We Interrupt This Non-Road Trip For: The Stress at the End of the Tunnel

Anyone else getting tired of hearing about the end of the tunnel? Tunnels are concrete structures, figuratively and literally. They have beginnings, middles, and very distinct ends. Are we seriously trying to compare COVID times with a tunnel?

(Image courtesy BY-NC-ND 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Right now, just as the graphs seem to be trending in the right direction, there suddenly seem to be even more unknowns. Can I get on an airplane now? Am I part of the problem for even wanting to? If everything’s getting better, why do I still feel dread? Why does optimism still get stuck somewhere between my throat and my stomach?

The other day I happened upon an “On Being” podcast about this EXACT frustration with the interminability of this time, and the effects of all that who-knows?ness on our mental state. I immediately thought about a bunch of different friends to send the link to.

But I don’t love it when people tell me I “should” listen to something nearly an hour long, even if I know I’d probably benefit. So instead, I’m excerpting that podcast for you here. I hope you can get something valuable from it, without having to spend a whole hour.

For starters, see if you can recognize something in this intro by host Krista Tippett:

The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously appearing, yet we feel as exhausted as at any time in the past year. Memory problems, short fuses, sudden drops into what feels frighteningly to me like depression, and fractured productivity that alternately puzzles and shames us.”

Any of that sound familiar? 

EXHAUSTED.

Krista then introduces her guest. Christine Runyan is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She also runs a clinical consulting practice, Tend Health, to support the mental well-being of health care providers.

Runyan, Krista says,

“explains how the very first news of the threat of a new virus in the world instantaneously activated our stress responses, sent our nervous systems into an overdrive from which they’ve never retreated. To use other words, the pandemic has disrupted our mind-body connection, which is always as sensitive to what is imagined as to what is real.”

Don’t know about you, but my own mind and body don’t need much reality to go galloping off in different directions. And this is a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.

As Runyan dives in, describing the classic fight-or-flight response, I note the metaphor she chooses:

“And that’s a very predictable response. It’s our source code as humans…And when that goes off, it does a number of things. It releases glucose, so we have some energy. It increases our heart rate. It increases our blood pressure. It diverts blood to our major muscle groups. It temporarily gives our immune system a little boost. It stops our digestion. It does all these things specifically…so that we can fight or that we can flight, and that we have all the reserve necessary to be able to do that.”

“Source code”? So it’s built in. So it’s not just me? So it’s not my fault if I can’t shake this gut-level dread?

Describing us in our balanced state, Runyan notes,

“And this window of tolerance, which does get quite disrupted…for people who’ve had prior trauma, that window really shrinks, and so you can activate this nervous system at lower levels. And that’s one of the things that I think has been happening throughout this whole year, for various reasons, both related to the virus and related to our social circumstances in this country.”

Uh-huh. Yeah. Go on.

Then Krista really captures the point:

“…here we are, a year on, and we never got to — the threat never went away. But what I’ve also experienced as I look back on the year and its many chapters, including the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and rupture, the drama of the election — it feels to me…like there was a lot of adrenalin that got generated at different points in the last year…and that’s just quite apart, again, from people having incredible losses and stresses in their lives and losing people and illness and jobs and all of that. But just — you kept going. There was this energy source.

And then it has felt like winter set in, the election was over — I feel like all of the energy flowed out of my body. [laughs] …it’s not just that I have felt low in energy, I’ve felt disembodied and like I’ll never be the same again.” 

And Runyan is on it, reassuring Krista (and the rest of us!):

“I think that’s also part of the nervous system, both assault and response. We talk about fight or flight, but there’s also a state of freeze, which can look very much like you’re describing — this state of apathy, of detachment, of even disembodied or dissociative, and numbing, a lot of numbing.” 

Numbing. Yes. Think back to all those terms we used to describe our days: “Shelter in place.” “Blursday.” “Quarantini.” Day after week after month. Even when we spoke of “silver linings” (telecommuting! wildlife roaming streets!) we still knew they involved a big ol’ cloud.

Krista really speaks my mind when she focuses on the physicality of our restrictions:

“You talk about, also, symptoms of this stress on our nervous system that I think I recognize in myself, and we all recognize, as being more impulsive, moody, rigid in our thinking, irritable, lashing out, our frustration tolerance — and you could almost see that play itself out in our political life. And so, collectively, we were faced with this impossible choice — that the very thing that makes us human, which is our physical connection to other people, was the cost of keeping each other safe.

Hugs! She’s talking about hugs! And smiles! Hell, even shaking hands has been taboo.

