Books I Read in October

Look Alive Out There, by Sloane Crosley. Oh, I like this lady, you guys. Hilarious book of essays. I especially loved “The Doctor is a Woman.”

Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perotta. Kept feeling like he was writing for a movie, which makes sense since other books of his have been adapted to movied (Election, for one). My book club read this and the consensus was not very enthusiastic. I found it interesting and thought-provoking, and I did think the author was compassionate to his characters, even the less sympathetic ones, but I – the whole group, honestly – was puzzled by reviews from very smart people calling this book “sweet.” It was…a kind of a bummer, actually? And we are all pretty sure it’s satire, but can’t quite seem to figure out or agree on what exactly it was satirizing. Something about sexual politics and participating in one’s own objectification and porn addiction. Maybe we just aren’t as smart as the New York Times Review of Books, I guess?

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, by Brené Brown. It’s like a culmination of all her books to date. If you only read one, read this one. I love her, as you can tell by the frequency with which I quote her. Recommended if you have ever experienced human emotions.

Calypso, by David Sedaris. I mean, yes. My favorite one of his. I think I’ve read all his books? Here’s a sample chapter – still one of my favorites from the book.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. Sooo challenging. The more I sit with this book, the more I get out of it. Lots of Heart of Darkness inspiration, but with science, in the Amazon, and centering women, some of whom are very dark and complex characters. Themes of extractive colonialism and how personal moral conduct is or is not distinct from one’s political ethics…and lots to say about disentangling femininity and reproduction.

It is important to note that there are so many pregnancy, child loss, and fertility-related triggers in this book, good lawd.

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belonging

To what extent do we belong to ourselves, and to what extent do we belong to one another?

I was thinking about this today and I don’t have an answer for you, or even a good way to think about it. As I see it, this question is at the heart of almost every uncertain moment of my life – maybe not just mine. At this very moment, in fact, should I be writing this post, or should I open the office door upon which my preschooler throws himself gleefully?

Should alpinists risk, and in fact often lose, their lives climbing on high peaks, leaving behind friends, families, children? Do we owe our children our presence? Do we owe society our productive work? What part of us belongs to us?

It’s easiest to simply say that we owe no one anything, that our lives belong only to ourselves. After all, in the end, no one else but me has to look back on my life and be contented, or not. What other people expect may or may not be helpful or particularly relevant to my specific skills or personality or values.

There is a huge danger in giving every part of our lives over to the expectations and needs of others, to be sure. But there is something I see as an even greater risk: that we give our lives to no one but ourselves.

Dr. Brené Brown writes about this in several of her books, but in particular depth in Braving the Wilderness. She writes about her struggle with something her hero, Dr. Maya Angelou, said about belonging in 1973:

MAYA ANGELOU: You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…
BILL MOYERS: Do you belong anywhere?
MAYA ANGELOU: I haven’t yet.
BILL MOYERS: Do you belong to anyone?
MAYA ANGELOU: More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.

Dr. Brown had discovered in her social work research, which she conducted via what is known as grounded theory methodology (that’s worth a Google, by the way), that “connection and belonging are why we are here.” So how, in fact, can it also be true that freedom and great reward can come from belonging no place? Must we choose between connection and freedom?

She resolved this by drawing a distinction between fitting in and belonging. Belonging is when we can be completely ourselves to be accepted and loved, and fitting in is when we change ourselves to be accepted and loved.

For Dr. Brown, when we belong to ourselves, we don’t accept the shallowness of “fitting in.” If no one in our immediate vicinity accepts who we are, well, we might have to spend some time in the wilderness, as she puts it. I don’t think this means we are refusing responsibility to others, but only that we don’t accept responsibility that is defined by someone else’s values. Maybe it is the hardest way, right down the middle. We belong to ourselves to the extent that we are accountable to our own conscience and values. And we belong to one another to the extent that we are responsible for treating others in according with our conscience and values. More than that – we belong to each other because we cannot be separated from each other and survive. I mean that very literally – if humans were all suddenly separated from one another and could not reconnect, our species would not survive.

So none of this means that when someone is telling me something that conflicts with my values, that I have to accept it – but that I trust that they are not better or worse than me, that we are connected anyway, and stand in my own truth, and let them stand in theirs.

Maybe a lot of words to say what has been said many times before, but I can tell you that it isn’t easy to belong to myself, to like and trust myself like this. I find that many focus on the beginning of Maya Angelou’s quote, where she says, “The price is high. The reward is great.” But for me, here is the challenge:

More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.

