Fuck Fish, or What It’s Like To Be a Hummingbird

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When I was nine years old, I learned about a way to twist up different colored pipe cleaners into spirals, then combine them to make cute designs. I soon started making refrigerator magnets and selling them to all the grownups I knew … but a few months in, I got bored and started collecting weird stamps instead.

As a teenager, I had a massive crush on a dude who was super into Allen Ginsberg, and I got super into Allen Ginsberg, too — so into him that I wrote my junior year history paper about him and won a shit ton of awards and got to go to Washington, DC. I even sent the paper to AG himself, and he marked it up and sent it back! <3 After a few months, though, I lost interest in Beat poetry and that boy, and moved on to my next obsession, Les Miserables.

One weekend in my early 30s, I suddenly felt the urgent need to make purses out of old album covers, and I started a business, and I got to travel around the country selling them to fabulous shops including the Liberace Museum in Vegas!!! But within a couple of years, the thought of making another purse out Madonna’s first album made me want to kill myself, and I lost all my desire to dig through dusty old racks looking for album cover treasures, and I quit.

I went through these cycles of obsession and disinterest so much that my friend Michelle and I developed a term for them — Fuck Fish — after a scene from Adaptation. In this scene, Chris Cooper’s character talks about how he, like, falls in love with a succession of things — turtles, fossils, mirrors — then suddenly just can’t deal with them anymore. At a certain point, he always gets to the place where he’s just done. Fuck fish.

And, yep. I’m the same damn way. I used to feel bad about it. Shouldn’t I want to develop mastery so that I can be super duper great at something? Don’t I need to put in my 10,000 hours or else I’m a useless dilettante? Don’t I need to focus on one thing or else my life will be a rambling, ramshackle mess?

But, as in so many cases in life, “should” doesn’t matter a whit compared to “is.” Maybe I should want to devote my life to just one thing … but I don’t.

At the beginning of the Fuck Fish cycle, I gulp down enormous amounts of knowledge and do huge amounts of practice and I grow so quickly that it’s almost amazing, and I’m super productive and having about as much fun as it’s possible for a nerd like me to have.

But after I reach the Fuck Fish point, I just … can’t. Continuing to knit, or play in a band, or whatever it was that I was so recently gung-ho for feels like trying to walk through slowly hardening concrete. So, even though I know that I should buckle down and keep trudging, usually I don’t. Usually my eye is caught by some other shiny object, and I levitate toward it.

My beloved Elizabeth Gilbert is the opposite of me, one of the mega-focused, single-pointed souls who find one thing they love and never deviate from it. When I saw her speak last fall in Brooklyn she talked about how when she was sixteen or something, she lit a candle and took a sacred vow to devote herself to writing forever. She just knew and that was that.

She calls her type of person a sledgehammer, and says that these are the folks who tend to be rewarded in our culture, and their focus can make them capable of truly amazing feats. (99% of Olympians are sledgehammers.)

But there’s another kind of person, too — the hummingbird. This is the kind of soul whose natural process looks like this — they go up to a flower, they drink deeply, and they are satisfied. Then they move on. THAT’S A-ME. And though it’s true that hard work, determination, grit, focus, yada yada yada … sorry, I just nodded off there for a second …

Anyway Liz reminded us that hummingbirdness is also important, because of cross-pollination. Hummingbirds inject calligraphy into computers and puppies into healthcare. Hummingbirds are how you get chocolate into peanut butter.

But, you may ask, isn’t it true that hummingbirdness is basically the same as flakiness? Yes and no. I will be the first to admit that there can be a wide overlap between the two, and this is something that all hummingbirds need to be on the watch for, including me.

At the same time, I would not characterize myself or many other hummingbirds as flaky people. Over the several decades of my life, I have developed some ability to knuckle down even when I don’t want to, and I do enormous amounts of work very quickly and very well, and I do my best to honor my commitments.

Still, I can’t ignore the fact that my nature loves freedom. The experience of liberty motivates me more than the possibility of becoming an expert. I love to be able to drink those first extra-sweet, brand-new flavors from a blossom and really, deeply enjoy them … and then I love moving on to the next one.

You have to understand that I tried to change. For years, I tried to push through the end of the Fuck Fish cycle, and sometimes I have been able to. And these, I guess, are the loves of my heart that ebb and flow and always come back to me — mostly writing, singing, and making pretty things with my hands.

But there are lots of other times when I just can’t find a way to push past my natural stopping point, so I just move on. And if I’m honest, I have to admit that once in awhile I feel a tiny twinge of regret. Like … if I had focused on writing songs or upcycling album covers or sewing dresses for the last twenty years, who knows where I would be today?

When I look at my life now, though, the regret dissolves away, because I am already living my damn dream. I have a level of freedom to do what I want that almost no one in history has ever had — especially a woman! And I’m surrounded by so much love and so many opportunities to enjoy myself and be of use. Fundamentally, I really do treasure my capacity for learning and connecting the dots between lots of different, tasty parts of this world. And I’m grateful for all that has flowered from it.

