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. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

fu is good motivation

An old, old draft with still current truths:

There are those moments - infrequent and powerful when I'm REALLY riled up right now. I just experienced something that I think is sneaky, under-handed, and only explainable as either ass-covering or finger-pointing. I'm so angry I could spit - preferably in the perpetrator's face. And yet, in the hour or so since I've figured out what happened, I have gotten more done than I ever do in the last hour of work. My reminder just popped up to tell me to go home (yes, I set a reminder to tell me it's time to go home - my home time matters to me), and I couldn't believe that between 3 and 4:30 the time just went poof! I've experienced this before. There's some part of FU, a phrase I often experience viscerally even if I don't say it out loud, that is accompanied by 'I'll show you!' 

It first happened in one of my earliest university voice lessons. I was in new territory, with an extremely intimidating teacher, Barbara, in a very warm, small room doing what I thought was my best to belt out whatever song she'd chosen for that day. The window was open to give us some hope of a breeze and fresh air, and suddenly I heard it - the voice of a boy I'd only just met (two weeks into university as we were) but already developed an enormous crush on. He was dreamy, and soulful, and distant, and so very very lovely and I heard him laughing with friends as he exited the cafeteria to sit at the picnic table outside the rehearsal room. 

Mid-phrase, my voice shrank to a pretty, melodic whisper. Barbara stopped playing, swivelled in her chair and all but yelled at me,  "What do you call that? If you're going to turn into a mouse just because a boy is outside, just get out now and stop wasting both of our time!" 

I just knew he'd heard. I was embarrassed - beet red instantly, angry at being embarrassed, and so very very ashamed. I couldn't leave, or he'd know who it was that stopped singing for him. I couldn't let her treat me like that. I couldn't ... I couldn't ... I couldn't do anything but sing. 

And so I did. At the top of my lungs. In a powerful voice I didn't know I had and only seldom have accessed since. She smiled, said that was more like it, and wrapped things up for the day. 

He was still sitting outside when I left. Said hi, and that I sounded great. And I tried not to die even more with the confirmation that he'd heard the whole exchange. Still, he said hi. And he thought I sounded great. And I knew, that for at least that moment, I did sound great. 

It happened again when I returned to university after 7 years as an unhappy housewife. The professor who dared tell me I didn't have what it took and that it was always going to be easier for the smarter students, had to re-write the marking strategy for an exam when I was the only one to ace it and the majority of the class failed. 

It's a funny reaction. I wonder what life would be like if I didn't have to have something to prove in order to do my best. The truth is, I think I am doing my best the rest of the time. But in those moments of furious proof-making, I wonder who really lurks inside me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

bad math

"I thought she was 'the 1'," he sighed.
The calculation in my brain instantaneous.
I counted my frozen breath.
"1" - the difference in the friendly smile that did not reach my eyes;
"I thought you were the 1; sometimes I still do,"
I did not reply. 

His 1 and my 1 had never quite equaled 2.

In fact, we are told that 1 plus 1 should equal 1.
That whole numbers are comprised of 2 other wholes.
And when it doesn't add up,
(1 equals 0) plus (1 equals 0)
Equals 0.
Oddly, 2 minus 1 also equals 0.

We never talk about the minus 1.
Or about the infinity that exists between 0 and 1.

We are cordially invited to plus 1,
Preferably "the 1."
So we push on, looking for the next 1.
Are you "the 1"?
Are you "the 1"?

"You told me countless times 
you didn't believe in 'the 1',"
I didn't reply.
Because I know that sum.
He didn't believe in "the 1,"
Like I didn't believe in Infinity.
Like an unbeliever can't believe
Until they see the proof.

Friday, July 20, 2018


I had a conversation today that was beautiful and bittersweet, honest and forgiving, brave and tender, and in which I was lovingly reminded that the real me shines and sparkles and is a light.

It broke me all over again. In the best way - in the Leonard Cohen way. And it reminded me of this song that I just heard on Wednesday. 

 Sometimes what isn't everything is also enough.

When you were young
Where did you hide
When the ghosts under your bed made you cry?
Just yesterday
Where did you run
Did you lose your way before the day’d begun?

You were lonely for a while
Did you find your mother’s smile
And did it shine on
Shine on

Where did you think
You’d be by now
Did it look like somewhere else someway, somehow?
When you drove away
Was there a sound
A simple melody that turned it all around?

And the moment you were gone
Did you hear your favourite song
And did it shine on
Shine on

Sometimes it hides
In the hardest times
A most beautiful blessing in disguise

Even on the darkest days
There’s a spark to light the way
And let it shine on
Shine on

Appears on ‘So Let’s Go
By Alan Doyle
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...