Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

Hold on.

This weekend I was pondering what to write on my blog today. I thought I might list all the people I am worrying about, fellow humans who I do not know but who are in extreme danger. Syria comes to mind often. Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan. People around the world and within my country living in places in a permanent state of violence and/or deprivation. All the refugees adrift in a world that itself is coming adrift with each passing day. Individuals who are made vulnerable by circumstances or systematic oppression. And the people who are not in extreme danger but who are experiencing heartbreak of the small kinds. Perhaps something they have worked for and planned for is suddenly crashing to a halt due to this pandemic. Or who took what seemed like a small risk in 2019, a new venture of some sort, that now appears catastrophic in 2020.

I am not especially comfortable with organized religion, but I have a spiritual side. A phrase from the American Friends Society always resonates with me: I will hold you in the light, one says, the way others might say I will pray for you. I like the idea of light, the echoes of healing, of renewal, of better days, of hope and possibility. I like the idea that I might be able to hold someone in the light, that this is an action I can take to make the world a better place. I am holding you in the light. Everyone, really. I send out light, hope, and love to the world.

As I write these words, the first two weeks of Full Scale Pandemic Alert have passed, and the threat has become very real, and in some places, nightmarish. It is predicted that in two more weeks, we will reach the peak moment when we are least able to manage the spread of Covid19.

I don’t know how to prepare for that. I hide away. I peek at the news, then turn it off when it threatens to overwhelm me. I take deep breaths, trying to make sense of the knowledge that a worldwide disaster is unfolding, slowly in some places, and at light speed in others.

Hold on.

End of week one

It may be helpful that my current goal is to blog once a week on Mondays. Weekly posts may give me some kind of measure to keep track of what is happening, so many seismic changes even as time seems to slow down. Today marks the first full week of Nothing Is Normal in my neck of the woods (schools closed, work halted, more people have heard of Social Distancing). So here’s a weekly check-in, of sorts.

On March 12, I began jotting down key data points from the New York Times map of the virus (and it is true that different sources provide slightly different counts). At that time, 127,800 people had been tracked with the virus. 4,718 had died. In the US, around 1,200 had the virus. I didn’t jot down the number of US deaths until a few days later.

As of this morning, 341,500 identified worldwide; 15,187 have died. 33,018 identified in the U.S., and 428 have died. And based on the slowly improving but still insufficient amount of testing available, those numbers likely do not show the full picture. The story of what is actually happening will not be told for several years, I fear.

An odd thought came to mind just now. In movies, there is sometimes the dark trope of a person falling from an airplane or off a tall building, plummeting to a certain death. I have always wondered what someone thinks about during such a fall, because nothing hurts yet. Everything that you know, everything that you are, is still the same, still intact. The ground below must seem like an illusion. And all of the actions that one usually takes for self-protection or survival are suddenly futile.

It’s not a pleasant thought, I know, and I am hoping that human ingenuity, compassion, and sense of community will outpace human frailties to help us survive this current state of free fall.

One note: The New York Times shared a report today based on extensive interviews with health experts (rather than the random guesses of someone who studied something once) that laid out what needs to happen, so I will share that link here, in case you are curious   https://nyti.ms/3dkfoCc

Viral anxiety

This weekend I became an expert in epidemiology. No, not really, but you’d think that was my goal. The past few weeks have not been ideal in terms of limiting the time I spend on Twitter or skimming the news. It’s been several years of what feel like daily shocks running the gamut from cringes to gut punches. I stumble to find a response, any response, to all that is happening.

Today my mind is still sifting through what I’ve read. There’s a story I can’t tell in detail because it belongs to a loved one under 18, who went through a nightmare of a health crisis a few years ago. At a moment when we felt most helpless to understand what was going on or how to stop the suffering, we had to go back to the doctor’s office during the height of flu season. I walked as if in a dream because I couldn’t imagine how to deal with what was already happening AND the added risk of flu.

As of today, though, my loved one’s crisis has abated. On the other hand, I have a beloved parent in assisted living, another beloved parent with respiratory issues, both over 80, not to mention friends battling cancer, others living with asthma, and quite a few working in health care. For all of them, coronavirus is one more threat among many ongoing risks.

Though we learn more each day, none of us know what to expect from this coronavirus. My new online colleagues in the field of epidemiology make clear that without sufficient testing and mitigation, we will reach new levels of crisis within weeks and may have to endure several really tough months. But none of us know what will happen, not for certain.

What is certain is that so many people who already bear heavy loads, including just the challenge to make it from one day to the next, are weighed down even more by the thought of what might lie ahead.

