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As of this morning, I have completed all paperwork, meetings, studio walkthroughs, and desk shifts required...and as of Monday, I'll be teaching my first yoga class! (My first two yoga classes, actually, since I picked up a sub that evening.) Earlier in the week, I was anxious bordering on terrified; after some breathing and journaling and other anxiety-acceptance measures, I'm feeling at least a little more sanguine about it. The manager at the studio has been super chill and supportive, including responding promptly and positively to my numerous emails about questions and small administrative details. And no matter how badly I screw up, I know I'm not going to be as bad as The Worst C1. (I don't think I ever wrote about it here; suffice it to say, the girl barely moved from the back of the classroom the whole time, she didn't touch anyone, she spoke in a soft near-monotone that sounded for all the world like she was reciting a memorized script, and her whole playlist was atonal noise rock, including savasana (?!). At the very least, I know I have a better playlist.) But there's still a lot of anxiety for me in getting up and being open (and thus, to a degree, vulnerable) with a whole group of people, for a whole class. Which, I suppose, is a sign it'll be a good learning experience, too.

Anyway, onto the book stuff!

What I've just finished reading

*hangs head* I have not finished anything this week, either. I strongly suspect I'm letting my anxiety occupy too many emotional cycles; I've noticed that I tend toward obsessive behaviors when it gets going - refreshing social media, occupying myself with ticky administrative details, looking over my calendar repeatedly, etc. (Why, yes, I do have a family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, how did you guess?) It's surprising, how much time and energy it takes to be anxious. Anyway, I'm working on it.

What I'm reading now

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. Dialect or no, I've been finding myself wishing that I was reading a physical copy of this book; Peter Riegert is turning in a perfectly decent performance, but there are so many wonderful descriptions and delightful turns of phrase that I really want to savor but that just go by too quickly. I finally have taken to using a combination of Audible's "bookmark" feature and (for ones I think Brian will enjoy) transcribing and texting them to preserve their ephemerality: "the sudden awareness, like an inverse satori, that he has made a grave, if not fatal error...his jaws snap together, making each tooth ring out with its own pure tone as the impact of his ass against the ground conducts its Newtonian business with the rest of his skeleton." "The winter sky in southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of grey, an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light." "They all looked shocked; even Gould, who could have happily read a comic book by the light of a burning man."

For all the lighthearted metaphor, there's a very real atmosphere of melancholy and uncertainty in this story; not grief, precisely, but the recognition of opportunities missed, the sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere without knowing precisely what it was. Perhaps this is appropriate to a tale of Jewish culture, even alternate-universe Jewish culture; I know it probably resonates with me more now, at this point in American history, than it likely would have even a year or two ago.

I'm a bit torn on the worldbuilding; there are hints of a broader global alt-history stemming from the decision to relocate Jews to Southeast Alaska instead of Israel, but whether due to my personal ignorance of world/Jewish history or simply to the fact that it all goes by a bit too quickly in audio format, I'm having trouble piecing together exactly what's different from our more recent history. That said, the tensions and troubles and cliques and feuds and foibles of this particular group in this time that never existed are beautifully rendered. The plot is mostly pretty standard religious-political-conspiracy stuff, and it moves a bit slowly, but one gets the feeling it's more of an excuse to spend time in this world and with these characters, and said characters are entertaining and well-drawn enough to be worth the investment. I'm wondering how it'll wrap up; the themes don't point for a truly happy ending, and neither does the alt-history-noir setup, but given the effort they're putting in to untangling this mess, I suspect Landsman and Berko will pull at least "bittersweet".

all about love, by bell hooks. This week's chapter is on community, and the importance thereof in giving us a place to practice love, especially for those of us raised in unloving and dysfunctional family situations. I've long been a proponent of making community connections a bigger part of our lives - it's something that doesn't get a lot of emphasis in our mainstream culture, with its deleterious emphasis on the nuclear family as the social unit uber alles - but I'm not sure I agree with her framing. She seems to come from a place of fundamental certainty that everyone participates in a community in good faith; thus, she believes that, while distancing is sometimes necessary, there is no reason to ever cut ties with a person; everyone can and will change for the better when presented with evidence of the hurtfulness of their actions. She cites one friend in particular whose family was incredibly hurtful towards her when she came out as a lesbian; apparently after some years, their attitudes changed and they were able to have a worthwhile relationship.

