Monday, April 12, 2021

a lonesome thing

A pandemic is a lonesome thing. 

At home, with the cat who adores me and the blue light holding me in its thrall, I am never alone. 

But in reaching out and finding no hand reaching back, the gulf feels unbridgeable. 

As I said, a pandemic is a lonesome thing. 

In a year I've only been touched - for more than the briefest hug or littlest toddler cuddle - by people I pay. My massage therapist. A hair stylist. It is not enough. 

They are good at what they do, but they don't hold the length of me in their arms as I drift to sleep. They don't replenish the cells of my body like the pure water of a caress. They don't breathe new life into me with their kisses.

I walk out. I wander my neighborhood. I strain to make connection with friendly eyes since the rest of my face is hidden. 

And I shrink away. The too close shopper. The slipped mask. They are to be avoided, as I - a stranger with too bright eyes - is to be avoided. 

This unending pandemic is a lonesome thing. 

I signed up for match dot com and it revealed the writing embossed by this year. It has become a part of the story. 

Some guy on pleads "give me a chance." Please ignore the flashing red light. Please take me at this word, not my previous words. 

But I know. 

I know that the biggest mistakes I've ever made have come from listening to those words instead of to my heart. I know I don't belong there - that these guys are not the measure of THE man and thus cannot take his place. That as long as he's the measuring stick, I will stay alone.

A pandemic is a lonesome thing.

But some kinds of being lonely are okay.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

when a turtle is not just a turtle

For the past week or so, this turtle has been the wallpaper on both monitors of my work station. Today I changed it. 

I had chosen it as one of the most gorgeous photos in my collection, although I was not the photographer. It's a photo that captures a magical memory and makes me feel many wonderful things. 

But there was also a slight haunting about it. That distant time my body was warmed by sun, and sea, and champagne, and romance. Those time-faded beautiful beaches. Grasping at wandering the lively streets of Bridgetown. A sense of once taking risks and being spontaneous. 

Life is so much not that right now. It is good. And it is not that. The gap between that memory and this reality was too poignant. 

So I swapped it for another image - a picture from the same golden trip, but with crucial reminders of who I am right here, right now. 
I'll get back to the Caribbean. Maybe even to Barbados again. I'll swim with more sea turtles, feel white sand and sunshine. Eat Rock lobster and wash it down with rum. Lose myself in a smile. Someday, all of that can happen again. 

And, in the meantime, courage is here. Curiosity is ever-present. Compassion abides with me. And that is enough.

That's the thing with values. Wherever you go, even in the dark cold days of December, there they are. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Anthills of the Savannah: a review

Reading Chinua Achebe's 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah in the weeks leading up to the U.S 2020 elections was difficult on multiple levels. Looking back at it for this review while a childish despot attempts to cling to power is almost chilling. Achebe's story is a reflection of its time and place in history. It is also a timeless reminder of how quickly a democracy can become a dictatorship. 

I'm unused to novels confusing me. Maybe I should have taken more post-colonial literature courses in university. Mind you, what confused me wasn't the theme, the reflection of late-80s Africa struggling against years of colonialism and a sudden vacuum where power used to be, or even (in the end) the plot. It was the structure. 

I was never clear if it was an omniscient narrator or one of the characters narrating. I think the narrator changed now and then, and it was those unclear transitions that threw me. Or, maybe I was just not paying enough attention or the right attention. I did a lot of flipping back to earlier chapters in the first half of the book. Both the story and the characters were compelling enough to keep me fighting through my confusion. 

The female characters particularly stick with me, perhaps because my learning in anti-racism this year has taught me how essential and over-looked Black women are. Moreso, the females in this story were full characters with their own motivations and complexities, not just addenda to the male characters. They were active, and they held their spaces. 

Find it at your local bookstore
Being a political story of the 1980s, of course the main characters were male (no offense, Margaret Thatcher and Kim Campbell). While these characters were also drawn with some complexity, their roles as plot devices - the "newspaper editor," the "dictator," the "minister of information" - kept them fairly prescribed. They were harder to connect with as people. 

