Empathy

While I was away, I wrote most days.  Not all of it had a direction or purpose. I thought a lot about empathy though, and what happened in Charlottesville makes the topic even more important right now.

Empathy is the action of understanding, awareness of, and sensitivity to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences, whether they are past or present.  It is also the ability or capacity to do this action. (I roughly paraphrased that from Merriam Webster). It’s about sharing someone’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences even though you yourself may not have had the feeling, thought, or experience yourself. It’s not the same as sympathy, which knows someone is suffering and feels sorry for him/her. Empathy doesn’t involve pity or sorrow or feeling bad for someone because of what he/she is going through. It is being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see through his/her eyes.

Because it is an action, you might think it is easy to teach empathy. Not so. It’s not an observable action, like dribbling or shooting a free throw. It also requires several other actions before you can build to the complex action of empathy. First, you have to be well acquainted with your own feelings, to understand your own thoughts, to remember your own experiences and how they made you feel. If you can’t own your feelings, you can’t begin to understand the emotions of others. That’s why so few people are capable of real empathy: they aren’t experiencing their own emotions for some reason. I know it’s a cliche to ask “How do you feel about that?” and the question is used to make fun of therapy a lot, but the fact is that a lot of people never ask themselves that. If they do, they may not answer honestly. You don’t have to ask the question constantly, but sometimes it’s a necessary examination.

If you can figure out how to experience and own your feelings, then you’re ready for the next step. This one seems too obvious, but it’s essential. You have to realize every other human being has thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are DIFFERENT from yours. They may be similar in some ways, but we are all unique creatures, so even if we agree on many things, there might be one sticking point. More often, we find we disagree about more than we would like to. If we can recognize that other people have different thoughts, feelings, experiences, priorities, we then have to take the step to set aside our ego, to accept that there is no more or less value in the way I think, feel etc and there is no more or less value in the way another human thinks, feels etc. It may be different, yes, but it is no better or worse. We have to let go of the urge to exert our feelings, thoughts, experiences on others.

This leaves the door open to the final step of empathy, which is to take off our own glasses and use the other person’s lens to look at the world, to put his/her filter on things. Sometimes we can do this through talking to people. Sometimes we have to do it through hypothetical scenarios, knowing something about the other person’s circumstances and trying to think about what we would do, think, say, feel if ever put in the same situation. This is where literature has been shown to help in building empathy. By using your imagination while reading about others, you can translate the skill to the real world and new people you meet. I don’t think this needs to be limited to reading. I think you can also develop this skill by watching fictional TV and movies.

I thought about how age plays into this. If empathy is in some ways about experience, isn’t it harder for young people to be empathetic? I decided that’s not the case. What you’ve experienced in life is not dependent on your age. There is often a correlation, but it is not true for everyone. Neither is how much a person has read or watched. So the assumption that older people have more empathy is false.

I also thought about how we acquire empathy. I mentioned briefly that reading literature is one way to teach empathy, but I can’t help wondering if there are some natural characteristics that contribute to the ability. I am very empathetic, and yes, I’ve read and watched a ton of fictional material. I’ve had a wide variety of experiences in my life. I’m also in touch with my emotions, whether or not I vocalize that awareness. I have a good memory, which is also helpful because I remember how I felt in various situations. I listen to others, which is key as well because in order to empathize, you have to hear what other people are saying. But I often pick up on what people are thinking or feeling without talking to them extensively. I’m legally blind, so body language and facial expressions aren’t always my clues. I wonder if there are other types of receptors that some people have that pick up on what other people are putting out. In college, my best friend resented my ability to know exactly what was going on with her emotionally without her telling me anything. On her 18th birthday, I told my little sister not to rush to get her tattoo, to think about it a little longer. She was horrified that I knew she planned to get it that day (and got it anyway). My students always say I really understand them, how they feel, what they are thinking.

Being empathetic is exhausting though. There is a step further, being an empath. Sometimes I think that’s what I am because I can’t turn it off. Like a sponge, I absorb all the thoughts and feelings of those around me. All the angst, all the anger, all the pain, all the happiness, all the excitement…. I internalize it and it stays in me until I can unwind from it, which isn’t easy either. I have to sort through which thoughts and feelings are mine, which are coming from people I care about, which I can let go because the person who put them out into the world shouldn’t matter to me. Being empathetic makes me good at teaching, but it’s also part of why I need a break from it. It’s one of the reasons I’m an introvert, getting my energy from alone time because rather than feeding my own energy levels, other people tend to drain them.

