Love is Architecture

Three years ago my life started to come apart like a rock slide down a mountain. A few pebbles turned into a massive avalanche of falling boulders and ruin. Sometimes I rode the wave, but more often I found myself digging out from under the rubble, then standing around going “The fuck is this shit??” When the structure of your life disintegrates, it makes you examine the support beams. Involuntarily perhaps, but necessarily all the same.

I can’t describe myself as a romantic (and neither can anyone else), but the conclusion that I came to is that the fulcrum of life is love. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” Our earliest notions of love are formed in childhood. Then they change, evolve, grow, or die as we move through time and relationships. I’m not an expert on this; I just know that standing in the wreckage of my life made it easy to see what was left. Mr. Rogers saw love as roots, but I saw it as the skeleton of my inner house. The support beams that stood were not the ones I thought they’d be. Some others stood still, but they weren’t tied to the joist of my survival.

I left some old beams out when I started to rebuild – some old notions of what it means to love. I abandoned the idea that feeling love is the same as doing love. Love is a verb. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you” and expect the recipient to feel loved. That’s like saying “I can fly” and expecting people to call you Superman. It isn’t enough to feel a thing and assume someone else is going to feel it the same way. Love is abundant and cheap when measured that way. But I can tell you when I felt loved in the hellscape of my emotional badlands and it wasn’t in the conspicuous silences of people who claimed to love me. It wasn’t in their admonishments to guard my words, or in their cartwheels of conversations that somehow became about how my suffering was causing their suffering. The places where love wasn’t were just as surprising to me as the places it was.

So where was love? It was in the literal embrace of people who offered what they had: space, time, and a willingness to hear me. It was in the friend who held me as I sobbed out that I felt like a disposable person and who assured me, “You are not disposable.” It was in the arms of a woman who only knew me by profile picture but pulled me into a hug when I arrived on her doorstep, lost and in pain. It was in the offers to kick ass from a thousand miles away – sincere, I’m sure, but thankfully unfulfillable. Most surprisingly, love was in my therapist’s office – that tiny, darkened space in hour-long increments. I discovered there, to my astonishment, that I love myself but I needed assistance in figuring it out.

Love was in all the places where people showed up for me without judgement and with a willingness to share their strength – including myself. That’s it. It’s so marvelously uncomplicated, yet so improbable in daily life.

Where does that leave all those expressions of love that are felt so intently by the giver and never quite reach the intended? There is a saying that “impact is greater than intent” and while that’s true it doesn’t invalidate intent. Intent has value, but it doesn’t move. If you progress to action, to impact, then intent may be a foundation. If the growth is significant and the reach far, it may be said that the foundation is strong and the value might even in retrospect increase. But inertia is the death of progress. Like a dock from which no boats launch, a foundation that supports no progress, no action, cuts a lonely figure. Intent to love which doesn’t become active love instead becomes an echo of emotion that drifts away, inconsequential as a ghost and just as sad.

I think that’s sometimes natural. I had a conversation recently where I discussed the natural death of relationships – casualties of distance or maturity and there is space in my philosophy for the memory of love. It might be a genuine affection for the past, or a lingering tenderness for the person who now inhabits the person you used to show up for. Those beams still stand, though they bear no weight. Some are beautiful and there’s value in that, too. Others, not so much. I quarreled with an older family member over morals and our ethical stances and even as she told me she’d never talk to me again, she also said that she’ll “always love me” and that’s just strange as hell. We never see each other, we offer no material support in each other’s lives, and we are diametrically opposed in our world view. Where is the “love” in that? All she did when I was at my lowest was to caution me not to express my feelings in public. That’s not love. If there was intent there, it was indeed a ghost before it could reach me. That’s a beam I’m content to let crumble.

Love is hard work, and like most hard work, it doesn’t flow smoothly. Some days we’re just not up to it, other days it pours out of us in a righteous flood. Part of my struggle is realizing that not everyone who says, “I love you” can follow it up with the effort. Kind of like that one friend who says, “Sure I’ll help you move” and then is mysteriously unreachable on moving day. I have this horrible habit of taking people 100% at their word, not because I’m naïve or have never dissembled myself but because ferreting out hidden meaning is also hard work and I’m essentially lazy. But through many (oh so many) life lessons, I’ve learned that the intent isn’t enough; you have to do the heavy lifting. You have to show up, without judgment, and with a willingness to share your strength. I hope there are people in my life who feel I do that for them. I hope I get better at it.

