I’m Still Here

Hello, everyone. I’m stopping by to let you know that I’m alive, that I have thoughts, and that I will again eventually share them with you in this space. I’ve been away for quite some time for a variety of reasons, none of which are interesting, so I’ll spare you. But, in light of last post, I will provide a relevant update:

I got a new job.

It’s not a 180 or anything; I’m not starting a business in my back yard or going back to grad school or moving to France. In fact, it’s a job with a lot of similarities to the one I am leaving, task-wise. It’s a lot of organization, coordination, planning, and keeping balls in the air. Three years ago I would have been intimidated by a job like that, but I think I’ll be fine in this post. The coolest thing about it, though, is that it’s not in IT or Defense, but in rural economic development. I get to work with a bunch of different people on issues like local food systems and clean energy and health, all of which are topics I’ve been interested in for a long time now.

Looking back a few years, the narrative makes sense. I used to teach writing to college students, and, since you have to write about something, I made my students write (and read) about food. I was, I think “obsessed” is the right word, with food and food-related issues for many years. One reason this topic was so fruitful in teaching writing to a bunch of students with different majors was that food-related issues can be stretched and molded to fit into really any interest. Examples I frequently gave to set students’ minds running were:

  • Women’s Studies majors might write about representation of women in food advertisements
  • Sociology majors might think about health outcomes in lower-income neighborhoods
  • Economics majors might think about hunger in Ethiopia
  • Pre-med majors might write about e. coli in peanut butter or melamine in baby formula
  • Anyone who eats daily might find any number of topics related to food interesting, regardless of their major or lack of one

As someone who is infinitely interested in almost everything, I loved reading what my students wrote (however poorly). I loved helping them figure out what they were trying to say, or how to find the right resources to answer a question, or how to remember rules about apostrophes. Yes, you heard me: I especially loved teaching grammar (nerd alert!).

Moving to Asheville was a huge leap for me, considering I had no relations, acquaintances, or job prospects, but it wasn’t really a huge risk, because for something to be a risk, there must be something to lose, and, at that particular point in my life, I wasn’t hanging on to much, spiritually (or financially) speaking. But it still took the stepping-out-of-the-airplane push to walk out into the scary unknown. I was lucky and found a job within a couple of months, and my current employer (until Monday) also took a risk on me, considering that I didn’t have any real office job experience. Having no other prospects, I figured I’d try the position out and see how it went. It went poorly, and then, later, better. And while I had no intention of working there until retirement, I didn’t hate my job and could’ve carried on a good while longer. However, as my previous post illustrated, the job wasn’t exactly bringing me joy (though I have complicated feelings on how much joy a job can reasonably be expected to bring one). So when I got a sudden, word-of-mouth invitation to submit a resume for the new position, I got really, really excited.

About that position, I will admit: making sure the meeting invitation got sent to all the right people and taking meeting minutes are also not tasks that bring me joy. But, as I’ve told several people over the last couple of weeks, I’m very aware that we can not all be the person fishing the baby out of the well. Yes, it feels great to save the world, but someone has to run payroll; someone has to maintain the vehicles; someone has to send the meeting invites. I think my ego (and my thrill-seeking heart!) can handle being the one who sends the meeting invites, because my soul (I know, creepy) will rest easier at night knowing that it’s for Good. And, cheesy and un-intellectual as it may be, I believe in Good. Not 100% Good v. 100% Bad, just, that they exist.

And, I’m putting this out there into the Universe (i.e. the World Wide Web), that I would like a side benefit of this change, which I am doing for my Soul (you’re welcome, soul), to be increased written productivity. More words, less fear. More ideas, less beer. I know, it’s a lot to put on a job change, but after all the hours I’ve spent in therapy discussing the ways in which my current job does not jive with my sensibility, I have a strong belief that my, what I’ll call lack of flow, has a lot to do with how and around whom I spend 40 hours of every week. And I think that I’ll be learning so much about a completely new field, I’ll have lots of thoughts to process on that topic, even if it doesn’t boil down into the best poems of my life. But, that said, I’d like to get back to writing poems that I actually like, and since this is going out to the Universe, I’d like them to be really, really good. Thanks, Universe!

