The Hills and The Choices

by Koan on Morguefile

by Koan on Morguefile

“The more radical activists will always say you’re not doing enough,” My friend, in a letter.

The world is mountains, replete with worthy hills to die on. I’ve but two feet, two arms, and one lifespan. I cannot be everywhere and I cannot do it all.

When I was younger, I felt like I was in the map room, preparing to go into the world. The maps were blank; I was drawing lines anyway, using ink that could wash away if need be, ink that was permanent in some spots. And this was how I made my plans, feeling like I was in some purgatory until one day I just walked out.

I’m on the path now, and all of the hill surrounding me seem like worthwhile ventures, but the fact is you don’t know until you’ve committed. You don’t know from the trail head if it will be worth your time, and sometimes initial steepness is followed by a shallower grade and vice versa. Some lead you to the sky, some lead you to a pit of lava, and some meander forever. How do you know? You don’t. And in the process of creating the map, you are creating the land, the process is reciprocal, and you’ll die on one of these mountains or you’ll die in the woods.

I took a look around my life, my community, and my world and realized I had to make a decision. Control is mostly an illusion, and I certainly can’t predict the future. So I examined the path, my feet, my talents, and my traveling companions to figure out which hill is it that I’ll try to die on.

What is the work that no one but I can do?

What is the work that I can do that most others will not?

What is the work that I can do that absolutely must be done and most others aren’t doing?

I looked into the distance and found my mountains, and prioritized accordingly. It is my fortune that they are mostly in the same range, but not always, and sometimes I must abandon the lower for the higher. I do this willingly and without guilt, because I know as much as I can, and so I am traveling with great purpose.

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Contextual Awareness

An unintended consequence of my new hobby of birding is that I almost always feel more connected to my surroundings. I’ll be standing somewhere, hear some chirps, and know “Oh, that’s a Cardinal.” “Oh, that’s a House Sparrow.” “Yep, there’s the Starlings again.” These songs have been the soundtrack of my life but I never knew who they belonged to, and now I do, for most of the frequent fliers of my city environment. I feel less alone because I know who they are.

After Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the Dallas shootings, I heard a lot of people, especially white ones in my life, say that they felt alone. I wonder if some of the isolation that my friends and acquaintances have expressed is the opposite experience from what I have had with birding. We thought we knew what society is like, and now we are learning that it is quite different, and in some very heartbreaking ways. We thought we knew who society is and how it worked and now we know that we may have been wrong.

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In the Wake of White Supremacy

I’ve been taking the approach with the people of color in my life that I take with people I know are in the midst of, or just past, some trauma: I try to be extra kind and I wait for them to volunteer information without prying, assuming if they want to talk about it, they will. The reason is that sometimes people want escape, sometimes people do not want to be triggered, and sometimes a rehash just hurts. I don’t want to hurt people. Yet, I don’t know if waiting is the right thing to do. It can come off as indifference. It can come off as denial. It can come off as tacit approval of whatever is causing ill. I’ve been talking more with the white people in my life, yet! That can also feel clannish. There is no perfect action, of course. There are just preferential mistakes.

My numbness grows with every new hashtagged name of someone killed by the police. I don’t have an inherent problem with police officers; lots of people in my life have been, or currently are, cops. They care about their work, they do their best. I do have problems with institutions that do not fix their problems and with occupational cultures that let professional malfeasance go uncorrected. One way to see the killing of Black people in traffic stops and such as an extreme form of professional malfeasance; many in my Twitter feed has argued this is how the system is designed. They aren’t necessarily wrong, in that all power structures are built to be self-perpetuating. I expect more from police officers. I want to dictate the norms of a profession that I am not in, I want to demand they be better than people with authority tend to be, because this profession is funded through my taxes, this profession exists explicitly to serve society at large, and I’m concerned with the boundaries of the society that’s served doesn’t always include everyone in it. I fear the codification of racial prejudice through the enforcement arm – to quote a philosopher-cop I used to TA for, law is pretty much only that which is enforced. I’ve been having the same conversation with a lot of white people – this isn’t really about if cops are inherently bad people, it’s more about what happens when the job done is lacking. Some occupations really need you to rise above prejudices and the big-picture aggregate is disheartening. One way white supremacy reinforces itself is by making everything about the inherent goodness or not, and then defines goodness as a weird socially-located set of intentions for the pale and perfection for people of color.