And she goes on,

“…naming this feels relieving, even though what we’re naming is a really just impossible and terrible situation we’ve all been placed in. So what do we know about…the effects on us as humans, as creatures, of what we’ve called social distancing…the lack of touch, the lack of seeing and being seen, in a world of masks?

Ooh, ooh, me! I know that one! We feel CRAPPY.

Runyan responds with pretty much my favorite response to any problem: naming it.

“So this process of naming and “allowing,” I think is the term that I would say — seeing it as a human response to the conditions that are, rather than something wrong with me — so many of us humans are prone to even ask that question, “What’s wrong with me?”

Yes. Sigh.

She goes on to remind us that the naming is just the first step in a process of self-gentleness:

“…I think the self-awareness piece, even before the allowing — we have to have some internal vision…and know that how it shows up for you is gonna be different than how it shows up for me; how it shows up for you, today, is gonna be different than how it may show up for you next week. So that awareness and the allowing…being curious. If we can be curious, just what’s going on inside of our own bodies — the neurotransmitter of curiosity is dopamine, so if we can be curious, we can give ourselves a little hit of dopamine. And then compassion, if I had to say the one thing that probably supersedes all of those, is compassion, including compassion for oneself.

I LOVE that bit about the dopamine! Did you know that? I didn’t. The compassion part? That I already knew, but sometimes compassion is hard to get to. But…drumroll…curiosity is the gateway to compassion! And you get dopamine as a choice of sides!

In the latter part of the podcast, after naming the stressors, Runyan moves on to dealing with them. She mentions well-known techniques, like listening to music, or surrounding yourself with your favorite calming scent.

Here’s mine. (image courtesy thowra_uk, Wikimedia Commons

She mentions breath–not, to my surprise, deep in-breaths so much as–well, this.

…There’s various techniques you can do with the breath, but if you’re gonna do one thing, a long exhale, because that’s part of our sympathetic nervous system, that dorsal part of our sympathetic nervous system that activates our calming — so, a long exhale.

(Which I suppose involves in-breaths by necessity, right?) And then comes one of my favorite parts:

“…And then, one of my common go-to’s is…“tend-and-befriend,” and particularly if I don’t have people around me, is to just make contact with myself. I put my hand on my heart, on my chest —

Tippett: Oh, you mean literally.

Runyan: Literally. [laughs]

Yes! A little self-caress. (I actually don’t even care if others are around. Self-care is self-care.)

My last big takeaway from this fascinating conversation was the reminder of how our pesky imagination, which likes to occupy itself by creating extra worries, can also summon its own comfort. Runyan asks Krista to imagine cutting open a lemon and tasting it. Krista does. So do I. (So, now, perhaps, do you.)

(Image courtesy Tim-Hoggarth, Wikimedia Commons)

Runyan: We can create a physiological response through our imagination, which is…a double edge. [laughs] It’s a gift and a curse, because that is worry.

Tippett: Right, but you’re saying we can also activate that to comfort ourselves, if we take it seriously enough.

Bingo. Although I’d really prefer imagining these.

Ahhhhh…the scent of summer.

Runyan then reminds us that part of healing that mind-body connection in times of stress is simply being kind to one’s body.

“I’ve had a lifelong struggle with my own body, and probably up until maybe about five years ago. And this reverence — now it is just a wonder and a source of curiosity, and I can appreciate it for all the ways it’s working on my behalf, even when I meet it with frustration.

Have I thanked my knees lately?

“And this is why, when I think about what are the superpowers that we all hold in us that is also part of our source code, it’s that self-awareness — is there a pause point to be able to step out of that automatic pilot and then be able to make an intentional choice?”

I sure would like there to be.

“There’s a quote that’s attributed to Viktor Frankl, and he says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our power to choose. And in our choice lies our growth and our freedom.” And it’s such a beautiful encapsulation, I think, of that self-awareness and that pause, which is so hard to do at this time, because we’re so activated. And so it’s just recognizing when we can pause and say, oh, that’s what that is.”

I think that’s going to be my new mantra–at least until the world is vaccinated. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”

But lest Dr. Runyan seem too saintly, she ends on a good reminder of why that self-gentleness comes in so handy:

“It’s really that power of the pause. It’s imperfect — there’s plenty of times where I have done that, paused, and then just went right back down the rabbit hole.” [laughs]

Yep. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”

In case you were wondering, the Non-Road Trip series will return next time, at least for one more installment. But I think I heard that end-of-the-tunnel phrase just once too often this week. So that’s what this is.

