Lost words, lost places

There was a tall building on my route to work that was imploded last Saturday. It was a former hospital whose operations pre-dated my time in Buffalo. Now open sky and a pile of rubble greet my on my way to work. I hear it’s going to become a grocery store.

I was at my former university a few months back, and there are buildings that didn’t exist when I was there. Engineering buildings. Dormitories. A traffic circle. All new. The university of my memory changed shape.

Most of the changes to the landscape are subtler. Signs change. Someone paints a room. The decorations become more fashionable. Cars conform to a different aesthetic. Nothing stays the same. I expect this.

I navigated to a website I used to read religiously half a decade ago. The URL was there, but the page was blank. As far as I could tell, it simply stopped publication. A bit of searching, and I found that it ended publication on my birthday. Otherwise it is gone.

Actually, a lot of the blogs I used to read are gone, or the juicy parts disappeared from the internet. The authors chose to discontinue them, or shield their life a bit more, or maybe the burning part of their life story has cooled to embers, and instead of providing warmth, they just provide a hazard to injury. I went to read these in an attempt to remember what I used to find so compelling. I am in such a different phase of life, it’s hard to remember exactly what the world looked like through my younger eyes. The perspectives are distorted, or clarified, by the lens of age.

I didn’t save any copies of these blogs, the way you keep a copy of a compelling book. For some reason, I expected the internet to keep its sense of place, and this is not the case.

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Thinking about faith and the sacred. Thinking about my increasingly secular life.

Or is it? What distinguishes a religious UU from one who isn’t? I am an irregular church attendee, but my values system has not changed. I feel like I am acting in my faith more than I have before. That values system that inspired me to become UU is the same one that inspired me to enter my current line of work. Being religious, on some levels, feels like the degree to which one submits their self to a religion. But the religion I’m affiliated with is a grassroots one that values the democratic process, that operates from the bottom up, and so it’s designed itself not to follow. This is a faith that still feels like it is mine, even as I have not taken part in any rites, and even when my community membership has diminished.

I was recently involved in Green Party organizing. I’ve taken a step back from it, mostly because all of the other steps in my life are a frantic and wonderful run of family and work. So, Green Party. They have ten key values! And the Unitarian Universalists have seven principles. And I sit here wondering how many other liberal progressive organizations that I can become affiliated with that also have lists, careful crafted by committee, declarations of belief made from a grassroots organizing effort. Delicious democracy, the leveler of power. Debatable democracy, relying on the wisdom of the masses for best practices. And I remember that both entities are human institutions, existing only because other humans similar to myself decided they should be that way. They could have decided something else.

Leadership via democracy is a tricky business. Someone has to distinguish their self and their ideas first. Someone needs to spend some time as the minority faction that is otherwise ignored for a time, until the powers of persuasive change the balance of numeric support. And so if religion is a business of meaning-making, and progressive politics are a business of improving society, the grassroots variety assume that meaning and insight from from the masses themselves. So there is a lot of room to act and believe. It’s not a great place for those without a rudder to be.

I have a rudder. I have a direction, and a clear-eyed perspective on what my priorities are. I learn on faith in times of struggle when I need a sign, or a friendly person pointing, to give me a sense of where to go. That is not now. I have a strange relationship with religion at the moment. I belong to a faith whose strong suit is “community” but in practice this generally means the community that meets within its walls. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not necessarily what I seek right now. I’m still trying to figure out how to be in communion with humanity. I’m trying to imagine a society-wide beloved community. I am trying to create a just society.

I don’t need religion to prescribe my relationship to society as much as I am still seeking the scared. And I forget this, as I am surrounded by sacred things now. Infants are sacred. The earth is sacred. And so forth. That is what my atheist self is seeking right now: ways to connect to sacred things. Ways to reassure myself I am connected and a part of the broader web of sanctity. And the largest obstacle for me is the understanding that religion is a largely human institution, and if God exists, he’s only tangential to religion. I cannot deny that the need to belong is the backdrop of all my religious pursuits.

