now, I’m still so…angry, hurt, and frankly terrified, that as soon as I start to mentally rehearse any kind of exchange with the other, I become instantly speechless, wordless even to myself. To be honest, what comes most easily right now is a desire to hurt back. 

I know that we can’t allow ourselves to give in to those impulses. I’m sure it’s important to think positively, to be forgiving and compassionate, to have faith, and hope, that reason will prevail…I’m sure that’s the right frame of mind to be in—and what I know I’ll share with the people around me today, all marching out of our shared need for safety (above all), freedom, reason. I’m quite sure that this will be only the start of a larger movement. 

I really hope we can save one another. 

Why march? Because words have failed, and we are moved to ACTION. Why march? Because, on this day of all days, how else, where else, can we begin?

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On Get-Ups and Glitter: The Conflict of Appearance and Athleticism for Women at the Olympic Games

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The Rio Olympics have been underway for less than a week, and already, a few notable trends have emerged: those athletes who happen to be women are kicking ass; and many of those involved in reporting on the Games just can’t get over the fact that these awesome athletes happen to be women. My news feed is full of indignant (and justified) responses from feminist commentators (google “sexism olympics” for the latest criticism).

It’s heartening to see this response–we’re still a very long way from equality anywhere, but you can see the tide starting to turn. One reason that sexism has persisted is that it has, in the way of all pernicious ideologies, made itself seem totally normal and unremarkable over the span of…well, always. But bit by bit (and thanks to a combination of influences ranging from Title IX, to activism against racism, sexism, ableism, and queer-phobia, to the bizarrely-random-but-occasionally-democratizing social media), we’ve started to really see just how weird and wrong it is to limit our definitions of the individual according to the appearance of their body. Moreover, the meaning of the body is no longer just the special and obscure concern of academics–people everywhere are asking why one group of people get to define how other groups ought to be, and are getting really impatient when the answer is no more rational, no less lame than “because we said so.”

But change happens slowly, and lessons have to be repeated over and over again before they sink in.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the 2004 Athens and 2006 Beijing Olympics, I put in my feminist two cents, critiquing the way in which women were held to unfair standards of appearance in many sports. The article was academic, and probably longer than you want to read now–I’m re-posting a condensed version here, but if you’d like to read the whole thing (and see my carefully-cited sources), it’s online here.

“The Woman Athlete Revealed:

The Problem of Get-Ups and Glitter for Female Olympians” 

Popular Culture Review. 18.1 (2007): 49-60.

In most events of the Olympic games, while the athlete’s appearance plays a role in psychological competition with her opponent, her choices for physical presentation are largely dictated by function, by what will help her be faster, stronger, more focused. Nevertheless, in a significant handful of events—those that attract the most spectators and media coverage— clothes seem literally to make the girl. Unlike their male counterparts, in events like beach volleyball and gymnastics women are required to make their appearance part of their performance, on top of, and as a distraction from, their athletic ability. That they must wear costumes means that both they and the audience are made self-consciously aware of their femininity and sexuality, in a way that is not expected from men or women in most other events. The requirement of many women athletes to focus on the appearance of their bodies, rather than their function or skill, is a sign of a persistent inequality both on and off the playing field.

…[O]ur culture has so far been very reluctant to accept the crossing of gender lines by either sex in athletics. When we encounter athletic events where men demonstrate “feminine” skills and appearance and vice versa (men’s figure skating vs. women’s softball), our conceptions of safe normalcy become disturbed, and our discomfort becomes channeled into suspicions about the athletes’ adherence to gender norms and expectations about gender propriety.