Obviously, I have a lot of issues with this paradigm. I'm all for giving people the benefit of the doubt; we're all human, we all make mistakes. But she seems to be falling headlong into several common social fallacies; the fact is, there are drama queens, and missing stairs, and other individuals that a community is better off without. Setting boundaries with these people, and actively limiting your social interactions with them, is a net social positive - not only because it increases your happiness, but because limited options due to social censure is its own lesson. I'm more torn on the question of whether they can learn; presumably, we need to give people the benefit of the doubt in order for them to learn, but based on my past experiences, I have a very difficult time trusting that someone with an established pattern of behavior will have any desire to change, let alone gain the self-awareness to do so. I'm sure it can happen, but I have a hard time trusting that it is what's going on in any given situation - especially when it's so much easier to claim you're trying to change without actually, y'know, doing any of the work. Maybe this is a reflection on me and my trust issues more than on anything inherent to humanity, I don't know.

What I plan to read next

Back before I put a moratorium on new book-buying, I had pre-ordered Cherie Priest's new book Brimstone, which just arrived in the mail. I have a feeling my to-read shelf is going to go neglected in my next selection...
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My last post might have been lighthearted in nature, but strangely (and despite freezing temperatures today), it really does feel like spring has begun. I wonder if there's any actual connection between changes in people's lives and changes in the seasons. I know it's always felt that way to me, but I'm not precisely an unbiased observer.

In any case, we're due for a high of 72 on Friday. Time to get the bikes out!


What I've just finished reading

Paper Girls, vol. 2, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang. I'm completely entertained at how much DNA this series shares with Stranger Things, at least for the first couple of acts; refreshingly, however, the kids terrorizing their neighborhood on bikes are all girls, and this informs their outlook more than a little. There's less character-building and more action in this volume, as the futuristic elements teased in the first come into full play here. I enjoyed it - the thought of a Godzilla-sized tardigrade terrorizing a quiet suburb entertained me to no end - but missed the interplay between the characters, as most of this volume (understandably) consists of their splitting up to do detective work and figure out what's going on. There are some good moments, though; I'm hoping that the next volume, which is going to have to start providing some explanation, finds a way to keep the character development going alongside.

What I'm currently reading

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. I remember seeing promotional posters for this book everywhere when it came out, probably because it's set in Southeast Alaska and I had just moved to Juneau at the time. I'm enjoying Chabon's characters and the wryly vivid way he describes his characters and world: "The rest of Sitka's homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms." Interestingly, I'd barely noticed the dialect until reading a review that pointed it out, despite having had real trouble with it in other works (I couldn't make it past the first couple pages of A Clockwork Orange). I wonder if it's because I'm listening to it via audiobook; it would make sense, given my significantly-better reading (as opposed to audio) comprehension, that my brain would be worrying at the unfamiliar words and have trouble getting past them when written, but would be so busy interpreting and piecing together the sounds that it'd be more willing to sort of gloss over the unfamiliar words and pick them up from context.

all about love, by bell hooks. Given my general dislike of philosophy books, I seem to be reading a lot of them all of a sudden. Even when they annoy me, realizing I can journal about them and make them into a sort of dialogue helps them feel less preachy. But it also doesn't make for particularly fast reading - I think I've managed all of one chapter of this one all week.

The chapter in question is on values - and specifically, how many of our cultural values actively inhibit living by a love ethic. So it's probably not surprising that I found a lot of stuff I agreed with, haha. Still, this passage in particular caught my eye:
 
We see movies in which people are represented as being in love who never talk with one another, who fall into bed without ever discussing their bodies, their sexual needs, their likes and dislikes. Indeed, the message received from the mass media is that knowledge makes love less compelling; that it is ignorance that gives love its erotic and transgressive edge.

Speaking as someone with more than a passing interest in erotica, this kind of thing drives me nuts. Some folks really do dig anonymous sex, but in my experience they're a minority - and usually it's more the transgressive thrill of the act itself than anything particular in the sex that they enjoy. Seeing so many movies where the message is "these people are in love and that magically means they're 100% compatible in the bedroom despite their never having, y'know, sat down and talked to each other about what they like" both sets up an unrealistic cultural standard and actively suppresses a normal and healthy part of sexuality. It took me years and several partners to get past the "if I have to tell my partner what I like then clearly we're not really In Love!", and I know some people never get past it; opening up your mouth and asking for what you want is hard enough without that kind of baggage attached. (I genuinely wonder if this kind of problem has been more harmful to our collective sexual health than the oft-laughed at pornographic tropes; at least with the latter, it makes no bones about being a fantasy and not representative of real life.) Besides, talking about your desires is sexy - it demonstrates confidence and self-knowledge. Leaving that out of a romantic story means you're missing out on some seriously good stuff.

What I plan to read next

It's pretty up in the air at the moment - I've got a fair amount on my plate right now.  Still, I suspect I'll be eyeing something new soon - you can't keep a good polybibliophile down for long!
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I've always loved the archetype of the leap of faith. It shows up in literal form in more stories than I can count, but as with all archetypes, it resonates because it's a metaphor for an integral part of our lives. In any undertaking, there comes a point when you've done all you can do; you've trained, you've studied, you've worked hard, and you've sent the culmination of all that energy out into the world. You've propelled yourself forward with everything you could, and now all you can do is hang suspended in the air, waiting to see if your ballistic arc is wide enough to carry you to the other side.