So who knows whether my brief love affairs with knitting, the musical Hamilton, using technology to make custom clothes, Vipassana meditation, creating album cover purses, Beat Poetry, writing songs, or Jane Austen movie adaptations will ever flare up again. If they do, I will be ready.

For now, what’s got my heart is walking through the yummy-smelling pine forests of Colorado. Coming up with ideas that feel smart to me, for work and for my book and for my life. Playing with paint and pastels and iridescent inks. Filling old books with fresh new paper. And noticing, and appreciating, the almost magical way in which everything I’ve done infuses and inspires everything else I do.

 

What’s Happening?

A month or so ago, my website was hacked and I lost a year’s worth of posts 🙁 so allow me to recap. Last summer my husband and I got rid of a great many of our belongings and hit the road. We spent about six months rambling around the country, from Portland to NYC, and finally decided to settle down in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s why:

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It’s incredibly beautiful here, and quiet, and the winter has a sunshine/snow ratio of about 90/10. We lucked into a super cute house one block from the bottom of a mountain, and we now have a couch and a bed and dining table again. Still no chairs for the table, but that will come soon enough … and we do have this guy:

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Working from home, taking lots of walks, drinking lots of tea — it’s a nice life. I’m working on the whole making friends thing, and painting, and writing. Yes, friends, I got myself a writing coach, and he is great, and my second book is rolling in a direction that Goddess willing will eventually lead to it being done. Very exciting.

It feels a little bit like we’ve dropped off the edge of the world, and I rather like it.

More adventures loom in the next few months — San Miguel de Allende, Amsterdam (or Amsterdang, as Jolene and I call it), Dusseldorf, London, Scotland, and New York City. Stay tuned for pictures and maybe even fabulous insights? We’ll see. I can guarantee pictures at least.

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Self Improvement for Rebels

reese witherspoon freeway

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. Even when I was still “good,” like in high school before I discovered sex / drugs / rockin out, I was always questioning the validity of rules and kind of being a pain in the ass.

So when I took happiness heavy-hitter Gretchen Rubin’s online quiz about how I react to internal and external expectations, it wasn’t too surprising to see my results. Want to guess?

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

The quiz pegged me as a Rebel (though I think there’s a good bit of Questioner in there, too), and like the Ask/Guess distinction I read and wrote about a little while ago, many mysteries revealed themselves to me when I considered these ideas … Like

  • Why I can’t seem to develop and stick to any kind of rigid schedule, no matter who imposes it
  • Why rah-rah-type self-improvement stuff doesn’t seem to work for me
  • Why I have always gotten so angry about gender-based assumptions and expectations
  • Why rules have always read more like “guidelines” to me
  • Why my Upholder/Questioner husband is much better at setting routines and deadlines for himself than I am, and why we sometimes differ on which rules we deem OK to break

Examining a person’s default response to expectations is an interesting way to understand their motivations and level of pain-in-the-assness, one I hadn’t really considered before I read Gretchen’s work on this.

To me, it also begs the question of where people are oriented in time. Do rebels rebel simply because they have a hard time connecting to the future? It’s well-documented that the ability to control yourself today for a benefit in the future is strongly correlated with success in life. What many people don’t know is that it’s also strongly shaped by your childhood surroundings.

In the classic marshmallow study where kids who were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes, the 15 minutes kids are the ones who learned to trust that the world would indeed follow through on its promises. But the now kids learned that anything concrete now is better than an amorphous promise for the future. We develop a bias toward the present moment, and we become rebels, or at least rebellious.

I’m definitely one of these present-moment people, and I’ve known many others in an up-close and personal way. It can be either a beautiful way to live or a very effective method of throwing your life away, depending on how you play it.

So, even as I appreciate the lovely side of my in-the-now-ness, I do also see the value in future-oriented habits, and I have developed some and I want to develop more. It’s just that “yeah willpower woo!” doesn’t seem to work for me as a strategy. Here are some that do work.

1) Improve the structure of your life to support the choices you want to make.

Here’s what I do: I don’t keep large amounts of ice cream in the house. I unsubscribed from my Sephora emails. I leave my yoga mat out and available all the time. The idea here is that I am trying to make it physically easier to make the choices I want to make, and more difficult to stray from the path. Build barriers to things you don’t want to do, and remove impediments from things you do want to do.

2) Link healthy habits to present-moment feelings that are pleasurable.

Rubin talks about this in her video about rebels, and she suggests that we connect the habits we want to develop with freedom and present-moment pleasure.

This absolutely works for me. I get myself to do yoga by focusing on how good it feels to stretch and hug my muscles around my bones and watch myself getting stronger. I take walks because I want to see the surface of the reservoir sparkling in the sun, or because I want to listen to a podcast and get a cup of coffee. The pleasure of it is what gets me.

3) Link healthy habits to your freedom to do what you want even when The Man doesn’t want you to.

OK, we all know that there’s no particular man named The Man who conspires to keep us down. How we got to this point in history is a far, far more complicated story. But there’s no denying that defying The Man is a compelling reason for a rebel to do basically anything. And it is hilarious and fun and allows me to channel my natural Fuck Off disposition in useful ways.