To alleviate or deny this suspicion, most sports still maintain “separate spheres,” or division along gender lines. Within the realm of women’s, or ladies’ sport, female athletes are encouraged to demonstrate the “feminine apologetic” (Roth and Basow 252), to reassure spectators—not to mention themselves to a certain extent—of their femininity and heterosexuality, of their conformity to and support of social conventions and the sexual status quo… 

…In spite of the prevailing assumptions about gender and bodily comportment, female athletes in many sport events have long appreciated and pursued the same kinds of achievements of strength, speed, and aggression that have always appealed to men. Women athletes today have proven their skill, fitness, and competitiveness, have narrowed the performance gap with men in many events, and have won the attention and admiration of spectators. Nevertheless, media coverage of women’s sport outside the Olympics is so scanty as to give the impression that there is none. As Shields et al. have found, 90% of non-Olympic sport coverage focuses on men; over the course of the 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002 Olympics, while women received proportionately more coverage than male athletes, it remained “largely focused on sports/events traditionally stereotyped as ‘appropriate’ for women and girls [and] unless a ‘gold medal’ was at stake, the coverage of less ‘feminine’ sports/events was at best thin” (Shields et al. 5). At the same time, women who do not do well at the feminine apologetic by virtue of appearance and interests are regarded with suspicion as somehow not quite properly female (both their sexuality and their sex are conflated and called into question) and receive less media attention (which often translates into reduced financial support for their events).

In the cases of those female athletes who appear appropriately feminine, enough to secure media attention and commercial endorsements, marketing strategy directly exploits their heterosexual attractiveness as much as it highlights their abilities…[And] when women do attract media attention it is often for reasons other than pure interest in their game. 

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that appearance and the choice of what to wear in Olympic or international competition is not solely defined by gender conventions. In fact, the lack of concern with appearance in so many events makes those few where it seems primary stand out all the more strikingly. For example, in equestrian events or rowing, the choice of what to wear is determined by tradition and function, rather than gender. Long pants, high boots and a helmet make sense for straddling the back of a large animal, the jumps of which can take a rider several dangerous feet off the ground; equestrian sports have been quite egalitarian in participation and attire throughout their history in the Olympics. Similarly, in rowing, while men and women do not compete against one another, they are at least equal in terms of how they perform their sports and dress for them. In the hot weather of a typical summer Games, tank tops and shorts are good choices for mobility and comfort for both sexes.

In many sports, the body is certainly on display, but mostly for the simple reason that too much clothing can get in the way: it can be hot, and excess material soaked in sweat from heat and exertion can be uncomfortable and add weight. Moreover, with today’s technology, athletic clothes are often designed to be tight and form-fitting, not for the sake of sexiness (or not primarily so), but so that the material can provide support to muscles and delicate areas, or enhance speed by reducing friction or drag. It is for this reason that swimmers have actually started to wear more clothing rather than less: the new unitards or leggings are supposed to make the swimmer faster than the skimpier Speedos of the past. Display of the body is also undoubtedly a legitimate psychological strategy, to intimidate the opponent and build confidence within the athlete’s mind. A body that looks invincible, through the choice of how to cover it, may actually be so; a player who wears a small amount of clothing, or clothing or accessories that attract attention for their own sake, may give an impression of confidence, insouciance, or irreverence that may effectively rattle an opponent.

Beyond the value of possible psychological advantage, there is the value to the player of publicity—and here is where appearance can start to have political or ideological ramifications. …Many observers would argue that adding a bit of sex and glamour to a sport is a legitimate, necessary strategy to attract spectators and money in a very competitive marketplace—and the idea that sport exists for its own pure, noble sake is simply naïve. Better to get the money and the attention than be forced to give up the game. Witness the enduring problems of women’s basketball and soccer. Title IX has made all sport far more accessible for girls and women than ever before, and there are excellent female athletes competing at the highest levels; but even the biggest team sports cannot compete with men’s leagues for media attention and fan support (Shields et al. 1, “Media” 9). In a male-dominated industry, producers, governing bodies, and commentators often argue that women may be capable of impressive athleticism, but they simply do not play as fast, aggressively, and skillfully as men. If men will not accept women in some sports as athletes, then it seems to be a necessary evil to appeal to their interest and money as sponsors and consumers through sex appeal.