My numbness seemed to transform into emptiness with Philando Castile. I don’t know why it was him. Maybe it was because I was awake when the video broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe it’s because his daughter isn’t that much older than mine. Maybe it’s because I recently had my first traffic stop and it was a ten minute speeding ticket and that’s it. I did not watch the video, because the purpose of being awake was to put my son back to sleep. I read Twitter when I rock him to stunt the encroachment of late-night ennui, and that night it was just outrage and sadness. I still haven’t seen the video. I feel like I don’t need to, what I read was awful enough. Then the sniper shot the Dallas Police and I found myself frustrated with the sniper for 1) killing and 2) complicating the narrative because white supremacy demands angelic victims, demands the oppressed rise above all occasions by never having a member of the group do anything wrong. It’s not right of him, of me, none of this is OK. Seems that people are getting a little better at acknowledging that you can demand better policing practices in our country and hold law enforcement officers to high standards *and* believe that the professional malfeasance of some officers doesn’t make belonging to that profession an executable crime. This understanding shouldn’t require people to stretch the muscles of nuance so strenuously, I would have hoped, but here we are.

Sociologist in me understands that oppression requires obedience, and any challenge to dominance gets pushed back. I’m trying to be gentle in the conversations with other white people about Black Lives Matter. No, it’s not perfect. Does it need to be? Does the violence in the white community require we dismiss our own claims to worth? Why are so many people willing to do so for the Black community? I try to be gentle because I don’t want my thoughts dismissed after people know what they are, and that it’s just how I think and to move on. I don’t want to damage the relationships I have with others, for selfish reasons (guys, I really like the people in my life) and it’s also a lousy persuasive rhetoric. I am a gear in this system, and I’m trying to slow the spinning, watching as the rest of the machine continues, as if all I managed to do was shear off some of the gear’s teeth.

Black Lives Matter. My Black friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow country residents, etc matter. They matter whether I agree with everything they do, they matter whether you agree with everything they do. That’s the thing about mattering – it’s not conditional on perfection or expectations. Black people have the same inherent worth and dignity that all human beings do. This society is, ever so subtly in some ways and overtly in others, structured to diminish that. I’ve been hearing a lot of white people who have beloved people of color in their lives articulating a real fear of loss. I can only imagine what living in a society structured with systemic racism is like when you are a person of color. This is not the world that should be. It needs to change, and that’s work, and that’s slow, and that probably has a longer time horizon than my lifespan. I feel numb. I fear an encroaching sense of futility in the work I do. I’ve been quiet. Know the silence isn’t approval of the status quo – the silence is an imperfect effort to keep space. The silence is the attempt to stand up as waves crash over, again and again, realizing there is no shore, not knowing what to do next.

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Cold Metal Is a Bad Noise Dampener

I imagine that someone has probably written a science fiction novel where aliens come to the world and are appalled: all of us exist by consuming something else that is living, whose life ceased when consumed. And these would be creatures that exist by absorbing light from the sun and eating rocks, inanimate things, not needing to rob some other living organism of their proteins, fats, and sugars. I imagine that they’d see our efforts to define ourselves as good to be hypocritical: you all kill to live, they’d say. What’s this unfounded obsession with perceiving yourself as virtuous? Creating suffering is in your nature.

My most potent spiritual struggles lately entail coping with a context of suffering – some of which is overt, and some of which is akin to background noise. I’m thinking about the shootings of Black men by police, the shooting of police by a sniper, the killing of LGBTQ Puerto Ricans in Miami, etc. More often than not, the death isn’t front and center, it’s a thing I am aware of, and I am aware of a lot. Sometimes it is faraway suffering of a group of people courtesy of their state’s government, the death of fish from the redirection of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea, or sometimes it is a specific person with misfortune. Sometimes it’s a day where the stories from my job get to me more than usual, or maybe the awareness I have of how many people are experiencing homelessness in Western New York as I type on this keyboard (hint: it’s my job to figure those numbers out). As I push the keys of my laptop, someone is suffering horrifcally, unjustly, and there may be realistically little to nothing I can do about it.

