Clay

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I have been known to dig up some of the front yard, pull out the rocks, and knead the clay into something my kids can play with. It takes some work and water, but boom. Next thing you know you they made a play dinner set, or a play person, or a ball, and I created plausible deniability for my own play. Best yet: the mess stays mostly outside.

I want my kids to play with raw materials because I worry about truncating their imagination. I feel my own atrophying, as life gave me VERY SPECIFIC THINGS TO ACCOMPLISH to take place of the aimless wondering childhood affords. To the extent parenting is trying to protect your children from your own bad experiences, here I am. Each year brings more questions than facts. And the vision I had in front of me of what the world could be starts slowly aligning more and more with what is, instead of the hopeful vision un-moored and un-anchored to reality that I had not even seven years ago.

When I cannot consider the possibility of something, when it seems too scary, it is holding something too true, to frightening to accept.

Am I cynical?

No! Of course not!

Uh.

Uh.

Oh no. I don’t like that label.

Like the label carried more of a stigma than the actions that earn it. (I think most people are at that place with racism and sexism). Listen: I recoil any time someone suggests some facet of me doesn’t conform to some ideal-type of humanity, because of course I don’t. No one does. No living person is the realized ideal of humanity. Humanity is the empirical fact of humans.

Here, there was some discourse asking us to trade-in skepticism for action. I saw more than a couple places decrying reticence to join, reticence to act as cynicism, using the term as yet another label to file someone under “Bad Person” and it can feel like we have an awful lot of scarlet letters being embroidered, just waiting to be pinned. I am pretty aware of that dynamic, and am trying to keep some distance from it.

I am a skeptical person. I am a policy and data wonk. I need to know the limits of what I know. Some of what I heard described as “cynicism” felt like a really personally attack, because it appeared to be attacking those traits of mine. Usually I’ll just be like, “Fine, pin the scarlet letter on me, and go fuck yourself.” Here, I was like, “no no no no no… of course not…” It’s so threatening to how I consider myself, I could not consider the mere idea.

Another: cynicism as a form of cowardice. Man. Being accused of cowardice is too personal. I consider myself a reasonably brave person, I do stuff that scares me and makes me uncomfortable a lot. The truth is also that I likely have more anxiety than the average bear, requiring bravery to function normally. Whatever. It works for me.

Another: cynicism as a defense mechanism against disappointment. Oh. Uh, that one is a thing I do. I’ve tried to teaching myself reflexively not to want stuff, especially fancy stuff, because not wanting is easier than coping unrequited desire. (I’ve actually only recently really given in to that. Moderation can be harder than abstention.) It haunts my world. Despite my current circumstance being a very happy marriage, I can show you the scars from previous unrequited love. Despite having enough resources to ensure that not only I, but the two little humans in my care, are materially comfortable, I am still haunted by the anxiety of times when my resources were insufficient. So that was when cynicism sounded real to me, and I sensed that the rest of my reactions may have been defensive ones because the truth was too real for me to like.

But still! Cynicism is something I understood as a pessimism. Am I pessimistic? Did I become that way without even realizing it? Have I traded in hopefulness for reality? Am I sticking to what’s made, forgetting to imagine a better future because I am too afraid of the likely possibilities?

I was telling a friend that I do not know. And he told me that cynicism is like anything else in that you’re never 100% of what the trait-ideal is. That was comforting, because perfection is something I cannot do. Staring at cynical traits? Sure. I can do that.

My family is really into this guy’s channel on YouTube where he, as a hobby, makes stuff like huts and forges entirely from materials in the earth around him, his hands, and his knowledge. (Check him out, his stuff is enthralling – Primitive Technology.) We all did, at some point. Human beings creating our world with what is in front of us, but what shows up in front of us is beyond our control. Sometimes it is nourishing, and sometimes we need to protect ourselves from it. I think about this every single day. He’s really creative. I see ground and he sees a forge that can smelt iron. I admire that trait. To take what is in front of you and create something better when it is really, really difficult, that is admirable.