It is hard to argue when the athletes themselves insist that their bodies are their own, and they can decide freely what to do with them. While feminists may feel concern for the female athlete’s soul, the athlete herself may feel very positively about her participation in the spectacle of sport…From a certain post-feminist point of view, marketing the athletic female body can be “empowering…allow[ing] women to revalue their own bodies as a source of pleasure, freedom, and legitimation in their own terms and as a resource for their own power” (Carty, 5). 

…But one may be skeptical that these athletes are making their choices in complete freedom—that their concept of freedom is not in fact one that has actually been constructed for them in a culture that has tolerated a certain amount of sexual equality, but which has also found ways to assimilate and commodify feminist principles of choice to serve its own ends: “Though women may be voluntarily posing to show off their muscular bodies, these new body types had to be first accepted by men and then be transfigured into [commodified] images of sexuality” (Carty 6). The sexualized, eroticized bodies of both male and female athletes are sold by the media, and eagerly consumed by the fans, making such bodies objects, not autonomous subjects with real political power: consequently, “the kinds of individual ‘empowerment’ that can be purchased through consumerism seriously reduce women’s abilities to identify their collective interests” (Dworkin and Messner, 350).

Take, for example, one of the most popular events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece: beach volleyball. Jose Cuervo, the tequila company, created beach volleyball through heavy sponsorship in the late 1970s, and, according to one company spokesman, intended it to be a “legitimate sport with a party lifestyle” (qtd. in Jay, 201). Perhaps it is not then surprising that the uniforms for the women’s athletic competition were very nearly the same as what the female dancers wore while entertaining the crowd and the media during breaks in play. According to the rules of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball [up until 2012] women players [were] required to wear proportionately less fabric than the men: “The top must fit closely to the body and the design must be with deep cutaway armholes on the back, upper chest and stomach (2-piece)…The briefs should…be a close fit and be cut on an upward angle towards the top of the leg. The side width should be maximum 7 cm [2 ½ inches]. The one piece uniform must closely fit and the design must be with open back and upper chest” (“Beach Volleyball” 3). Although the rules allow for one-piece bathing suits for women, the de facto uniform [was] a bikini.

There is certainly no reason for the women to wear bikinis for this event. It is true that a game played on the hot sand, at a beach, does not lend itself to heavy clothes, but the bikini was obviously not the most functional choice: after every play the women had to adjust their briefs because they were riding up—not a terribly sexy move, and a sign of some discomfort. Surely if the women had been wearing the same functional, and probably more comfortable, apparel as the men are allowed, a tank top and shorts, they would have played just as well; or, if the bikini is the more optimal choice of attire for performance, then the men would probably wear some version of it too. While the Women’s Sports Federation supports the choice of athletes to wear revealing uniforms, they make a distinction between reasonable choice, and regulations that require “minimalist uniforms to increase [female athletes’] attractiveness to male spectators, a standard which is even more suspect if such requirements are not identically applied to male athlete uniforms” (“Uniforms” 2). I would argue that the beach volleyball bikini is indeed “suspect.” 

Update: as of 2012, the Federation has changed its rules, and women are allowed more leeway than before–now, in the current Games, we have athletes making choices about their competitive apparel based on their personal values as well as functionality. (Call me cynical, but I’m guessing the bikini-clad athletes are still going to be the ones featured in the tequila ads. )

[And then there’s gymnastics…] Men and women athletes perform in several different events—men do the rings, but women do the balance beam. One event they both do is the floor routine, but even here the criteria are very different. Both perform impressive feats of tumbling and flipping, both have to demonstrate strength and flexibility, but the men go through their moves almost as though they are trying not to be graceful; whereas, in addition to demonstrating athleticism, female gymnasts also have to demonstrate sexuality and femininity, to music, by performing dance moves that are coy, flirtatious, even seductive. All of this despite the fact that many “women” gymnasts are actually still adolescent[s]. Until recently girls as young as thirteen competed in the Olympics, and often did very well by virtue of the lightness and mobility of their undeveloped bodies. Although girls cannot now compete in the Olympics until they are sixteen, their bodies are still trapped in a state of early-adolescent appearance because of the rigors of years of training… And yet, in their routines, in addition to displaying impressive athletic prowess, they must also demonstrate sexualized, feminine behavior, a disturbingly inappropriate, and arguably irrelevant, requirement.