The tumult in the heart

The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

-Elizabeth Bishop, “Four Poems”

My therapist keeps telling me to stop trying to figure out the answer and instead, to be still, be silent, let it come to me. I suppose I have a lack of faith in It, in whomever is in charge of sending it down. Or up. So much of hearing It is believing It is speaking, that there is an It at all.

Three and a half years ago, before I moved to this town, I heard it regularly. It was there with me on my prayer mat as my heart was lifted above my head, as I pressed my palms together, as I crouched like a child with my head by my knees and cried among the supplicants. I went to night school on Sutras, learned about attachment as my dearest loved one slipped out of this life. Into what? My teacher would have me believe her spirit or energy is still bouncing around this world, or some other. While some other, more positive thinker, maybe someone who wears a lot of color and makes paintings of teal and magenta or reads the tarot, would say that during this time I was connected to the spirit, on a higher plane, my memory of it was this: I’d hit rock bottom and was so bitter about my life, I was willing to throw it all away in exchange for some (any) other one. I threw a spiritual dart at the wall and it landed here.

Some wise part of me knows that I saved my own life. Sometimes you plant a healthy plant in a spot and, for whatever reason (soil, sun, various other factors), it dies. When you dig it up to throw it away, it pops out of the ground easily, and you see that its roots never exceeded the hole you dug, but maintained the exact shape they’d formed in the pot. It had simply failed to thrive, had been virtually dead since the moment you put it there. This is how I was before I moved here, and though I wasn’t dying there, I was dead. Living in a world outside of it. Free, but caged within my own constraints. I needed a change, I got low enough to be brave, and I took a risk.

Postcard from the front: Things have improved in certain areas, certainly. The constant terror of poverty. The constant hustle to make all the seams match up. The related scheduling and time use issues. General physical safety and neighborhood. The temperature and humidity level,  overall bodily comfort. Sexuality and sex. Alcohol and its uses. My hair.

But there are some things that remain a problem. One is my career, and since I’ve written about that here recently, I’ll avoid going into depth about that for at least one blog post, but this one is my biggest grievance. While it’s great to have health insurance and a competitive salary, I had to go in to work yesterday (a Saturday) to work on a project to sell weapons and ammunition to the government. At my interview for this job three years ago, my boss asked how I’d feel about working for a defense contractor, and I said that I didn’t know.

I lied.

People are going to buy and sell guns and use them to blow up other people, and I can’t stop that. But I don’t want to be a part of it.

This information is available on the world wide web, so I'm pretty sure this is not a security violation.
This information is available on the world wide web, so I’m pretty sure this is not a security violation.

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I’m also struggling to move forward in my creative practice. I have drafts upon drafts of poems, essays, ideas for blog posts, art projects begun and abandoned. I haven’t liked a poem I’ve written in years. I have considered within the last month, for the first time in my entire life, not writing. Quitting. If I took the pressure to create art off of myself, what kind of happiness could I enjoy? So much of my unhappiness is due to a sensation of never having accomplished what I thought I wanted to accomplish. What if I just removed that requirement?

My mother once gave me a book called Women with Attention Deficit Disorder. I read some of it and recognized myself instantly. The book discusses in detail what it’s like to be a woman with undiagnosed ADD, and some of symptoms really resonated, like when your head gets so full of ideas that you can’t get up off the couch to do any of them. This was surely me. Then I gave the book to Goodwill and brushed it off as the medicalization of personality and the modern struggle to focus in an over saturated world. But the more time goes on, the more I think I should have kept the book. Maybe there’s something to the ADD diagnosis. I watch my friends and acquaintances make decisions and follow through on them while I just watch the thoughts flutter around the room like birds.