I want to be able to assess what is around me with more certainty than exists. The seductive simplicity of just using what I can make, relying on only myself, is limiting at best and a mirage at worse. How to stay brave enough to let myself be vulnerable in the pursuit of a better society? So far all of my bravery is that I know I have the support of friends, loved ones, and a supportive community. May I support them as much as they buoy me.

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Filed under Buffalo, Dystopia, Personal

Inaction

I woke up a couple mornings ago and realized that the presidential vote in my country was essentially that lots of people, white people in particular, care more about “my guys” than the norms of democracy. You have to give something up in order to live equitably, in order to leave peacefully. You have to let go of the capitalistic and moralistic obsession if your neighbor got more than they deserve and care more that they got enough to survive on, “warranted” or not.  You have to trust your country-mates, at least a little bit. Enough people in my country’s response to that: Nah. The president-elect is calling for limits on liberty more brazen than what Putin calls for in public – and it seems that people are either appalled and feel powerless or they are OK with it, and agree. And that latter group appears to be the one who cares about their people at all costs, who do not trust the other. We’re all demons in each other’s eyes.

All my dreams have been apocalyptic nightmares. Vivid, cohesive tales of terror. I was on a cruise ship that was running out of food in a world without government. I was a team with the development director from a Niagara Falls charity. We were going to try to anchor outside of Buffalo and come into the city to bargain for supplies, maybe settle. We found ourselves in a sea of bullets from a militia, running. My mind is not even attempting to make these metaphors cryptic. All these dreams have a need to fight but also this hopeless feeling of grief pervading all of them. Like I am constantly thinking about, in these dreams, how it was “before” these scenes of a new terrifying iteration of doomsday that my mind invented. I spend these dreams in fear and confusion. I do not know what to do. I do not know what to take into consideration to decide to do it.

Veins of post-modern thought argue that we are constituted by the social context surrounding us. Some argue this is a threat to true liberation and to our individuality because we often do not think to question the discourses that define what is, what is this society, what we are. It is like trying to discern the smell of oxygen or the taste of water. It is a contributor to why original thought it so rare. When the context changes, we are simultaneously affected and a part of it. We may not even notice at first.

Saw a lot of support for recounts of the presidential race. I am on the left side of the spectrum, and I kept thinking, “denial, denial, denial” is the first step of grief. The alarming discrepancy between popular and electoral votes fuels that. To what extent is it denial and to what extent is this the justification for a call to move? What am I watching? What do I do? I do not know.

I’m finding my own reticence to action, especially in social justice contexts, stems from two sources:

  1. Fear that I am wrong, and in the act of being wrong, I will do harm to others worse than the status-quo of inaction.
  2. Fear that I will be wronged by people whose trustworthiness is either something I am uncertain of or I do not believe exists, that believing their words will lead me astray, that I will do harm to others as a consequence of trusting them.

If I do not trust someone, it is usually because they did something that was dishonest or manipulative to myself or someone I love. If I am uncertain of someone’s trustworthiness, it is usually because they are an associate of the previous sentence. Alas, no work anywhere is done by populations of people who have never wronged another. I cannot claim to have never wronged another. So instead everything feels tinged with risk. It is far easier to trust ideas than people.

Lack of trust will tear our civil society apart. A default of every person for their self, hesitance to collaborate towards common goals, suspicions of people who do not think or feel like us will undermine our desire for democracy, or even to work towards it. It already has. We haven’t had great leadership. We’ve had really self-serving leadership. We’ve have really zealous leadership. Our national leaders have long normalized stripping human rights of the other when it serves our national goals; Americans found this acceptable because the targets were foreigners. But the underlying premise becomes this: rights do not belong to the untrustworthy. Rights do not belong to those we think are threats. When the boundaries of trust and threat moves, we are in trouble.

And then time goes on and we get practice and hone our skills in feeling this way, in perceiving others this way. It becomes entrenched.