For instance … when my brain starts in on the self-hating body loop, sometimes I identify it as the Voice of Patriarchy, smirking like Dick Cheney while it tries to bring me down the fat shame spiral.

And then the Wonder Woman part of me bursts in like, Duuuude, fuck offffff. You run enough of the world out there, I’ll be damned if you’ll run my fucking head, too. Die in a fire! This instant!

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And then he bursts into flames and I laugh and the shame spiral thoughts are definitely shut down.

Now, it’s not like I’m, like, picturing slitting Patriarchy’s throat and playing around in the blood (usually). It doesn’t have to get that real (usually). It’s more like a way to remember The Cause of Women’s Freedom To Love and Respect Their Own Damn Bodies, and to rally the love I have for that cause into a private moment where I find myself in need strength and perspective.

And it works for all kinds of habits I want to improve.

Want to stop buying so much makeup? Fuck off, Sephora! Your shiny consumerist trap ensnares me not!

Got to shut my brain up so I can get my eight hours? Suck it, continuous stream of thoughts about work when I go to bed! The Man doesn’t get to intrude on my fucking sleep!

Need to let go of some unnecessary internet drama? Blow me, dude who doesn’t believe sexism and racism are real! You don’t even exist!

Is it stupid? Oh god yes. But when I have a cognitive dissonance between who I want to be and who I’m actually being, this kind of silly mental shit helps me stick to the right side of the street. Maybe it will help you, too.

In conclusion, if you are a rebel, or if you have rebel tendencies that you are able to keep in check enough to at least stay out of prison and keep a job, then

(1) I empathize, and

(2) I hope this is helpful, and

(3) Let’s party.

The Best Time I Basically Believed In A Fictional Religion

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Have you ever been reading a sci-fi book, and one of the characters creates a new religion, and it’s so close to what you think about life/the universe/our place in it that you are basically ready to sign up for this fictional religion by the time you’re done reading the book?

No? Just me?

It is an odd sensation, to see your worldview precisely spelled out in the pages of a novel about a dystopian near-future, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. (I can’t get enough of her — read my thoughts on Kindred here.)

In the Parable books, our protagonist is Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl who has seen some major shit and creates a new religion called Earthseed in response … though she would say she discovered rather than created it.

Earthseed’s major tenet is this: Change is the most powerful force in the universe, and we are both subjects of and participants in it.

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God Is Change.

In the Earthseed worldview, God is not a person or a person-type entity who cares about your thoughts or whether your favorite football team is winning this season. God is nothing but Change itself, inevitable and impersonal and beautiful and devastating.

It’s a clear-eyed and some might say cold perspective, but to me, it’s perfect, because first off, it seems more accurate than believing there is an entity in the sky listening to my thoughts and/or caring about my football team.

Secondly, it underscores the fact that we do not need and in fact must not rely upon divine intervention to make a better world for ourselves and for each other.

God is not our supernatural mother or father. God is Change, and its job isn’t to take care of us. That task falls squarely on our own shoulders. We need to take care of each other.

God is Change,

And in the end,

God prevails.

But meanwhile…

Kindness eases Change.

Love quiets fear.

And a sweet and powerful

Positive obsession

Blunts pain,

Diverts rage,

And engages each of us

In the greatest,

The most intense

Of our chosen struggles

That positive obsession she mentions is the destiny of Earthseed as she sees it — to spread itself throughout the universe, to take root among the stars. This mission, this large and audacious project is meant to give humanity a goal, yes, but it’s also designed to get humans to organize our thoughts about each other at a higher level. To see each other not as rivals, but as family. To be Earthseed, before we are men or women or rich or poor or American or Korean or South African or anything else.

The Destiny of Earthseed

Is to take root among the stars.

It is to live and to thrive

On new earths.

It is to become new beings

And to consider new questions.

It is to leap into the heavens

Again and again.

It is to explore the vastness

Of heaven.

It is to explore the vastness

Of ourselves.

To my delight, Butler goes all the way with this — Olamina writes her verses and shares them with others running from the fires of the future. With her verses and with her own personal strength, she gathers a community around her to practice Earthseed. They welcome newcomers, focus on education, and make carefully considered but bold moves to shape chaos to their benefit. They become a formidable and capable group of people, practiced in the art of adapting to new situations quickly, learning as much as possible, and putting themselves in the strongest position they can.

In one particularly painful part of the second book, we get a chance to see how Earthseed functions when the shit hits the fan and the community falls on the hardest times imaginable. Even when everything falls apart, their beliefs galvanize them. They remain focused on surviving, on learning, on keeping their eyes open for opportunities to influence what happens, instead of just being the ones it happens to.

Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.

Seek them out.

Any Change may bear seeds of harm.

Beware.

God is infinitely malleable.

God is Change.

The ending of the book is extremely satisfying to me, but I know from reading interviews with Butler that there were meant to be lots of Parable books. We were meant to follow Earthseed as it spread around the universe, as it shaped and was shaped by many other worlds, but Butler died before she cracked the nut of how to tell the rest of those stories. Such a shame … maybe someone will pick it up and run with it in the future.