In all their events, male gymnasts wear pants and tank tops; women are required to wear body suits with bare legs. The sport’s regulations make some stipulations for modesty: “the cut of the leg of the leotards must not go above the iliac crest (hipbone)…and the line of the leg must not start or drift between the glutei (buttocks).” The leotards must not be too low cut on the chest, and the “design or transparency of attire must not allow exposure of undergarments, trunk, navel, or other private body parts”. At the same time, the clothing must be “skin tight to enable the judges to evaluate the correct position of the body” (“Competition Attire” 40). And, while there are no specific regulations for or against it, female gymnasts often wear make-up and hair glitter; even in discrete amounts, this is an additional element of theatricality that, again, we do not see matched by anything comparable in the men’s performances.

It is not clearly stated in the regulations why judges are able to evaluate the correct position of men’s bodies in their uniforms, which, though slim-fitting, are not skin tight and cover substantially more surface area, but cannot make the same assessment of women’s bodies unless they are more exposed. Nor do we ever hear discussion, during coverage of gymnastics events at the Olympics, of why the women are required to display themselves more in every aspect of competition, through the choreography of their routines, or through the wearing of blush and glitter. The explanation that I would offer is that the judges, and everyone else involved in the production and consumption of gymnastics, are all seeing the athletes’ bodies in very different ways according to sex, and seem to be looking for something extra—aesthetic, sexual—in the women’s performance that they do not require from the men. What this means for the athletes is that while the men may concentrate solely on demonstrating strength and skill, women must do the same, while also concentrating on disguising or minimizing any implication of real physical power. Men go out on the competition floor and do gymnastics; women do gymnastics, plus theatrics, plus seduction; these female athletes are always burdened with the obligation to expend extra mental and physical energy on self-consciously performing the version of femininity expected of them in a sport, and by extension, a culture that is still firmly divided along gender lines.

It has been difficult, in the course of this research, to discover any stated rationale for these separate expectations in gymnastics; there may not in fact be any official policy on hair glitter.  Ask gymnasts to explain and they will say that it is just the way it has always been done—and that may be as good an explanation as any. That is the way it has always been done, since the beginning of the sport for women: in other words, women of the so-called post-feminist era are competing or performing according to the values of a pre-feminist era. When sports of the modern Olympics were chosen for men, the emphasis was on celebrating the masculine body, its ability to be powerful, fast, aggressive, warrior-like. When women were allowed to compete at the Olympics in the early twentieth century, at first it was on a very limited basis, in sports considered appropriate for celebration of feminine ability—which was not masculine; the emphasis was on skill, to be sure, but also on qualities such as grace, flexibility, and artistic expression. Arguably, the idea of mostly-male Olympic organizers was that if women had to be present at the games, it was to be as artists, and not athletes at all. Their presence was tolerated as entertainment, and was not originally conceived of as sport. Even when competition in events like track and swimming became matters of national honor in the Cold War, while female athletes who could beat women of the Eastern Block were welcomed with relief, it was still very necessary for them to exhibit femininity on and off the track—to prove it in fact, through a regimen of sex testing that persisted in the Olympics until 1999 (Cahn 264, Fields 160, Carlson 4). The scandals of the cold-war era Games, when several Eastern European and Chinese athletes were found to have genetic abnormalities, or took massive amounts of drugs to change their sexual characteristics, only confirmed the suspicions of many that women could never be that good in athletic competition if they were “real” women.