The way she says it is, “More and more…” She shows the process she is going through, that it isn’t somewhere she has arrived, but that she has to choose it all the time, over and over.

I hope it gets easier the more you do it.

Curiosity can map the gulf between us. But how should we navigate it?

I love what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about curiosity. She writes,

We are constantly being told to pursue our passions in life, but there are times when passion is a TALL ORDER, and really hard to reach….

But curiosity, I have found, is always within reach.

Passion is a tower of flame, but curiosity is a tiny tap on the shoulder — a little whisper in the ear that says, “Hey, that’s kind of interesting…”

Passion is rare; curiosity is everyday.

Curiosity is therefore a lot easier to reach at at times than full-on passion — and the stakes are lower, easier to manage.

The trick is to just follow your small moments of curiosity. It doesn’t take a massive effort. Just turn your head an inch. Pause for a instant. Respond to what has caught your attention. Look into it a bit. Is there something there for you? A piece of information?

Curiosity has become a core value for me, now that I feel that I can prioritize it. It was surprisingly hard to do – I had internalized a sort of Puritanical masochism – if I liked something, well, there couldn’t possibly be any objective value there. Like food that tastes too good, it just couldn’t be good for me.

But I have come to believe that we can think of curiosity as sacred. I lend myself a little trust – that it matters that I am attracted to something, that I want to know more about it. I trust that anything I learn is worth knowing, and that exploration is not a waste of time.

And I find that given the license to be curious, I’m most surprised by my renewed curiosity about other people, especially ones who see the world differently than I do. How do they see it? How is it different from what I see? When I get to learn about that, my own perspective shifts, and my world is always enriched. Before, I think I was afraid, somehow, to ask. Each of us has an entire universe in our own head, and it’s different in so many ways from everyone else around us. Imagining this, it’s not hard to see why people experience so much conflict – to the contrary, it’s amazing we can ever find common ground at all! Perhaps that’s part of the reason we humans have such a strong affinity to people like ourselves – the diversity of universes might be so overwhelming that we retreat into a small corner of them and hide.

But this concern about asking – my fear was exaggerated, but I still think caution is justified sometimes. After all, people aren’t just books to open up and read. It’s not my prerogative to get into people’s heads and see what they see. When I seek to connect, I need to be careful not to see people as mines full of data to slake my curiosity. After all, isn’t that what we hate most about social media? The way it has turned our most sacred bonds into data to be extracted and monetized? (Oh – just me?)

I believe that curiosity can reconnect us across these vast divides we seem to live in. But that’s only true if that curiosity is rooted in respect and compassion. I want to know about you so that we can connect as we should be connected, because I hold you in high regard as a fellow human being. Because I see you as intrinsically connected to me, because I see the image of God in you. Not because I want to know your weakness so that I can turn you to my side, or so that I can add you to my demographic data tables and charts to inform marketing or campaign strategy. Not so that I can look enlightened or write a better novel or enrich my world. Not when it turns the person I am curious about into an object – literally objectifying them. So I have slightly tweaked this core value – I call it “ethical curiosity.”

Curiosity can help us draw a map back to one another, but only when it connects, not when it extracts.

What will my kids remember about me?

My sister and I used to joke that we already knew the answer to any question we asked our parents before we even asked it. Depending on the question, it was either, “No,” “Put ice on it,” or “Get a job.”

“I hurt my knee, what do I do?” “Put ice on it.”

“Can’t I have a less embarrassing car?” “Get a job.”

“Can I stay home from school today?” “No.”

At the time, we were vaguely frustrated by it, but my parents were endlessly amused. They would just laugh at us as we protested the unfairness of it all. And maybe a little bit at themselves, since ice was my dad’s version of the dad’s reliance on Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now that I’m a parent, I appreciate this arsenal of answers more than I ever did as a kid.

Now, obviously my sister and I exaggerated my parent’s harshness, as kids do. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but my parents gave me opportunities that they felt were important. The rote answers that my sister and I joked about were lessons that stick with me even now, and I recognized even then the love that was behind them.

“No.” You don’t get everything you want, whenever you want it. Instant gratification is bad for everyone.

“Put ice on it.” Don’t make a big deal out of physical injuries – scraped knees and bruises build character. We believe you are strong enough to overcome this.

“Get a job.” Seriously. Get a job. Make your own way. No one owes you anything.

I like to think sometimes about how my kids will remember me. Thinking about the long-term helps remind me how I want to parent my kids and course-correct if I’m not going in the direction I want to.