“Are You My Mommy?” This Poem Wants to Know.

DOES ANYONE KNOW WHO WROTE THIS?

Bent at the beginning

in the seed, the corm,

we grow taller toward the light

carrying upward the grace of our leaves

and with it our canker

our wont to be mistaken

self-absorbed

even cruel in the face of kindness,

burr and thorn as much a part of us as any fragrant rose.

(Photo by Tico, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I started the habit of reciting a Morning Poem right after the election of 2016. I found I needed to fill my mind with something beautiful and deep at the start of the day , before exposing it to the news or even email.

I’ve had other poems–longer ones, more intense–but something about the brevity and purity of this one has stuck it with me now for a year. Only problem is, I’ve forgotten the poet! And as I tend to treat my books of poetry like library books, sending them on instead of keeping them, I can’t look it up.

I’ve tried Googling the first line; it yielded mostly suggestions for growing corn.

Not quite what I had in mind. (photo by doc(q)man, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What I love about this poem is the way it reminds me of those dark/light, yin/yang pairing: imperfection yet striving, pride yet humility. Both, and. Yes. Onward we go.

Thorns are part of the deal. (Photo by Parvin, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not giving this poem up until another suggests taking its place. But I really want to credit the poet! So I’m hoping someone can step forward and help me here.

Still, while we’re on the topic: I’d also love to hear other suggestions for a poem with which to begin the day. Hit me!

Politics as Usual? The Shocking Cameraderie of the Washington State Legislature

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Excatly two weeks and one day after THIS…

(Image by Tyler Merbler, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

…I was scheduled to testify at a hearing on a bill in the legislature of my state, The Other Washington.

THIS place: Olympia, WA. (Image by MathTeacherGuy, courtesy Creative Commons)

Of course, what with COVID, the hearing wasn’t in Olympia, but on Zoom, along with gazillion other meetings. (Just curious: what do we do when Zoom fills up? A good koan for medition.)

The bill in question was HB 1090, which aims to ban all for-profit, privately-run prisons in Washington State by 2025. Having been involved for a couple of years in the campaign to close the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma–packed to an inhuman degree with detained immigrants–I had signed up to give my two cents’ worth on why for-profit prisons are a terrible idea.

The NWDC. (photo by Eldan, courtesy Creative Commons)

When I Zoomed in at 1:30, House Public Safety Committee Chair Roger Goodman was announcing the lineup for the 2-hour session. It sounded ambitious. First up: amendments on two different bills: one restricting police car chases, one banning no-knock warrants. Then came public comment on two other bills: one refining the definition of hate crime, the other allowing survivors of sexual assault improved access to the progress of their cases and better overall care. Finally, at the end: “my” bill, 1090.

Oooookay, I thought. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of tea and check back in an hour.

But before I wandered away, something caught my attention. The same something that has probably caught all of America’s attention beginning this past Wednesday, Inauguration Day. That something was…civility.

A minority Republican on the committee–a beefy White guy in a Statue of Liberty necktie–was making an argument about an amendment on the car-chase bill. Talking about the Democratic sponsor of the bill, I heard him say, “…though I love and respect him as a person…” Then the Democratic Chair was allaying the Republican’s fears. And then they thanked each other.

Wait. Wait. No snark, no snarling? I barely recognize this tone…like a Golden Oldie playing softly in the background. Mesmerizing.

So I stayed right where I was. I watched that same burly Republican Representative have another of his amendments voted down–he wanted to allow the police broader scope to continue with no-knock warrants (like the one that killed Breonna Taylor in 2020). Still: no rancor, no posturing. Just–“just!”–courtesy.

I watched prosecutors and brave victims of hate crimes testify in favor of HB 1071, which refines the definition of a hate crime to reflect the reality of what people are facing. I watched legislators from both parties thank the participants with zero grandstanding or finger-pointing.

I watched the Republican and Democratic co-sponsors of the Sexual Assault Rights Bill (HB 1109–described as a model for the nation!) sing each other’s praises for the hard road they’ve traveled together since, apparently, 2015. I watched Rep. Burly Republican tear up as he articulated his concerns about sexual assault victims.

They’re all so respectful! So pleasant! I wanted to run into that Zoom room and hug the entire committee.

By the time they got to the private prisons bill, of course, they were out of time. Only a couple of the dozens of folks signed up to speak got to do so.

Did I mind? Not one bit. That two hours of civil civic discourse was as encouraging as a COVID shot. I felt unexpectedly innoculated against political cynicism.