We don’t like that perspective, us individualist Americans, us Unitarian Universalists, us agency-loving empowered-as-much-as-we-can-be citizens. I loathe it. How can horrificness happen under my watch? It does. It always have. Does my co-existence mean culpability? I try to take care of the things I am responsible for. Paying my rent and raising my kids feels easy. What about the cases of systemic issues: racism, poverty, capitalism, where I barely learn the game much less how to change it? What is my responsibility? It’s diffuse, of course, and that’s where it stagnates: every psychology 101 student knows about the diffusion of responsibility. We accomplish the things pegged on us, but the things pegged on all of us? Well… I only own 1/7,125,000,000th of it, what am I to do?

I try to do things anyway. I loved Rev. Nate Walker’s Cultivating Empathy because it emphasized the moral imagination – to imagine to do things better. And as I’m here being crushed from reality, it occurs to me that maybe I need to try to see beyond, try something new, be more in community. There’s a chapter in Rev. Crystal St. Marie Lewis’ book By The Waters of Babylonabout conceiving of God in everyone, and it changed how I saw fellow people for a bit. I found misanthropy creeping in. Like I was seeing what people were liked and being very disillusioned. In particular, I found myself getting frustrated with the foibles of leftist spaces – I am most sympathetic to those political views – feeling much of it was performance over substance. I needed more patience with people. I realize that to cope with the background suffering, I was getting harder in spirit. Not in the calloused way, but in the way of metal. Soft when warm, stiff when cold, impenetrable when thick. I am not sure if it is a lack of willingness to be vulnerable, being a bit too tight on my emotional boundaries (in the past, I had the opposite problem), or truly realizing the horizon of the problem extends far past what I could hope to be the duration of my natural life. Cold metal is a bad noise dampener. It changes me, but nothing else around me.

My body is taking longer to recover from exertion. As that grows more pronounced, my mortality screams louder, “You. Will. Someday. Die.” It’s a when, not an if. There will be things undone. There will be things that I wanted to see succeed that failed. I will leave behind people I wanted to spend more time with. The terror is, at times, spiritually paralyzing. I do not belong to a faith that has Heaven. I’m a parent now. The stakes of danger seem so very higher. I sense my bravery, largely straddling the “stupid” side of the spectrum most of my life, eroding as I move towards wisdom and experience. I dislike this. It is completely rational. I have been heading towards beauty-affirming pursuits, which at first seemed very selfish. Birding. Birds are beautiful, but how is this productive? I’m seeing now that the emphasis towards beauty, towards being present with my husband and kids, towards maintaining the many wonderful relationships that I have, that was an antidote to the crushing experience of background noise, even as they do little to undermine the root causes (ending the causes of suffering).

There’s tension between realism and hope and between awareness and agency. I am still trying to discern the best ways to create a better world in the limited ways available to me in my limited number of years. I wrote this in hopes that maybe someone else who was finding themselves in a sort of activist ennui could relate. The only solution I have found is to keep moving forward anyway.

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Dusty White

I spent Saturday afternoon in a Presbyterian Church I’d never heard of, in a suburb I rarely visit, for a racial justice training. I’d do it again. Show Up For Racial Justice is an anti-racist organization meant to organize white people for action. The underlying premise is racism is white people’s problem and it is on us to fix it. I went to a training for people of faith. Do it. If you have the opportunity, just do it. Here are a few rough ideas that I got from it, which I wished to share.

Perfection is the expectation of white supremacy, the facilitator, Rev. Anne Dunlap, said. Aha, she is right. Your actions are unworthy if not perfect, you shouldn’t speak up unless you have exactly the right thing to say, your tone of voice and delivery have to be perfect. The person needs to be in the right sort of relationship with you. The stars need to align and then you can talk about racial oppression, this giant machine that pushes forward with every turn of even the littlest gear’s teeth. Your work is slowing the machine, sanding down the teeth, maybe even dismantling the gears. White supremacy demands waiting for the perfect sized hammer that will never come, instead of the one you can reach.

