the spiders of the interdependent web

image from morguefile.com

image from morguefile.com

I love the metaphor of being in an interdependent web. A web, something that spans, something that entangles, something that entirely affected when a small piece is. You know what that metaphor is missing?

The spider.

Webs exist so that spiders can kill and eat. Sure, the gentler metaphor interpreters among us will say “webs provide us nourishment”, but that’s a rather disempowering and passive approach. Someone, something, created the webs in a context not created by them. The spider is responsible for the web, though not the trees, not the twigs, not the wrought iron slats of my apartment’s porch. The spider exists because it created the web to capture everyone else. If we exist in a web, it’s because our days are numbered, and though we feel the hum and the vibration of the rest of the activity, the dominant activity is the spider walking over to transform something living into a meal.

That “web” has come to be a metaphor of interconnectivity is ironic to the fact webs are predatory tools.

I have years worth of experiences where I meander into social spaces of people who I thought should be my tribe, usually for some sort of political or change-oriented group, and I’m blatantly an outsider. We speak the same language, we share the same values, we see the same visions, but the thread that actually does the connecting appears to be missing. Like we’re spiders of the same species but our silk won’t stick.

Semi-recently I had this experience where discomfort was encouraged because we were doing something bold. I felt uneasy the whole time, but it wasn’t fear. Fear and I go way back. Discussed it with friends, my actual tribe, and they summarized with “it’s not you, it’s them.” The key part being that there was a distinction of the me and the them, which played out in the uneasy and problematic ways my own contributions laced together (or didn’t) with the rest.

I feel it in so many of these groups that I otherwise should belong to, whose books read like something I’d have written, whose events feel like something I’d have organized. And I’m baffled, wondering why the water everyone is drinking tastes toxic only to me. The answer is that it is, in fact, just me, that there’s more to connection than affinity, agreement, and a similar vision. I leave the experience feeling alienated again, wondering what’s wrong with me.

And my friends look at that and go, “Nah. It’s them.” They think the water is toxic too.

There is a politician in my area who isn’t know for their magnanimity. Some of the stuff they say is downright awful, and many of their ideas play on tired tropes of pre-existing social order, and are insulting to boot. There was an advocacy group that tried a social media campaign to accomplish… something, I don’t really remember what, or why, but they wanted people to post selfies with handwritten signs expressing their outrage. (Remember that era?) As I recall, and it’s been awhile, most of the faces were the Usual Suspects of Buffalo’s left. And one of the things mentioned over and over again – why aren’t liberal politicians saying something? Is it because they contribute to their campaigns?

I was discussing this politician with another former politician, who told me that Mx. Non-Magnanimity is substantially funding some charities very quietly. They contribute to a lot of things but doesn’t take credit. Former Politician knew this, because they too had been around a long time. So while when Mx. Non-Magnanimity is bad, they’re bad, but it is worth noting that they are not allll bad as the campaign against them would have seen.

The former politician enlightened me to a perspective that I’ve thought a lot about since: everyone I share the city with? I’m sharing the city with them forever. People rarely move out. Politically active people, people running programs, anyone who would be broadly considered in the “change-making” set are probably firmly anchored into place. If I make an enemy, I’m going to keep them for a long time. And likewise – if someone makes me an enemy, I’m just as anchored. My mindset shifted from more goals oriented to, “Well, if we’re on this long train together, I guess I might as well get to know you,” and it’s helped considerably with my patience for general human foibles.

Boundaries. I used to make the mistake of being too open; now I err towards the side of Fort Knox. It’s not you; it’s me. Younger me did not have a good sense of responsible relationship, a fact I learned the Hard Way. Given two options of error, I realized that making the former mistake risks my close relationships. Openness defines those who are close to you. Secrets are the currency of intimacy. Relationships differ for a reason. The latter mistake might have opportunity costs in friends, but if you have a lot of friends anyway, that does not seem so bad. And it’s certainly more responsible. So post-Hard Way, I became more reserved, and very hesitant to be vulnerable to strangers in any meaningfully risky way.

When you have a boundary, you spend a lot of time policing it – a thing I’ve learned is that people are always pushing. I push back. You can sink a lot of effort into keeping these fences up, and it can affect how you see and interact with the world at large. Suspicion is the default because human history is pretty much a list of times people treated each other badly. The more closed I am, the safer I am, but more risk adverse. Risk aversion is hardly good leadership or visionary thinking. Closedness preserves that status quo, keeping all its problems intact. Openness is required but it remains risky. It’s so tempting to retreat to your tribe.

We cut society into our people and those people. Everyone does it. Even the most supposedly open progressive people do it. The people who are kindest to most people simply drew their boundaries broader than is typical. But make no mistake – there is a boundary. I’ve yet to meet a person with a line that didn’t have someone on the other side. And that doesn’t mean it is not a wise thing to do. People do, turns out, treat each other badly. It is a fact that means we are going to continue to have many of the same conflicts over and over again. Shuffle the deck, switch the population, and history replays the same fights with its new cast of characters and their new technology.