“Well, sure,” my Mate said when I told him about it, “that’s Washington State for you.” I think he meant, y’know, we’re practically Canadians. But no: our governor’s mansion was also attacked on January 6. We’re every bit as vulnerable to the political virus as any other state.

So…feeling pessimistic about political polarization? Depressed at the divide? Take two of these and call me in the morning–“these” being a couple of the most rivetingly boring hours ever, listening to politicians act like grownups together.

America’s Road Ahead: Notes From a Real Roadie

The day after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared President- and Vice President-elect, I sat down to express my thoughts in this blog…and quickly realized someone had already expressed them for me. “Raven and Chickadee” is the blog of my friends Laurel and Eric, who left their home in Ashland, OR several years ago for a life on the road as full-time RV-ers. Until COVID, which…well, I’ll let Chickadee (Laurel) tell it. The photos are by Raven (Eric).

Bridging The Divide

Wow. Is it really over? I hope so. I am deeply relieved to step off of this insane election roller coaster.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows us that we did not vote for the incumbent. But this election has made me think long and hard about the state of our country.

Strangers In A Strange Land

Our hometown—Ashland, Oregon—is about as liberal a town as you’ll find anywhere. That’s one of the things that drew both Eric and me to live there many years ago. For decades, we lived in a town of like-minded folks, where the biggest controversy was how to humanely manage the deer mowing down people’s gardens.

We now find ourselves in Eastpoint, Florida—a stronghold of conservatives, where we are liberal outliers in a community rife with Trump flags and signs.

When we took to the road for our fulltime travels seven-and-a-half years ago, one of my fears was that we wouldn’t find people with whom we had anything in common. That has not turned out to be true. Our network of friends has expanded to a rich and satisfying tribe that extends from coast to coast.

In our travels, we’ve also discovered that people, by a vast majority, are decent. Even if we aren’t destined to become close friends, we’ve been touched time and again by the kindness of strangers, no matter what their political or religious beliefs. That includes our neighbors here in Eastpoint, who have been unfailingly kind and generous as we’ve navigated these difficult months of dealing with my parents’ home, my father’s death, and the pandemic.

The piney woods in North Florida

The Long Road Ahead

This election was certainly not the Blue Wave that we anticipated. While we are thrilled to have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our new president and vice-president, it is painfully clear that we have a long road of healing ahead. And it’s up to us, the people, to heal our nation.

I hope we will be kind to one another, that we will approach each other in a spirit of generosity, that we will listen to each other’s concerns, that we will try to understand, and that we won’t fall into the seductive trap of labeling and dismissing anyone who votes or thinks differently. (I am excluding anyone who voted for Trump for racist reasons. That includes anyone flying a Confederate flag or wearing a MAGA hat. The time of white supremacy is long over, so get over it. )

We do not have an easy task ahead. Personally, I’ve had a field day with the absurdities of Trump over the past four years (along with feeling terrified and outraged). But along with the vast majority of our neighbors here in Eastpoint who voted for Trump, Eric and I both have family members and friends who voted for him. These are not racist, unkind, ungenerous people. They had their reasons for voting for Trump, just as we had our reasons for voting for Biden. Somehow, we need to find compromises.

The chasm is wide. But we have to bridge it, for the sake of one another, our country, and our world.

A utility trailer in Appalachicola

Bank on This: Phone-Banking Isn’t Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be. It’s Better.

You know those things you swear you’ll never do because you’re bad at them and you think they’re annoying and don’t make any difference and oh, by the way, you hate doing them?

Could I be talking about anything but political phone-banking? And have I been doing it anyway? And am I going to quit with the stupid rhetorical questions? Yes, yes, and yes.

The whole enterprise started with my furlough. I had some extra time on my hands, which I mainly filled with some physical volunteer work: packing school meals to be delivered to children, and groceries to be delivered to families. That felt meaningful.

But then both those programs ended (because hey, everyone knows kids don’t need to eat in the summer, especially when their parents might also be furloughed or unemployed!). [Note: this is NOT a slam on my community, which is doing everything in its power to help everyone.It’s about funding from upstream.]

Anyway, there I am in early June with the world on fire with injustice and COVID, and my deep-seated urges to pitch in have nowhere else to turn but…the phone. Calling voters in states without mail-in ballot programs to try to help voters get mail-in ballots, and gosh, by the way, wanna help elect Mr/Ms/Dr ____ to the ______?

On my first go, in Wisconsin, I swore I was done with this.