At this point, I could go off on a whole discussion of gender norms and assumptions, the performative stress of gender, and how that is reflected in this novel, but I won't. 

Missing for me, Africaphile that I am, was a sense of setting. Generally, stories about Africa contain descriptions of the savannah or desert or jungle, herds of wildlife, the heat of a burning sun. And, most of these tropes come from colonial/white writers treating Africa as an exotic and mysterious other world - think of Dinesen, Gullman, Conrad, et al. 

Since Achebe is Nigerian, "Africa" itself is not foreign or exotic to him. This is an urban story. It could be set in almost any capital city. It's valuable for me, in diversifying my reading, to see how I have a particular stance regarding these stories, even as I roll my eyes at others who talk of Africa as if it is a homogenous monolith. 

Anthills of the Savannah is short, rich, and engrossing. I highly recommend it. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

regarding values

This was such a bizarre year to set my intentions on being fulfilled and living by my values. Then again, maybe it was the perfect year. Periods of global confusion and upheaval (not to mention being repeatedly thwarted in my personal life) can be an opportunity to stop and think about what really matters to us as individuals, if we take a moment to reflect. 

While in shut down for the pandemic, what did you miss most? What did you resist doing and not doing? What old habits got you through? What new habits did you pick up that may or may not be fulfilling? Who could you rely on to make life better (or worse)? As communities re-opened, what did you do first? What have you still not bothered to do? 

Answers to these kinds of questions might point you in the direction of your values. For me, having identified my values before Covid-19 was a household word, let alone a universal source for memes, gave me something to hold on to, and also something to bump up against and question. If justice is a value for me, how does that show up in life? What action am I taking to expand justice? How does watching Netflix for up to 10 hours a day reflect valuing my vitality? Who have I connected with? 

My values have helped through the lonely and dark days, though often I find that my emotions determine how much attention I spend on my values when I think that the reverse would be more effective. I have a theory that I'd be more fulfilled (happier, more content, more energized, prouder of how I spend my time) if I prioritized exercising my values over giving in to just not feeling like it. 

Over the 22 weeks (April 26 - September 26) that I kept daily track of expressing my values, I was surprised to notice that observation didn't really make that much difference. I am generally motivated by gold stars and quantifiable results (tales still bubble up about that time I totally lost my sh*t over an unfair A- in university), but knowing that these tick marks would turn into a table and that ultimately I would share it here really didn't induce more action. 

I also have the feeling, though it's not provable in this graph, that the value of "Connection" is a cornerstone for activating other values. That may be because of the people with whom I connect: the people in my bubble are also adventurers, they will talk with me about Black Lives Matter and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. My friends get me out for walks or a swim. So on days when I experience connection, it almost always increases the overall tally.

Click to enlarge

What I had hoped to see, over time, was a gradual but consistent levelling out of the weekly totals. Looking for progress, not perfection, I thought that if I practiced each value 4 times a week that would show a level of balance and growth that seemed like it would support feeling fulfilled. In fact, over time, the weekly gaps got larger as values such as vitality and adventure rose and stayed elevated while faith and (more surprisingly) creativity floundered. 

As I've continued to read about values, I've realised that six is too many. Most "experts" suggest that three or four values probably cover it, and I think I've found my refined list*:

  • Courage (includes adventure, creativity, justice, vitality, and faith)
  • Curiosity (includes adventure, creativity, justice, vitality, and faith)
  • Compassion (includes connection, justice, and faith)
I'm going to keep pondering how these three values feel - are they sufficient? Are they true? Do they reflect who I have been, who I am, and who I want to be? More to come. 

Earlier posts in this inquiry include 

* Technically, I stole this list. I was asked in a job interview which of these 3 organizational values I most identified with, and had a very very hard time choosing. Thanks for the inspiration, interviewer.