These are the bones of love for me. Most of my life had to die before I could see it. I guess part of being a grown up is realizing that there was only one way for me to learn that lesson – a customized syllabus taught directly to my nature, both the strengths and the weaknesses. But Thomas Paine said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The dearness of discovering what holds your personal house up is valuable beyond measure. I hope you find it and I hope it’s love.

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A Christmas Story

Did you give yourself anything this Christmas? I gave myself a reverse telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

 I’m happy to say that I mostly gave time and money to others which is satisfying, but I also gave support to local project. I’m not much of a “joiner” but it turns out that I’m not a half bad organizer, especially when supported by engaged, passionate people who want the same goal. This year, it was a small “secret Santa” type fundraiser for some under-served families in my community. Part of the skill I demonstrated was forming a committee of smart, active people and letting them contribute their own strengths to the endeavor. Honestly I may be most proud of that, because everything that followed was largely a result of the cooperative effort.

So, we began with benevolence and hope; the ghost of future Christmas a cheery, red-cheeked optimist who happily typed away on social media.

Then began the process of organizing the goods for delivery. This was a somewhat less cheery prospect, because it involved moving couches up and down staircases and storing boxes and driving all over town. Nevertheless, the ghost of Christmas present smiled through backaches and happily played its part.

The ghost of Christmas past hit me like a ton of bricks after I made the first round of deliveries. Its icy hand clasped mine and took me back to times where I, too, felt the unimaginable bounty of an unexpected $50 at Christmastime, and at the same time the utter despair that it won’t mean a damn in the long run. Times when December’s rent check bounced and there was no tree, let alone presents to put under it. Further back even than that, when I accidentally became the “real meaning of Christmas” lesson to a childhood friend who realized that the prize of my Christmas morning was going to be a $20 vanity item while she was complaining about not getting the exact leather jacket she wanted. Poverty is the breeding ground of shame, especially for children and especially in this country. The ghost of Christmas past was making me sick with it.

I’m sure I’ve become an interminable bore to most of my casual friends on Facebook with my incessant social and economic reform posts. I mean, I post about my dogs and my lunch, too, but I’m also consistently pushing a narrative of justice for those who’ve been most victimized by capitalism. Christmas is a spotlight on those issues, and my well-intentioned involvement was a thousand watt boost.

Some people might take from this experience the idea that coming together as a community is the best part of the holiday, or doing for others is really a gift to oneself. And you’re welcome to internalize that message if it makes you feel good. But if it stops there, you might be missing the point. Because you may take your “feel good” message to bed at night and sleep soundly, but all of the families that I had a hand in helping are going to go right back to square one after the holiday. The generosity and good will that is in such abundance during Christmas will have disappeared into credit card bills, buyer’s remorse and tax season. I may be on a low economic rung, but others are being crushed under the foot of the ladder.

Scrooge, it was said, “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” at the end of his tale. I don’t know what will be said at the end of mine, but this year the addendum will be a lot more posts about systemic equality and our responsibilities to each other.  

It’s Not the Same

I’m coming to a point where it’s time to accept that the cactus is not an oak tree.

I love oak trees. I grew up around California black oaks – their twisty limbs bending low to the ground, inviting you up or under the shade. They even smell nice – woodsy, just like you’d expect. Cacti are not oak trees. I’d like to sit in their shade and admire their beauty, but they’ll literally stab me to death if I try. And cacti grow in the desert. There is life there but it’s not the kind of life I want to live. I spent some time growing up in the desert, too, but it was painful, and lonely. 

Look, I’m talking about people here. I think that’s obvious. But it helps to depersonalize them. People are the way they are, and some may change or grow but almost never because we want them to. Most people will never change to be what we need them to be. The cactus is never going to magically morph into an oak tree. I’ve known that for a long time. But I think I’m finally ready to be at peace with the idea that it’s okay not to keep returning to the cactus. The cactus fucking hurts, folks. I’m sure it does great things for its own ecosystem, but it makes a lousy shade tree. It makes a terrible shelter. It doesn’t love you back. 

It’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree. It’s just different DNA. I mean, I could go into long backstory in which the cactus kept trying to convince everyone it was an oak tree and even fooled some people for a while, but let’s just jump to the part of the story where everyone can see it’s a cactus. At this point, it’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree.

It just isn’t. There are other trees. Leave the desert. Go find the shade and shelter you deserve. 