Woo-hoo.

Me, phone-banking: This is such a waste of time.

Myself: Nuh-uh, all the political people say it’s been proven that phone calls make more difference than any form of voter contact!

Me: But I even hate getting these kind of calls!

Myself: Well, you won’t from now on, will you? Maybe this is your punishment for not being nicer to the last person who called you.

Me: Not true. I’m always nice. But you may have a point there: this job feels like penance. Can I just go ahead and like, bank it against future sins?

But then the nice campaign people in Wisconsin let me know how badly they needed my help, so next day, there I was again. I don’t know how many calls I made because I hadn’t thought to keep count. But then I took some phone-bank training and discovered the joy of tally marks.

So NOW when I’m calling, I’m really competing with myself. Last week I made 100 calls in 2 hours. How ’bout 110 this week? Do I hear 120?

And along the way, even though there are SO many things I’d rather be doing on a lovely summer afternoon, like

noticing wildflowers…

or

…noticing wildlife…

I’m learning other ways to “enjoy” my political “work.” Like:

Fun with numbers! “Hey, this guy’s number’s almost the same as my Social Security.” “Whoa, a triple 6–wish I had a cool Satanic phone number like that.”

Enjoying the different recordings people leave on their voicemail, like this one man: “Hello, this is Mister Wonderful.” Or this adorable couple: “You’ve reached Grandpa and Grandma Willis.”

[Note: these generally make up for those irritating ones where the person’s clearly trying to fool the caller into thinking they’ve reached a real person instead of a recording. You guys suck.]

Grooving on cool names. I like to do this: “Hi, I’m Gretchen with the ____ Campaign, and I’ve been calling folks all afternoon and you’ve just won the Coolest Name of the Day award.”

Playing the Find my Age game: I’m 58. Nothing so special about 58, right? Except that only about .000008 of the folks I’ve called seem to BE 58, and only half of those are women. So when I get a 58 year-old female on my list (all we get are name, age & gender, and sometimes not even gender), I let them know how excited I am to talk to them! [If they pick up, that is. Which they do only about 10% of the time. So I’ve really only bonded with two other 58 year-old women so far. Sisterhood is beautiful.]

So much darn fun, I can almost forget I’d rather be kayaking.

For those of us who enjoy Life Lessons, there’s the Note Your Prejudices game: see what mental image pops into your head when you see someone’s name, age & gender pop up, then–quick, before they answer the phone!–re-arrange that prejudice into something completely different. Then find out how right or wrong you were when they answer! (If they answer. 😦 ) And briefly ponder the internal biases that caused your initial guess, quick–before you dial the next number.

Then, of course, there’s always good ol’ Gazing Out the Window…trying not to think about hiking into the sunset

Not till you’ve finished your tally marks.

or making pie.

I think I’ve earned pie.

But really? It’s all about the tally marks. And yes, just in case you were wondering: I DID make 120 calls this afternoon, thanks!

Which means I need to shoot for 125 next time. 

Total # of calls (since I started keeping track, so it’s really about 100 more): 650. And when I get to 1,000, I WILL make a pie.

Anyone else engaged in some political work right now which requires a struggle to feel meaningful? How do you keep your positive energy up?

 

Time, Tide and Salmonberries: Blessed Be the Regular

Like probably most people in the world right now, my sense of the calendar has gone all wonky. I’m frequently not sure what month it is, let alone the date. Day of the week? Forget it. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all too well what year it is.

The arrival of fresh cherries and strawberries at a fruit stand took me by surprise. Wait–it’s Solstice already? Since then, I’ve been trying to pay more attention. Salmonberries have helped. 

Salmonberries  are a huge thing around western Washington. Whether battling them as ferociously scratchy pests around our yards or admiring their bright pink flowers in Spring, we probably spend more time thinking about them than we even realize. And then they make berries!

If looks could taste…

I used to make fun of salmonberries for being so un-delicious: The only reason anyone even thinks about eating you is because blackberries aren’t ripe yet.  

But (again, like a lot of folks) I’ve been walking even more than I usually do, and trying to pay even more attention to things besides the global pandemics of COVID and racism. So I’ve been nibbling salmonberries again, as part of my noticing–and guess what? Turns out if you wait to eat them till they’re so ripe they’re juuuuust about to fall off their thorny ol’ bushes, they’re actually pretty tasty.

So what else merits my noticing, and my thanks?

The tide. Twice a day. EVERY day. Talk about essential work!

I know this isn’t exactly a glam shot, Tide–but this is you your work attire.