Nothing has to be the way it is.
Remember that.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Dystopia

Empirical fact of humanity

Melodi2 from Morguefile.com

I am nearsighted; the far-away blurs. I work on what I know. There are close-by puzzles to be solved. Yet. We drink the water that falls from the sky after traveling from far away, flowed through a far-off river before becoming part of the lake, or that we pumped out of ground we share with everyone else. I fear I am parochial, worrying about the local water infrastructure when the water itself is becoming poisoned.

All of this is hard and none of us know what we are doing.  Our neat and tidy history books lie, depicting people doing clear-cut right and wrong things using their white paper and black letters when the experiences were, I suspect, I hear, more likely smoky gray.

Already I notice change within me. I find, more than usual, I am looking to ascertain the boundaries of what I can trust and not. I trust strangers less than I used to. I know this distrusting orientation, when held en masse, permits the dissolution of norms of liberty, which require norms of trust. The society I belong to keeps choosing the mirage of safety over being free.

I am hesitant to join with my neighbors. There are ideals of universal love, and life teaches me that they are ideals. It is so easy for the sense of what could be to be choked by the understanding of what actually is. And maybe that is the point – we aspire to ideals and do better in the process. You cannot become better without trying, right? I fear my country started to believe we actually were our aspiration. We were too lost in the mirage to look and see how we were venturing away from it. We stopped choosing its pursuit.

I truly only have influence in small groups of people. Small groups that I am not completely sure how to assess to make an impact on a problem larger than all of us. What to do? I want certainty where there is none. I want safety though it has never existed. I want superhuman levels of reliability. Understanding the empirical fact of being human feels like a grieving process. I take the risk of being wrong for a shot at doing right. I take a risk of being hurt for a shot at being effective. I take a risk that being vulnerable might help someone understand that they are not alone. Trust feels like it should be the platonic form of being human. The platonic form is not the empirical fact: I have failed and I have been failed. I still grieve every broken relationship and lost faith. I lament lost possibility of what would have been if none of us were the people we actually are. What we actually are is, alas, what I have to work with. People just are, you know. That is what you have to work with.

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Filed under Dystopia, Excessive allegory

Fighting, flying, climbing, doubting

Trust is a social brick. Trust is welded together by the fires of its own torch. Trust is the walls, foundation, and roof of the house. Break trust and the house blows away like leaves preceding winter. Sure, you can reassemble it. Have you ever chased leaves down the street? All of them? I have. It is so much easier to keep the house standing in the first place. Trust is hard to build, harder yet to rebuild.

If society is unraveling, it is because of lost trust. A few days prior to the election I realized I had, unknowingly, buried my own trust that the things I hear are true. News? Well. Activists? Maybe. Politicians? Depends on who. This election sucked. Too few felt obligated to accuracy. Lots of outlandish things happened, and lots of people claimed outlandish things happened which never did. I’m already overrunning my bandwidth keeping my life together, and now I’ve got to fact check everything I hear? Yeah. Sure. Doubt seeped in, slowly, like water through an old house only to be discovered when winter transforms a wall into ice. That ice is my trust’s grave marker, and it’ll disappear come Spring. “Somewhere, over there, I buried trust in society,” I’ll think, as its memory fades away.

Younger me did some stupid things. Younger me also learned. I learned that it was far better to treat my feelings as points of information than it was to regard them as truth. Being anxious just means I do not know as much about what is going on than I prefer. Feeling comfortable does not mean the circumstances are right – just that they are easy. Being in love tells me nothing about the potential quality of the relationship or character of the person, just that about being into someone and prone to distraction. One of the best bits of advice from my best friend is, “Don’t believe everything that you think.” Don’t believe everything that you feel. That is not to say don’t respect it. It is information. It is part of you.

It is easier when the feelings are mild. I went to a meeting of a group at a point in time. We were all trying to discern how to keep the world from burning more. I could not focus through my own flames. My frontal lobe belittled my amygdala for firing off fight-or-flight when a long-buried skeleton unearthed their self. A skeleton, who I am pretty sure, cannot do further harm to me. Listen. I thought Shadow of My Past moved. To be fair: they did. They just, well, returned. Why cannot I calmly note it in the semi-indifferent manner that I note, let’s say, new graffiti on Chandler Street?