When I say I’m ready to sign up for Earthseed, I guess my tongue is in my cheek a little … probably because I’m the only one who would be signed up, and I’m not like Olamina. I’m not ready to devote my life to spreading the ideas of Earthseed.

But to me? Everything Butler/Olamina came up with is fucking sound. And I get a deep charge when I think about change in this way — inevitable, unstoppable, but malleable, too. It makes me remember that to dig my heels in against change is a fruitless effort. It reminds me that I can work with it instead, I can shape it, I can play an active part in creating what happens around me. As Olamina puts it,

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

We adapt and endure,

For we are Earthseed

And God is Change.

To me, this seems just about right, even if we don’t get the G-word involved in it. Change is happening all the time, all around us, and even when we feel like we are its victims, in truth we are always, always participants as well. Best to recognize that and run with it.

photo by Gianluca Mastrascusa // cc

Do You Believe In Magic?

lightsOne Sunday morning when I was 7 or 8, I got up early. Everyone else was asleep, so I grabbed some Corn Chex and turned on the TV. There was this guy in glasses and a brown suit, talking fervently about how God always answers our prayers. You only need to believe hard enough and open your heart to Jesus Christ and accept him as your lord and savior and all manner of miraculous things would be possible, he said, and he was really into it, sweating and crying into the microphone. God can and will do anything for you if you only submit yourself to Him.

I was pretty little at this point, so I took him quite literally. And primed as I was by bibbity-bobbity-boo and cartoon talking dogs and stuff like that, I guess this premise sounded reasonable to me. At least, I decided to try it out.

So when I finished my Chex, I crawled into the hall closet, shut the door, closed my eyes. Then I prayed. I submit to you, Lord Jesus. I open my heart to you and ask you only this one thing — I want to be beautiful. Blonde, blue-eyed, and thin. When I come out of this closet, I want everything to be different.

I must’ve been in there an hour, concentrating so hard that I vibrated with the effort. And … maybe I was also stalling a little, because I was scared that it wasn’t going to work, that I’d come out and look in the mirror and be exactly the same as before.

Which, of course, is precisely what happened. And an acid-green vein of cynicism started to grow across my heart that day, because I began to realize that magic — at least the kind of magic I’d seen in movies and read about in books — didn’t exist.

I had to learn the lesson a few more times. I had to fantasize really hard about several pretend boyfriends before it sank in that fantasizing about someone is not an effective way of making them love you. I had to daydream about being discovered as a great singer/wit, and go broke while waiting, before it sank in that I needed to get a damn job.

It wasn’t until I was around thirty, I guess, when it occurred to me that expecting someone to discover me and make me a star was not actually a viable life plan.

In fact, waiting around for anything to happen ever is basically the same thing I did after watching Jimmy Swaggart that morning thirty-some years ago. It’s wishful thinking. It’s future-tripping. It’s believing in the wrong kind of magic.

Because, you see, magic is absolutely real. But it doesn’t work the way we think. It’s not something that — bam! — just happens to you.

It’s more like … something that rallies around you when you focus your effort and love on something, whether it be a painting or a child or a software project. Sometimes you point yourself in the direction you want to go, and you start paddling, and then the wind comes up behind you and fills your sails. That is what magic is.

I’m pretty sure it’s not supernatural — it’s just how nature works. And it rarely comes down like a lightning bolt from the sky. Usually, magic requires that we participate in it. That we take the first step, pay attention, ready our sails to catch the wind as it rises. It requires that we know how to sail. It requires effort and skill. It’s not given so much as earned.

Real magic is even more subtle and lovely and fantastic than what we were taught. It comes out of our very own fingers and brains and hearts when we engage, when we work to learn and understand and shape the forces at play in our lives, even as they shape us.

photo by Billy I // cc

Crazy Compared to What?

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Short answer: Compared to how you want to feel.

Long answer: This is all subjective. One person’s mildly crazy is another person’s normal and yet another person’s completely out of control. So I’m not here to judge.

Sure, I might see patterns in how people are behaving, and I might talk about those patterns, but it is clearly not my role to call anyone anything. It’s more like, I’m here, and I’ve been on the planet for a while now and have struggled with many situations where I felt out of control and cloudy and like I couldn’t understand myself … like

  • when I’ve gotten stuck in a fat shame spiral trying to get dressed in the morning and feeling 100% like Jabba the Hutt
  • when I’ve obsessed about someone hardcore for months on end, fully believing I could force love to bloom through blunt psychic force
  • when I’ve lusted about buying more eyeshadow I don’t need and ultimately can’t resist buying more eyeshadow I don’t need and I’m forced to question whether there really is a any concept of free will in the universe.

Over the years, I have found a few things that have helped me reframe these situations, let go of them, and move on to different and slightly more interesting problems (although, yes, I admit it, I still buy excessive amounts of eyeshadow ).

It starts with taking a good hard look at what we’ve been taught, recognizing much of it for the bullshit it is, and making the choice to leave it behind. No longer burdened, we can then connect more easily with the most rational and relaxed part of ourselves, and bring forth our personal forms of genius.