Which doesn't make it any more comfortable to be in the midst of that arc, with no visible means of support and no idea if the opposite side is coming any nearer.

All of which is to say, I'm having a tough time waiting to hear back on my yoga audition. My default mode is simply not to think about it and get on with other aspects of my life, and that's working to a degree. But it doesn't help with the fluttery nervous feeling I get when checking my email (even knowing it's far too early to be hearing back), or buying tickets (what if I end up teaching a class right then?), or what have you. I'm used to a strong internal locus of control; it's hard to face the fact that significant forks in my life occur due to the decisions and agendas of people I have little to no influence over (and, often, don't even know exist). But it's good practice in patience and acceptance, I suppose.

Luckily, I have a number of (more prosaic) things to be grateful for in my life right now. My wrenched back is 90% better after less than a week - which surprises and pleases me, given that my wrenched knee took something like a month to get to this point. Massage work is picking up, thanks to the new spa management, seasonal changes, and my being more available post-teacher-training. I have a massage of my own booked for this afternoon. And after years of waiting, tomorrow I go in for my tattoo. There does seem to be something poetically appropriate about having a set of wings drawn in my flesh during a time that I'm hanging suspended from a leap of faith.
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What I've just finished reading

--Seven Summer Nights, by Harper Fox. I've been on the lookout to try more gay romance authors (although K.J. Charles is still my favorite), and this came up on a recommendations list. Stylistically it's very different from Charles' spare-yet-articulate prose; if I had to come up with a descriptor, I think I'd pick "heightened". Everything is just a little too bright, a little too sharp, like a camera plate that's been slightly overexposed. But given that the story is about a shell-shocked WWII veteran coming home to England and falling in love, it doesn't feel out of place - to the contrary, it's efective both in portraying his sense of alienation and in getting across the sheer intensity of feeling new love brings. I'm not a big one for using my Kindle's "highlight" function, but these passages I had to save:

Archie's face had softened oddly, lust transforming in his eyes to a huge and loving comprehension

and

But Rufus couldn't find words to describe the state to which a come from Archie reduced him. Not even a reduction--a rebuild, more like, a miraculous redefinition of sex for him, so far from his lonely encounters with Henry and all the back-street strangers that he could hardly believe the act was the same.

It's the same feeling I try to convey when I write erotica; the power of sex combined with deep and pure love to connect us to each other, and to the world, even over our insecurities and fears and (at times) objections.

As a reviewer, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that there's a lot that goes on in the plot that doesn't quite gel. At one point, a character says "Your manhood condemns you to seek the truth through reason," referring to the age-old trope of 'feminine' emotional intuition vs. 'masculine' rational logic, and I thought to myself "If my annoyance at the lack of organization in the plot is any indication, I'm just a man at heart." But in the end (and, again, in keeping with the Amor Vincit Omnia tone) the logical inconsistencies don't end up feeling all that important; and if the central MacGuffin doesn't have quite the same emotional weight as the central romance, well, one of the joys of falling in love is how it makes everything else seem tame and surmountable by comparison. All of which is to say, I think this might well be a favorite despite its flaws. I'll definitely be checking out other titles of Fox's.

--"A Private Miscellany", by K.J. Charles. An epilogue to the Society of Gentlemen series, which ties up some loose ends. Of absolutely no interest to anyone who hasn't read the series, but a delight for those who love the characters and want to spend just a little more time with them before they fade into the distance. I laughed aloud many times, and when Brian looked at me enquiringly, could only flap my hands and say "It's a long story." Three volumes and one scorchingly-hot short story long, in fact.


What I'm Reading Now

--An Unseen Attraction, by K.J. Charles. (Yes, this has been the week of All The Gay Romance.) Clem is a quiet sort of landlord, kindhearted and giving and agreeable to a fault, with a family he rarely talks about. Rowley is a solitary type with a very different family history, whose career choice of taxidermy tends to put people off; as one of Clem's lodgers and more recently his lover, he's happy - until his shop is burgled, and another of Clem's lodgers is murdered, and some kind of nefarious plot begins to tighten its snare around these two inoffensive paramours.

I really like how Charles is playing with the formula here. Typically, a romance (whether heterosexual or homosexual) has pretty predictable plot beats: the first half of the story sets the stage, the characters, and the potential obstacles to their getting together; the middle (usually the exact midpoint, I've noted on my Kindle more than once) is the Big Confession Of Love (and, in modern romances, the first sex scene); then the rest presents the challenges the lovers must overcome in order to stay together, and details how they do so. Here, the romance begins early and proceeds without much difficulty at all, or certainly not with any more than the usual amount of angst or argy-bargy that two people with lives and histories and insecurities bring to a new relationship; however, the horrific external events also shine a light on those insecurities, and seeing these two gentle souls work through their respective fears is genuinely pleasurable.

--Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates. I've been trying to pin down what it is that twigs me about this book's tone, and I think I'm getting closer. For instance, I found myself reacting strongly to this quote:

The fact that we spend more on defense than on education begs the question "What are we defending and why are we defending it?" Wrapped up in this ongoing political debate is the wisdom and the message of aparigraha. The energy we expend defending unhealthy attachments could be spent making the world a better place.

It may be that I was just recently reading an extended and quite intelligent (if, in my opinion, thoroughly wrongheaded) analysis of the United States' foreign policy decisions since WWII, which offers up several cogent answers to precisely that question, but this quote came off as ridiculously naïve and smug. Whether or not you feel the US's goals and achievements in the international sphere have been worth the gigantic outlays on national defense is another question entirely, but the book doesn't even attempt to address said question, instead presenting it as a given that of course it's a waste of resources, and here's a pat answer in the form of a yogic principle - if only our government all practiced this philosophy, how many problems we could solve! Never mind that "making the world a better place" is a frustratingly vague goal, or that many (not all, certainly) of the people perpetuating American military spending have done so out of a genuine belief that a strong military is crucial to keeping peace with our neighbors. Which I suspect most world citizens would agree makes the world a better place, as fights between nuclear powers are likely to affect the rest of the world pretty negatively.

I think what's most frustrating about the book is that I don't disagree with the philosophy at all - to the contrary, I think these are valuable principles that are worth considering, and some of the meditations offered are beautifully written on topics that we don't often speak of, culturally. But others are simplistic to the point of ridiculousness, and often exclusionary: to pick just one example, the author talks about how "we are a fortunate generation in a fortunate country, and most of us have been able to have our material wants gratified many times over". Again, I realize this book is written for a very specific audience, but even here in America the gap between the rich and the poor is growing starker by the day; when you factor in the fact that the eight wealthiest individuals currently own the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the world - of the entire world - the text starts to look shortsighted at best.

On a more personal level, I suspect my annoyance has partly to do with a sense of guilt for being firmly in the book's target audience - a demographic that holds a significant chunk of material wealth and power and seems frustratingly uninterested in examining the costs and responsibilities to the rest of the world that such a position entails. Given how yoga lovers are constantly going on about how it can be beneficial for everyone, maybe a book on yogic philosophy would be a great opportunity to introduce a little perspective?


What I'm planning to read next

I don't have anything in queue that I haven't already talked about. We'll see what happens - I have no shortage of books in my Kindle or Audible libraries, and yet new ones always seem to crop up...

([livejournal.com profile] alexmegami, you're up!)
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"Take this paper, and write down all the regrets you have from the past year. Then we'll burn them and start with a clean slate."

My friend hands me a torn scrap of foolscap, and I pull my purple pen from my purse, considering. The other party guests banter with each other, covering up the inherent vulnerability of the moment by proposing outrageous stories or asking whether such-and-such mundane thing counts as a regret.

I write a few lines, mostly small things; slowly, they begin to imply a theme of something larger that I can't yet articulate. I write a few more, circling around the issue: I regret not taking some of the opportunities my mother offered to grow closer. I regret not reaching out to my friends when I needed emotional support. I regret letting my certainty that I already knew the answers cloud my ability to learn new things.

Finally, I've outlined the shape enough to identify what it is my brain's been hiding from me: carefully, in clear letters, I print "I regret all the times my pride has kept me from connecting with the world."

Then I circle it and underline it twice, as if to emphasize its importance to the oncoming flames.

--

"Even from the time Ambrosia was little, she knew her self-worth."

I am twelve years old, and my mother has told this story many times. Still, my back straightens a little.

"When she was a toddler, I would take her to the playpark in our neighborhood, and she would want to stay longer. So I would tell her, 'Okay, I'm going home without you,' and pretend to leave. And she would keep on swinging, or playing on the jungle gym, until I turned right back around and scooped her up."

At this age, in the nadir of middle school, I am just now beginning to be aware that my greater-than-average self-confidence has been a handicap to my social acceptance. Eight years of teasing, of ostracism both subtle and blatant, of outright violence on a few memorable occasions, are finally starting to penetrate. I am slowly realizing that, contrary to the "just be yourself!" messages of a thousand thousand afterschool specials and middle-grade novels, my defiance of social dictates - my refusal to wear 'normal' clothes, to care about my presentation, to keep my opinions to myself in class - are exacting a very real toll on my ability to get on with my classmates.

