Thursday, September 07, 2017

Working on Being Human

Everywhere I've ever lived there has been at least one neighbor who is way out of the norm. They have all been unique in their own way, and now that I think about it, they've all been male. Hmmm.

Anyway, in this particular neighborhood, the guy who makes me raise my eyebrows doesn't actually live here - he's just here a lot. His 90-something-year-old father owns the house - a 100+ year-old, 4500 square foot house that has clearly been neglected for at least a decade. The owner has lived in assisted living since before I moved here five years ago, but his two sons come by to mow the lawn and do the bare minimum to maintain the house until their dad passes and they can sell it for a million bucks (I'm not exaggerating - this is the Seattle housing market. You can sell your dilapidated, likely tear-down home for $1M + in my neighborhood. Thanks (?) Amazon). But, I digress.

The son who is here several times a week has been dubbed "no-pants neighbor-man" because, depending on the season, he either wears shorts or sweatpants with the side and/or back seams completely split open. And when he bends over to pull weeds or wind the hose back up, he reveals his personal preference for not wearing any underwear. At all. Even in the winter when the breeze must surely remind him that HIS BACKSIDE IS COMPLETELY UNCOVERED AND REVEALING ALL OF HIS ANATOMY DOWN THERE TO EVERYONE WHO IS WITHIN SIGHT LINES OF IT.

Did I mention that this house happens to be less than a block away from an all-girls Catholic high school? The students park along the side streets in the area and walk to school and this guy is a legend. To a girl, every single one of them crosses the street before they have to walk on the sidewalk in front of the house because they all know about this quirk of his.

He seems harmless. He never calls out to anyone or seems to purposely bend over and display himself to anyone - it just happens as he's working in the yard. He has had some prolonged projects in the yard and on the front porch and occasionally sleeps in the house. Every once in a while, I walk the dogs and simply can't avoid him and, except for his attire, he mostly just seems like a lonely old man who feels the need to mansplain to me why my small terrier should be a "house only" dog because when I take him outside I run the risk of having him carried off by a hawk, among other head-shaking things. (I'm not sure where he thinks my dog should relieve himself if I never let him outside, and that's not the kind of thing I'd ever muse out loud about, anyway, because generally I'm most interested in keeping the interaction brief).

Yesterday, I was driving away from the house when he stood in front of my car and flagged me down. When I stopped and rolled down the window, my attention was first captivated by his really awful DIY dye-job, probably because I was working hard to keep my eyes averted from his scandalous shorts that came nowhere near covering what they should have. The hair he has is perhaps 2" long, and it starts just about 2" above his ears. The top of his head would be perfect for a comb-over if he decided to go that route. But so far, he hasn't, and so the top 1/2" of his hair is lily-white while the rest is some shiny black, from a box look. Because I was so absorbed in wondering how often he dyes his hair and how he does it, I missed the first part of what he was saying, but my attention snapped back to his words when he uttered, "...he's a homeless."

A homeless.

No, I thought, he's a person. A human.

I finally realized that the neighbor was warning me that he had just discovered a sleeping bag and some clothing in the backyard of his dad's house and when he went to throw them in the garbage, he ran in to the owner of the items who seemed to be high or really struggling with reality. Of course, he didn't use those terms, and the terms he did use just made me tired and sad.

I endured the next five minutes of the rant/warning/educational seminar on how "the homeless work," cringing inwardly. I admit to having a moment of concern, wondering whether this person who had been summarily kicked out of my neighbor's backyard would seek refuge in mine, but mostly I just felt ill. Every reference to this young man was couched in language that was designed to set him apart, dehumanize him, set up a dynamic that puts us as neighbors on one side and "vagrants," "derelicts," "homeless" on the other. In the end, I nodded my thanks for the warning, rolled up the window, and drove on.

I have often wondered how this neighbor came to be in the position he is in - unable to convince his elderly father to sell his house but responsible for taking care of it, lonely and a little out of touch with social norms. I have worked to have compassion for him and also talked to Eve and Lola about how to graciously and cautiously interact with him if he speaks to them. I have, a time or two, laughed about him with Bubba or another neighbor, and I will admit that I wish I hadn't. I know that making fun of someone is a step on the road to dehumanizing them and I'm sad that it took his dehumanization of a homeless person to remind me of that.