The most terrifying part of all of this is that the book really chronicles highly intelligent women with all kinds of talents and capabilities who never make anything of themselves because they just can’t focus. This is my biggest fear for myself, followed closely by the other-coin-side fear that I’m not actually highly intelligent or talented at all.

But I’m reading Big Magic. Like everyone else. And what I’m being reminded of, for none of the ideas in the book are new, is that these fears are normal, and that many people have these same exact thoughts. They are not unique to me in any way. And not only is that totally boring, but it’s totally useless. How will I ever know the truth about whether I am intelligent or talented? What societal benchmark could I possibly use to tell me I am that would ease my mind forever? I can imagine nothing would do. (A McArthur award would go pretty far, however.)

I will never be able to ascertain an objective truth about this subject, though I could probably make some judgements by comparing myself to other individuals, which would be destructive. I’ve done that my whole life and it has only ever made me feel like shit. Given this, I might as well keep on trucking along and keep my eyes on the road. (But there are so many distractions!)

The above Elizabeth Bishop quote at the beginning of this post really spoke to me this morning for a number of reasons. I am going through an extended period of feeling tumult in the heart, of crying in church, crying in Elizabeth Gilbert’s reading, crying in the shower. I’m in a bad spot, that’s for sure. But I also love how she describes the voices in the head, indistinguishable from one another. Its these voices I’m trying to sort out in making decisions on a daily basis, like what jobs to apply for, or whether I should focus on going back to school or starting my own business, as well as what creative projects to focus on, and, more granularly, what decisions to make within each project itself. Like this particular blog post.

Here’s the rest of the poem:

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotation are the same.

 Yes, Ms. Bishop. That is exactly how it is.

Some Thoughts and Feelings about Guns and Violence

As of right now, today, the 284th day of 2015, there have been 298 mass shootings so far this year. If you click the link in the previous sentence, it is likely that you will see that the number is no longer 298, since math tells us that these events are occurring around once a day, and it’s still early in the day. So, to state it plainly: every day in America, someone with a gun shoots 4 or more people. This fact, while becoming less surprising, is no less horrifying to state aloud.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days since having caught up on some news and analysis on the topic. Though I have not personally lost anyone close to me to gun violence, I take gun violence personally. As a former college instructor and big sister to some college, high school, and elementary schoolers, I take it personally that so many shootings happen in schools, both on college campuses and in primary schools. As the partner to a hairdresser, I take it personally that they can happen in a hair salon. As a friend to a family who lives in Sandy Hook, I take it personally that their lives are forever changed, that they were in a different elementary school a few miles away and that it could have easily been otherwise. As a former Charlestonian who lived .4 miles away from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I’m personally devastated that nine people were shot while worshipping. And as a woman and feminist, I’m angry that a shooting happened in a darkened movie theater full of women watching a feminist film. As someone who has not lost a loved one to gun violence, I still have an awful lot of connections to shootings happening in America.

All of these shootings happen for differing reasons, but I see a lot of connections among them, and I’m fairly convinced by analyses I’ve read connecting them to misogyny and white supremacy. Basically, once again the patriarchy is to blame.

Out of all the thoughts and feelings I have regarding this ever growing, worsening phenomenon, the strongest among them is fear. I fear for my mother, who has, after 20 years, finally gathered the courage to divorce her husband, a decidedly narcissistic, entitled, and potentially dangerous man. I fear for my siblings, who go to school in southern and central Georgia among heavily entrenched racist and patriarchal social structures. I fear for my ex-colleagues, many of whom are professors. And I fear for myself.