I know that reading and writing about these ideas helps me — it helps me remember what is important and what is not. (Not important: the person in front of me going 5 mph below the speed limit. Important: Making some time to write, stretch, and dream every day.) Sometimes in reading I come across a turn of phrase that retunes my thinking in a useful way. And other times I feel certain that spouting off about how to keep my mindgrapes in good nick actually helps keep my mindgrapes in good nick.

So my goal here is to do a couple of things. First, it’s just to ask — how are your mindgrapes? Are you happy with the way you’re thinking about your life? Is it serving you? Or do you need to shift some stuff around?

If you do feel like you might want to shift some stuff around, then I hope I can provide some turns of phrase and maybe some new perspectives that will help you retune your brain.

All of this is so that you can spend LESS time feeling bad about your chubby legs or withering away in a relationship that isn’t serving you or spending all your money on shit you don’t need in a desperate attempt to fill the void … and MORE time playing with the makeup you already have and hanging out with people who love you properly and making significant contributions to the small and big circles of your life.

Because here’s the thing — all the self-limiting rubbish that’s blowing around our heads? It’s not even special. As Liz Gilbert says, “Your fears are just regular old mass-produced, made-in-China, sold-at-Walmart fears. Nothing fine or precious or artisanal about them.”

Our super-fragmented, always-online culture encourages us to curate ourselves, to treasure our eccentricities and cultivate our tastes with pinpoint precision … and I think sometimes in the course of doing that, it’s easy to end up kind of fetishizing our own weaknesses and fears, to spend precious time tending our garden of craziness, contemplating each flower and leaf, thinking that the complexity of our pain is what makes us special.

But it’s not. It so really is not. The thing that makes a person special is what you do after the fear, what happens beyond the pain.

So that’s the goal here — to identify our Walmart fears and set them down, thus leaving our hands free for more interesting work.

You in?

photo by Kazuhiro Tsugita // cc

Who Gets To Decide Who You Are?

Staring catLately I have fallen into Octavia E. Butler’s dimension, and it is a mind-exploding place to be. Her novel Kindred is about a young black woman named Dana who mysteriously disappears from her own world — 1976 Los Angeles — and finds herself in Antebellum Maryland.

After this happens a few times, she figures out that she goes back every time a white boy named Rufus lands in a life-threatening situation. She also figures out that Rufus is her ancestor, so she needs to keep him alive until he’s fathered the child that will keep the chain going from him down to her.

Told from Dana’s perspective, the book is vivid and haunting and terrifying and even funny, full of descriptions that bring the reader directly into her experience and her thoughts about that experience. We see how her modern ideals conflict with the reality of her 1800s situation, and we see how that conflict wears her down over time.

And here’s what the conflict boils down to — who gets to say who she is?

In 1976, Dana gets to say who she is, at least to a certain extent — she’s strong, intelligent, capable, a young writer free to think or say or do whatever she likes.

But in 1818, her ideas about who she is are overwhelmed by everyone else’s ideas of who she is. Everyone else sees her blackness and thinks “slave.” They see her femaleness, too, and they think “for my use.”

It doesn’t matter that there are no papers showing that she has ever been bought or sold. It doesn’t matter what she says, it doesn’t matter that she knows about Black Power, and it doesn’t matter that she’s wearing pants. She is a black woman, so she must be a slave. There’s no room in their minds for her to be anything else.

Not having been raised to see herself as a slave, sometimes she forgets. She looks at white people too directly, challenges men too easily. But over time, after repeated beatings and humiliations, the conflict wears her down. As the book progresses, she finds it harder and harder to internally resist sliding into the subservient role. In the overwhelming pressure of what the world thinks she is, she struggles to hold on to her idea of who she thinks she is.

This, to me, is the most exquisite and painful part of the story, because it shows exactly how oppression twists the souls of those who suffer it.

***

I say this not from some intellectual position outside of this phenomenon. Though clearly I have never experienced anything like those who suffered through slavery, my soul has been twisted, too. To hate my imperfect body, to believe in the impossibility that I will ever truly be okay, even to allow others to take brutal advantage of me simply because one shouldn’t raise a fuss.

But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I am in possession of more physical, cultural, and emotional freedom than any of my ancestors ever had. I have been shaped by my culture, there’s no denying it — but I also have many opportunities to shape my culture back. I have the ability to examine and reject the criteria my culture has set for success. I have the freedom to make myself better.

And these two opposing forces are at play in and around all of us. Cultural pressure to conform presses from the outside, and the soul’s inherent desire for freedom strains from the inside. The inertia of the past presses up against the call of the future, like tectonic plates shifting, and the interplay between these two is called history.

But it moves slowly, because the gravity of the past is IMMENSE. The most fucked up ideas of the past have been blunted a bit, for sure — we don’t have slavery anymore, we don’t have women being owned by their fathers or husbands. But we don’t have to look far to see those old ideas still in action today: the racist brutality in Ferguson and all over the country … the casual attitude toward rape and domestic violence … the notion that wealth means you are a good person and poverty means you’re a bad lazy one who deserves no help.