Doubts about a woman’s ability to combine athletic prowess and “true” femininity persist. There is still a strong sense that if a woman is good, if she exhibits features of athleticism usually coded as masculine, like strength and speed, she either holds onto her femininity, and so never approaches the standards of masculine athletic success—or, if she is really good as an athlete, there must be something wrong with her as a woman. Men are not free from sexual stereotyping either in events like figure skating or synchronized diving; but it is nevertheless the case that it is socially much easier for a man to pursue many different sports without anyone questioning his fitness as a man to do so. 

In the modern Olympics, women have achieved near parity in terms of numbers, and yet true equality eludes them in many events—and where there is inequality in some events, there is really inequality for all. Women athletes in some of the most popular and heavily-covered events of the Games are trained and rewarded on a whole other level than men are, for how they look and dress as much as how they perform. At the most benign end of the scale, both women and men are rewarded for their sexual as well as athletic appeal, and are able to make use of this appeal to intimidate rivals and earn extra endorsements and media coverage: a form of power some would argue. At the most pernicious extreme, these women, often really still girls, are required to display sexuality and femininity in order to compete. They cannot simply be athletes: they are always required to think of themselves from the outside, as spectacles, as symbols of “normal” sexuality and gender which reassure viewers (and participants) that the combination of “female” and “athlete” does not pose any threat to social order. 

As long as women athletes are required to have this split focus and split experience of their identities and abilities, they cannot pursue their sports with the same concentration and potential for development that men can. Their sex holds them back—not because they are weaker or less skilled, but because they are always both overburdened, and incomplete. “Complete” would be represented by the word “athlete,” rather than the words “female athlete.”

That women are competing at the elite level of the Olympics, in multiple sports, and, increasingly, on their own terms when it comes to apparel and looks, is a sign of great progress. That the physical power and skill these athletes display is still not enough to overcome societal expectations about gender is a sign that we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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On Community

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I worry about loneliness.

During those times times in my life (the literal and figurative Februaries) when I’ve been very lonely, I try very hard NOT to think about loneliness—that just compounds the misery. But because loneliness is horrible—and because it’s in my nature to worry about many, many things—even when I’m happily not alone (the literal and figurative Augusts), I’ll have fleeting moments of profound, disconcerting concern: sure, I’ve got people now, in this moment, I’ll think. But what if that changes? how will I manage the next time I’m alone? what should I be doing now to guard against an uncertain, potentially-lonely future?

To clarify—when I talk about being alone, I don’t mean solitude. Some of us need a certain amount of time on our own, away from the demands of the world—away from the noise, motion, emotion, and (often disordered) thoughts and behaviors of others. Overwhelmed, over-committed, over-stimulated, overcome, over-done, we need peaceful stillness (and a bit of ice cream and Netflix) to restore a sense of balance for ourselves, to get our own disorder back in order. That kind of restorative solitude isn’t a problem, it’s an absolute necessity.

But being the kind of person who needs that kind of solitude often goes hand-in-hand with being the kind of person who doesn’t—can’t, really—have a huge network of friends and relations. We can’t help but be who we are, and some of us are simply not built for extraversion: we might be shy; we might be hard-wired for aversion to crowds, and telephones; we might recoil, completely involuntarily, at the idea of joining things, or calling people out of the blue, or networking, or small talk, or making the first move, or sharing personal space with people we don’t know.

You see the problem.

We want to be friendly and make connections, we really do…But: when everyone else is making phone calls (how?? how do you just barge into the personal space of someone on the spur of the moment?? the exposure! the intrusiveness! the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, stuck, yelling into our little boxes and never being able to hear what the other person says? horrible!!), or going bowling (shoes that other people have worn!!), or effortlessly working your way into conversation circles to chit-chat about manicures at cocktail parties (it’s like what they say about being an anesthetist—long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of intense panic), or most social interactions which many people consider completely normal and even kind of fun—Nope. Just. Can’t.

The last networking reception I was at, I got my one free glass of wine, made two laps of the room trying to look open, alert, and approachable—which doubtlessly resulted in me actually looking shifty-eyed, skittish, and a little crazed—and ended up wafting around helplessly like a stray plastic bag on a windy street—buffeted by the social currents, aimless, superfluous, unwanted.