I feel that weight, too. So let me hold us all in the light, as the Friends say. And I will do so every time I wash my hands, like a prayer going out into the world around me. I can’t do everything, but I can do this much to keep you healthy. To let you know that it matters to me what you are going through. Hold on. Stay in the light.

Slow Down

Today’s affirmation arrived over a decade ago. I was attending a professional development workshop that included an optional visualization activity in which you identify an obstacle to your success. For me, the obstacle itself was unclear, but my reaction was to whisper to myself, “Slow down.”

Those words made sense to me. In order to achieve goals that matter to me, I need to slow down rather than hurry up. Not stop. Not avoid. Not hide. Keep working but accept that it takes time for the work to unfold. It reminds me of when I took art classes and the goal was to look again and again at the model to see what I was missing in my attempt to draw what was in front of me. It took hours.

I’ve heard and read similar advice in recent years for writers specifically. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sulky about this advice. I don’t want to slow down. I want to be some kind of super-writer, soaring across the pages, generating enviable daily word counts that amaze every reader. Every reader! (Ha. I had to rewrite that phrase because it reminds me of another thing that makes me sulky as a writer is the fact that I won’t be able to connect with every reader. In fact, the only way to connect with every reader is to say almost nothing, and that seems, um, pointless.)

This advice also reminds me, at least as a caution, of one of my favorite pieces of advice from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes a man leaning his ladder against a wall and climbing up the ladder as fast as possible. The man appears to be moving quickly, but what good is this effort if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? In time management terms, you have to slow down at least long enough to find the right wall. Make sure that your efforts are leading you in the right direction.

I suppose this affirmation relates well for where I am right now. I have been taking stock of my writing and re-assessing next steps. It makes me feel restless and uprooted. I am much happier when I am in the thick of a longer writing project. The direction is set, and I can move forward, sometimes quite rapidly. Even then, though, I reach a point when the work grows unwieldy, and I have to navigate more choices and search for changes to make it better. No matter where I am in the process, I always observe other writers generating a constant flow of polished, published works while I move at what is sometimes a snail’s pace within an endless round of not-yet-finished drafts.

Our culture is not a fan of slowing down. I am a bit amused by the memes of people outraged that someone in front of them in traffic is moving more slowly than necessary. The sight of someone paying by check rather than a card seems to wound the people waiting in line at the grocery store. The assumption is that if we aren’t moving quickly, we are falling behind.

But what if the only way to do something well, to say what you mean to say, to fix a problem rather than put a band-aid on it, is to move slowly, thoughtfully, forward? Of course there will be moments when the best response is a quick response, especially in an emergency. And then there’s the siren song of procrastination, so I guess I need to remember that slowing down is not the same as NOT doing the work. It is okay to be slow. This is not a race, not if “this” is something meaningful.

Let others pelt down paths that might lead nowhere. Find your own path. Take one step forward. Another. Breathe. That one step forward is the destination, no matter how small or gradual the movement.

laptop

Relaxed and happy

So one of my oldest affirmations, or perhaps, quasi-affirmation, or well, if I am honest, this was my mission statement in 1994, so I was young, and this sentence is now violating so many grammar rules that I think I will start again. Ahem. One of my oldest affirmations is “Be relaxed and happy like that woman we met in the grocery store.”

Impressive, hmm? Clear as mud. So a mission statement is a statement of what you want to be in the moment, not what you want to accomplish or possess. Around the time I was developing this mission statement, my now-husband and I ran into this woman he knew in a grocery store, and she was super relaxed and laughing as we chatted with her, and I thought, yes, that’s how I would like to be.

It wasn’t all I wanted to accomplish, but there was something admirable about not tackling every activity with a turbo charge but rather taking a breath and appreciating that which brings joy rather than focusing only on that which elicits sorrow, rage, or despair.

As I mentioned, I am revisiting my affirmations to bolster my commitment to writing, so I might explore briefly what this affirmation could mean for me as a writer. Relaxing instead of writing would not be what I want, but relaxing as I tackle my writing projects could be beneficial. What if I allow my writing to be a way to relax and smile, to celebrate the moment?

Can I make progress on anything if I am relaxed and happy as I work? Such an approach defies the Puritan work ethic. Can the act of writing be something positive and fulfilling? Can some of the issues I want to unpack be serious and consequential, at least to me, yet the work itself still allow me to be relaxed and happy? Can I be a caring, engaged part of the greater community and be relaxed and happy? At least, some of the time?