Confession: I favor my frontal lobe. I like how she thinks. She cannot run the machine single-handedly though. So instead, amygdala and frontal lobe go back and forth, the fear to “Fear is the mindkiller.” That is the toolset I have with which to work.

In this gathering I look upon the fortuitously vast mob before me and recognize a few friendly faces of loose acquaintances, a few people I will deliberately avoid, and a sea of strangers. Speakers talk about fortifying ourselves. Remember that we all love one another. Some nod. This is their tribe.

Uh.

I am not from around here. I understand the language even as my proficiency reinforces this tongue’s unfamiliarity. I feel like I climbed over a wall to show up. That’s exciting, right? I bother because I believe in the effort. Despite this, claims of community resonate with me like bad pennies hitting the bottom of a dry well. There likely is community. I think I can guess which members of this crowd belong to it. Oh hey: the people I am avoiding are apparently liked a whole lot. That love talk is more like a marker drawing a border that I feel like I know is a demarcation of an in-group.

Did I mention my amygdala has a preference in these situations? It’s flight.

Whatever, I thought for the longest time. Petty shit. Feelings are not truth: they are information. Besides, I am not here to make friends. I have so many other places I belong. These problems we are gathering about need work. I need to work. I need to find space enough to do that. I have been staying in the mode of translator. I am uneasy with some of the people but I am down with the ideas. Everyone acts like those should effortlessly fuse – listen: they don’t. But! I know people easy with me who are not yet down with the ideas – maybe I reach them. Maybe that is the role I am supposed to play, and all of this anxious discomfort is here because I can tolerate it well-enough.

Seriously. All you need to put out a fire are a bunch of people with fire extinguishers who are willing to coordinate well-enough with each other – they don’t have to like each other. So I thought.

Later I realized this: they do have to trust each other.

So I am laying on the muddy grave plot of my propensity to trust the unfamiliar listening to my frontal lobe and my hypothalamus argue about primacy and effectiveness and hey – temporal lobe, could you stop remembering absolutely every awful thing in such vivid detail? There is so much to be done, and I am being undone by basic human foibles, what the hell is with that? Every time I wish I were above something, I find myself on the ground next to it. The only things I am above are the things I inadvertently killed.

These are the machines we are all working with, are they not?

I keep picking up that wrench to fasten the ladder to the wall, scaling it time and time again. I always question if it is worth it. What else to do? Do I give into the feeling that the community is more balanced without me? Is society more about what it does, or what it is? What about smaller groups? Do I slither back into the space I came from like some snake expanding well-worn trails? How important is that need to belong to getting stuff done?

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Filed under General Internet, Personal

Fire

The day after my country voted to elect a political neophyte to its highest office, whose campaign platform was essentially fascism and nostalgia, my area’s symbol of the past burst into flames. The steel plant that was once was the economic engine of the region caught fire as everyone was hearing the results. The fire was huge. I should not be using past tense; it’s still burning as I write this.

The smoke was so intense, it looked like a storm on radar, following the path of the wind. Yesterday, my spouse, who works 20 miles northeast of the site, smelled burning rubber and plastic.

fire

My photo from Buffalo’s City Hall observation deck of the smoke, after it had turned white.

I thought it was abandoned. Turns out that it was housing a bunch of small businesses with far fewer employees than the steel mill needed, and it’s weatherworn appearance was simply, well, the result of weather. The local fire departments are collaborating in efforts to extinguish it. They have to disassemble the structure as they work. One report likened the building to legos, with lots of smaller compartments that the water of the firefighters just will not touch without demolition.

The smoke sent toxins into the air and the mayor declared a state of emergency in the adjacent neighborhoods and asked residents to evacuate. Some did. Some refused.

The rage of the fire is dying down, though it’s being stubborn and remains. Diligent, capable, and brave people are continuing to calmly work, to contain it, to extinguish it, to ensure the fire does not hurt others.