And some of the humblest of flowers–look at these ones here, engaging in a socially-distanced Easter bouquet!

C’mon, guys, it’s June, not April. Shouldn’t you be decorating for wedding season?

That’s more like it.

What basic, REGULAR things are you feeling grateful for right now? Postal carriers? Baby birds? Marshmallows on display shelves? Let’s celebrate the regular where we can find it!

‘Nuff Said? We’ll See.

This book is suddenly a national best-seller. My copy’s back-ordered. It’s a start.

Of what? 

“Some people go out in glory

Yeah with the wind at their back

Some get to tell their own story

Write their own epitaph

Sometimes you see it coming

Sometimes you won’t know until

You’re out of breath

With a knee on your neck

For a $20 bill.”                          –Tom Prasado-Rao

 

Friends–let’s do the hard work, whatever’s ours to do.

Equal Time For the Better Angels of Our Nature

My readers probably know that I’m not much of a podcast listener, but that if I AM listening to a podcast, it’s probably On Being with Krista Tippett. I started this habit after the 2016 election and, three and a half years later, I need her show more than ever.

Today I want to provide a peek into an especially uplifting interview about…ready? The evolutionary aspects of human goodness. Evolutionary? Human Goodness? Yes please!

(What follows are shameless excerpts from the transcript of Krista Tippett’s show, which I’m assuming she won’t mind because I’m encouraging everyone to listen to her.)

Human goodness? Does that mean sunflower seeds?

Nicholas Christakis is Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. More specifically, he works at something called the Human Nature Lab—which sounds spooky until you hear what they’re studying. They’re studying goodness. (Oh my goodness. Literally.)

Says Dr. Christakis,

I’m interested in the qualities that make a collective good. How is it that a group of humans come together to form a good society? And in what way, and to what extent, has evolution equipped us with these capacities?

Please, oh please, tell me more about our good capacities. Do you really mean to say we have them built in, evolutionarily, and if so, why do never hear about this? Dr. C?

…scientists and citizens on the street have focused on the dark side of human nature, on our propensity for selfishness and tribalism and mendacity and cruelty and violence, as if this were a natural or normal or primary state of affairs. And yet, I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves, because, equally, we are capable of love and friendship and teaching and cooperation and all these other wonderful things. And, in fact, I would argue…those qualities are more powerful than the bad qualities; and therefore, in some ways, much more important.

More important? Really? Tell me why!

I think, if every time I came near you, you were mean to me, or you filled me with fake news — you told me falsehoods about the environment in a way that was detrimental to my capacity to survive in the environment, or you killed me, I would be better off living apart from you.

But we don’t do that. We live together. And so, therefore, the benefits of a connected life must have outweighed the costs. And they did outweigh the costs. And the question is, how did that state of affairs come to be?

Whoa. He’s right. We DO, for the most part, live in societies. Have done for millennia. And yes. Dr. Christakis is talking about EVOLUTIONARY time here, not human history.

…In fact, every argument that I make…I could make about human beings who were alive 10,000 years ago, before the action of a lot of the technological and historical forces that we take as so relevant and ascendant today. So we were capable of love and friendship and living together 10,000 years ago. And we were also capable of violence, of course, then, too. But all of these things were a part of our nature well before we then had this overlay of cultural and technological and historical forces acting. And in some ways I would argue that those forces are a thin veneer overlaid on a much more fundamental edifice.

A not particularly relevant but definitely uplifting photo I took the other day.

In other words, the prof is arguing that certain basic positive traits are the driving force of ALL human societies EVERYWHERE. These traits include our ability to…

love the people we’re having sex with; we form sentimental attachments to them. We are, technically, monogamous. We befriend each other; we form long-term, non-reproductive unions with other members of our species. This is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom.We do it; certain other primates do it; elephants do it; certain cetacean species do it — we form friendships with unrelated people. It’s universal in human groups.

 

cooperate with each other, altruistically.We’re kind to strangers — again, to unrelated individuals;

 

...teach each other things. People take this for granted, but it’s actually unbelievable.

Yeah, the purple highlights are mine. They represent my DELIGHT in hearing an eminent, sober scientist tell the world that we humans are as good as we KNOW we can be–not simply as bad as our TV and movies tell us, over and over, that we must be.

THIS is relevant: Seattleites being altruistic by staying home, off the freeway. (OK, yeah, also being a little scared.)