It is perfectly natural to have a fear-based reaction when you discover something like my neighbor did. I can't honestly say that I'd have been able to keep my wits about me if I walked into my backyard to find someone sleeping back there. I would certainly have ordered him out and perhaps called the police. I struggle with the line between knowing that everyone deserves compassion and respect and protecting myself from potential harm. On the one hand, I know that what the young man likely needs most is resources to help him, and on the other hand, if he was under the influence of some sort of drug, I can't predict what he would do if I let him stay so that I could call someone to help him.

I know that I will continue to struggle with these kinds of situations, with how to put my beliefs into action. One thing I have gotten significantly better at, though, is recognizing my own tendencies to see certain people as 'other' and resist them. Whatever he has done or experienced, wherever he sleeps, this young man is not "a homeless." He is a human being.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Instruction for Difficult Moments

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn't know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I'm there, it is as though I've been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I'm old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I've been a mother forever - it almost feels like I've never NOT been a mother -  it couldn't possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven't imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that's what it is. I haven't sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can't picture myself here, because I haven't turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they're real?

I don't ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don't really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn't begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works - that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe "imagination" is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations - especially when what I'm presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn't have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn't beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don't truly want to be there, so perhaps it's a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I've ever had the good fortune to do and I'm thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I'm out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn't have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Lopez Island Morning

The house I am staying in is on a spit of land with a westward view of a bay and another spit of land. All day long, I could sit on the deck and watch the birds – gulls, heron, eagles, ducks – fish and splash and swim in the shallow, sandy bay. And just beyond it, on that other long finger of land, cars and trucks come and go, with the occasional knot of bicyclists and the rare jogger. There are no homes (yet) on that slim finger that is just to the west of where I am, but this morning, I woke to the bones of a crane just forming through the fog, so I know it is only a matter of time.

            There are homes in the webbing of the finger, though, the crotch of land that connects that spit to this one, and they are huddled close together with some clusters of wind-sculpted evergreen trees. Sitting on the deck this morning, peering through the thick mist, I am pleased that I can see far enough in front of me to watch the gulls scoop up clams, fly 40 feet up into the sky, and drop them on the rocks beneath to reveal their soft insides. Breakfast. I squint to see the houses just to the west and wonder if, from their vantage point, it is as foggy and grey as it seems to me from here, or whether they, too, have a clear visual field in front of them and I just can’t tell. Optics. 


            I wonder if we all assume that our vantage point is the Right one. From here, I think those homes are cloaked in fog and mist. I imagine looking out the window of one of those homes to see nothing but grey. But maybe that’s not accurate. 

            This morning it is so quiet that I can hear the flapping of the gulls’ wings as they rise out of the water. It is the sound of effort, of forward motion, and it prompts me to tighten the muscles of my belly as though I, too, am rising, pulsing my arms to lift myself. I think about how satisfying it feels to be tensing muscles, using my own strength to move. If I could think this way all the time, I would be better at going to the gym. I would have less cellulite and more stamina. Maybe what I need is to live someplace with this view all the time – watching these animals work to live in a gorgeous place. All of their movements purposeful. I am the kind of person for whom going to the gym feels artificial and contrived and there is little that makes me more aggravated than falsehood.


            Often, this morning, the peace is punctuated by gunshots. The first one came solo and prompted me to think that some angry gardener was dispatching one of the rabbits that outnumber people on this island. Perhaps he finally got tired of sharing his bounty with the fat bunnies feasting on his labor and leaving droppings in every patch of grass available. Gunshots are nearly always associated with ‘he’ in my mind. I know that there are women who shoot guns. Women who garden and get annoyed. And it’s not unimaginable in this place where yesterday I saw packs of dirt-stained children wrestling in open areas, wandering up to strangers to talk and pet their dogs, women with three or four of their own tagging along – none of whom are old enough to go to school quite yet. It’s not beyond imagination to expect one of them to sit down and bare her breast to a child who is tall enough to stand next to her and feed. That is the kind of island this is – hippies, home-schoolers, people who want to live away from the city. These women can do anything. I can tell. But it is hard for me to reconcile the peaceniks with gunshots. I know that is my own limitation. I accept it. I don’t know if I’ll work to unravel it or not. Right now, I am more interested in why the gunshots are increasing – now coming in groups of three or four. Who is shooting? What are they shooting? Why? 