And, of course, empathy is a much larger issue than my musings because if more people had it, we could live peacefully side by side instead of letting hatred fester in our hearts until it explodes in insanity like that we saw in Charlottesville this weekend. Those people clearly haven’t begun the first step of understanding their own thoughts and feelings. I have little hope that they’ll ever get to the next point of recognizing that other people are different but no less valuable. And those of us who are empathetic ache for the people who have dealt with this hatred and ignorance for so long that it feels next to impossible to fight against it again. Those with empathy feel the rage that progress is inconsistent at best, Sisyphus rolling his stone at worst. Unfortunately, empathy also lets us see the fear of those who come together with enmity to hold on to ignorance. Yes, we can understand them without excusing them. For me, feeling the fear of the white supremacists is the intersection of empathy and sympathy. I understand their fear of a new world order that seems like it’s taking from them (which it is not), but rather than sharing in their fear, I feel sorry for them, that they aren’t able to be filled with love. They are sad small people. I don’t know that they have even a drop of humanity in them to start on the road to empathy.

Travel Bug

As far back as I can remember, my mom talked about her junior year abroad in Madrid, Spain with fond memories and a near-demand that I study abroad when I got the chance. I was too chicken shit to go to a non-English speaking country, which I deeply regret, but I got myself abroad in college, before, and after.

The passport that served me from June 2001 to June 2011 is a treasure of travel memories. It was my key to the world:

England (x5)
Scotland (x2)
Dominican Republic (x2)
Germany (x2)
Czech Republic (x2)
France (x2)
Austria
Spain
Ireland
Aruba
Russia (visa!)

Yes, many trips to England – what can I say? I fell in love with London at 20. And, of course, Russia was a once in a lifetime adventure given the current state of international relations.

I wish I’d used it more, but I’m not made of money, and neither is my mom, who financed many of those trips. She also paid for the ones before that passport, to Italy (x2), the Bahamas, and Mexico, not to mention domestic trips up and down the eastern seaboard and to Hawaii.

My first trip to Europe was to Italy when I was 18. I learned a ton of history, but I also learned that I love going to places I’ve read about and reading about places I’ve been to. Call it experiential learning, call it hands on, whatever. I love when history, literature, religion, and Hollywood entertainment converge with me standing somewhere, seeing for myself. You can imagine how this feeling intensifies when my favorite novelists and poets are involved. Haworth at the Brontes’ house before a ramble on the Moors? BE STILL MY HEART. Traipsing up to the Vale of Health to get a feel for what Keats’ surrounded himself with? Sitting on an Oxford campus graveyard, channeling Byron’s broodiness? And, of course, Dublin with Dedalus and Sligo with Yeats.

I did a May term in eastern Germany, following the footsteps of Martin Luther. Everything from my childhood in church was real. I got to hold a bible that was nearly 500 years old. I got to explain the theological sides of Luther to a group that was focused on his social and educational reforms apart from his wild departure from the Catholic church. So if you thought it was just about my adoration of literature, you’re wrong. It’s history too. Hence the trip to Russia.

There’s something magical about being in a place where history happened, sitting where someone was inspired to write something that stays with me, comparing the Hollywood version of something to what the facts bear out. All the better if it’s in a different country where I can try new food and talk to people who have another perspective.

Since becoming an adult, ie working full time (despite summer break), I haven’t traveled as much. This fact is painfully clear in my current passport. While the picture shows a slimmed down version of me, the stamps aren’t as happy. In fact, there are three trips to Canada, one trip to England, and one trip to Ireland. And it’s more than five years old!!! Five years in to the one from my 20s, my stamps were hoppin’. Now, wah wah wah.

Yes, there was a cruise to Alaska that included a stop in British Columbia. That trip was spectacular, not just because it was to celebrate mom being done with cancer treatments. Yes, there is my awesome trip to Ireland. Yes, there is the epic BC/Washington road trip of 2011. I’m not minimizing the trips that are on the records, rather lamenting that there aren’t more.

And tomorrow I’ll get yet another Canadian stamp as I head to Quebec City for a longer exploration. I was there for a few hours on a day trip out of Montreal. I like Canada just fine, but I’m hungry for some more adventures.

Now I hear the voice in my head reminding me that I know exactly what I want to do with my “gap year,” “time out,” “walk about.” I need to get booking.