I work for an IT company which is made up of over 50% ex-military personnel. Most of the employees at my company (I’d guess 85%) are male. The majority are white. Half of them are ex-military, and, by my quick survey, 100% of those are gun owners. One coworker spends probably 50% of his day searching the internet for deals on guns and ammunition. Several coworkers go shooting together after work. And my boss, when he’s in town, has been known to drive select employees to swaths of public land at night and allow them to try shooting his automatic weapons. Like, machine gun type weapons.  Upon sharing my concerns with a coworker yesterday, she noted that there has been a push among one or more employees to designate an active shooter policy and to allow firearms within the building. An ex-marine, there is certainly a “good guy with a gun” mentality occurring here; certainly many of the men who work in my building believe that, if an active shooter situation were to occur, they would be the ones to save the day. While this may be comforting to some, it is not comforting to me, since it only emphasizes the pervasive presence of the patriarchal gender conceptions that hurt men and women in our society.

But even scarier to me than the hyper-macho guys are the more “beta” types, as they might call themselves if they are members of the Red Pill or /r9k/  online communities. The quiet ones. The gamers. And the ex-employees, the ones that were let go this week, or last week, or two years ago. In 2013, when the Navy Yard shooting happened at Quantico, one of our employees came back from getting a cup of coffee to find everyone in her office dead, killed by another employee.  Last month, when Alison Parker and Adam Ward were killed, it was by a disgruntled former employee.  Who here among us does not work at a place where someone has been fired?

Sometimes, when I think about going back to grad school to teach, I think about the number of school shootings and I honestly think it’s better to stay out. Fear takes over. Or sometimes, I think I’d like to work for a feminist sexual violence agency in town but then I think about how they could be the target of violence, especially after their recent vocal responses to the Waking Life scandal which has rocked this town. But the truth is that you can get shot anywhere–at work, at Wal-Mart, in your home. And if you do, it will probably be by a man.

I’m not sure what to do with this fear except let it be there, while also not letting it guide my choices. We can’t let the fear get in the way of our of educating ourselves, feeding our families, or engaging in our spiritual practice. Even Alison Parker’s dad, who became an anti-gun activist hours after her killing, said he did so because that’s what she would have wanted. Letting fear guide our decisions is letting “them” win.

So while we are in a national debate about guns, spurring me to read article upon article about the issue, I’m ultimately interested in how it affects my own choices. I’ve been actively trying to figure out what my next step is on my career path. I’ve considered, just in the past year, law school, getting an MSW, becoming a farmer florist, freelance writing, working in marketing at a local nonprofit, and going back into adjuncting [gulp]. It’s a glut of choices, a veritable ocean of options. Each day one or another will seem like the better choice, the more viable option. My therapist told me this week, “I wish you would think less and breathe more.” This is a very difficult thing to do for someone who wants to a) figure it all out, and b) get the hell out of dodge ASAP.

In the meantime, I might contribute to Sandy Hook Promise or Everytown for Gun Safety. I’ll vote for candidates who consider gun violence a top priority, both in terms of restricting access to guns and increasing funding for mental health care. However, there’s more work than this to be done, and it is cultural. It has to do with hate.

Last week’s Mountain Xpress included an op-ed in favor of forgiving the owners of Waking Life, and, though I am appalled at their misogyny, that feels right to me. If they are repentant and actively working to repair their belief systems, continuing to punish them or wish them harm is not only hypocritical, it’s counter-productive. Similarly, there were arguments circulating around the time of the Kim Davis marriage debacle that argued that making fun of her hairstyle or backwoods attitudes doesn’t actually solve anything. Ultimately, throwing hate on those who are hateful only fans the flames and makes the victim now the perpetrator.

So, in this in-between time, (in between now, my current occupation in the IT/DoD arena, and the future, in something hopefully brighter and more beneficial to the world), I’m focusing on love. Not positivity, but love. Evenness. Peace. I’m working on reacting less to my partner with less anger and impatience. I’m working on being more peaceful and accepting of others and of myself. And I’m trying to have patience with myself, because I know that my best work is yet to come, and it will be even bigger, more far-reaching than myself and my household. But in the meantime, I’m practicing locally.