A few words about 13th

I stayed up way too late last night watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th. You don’t have to read what I have to say about it; in fact, I’d rather you just watch it.

Please just go watch it. Conservatives – there are about 40% conservative interviews, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. This doc does not let Democrats and progressives off the hook, as you can tell by this trailer.

For those of you who are familiar with the realities of mass incarceration and its historical evolution since the Civil War, there may not be a lot of new information, although I will say that despite having done heavy reading on the subject, I learned a bit (particularly about ALEC). I also found, as did some other friends that are informed on the subject matter, that the way DuVernay presented the narrative visually was so compelling that it brought it home in a truly urgent way.

One thing that I have been meditating on recently is a statement from a Eula Biss piece in the New York Times called “White Debt.” In it, Biss recounts a story of being interviewed at the Amherst police station for pasting posters all over town for a talk she and some other college students were hosting. She says, “The first question the Amherst Police asked was whether I was aware that graffiti and ‘tagging,’ a category that included the posters, was punishable as a felony. I was not aware. Near the end of the interrogation, my campus officer stepped in and suggested that we would clean up the posters. I was not charged with a felony, and I spent the day working side by side with my officer, using a wire brush to scrub all the bombs off Amherst…Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced ‘tagging’ that it wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

“It wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

That statement reminded me that laws are human creations and subject to human fallibility. Obvious, I know. (“But they are criminals – they broke the law.” No longer any need to racialize our complaints; there is an easy, objective way to justify any kind of treatment of those that broke our laws. But who wrote the laws?)

Beyond this obvious statement, that laws are human creations, was for me a clarification of the insight that laws are created with specific demographic targets in mind – sometimes, as my husband pointed out with the example of the Rico laws, with specific individuals in mind. Those specific individuals are not the only ones caught up in the nets of those laws, because once they exist, they can be used however law enforcement wants – and herein lies the flexibility of making race implicitly rather than explicitly targeted. But the laws were designed to punish someone in particular. The laws against tagging and graffiti were not designed for young white female college students. Clearly not. They could have been charged, but the police recognized that perhaps they were not the intended targets and let them go.

I’ve been talking with some friends who are concerned about the path of the current administration. As I have explained, my position is that we as a country have begun down the path of authoritarianism. My friends reference Japanese-American internment camps of the WWII era, and many other historical precedent across the world and time of detaining people who fall outside our concept of “our people.” They say, Could it happen here, do you think?

I say, It would look like a new law. It would not mention race or ethnicity, but rather a broad spectrum of behavior that falls along racial or ethnic patterns that allows law enforcement to target people based on race and ethnicity. We would fill up our detention centers and jails and need to create new ones, private ones. It would be the same thing as internment camps with the most recent fashionable veneer of legitimacy.

It would, theoretically, look like that.

But then I realize, almost as I say it, with shame and horror, that this is not theoretical, and it is not new.

It is already happening. It never stopped happening.

Please go watch 13th.

On the Defamation of Love and the Politics of Silence

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

So they say.

Nice is agreeable. Nice is pleasant. But I must make it clear that nice is not love. It is not kindness. The opposite of of loving-kindness is cruelty and apathy; the opposite of niceness is disagreeableness and unpleasantness.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of me to insist on my son’s bedtime, despite his tears? He certainly didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of the enslaved men and women and the abolitionists to decry slavery as an affront to God, to revolt against the slavemasters? The slavemasters, who had the law on their side (after all, they’d written it themselves), didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of Jesus to flip the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, calling them “a den of thieves”? The moneylenders, who were also supported by law and tradition, certainly didn’t think so.

In each of those cases, the nice thing to do would have been to remain silent. There is nothing “nice” about telling a three-year-old in the midst of a temper tantrum to go ahead and get in bed now, even if you throw a “honey” on the end. There is no nice way to end slavery. There is no nice way to throw the moneylenders out of the temple.

But to be nice would have been a failure. It would have been a failure of nerve, of moral courage, certainly, but more than that, it would have been a failure to love.

Niceness is thin and brittle and empty, and when we constrain our definition of love to mere niceness, our love becomes thin and brittle and empty. Fragile, like thin ice. Perhaps you’ve experienced love that felt like that. This is love defamed, defanged, profaned. Its powerful core hollowed out and filled back up with sorrow and recrimination. True love is powerful. It is the ocean. It absorbs everything and bounces back. It will never fail.

So I can’t put too high a value on “niceness.” But silence is not always niceness, and it is not always a failure to love. We must ask ourselves: what lives in our silence?