Until this point, I've taken pride in not caring about the shallow and superficial things most people in my age group care about, in marching to the beat of my own drum. But the constant shaming wears on me, as it is meant to do; we are social creatures, exquisitely attuned to the slights of others. It will be some years yet before I start to appreciate the value of building my personality through careful negotiation with social norms, of bearing superficial markers indicating belonging to a particular class or cohort. And it will be many more years of careful observation and learning - often by saying precisely the wrong thing - until I learn the subtle arts of getting along in a community, of deferring to others' knowledge even when I'm convinced of my own correctness, of influencing group opinion in small ways, of quietly building social currency against the day when my integrity will demand that I take a stand.

--

This morning, cocooned in blankets and absent any driving motivation to get out of bed early, I sank into the sort of brightly-lit, highly-detailed dream that often seems to visit me at such hours. I was visiting a mall storefront that turned out to be a beautifully decorated Jewish temple, run by a particularly Orthodox sect. For some reason I had a pressing need to wash my hands, and I remember asking a stern-browed woman if I might do so; she looked displeased at the notion, but apparently my need was great enough to overcome her reservations.

I proceeded to the back of the space, where there were several sinks, and started washing my hands at one of them, only to realize from the horrified faces of those around me that not only was I using entirely the wrong sink, but that I was trespassing upon the men's side of the temple, as well as likely violating several other rules I didn't even know. I take such pride in knowing the social tenets in any given situation, in acting carefully to ensure the comfort and approbation of others; the realization that I was in a situation where I was socially illiterate sends a wave of shame, pure and unadulterated as few non-dream emotions are, swamping my chest and my cheeks. Strong as it is, it burns indelibly into my memory the dream that might otherwise have faded in the light of day.


--

"Are you feeling inspired?" I ask my client, once she's taken a few breaths of her aromatherapy oils. We had been laughing at the silliness of naming a scent blend "Inspiration", as if achieving so notoriously elusive a state could be as simple as taking a few breaths.

"Oh, absolutely!" she answers, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Now I can go home and finish all those half-done songs I have filling my notebooks!"

We spend a few moments bonding over the difficulties of musicianship, and the specific frustration of unfinished artistic efforts. She admits that she finishes perhaps one in ten songs that she starts; I, having not even been brave enough to start ten, feel simultaneously relieved and humbled.

I've long known that my difficulties in finishing anything artistic stem from my perfectionism; so long as a song or a story lives only as an idea in my mind, it will always be perfect, spared the trauma of birth and the inevitable marring of being shaped by imperfect hands. But, with pride much on my mind of late, I begin to consider how much of that perfectionism stems from pride. Completion means sharing, and sharing means risk - of judgment, of failure, of losing my sense of specialness. If I could let go of that need to feel special, set apart, would that help me to take artistic risks? Would it be easier to share something imperfect and true if I didn't tie my self-worth to my pride?

That last thought startles me with the truth it implies, and I almost miss a stroke in the massage.

--

"You can spend your life trying to fit yourself into a box. But you'll always be too much for some people. For others, you'll never be enough. But the great joy is that, if you let yourself, you'll always be exactly enough for you."

Something in the yoga teacher's voice catches me, which seems odd - I've been ruminating of late on how the doctrine of self-exceptionalism has been harmful in my life, and on the surface her message reads very much as a variation on the "just be yourself!" mantra.

You'll always be exactly enough for you.

It occurs to me, as my brain slowly slots the puzzle pieces together, that perhaps the problem isn't pride, per se - it's what I'm proud of. All my life I've been told that I'm talented, intelligent, exceptional; all my life I've been secretly terrified that I'm going to seriously screw up and prove everybody wrong, prove that I really am that weird girl who deserved to be bullied and ostracized, disappoint everyone who had such faith in me. I've accomplished a few things, it's true, and I'm proud of them, but I think I've been even more proud of how they reaffirmed my belief in my own exceptionalism.

And yet...in order for me to be exceptional, it logically follows that others have to be unexceptional. And I've long since rejected the idea of talent as a zero-sum game; I strongly dislike the idea that because one person doesn't measure up to another on one arbitrary scale, that means they don't have something to contribute on another axis. I wonder how much of the fear and misery I can forestall by refusing comparison, by practicing humility with regards to others, by working on being enough for me.

I wonder if, freed of its shackles of fear and embracing its gift of imperfect life, my art might someday take wing, finally able to share itself with the world, to help forge those tenuous connections we so desperately need.
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This morning, a friend of mine posted about how much his life had changed. A couple of years ago, he'd been stuck in bleak despair; since then, he'd met someone he loved wholeheartedly (and who loved him back), had significant career success, made friends, and contributed to his community. Needless to say, he was feeling much happier.

It's no secret that what makes me happiest is seeing (and helping) people, especially those people I know and love, to Be Better. So this post made me happy in a deep and fundamental way, even though I had little to do with his life's transformation. But when I went to respond, what came to mind was Louis Renault's Victor Laszlo's line to Rick at the end of Casablanca: "Welcome back to the fight."