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Kelly On My Mind

We all die. It’s a matter of when, not if, though I cope with this terrifying fact by pretending it isn’t a predetermined thing. Every single person I’ve ever met, including all of the people I love, will perish. Yikes. So my inclination is to savor every day, and to enjoy the presence of my loved ones as much as I can. Life is precious. Everything I do in my life has that understanding behind it. Life is precious. Every life is precious.

Morbid? Perhaps.

Twitter’s becoming a hard place for me to wander every time there is an execution. I’m against state execution, broadly speaking. I loathe war, though I understand the need to maintain some boundaries, I’m saddened by the casualties, and the ease of which war expands its misery. State executions are as completely pointless as they are bankrupt. We’ve isolated the person we perceive as a threat. On a practical matter, what more needs to be done? Research has suggested that it doesn’t dissuade. We’re a people who seeks vengeance. I grew up on Star Trek, and one of the more disillusioning parts of being an adult is watching the way that my country’s culture isn’t inclined to be the better person. We strive to be safe, and we’ll go off the deep-end to do so.

Twitter has a nasty, but useful, habit of bringing uncomfortable things in front of you. Like protesters who interrupt your brunch to inform you that terrible things happen to them, who interrupt your peaceful complacency to tell you a truth, Twitter trends the names of the soon-to-be murdered. Debates about the ethics of death penalty, and news of the development of this person’s end of life filter through. Murder is about to happen. I can only avoid it by putting the phone down and walking away. It happens as my eyes turn away.

I didn’t know Kelly Gissendaner was a Unitarian Universalist until she was already executed. It’s irrelevant to whether the death penalty is ethical, but it was perhaps one of the first times that I had something in common with a person on death row. There aren’t a lot of us. And I watched on Twitter, the drama of temporary stays, and then I logged off to find out she was killed when I woke the next morning. And she’s gone.

Most crimes are things that never should happen. Murder’s different. It robs of time. We’ll all die, but life is precious so we hold onto life as much as we can. And life is sacred because it is our existence. It is beautiful. We have harsh penalties for murder because life is precious, because while we will all die eventually, we decided that we should not die sooner. Killing does not respect the sacredness of life. It is offensive and it is wrong whether done by citizen or state. I remain saddened that the state does not model being better. I am further frustrated that the immorality of the death penalty is compounded by its application to people who did not commit the crimes they are executed for. We do not have to do this, and yet we do.

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Make Yourself Useful

Do what you love” is terrible career advice. The aforementioned linked article discusses how it reinforces the myth of meritocracy and is unproductive. The advice bothers me, mostly because I love living in a world where we have the sanitation that sewers and garbage collection offer us (with the people doing the unglamorous work behind it), the convenience of mail (and the monotonous positions in the Post Office), and I do prefer tidy floors of the public places I work and frequent. I don’t know people who necessarily like those jobs, but they do take pride in them. It’s honest work, it’s work that contributes something to society, and at least in the first few cases, pays a good wage (and in the latter case? Really should be paying a good wage.)

When leaving graduate school, I didn’t have any career goals except 1) Find a Job and 2) Make more money than a graduate stipend (which, at $13,000 a year, wasn’t hard). I decided to pursue job seeking as an adventure and applied to everything from Metro driver to social science consultant. I applied to non-profits, for profits, really anything that I could shoehorn my work experience into a narrative of utility. Every day I imagined a future life with that job. I decided that lousy jobs would be fodder for writing. This was an adventure. I ended up working for Plymouth Housing Group, an organization that houses single now-formerly-homeless people in housing units in what was once of the first implementations of Housing First interventions.

Sometimes I am asked if I have a personal connection to homelessness. I honestly answer, “Not really.” While I have friends and extended family members who have experienced it, having friends and family members experience homelessness isn’t all that atypical. Everyone generally knows someone.. Doing the math of numbers experiencing homelessness and population, about 0.7% of Erie County’s population experienced homelessness last year (about six thousand people). It is not so rare that it doesn’t touch people. And that’s HUD-defined homelessness, excluding the more common instances of housing instability (couch surfing, etc) that also fit the lay perception of the problem. It’s a problem, but it’s not a problem that affects me more than the average person.