I am a devotee of silence. I seek it out every day for a few minutes. Every week I seek it out for longer. I sit in it and just sit. Or I sit in it and listen for a still, small voice. Or I sit in it and absolutely revel in it.

And so I am also a connoisseur of silence. There is the noisy, clanging kind, where your mind feels like the inside of a cement truck full of nails. There is the itchy, twitchy kind, where your skin is nearly vibrating with discomfort and your mind darts around like a squirrel trying to hide an acorn. There is the sharp, heart-crushing, awkward kind, when you’ve just done or said something wrong, or you’re remembering it years later. There is the ringing pause before a kiss. There is the settling-dust silence at the end of a book. There is the angry, thunderstorm-building silence before an argument. And there is sometimes, if you catch it just right, the silence of the beginning and the end of the universe, the silence that is RIGHT NOW and you realize that silence is all there ever was.

And then there is the silence of omission. It feels like it is full of hot knives. When something is supposed to be said and isn’t. When you could show up with love and integrity and sit down instead. When you are ignoring injustice, pretending you can’t see pain. It’s how you feel when you turn away from a person begging on a street corner as if you didn’t see her sign, hear her calling out to you. It’s the feeling of failing to stand up for a little kid against a bully, even though you’re not much bigger.

That silence is called complicity.

Complicity hurts. We don’t like the feeling. We urge others to join us there. We silence and shame and shut down; we employ every fallacy and trick in the book to stop them from calling us out. As much as complicity hurts, being called out is much worse. It must be avoided at all costs. So our silence becomes a verb.

Silencing sounds like this:

“This is not the forum.”

“No use offending people. It’s not like you can change their minds.”

“Silly girl.”

“There are starving kids in ___. Your message just isn’t important.”

“You should really read more before you talk about a subject.”

“This conversation is over.”

And the classic, my favorite:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Silencing looks like the unfollow button, the defriend button. It happens every time we choose to build out our filtered internet bubble. Bubbles of silence, floating above a sea of pain and need. Bubbles of careless complicity, turning away from love.

So what to do about it? I think you can tell from my vivid descriptions that I’ve experienced that hot-knives feeling. All I can do is recommit, once again, to fierce loving-kindness. To lean curiously toward the discomfort of candor and authenticity. To have a little more faith in the power and resilience of love. To be brave and shake off the lacquered golden shackles of complicity.

So this is what I’m saying when I say I will be loving and kind and honest. I’m not saying I will be agreeable or pleasant.

I’m not saying I will be nice.

This is not normal.

We are becoming overwhelmed.

The daily assault of news stories, some of which are pure distraction techniques, has caused so many people to withdraw, claiming not to want to see political stories in their news feeds. Wanting a filter. Wanting to take a break. Wishing things would just be kind and civil.

It’s OK to take a break when you feel overwhelmed.

When you are ready to come back, I will be here. I promise to be kind, civil, respectful, and honest. Seeking truth has always been my highest priority, right up there next to kindness. And both of those priorities, above and beyond my political beliefs, are currently under attack at the highest levels, and that kind of model filters down to our collective discourse. It’s meant to turn you off of politics! Don’t let it. Politics may not have impacted you before; if the election didn’t do it for you, recent developments signal that everyone’s lives are about to be very affected by politics.

Six days after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, it’s become clear that we all should have been taking him fully at his policy promises, such as they are, throughout his historically divisive campaign; but more than that, we must armor our institutions against attack from within. I’d like to summarize a few of the most abnormal and worrying developments so far and give you a little context to support this concern.