My real desire is for them to stop. I’d like to slip back in to the stillness where the only sound is the beating of the birds’ wings as they lift off of the water or the swoosh it makes when they skid into the bay and touch down.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Mindful Approach to The Glass Half Full

Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? I like this exercise in perspective, because it's an easy way to remind ourselves that we always have a choice. But I've recently begun to evolve my thoughts on this common allegory.

It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes...) that said: It doesn't matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable. 

I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas - black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with "there are two kinds of people: those who...." I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.

To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.

But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to  lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don't want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren't giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can't be altered or 'fixed,' and then what do we do with the glass?

My mom has Alzheimer's and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn't refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn't mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace - the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.


Friday, July 07, 2017

That Pesky Minimum Wage Conversation

Photo from The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/07/democracy-vouchers-seattle-politics-low-income-homeless#img-2
It's been a while since I posted anything even remotely political here - likely due to the daily onslaught of information a la the Drumpf shitshow. Generally, when I post something in response to the political goings-on, it is after much thought and reflection, because often these things are murky and I like to have a clear head when I write about my positions. With the fast and furious, continual chocolates-on-a-conveyer-belt (think I Love Lucy) nature of our current administration, it has been nearly impossible for me to clear my head long enough to say anything coherent. I know I'm not alone.

However, one issue that keeps coming up in my world is the $15/hour minimum wage conversation. It was passed in Washington state, is being pushed in other states, was recently passed in British Columbia, has been analyzed by several university studies, and is hotly debated even as a national standard. I've read the news coverage of the studies, observed debates online, listened to folks talk about it on NPR, and am having a really hard time not being cynical about all of this.

For me, what it comes down to is humanity. (Ok, most everything comes down to that for me.) The simple fact is, even though some places have passed minimum wage legislation, there is nobody that I know of who works a minimum wage job and is currently being paid $15/hour. All of these measures are "phased in" over a period of time. And to be clear, $15/hour is NOT A LIVING WAGE in most places. $15/hour for a 40-hour week means that you are making $600 a week before taxes. That means that you're making less than $30,000 a year before taxes. Depending on how many people are in your household (would have to be five or more), that doesn't even qualify you for Medicaid without extenuating circumstances because the federal poverty level for 2017 for a family of four is $28,200.

So, the places that are passing these minimum wage bills are generally the ones where the standard of living is higher (ie. Seattle), which makes sense, given that if you want to live in Seattle and you're making $15/hour, your entire paycheck will go toward your rent. But since you don't hit the federal poverty level, you don't qualify for SNAP benefits, so I hope you like the taste of carpet, because that's all you'll be able to eat. Unless you work in a restaurant and you can nick some food there.

But, oops, remember, that these laws are being phased in. So if you're working a minimum wage job in Seattle right now, you aren't making $15/hour yet.

So. Yeah. Humanity.
One of the most vehement arguments against the $15/hour minimum wage I've seen in my liberal enclave of Seattle comes from small business owners like restaurateurs and hipster shop owners. They "can't afford" to pay folks that much and stay in business.

Go out of business.
I mean it. That might sound harsh, but if you can't afford to pay the people who work for you, the people in your own damn community, the people who are the face of your American dream, enough money so that they can live with a roof over their heads, know where their next meal is coming from (and it's not the trash can), and get to work without a 90-minute bus ride, you don't have a solid business plan and you should probably go back to the drawing board.