I work in homelessness because this is the problem that benefits from my collection of skills and talents.

The jobs I’ve been best at were jobs where my usefulness was readily apparent. I’ve had too many positions where I felt like I was inventing work, or the necessity of my labor was questionable. I find that I need to feel useful to be happy, and that usefulness is generally located in the broader context of the economy and society at large. It’s not that I want to work at a non-profit, it’s that I want to work on a non-profit trying to solve a very real and tangible problem. It’s not that others don’t to good work, it’s that I want the work I do to be essential.

Many of the successful people I know don’t necessarily love their jobs, but they take pride in being good at it. A lot of them really love it too. I know a few Boeing engineers whose eyes still light up when they see airplanes, despite being around them constantly. I know writers who delight that they get to practice this craft and ministers who feel most fulfilled being pastoral. I consider them the lucky ones more than the standard bearers. And I love my job too – I take pride in the fantastic work the organization does, my coworkers are fantastic, and it keeps the gears turning in my head. Plus, it permits work-life balance and provides me with enough money (we all work for money). But I consider us more the lucky ones than the standard bearers. It’s also worth noting that I fell into this work not when I sought work I loved, but when I sought a way to be useful.

Will and I were at a wedding and we saw a friend we hadn’t seen in entirely too many years. What are you up to, we asked. He graduated with an engineering degree the last time we saw him. Windows, he replied. Windows. Our eyes lit up. Yes, yes… everyone needs windows! We then picked his brain about windows, and it turns out his job is really interesting. Another friend works for a company making custom wires – another dire necessity when you live in an age of electricity. Will’s and my jobs fit that description too – not because we were wise enough to make this connection, but because we were lucky enough to fall into circumstances where it was the case. We had skills that could solve some problems.

Do the work where the work needs to be done. That is what I will tell my kids. Look around you. What are the things indispensable to your world? What are the problems that you need solved? What are the problems other people need solved? What are you good at? Choose among them. Odds are that the things we love most do not pay well. Pursue those with passion anyway, for its own sake, and if you can be profitable that will be readily apparent in the time you’ve taken to subsidize your craft with some other form of economic participation. A job is one way to participate in society. It isn’t entirely about you (as the “Do what you love!” implies). Also, there is more to life than work if you choose to live that way.

That’s what I will tell my kids, once they are old enough to be looking practically at the matter. Make yourself useful.

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Sketches of the Web

I taunt the cats with crinkle sound of dried mint being pulled off the stalk, as I squint from the too-bright light over my kitchen sink. They’d been hanging upside down in the kitchen, off the curtain rod, for days. The cats stared, wondering why temptation was so high up, spending a weeks swinging their paws at it. I put the leaves into a container. I harvested these leaves for tea. As my fingers ran down the stems, I thought of the people I should give mint tea too. I am nursing, it won’t be mine this year.

I wandered through the backyard M’s yard next door, holding my son against my chest and shoulder. He peeked over my shoulder at M’s garden, the ping-pong table, the swing, and the tables set up. A breeze cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to feel like air’s embrace swirled between the very close-together houses. I saw M, and was promptly introduced to a longtime friend A – the reason for the party – visiting from North Carolina. M looked at A, and said, “Remember the garden we raided last night? It’s hers.” “Oh, great!” A smiled, “He showed us the garden and we had another fantastic M meal.” I practically beamed – we’d been telling M to help himself, as we had more than an abundance, and we were happy to share. He keeps sending tomatoes over from his garden – thick, juicy, and so ripe they’d almost burst. Our tomatoes are not so numerous, but our greens and herbs are. I’d been giving away Swiss chard to everyone I knew. It delighted me to know our garden feeds many.