Camp Fire Victims

The link below is to a GoFundMe page set up for my aunt and my grandmother, who lost literally everything but their lives in the fire that decimated Paradise, CA. I wouldn’t normally drag my family’s identity into my blog, but a few of you asked me after “Lava” what you could do for me, personally.

This. You can do this. If you can’t donate (and I understand that so few can), boost the signal in your own shere of influence. Nobody in my family has money, and none of us can step in and rescue them. I’m over 1500 miles away, and literally gave the last $35 in my bank account until payday.

Be safe, oh ye vast and unknowable internet. Be kind, dark void into which I pour all my most personal thoughts. Be human.

https://www.gofundme.com/camp-fire-relief-fund-for-paula-tarrant

Reading List

Most of my reading these days is required and so dry it could make the Sahara weep. Unless, that is, you’re really revved up by “Infection Control in the Hearing Aid Clinic” or “Compression for Clinicians”, and if you are, you have my sympathies. But infrequently over the last 18 months I’ve had occasion to read something interesting, and I thought I’d share those gems here.

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom
This is one of those bandwagons I never hopped on the first time around, and probably wouldn’t have now either except that it was required for my Psychology of Aging class. It’s just exactly the sort of sentimental, pseudo-spiritual clap-trap that I steer clear of on pain of death (by eye-rolling, probably). But it’s surprisingly well written – concise, unflinching, and yes sentimental but not in a manipulative way. It was sweet, and though I understand that Morrie himself garnered quite a following shortly before his death thanks to Ted Koppel’s Nightline interviews, I think ultimately the book is about the practical application of his lessons about life through dying on the author, his former student and longtime friend.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
This is a fantasy novel, written in an old school style that McCaffrey, Bradley, Salvatore and Paxton would appreciate. Something that felt like I could have picked it off the shelf at Walden Books in the mall back in 1987 and devoured in a night. Really rich in world building, with main characters that feel as real as your best friend. Some of the action sequences are intense and gory, but that only lends to the excitement for me. If it bothers you, be forewarned. A very fun read.

The Adventures of Joy Sun Bear: The Blue Amber of Sumatra, Blanca Carranza, John Lee
This is a shameless plug because I personally know one of the co-authors. But here’s my Amazon review, which I stand by: The Blue Amber of Sumatra begins on a desperately sad – and horrifyingly relevant – scene. Then it drops you into a lush world that captures both the exoticism of far off lands and the familiarity of cherished friendships and bonds. This is what the best stories always do – make you care, and make you excited to learn more. Joy’s adventure begins as running away, but turns into a discovery of innovation, bravery, anger and friendship. He wants to learn, and the reader can’t help but be drawn into those discoveries with him.
Little Joy Sun Bear is impish and recognizable to anyone who’s ever experienced childhood, but he’s also an empathetic proxy to the trauma that some children are forced to undergo in an adult world that cares little for their homes. It’s a warning for our environment and for the humanity that will be required to help others through the destruction of it. Its messages of loyalty, justice, friendship and courage are deeply important in today’s world, but told with the hopefulness and safety of small furry creatures and a happily ever after. The Blue Amber of Sumatra is a wonderful introduction to the characters that will open up the world to anyone lucky enough to join this adventure! Recommended for every child’s library of keepsake stories.

Surviving a Borderline Parent, Kimberlee Roth
This is a difficult book (and subject) and I’ll be honest in that I haven’t finished it yet. Nor was it my first choice. I wanted to read “Understanding the Borderline Mother” by Christine Ann Lawson, which is widely considered to be the definitive text for the layperson on the subject, but it wasn’t available at a price point I could justify and it’s on a lengthy wait-list at my local library. However, Roth references Lawson heavily, and I feel like it’s a valuable tool for my situation. Most of this opinion comes from the fact that I can’t read sections for very long without having strong emotional reactions and if you think I mean something dignified by this, then it’s clear we’ve never met. It’s incredibly startling to pick up a book and have it read like your autobiography. But the text has been a comforting and valuable continuation of my therapy, and I’m happy to recommend it. If you think it might apply to you, there are several online resources that give a broad overview that are still scarily accurate. If you survived it, you’ll recognize it right away, it’s that eerie.

As usual, my to-be-read stack is toppling over, but in it are a steampunk Jim Butcher novel, a Star Trek philosophy book, Dr. Parker’s treatise on the moral argument for choice, and the collected works of George Sand. I foresee completion sometime around the back end of never.

New Pompeii

“Now, now, let’s be reasonable.”