He Thought, She Thought

I’ve had a productive couple of days, but I’m exhausted. I brought home a ton of stuff that I had amassed in my various classrooms over the last eight years, but I hadn’t really gone through any of it. I shoved books on the shelves, completely out of order. I tossed office supplies on my desk, which is a wreck under the best of circumstances. I left piles of lesson plans and sample student work sitting in open boxes in various corners.

Today I started to tackle some of the clutter. I packed up two rows worth of teaching books, labeled the boxes, and shoved them in a corner. I won’t be needing those for at least a year, right? I then alphabetized my book shelves, adding the titles I’d brought home from my classroom library. Then I went to work on some of the lesson plans and student work. I didn’t get very far before I found the story below.  I didn’t put a date on it, so I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it (though I could guess if you pressed me. And it was obviously after seeing/hearing Hamilton). I haven’t posted much in the way of short fiction, so I thought “why not?”


“Missed Connection” by LJD
“I’m dying inside because there’s nothing that your mind can’t do.” ~ from Hamilton

It’s been five weeks.

He showed her where to go. Twice. So when he arrived and she wasn’t there, he figured the glimmer in her eye didn’t mean anything after all. He’d lowered his voice when he asked about her life. Maybe she thought he was making small talk.

Truth was, she got lost. She couldn’t read the map and was distracted by standing so close to him while he explained. She didn’t understand why he wouldn’t walk with her, so she assumed he wasn’t interested. She tried half-heartedly to find the bar and ended up walking around watching the sun set, sad that she couldn’t just grab him and hold him close.

Another girl had speculated about his dick. While she talked a good game with the oversexed girls, she honestly didn’t care how big – or small – he was. She’d examined his hands and found them to be perfectly fine. She reasoned he could provide a lot of pleasure with them. When he returned, the three of them fell in to casual conversation. The other girl shot her some odd looks, but nothing so obvious that confidence broke through her habitual self-doubt.

He didn’t say anything about it after. Another guy told her that they looked for her when they got there. He wished he had said it himself, but that would mean he’d missed her, that he’d wanted her to be there. He did want her to be there, but he wasn’t sure he wanted her to know that.

She was only vaguely aware that he saw her. She didn’t consider that he’d bother looking. It never occurred to her that anyone, especially he, thought she was beautiful.
She was full of questions, but she wasn’t close enough. She listened. She absorbed everything he said and let other people talk to him. She wanted to touch him, tousle his hair, rub his shoulders, lean against him… anything to silently tell him he was okay, it would be fine. She hoped her will alone could comfort and calm him.

He felt better knowing she was there. He warmed when he saw her. He liked that from the start she’d told him she would never stress him. She’d been true to her word so far. Reliable. It made him want to do more for her. He sensed her independence was a choice, but he felt the loneliness that accompanied it was an unwelcome consequence. She could absolutely take care of herself, he knew, which made him want to treat her like a queen. He wanted to do for her because he could tell she did for everyone else. He looked out for her quietly.

She wasn’t sure he was looking out at all. She didn’t even realize she wanted to be taken care of. She’d finally figured out that he was paying very close attention. Her heart fluttered. She liked that he didn’t ask – he only made sure to keep an eye on her. She loved that he did it without needing a pat on the back. She felt special, precious. She wasn’t used to it, but she knew she could quickly adapt, even come to depend on it. That scared her.
Everything about saying goodbye scared her. She had to keep him in her orbit. Somehow.

He tried to catch her eye, to slow her down so he could get her alone, but she seemed to be vibrating. He wasn’t sure if she was ready to run away from him or if her words were a veiled invitation. He wasn’t going to ask. He had her pinned down in many ways, yet something fundamental about her still eluded him.

Then she crushed her body against his.

He couldn’t believe it. It took him so off guard that he didn’t have time to tighten his grip and keep her there, exactly where he wanted her.

She didn’t know what to do next, so she ran. And kicked herself for running. And thought of ways to go back and stand still. But her blood was humming. Nothing inside her was still.

He was planted as she faded into the distance. He could have gone after her. He should have. It would have taken away any doubts one way or another. She was too good though. He wasn’t what she wanted, what she needed. The magnetism he felt was one-sided desire. She was gone, and his life would never be as bright as the handful of moments he’d traveled in her orbit.

