This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.
I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?
It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.
Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.
Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.
In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, that they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.
I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.
During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.
I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.
We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?
Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?
And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?
What about our failing democracy?
Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.
That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.
It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?
I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.
I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.
Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.
The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.
We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.
As so often happens, there are several strands to this post. Chronologically, the first strand was this podcast from The Minimalists about race relations. I don’t usually take the time to listen to podcasts, but I follow The Minimalists and this discussion was a perfect antidote to the current disturbing headlines and media rhetoric. It made me think and provided some insight into the problem of racism. In the podcast, there’s a fascinating discussion about hate speech in which a suggestion is made that it’s not a real thing.
I know. That was my reaction, too. Hate speech is everywhere, right? On social media, on signs and bumper stickers, in the mouths of ordinary people, and in the media. It’s true that words are frequently used hatefully as we talk and write. Language, remember, is a symbolic system used to convey meaning. Speech, or writing, for that matter, is simply the use of language. Speech is only a small part of conveying information, though. Nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we use, things like volume, intonation, emphasis and body language.
Hate speech is simply speech used to convey hate. The words alone are mostly neutral. The speaker or writer are the sources of the hate.
It’s trickier even than that. Some common, perfectly neutral words like “uterus” are now classified by some as hate speech. This is clearly ridiculous. There’s nothing hateful about the word. When I use it, I’m certainly not feeling or intending to communicate hate. The hatred, if it exists, is in the listener.
Hateful people speak and write hatefully, and are predisposed to hear hate when none is intended. People who are not haters use the same words to convey simple meaning, and are surprised and incredulous when accused of engaging in “hate speech.” Fortunately, being accused of hate speech doesn’t make it so.
Let me be clear that I’m not poking at things like mascot names that demean American Indians, or use of words like “nigger.” I don’t support either, ever, for any reason. When a group of people protests that such terms are hurtful to their culture, history, and sense of worth, we need to be respectful. Some words are pejorative and ugly, and they’re meant to be. Language is not static; hundreds of slang words and idiotic labels are created and used every year, some with a specific intent to convey hatred and contempt. What I’m focusing on is standard language, words we use in everyday settings and circumstances that are defined in a dictionary.
I’ve thought a lot about this. Is there such a thing as hate speech, or is it simply that hateful people use language to say and write hateful things? In that case, the problem is people hating, not the words themselves.
That was the first thing.
The second thing was that a few days ago we adopted a pair of kittens. We both love cats, and our old cat died over the winter, so we had an empty place in our hearts, which these two have filled magnificently.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies to take care of, and it brings back a flood of memories and feelings, especially my desire to be a “good” mom. I notice how important it is to me that they be happy, healthy, safe, well-bonded and learn to differentiate between bare skin and clothing as they climb, play and explore. I want to do it right. I want to do it well. I spend time evaluating my patience, my efforts to keep them safe, my performance as litter box cleaner and fresh water procurer, my roles as playmate, limit-setter and comforter.
Am I a good kitten caregiver?
The third strand in this post comes from a book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, who is one of my favorite writers.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian,” I told him. “Only good or bad people.”
As I read that, I thought about the podcast I’d listened to, and my conclusion that perhaps there’s not such a thing as hate speech, just words used by haters. My practice of minimalism has taught me to simplify wherever possible, and it occurs to me that we’re all many things to many people in life, and most of us are trying to be “good” friends, partners, family members, employees, and probably an infinite number of other roles. We fragment our identities into all these shards and pieces. What if we let go of all that and focused on being “good” humans? Wouldn’t being a “good” human across the board take care of everything else?
Then, of course, we have to decide what we mean by good and bad, but I’ve already opened that can of worms a couple of times, so I’m not going to go there again. Let’s forget about the term “good,” which means everything and nothing.
If I practice love instead of hate (including with myself), if I strive to be tolerant, respectful, authentic, responsible and keep my integrity intact, then I bring those qualities to everything I do every day, whether I’m working, hanging at home, playing with kittens, spending time with friends, interacting with family, or buying groceries. I don’t have to worry about being a “good” anything. I simply strive to be the best human I can be, whatever the circumstances, whatever the context.
Let it be said that not everyone has a desire to be “good.” I am all too well aware that assuming everyone has my agenda is a fatal mistake. There are those who would love to see the world on fire.
Still, I believe most of us are trying to be a “good” … whatever, according to our definition of good. Sadly, especially when we think about religious and political pieces of identity, this is often where the hate begins.
It’s complicated. People are complicated. We’re also devious. Debating about what is and is not hate speech is a diversionary tactic that takes us nowhere. The issue is not words. Words don’t hate. The issue is our own hatred toward ourselves and others, and for that we are responsible. The issue is not our willingness or ability to fulfill expectations of what it means to be a “good” fill-in-the-blank. That’s nothing but pseudo self. Life is not a performance. The issue is what kind of humans do we choose to be? What kind of humans are we?
Certain ways of thinking support and feed my perfectionism, and other ways of thinking starve it. Being concerned with being a “good” this, that and the other is a lot of anxious work and encourages perfectionism, pseudo self, people pleasing, and a whole host of other unhelpful behavior patterns.
Approaching each day and activity with a desire to be my best and respect the needs and feelings of myself and others is not only simpler; it leaves me with energy and space to have fun, to love others wholeheartedly (even when they do climb up my bare leg with tiny pin-sharp claws), and to enjoy life.