That’s the most common response I’ve seen from men to my piece on women’s anger. Which wasn’t meant to be a “piece”, by the way – it was my last thought before falling asleep on Thursday night. I thought of women’s anger and other unstoppable things which led me to lava – its terrible destructiveness and its intractability – and I thought, “Hm, that’s something we have in common.” Evidently, some other women agreed.

So right on cue, here come the men. #Notallmen, of course, which we must be careful to say, lest a single, solitary bench-sitter who might have understood but instead got his one feeling – pride – hurt and decided to close ranks with ALL THE OTHER MEN.

“We have to be reasonable about this.”

No, we don’t. There is no reasonable response to the kind of abuse marginalized people suffer. Women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ – there is no reasonable response to having your rights and dignity stripped in public and private. There is no reasonable response to having your safety and security daily threatened. There is no reasonable response to rape. To violence. To the denial of your existence.

“You’re being completely irrational.”

Kindly fuck off with your offers of reasonable discourse. Unless, of course, you’d like to set the example by arguing your position from a physically threatening and mentally traumatic position. I’ll leave exactly what up to your imagination, but make sure it’s designed around the thing that most informs your identity. So, ignorance, maybe, or your precious testicles. Y’know, whatever works FOR YOU. Also, do this thing for centuries. Life span not up to the task? Recruit your ancestors and descendants! Make sure you’re being reasonable through every example of abuse anyone can bring up – which they will, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We wouldn’t want to overlook any tiny example which would invalidate your entire response.

“Too much anger.”

Not enough anger, actually. Are you a sports fan? How about if, just before the start of the game, the rival team walked onto the field, punched out the refs, stomped over to 12 inches from the goal line and said, “Okay everybody! Starting now, play by the rules!” Which is a shitty analogy, because in reality it’s more like NOBODY WAS PLAYING A GAME AND SOME ASSHOLES JUST ASSAULTED PEOPLE THEN DEMANDED NOBODY BE MAD ABOUT IT.

The reality is you’re afraid. Men are afraid that women’s sense of justice will require retribution. It’s what men would want, after all. And I suppose that having your very existence erased through scorching the earth with a layer of lava seems pretty retributive. But the powerless know better. Anyone who has had their life burned to ash through oppression, trauma, or violence knows what it takes to rise from those ashes. We’ve been doing it for our entire lives, while those in power never have. We have the tools, the knowledge, and more importantly the courage to both rise from and withstand immolation.

“Calm down.”

We are not required to modulate our response to trauma for your comfort.  You can’t handle it and you expect our pity? Our sympathy for your discomfort?? Our anger is justified because it is the only justice we’ll see. You can run from the lava – I’m riding it straight to freedom.

Lava

Kavanaugh is going to get confirmed, we all know that. A lot of women will be very angry. Some might even take to the streets. But this won’t be the tipping point. There won’t be a tipping point, there never is. There will just be the subterranean lava flow of women’s anger – slow, blistering, savage and inexorable. We’ll go to bed angry, we’ll get up angry, we’ll drink our coffee and fix the kids’ breakfasts angrily, we’ll drive thru car line and to work angry, our male colleagues will ask each other if we’re on the rag, we’ll eat silent lunches with rage and we’ll pick up groceries on the way home with vengeance on our hearts. We’ll kiss our partners and our kids goodnight wrathfully. We’ll cry hot, silently screaming tears in the middle of brushing our teeth. We’ll go to bed angry. We’ll get up angry…

Nothing will seem to change for you. But the mother of a 32 year old man will suddenly snap at him to “Grow up!” when he complains that he’s pretty sick of frozen dinners lately. That quiet chick 3 cubicles down will show up out of nowhere and tell a gathering of dudebros that she’ll report them to HR if they don’t shut up. They’ll call her a bitch under their breath as she turns around, but she won’t care. The teenage daughter will ask her dad if he’d still find it funny if she was the punchline in his favorite joke. He’ll scold her for talking back and look at his wife, who will look back and say nothing. Another daughter will say nothing to her father – ever again.

The anger will shift, seismic but unseen. Before the lava used to burn us to ash on the inside. It’s bubbling over now. Enough of us have ripped open our bodies to let the boiling soil of our lives out that the heat itself causes fires. Sure, you can put one or two out at a time. A single flame is easy to catch. But the lava is elemental and everywhere. Kavanaugh will be confirmed. And in less than a generation he’ll be a petrified ash fossil, frozen in a rictus of agony in the new Pompeii. Nothing will seem to have changed, until it’s too late. The lava of our anger is going to cover the earth and bury you.