That seemed a little odd, until I thought about it and realized how apropos it truly was. We speak of happiness in this culture as something to be achieved, or found, or bought; an item to accomplish and then check off our list. But (much as with physical fitness, or education) the goalposts are constantly moving. Fulfillment doesn't happen on its own. Social connection doesn't happen on its own. Financial success doesn't happen on its own. Artistic achievement doesn't happen on its own. Love doesn't happen on its own. Each of these things requires effort, demands that we get out into the field and fight for them, proclaim our belief that they can happen, that we can Be Better against an uncaring or even hostile environment. The fight may be easier or harder on any given day, depending on what surrounds us and what we bring to the table, but it's always a fight. Some days we are triumphant, and are feted and paraded through town. Some days we come home bruised and bloodied, battered by an indifferent world, or the fears and insecurities of others, or our own self-doubts or faulty brain chemistry. Most days we make a little progress; on the good days we can look back and appreciate how far we've come.

Happiness, contrary to its word root, doesn't happen on its own. If we're going to Be Better, we have to fight for it - constantly. But it's a fight worth joining. We have so much to learn, so much to create, and so much to be.

It's customary, this time of year, to wish one's friends joy of the season. But - say it with me - joy doesn't happen on its own. Instead, I invite each and every one of you reading this: come fight with me. Be Better with me. The world may reject us, may hit us in our deepest and most vulnerable places - but we can decide to pick that torch right back up and shine it high. We may never know how much others need that inspiration.
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I've tried my best to keep my political posts to a minimum, this election. This is not because I don't like politics, or think they shouldn't be discussed in polite company; I find sociology and demographics and economics and all the other fields that contribute to political choice-making fascinating. Even more, I feel strongly that the point of a democracy (and deliberative government in general) is to encourage discussion and exchange of views between people who may not agree. It's slow, and inefficient, and often anxiety-making; it requires an ability to listen in good faith, and to find common ground. But, at its best, it helps us broaden our viewpoints and make decisions that are best for everyone. I've made a very real effort, therefore, to befriend people on all parts of the political spectrum.

And so I feel like I've gotten a front-row seat to our country's increasing polarization over the past decade. And that's made discussing politics increasingly uncomfortable.

There's no one single cause that I've seen a convincing argument for. Income inequality absolutely contributes, as does the stark divide in rural vs. urban culture and economic opportunity. Self-constructed Internet echo chambers may have had an effect, as well as the culture of bullying that Internet anonymity has given rise to. A news media that depends on conflict and horse-race reporting to generate clicks. But the one very real effect is a complete breakdown of communication between people with different views. An obstructionist Congress that refuses to work with the other branches of government. A Supreme Court evenly split along ideological lines. And, on a smaller scale, a stream of people in my social media feeds - many of whom I like and respect - demanding that people who voted for an opposing candidate, or who have different ideas about this or that issue, unfriend them right now. No more communication.

And the damned thing is, I can understand that. We're all human. None of us like uncertainty. None of us want to admit we might be wrong, that our friends might be wrong. A lot of us aren't even comfortable discussing our thinking anymore - it's too likely someone will take advantage of even that small vulnerability to land a sucker punch. It's so much easier to hide in our bunker with the people who pass our tests of ideological purity, who will reinforce our view of the world, and who won't challenge us for fear of being ousted from our circle.

But the cost is...this. A government so dysfunctional it can't even fulfill its basic, Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities. Social media feeds full of 'gotcha' memes and biased information. And now, a whole section of the populace that feels so left behind, so ignored, that they've (very likely) elected a supremely unqualified person for the highest office in the land, solely for the satisfaction of throwing a brick through the window.

It's times like this that being a big-picture sort of person gets really depressing. Because, ultimately, there's not much I can do about any of these trends. I can't make people listen to each other. I can't stop Internet trolling, or demand that the media quit publishing clickbait headlines, or stop my friends from posting questionable memes. I can't fight what feels like the inevitable tendency of humanity to lose sight of common goals in favor of petty squabbles.

So what can I do? What can any of us do?

Listen. Cultivate empathy to the people you might normally dismiss. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy; it doesn't mean you agree. It simply means you're willing to consider what they have to say, and their possible reasons for saying it.

Find common ground. For all that we love to find reasons to argue, we're all human, and that means we all have far more in common than we don't. No matter your differences in background, culture, or demographic, I guarantee you have something in common with the next person.

Bring people together. It might be small ways - a yoga class, a church service. It might be bigger - writing a novel, running a protest. But find some way to help people reconnect with others. Help them remember that we're bigger than this.

Set healthy boundaries. Say no to interactions, discussions, and relationships that only drain you. This might seem counterintuitive, but people with the strongest sense of boundaries are able to be the most openhearted with others, because they've saved their energy for the difficult work of listening in good faith.