The Hardest Question

There were A LOT of great quotes from season 7 episode 3 of Game of Thrones. Sam explaining HOW he figured out how to treat grey scale. Sansa trying to understand what the fuck Bran was talking about. And Tyrion pressing Jon Snow, only to hear, “I know it’s a good question. I’m looking for an answer!” (Side note: I want to live on Dragonstone.)

It’s perfect for what I was thinking about after the ophthalmologist today. I’m used to feeling like a freak most places I go, but the technicians today took it to new levels. In a practice of at least 15 eye doctors, I mistakenly assumed the techs and nurses had seem someone with Albinism before. Not so for the many technicians whose minds I blew when they tried to use any of the machines to get a read of my vision. I haven’t had a checkup in over a decade, so I know some technology has changed. There was more computerized stuff than I remember, but therein was the problem. Because my eyes move constantly (nystagmus) the readings probably aren’t accurate. I tried to explain that to two technicians at the first set of machines. They were too busy speaking Spanish to each other about how weird my results were. (NB: I speak enough Spanish to understand everything they said.)  I was then sent to a machine that was intended to take some sort of image of my eyes while I looked at a blue light and a red line. A third technician began the test and got frustrated. A fourth, this one an Asian dude with a rockin’ man bun, helped. He doesn’t even work there regularly I learned later in the appointment, so why is he the only one who didn’t seem to freak the fuck out that these fancy machines aren’t cutting the mustard when it comes to measuring my peepers? Ugh. One of the confused technicians then tried to have me read a vision chart. That was a laugh. Next came a peripheral vision test, which I failed and cheated on by moving my head. Short cuts! I told her before all of that that I’m legally blind, blowing her mind a second time.

“How you get around?”

Well, as I’ve mentioned, ma’am, I’ve been this way since birth and I’ve been adapting that long too. “You’re 35 now.” Yes, that’s what the chart says. “When your vision problems start?” When I was born. It hasn’t gotten any worse. I just need a checkup.

The doctor popped his head in at that point because I assume the other technicians had alerted him to the “alarming” results the machine tests spit out. Thank God he knew what he was doing. Tech One told him I couldn’t do the peripheral vision test and launched into something else. He cut her off, “no, she wouldn’t be able to do that. She has Oculocutaneous Albinism.” (Words the tech had a great deal of difficulty finding in the computer when she was trying to enter my info). So, my ocular muscles suck as does my peripheral vision. I knew that. Can we get on with it?

“Can I give her drops?” Because apparently my eyes are so out of the ordinary to this woman who works in an eye doctors’ office that she wasn’t sure if she could perform the basic exam requirement of dilating my pupils. Y’know what? I wish I had answered for her and escaped without the dreaded drops, but the doctor set her straight.

I got the drops and waited for the doctor. Like I said, thankfully he and his guest doctor (from Chile, so of course I mentioned Neruda) knew their shit. My eyes are great, exactly in the middle of the range of expectations for someone with OCA. The doctor is especially interested in it as a research topic and personally because he has a first cousin with albinism. He wanted to get some residents to look because it would’ve been a great teaching moment. They were all at lunch, which is where I wanted to be.

With a great report, I wanted to find a dark room and lay down until the drops wore off, but I had to get baseline images. A third machine. Three technicians trying to figure out the best way to make the machine work with the freak show, uh, I mean me. Again, Asian man bun was the only one who acted like he had any idea what he was doing. If I didn’t like the doctor so much, I might have had a hissy fit at that point.

With a massive headache and worse vision than usual thanks to the drops of death, I made my way home thinking about the question “how?”

In teaching, we talk about developing thought-provoking, open-ended questions and whatnot. We tend to say WHY questions are the most difficult. I’m not so convinced when it comes to life outside of teaching. Why is often completely inexplicable in life. Why does shit happen? Philosophers have been asking that forever. I get into that sometimes, and it’s fun. But HOW. How is a tricky sucker because people ask all the time and science tries to answer.

There are some HOW questions that I’m sure someone can answer but would be impossible for the layperson to understand, like how does wifi work?

More often people ask me HOW questions that I can’t begin to answer.

“How do you get around?” I don’t know, with my feet. To the best of my ability. The way every other human being “gets around” in that my brain sends a message to a certain part of my body to MOVE and my body does… It’s not like I was given a choice about my vision, so it never occurred to me to do anything differently than the way I perceived other people “get around.”