You extraverts never imagined that putting on a Hello, my name is —— badge could be so fraught, did you?

The world seems to be set up by extraverts expressly to make being extraverted easy, and to make being introverted a constant, sisyphean ordeal. In other words, some of us find it really, really hard to make a lot of friends.

This is a problem that many people just don’t care about most of the time, because they just don’t have to. Sorry, that sounds a bit judge-y, but I’m not wrong. Maybe you’re naturally outgoing; or are, by birth or relationship, part of a relatively large, close-knit family; or you’re lucky to live or work with sociable, community-minded people; or some combination of those circumstances—then the idea that you would need to make a deliberate effort to get and keep people around you probably never crosses your mind. In fact, you’re more likely to occasionally think—depending on the day— that you’re blessed, or afflicted, with too many people rather than too few. You’re living the norm, and, kind of by definition, we tend to take the norm, the default, the status quo for granted.

I’ve done it myself: I’ve gone through phases of my life where I’ve had my hands full with relationships, and family, and friends. I’ve taken the situation for the status quo; I’ve been complacent, maybe even a little self-satisfied. I’ve even been peripherally aware of others making overtures of friendship to me, and have brushed them off because I simply felt that my social and emotional dance card was full. It’s a nice kind of excess to have, and the kind we make make note of in our gratitude journals without really grasping its value. Often—like the song says—you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

But we live in tenuous, unstable times. Communities and families don’t have the cohesiveness that they once did. We idealize, fetishize, our private space as a sign of independence, success, status, no matter how resource-intensive and anti-social. Whether by choice or exigency, we form bonds and then we break them, or they get broken for us, or they just…dissipate. We get caught up and worn down by the need to look after others at work, then by the need to look after ourselves outside of work, and, in a stupid irony, the more we have to rely on ourselves for care, the less time and energy we have to connect with others who could share some of that burden with us.  A relationship ends—a marriage, a friendship—and takes other connections down with it. Financial and professional survival drives us to move. We’re so distracted by the illusion of connection that we mistake our online interjections (hey! look at this! look at me!) for the work of building and maintaining relationships. We discover that friends and lovers are just like us—that is, occasionally provoking, needy, or boring—and when we can’t be as patient and compassionate with them as we wish others were with us, we avoid, we fade…and in the absence of any entrenched social mechanisms to keep us tied to one another through our moments of weakness and pettiness and fatigue, the next thing you know it’s February, and everyone has somehow become no-one.

It’s not February now—literally or figuratively—but it has been before and will be again. Winter is coming, and all that, and you don’t want to be stuck on the wrong side of the Wall when it does.

So when you contemplate the impending return of cold and darkness, what do you do to ensure that you’ve got all the people you need to mount a good defense? Because it’s now, in (figurative) August, when you have to take conscious steps to prepare for (figurative, nightmarish) February.

You might say that your defensive strategy is just to chill the f*ck out, because, as someone who is untroubled by either introversion OR what seems to be a near-paralyzing degree of hyper-vigilant anxiety, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing to worry about. Things will sort themselves out.

Every hear the story of the grasshopper and the ants? Here’s a dirty little secret: when a laid-back person congratulates herself on how easily things sort themselves out, it’s often because, somewhere, there are neurotic, hyper-vigilant, hyper-responsible people toiling neurotically behind the scenes to ensure the sorting out gets done. Grasshoppers believe, with charming romanticism, that no non-professional relationship ought to require anything so vulgar as work. Ants know better. If we ever actually did just chill the f*ck out, we know that activities would not get planned, reservations would go unmade, invitations wouldn’t be sent, and, when the grasshoppers failed to rsvp yet again, invitations wouldn’t be re-issued with “high priority” and “read receipt” alerts added. In short, civilization (or, at least, our social groups) would collapse utterly.

Plus, ants like me couldn’t chill the f*ck out even if we wanted to (and we do, but just can’t).