Businesses are not more important than people.
Just because you have a great idea for a small business that you think hipsters in Seattle will flock to doesn't mean you deserve to be in business. It should be part of your business plan to analyze whether you can pay your workers enough to live on, and offer them paid leave and health insurance. If you can't, find a place that's cheaper to set up shop so you can or go back to your day job. I have a dream, too. Lots of them. But if I am going to build those dreams on the backs of people whose lives depend on Medicaid funding and SNAP benefits (in this administration? Oy), then I'm living with blinders on. Big, white privilege blinders.

The studies that say that the $15/hour minimum wage will "hurt the economy," are putting businesses before humans. They are putting some nebulous, unpredictable "economy" before humans. Are we really a country that is so concerned with an idealized, unsustainable, continually growing pile of money that we are willing to let the people who work in entry-level and service jobs live on the streets? If we continue to argue that these kinds of policies will hurt businesses while we cut social services, that is exactly what we are saying. And in Seattle, it is what we're living. There are recent studies showing that the majority of people living on the streets are those who were working in low-wage jobs, with families, who simply couldn't afford to pay their rent - either because of some unforeseen medical catastrophe or by some slow attrition of their ability to pay their bills despite working at least one full time job.

I am not an economist (thank God!), and I appreciate that this is a complicated issue in some ways. But in the way that is most important, it is not complicated at all. If we care about our fellow human beings, we will find a way to make sure that they are taken care of. Period. We will lead with our morality and common humanity and figure out a way to make it work. That is how all dreams are made. Follow the dream and work out the details as you go.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Digestive Model of Emotional Processing

It occurs to me that our bodies and minds weren't  made to hold on to emotion. Nor were they made to reject it.

More and more, I think that the best method of experiencing emotions is the same way our bodies were made to digest food. We take it in, let it trace a path through the body where the pieces we need to utilize for repair and sustenance are extracted, and the rest is eliminated.

Too often, we treat emotions as something that we need to control and manipulate, but I think we're going about it all wrong. At least, most of us are.

Lola has the right idea. She is a natural at simply 'digesting' her emotions. She lets them come, acknowledges them, sits still while they make their way through whatever process they go through, and extracts what she needs from them - whether it's something she's learned or a closeness she feels with someone important.

There are others in my life who I see become constipated, holding on to the emotion or the story it conjures in their heads, letting it affect them in ways that are profound and lasting. They either wall off the emotions and prevent themselves from seeing the benefits, or they gain some of the benefit, but then become embittered and embrace a victimhood that allows the unpleasant, dysfunctional parts of the situation to remain without being removed.

And there are still others who are bulimic - rejecting certain emotions or situations violently by purging the emotion or denying the feelings conjured up. In this scenario, the individual is ultimately denying themselves the learning and growth that comes from processing difficult emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of hurt and struggle and their place in it.

Without allowing our bodies and minds to fully process what we are feeling in any given situation, we fail to learn that, in every challenging scenario, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a way to walk through pain and struggle, sadness and grief and suffering, and come out the other end a stronger, wiser person. But not if we become constipated or deny the reality of the situation altogether.

I am absolutely guilty of doing both of these things from time to time, and even if I do my best to process emotions like Lola, I can find it hard to not try to drive the process and make it fit my own timeline. But I'm learning that, like digesting my food, my body and mind have their own way of working with what I'm presented with, mining it for the good and letting go of the rest, and it is in my own best interest to simply let the process happen. I admit I've struggled a little with what that might look like, and the best conclusion I've come to thus far is to simply be mindful of the feelings and hold space for them, knowing that I can't possibly predict how long it will take or how impactful it will be.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dialogue Gone Wrong

I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, "selling past the close," as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.

And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I'm saying, or they've formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.

When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started.  Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.

Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others' versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the "right" one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn't agree with us, isn't awestruck by the story we've told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.

As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn't lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren't showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.

It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don't already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.

This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of 'our turn,') and then label ("that's racist," "that's wrong,") or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal ("that's not my experience; here's something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong"). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they've had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They've effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is "better," I am a smart person. If my position "loses," I am a stupid person.

Unfortunately, I don't often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can't I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn't about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way - when people can pause a moment after I'm done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) - I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing - to learn something we didn't already know.

I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others' efforts.
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