Maintain your integrity. Practice what you preach.

These are my resolutions for the next four years. What are yours?
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I've written quite a bit about my struggles with anxiety and depression, both in terms of how they feel and how they manifest in my behavior. Yesterday, however, a friend linked to an article that resonated quite a bit: Living With High-Functioning Anxiety.

My experience is somewhat different from the writer's. For one thing, mine tends to move in cycles; there are times when I can't stop the stream of internal criticism, and other times when I feel perfectly normal and happy. For another, even when I'm in an anxious phase, my symptoms aren't usually that severe. But I feel firsthand so much of what she's written. The perfectionism. The need to constantly be busy while avoiding important or high-stakes tasks. The inability to ask for help, because that means admitting you're not capable of handling things on your own. The vacillating between "everyone has it together but you, what's wrong with you" and "other people have things so much worse, what are you complaining about".

Those of you who've been around the past couple years have probably noticed my increasing focus on self-care, mostly through increased physical activity and better diet. (I know that, to some people and in some circumstances, I've come across as more than a little evangelist on this point; to those people, I owe an apology. Yoga and self-care have been quite literally life-changing for me, but I suspect in my exhortations I was ignoring the twin contributions of a move to a much better-for-me environment and a significant socioeconomic boost that came about at the same time.) This has done a lot to stretch out the periods of feeling happier and more balanced. But these past several months, I've been feeling the anxiety creep up on me even with those efforts; this latest bout has lasted some weeks.

Another link from a friend, Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless, has shed some light on what's been going on in my subconscious. Laurie Penny posits that my demographic's obsession with self-care isn't in spite of the scary events going on in the rest of the world, but is in fact a reaction to that very sense of helplessness. We can't refill the Ogallala aquifer, or stop ourselves hurtling past the carbon emission point of no return, or fix a broken political system, or avert any number of other disasters that seem to loom over the horizon. So we turn our focus selfward instead, and convince ourselves that by practicing "radical self-love" we can find happiness - and, on this philosophy's darker side, feel as if we're insufficient when our self-care practice fails to adequately substitute for a stable and functioning social contract.

And yet, the answer can't be to give up self-care entirely. One of my favorite yoga teachers would probably fit Penny's description of an "Instagram happiness guru", or at least an aspiring one. But I go to her classes regularly, because she makes a real effort to make them a safe place, where we can work on self-improvement without judgment. When it feels like the world is falling apart around us, where there's no good answer or right thing we can do to stop things hurtling toward a horrible conclusion, there's a real value in that sort of centering, in exercising that little bit of control we do still have. I always leave her classes feeling more hopeful, more able to focus on the positive aspects of my life. It doesn't always overcome the overall sense of helplessness, but it provides a bulwark, a small protection for my sanity that helps me keep a more even outlook.

And let's not kid ourselves - outlook is important. It's a lot easier to focus on the positives, to work towards making the world a better place in those hundreds of small ways that seem insignificant but are far more likely to ripple out into something lasting, if we're feeling energized and stable and hopeful for the future. Zeitgeist matters; the more we become convinced that the world is headed for disaster, the more likely it is that we will bring that disaster on ourselves. No single one of us can prevent it, no, but by each doing what we can to help raise each others' spirits, perhaps we can improve our collective future.

That's what I feel in my more hopeful moments, anyway. During those times when the anxiety starts to build, when (to paraphrase Brian) I spend more and more time either absorbed in news articles or staring off into the distance, I start to think that this is what my friends and family felt like during the Cold War. Those awful moments of hope mixed with increasing dread, that encroaching certainty that the worst will happen, it was just a question of how and when. It's not a fun feeling; I especially hate how it robs me of the ability to enjoy things in my life here and now, when the worst (whatever that might be) hasn't yet happened, and may not at all.

I've been thinking, too, about my earlier post on paradox, and how essential it is to our existence, even though it's uncomfortable and difficult for us to accept. Perhaps this is how humans get into these destructive spirals in the first place: we don't like uncertainty, we want things to be good or bad. And if things stay uncertain enough for long enough, if the constructive future feels too difficult or too far away, eventually we pick the bad option, just for the relief of knowing the uncertainty is over. Perhaps this is why it's so important to practice holding our paradoxes: that anxiety and depression are challenges to overcome and perfectly reasonable reactions to an increasingly scary world; that we need to focus on taking care of ourselves and fighting for a better society; that we can contribute meaningfully to our collective future and we're dependent on other people to help us build that future.