It has consequences. My street has a few households that are only here because there were wars in the former Yugoslavia over the boundaries of ethnic belonging. Over a few blocks, the refugees fled the Middle East. Another block, Africa. I am watching people in my country become increasingly open about their loathing of Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans. “Eh, that’s just so-and-so,” I hear a lot. I’m worried. These prejudices have more power than labeling them as simply unpopular opinions would suggest. Fed and nourished, these opinions kill. If that weren’t true, I would have never met the people I have the pleasure of sharing my city with.

Orb-style webs are usually constructed out of a radial pattern of non-sticky silk united by a swirl of sticky silk. That sticky silk is what catches the prey. Most of it isn’t meant to be sticky. I suppose the best part of the metaphor would be to liken ourselves to the strands of non-sticky silk, affected by the sticky uniting silk. Yet. We’re animate. We create. We link together. We divide. We’re less entangled in a unified web so much as we are the spiders weaving the web, creating the contours of its boundaries, deciding how big and how broadly it will span, and what we’ll kill after it enters it. If we are in an interdependent web, it is because we built it, and there is a great deal of power in that. We can build our webs broadly, narrowly, and as collaborative efforts.

We’re not the web, we’re the spiders.

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Regret

Years ago I swam in the surf everyone said to avoid. There were programs advocating against it and rules of prohibition chiseled in stone. It’s the place bad people go to drown, they’d say loudly in a crowd. It looks enticing, they’d say quietly, almost a whisper one-on-one: The water feels great when you first dip your toes in, but the undertow and currents will carry you away. It’s poison, it’s a vice, and only the weak resort to those.

It’s real pretty on the coast. The sun sets there. I walked the shore every day, confident I’d never. Then the sun got hot, real hot. There is no shade on the shore. I poked my feet in and felt refreshed; soon I went swimming, and though the first moments were bliss, it went as everyone said it would: badly. The water washed away the sense of integrity I had, which I leaned on to structure my life. My shoes filled with stones. My lungs filled with water. My heart filled with ice. All of this I brought on my self. The people who love me pumped out the water anyway, because that’s what love does, and that’s how love helps. Life goes on, and loved ones pretend to forget. I stay away from the coast. I still have pebbles in my shoes.

Regret is the sharp stone in my shoe that I can’t remove. It cuts my feet, blood initially soaking my shoes, but these days just drops here and there. There’s a bit more if I step funny. I feel it every time I walk, even though I’m far, far away from the coast. Though my skin calloused as I venture to virtuous places, I feel it chafe; a reminder I am not always virtuous. It feels like it should be so simple as taking off the shoes, and continuing along the path, for some reason I cannot. These shoes protect me from other rocks adorning the path. No one else notices it most of the time, so why should I care?

Regret is never forgetting the darkness on the other side of the horizon. Regret is coloring the present with the past. Regret is the dark underpainting in an otherwise happy picture. I keep layering more bright colors onto the canvas. I keep creating images of joy, my brush globbing thick paint yet it can’t seem to block out the shadows of the still life in front of me. Regret is curtailed creativity; I struggle to imagine how the picture would have looked otherwise, it has been so long. Regret is part of my picture, an inkwash of Noodler’s Bulletproof Black.

Regret is the understanding that everything happens for a reason, and sometimes those reasons really suck and are entirely your fault. Regret is mourning the opportunity cost of a better future or a more open present. Regret is sometimes wisdom earned “the hard way”.

Regret is drinking poison as you don’t know what else to do, knowing logically that you should push the bottle away but it seems sewn into your hands. Regret is the inability to forgive yourself, even though you recognize acts of mercy when you see them. There is no irony: I stepped in the waters sensing this would happen. I even said so out loud.

There’s a cautionary tale in thinking you’re wiser than your community; you’re not. There’s a cautionary tale in believing your body is immune to poison; it isn’t. The hard way is an effective teacher best avoided: there are easier paths. Meander through someone else’s mistakes.

I lived in the desert until I trusted myself enough to be adjacent to the sea. Nautical circumstances make more sense these days. Yet. The smell of the salty see triggers memories, and those are mostly gone except as seen through the taupe colored goggles of regret.

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Ends

black and white photo of a knife in shadow sticking into the table

photo by alexfrance on Morguefile.com

My heart’s focused on two situations where I see beloved relationships ending, not due to conflict, not due to ill-will, not because anyone wants this outcome, but existential concerns. It is too early to claim a burial plot in both cases, and while one is inevitable, the other is not, but likely. Preemptive sadness is a waste of time, my head tells me, but dread in my gut tells me otherwise. And so I am as loving as I possibly can be, but quiet about my fears, in case they are irrational; in case they are offensive.