It was illuminating. Prior to that moment I’d struggle to understand what people meant by white supremacy being a scourge on white people’s souls. Listen: my concept of my own soul is like a cup of water held over a lake, only without the cup, just in your hands. It spills out, it’s poorly bounded, prone to evaporate – I mean, what is my soul? My humanism sits on the border of secular and religious. And to say it damages us when we were never meant to be whole to begin with (who gets through life unscathed?) seems a bit melodramatic. I have so little patience for that. But the expectation of perfection made sense. I’m not sure if it’s whiteness or the supremacy (what is whiteness without the supremacy?) but I appreciated that insight.

I’d been saying this, but I appreciated hearing it elsewhere: too many progressive tactics create boundary policing instead of persuasion. Are you a good person who agrees with me or a bad person who does not? Turns out the insult of saying someone is wrong or bad (white supremacy demands perfection for value – being wrong is a threat) is not really strategically effective. So ways to pull someone over. And I appreciate this because I keep finding myself in circumstances where it seems we’ve all forgotten we have to share this country with people we disagree with, and that is frustrating. I would like a shift towards a cultural value of compromise.

White supremacy has defined racism itself, and the way to cope with it, in such as way as to prevent it from being unraveled. Speaking of whiteness is taboo. I have started describing myself as white to strangers looking to meet me, and I sense discomfort with naming my race. It is invisible, co-opting a national culture as its own and claiming everything else is deviant. We have racial prejudice and system participation as making someone “bad” and then made “bad” the worse thing you can be, no acknowledgement of human failing. Thus confronting racism becomes a threat to a white person’s self-worth.

I wonder if having experiences where I feel I can no longer claim moral purity helps on this path. For instance, I’m not a vegan anymore. For a time I was an ardent one. And I wish I could go through the world with the vegan vision: not harming any other life with my own. I learned the hard way that a plant-exclusive diet was incompatible with my health. It was a myth, anyway: we live in houses made from the corpses of trees, wear clothes from the corpses of either plants, cows, or dinosaurs, farming hurts rodents, and I accidentally and unknowingly kill bugs as I walk. Washing my hands kills bacteria. I remember realizing this and felt like it had to be possible, if I just tried harder! Life requires death. I hate this. It’s a tension for me, that I hold, because I do value my existence, and the health of the other two people who have relied on my body for their well-being. And so white supremacy is also a tension, and confronting it feels less like an existential threat to my goodness because goodness is an ideal more so than a reality of perfection.

In any case – good training, you should go.

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Steel thread

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I have been awake most of the last year, caring for a love of my life who can be forgiven on account of his youth (not yet 1 year old). When I am not at work, I’m holding at least 25 pounds. I’ve never been so muscular, or tired. Life feels intense.

Sleep deprivation is insidious. As much as the short-term effects railroad you, the long-term changes are subtler. Sleep deprivation becomes a thing that arrives on a schedule. You get so used to seeing the rails as co-occuring with the natural world, you forget that it’s a distortion, that it’s supposed to be uninterrupted forest. While my body became accustomed to traveling through the day on less sleep, its function has been sub-optimal. My brain is a computer with a lot of RAM and no hard-drive. The things I do to pull myself together are starting to contribute to a greater sense of coming apart. I sewed myself together with steel wire. Strong but brittle, the edges sometimes break and poke out, scratching others. The holes the wire passes through get wider, the rest of my softness no match for the thread. I am abrasive, and a touch less kind. Spiritually (for lack of a better term), I feel unbalanced. I am inclined to be to-the-point, but I am shooting off ideas like bb pellets. Ideas, particularly challenging ones, sometimes need to come delivered on a cushion to soften their landing and people are not targets. I saw this, but my body took on more of a marionette’s figure, with the wires clumsily guiding the conduct of the body.

Thankfully it is getting better.

My unpublished posts are dark, and full of terrors (but the delete key burns it away). Fatigue informed a perspective that was more nakedly fatalist and existential than I am. And I had just enough self-awareness to recognize the clouds, and wait for that to pass.

Thankfully, I am sleeping more.