Respectfully, with compassion

These are the last words of a guided meditation I’ve been listening to for the last couple of mornings, led by Tara Brach. The meditation is called “Smile,” and it was recommended by my good friend (j/k), Maria Popova, author of Brain Pickings, in this interview. In the meditation, during which Ms. Brach takes us through a full body scan and then allows some silent time, possibly as a special challenge to those of us with ADD, she leaves us with this instruction:

“If you notice the mind’s been wandering, regard that with acceptance and patience. Just pause, and sense what’s been happening–thinking, planning, remembering. And sense the wisdom within you, the love of presence choosing to come back. Gently arriving again right here. Sense the here-ness: the sounds, the play of sensation, the mood in your heart. If something feels difficult, sense the possibility of offering what’s here: real kindness, perhaps the mental whisper, ‘yes, yes’ or ‘it’s okay.’ Just let life be what it is–respectfully, with compassion.”

You can see why this appeals to me, right? I ended the last three minutes repeating them word “yes” to the universe. Thanks for the reminder, Tara!

This sentiment was echoed in the interview with Popova, in which she discusses some of the choices she’s made in designing Brain Pickings. Stay with me. A few of them are:

  1. She doesn’t date or timestamp her posts (except in the URL) in order not to cater to the Buzzfeed-esque demand for constantly new content–after all, many of her posts are about works that are hundreds of years old. Popova also doesn’t write “listicles” or headline-grabbbers on pandering topics. All pieces are toward the aim of determining how to live a meaningful life. Popova advises writers to create the work you want to see in the world. As much as I love wasting my time reading the meaningless articles on the internet, I don’t think that the buzzfeed kind of writing is my strong suit. That said, I’m not sure what kind of writing is my strong suit, but I hope to figure it out through a more consistent practice.
  2. She doesn’t worry about “what people want to read.” She writes what she wants to write, about books that she wants to read. She argues this method by invoking Kurt Vonnegut, who advises to “write to please just one person.” Popova says that she does still, despite a readership of 5 million, write for just one person: herself. She notes that her blog is “just a record of my thought process, my way of just trying to navigate my way through the world and understand my place in it.”

I really took the interview to heart, feeling that Maria Popova has given me permission to continue being all over the place in the name of figuring out where I want to be. Since my last post, I’ve been contemplating what I could focus this blog on to make it more reader-friendly, to attract consistent readership, to make sense. I’ve been doing this on the advice of WordPress’s own Blogging 101 course (which I signed up for and have completed very little of) and numerous bloggers whose main aim seems to be spreading an image (a “brand,” if you will) in the effort to gain sponsorships, donations, or otherwise make a business out of blogging.

Indeed, I’ve been researching marketing for work since I am apparently going to be taking on that role, despite having zero knowledge or insight into it), and in googling things like “how to design a marketing strategy,” have come upon a ton of internet-rich people who make money and travel the world doing “internet stuff.” Of course I envy them this, but I don’t know that I could ever do it myself. I just don’t see what value they’re adding to the world, besides unlimited “content.” And I write the word “content” in the most derisive of tones. Sure, they may be helping tons of cubicle warriors break the chains and head off into a life of adventure and magic, but what are they doing for the truly needy people of this world, those with few resources to really change their lives? That is what is important to me.

I don’t want to write in order to make money. Indeed, my grandmother could bemoan the fact that my whole goal in life has been, seemingly, to not make money. (“It’s just as easy to love a man with money as one without,” she told me often as a teenager.) Don’t get me wrong–as a new homeowner, I’d love to pay my mortgage, plant a garden, and be able to travel every year. But I have a job that should technically allow me to do that now, but instead, I spend all my time trying to figure out how to get out of it. I’m currently considering going back to school to do something that could ultimately pay me less than I’m making now, but would be much more impactful to my community and more meaningful to me.