I talk. I write. I listen to feedback about how my words affect others. I know I’m not a hater, and I don’t allow others to project their hatred onto me. I accept that I have no power over readers or listeners who are determined to misunderstand and twist my words into hatred. I practice respect for myself and for others. Words used by haters divide and leave deep wounds. Words used by non-haters have the power to connect and heal.
If we are not humans who hate, our language will not be hateful. If I practice love, responsibility, patience and tolerance, I’m a good-enough kitten caretaker. If I strive to be a “good” human (according to my definition), then I can forget about my individual performance of all those fragmented pieces of identity.
Choosing not to hate. Loving kittens. Striving to be a tolerant, respectful, kind, compassionate, responsible, authentic human. My daily crimes.
I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.
Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.
It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?
Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.
So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.
Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.
On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.
On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.
Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.
It’s notable I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.
Storms do pass.
If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings — the kind of experiences we all share.
Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.
Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.
It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt — and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.
It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.
Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.
Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.
It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.
Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.
I’ve been thinking about this week’s post for a couple of days now. There’s a lot more to say about boundaries than I’ve discussed here and here, and maybe someone else can shape the many complex pieces into separate, coherent posts, but that person isn’t me. I can sort out a few points, but the rest is chaos containing all kinds of inflammable issues, such as parenting, corporal punishment, our justice system, religion, sexuality, morals, ethics, rape culture, racism, entitlement and patriarchy.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these are important discussions and ideas for all of us, but the purpose of this blog is not to have a shouting match or explore the different ways we can criticize, judge and belittle one another.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I suspect most of us agree boundaries are necessary, but after that point I see potential for endless violent disagreement about how and why we create and manage them. I believe it’s safe to say our understanding of boundaries is heavily influenced by our childhood experience, our culture and family, and technology and media.
I have no answers. I notice what I call my boundaries don’t work very well at times. I notice the conflict between what works for me, what others expect, and what I’ve been taught. I notice a generation gap around boundaries. My 20-something sons see the whole issue differently than I do. I think some of this is due to differences in our relationships to technology, but I don’t know how much.
I also notice a lot of my boundaries are around fear. As a single woman, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being hooked into GPS and map information via technology. It doesn’t feel safe to me. Likewise, I’m uncomfortable discussing my spirituality, my parenting beliefs, my political beliefs, my dietary choices and the color of my underwear. I’m not ashamed of who I am — I’m afraid of being victimized. I don’t want to deal with mean, hateful or dangerous people. I don’t want to attract the attention of a psychopath or a sociopath. I don’t want to lose connections and relationships over something like religion.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
Then there’s the part of me that simply isn’t interested in what I call oversharing. I mind my own business — why can’t everyone else mind theirs?
On the other hand, surely we have a right to be who we really are. But where is the line — the boundary, if you will— between that right and violating someone else’s boundary?
A highly topical example of this is the debate over Native American team names in the public school system. Many Native Americans find this offensive and racist — and say so. The other side hotly denies they’re racist and cites tradition and their intention to honor the Native American people. It’s a ding-dong argument. I’m hurt and offended and this feels racist versus I am not a racist, back and forth, on and on, with both sides becoming further divided with every iteration. Broken connection, broken relationships, divided communities, hurt and rage are the result.
At bottom, it seems to me these are all boundary issues. Our boundaries don’t appear to work well. What can we do about that?
This very morning, I had an interesting discussion with one of my sons about this. We were talking about privacy in regard to technology, and he suggested that soon we may have to accept the idea of 0% privacy because of our increasing reliance on and use of technology. Everyone (at least in this country) will be equally exposed and we’ll have to figure out how to live with that exposure as a culture and move on, or we’ll simply self-destruct. I’d never considered this point of view and I’m fascinated with it, as well as slightly appalled.
Perhaps the chaos around boundaries is present because, as my son suggests, we’re in transformation. Transformation is inherently chaotic, after all. Maybe my generation’s ideas and beliefs about boundaries aren’t working because they’re outdated. Our world, our culture, our understanding of life, technology and science are dynamic, always changing, always correcting and expanding. Perhaps the world we live in today requires different boundaries and we’re struggling to shape them.
At the risk of sounding like an old granny, however, I think healthy, effective boundaries must contain elements of respect, compassion, authenticity, dignity and kindness, not only for others but for ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that boundaries are about ourselves and what works and doesn’t work for us. It’s not our job to choose boundaries for others. We may have to defend our boundaries and others will certainly try to violate them, but that’s the only place our power is.
Interestingly, I’m reading a book right now that relates to this. It’s called Being Wrongby Kathryn Schulz. It’s a great book — well written, funny, intelligent and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it. The reason I mention it is that so many of our rules, expectations and yes, boundaries, are based on our beliefs and we have a tendency to make our beliefs universal laws. We all do this, one way or another. But take one of your central beliefs, a hot one like politics or diet or religion, one you argue about on Facebook, block and unfriend people for disagreeing with. Now just imagine, if you can, for one minute, only 60 seconds, that you’re wrong.
Pretty uncomfortable, right? Now everything changes, including your rules, expectations, stories and, inevitably, your boundaries.
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
In other words, effective boundaries need to flex and change as we learn and grow. Otherwise, all we create is a jail cell for ourselves. We can’t change, we don’t admit new information and we keep ourselves small and rigid.
On the other hand, if we have inadequate boundaries our power is leaking all the time. We fall prey to dysfunctional relationships, our integrity breaks, we fail to take care of ourselves, and our lives don’t work well.