If you, like me, need some inspiration right now, I encourage you to read this last paragraph aloud, as if it were a sermon, or a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work, propelling a good society, endowing us with these wonderful capacities, which were always there, are still there, are unavoidable; and that, if anything, these moves that we’ve made as a species in the last few hundred years are…the thin veneer over this more fundamental reality of the better angels of our nature.

Preach on!

Which do you want to focus on: the dark, tangled foreground, or the shining tree?

Please know: like Dr. Christakis, I’m no Pollyanna about human nature. All I’m asking for is equal time for our better angels.

“How To Love a Country”–With a Little Help From My Poets and Reporters

As part of my New Year Intention to spend more time with bridge-builders, I recently listened to an On Being podcast I’d stockpiled for moments like these (like, for example, when your country suddenly decides to go to war). I sure picked a good one. When Krista Tippett interviews civil engineer/poet Richard Blanco, these guys give me language to keep looking for bridges.

(Did you catch that? Poet AND civil engineer? How much bridgier can you get?)

Mr. Blanco celebrates what he’s noticing about this country, that whoever “we” are, we’re starting to pay attention to others at risk.

 I just love that we’re stepping up, and we’re realizing, no. OK, this is — I don’t have to go to that protest; it’s not about me. But that poem … you know, “First they came for the so-and-so”? Remember that poem? And I think we’re finally — we’re not doing that. We’re not waiting for them to come for us. We are stepping up and realizing that the quality of life, the virtue of this country, depends on every human being’s story, to a certain degree; that our happiness depends on other people’s happiness, and we’re moving from a space of dependence to realizing our interdependence.

And Krista agrees:

It becomes a discipline, almost like a spiritual discipline, to take that seriously, too. It’s a way of us, some of us, enough of us, collectively, living this phrase that you have at the beginning of the book, How to Love a Country: “Tell me with whom you walk, and I’ll tell you who you are.” So it’s us, expanding that sense of who we are.

As an American, I would prefer to walk in a wider lane than I have, historically, as a White woman. I want a richer sense of who “we” are. Since I moved from a very diverse town and job to an island that is…let’s say NOT diverse, I’ve been finding other ways to broaden my “we.”

The most significant step I’ve taken is to subscribe to the New York Times, and then sign up for its newsletter on the topic of “Race/Related.” That means I get stories right into my inbox that particularly relate to people NOT like me. The other day, for example, I read a wonderful story by Kurt Streeter about the WNBA star Maya Moore taking a sabbatical from basketball at the peak of her career to work on freeing a man from prison whom she believes to be innocent. What a story. What a gift.

Yes, the NYT costs money and CNN is free…but the NYT is doing work I actively want to support. Because it supports US.

Listening to the interview with Richard Blanco left me feeling choked up about my country. (Do you know how hard it is to ride your exercise bike hard while choking up? I had to slow down.) And this is the poem that did it. I’m passing it on to you now, hoping it both chokes you up and builds you up, as it did me. As it could us.

The poem is called Declaration of Interdependence, and is woven through with actual excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. Here’s the poet’s explanation of the title:

...finding language, finding another angle, finding another dialogue, and how easily stereotyped and typecast people can become in the news; and, also, how we do it to ourselves — “Oh, you drive a red pickup truck; therefore, you must be this person. You shop at Whole Foods; therefore, you must be this kind of person. You drive a Subaru; therefore, you must be this kind of person,” and realizing that that’s really something that’s been slowly chipping away at our brains, this sort of immediate — I won’t say “judgment,” but a typecasting that sometimes, we’re not even aware. So I just wanted to break down some of those stereotypes and create empathy across those stereotypes.

But it also, ultimately, comes from a saying, a greeting from the Zulu people, that was the real inspiration here…They don’t say “Good morning” like we do, like we did, this morning. “Good morning; I need coffee.” [laughs] They look at one another, right in the eyes, and say, “I see you.” And there’s an incredible power in seeing and being acknowledged. And if I’m not mistaken, the reply is, “I’m here to be seen. And I see you.” …We’re not seeing each other as clearly, and I think this poem was trying to let us see each other clearly.

And here’s the poem. Happy Interdependence Day!

“Declaration of Interdependence”

 Such has been the patient sufferance…

We’re a mother’s bread, instant potatoes, milk at a checkout line. We’re her three children pleading for bubble gum and their father. We’re the three minutes she steals to page through a tabloid, needing to believe even stars’ lives are as joyful and as bruised. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury…

We’re her second job serving an executive absorbed in his Wall Street Journal at a sidewalk café shadowed by skyscrapers. We’re the shadows of the fortune he won and the family he lost. We’re his loss and the lost. We’re a father in a coal town who can’t mine a life anymore because too much and too little has happened, for too long.