“How do you teach high school?” Like I was born to do it. I listen to my students. I give a shit about them as human beings. I know that they are probably smarter than I am in tons of ways, so I respect them for that while keeping my place of authority by being an expert in my subject area. How do YOU work in a cubicle? Oh right, you get your ass up and there on time and do what your boss asks because you want/need a paycheck. Next dumb question.

“How did you not have a nervous breakdown?” or “How do you deal with the stress?” or any other HOW questions about depression and anxiety…. It’s so hard to answer. But I think it’s like my vision… It’s not like I have a choice. Yeah, do I feel like it takes everything in me to get out of bed some days? YES YES YES. How do I do it? Because I know staying in bed more than one day isn’t an option. How do I keep it together when something horrible happens, how do I stay calm in crisis situations, how to I put up with this or that? Because it’s not an option to lay face down, pounding my fists into the ground and screaming, so that’s how. I know there’s no choice, so I do what I can.

“How do you know that?” When I know something about a friend’s life that s/he hasn’t told me directly. Intuition. Empathy. I pay attention. I might be a little psychic?

It’s funny because we think HOW can be broken down into steps that are transferable to anyone. But we all know that’s not true. If it were that simple, we could all do things that some people are clearly better at than others. HOW do you hit a home run? Science tells us about speed and force and angles and steroids, which is only part of the answer. Think about it. It’s a process question. That means you have to understand the process and be able to articulate it in a way that makes sense to someone else. That’s a lot harder than the three letters H-O-W lead you to believe.

So, HOW do I do anything? It’s the hardest question.

Measures of Friendship

I’ve been very social for my summer self this week. Dinner with a friend on Tuesday, another Friday, and a Jersey City double header today. That’s well above average for a non-travel summer week. It reminded me of some weird musings I put to paper last summer and other ideas about levels of friendship particular to me.

The core of any friendship has to be laughter, and this week’s hangouts were not disappointing in yielding and/or solidifying inside jokes. I’ll start there, in no particular order:

Girl party!

-You’re his favorite! -Does that title come with a cash prize?

Is that Kavanaugh with a K?

Interrupted work flow.

Y’know that time I got wasted and snorted coke off that guy’s dick.

Grom!

Your hair is white and your legs are white!

I said, “I want,” and he said “no” (one) I said “I want,” he said “no” (two… up to five).

Comparable loss.

A forum… for stuff. And things.

I’m very lucky to have friends who are as weird as I am and/or forgive my weirdness. I know they’re all excited to see what I do with my “gap year,” “time out,” “walk about,” and that is contagious, especially when I remember they’re all cheering for me.

Now, again in no particular order, some measures of friendship – at least in my book.

You’ve invited me to your home (childhood, dorm, adulthood).
I showed up.
I slept there.

I’ve invited you to my home (childhood, dorm, adulthood).
You showed up.
You slept there.

We’ve road tripped together and you didn’t mind that I sang and/or tried to control the radio (car, van, bus).
We were going to a concert.

You steer me away from stepping in dog poop and/or tell me the ground is uneven up ahead and/or tell me how many stairs I have to go down.

You know to hold out a hand for me to hold when there is ice on the ground (whether it’s daylight or night, whether I’m drunk or sober).

You’ve met at least one of my siblings.

We have performed together (school, church, karaoke).

We have gotten shitfaced together.
You’ve been around the next morning/afternoon when we wake up hungover.

You’ve seen me sleeping and/or crying and/or puking.

We’ve played any board and/or card game.

We’ve watched a World and/or Euro Cup match together.

I’m not a very social creature, so you should feel accomplished and special if I’ve ever left my home and/or pajamas to spend time with you.

 

I can’t think of any more synonyms for ANGER without consulting a thesaurus

I walked about three miles this morning and grabbed an iced soy mocha before heading home to turn on the news, as has been my habit recently. I know the news is bad for my health, but I can’t justify burying my head in the sand all the time as much as I love escapism. A part of me is still an engaged citizen, even though I hate the government more by the minute.

Simultaneous to seeing it in my facebook feed, I heard the news about Trump’s tweets on CNN. From that moment, I have been furious. It has taken A LOT of effort for me to sit still because I am so fucking angry. I tried to write earlier, not about this, and kept looking at my keyboard, thinking I wanted to break it across my knee before hurling it down the hallway. Blood boiling angry.

