Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Becoming: a belated review

As I sit here this morning struggling my way through the current prompt in my copy of Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice it occurs to me that I never reviewed the book that prompted this journal, Michelle Obama's autobiography Becoming

I have a romanticized idea of the Obamas that Becoming somewhat reinforced but also somewhat reduced. More than anything, Michelle Obama's writing reveals the lived lives of real people - people who fight, people who fear, and people who get angry but know better than to show it, most of the time. 

What stayed with me from Michelle Obama's perspective is her sense of self. From an early age, her parents instilled in Michelle a belief that she could have and be anything she wanted, but not without effort. She is not a romanticist - I believe that may fall more to her husband - Michelle is a woman who worked hard to maximise the opportunities presented to her, who is learned and accomplished in her own ways, and who still struggles with the injustice and unfairness of the world. I will admit I admired and appreciated the brief glimpses of eye-roll Michelle that she reveals in the book, imperfection is endearing, relatable, and human.

Becoming is personal without being self-obsessed, moving without being manipulative, and inspiring without drama. Michelle Obama showed me a new way to write that is simple, strong and honest.

My tl:dr review:

  • Loved it
  • Recommend it
  • Would read more from this author

Monday, January 20, 2020


Since the turn of the decade, I've been playing with the idea of a fulfilled life. What would that look like? What would it take to go to bed each night clear you've done something that fulfilled you? What builds character and abilities, or satisfies a promise or expected outcome? What dreams that I've dreamed would still be fulfilling to achieve? 

One of my favourite quotes. 
It seemed to me like a useful tool for answering these questions would be to start with clearly-defined values - how could I know what fulfills me without knowing what truly matters to me? Values are talked about frequently, but how many of us spend time clearly defining them for ourselves? What activities do we undertake without even the attached values? For example, I love to travel. However, "travel" isn't a value; it's an activity - the values behind it for me it learning and experiencing new things, a desire to understand the lives of other people, curiosity, openness. Conversely, I spend a lot of time watching TV, but nothing in that activity relates to my core values so it doesn't enrich or fulfill me. 

Over the course of the last 10 days or so I've worked my way, purposefully and slowly, through Scott Jeffrey's Seven Steps to Uncovering Your Personal Values. Although I consider myself fairly self-aware, it was still useful to follow these steps to affirm some assumed values and to uncover or clarify some others. 

In the end, I identified 5 core values and created 5 related value statements. It occurs to me now that these cover everything except my spiritual life. I'll spend some time considering how I want to include that, or if a "statement of faith" would be a separate thing. As always, being a human is a work in progress, and I reserve the right to change my mind about all of this. 

My Core Values: 

Adventure: I dance through life with openness and curiosity, visiting new lands and enriching my mind. 

Creativity: I  create, and support the creation of, beauty, art and authentic human expression. 

Justice: I activate my privilege for the good of all people, leading to global social and economic justice. 

Connection: I contribute to others and invite contribution through teamwork and actively engaging in community. 

Vitality: I experience strength, stamina and flexibility in mind and body through passionate growth at any stage of life. 

Up next - revisiting my 100 item quest list with my values in mind and see where that leads. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

So, it's 2020 is it.

I have not written in so long that I'm surprised to find my blog still exists. My typing is so full of stumbles I hardly know if my fingers are in the right places. But, if how I feel today is any indication, maybe that's all going to change. Because, you know - everything changes on January 1, right? Ha.

Almost 5 years ago I wrote a list of 100 things I'd like to do, be, or experience. I had a running start at it, but interruptions in cash flow and a crisis of confidence have slowed my ability to cross things off that list. Oh sure, some of them didn't require money, but 2019 was largely about survival for me, which doesn't leave a lot of energy for creating.

I don't tend to write New Year's resolutions, but I do find December a good time to reflect on the closing year and set an intention for the coming one. I struggled this year to find a word for that intention that really inspires me. "Vision" and "Focus" both came to mind but

a. neither really hit the mark on what I want this year to be
b. I HATE puns so for 2020, nothing sight-related would do.

And then I found it - a word with two primary meanings, both of which have been missing from my life lately.

It has been my experience that achieving things I desire or promise (to myself or others) leads to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of developing myself. And, to be immodest, I've been pretty good at those things, in general. I've certainly long considered myself someone who manages to cross things off a list. For all the personal development work I've done though, my abilities and character are definitely not "fully developed." There's room to grow.

So, I'm looking forward to a fulfilling year: to crossing things off lists old and new (first step - updating my Quest for Plenty into a Quest for Fulfillment); to developing my abilities and character; to achieving desires and keeping promises.

PS: One of those promises I make right now to the three people who keep asking - I will write more. Consciously and with an eye to fully developing that ability.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

it's the end of the world as we know it, and ...?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the fin de siecle, that period near the end of the 19th century when people (read: Western Europe and its diaspora) had a collective panic attack following one of the biggest cultural shifts in modern history. After decades (centuries?) of accelerating change - the Industrial Revolution changing modes of production and ways of life that had lasted for eons and creating the new middle class; transportation by steam train and steamship beginning to shrink the world and allowing for increased global exploration with its attendant challenges and shifting colonial empires; increased literacy from the burgeoning educated (or inculcated) middle-class kids resulting in increased questioning of what people had been taught was so by religion and the always educated elite. The burgeoning field of psychoanalysis even made sex and family more confusing, as if they needed any help.  ... the list goes on, and it resulted in a maelstrom of angst that carried over into the early days of the 20th century, through the death of the great mother Queen Victoria, and slowly petered out over World War 1 and the following Depression (think "I'll give you something to cry about"). The roaring 20's, women's sufferage, the Bolshevik Revolution, and American prohibition all find their roots in the easing of this global (read: Western European and its diaspora) freak-out, as the now powerful middle class began to test its muscle, and created some level of increased social justice after all the strain. 