A history of repeated injuries and usurpations…

We’re the grit of his main street’s blacked-out windows and graffitied truths. We’re a street in another town lined with royal palms, at home with a Peace Corps couple who collect African art. We’re their dinner-party talk of wines, wielded picket signs, and burned draft cards. We’re what they know: it’s time to do more than read the New York Times, buy fair-trade coffee and organic corn.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress…

We’re the farmer who grew the corn, who plows into his couch as worn as his back by the end of the day. We’re his TV set blaring news having everything and nothing to do with the field dust in his eyes or his son nested in the ache of his arms. We’re his son. We’re a black teenager who drove too fast or too slow, talked too much or too little, moved too quickly, but not quick enough. We’re the blast of the bullet leaving the gun. We’re the guilt and the grief of the cop who wished he hadn’t shot.

We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…

We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…

We’re the dead, we’re the living amid the flicker of vigil candlelight. We’re in a dim cell with an inmate reading Dostoevsky. We’re his crime, his sentence, his amends, we’re the mending of ourselves and others. We’re a Buddhist serving soup at a shelter alongside a stockbroker. We’re each other’s shelter and hope: a widow’s fifty cents in a collection plate and a golfer’s ten-thousand-dollar pledge for the cure. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

We’re the cure for hatred caused by despair. We’re the good morning of a bus driver who remembers our name, the tattooed man who gives up his seat on the subway. We’re every door held open with a smile when we look into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon. We’re the moon. We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.

–Richard Blanco

“I see you. I need you. I am you.” (Photo by TPapi, “Crowds on the Mall,” Jan. 9 2009)

New Year’s Intention: Spend Time With Bridge-Builders

You know who I mean. People who challenge me, gently, if I start to rant, instead of saying, “I know, right?” People who aren’t afraid of talking with folks who disagree with them. People who are only afraid of what happens if we all stop talking with folks we disagree with.

I am not a bridge-builder by nature. Truth be told, I don’t know many in person. So my 2020 intention is to spend regular time with them through books and articles and poetry and podcasts and blogs and movies. 

I intend to read, listen, watch learn–and spread the word. So here’s a start: “My Semester With The Snowflakes,” by James Hatch. This former Navy SEAL  enrolled as a freshman at Yale this past year, at the age of 52.

I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.

Every single day I went to work with much better humans than myself. I was brought to a higher level of existence because the standards were high and one needed to earn their slot, their membership in the unit. This wasn’t a one-time deal. Every time you showed up for work, you needed to prove your worth.

The vetting process is difficult and the percentage of those who try out for special operations units and make it through the screening is very low.

In an odd parallel, I feel, in spite of my short time here, the same about Yale.

(photo by Roger Kidd, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Hatch goes on to address the notion of “liberal snowflakes.” (Yep–folks like me.)

Let me address this “snowflake” thing. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “snowflake” is a “term for someone that thinks they are unique and special, but really are not. It gained popularity after the movie Fight Club from the quote ‘You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ ”

I hear the term occasionally from buddies of mine who I love. They say things like, “How are things up there with the liberal snowflakes?”

Let me assure you, I have not met one kid who fits that description. None of the kids I’ve met seem to think that they are “special” any more than any other 18–22-year-old. These kids work their assess off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello. There is an exceptional young woman from Chicago who wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News expressing the importance of public demonstrations in light of a recent police shooting. She and I are polar opposites. I am the “patriarchy” at first glance, and she is a young black woman who is keen on public protests. Not the type of soul I generally find myself in conversation with. We come from different worlds and yet we both read classic works with open hearts and minds.

We recently met with a prominent writer from a think tank who is researching the state of the humanities in the university setting. There were four of us students: two young men, the young woman from Chicago, and me, the old guy. As the younger students started to express their thoughts, the young woman (truly a unicorn of a human) used the word “safe space” and it hit me forcefully. I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. This works both ways. What I mean is, this young woman was comfortable, in this university setting, wrestling with things like the Aristotelian idea of some humans being born as “natural slaves.” She was quite comfortable in that space. The question was, how comfortable was the 52-year-old white guy in that discussion? Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m grateful for the discomfort. Thinking about things I don’t understand or have, for most of my life, written off, is a good thing.

That, my friends, is the sound of brick and mortar. A bridge. Thanks, James Hatch. Here’s to more voices like yours in the year to come. And Happy 2020, everyone!

Bridges, please!