Friday, September 25, 2020

the scale and the light

If you have a choice between love and acceptance, which do you choose? 
Sonya Renee Taylor

[Sorry - this post has A LOT of personal pronouns] Almost a year ago I took a mauling axe to my bathroom scale. I have had a very problematic relationship to the numbers it reported since I was a young adult, and I'd had enough. Mostly, I'd had enough of the conversations I was having with brilliant, talented, high-achieving women in my life, all of whom seemed to be on a diet, constantly talking about what they "could" or "couldn't" eat, and linking their humanity to a dress size. I needed a tangible rejection of that obsession.

I also know that as a group, these women and I were/are striving for an ideal that we all knew was never going to be attainable.  Even if gravity's effect on my body (measured in pounds) reached some mythic ideal, I was never going to have J Lo's butt, Michelle Obama's arms, or an abdomen free from a hatch-mark of scars and stretch marks. I was never going to escape my chronic illness. I was never going to have perfectly-aligned teeth.* 

That "not good enough" body I could never escape shows up in so many ways. It shows up in how I walk, and how I smile, and how I slouch into theatre chairs. It shows up in not wanting to buy quality clothing when I gain weight, then over-investing in smaller sizes when I shrink. It shows up as gratitude for being wanted instead of fidelity to my own desires. It shows up as thinking "f-the-world, I'll eat what I want," shame eating, having low energy and erratic moods, and berating myself. 

Of course, smashing the scale did not undo five decades of conditioning. I still look at my saggy belly with disgust. I have spent way too much energy and focus in the last 11 months suffering under the lashes of comparison, both with other bodies and with prior (thinner, smoother, stronger, sexier) expressions of my own body. I wore my two-piece swimsuits all summer, but I did it with the reassuring hum in my mind that "there will be someone fatter at the beach." Judge and compare. Judge and compare. Judge and compare. I had let go of a stone, but I was still dragging a sledge of judgement and self-hate, and a growing recognition that I don't have the tools or knowledge to get out of that yoke no matter how long I avoid the scale. 

Until, maybe, today. Today I listened to BrenĂ© Brown's podcast with Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body is not an Apology. I knew there would be richness in this podcast, so I set aside other distractions, got out my journal, and attempted active listening. I rewound moments when my mind drifted. I played over and over the truly perspective-shifting statements. And, I felt hope. Hope that all women (truly, all people - the body hierarchy is not just female) can let go of the idea that our bodies are a reflection of our wellness, our happiness, our desirability, our value, and our lovability. 

Spending one hour listening to a podcast can no more retrain me than smashing the bathroom scale did, but now I have a spark of hope that retraining is possible. I am not interested in body positivity. I am interested in being a whole, loving, loved human. What I find especially powerful in Taylor's work is her linking of body politics and social justice. I'm not going to explain that link as I don't understand it clearly enough yet, but hearing that the cultural belief "some bodies are better than other bodies" is the basis for racism, misogyny, ableism, homo and transphobia, etc affirmed my discomfort with diet culture and body privilege. In Taylor's words,

All of our systems ... of oppression based on the body are attempts to navigate the ladder of social heirarchy. 

If someone - some body - is better than another, that 'other' is equally inferior. The system is inherently one of oppression. Which, by extension, means that redirecting my energy from my measurements and dress size can be a personal act of freedom, justice, and resistance. That is inspiring for me. I can't wait to buy and learn from Taylor's book, and to carry that learning with me as a guiding light in this strange and new land. Oh, I'd still like to look like a model. I want to have the strength, stamina and agility for adventures with my grandson as he grows. As I age, I'd like to continue travelling without worrying about my health. I want, again, to experience sex without embarrassment. I also want to do all those things without linking them to my value as a human being, being trapped in comparison, or contributing to the oppression of other people. I choose radical self-love over self-acceptance - or at least I will with practice. 

 You can listen to the podcast here: 

* I recognise that other bodies present different culturally-created obstacles to self-love: bodies of colour, bodies outside the gender binary, bodies with disabilities, thin bodies, short bodies, hirsute bodies, and so many more. No human is free from the body hierarchy. I hope someday we will be.
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