Culture if not law is still trying to dictate who each of us is. And to be limited like this, to be categorized like objects, to be denied the most basic human right of deciding for oneself who you are —  it’s a soul-level injury. And it creates a fundamental conflict between individuals and the society they live in.

Personally? There’s nothing that pisses me off more. When black people are repeatedly beaten and imprisoned and murdered by the state, when women’s access to healthcare is systematically removed piece by piece, when the powerful willfully refuse to acknowledge the experiences of the powerless, my response is 100% incandescent rage.  Who do these assholes think they ARE? And how do they get away with it, even for a minute, when there are so many more of us than there are of them?

This is one of the brilliant things about Kindred — it explains that mystery. We can even watch as it happens to Dana, page by page. If you stick around in a culture that wants to limit you for long enough, that shit is going to seep into your brain, too. 

***

And that’s where we are now. A lot of the heinous, racist, sexist awfulness our culture was built upon has seeped into our brains. It still dictates some portion of our internal monologue and our external behavior. It still governs a lot of how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.

But the tectonic plates are sliding, and I believe we are coming to a tipping point in history. Think about it — millions of us now possess the education and resources to see the world from a very broad perspective. Millions of us understand that any perspective worth anything must include other perspectives, too. So millions of us already have everything we need to shift ourselves and our culture in a significant way.

Like, we already have the ability to evaluating ourselves and each other based on old-ass criteria.

We already have the ability to step back from the blur of suck-you-dry hypercapitalism and decide what we believe is important.

We already have the ability to refuse to allow the limitations of the past to dictate our personal and collective futures.

We simply need to claim these freedoms — all of them, and as many more as we can get our hands on. And then we need use them. Use them up. Use them till the wheels fall off.

This is what Dana does in Kindred. Everyone and everything pushes in on her, demanding her surrender. But the force rising out of her is stronger. She holds on to who she is. She fights for who she is. She uses every tool at her disposal to hold on to who she deeply knows she is.

And I can’t help but thing that this is exactly what the people of Ferguson have been doing, too — claiming and exercising the freedom they have on the books but not in reality. Rejecting the old idea that their role is to placidly accept murder and injustice and humiliation. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And we see the same thing happening in this year’s discussions about rape culture as it still exists in 2014 — women claiming the freedom to tell the truth about their experiences, even if others would rather not hear. Rejecting the idea that men are ever entitled to women’s bodies. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And on a much smaller scale, there are untold numbers of people claiming the freedom to say what they really think, and to have happy thoughts about their bodies even if they are fat or otherwise imperfect, and to define a sense of life’s meaning that has more to do with nature and relationships and less to do with consumerism and Kardashianism.

There really are millions of us, all over the place, popping out of the patterns we were raised in. Claiming and exercising our right to decide who we are, and then be that, regardless of what the world thinks.

It’s a beautiful, breathtaking thing to behold, and it’s also important. Because exercising freedom is how we increase it. It’s how we shake off limitations, create more options, and shift the tectonic plate of history in the right direction.

Dana didn’t live in a perfect world, even in 1976, and neither do we. But it’s a damn sight better than 1818, or 1890, or 1940. And if the brave folks who came before us were able to find a way to claim their freedoms and push history forward, even in those wildly oppressive times, then we can certainly find a way to do it now.

It’s not easy, but it is possible … and there is the realest kind of power in it.

photo by Dave Townsend // cc

Want something better? You Gotta Ask For It

grown woman

When my grandma was alive, we had a lot of fun together, but when we did run into problems, it was generally because she was a Guesser and I am an Asker.

By that I mean that Ma wanted me to guess what her needs were. In the time and culture she was raised in, it was polite for people to be indirect in their requests of others, to pick up on subtle signs, and to fulfill unuttered desires. In Guess culture, when someone correctly guesses your desire and fulfills it, it is a mark of love and respect. But even when desires go unguessed, there is still a sense of plausible deniability — never actually saying what you want means you can’t be humiliated when you don’t get it.

My communication style is the exact opposite of this. Having been raised by wolves, I made enough mistakes reading subtle social cues that I learned not to put too much stock in them. In fact, once I realized what a thankless task it is to try to decode the opaque behaviors of other people, I gave it up. Instead, I learned to ask for what I want directly, and trust the askee to respond to me honestly. Sure, I have to open myself and admit that I actually want something and also face the possibility of hearing No in return, but it’s worth it to me to save the goofiness of having to analyze and decipher and guess.

As you can imagine, Ma’s way and my way didn’t always jive. Like, if she needed me to take her to the drug store, instead of saying, “Hey Meg, can you take me to the drug store?” she would talk about how she needed to get her prescriptions but she wasn’t sure how she was going to get them, and she was almost out of pain pills but maybe she could take the bus there or one of her friends could pick them up.

Generally I knew what she wanted — she wasn’t subtle! — and although the indirectness of it all drove me bananas, I’d get her to the drug store in the end. But there were a few times when I missed the Ma signal in the sky and she went without what she needed and, even worse, felt like I didn’t care about her. Which would make me feel like a turd. 🙁

For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me so much about all this, but then I read this piece about Ask Culture and Guess Culture, and things clunked into place in my head. I spoke with her about it, and true to my nature I asked her directly to be more direct with me about her needs. I explained that I loved her and I was always going to help her but that I needed her to be clear with me so I could.