I asked myself how many trans people could possibly be in military service, then immediately chastised myself because Trump’s tweets are a smoke screen, a distraction, as so many of his “tweet storms” have been. His children are digging his grave regarding Russia; he’s lost the loyalty of people he hand-picked to sit in his cabinet; he’s passive-aggressively forcing Sessions to resign because he’s too chickenshit to fire him; and Congress can’t figure out healthcare to save their own lives. He needed a diversion. And he targeted a group that should lead a fucking coup against him.

My rage is multilayered. I’m livid that the President of the United States communicates any manner of information through twitter. That all by itself stirs my ire. He has no self-control whatsoever. He isn’t circumspect. He’s too stupid to understand how much power his 140 characters have. Or he knows that power and doesn’t mind endangering the nation every time he tweets.

The next layer is that he chooses to communicate policy via twitter. It’s like he doesn’t know the difference between a casual thought and a binding law. Maybe to him his passing fancy IS law.

Then there’s the underlying hatred in what he’s doing. It stinks of fearing people who are different from yourself, who you do not understand. That gets to me because at the root of my soul, there is love and acceptance. Yeah, I’m judgmental and arrogant and selfish and all-too-human, but the bottom line is love, or at least basic respect, for everyone, even when I disagree with them.

Piling on to my outrage is the Commander-in-Chief saying he rejects able-bodied service members to a VOLUNTARY military. Anyone who joins the military does so of his/her own volition (barring people whose families forced them and people who felt they had no other option). These are people – male, female, in between, something else – who want to DEFEND OUR NATION. Unless they are physically or mentally unfit to serve, who are you to say they can’t put their lives on the line for our freedom?

Moreover, I cannot imagine a transgender person thinking that military service is going to be an easy road to travel. I am a straight bio female who identifies as such, but I understand what it is like to feel like my body is not reflective of who I am inside (*ahem*) If you know the first thing about the US Military, you know it’s not historically friendly toward alternative lifestyles (don’t ask, don’t tell). I imagine a transgender person would recognize that he/she was voluntarily joining an organization that would make his/her life markedly more difficult than civilian life, which can’t be a treat for transgender people in many places. Obviously if they joined the military, they want to serve as much or more than they want to be a different gender. No one signs up for the military thinking, “yeah, this is where I’m going to get the healthcare coverage I need for my gender reassignment surgery.”

Using this (presumably) small subset of people who are willing to serve their country as a diversion tactic disgusts me. Trump is a shit storm who tosses feces in the opposite direction so you look at the small shit show instead of the tornado of fucked up things that are crashing down on him. That he has chosen transgender military personnel this time makes me ferociously mad. Transgender people are treated as less than human in this country, so the fact that any of them want to stand up for it amazes me in the first place. That they now have to deal with this added persecution blinds me with rancor.

In a moment of levity, as I am wont to have because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry, I wondered what gender the Unsullied from Game of Thrones are, technically. Would Trump allow them to serve? By adding this to the conversation, I don’t mean to minimize it in any way, it’s just one of my coping mechanisms so that I don’t tear my apartment to pieces.

The two take aways from today are:

  1. Any moron can be president of the US, but you can’t defend a nation that constantly treats you like a non-human if you are transgender.
  2. The current US President will attack ANYONE in an effort to distract people from seeing that his whole administration is failing.

Smoke and mirrors have never made me so irate.

Works in Progress

Sometimes I can tell before getting out of bed that the day is going to be a disappointment. It’s not that my expectations for any given day are all that high, but there’s a sense that some are just duds and you shouldn’t even try.

Today is definitely a losing day. The water in my taps is leaving me thirsty – there’s a poem in the making if ever there was. The vet I usually take my cat to is permanently closed. I went to the grocery store thinking I’d be inspired to decide what I want to eat but walked out with a bagful of stuff I don’t really want. Nothing’s going to satisfy me, which is partially my fault because I don’t know for sure what I want.

There’s no predicting when this kind of day will strike, but it is predictable that everything is a bummer. The best course of action is to curl up with a book to escape into and go to bed as early as possible. Chances are good that the next day will be better, less blah.

But when I’m trying to make new habits, including writing every day and taking care of myself physically, days like this feel like failures. They aren’t. They’re just inevitable down days. They’re opportunities for me to figure out how to go easier on myself, to not beat myself up, to look at the progress I’m making.

I’ve only been at this “new routine” effort for two weeks. It takes at least a month to develop a habit, so trying to break several bad habits while I make better ones is bound to take longer, to have some road blocks along the way.