My head is not the happiest place, of late. But I hope getting these thoughts out in the open will help, if only in the sense of lancing the wound. And to everyone whom I owe letters, or a phone call, or words of comfort - I'm sorry I've been so unresponsive lately. Hopefully this will go some measure towards explaining why.
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I have an ongoing dialogue of sorts with a Facebook acquaintance about compassion, and the need to exercise it while - incongruously, it seems - maintaining strong boundaries to protect yourself. And in a recent iteration of this conversation, it occurred to me that this sort of paradox was far from unique:

It is precisely the embodiment of these sorts of opposing values that fascinates me about life. We need to be compassionate, and we need to have strong boundaries. We need to be open to new ideas, and we need to be skeptical of claims presented without evidence. We need to keep our games (literal, metaphorical and political) simple enough to be accessible, and complex enough to keep our interest. We need to focus on the goals we hope to attain, and accept that the path to them may be more roundabout than we anticipate (and that the roundabout path may be more rewarding). And although you will find people advocating one side or the other of literally all of these metrics, those who are most successful are always the people who realize that it's not an either/or proposition, but being large enough to embody the whole.

What really struck me, when I was writing this out, was that I had started out phrasing it as precisely the sort of either/or setup that I later disclaimed. "We need to be compassionate, BUT we need to have strong boundaries." "We need to be open to new ideas, BUT we need to be skeptical." It was such an engrained habit of thinking that it wasn't until I reached the final sentence that I realized that I was presenting these options as choices, and thus reinforcing precisely the sort of either/or framework I was decrying.

Having recognized that, still...it was surprisingly difficult, writing these seeming contradictions out not as quandaries, but as both/and directives. Even though there's plenty of research showing that people with the strongest boundaries are also the most compassionate. Even though just about any Internet comment thread will demonstrate the dangers of both over-openmindedness and over-skepticism. Even though my own life has borne out the value of the long road to a goal. Even knowing all of this, it was almost physically painful to stop thinking of them as choices, and start thinking of both as necessities.

Thinking about why, I was put strongly in mind of Q's final admonition to Picard in All Good Things...:

 
Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here.
Q: You just don't get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.
Picard: When I realized the paradox.
Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered.
That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

Paradoxes don't sit well with human nature.  We like things to fit neatly into boxes, to be all good or all bad.  It's genuinely difficult, almost painful, to hold two seemingly-contradictory ideas in our heads, even when we know they're not a contradiction, but two halves of a greater whole.  

But while I can't speak for anyone else's experience...when I manage to hold the paradox in my head?  It's exhilarating, even elevating.  Like I've grown larger, somehow.  Like someday I might be able to understand the entire universe.  

I'm curious, now - do any of you have experiences like this?  Are there paradoxes in your own lives that you struggle with?  Things you've learned that make you feel bigger?  Tell me!

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Some years ago, I was in a production of King Island Christmas - a somewhat idealized yet genuinely touching musical telling of a crisis that happened to a rural Alaskan island in the 1950s, and how the community overcame it.

The music is genuinely good - inspirational without being cloying, up there with the best Disney musicals. Unfortunately, there was only one cast recording made and it doesn't seem to have made it into the digital music stores, or onto YouTube, so I don't have a link or even a lyric reference sheet. But one of the songs, sung by the Oomiak (a walrus-skin boat traditionally used for hunting/transport by many Alaska native tribes, and a pivotal character in the story), remains one of my favorites. Mostly what I remember is the chorus: "Everything must change, it has always been this way/Tomorrow you and I won't be who we are today/It used to make me sad that my walrus life was through/But now I'm feeling glad that I'm doing something new."

It's occurred to me before, often, that our (referring to Western, mostly white culture) attitude toward disconnections - breakups/divorces, rejections, firings/layoffs, deaths - is somewhat incomplete.

In our cultural narrative, we treat social disconnection as a tragic experience to be avoided at all costs. And often it is! But in our focus on the pain in the moment, we so often overlook the other half of the story. Because without destruction, without disconnection, there's no room in our lives for anything new to grow. You can't build a new house without pulling down the old one that's sitting on the foundation. You can't build new friendships if your time is taken up with people you're ambivalent about. You can't find a job you genuinely enjoy if you're working full time at something that's kinda meh.

None of this is to minimize how tough this kind of disconnection can be. Even when it's been a long time coming and you know you'll be better off for it, it's difficult; in cases where it's sudden and traumatic, it can blindside you with the pain. Opportunities for growth always come twinned with times of profound vulnerability; like a crab shedding its shell, someone in a state of disconnection is going to need time to regrow their defenses.

This is why it's so important to reach out to people we care about when they're experiencing disconnection. Yes, it feels awkward, and maybe like you're bothering then when they want to be left alone. Sometimes they may even lash out at you, and in those cases there's often nothing you can do. But being there for someone in crisis, as much as they'll let you; listening to them if they want to talk, or just sitting with them so they don't have to be alone, is a profound thing in itself.

And although I don't have statistics to back it up, I would bet solid money that the quality and timbre of a person's social interactions in such a period have a measurable effect on the quality of the life that they rebuild for themselves.

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