And I guess she saw the good sense in it, and maybe was even relieved to not have to beat around the bush anymore? Because for the last years of her life she was much more direct with me. It was much simpler and much more fun for both of us.

Now, the discussions I’ve seen of Ask vs Guess Culture are careful to treat both communication styles like they are equally valid ways to live, but I have come to understand that they aren’t. In fact, it’s my ardent belief that, for human adults, asking is superior to guessing in almost every day. Especially for women. Especially at this time in history.

Why? So many reasons!

Guessing is Inaccurate.

This is one of the reasons babies kick parents’ asses so hard — there’s no way to know what’s wrong with them, and there’s nothing to do but guess until you find something that makes them stop screaming. Once they learn how to speak, it gets a little easier. But it’s important to remember that even with people you love and spend loads of time with, you still don’t know what they are thinking. You may think you know, and you may even be right, but there is only one reliable technology for finding out and that is asking.

If you guess instead of asking, then you are by definition basing your actions on unverifiable data.

Guessing is Incomplete. 

On an abstract level, most of us can buy into the idea that every person is a special snowflake, each of us a universe unto ourselves. But in everyday life, we collapse the ridiculously huge and complex interior lives of other people into sound bites. This is what makes it easy to say “Poor people should just stop spending all their money on giant TVs” and “Fat people should just not eat so fucking much” and “If you didn’t want a baby then you shouldn’t have had sex!” and a million other possibly true but incredibly reductive and completely unhelpful things.

This scientifically demonstrated phenomenon even has a name — it’s called the Attribution Error — and it means that we have lots of very reasonable reasons why WE did some fucked up shit, but everyone else’s reasons are excuses. Our problems are attributable to complex forces; the problems of others are attributable to them being nimrods.

This is an Error — it says so right in the name — and humans are never more susceptible to it than when guessing. Situations are always more complex from the inside than they are from the outside, and sharing those complexities is called having a relationship.

Asking is quite literally the only way we can delve into the deep reality of another human soul.

Guessing is Manipulative.

Sometimes this manipulation is intentional — a conscious stirring of the pot meant to unsettle or even wreak havoc — and sometimes it’s not. But make no mistake here: requiring the people around you to conduct a scavenger hunt just to discover your wants and desires is by definition a manipulation.

Does that sounds fun to some people? I guess it must. But to me and many others, it feels gross, because it’s all under the table. No room is left for an honest response. The moment you begin the hunt, you’ve agreed to whatever is found at the end of it. This feels like a trap, because it is.

Guessing is Passive. 

To me, this is the worst part about operating out of Guess culture. Rather than identifying and verbalizing what you want, Guess culture teaches you to rely on the time-worn virtues of wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that someone will guess. This is HUGE, especially for women, because a significant portion of our conditioning tells us that we should expect to spend a significant portion of our lives waiting around for someone else to make things right … and it is all clearly some life-limiting bullshit.

Now, I understand the appeal of guessing. We’re conditioned to it, and there are consequences when we don’t comply — directness still looks like “leadership” on a dude and “megabitch” on a lady.

And what could feel more nurturing than someone knowing what you need and providing it to you without you even having to ask? It’s beautiful when such moments happen — when your sweet husband brings you a nice hot cup of tea just as you were wanting one, or your friend calls you right at the moment you really need to talk, or you arrive at work and some gnarly problem you thought you were going to have to wrangle into submission has already been resolved by your lovely co-worker.

But, regardless of how we were raised and regardless of how nice it is when other people are intermittently able to read our minds, the facts are clear: other people are almost never capable of identifying and granting our desires without our involvement. So to live our lives expecting this is at best very silly and at worst capable of really screwing shit up.

Like, how are you and your special person ever going to have any orgasms if you don’t ask/don’t tell? Are you magically expecting each other to figure it out? And if you guess successfully, will you then call it love? (Baaahhh! This is so crazy?)

And how are your friends supposed to know that you want to spend time with them if you don’t ask them to hang out?

And have you ever had a boss come up and say, “Wow, you are working way too hard and just not getting paid enough, let’s fix that”? LOLOLOLOL

The stakes on this are very high indeed. Because while you are waiting for someone to guess what you want, it is all too easy to acquire a life you DON’T want, and to find that years have disappeared in the process.

But this doesn’t have to be your fate. You can simply learn to ask in an above-board, direct, and clean way. It requires only that you identify what you want and then take the bold step of forming words to request it. Which is the essence of being an adult, and also the first step toward becoming a badass or growing in any way.