A couple days later, Will would glance through the window and see of our landlord showing his wife how delicious our German Blonde cherry tomatoes are. There should be a word for the pleasure of benefiting others with your success, of sharing a happy experience that is delicious garden food.

I returned from a meeting of a political organization. It was past 9:00PM, and as I walked into my apartment, my father-in-law was walking out. He came to visit to make my attendance of this meeting easier, and in pursuit of much desired time with his grandchildren. We exchanged banter in the dim dusk-light, and he left. I had consulted him for advice with this group, sensing some difficulties. He gave me good advice; I used it. Now, with the meeting done, with the tasks I had accomplished well-enough, I walked into my home. My daughter ran out of her room. She was supposed to be sleeping, but the excitement of the day had her awake. “Mama!” she cried out, smiling. “Mama nap!” She grabbed my hand and dragged me through the dark hallway to her room, into her absurdly oversized bed so she could snuggle me as she fell asleep. “Mama nap.” She gives me a kiss, holds me with both her arms, and then falls asleep. My son is asleep in the other room. My husband is getting ready for another day. “This is happiness,” I think to myself. I’d underestimated the joy parenthood would bring me.

My son wakes me up most nights. I change his diaper, snuggle him, and bring him into bed with me. Nursing him has been feeling like taking a sleeping pill. No matter what time of day, no matter my position, I nurse him and fall asleep. We end up snuggled, together, for a big portion of the night. And I love it. I love him, I love cuddling him. I never thought I’d like babies, and I do think I like them categorically, but I’m crazy in love with my own. I did not see this coming. I’d be cooing him at the playground at Outer Harbor State Park, while my daughter ran around with her dad, and I cannot fathom how large he is in a few months, or that he’s only been around a few months. He might as well have been a part of my life forever.

My husband and I have been married six years now. We celebrated it by going to a fancy restaurant while my parents watched the kids. We strategized our menu choices. We talked about our jobs. We sipped cocktails and reflected on life and we’ve lived a lot of it together. We started dating at 19. We talked about how life has been so different than we expected, the struggles we had were not the ones we expected, but here we are. We’ve lived a lot of life in six years. We’ve moved around a lot. And for all the people I met, and all the jobs we have, and the addresses we lived at, we’ve constantly had each other. That has made all the difference.

My life is the joy of being completely tangled in this interdependent web. I am tangled up with family. I have fantastic friends and neighbors. I have a job with purpose and I have a husband who supports other pursuits. The greatest joy I have right now is that I belong. I belong with my family. I belong with my friends. I even feel like I belong on my street. Even as I try to discern the best way to serve my community and family, I am doing it from a position of knowing I am where I should be, and I am not alone. Oh, the tangled webs we weave. Consider me gratefudl and lucky.

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Filed under Parenthood, Personal

Slippery Slopes and Other Tales of Failed Caution

Once upon a time, I got myself into a lot of trouble. It was a slippery slope that I did not recognize or realize was such until I was at the bottom of the hill. It was a tall mountain, and the tumble was painful. Ever since, I’ve been vigilant to a fault. I grip the rope like my life depends one it, take careful steps, weary of where I tie off… (and this is the point I realize I don’t actually know enough about climbing to continue the metaphor. Oops. Hopefully the idea got across.)

I’m thinking about that time. One, I’ve been reading about Joyce Mitchell, the woman who was duped into believing she wasn’t about to be murdered by some former (about to be current?) murderers into aiding their escape. It starts with sympathy, and ends in smuggled hacksaw blades and sex at work. She did it because it made here feel more alive, and the tale is of an obvious grooming process. Oh, how the doldrums can be exploited by those who have ulterior motives. Oh, how naive can one be. I have never aided convicted murderers in escaping prison. Yet, I could relate to the gist of the story, the incremental nature and how one can believe something to be true.