There's a lot in the fin de siecle that reminds me of today. A relatively long period since a global war, rapid changes in technology and modes of production (anybody worried about robots taking their job, or being moved from full-time permanent to contract, or having their job outsourced overseas knows what I'm talking about). Reality is tested constantly, we what was science fiction or dystopic fantasy 5 years ago comes true.

It really is true that the more things change the more they stay the same. Presumably, Yeats was right about his cycles, and here we are on this gyre, approaching the next descent (if we aren't already in free fall). If you've ever ridden a roller coaster, you know that the most terrifying part is not the sudden and rapid descent - that part is exhilarating. No, the terror comes just moments before the fall, as your car eeks past where you can see anything supporting you from below, and you can't see what's ahead. 

In many ways, we are creating the new panic ourselves with our obsessive online presence consuming ever more pieces of information (whether that information is accurate or not) and feeding us constant new worries about the impending collapse of the environment, a constantly heightened feeling of outrage at . . . everyone and everything, and seeing that not only does the emperor have no clothes, he has no morals, no filter, and no brain. Russians are spying on us (WHY?) through every e-means possible. Instant online shaming has removed the veil of "civilization" from our civilization, as we realise that X is a racist, Y is an anti-vaxxer, and Martha won't shut up about her damn spice mix. And if the butter doesn't kill you the sugar will. Is it any wonder that across most of the white Western world there are considerable spikes in mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety? Can we presume a correlation with the sudden flood of autoimmune diseases as our bodies literally attack themselves? 

The good news about a cycle is that for every down there's an up. And so we slouch on towards our own rebirth, Maybe, along the way, we can pull our heads out of our online personas long enough to check in with each other. Have tea with a living breathing panicking friend. They may not know they are panicking, but as part of society, it's around them. Go for a walk in the woods or by water and remember that while things may not be permanent, but they're as close as humans can get. Choose your battles, if you must have them, and gird yourself with some actual research, critical thinking, and common sense. We have the chance, through all this upheaval, to create another new reality, another burst of social and environmental justice, and maybe new ways of relating to one another. 

And if you can't do any of that, maybe just hit pause and have a good old dance party. As always, Great Big Sea has a song just for the occasion:

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Educated: a review

It has been almost a year since I blogged, and almost two years since I blogged a book review, but Tara Westover's autobiography Educated had my mind racing in ways that only writing about it can calm. Educated is somehow harrowing without drama, and loving without blindness. It is about family, and memory, and home, but it is also about the power of an educated mind, especially as a tool for self-creation and a road to freedom. 

As someone with a Humanities education, I have long been confronted by questions about the utility of my education. In response I have tried to articulate - without Westover's power and clarity - that the value of my education is not in my paycheque, but in my understanding of the world around me and of myself (not to mention, critical thinking, research, and writing skills are hugely marketable, but not the point). Like others who have studied literature, culture, history - or more to the point - historiography, and philosophy, information helps me understand myself and the world. People are confusing; the more I read, the more I feel like maybe it's not just me who is confused by them and the more answers I find to that confusion. It was personally affirming to follow along as Tara Westover's journey proved the same.

Right - Tara Westover. Tara was the youngest of seven children in her family, all raised on the mountainside of Buck's Peak in Idaho. Her family are Mormons, but more centrally are off-grid survivalists. Her father saw every arm of the government as a threat, so the children were never sent to school, never allowed to see a doctor, and subjected to seemingly unrelenting indoctrination by a father who may have had undiagnosed and untreated mental illness (Tara suggests either bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, but again - he was never diagnosed). At least one of Tara's brothers was a serial abuser of his younger siblings, subjecting them to psychological terror and harsh physical pain. Her mom may have wanted to help, but didn't. The family's hard life scratching out a junkyard existence on the mountainside results in several serious injuries, including untreated traumatic brain injuries of the abusive brother and mother - that's a whole different and important topic.

What struck me from cover to cover is how much Tara loves her family, and how that (misplaced?) loyalty in many ways is both the power behind and a barrier to Tara's growth. At 16, having never stepped foot in a classroom and been homeschooled in name only (the house had about 5 books, including the book of Mormon, and the children taught each other to read, but not much more), Tara gained acceptance to Brigham Young University with a brother's help and insistence. Tara's financial reliance on a scholarship motivated her early success in university, but no amount of poverty can explain how she blossomed in an academic setting. The psychological impact of Tara's difficult childhood, not to mention the deterioration of her family relationships as the story progresses, is recognized by her roommates, friends, her bishop, and professors, but that aforementioned loyalty keeps her from seeking help freely.

Despite all of that, Tara completes her undergraduate degree at BYU, receives a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge, completes a fellowship at Harvard, and ultimately earns a PhD from Cambridge, all by the age of 28. That's impressive stuff. Even more impressive, however, is that Tara was able to free her mind from inconceivably harsh indoctrination that had young Tara doubting every thought and action. As she says,
“I actually believed that I was crazy. I have a theory that all abuse, no matter what kind of abuse it is, is foremost an assault on the mind. I think if you’re going to abuse someone you really have to convince them of two things. First you have to normalise what you’re doing, convince them that it’s not that bad. And the second thing is to convince them that they deserve it in some way."
This, for those who are unclear, is the ultimate description and evil of gaslighting - being brought to question your own reality. That Tara overcame that is even more impressive to me than her academic success.

Westover is a powerful writer. You can smell the fresh air of Buck's Peak and feel the warmth of her horses' breath as sharply as you can feel the cold sharp blade of the knife her brother places in her hand. If you like beautiful, powerful writing, you can read this as a story. If you want to better understand family, loyalty, self-development, and how hard it is to overcome our pasts, you'll find no better read. 
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