Yes, asking makes you more vulnerable. You’re putting your desires out there instead of hiding them away. And it’s no good making demands — you have to face the possibility that even with all your wanting and asking, you may still be denied. But that is a small clean cut that heals easily, whereas living your life waiting for other people to give you what you desire is the saddest kind of malady: extremely painful and entirely preventable.

what-do-we-want-respectable-discourse

If you are concerned that asking directly for what you want and responding directly to requests may seem impolite, then I invite you to step waaaaay the fuck back and look at it from a bigger perspective. There were times and there are still places where it’s impolite to seem too gay, or to say out loud that someone raped you, or to tell that dude with a Confederate flag on his truck that he is an unmitigated asshole. Politeness is oftentimes the mechanism by which oppression is maintained.

I don’t mean that we should go around farting and slamming doors in each others’ faces. I’m not asking you to be a dick — just to be honest and direct. It might make you just a bit more difficult to deal with at first, but how important is it to be easygoing all the time? Is it more or less important that creating a life you want to live? Of course it’s impolite for a woman to be direct, but who fucking cares!?! Awesome life trumps impolite, every single time.

Guessing is a fairy tale, an artifact of the homogenous and genteel world my grandma grew up in. It’s something we can look back on with wistfulness, the way we do hoop skirts and corsets.

Being bold enough to ask for what you want, on the other hand, is a True Feminist Act, and one of the most important skills for every woman to develop as she quests for ever-higher levels of capability and liberty and delight.

Do You Want To Be A Badass? Me Too

Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry

Badassity. Noun. The state of being a total badass. The level to which a life demonstrates the qualities of competency, determination, and willingness to engage in hard fucking work.

And if a person wants to pass their time on this planet in a happy and useful way, badassity is also a good metric to track because of this fundamental truth: trying harder in basically any area of life results in vast increases in existential satisfaction with being who you are.

It’s not something that our modern culture is so concerned with, at least not on a conscious level, though we are inspired by examples of extreme badassity such as Beyonce and Elizabeth Warren and Malala Yousafzai. But the bulk of our culture seems to think that being awesome means having Ls and Vs on your purse, when in fact it means something much simpler than that. It means paying attention and not giving up.

And the effect of focusing on developing badassity is kind of remarkable, because it’s kind of a meta-goal that turbo-boosts all your other goals. Without it, I can fall into a somnambulant state where things happen to me and I bounce around vaguely. And it kind of feels shitty, like wandering through a swamp with no destination in mind.

When I keep it at the front of my mind, though (working hard makes you stronger, you can learn this, keep going) I get a lot of fun stuff done! And moreover it feels amazing. How else could it feel to push yourself in the pursuit of something you truly care about? Or to achieve something you never could do before? It’s the difference between stumbling into bed after a day on the couch, and falling into bed after a day of honest hard labor.

You could use a lot of words to express this feeling — pride, accomplishment, wisdom. But I like badass because it has a bad word in it and it implies a sense of experience as well as a willingness to always go further, all wrapped up in some hilarious Dirty Harry-ish connotations. And it somehow gets to the heart of what it means to live a satisfying and meaningful life: it’s about working hard and learning from your work, over and over again. Eventually, inexorably, if you do this, you will know many things, and you will be a badass.

Some people have had the habit of badassity ingrained in them from a young age. Maybe their parents were badass, and so they learned to be, too, or maybe they were just naturally born that way. I am not one of these people, though I did have a super badass grandfather, and he made quite a lot of fun of me as a child because of my lazy bones. “Heighth of ambition!” he’d bellow on his way to work outside, as I lounged in front of the Great Space Coaster.

He tried to teach me that doing stuff is more fun than watching TV. He’d make me go for bike rides on nice days and he’d take me to his ginormous garden and show me how to pick strawberries and at the end of the day we’d go to the A&W drive in for big, frosty root beers which was awesome.

When we went home from Grandma and Grandpa’s though, we’d slip back into our patterns of watching TV and reading books and going to movies instead of baking pies and building with blocks and watching ants outside. That pattern has kind of continued into adulthood as well — I’ll work really hard at developing myself for a while, then slide back for a while. And that’s fine and probably even normal … but what I want to work on now is making badassity the ethos by which I live my life rather than just something I’m doing until the next time I get stressed out.

Now, to get from doldrummy inertia back into badass momentum, there is a short but steep hill to get over, and after that things start rolling. In The War of Art, they call the hill Resistance. In chemistry, they call it activation energy. In life, it’s just the amount of effort it takes to flip the switch between being at rest and being in motion.

The funny thing about this little hill is that it looks ENORMOUS from a static position. Once you get started, though, you realize it’s totally doable and isn’t it a nice fresh-smelling day today anyway? Zippity do dah, let’s do this!

Sometimes you can get stuck in the loop of overcoming Resistance, then giving into it, then overcoming it again, then giving back into it, forever … and you end up expending a lot of effort without building up much momentum. Instead of keeping the energy going, you let it dissipate, thinking it will be so easy to just get it back again. You tread the same ground over and over. It’s slightly ridiculous, yes, and also exhausting and disheartening, and all too common.

I say “you,” but I mean me. I have gone through that loop so many times that I could probably cry about it if I were pre-menstrual! But, meh, fuck it, I don’t feel like crying … I feel like getting better.

What about you? Are you feeling badass about anything these days? Or feeling stuck on something? Do you have some inertia and/or momentum going? What’s shakin’?