Let’s be honest. I have a lot of interests. In 2008 I was eco-obsessed, reading blogs about plastic avoidance and urban farming. I spent years teaching students about food and food systems, which bled into inequality and social justice. If you’d have asked me then if I cared about people, I probably would have answered something along the lines of “yes, but the environment is more important. We can’t save the people if there is no water or food and we’re all burning up.” This answer would have been a discreet way of hiding the fact that I am a bit of a misanthrope, and it would have been short-sighted. You live, you learn.

And of course I still care about the environment inherently, for the same reasons I did before. But where it previously would have been possible for me to write a post about peanut butter salmonella poisoning (that guy was finally sentenced to prison, btw), it’s more likely now that I’ll write about Planned Parenthood, Bernie Sanders, sea otters, or the prison industrial complex. 2008 me would be most surprised about her current obsession with prisoner’s rights.

Not that it will be all current events and politics, though they may play a part. Whatever does end up taking my attention, I will try to have compassion for myself. Rather than see myself, as I often do, as someone with no focus or drive, who never completes a project, I will try to reframe and reword my self-image. I am someone with diverse interests and many passions who wants to do good in the world and who seeks many avenues to finding her place, in order to provide her best service.

What are we all doing here, anyway?

Well, that’s a tough one, friends.

First of all, if you are one of the six readers from my previous blog and you’ve found me here: Hey, thanks. For reading, for caring, for taking an interest, for waiting three years with bated breath for this post. Thank you.

You might say what happens now is a kind of a re-start. I wrote in an old post that maintaining a blog was a way of “keeping track of my progress during a year of discovery,” but I think the root of the reason I wanted to blog can be found further down: “So blog[ging] is a way of saying yes. I’m a writer and yet I don’t even like updating my facebook status because I’m afraid of all of the people who will judge me on my life, my voice, my personality.  But now I’m saying yes to who I am. I’m allowed to be this person. I have to write something and publish it the same day, and people will read it, and there will be logical fallacies and inconsistencies and poorly written sentences, and I will live with them.”

It is a way of forcing myself to write without too much editing, to get through the self-criticism and get closer to an automatic part of my brain. To hold myself accountable not only for writing posts, but for experiencing life in a way that is more aware and attentive. Because, really, the issue is self-criticism, not the criticism of any other person. As a perfectionist, I silence myself long before anybody else has a chance to.

A lot has changed in the three years since my last post. When I started the old blog I had just quit all my jobs and moved to a new town where I knew nobody in an effort to get myself out of a rut and open myself to new possibilities. As a new person in town with no connections, I said yes to almost any invitation, knowing that it would lead me somewhere and help me build contacts in town. Now I am a new homeowner, I’ve held the same job for almost three years, and I have a live-in partner. I’m relatively stable and I don’t have time to say “yes” to as many things as I was saying yes to before. But yessing isn’t just about saying yes to invitations. It’s about saying yes to the universe, to whatever may come. And that is something that I could use a refresher course on. I think we all can.

Content-wise, I’m not sure how this blog will compare with the last. I’m not doing as much yoga as I was then, and that greatly affects my world view. Things seem more fractured when I don’t have a regular spiritual practice. That’s something I’m working on getting back to. I’m also not cooking as much, or hiking as much. I’d like to get back there as well. But in some ways, I’m in a very similar spiritual place as I was three years ago. I’m trying to figure out how to get on the right path. I want to find work that is fulfilling, build relationships that are nourishing, and engage in practices that are enriching. If I’m doing all that, then this blog should be about a lot of familiar topics: writing, yoga, being in nature, finding fulfilling work, artistic practice, animals, food, culture, politics, gardening. I might not have touched on all of those before, but I hope to here. And I hope you’ll find something among those topics that will interest you. If not, the internet is a big place. Stop by every once in a while.

P.S. A special thanks to @twoscoopsyeah for her anonymous internet stalking and subsequent admission of such. It is partially her readership that has encouraged me to unleash my thoughts onto the world yet again.