I am working towards ensuring my own responsible death, putting together a will. Focusing on it as a series of checklists, because the actual hypothetical is surreal. I cared a lot more about my own mortality once I had kids, once I realized I was actually irreplaceable in someone’s life. Yeah, my kids would cope without me, and I do not wish to overstate my importance, but it really drives home that the purpose of parenting is to teach your most beloved to live without you.

I generally feel fairly empowered to do something. If I see a problem that is within my reach to assist, I’m inclined to. Though I’m finding my arms are fully extended, and I’m pulling muscles, and it is not enough. It is never enough. I feel like I am going to have important things slip through my fingers if I am not careful. And I can feel the edges of my abilities being sanded down by the abrasiveness of everything else, like how glass loses its clarity and sharpness in Lake Erie. Yet – ending my involvement with “extra” things, toning down my ownership of the world around me, it seems like a death to itself. It is a step-down surrender, not death, but for some reason they feel the same.

I feel as though I have stepped completely out of the waters of the “young” side of adulthood. So far, I love thirty. My body is strong, I have enough experience to feel confident in most situations, and to confidently fake assurance in others. I make fewer stupid mistakes of inexperience and misunderstanding. I have a sense of who I belong to and who I don’t. I still struggle to guess which category new people will fall into, but I am also improving the speed at which I shake off rejection. I need to better blunt the blades of regret as they still manage to cut me, and they cut through most sheathes. I am increasingly finding that time isn’t the salve to let the things fade so much as sunlight is; yet at the same time, I feel over-exposed sharing anything I consider personal; sunshine doesn’t cauterize wounds as well as it once did. The older version of me is much more inclined to be private, seeing my life more as this exclusive experience that’s the only thing I get to keep. My youngest is sleeping better, so now I am finally dreaming again, and my dreams are full of conflict surrounding borders and boundaries and I’m understanding that I’m not so open these days, and even less openhearted with strangers. Even typing this paragraph feels like a risk – why share? Who cares? Do I really want this information known?

At one point I blogged as to expand my tribe, and I found them. So do I end blogging? Do I save this space as a placeholder for wonky policy-making? Has the desire to be “known” ended? I miss weaving words together. I miss having sharp, extended things to say. But I used to mine my own life for material, and the quarry’s sharper and I sense once I dig stuff up, I can’t return the land to its previous, pristine mystery.

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Light/Shadow/Action

photo by ali10 on morguefile.com

photo by ali10 on morguefile.com

I live in the City of Light, and you can tell by the proliferation of shadows, which most people suggest are inevitable. It’s how it’s done, they say, you cannot have light without shadows. Seemed that the shadows were a matter of positioning – maybe we could create some circumstances where the photons are more evenly distributed. Mirrors. Spotlights. Flashlights. Fire. Something. We need vision. We can do this. It’s light. It’ll become clearer as we try things.

So a few things happen when you start to do it:
1) First you try mirrors, but it doesn’t reflect the light as much as it reflects images and it blocks the view of the other areas. They have an exaggerating effect – the people in the bright areas see everything as bright, and the people in the shadowed areas feel more shadowed still. The mirrors exaggerate the narcissism of the illuminated, able to more easily view their splendor, presuming a preference of this very image for everyone else. The city does not get brighter in the meantime. Next.
2) OK. We got spotlights. But spotlights draw a lot of power. You need to plug them in to draw electricity, right? Well. Turns out the brighter areas are the more powerful, erm, electricity-rich areas abundant with plugs, so you’re illuminating the adjacent areas only. Everything gets kind of washed out when shadows disappear. A lot of people will say it’s better, but many more will say that the distinctiveness is gone – this is not the place we knew. It looks different. It feels different. We can’t live here anymore, they say, it’s blinding.
3) You try flashlights, nice and portable flashlights, for the areas not so adjacent. And yay! There’s more light. But flashlights have a funny habit of taking your eyes out of adjustment and making the surrounding area seem darker. They also don’t make much difference. The children are drawn to them – you get the cutest photos! – but they make shadow puppets, which is sort of defeating the purpose. Some of the folks see the flashlight and point to the spotlight as either aspiration or cautionary tale. There’s no such thing as a unified opinion on this one.
4) Seeking a softer ambiance, you hand out candles. The light is dimmer, but maybe it’ll illuminate the shadows. But the candles get dropped. And the candles usually burn out when they hit the ground, but every now and then, they land on something paper, something fabric, or worse: something explosive. The next thing you know, the area is light itself – matter converted to energy converted to heat and City of Light becomes less metaphor and more metaphysical reality. And then it’s gone – fires are notorious for burning out. Even while it was here, the fire created more shadows.

I live in the City of Light, and you can tell there is light by the proliferation of shadows, which we’ve yet to figure out how to escape.

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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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