I know that my being stressed and miserable does not help anyone else, and it tends to undermine my ability to support others or create anything worthwhile. Being relaxed and happy does not mean I am not pursuing ongoing growth and improvement. Nor do I have to pretend that it is possible to be relaxed and happy all the time, nor that writing isn’t sometimes a difficult and frustrating activity. Indeed, as I think about it, what I most need is not necessarily to feel relaxed every time I write, but to relax rather than worry about what I am writing or where it is leading. Or how long it takes to get there.

Listening Notes: 1619 podcast, Episode 5, Part 2

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/podcasts/1619-slavery-farm-loan-discrimination.html

“The Land of Fathers, Part 2” is the last episode of the 1619 podcast series.

Phew. This podcast picks up where it left off by highlighting the weight of the grief and loss experienced by a family of African American sugar cane farmers. They compare the way this family was treated by a bank (perhaps better described as sabotage) with a landmark class action law suit on behalf of African American farmers.

I hope you have listened to this series of podcasts, too, especially so you can get the impact directly rather than through my comments. I will share some of my takeaway points, which will likely make more sense if you have listened to the episode.

First, the bank that sabotaged this family was doing so with money provided by federal government, specifically the USDA. In fact, I learned something about how this works in the alarming book that I blogged about earlier called the Fifth Risk. Banks often tout how much they are helping the community when the truth is, they are just a conduit for federal support. In the Fifth Risk, the author even documented one time when a conservative legislator pointed to one such loan as an example of how private enterprise solves problems better than the government.

So basically, this bank used my tax dollars to undermine this family by giving the family less than what was needed to succeed and by providing it to them too late in the season to succeed.

I was curious if the reporter asked the belligerent white man who now owns this family’s farm if he believed it possible to farm well without the funds or the time to do so? By the way, is it just me, or does it start to feel like, what’s the word, a ‘tell’ when someone like that gets angry, it usually means he knows that he is not in the right but he’d rather get mad than make amends?

It is painful to reflect on this episode and think, hmm, setting people up to fail, lying about what happened, and blaming individuals rather than the larger system… that sure sounds familiar, as if it is the same game plan used throughout history by people without morals, conscience, or any kind of guide rails who are pretty much steering our world to devastation right now.

This episode also made me think about farming as a so-called private enterprise, and I wound up having so much to say that I will move it to another post because it is somewhat tangential to this podcast (though some of those connection points are significant).

The last takeaway is based on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s parting comments at the end. I realize that I tend to be most concerned that injustice and discrimination are happening today, and they are built on what happened before, and that is absolutely a problem, but there is also a parallel question of how to reckon with what has happened, how to acknowledge it, how to make sure that this knowledge informs how we move forward. And that reckoning is painful and infuriatingly elusive,

Given her statements here and elsewhere, I worry about and also deeply respect the way she engages in this work given the emotional toll it can take.

Which is why I want to return now to the closing lines of the podcast episode by Wesley Morris reflecting on the history of Black music, which I will copy below, because it hints at a way to keep fighting while allowing for the possibility of joy:

What you respond to in black music is an ultimate expression of belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. (Wesley Morris)

Listening Notes: America Dissected

Thanks to some extra time on the treadmill, and it’s true that I am glad I got on there after I’m done with the workout, I caught up on a new podcast called America Dissected with Abdul El-Sayed.

He has released three episodes so far, the first on modern quackery, and my main takeaway point was that some website named Goop is bat*&^%crazy (so I immediately warned my children, since I don’t think I’m the target demographic), and it’s a good reminder that one should not trust any celebrity who wants to sell you something. The next episode on Anti-vaxxers had a helpful insight to remember that the victims swept up by the anti-vax movement are motivated by fear and the desire to keep their children healthy. But since I am old-fashioned enough to think it is good when people don’t die of preventable diseases, I especially liked his statement that refusing to vaccinate is a lot like choosing to drive drunk—you are not just putting yourself at risk.

Warning, I am about to vent a little, so avert your gaze, if you’ve had enough venting this week. But anyway, I inexplicably chose to read some of the reviews of the anti-vax podcast, which is like reading comments on Twitter, (i.e. don’t), but it did expose me to the term “the vaccine-injured,” which turns out to be as effective a red flag as a mention of Hunter Biden to identify the speaker as a conspiracy theorist. I appreciate these little red flags, though in the latter case, it’s also a red flag of “the ethically-injured” because they are trying to ignore alarming factually-supported crimes by focusing on fabricated rumors, which, oddly enough, don’t erase the existence of the actual crimes. But hey, that’s what it means to be an American, I guess—just ignore everything we learned through massive research and heartbreak about what might protect us all from harm in order to embrace random *&^% so that a handful of the ethically-injured can make a quick buck.