Faced with the prospect of February, of long nights, empty of company and thus full of terrors, there can be no other strategy than to disregard the dangerous insouciance of the grasshoppers,* and to continue working, fretfully, anxiously, to shore up the defenses, to enlist as many allies as possible, to build up our stores of people.

I wish it weren’t such difficult work, so high-stakes, so costly in terms of time and emotional energy. I wish it were work that was just done already, once and for all, preferably by somebody else (why can’t it??).

I’m going to have to join things. I’ll have to issue invitations. I’ll have to lose sleep wondering about the significance of every delayed or missing rsvp. I’ll have to lobby and organize and chivvy. Heaven help me, I might have to join MeetUp.** 

It makes me tired just thinking of it.

But there’s no other way. Each of us—not just neurotic, only-child, introverts like me, but all of us—is vulnerable to being alone when we don’t want to be. And if we wait until (figurative, nightmarish) February to help one another, it’ll be too late. Community is our only defense against the loneliness that threatens us all. And yet, since communities don’t just happen any more (if that was ever the case), they have to be made. More precisely, people (all the ants, all the grasshoppers) have to make and nurture them, with intention, with effort, even with a bit of neurotic hyper-vigilance. We might have to cooperate; we might have to share; we might have to get over ourselves, and occasionally be where it’s noisy and crowded.

Building a community seems like work we shouldn’t have to do—it’s (literal and figurative) August now, and the cold and darkness seem very far away. But when winter comes—and it always does—it’ll be worth the effort, to calm the worry now, and to stave off deprivation then.

Let me know when you’re ready to get to work.

*You can accuse me of mixing metaphors all you like. I’m perfectly confident, however, that Jon Snow is an introvert completely familiar with a Westerosi version of the grasshopper/ant parable, and his frustration at being one of the latter trying to save the former in spite of themselves is what makes him look so continually tortured and put-upon.

**But dammit, I will NOT use the bloody phone. That’s my line in the sand. Stop yelling into those little boxes and use literacy and technology to communicate like civilized people.  

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On Surrender

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Apparently, a key indicator of how well- (or how poorly-) controlled my anxiety is, is how much I’m meditating. As in, I tend to wander from the mat when I feel like my life is unfolding in a more or less manageable fashion, only to drag my scattered, recalcitrant, self back to my seat when I just Can. Not. Deal.

Which is why I was meditating earlier today, for exactly that reason, the whole not-being-able-to-deal thing: Too many competing obligations and responsibilities—no single one actually costs that much in terms of time or attention, but while I can manage 5 things with some equanimity, I just start to go squirrelly when the things number in the DOZENS (well, only two dozen—but turns out that two dozen things a day is 1.5 dozen too many). Too many different people, wanting or needing too many different things. And just too many Provocations. So many Provocations: IT, HR, the road, the guns, the ignorance, the prejudice, the stubborn, benighted, commitment to doing things badly, unethically, stupidly, and/or hatefully.

I don’t want to be anxious, distressed, or angry. But I’m all of those, too often. Remember all those f*cks I vowed I was going to stop giving? Turns out I’m useless at not giving a f*ck. Or, more accurately, I’m way too good at giving all the f*cks about all the Provocations, without seeming to change a single one of them, which is, in a very important way, one of the most provoking things of them all. 

So to attempt to deal, to get a grip, to give slightly fewer f*cks in order to give my poor mind a break, there I was, meditating, or trying to, which means I was trying to stay focused on the breath, no more and no less…and in actuality thinking obsessively, ruminatively, and with a lot of very genuine hostility about all the Provocations, and about how much time and energy I waste trying to counteract the Provocations, and how much additional time goes into composing all the speeches in my head wherein I imagine telling the Provocations just how wrong and obstructionist they are, plus all the time wasted scolding myself for being so easily and distractingly provoked in the first place.

