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.