Second, I am in an awkward circumstance, and it is beginning to feel like it’s on the metaphoric incline. I began to pursue a path as it appeared, on the surface, to align with some of my more big-picture goals. I’ve felt uneasy about it because it became clear that in order to pursue this path, I’d have to, so to speak, compromise some of the boundary positioning that I’d set up years ago. I talked to some people, and thought about it a lot. Ultimately, I moved a boundary, but didn’t take it down, so I figured that I was OK.

A comment from someone I trust, a conversation with someone else I trust, and re-examining other circumstances has suggested there is potentially another boundary issue. I have a suspicion that someone I’ve never met, with a lot more power than me, is dabbling in the same circumstances. My goals include exclusively avoiding this devil, and I have yet another boundary that may need to be re-positioned. I am weary of that as well, and I feel like I am looking through a fog to determine what is, and what is just suspicion. I am also concerned that I am compromising too much, and it doesn’t sit well in my stomach.

I have a severe case of “new girl in town”. I don’t know exactly who and what are involved. Naive, idealistic, and not connected, I sense I am easily made a pawn in someone else’s power-play if that were a possibility. Part of my anxiety is the distinct lack of control I have in the circumstances. I am wandering into uncharted territory. I don’t have a map. I am pursuing the paths as I go, and while I have great people to consult with, the nature of the cartography is that everyone is looking at an incomplete picture.

I grew up in the era of the internet. I want to determine the terms of my life with certainty. I want to be able to Google the directions to the place I’d never been. I want to find the instructions of how to put this new thing together. Many of my life’s goals include doing things that have not yet been done, and thus require comfort with the unknown. I’m generally so bold that I straddle the line of being stupid; too open, to blunt, and unafraid to approach a stranger. I move quickly and sometimes without taking the time to think it through – my husband balances me out well in this regard. He’s the direct opposite. This cockiness comes from an overconfident sense of being able to discern what is there. When I get in trouble, it is generally because of ignorance.

So I’m watching this new circumstance, realizing there is some real potential to be successful, and real potential to get myself into trouble. My gut isn’t yet telling me if I should back away, or if I should push forward with a hawk’s eye to a level, least I go down another slope. My gut is probably pleading the fifth, and I’ll need to make a decision based on risk and hope for the best, and hope it isn’t leading me towards a decrease in metaphoric elevation.

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Filed under Buffalo, Personal

Learning things the hard way so you don’t have to

In my younger years, I was terrible with boundaries. I wasn’t a sleeping border control agent. I was a diplomat contesting the need for the borders in the first place, refusing to police them as I believed openness was the right place to be. That did not work out. You cannot maintain sovereignty with open borders. You cannot maintain relationships if you do not define them, or yourself, precisely and in relationship to each other.

I spent the ensuing years erecting walls. Careful, well-thought-out walls out of impervious substances such as brick and mortar, carefully placing them where it seemed best. I posted a guard, and gave her strict rules. Initially, I was a tyrant. Lately I’ve allowed the installation of windows into the metaphoric walls. I’ve bent rules on who may access the gate if the spirit of my intentions are there. Rules can assist with this.

I created a mental “order of things” map, deciding how I would relate to others due to the nature of my relationship to them and their relationship to my husband. It works. It shone a light on my priorities and obligations and has made navigating interpersonal conflict in my social networks much simpler. I have found that disputes between people can be managed less by their righteousness of their stance, but by their position on the interdependent web of my social world.

With stronger boundaries came a habit of privacy. I am more careful about to whom I tell what. Sometimes it can even be how much of what I tell people, as if I’m releasing heavily censored press-releases. This is not an unhealthy habit: most things are not most people’s business. Why should they know? But I have to be careful to be aware of what is my carefully crafted and optimistic projection versus what is the raw experience.

Remembered this today as I told a close, trusted friend about a strange circumstance I found myself in. It is the sort of thing I’d usually black out with a sharpie, but this friend has a higher security clearance with me. He gave me great advice; turns out that he had an analogous experience.

Like anything else, good data in, good analysis out. Bad data in, bad analysis. Openness still has its rewards, though it is best a cautious endeavor.

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