Anyway, back to the podcast: his third episode was lit, and I rate it as a must listen because he unpacks the way pharmaceutical companies jack up prices for products literally made possible by tax payer funding.

photo of treadmills

Back on the treadmill

I don’t spend as much time listening to podcasts as a glimpse of my podcast library might suggest. At times, I feel as if I have as many “must listens” in terms of podcast episodes as I have “to be read” books on my shelf. Unlike my TBRs, I will sometimes rebel and delete the episodes just to say, okay, I give up. I don’t have time to listen to them all. But I still care about (fill-in-the-blank issue).

Still, I have been getting on the treadmill a bit more often lately, an activity that makes my mind go, “Oh, not this again, please distract me, please,” so I find a podcast episode. Watching television shows or movies is not an option for me because they are so time-consuming and I don’t want to risk getting addicted, but if it’s not addicting, I don’t want to watch it. So anyway, podcasts it is, though even then, my mood varies. Sometimes I go for writing-related topics, sometimes political junky venting, and sometimes something new.

So just as I sometimes share Reading Notes, I think I will post a few Listening notes, because I have heard a few podcasts this week that I want to blog about. Stay tuned :).

Word Search

I have been kicking around titles for this blog post. One was “Awkward segue” since I will return to random topics after spending a few weeks focusing on the painful history of American slavery and its ongoing impact on American society.

Another possible title was “The unbearable whiteness of being” in case you were wondering about me. Although there are no biological differences between groups of human beings, there are social constructs that affect what each of us experiences, as well as culturally empowering identities that can aid those who do not benefit from white privilege. So I wanted to say yes, if you were wondering, I am socially constructed as white. For that matter, I am cisgender identifying as female, preferring she and her, aka boring. Due to most of those constructs, I am unfairly privileged in American society, which is not boring but tragic in a country that claims to be a democracy.

When I try to write some of my thoughts on these topics, words elude me, possibly because the words we most often use/hear/absorb are insidious tools reinforcing divisions.

Still, let me try to explain why it is so important that I read and reflect on these articles. Because I am human, the history of slavery and its aftermath is 100% relevant to me. The fight for justice and democracy for all human beings is 100% relevant to me. But also, because I am socially constructed as white, this history, and its continuing impact, is 100% relevant to me in that I have an obligation to help dismantle systems which benefit me unfairly.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Bryan Stevenson (a saint on earth) give a keynote lecture at Appalachian State University. He called on the audience to commit to several actions to make the world a better place. One of them was that we must “tell the truth before justice is possible.”

I recently heard some people of privilege in a documentary say, “Oh, let’s just move on. It’s over,” (meaning, I suppose, the history of discrimination that, um, actively benefits them every minute of every day). But we can’t move on until we acknowledge the truth of what has happened and what is continuing to happen.

So if I engage with this history on my blog or in my novel set during the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, it is an attempt to reckon with what has happened. And what continues to happen.

On the other hand, I know I am more likely to make mistakes because the systems that provide privilege make me blind (or just plain stupid, to be honest), often just when I think I’m figuring something out. So something like the own voices movement is so critical to this project of speaking the truth/hearing the truth/reckoning with the truth.

One can be tempted to say, oh, in that case, the people who are negatively affected should be the only ones to speak of these issues. I would agree that when it comes to a topic in which I am the recipient of privilege, I should close my mouth and listen to those who have experience and insight into how to understand and address these challenges. I should do this as often as I can, even if it hurts sometimes to ponder what has occurred. What continues to occur.

But the same system of privilege that makes me blind at times is also what makes it tempting to stay silent. I should wait my turn to speak, yes. I should check my words, my facts, my interpretation, as often as I can. But staying silent and letting others do all of the work is yet another way to exercise privilege, which I want to dismantle. So, when I can, as humbly as I can, I have to engage. I know I will make mistakes, choose the wrong words, and sometimes realize, no, now wasn’t the time to speak. But another time might be.

And I will continue to seek the words I need.

And since I don’t yet have all the words I need, I will close with more advice from Bryan Stevenson, saint on earth: “We have to get proximate to our challenges.”

I recall similar advice from DeRay Mckesson on “Pod Save the People,” who urged listeners to get close to the work because that proximity makes visible what can and should be done. In both cases, they mentioned the insights they gained from visiting people in prisons.

Next goal: “We have to get uncomfortable.” Any meaningful reform requires it, Stevenson said.

And finally, my favorite, though I get why this can be hard, Bryan Stevenson urged us all to “Stay hopeful. Hope is our super power.”