I’ll remind myself what I’ve been working on. I’m brewing something about invisibility and untouchability that might turn into a poem if I ever pour out the words from where they’re stewing. I’m working on Jeremy from the story about Hannah and Katie, which is proving very emotional because there’s love and loss there, and lots of history. I’m taking care of at least one piece of personal business a day, whether it’s making a doctor’s appointment or researching COBRA for when my leave insurance runs out. I’ve been thinking about a week’s worth of blogs about song lyrics and what I think of them – this might produce something concrete fastest because I realize that I haven’t written much about music yet, which isn’t me at all. Music is air; I have to have it around all the time.

Yeah, today’s a wash. But my iPad is almost charged so I can get back to another world soon. I got a bottle of water because I am literally and metaphorically thirsty, even after drinking the requisite 8 cups of tap water yesterday. The weather is perfect by my standards – cloudy, breezy, cool. I’m going to hang out on the couch by the open window, maybe the cat will come keep me company, and I can go back to bed before I try again tomorrow.

Pardon Me

There is no doubt that the current president is partially responsible for my existential crisis. The way words have lost all meaning certainly would shred someone like me who lives in the words, for the words, with the words, by the words. Not only do all words have shifting, subjective meanings now, those of us who demand that language still be useful to communication are called elitist or overly sensitive.

And it’s not just words that have lost common meaning. Everything I learned in 8th grade civics and 10th grade government about what makes America special in history and the modern world has been stripped away. Checks and balances? Three branches of government with a free press to serve as watch dog? Elected officials who work for the people they represent? Educating the populace? Accepting immigrants from far and wide with open arms, knowing those immigrants strengthen the nation?

Now people are asking if a president can pardon himself for crimes he committed because he was too inexperienced to know they were crimes or too slimy to give a shit. “Can a president pardon a chief of staff? An attorney general? Himself?” Well, since nothing means anything anymore, I guess “abuse of power” doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. In which case, SURE. A president can pardon himself. What are consequences anyway? Why would I want a leader who holds himself accountable to a higher standard than a simpering child?

While he’s pardoning himself, he can pardon me for saying, “You are a fucking joke. A bad joke that no one finds funny because you’re so stupid that it’s terrifying to think people support your ignorance.”

Faith is a Funny Thing

Faith has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I was raised in church thanks to my mom’s superhuman patience. I mean, I don’t have kids, but if my child interrupted a sermon by throwing a tantrum in the church balcony that included her kicking her jelly shoe off so that it flew through the sanctuary and bounced off a woman’s head and landed in another’s lap, I would NOT bring my child back. I wouldn’t ever show my face at that church, or any other, ever again. I’d assume my child was possessed by the devil and that God had forsaken the both of us. All true, by the way. But my mom… my mom is eligible for sainthood, as is the pastor whose sermon I interrupted. I scribbled some kind of apology and mom took me back the next week. My ELC family forgave me; moreover, they nurtured me, sheltered me, encouraged me to grow in faith.

So my faith has been a huge piece of me as long as I can remember. That is until my mom was diagnosed with cancer after six months of hellish family tragedies. Since then, which was about five years ago, my faith hasn’t been a factor in my life. I can’t say it it was gone or broken exactly. It’s very complicated. But I did not feel connected to a higher power or a greater existence (whether you want to call that God or the universe or nature or peace… it’s all the same in my mind). I tried to pray, but I found it empty. One of the ways I’ve always communicated with God (that’s the word I use. Feel free to fill in whatever term works for you) is through singing. I have continued to do that in the past five years, but I’ve kind of relied on other people to have the direct line to the higher power because I have too much static on my end to make the connection.

As I’ve been struggling to figure out what comes next, and even before I was in this free falling situation I’m in now, I had people praying for me. Both my parents (without asking the other because they are divorced and rarely talk now that their children are adults) asked me about my relationship with God, if I’d prayed about the decisions I was facing. My dad, with whom discussions about faith are particularly difficult because they are colored by our very conflicting views of basic concepts like forgiveness and redemption, reached out to me one day in a way he never has – without advice and judgment, but with love and and offer to listen. He told me he felt compelled to do so. He asked me about where I was in my relationship with God, which is a nearly impossible question to answer.