  • Agencies including Interior, EPA, USDA, and others have been subjected to a media blackout. This level of restriction goes beyond any previous presidential transition and is reportedly “chilling” to employees. It’s not obvious that the order specifically violates First Amendment rights as it is worded, although it does create a (theoretically temporary) barrier between critical government science findings and the public. We do have the opportunity to watch how it is enforced; alternative, unofficial Twitter feeds such as “@AltNatParkSer” have been created by government employees in order to continue providing information that is of “public interest,” which is a protected form of speech for government employees.
  • An investigation into “voter fraud” in “two states,” following an assertion that over 3 million votes were cast illegally. Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) stated that this assertionshakes confidence in our democracy.” Indeed, this is a common preliminary tactic in the installation of autocratic and authoritarian regimes, in which shaking trust in voting, the fundamental institutional mechanism of democracy, is a critical step in removing or replacing the democratic structures entirely.
  • The President issued a statement via Twitter threatening to “send the feds to Chicago” if Mayor Emmanuel does not “clean up the carnage” in his city. He has previously endorsed the use of “stop and frisk” in Chicago, a failed tactic first widely used in New York City, which was found to unjustly and ineffectively target people of color. Martial law, particularly targeting ethnic minorities, is also a common tactic among repressive and authoritarian regimes, particularly right-wing, fascist, and ethno-nationalist varieties.
  • The administration is planning to propose the elimination of all 25 grants that support the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women. It would save the government “a little more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget” and would defund support to some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including child victims of assault and abuse, residents of tribal lands, women with disabilities, and children who have witnessed the abuse of a parent.
  • In the first press briefing of the administration, the press secretary issued statements directly contradicted by knowable and reported facts and refused to take questions from the press. The President has also referred to journalists as “the most dishonest people on Earth,” among other epithets. His campaign fueled continual mistrust of the press. As with the investigation into voter fraud, this shakes trust in an institution absolutely essential to the functioning of our democracy and raises questions in the minds of many followers or neutral folks on whether facts can be knowable. This centers his own outlets of information (i.e. Twitter) as an authoritative source of facts. These fissures in the institution of the free press and the attempt to undermine and control structures of information flow in a democratic society are the bases of the classic authoritarian state-run propaganda complex and are a well-documented tactic of authoritarian regimes.
  • According to Reuters, “U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign executive orders starting on Wednesday that include a temporary ban on most refugees and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, say congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter.” A Cato Institute report concludes, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant. Halting America’s processing of refugees due to a terrorist attack in another country that may have had one asylum-seeker as a co-plotter would be an extremely expensive overreaction to very minor threat. Resettling refugees who pass a thorough security check would likely decrease the recruiting pool for future terrorists and decrease the long-run risk.” This overreaction and scare tactic by the administration is known as scapegoating, and besides being, per Cato, an “extremely expensive overreaction,” it provides an external, nationalism-fueled enemy around which the authoritarian leader’s party may rally.
    • Another notable quote from the Cato report: “A refugee from Burundi was detained by DHS for 20 months for materially supporting a terrorist group because rebels beat him up, stole $4 from him, and took his lunch (it’s unclear from the story, but he might have been an asylum seeker).  Many good candidates for resettlement in the United States are turned down for these silly reasons.”
  • President Trump may be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which says: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” according to George W. Bush ethics Richard Painter. Emoluments are essentially payments for labor or services. His “blind trust” does not actually fulfill any of the technical requirements of a blind trust, which works on a high-level by putting all assets into a fund that is re-invested and managed by unknown parties. In that case, the owner does not know how their assets are being managed, and others outside of the trustees are not aware that the owner’s funds are involved.

However, the President has simply resigned from leadership in his companies and placed his family members in charge. The use of the word “blind trust” to describe this arrangement is wildly inaccurate and intentionally misleading. As it stands, he is aware of decisions made in his former businesses, and all the world is aware that they are doing business with his personally-designated family members. This puts him in a conflict of interest that could easily compromise national security, as his loyalty is divided between what is best for the country and what is most profitable for his companies.

Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed his concern that this was not sufficient to avoid conflicts of interest and in response was sent a letter from Jason Chaffetz (R – UT), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, threatening investigation, which was widely seen as a measure of intimidation.

It was not generally believed that a civil suit could correct this; impeachment, or, short of that, a resolution by Congress directed towards the President, would need to be considered in order to remedy these potentially compromising conflicts of interest. However, on Monday, January 23, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the President, but while they believe they have standing, their status as a directly injured party is not clearly affirmed by precedent. If the suit is upheld, the President could face a court order requiring him to divest fully from his current assets.

Of course, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. But political discussion is a marked change in the direction of this blog, and it is likely an unwelcome one to many of my readers – mostly family and friends. Some of you may have voted for Trump. You have as much reason or more to hold him accountable as those of us who did not. Join me in paying close and careful attention, seeking facts, evaluating context, and resisting any attempts – from any side – at eroding the basic tenets of our democracy and human rights.

You may note that I am not addressing everything. There are a number of areas of already-signed and anticipated executive actions that are not surprising in terms of their content, given the Republican Party’s stated stance on these issues. The substance of these issues, and whether or not they are the right direction for our country, can be debated – and believe me, I will debate that. But for now, regardless of your political leanings, I hope that we can all agree that our democratic institutions and rights are worth protecting, and that we can all unite against these threats to the core of our American – and human – values.