I remember a throw-away comment from a professor in one of my psychology courses, that depressed people have been found to see things not worse as they are, but they just don’t have the buffer of optimism that psychologically healthy people have: they are more realistic. And it is very real that the world is full of suffering and that any moment’s peace is likely to be interrupted with countless potential disasters and that everyone you love will eventually die. These are all true. The world is also beautiful despite the suffering and despite the risks, and the ability to co-exist that is proving to be my personal indicator of how well I am doing.

My closest friend reminds me, “Don’t believe everything that you think.” Before they said that, it had never occurred to me to do so. I recommend it.

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It’s like a conversation at the cafe or a letter you threw out.

Cloud encroaching over a lake, sun reflecting on the unencroached part

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Some years ago I needed advice on a rather sensitive private matter. Unless you are in the web of family and friends I sought guidance from, I don’t really talk about it. I don’t need to; it is more or less resolved now.

I mention it because I also read a ton on the subject, mostly books and blogs, to figure it out what I needed to do. Reading is my therapy. Writing feels that way, but that is deceptive. Writing the sentences, structuring the argument, finding the flaws in my reasoning: those activities help me figure life out. But hitting the publish button? Eeeeeeeee, that is a different story. Then working out my issues becomes a social act. Then, get this, sometimes people READ IT, and then they know. Oh, they know. I love Anne Lamott, but the way the spotlight on her own life reflected onto her associates seemed too harsh to aim at anyone I know. Reading her books feels like inadvertently getting into her friends’ business and still feel like maybe I should not be there.

Other people did not necessarily have that inhibition, and fortunately for me, they were writing about that sensitive topic that I am still too bashful to discuss. They wrote their truths and self-published them on websites using their real names as the URLs. The wordsmithing was usually excellent and the content was desperately relevant. Wow, I thought. This is helpful. And you are bolder than me. In any case, thanks to all those writers out there: I needed to hear what you apparently needed to write.

Fast forward some years later. Most of those blogs are gone.

Let me explain something: there was an ad-hoc network of writers on these topics. They were religious for the most part. They hosted each other as guest-writers on each other’s websites and some of the bloggers got book deals. The books, alas, were disappointing as they read exactly as blogs did and often did not feel like anything new. But they were there. The writers had speaking gigs and conference addresses. I attended none of these. I just know they existed. I also was under the impression that everyone’s writing career was on the rise and I am surprised now to see how much of the work just vanished.

It is normal for fame to flash and fade, and I find myself wondering if the internet version is a spark of even quicker death. It is not just that the writers seem less prominent, but many of them took down their sites. Even a website that I wrote for disappeared, a fact that I discovered when I was looking for a particularly well-written extended metaphor that Tim Atkins wrote. I get it. I, too, have deleted most of what I wrote for the web. I have a kill clause on just about everything I put on the internet too. In 2018, this post will not be here.

They were good writers and the internet feels a bit emptier for their absence. This feels unexpected. Like how you know everyone is going to die eventually but are shocked to find out that an acquaintance’s day already passed. No, no, no: It is too soon. Everything is ephemeral, and while it feels like a death, it isn’t, it is just the world shifting and moving. The internet, in this mass-distribution form, is young. There is no reason to assume permanence except in the ways that it facilitates memory of the people using it. Unless, of course, it is incriminating, and then everyone screen-capped it.

Perhaps the writers deleted the websites when they too resolved that part of their life. Perhaps they fatigued of mentioning their troubles, and found the best way to move on was to cut ties with, and then delete, their art. The internet, and public discourse at large, has a nasty habit of transforming everyone and everything into two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and who wants theirs to be of intensely private and difficult matters? What happens when your public persona (as many of these writers were) is associated with a redemptive narrative around screwing up? Is it uplifting when it is fresh, only to feel like a tether later?

Some of the norms that people practice are informed by journalism, which act as if everything were still printed on paper and delivered on our front porch. If you consider writing art, then the internet can be more venue for performance than publishing house if one is liberal with the delete key.

I’ve come to consider blogs more a savored conversation at a cafĂ© and less like a book on the shelf. Perhaps like a piece of discarded correspondence, only the opposite of Onegin’s letters to Tatiana Larina: the sender, not the recipient, determined they were too dangerous to keep and tore them apart, shoving the pieces in the stove*.

*Or so is done in a movie adaptation. There’s no such reference in the original versed novel.

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