When I was in Chicago meeting my niece, my sister-in-law asked if I go to church anymore. My brother was raised Lutheran, like me. His wife was raised Catholic. I’m not sure if they label themselves now, but their wedding ceremony was Buddhist and they attend a Buddhist temple from time to time. She asked what changed, why I didn’t go to church anymore. Again, it’s a difficult question. She met my brother after my mom’s chemo was over, when her radiation was almost done. She didn’t get to see firsthand how bad things were, how I was the front line, not my brother. She’s seen it in her own family though, and she’s a very empathetic person, so as she listened, I felt like she could understand it to a degree.

One of the things I’ve always believed, especially with all the very dark times I’ve gone through, is that faith isn’t a matter of something I do. It’s not that I have faith in God, that I believe. Because that’s on me, and I’m a flawed human being, so my faith and belief will always fall short. The thing that always brings me back is that God (or whatever term you use) has faith in, believes in ME. Whether I’m responsive doesn’t change that God is always here. He’s always keeping faith in me, believing in me, calling me, loving me. Like I said, the static is on my end, not His. Even if  I can’t feel it, He’s still in my corner. Even when I don’t believe it, when I lose my faith, when I can’t even see that He still believes in me because I don’t believe in Him. It’s a strange thing, a complex thing.

This morning it’s on my mind because a friend of my big brother’s, who is now a friend of mine thanks to twitter, posted this New York Times article. (Side note: yes, we’re all shouting FAKE NEWS in sarcastic voices). It’s about people who are older than I am, but it’s about what I’m doing right now: taking a gap year. It has a link to a consulting company that helps people plan their time and connects them with opportunities. I didn’t know such a thing existed, especially for people who are older than 21. I have a few plans already, but it hasn’t stopped the free-fall feeling (though I’m gradually getting more comfortable with that). This could be, but doesn’t HAVE to be, a step in the right direction.

It’s the static on my end clearing for a tiny moment to hear God cutting through – He’s still here. He’s got me, even when I don’t know, believe, feel it. It’s the reminder that even when I don’t have faith, He has it for me, in me. It’s extremely humbling and even more comforting.

On Walking // Walk On

Jamie Dornan had to re-teach himself to walk when The Fall creator Allan Cubitt noticed he walked weird. It’s a hilarious clip; watch it here if you have a spare four and a half minutes

As he says, it is, quite literally, the first thing we learn how to do in life. I’ve never been great at it myself because I have fallen arches and duck feet. I took a PE credit in college called walking. I didn’t get an A. I fall down. A lot. Some people think it’s because of my poor vision, but the number of times I’ve fallen with no impediment to trip on kind of rules out that theory.

There are a lot of studies that extol the benefits of walking for weight loss, but a friend posted an article a while back about how walking can help your brain. He posts a lot of great articles, so I can’t find this particular one. The gist of it was that walking helps your brain work better. The physical movement of your whole body promotes the movement of your brain, the synapses fire, and you’re able to think about more or about something old in a new way.

That made sense. It cited many authors who walked before they wrote or used walking as a tool to get past writer’s block. I don’t remember all of its examples, but I have my own.

Comedian David Mitchell wrote his memoir Back Story as a walk through London, letting certain sights conjure memories and explaining how walking helped him with back problems (and, of course, helped him lose some weight). Joyce takes Stephen on several contemplative walks around Dublin in Portrait. I did my share of walking in Dublin when I was there last summer, and I want to return to Ireland to walk the Dingle Peninsula (maybe in the spring?). I used to take walks around my college campus in the middle of the night when my insomnia was really bad.

Walking indeed gets more than the body moving.

I’m going to try to make walking without purpose a part of my timeout. Not walking to the store, walking to the train, walking to get somewhere… those are necessities of living in a city and not driving. I’m talking about walking just for walking’s sake. I started this morning. My surroundings certainly aren’t as exciting as London or Dublin, not as scenic as Slea Head, but I’m going to make an effort to let the physical movement spur my brain movement (and my bowel movements because on the real, a good walk can lead to a good shit!)

But we also say things like “walk it off” or “take a walk” when someone is injured or upset. Walk it off means suck it up and deal with the pain. Take a walk means cool off, get yourself together. I think these apply to me too, though I’m not in physical pain (well, yes, I am. Did I mention my lack of arches? That’s a topic for another time). Maybe I can think of it as walking off the fear. Taking a walk to calm some of the nervous, undirected energy so my brain can figure out how to channel it.

Dory was a fish, so she couldn’t walk. She said just keep swimming. What do we do? We swim! I’m not a fish. So I’ll just keep walking. What do I do? I walk.