Indeed.

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Filed under Buffalo, Excessive allegory

Segodnya

Comforting words bounce off me like tennis balls to a shield. I did not mean to pick it up, but there I am, holding it. I watch them bob away with autumn leaves. My vision is blurred, but I saw this. I swear I saw it. I feel nothing.

I feel like I exhale the air everyone else is just now starting to breathe. I breathe it too; we forget it has a scent. I pulled my sword out and let the blade cut my hands. I do not know what to do.

I want to join the cold wind, give you a hug, and tell you that I do not like it either.

I grieve every time I re-learn that we are not better than we are.

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Filed under Excessive allegory

Sharp blades sheathed

image by Prawny on Morguefile.com

image by Prawny on Morguefile.com

The younger version of me used to swing her sword around anytime she felt inclined. Elder me keeps it sheathed most of the time. Experience taught me that sharp edges cut, the words I say do land and mean something. I have power, and I chose to be more discerning about it. I don’t want the trees around me to fall because I was not paying attention. So I sat. I watched. I thought. Sometimes I overthought. The fact is this: when you cut a connection, you rarely get it back.

I spend a lot of time on the New York State Thruway. Family will do that. NYS Thruway is pretty through the Catskills, but I live in Western New York state, where it passes through enough flat farm fields for a statistically rigorous sample to conclude they are not terribly exciting to look at. No sight-seeing in this utilitarian endeavor; the goal is to pass through as quick as safety and legality will permit.

Discussions of whether “ends justifying means” or not implicitly imply that the ends and the means are as separate entities as my parents’ home from an interstate highway. Like the experience of the journey is only as important as it leads you to the intended outcome.

Outcome and process are woven together. Rev. Sekou said in this Fortification podcast, “You are making the road as you walk.” You build your destination with the road as well. Each cobble placed in the road becomes a piece of the house’s foundation. Even when a house is “finished”, you don’t put away your tools. Every “finished” house will require more effort in the form of repairs, but houses made of sturdier materials will require it less often.

There’s so much falsehoods flying around this election. A friend attributes it to an “at all costs” politck. We are in an era of institutional distrust. The sort of fact-finding and descriptive statistics I trade in were the currency of a supposed elite, distrusted by many. It seemed that people believed they are right because they believe everything they think. It doesn’t matter the political orientation. I found people of both left and right orientations falling for conspiratorial thinking, an us-vs-them political and rhetorical advocacy, like everyone was trying to paint a black and white world where they stood on the side of righteousness. Confirmation bias runs wild, robbing us blind of our ability to make good judgments. Nuanced opinions were a quiet murmur, the sound of a pond’s ripples next to the boom of jet engines. Even if the majority, they were drowned out.

Sometimes the other-guy got painted as a caricature of evil. If you heeded the battle call, you’d pull out your sword and charge against an enemy that was only partly true, and partly illusion. These battle calls, laced with exaggeration in some cases and bloody truth in others, would tell you that a screw needed a hammer often enough that it was never apparent when the instructions were accurate. I felt betrayed when I realized that sometimes the people I am inclined to agree with are full of it. I sense that sometimes non-profits and politicians fall for the temptation to exaggerate bad situations, maybe through inflated numbers, maybe through connections that don’t exist, to try to rally more support. Problems are sufficiently bad on their own; but what do they actually look like? Uh. Sigh.

I want to build a house, but I can’t if the road you give me for an address doesn’t exist. I cannot defeat an army that’s half mirage. So I sat back, sword in sheath, trowel in pocket, drawing my map as I went because I trusted fewer people as this journey went on. I felt like this path destined me to a crumbling house in a haunted neighborhood.

It seems needless. In a context where I could not discern what was, where so much was not to be trusted, I did not feel confident using my voice as one to lead if I could not feel confident in my own ways to go. So I stayed put and did the best I could. I am still scratching my head at what to do next.

Besides voting. I’ll vote. And then? Who knows.

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Filed under Excessive allegory, Social Justice Commentary