All this time that I was very much not focused on the breath, a very kind, mindful woman was speaking in gentle tones about the theme of this particular meditation session, which was “surrendering to what is.” We were several minutes into the session before I realized that’s what our theme was, because I was too distracted by the unremitting, uselessly-imaginary battle going on in my head, in which I was (channelling Brienne of Tarth) absolutely, stubbornly refusing to surrender in my noble defense of Reason and Justice. 

I tried to focus on the breath. In. Out. In. Out. The kind, mindful woman reminded me of just how much distress we experience because we insist that things must be different than they are. I kept breathing, and tried to accept her argument, to surrender to it.

Nope. Nothing doing.

That is, I know she’s right…kind of. I’ve worked on this in meditation, and therapy, and self-help books, and Oprah’s magazine. I’ve made a lot of progress, really! I am far, far more accepting of What Is, of Provocations over which I have no control, than I used to be. That’s Progress. 

But:

(see, this is how the non-surrendering always goes, always starting with “but…” escalating to “moreover” and then spiraling out of control from there…)

But: there are things in this life—Provocations—that are so provoking at best, so terribly destructive at worst, that we cannot, must not accept them. Nor can we surrender to them. Sure, you can’t control whether you enjoy this person’s company, or despise that one, or fall in or out of love with the other. You really (alas) can’t magically transform yourself to be more clever, or beautiful, and thus more successful, desirable, or loved. Certain things just Are the Way They Are. Moreover, WE are just the way we are, and, as the kind, mindful woman advises, surrendering to the inevitability of being ourselves is probably the most compassionate (most difficult) move we can make. Yes. Agreed.

But: the Provocations are things that are, that should not be, don’t need to be, oughtn’t to be. Moreover: no kind, compassionate person who cares, not just about the peace of her own existence, but about the well-being of others in the world—no good person can just let those Provocations stand.

Sometimes the Provocations seem relatively inconsequential: the little mind which insists on a foolish consistency, the bureaucrat or functionary who puts their need to feel important ahead of educating, healing, or, simply, helping to make others’ lives easier. These Provocations are, in the grand scheme of things, petty—and yet, how insidious such selfishness and complacency and obstructionism can be! When we are distracted, worn down, side-tracked, and aggravated by these seemingly-petty, unnecessary, obstacles, we are thwarted—a little bit here, a little bit there—in our efforts to teach, to create, to care. The energy that we want to put into being good gets sapped, and—sadly—it’s too easy to do harm, to respond with pettiness—which can never fix the initial insult that provoked us and so just ends up becoming a Provocation to someone else.

The hurt and resentment and self-protective stubbornness fostered by those petty provocations makes it harder for us to prevent the really serious ones—the ignorance, fear, intellectual or moral laziness, or selfish indifference which fuel prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Would it be better for me, more relaxing, if I just let go of my anger and distress when confronted by petty, bureaucratic tyranny? Almost certainly. But: if I surrender and accept mediocrity and incompetence so that my life can be easier, I run the risk of making life more difficult for others, which seems very wrong.

Would it be better for all of us, easier, to just surrender to what is, to accept that we live in a hate-filled, violent culture where too many of our neighbors believe that the way to really feel like they’re somebody is to take power, happiness, safety, and life away from others? Of course it would be easier—it has been easier—which is why racists, misogynists, homophobes, and every other kind of bigot can hijack nightclubs, theaters, schools, communities, and laws.

That’s where I draw my line in the sand. I don’t know if resisting, kicking and fighting, will change much—it often doesn’t seem to—and it’s certainly not going to make my life easier, or less stressed. But: too much of what is, just shouldn’t be. I can neither accept it nor surrender to it; moreover, nor can you.

Instead: we can accept love, kindness, thoughtful courtesy, learning, creating, and caring. We can surrender to the uneasiness, the messiness, the vulnerability that ensues when we don’t hide behind self-centered indifference. We can accept that it’s not just understandable, but necessary, however uncomfortable, to combat ignorance and hatred. We can accept compassion. And sometimes we can, we must, surrender to the anger, the outrage, which motivates action.

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