Me Too, Not Me

[Warning: this post contains explicit content / language]

Like many in the past week or so, my Facebook feed has been full of posts from women (myself included) participating in the #MeToo movement, as well as essays written by women for various news outlets. Along with these posts, there have been a number of posts and comments from men responding. As might be expected, there has been a range of responses: men taking ownership of this issue and expressing a desire to reflect on their own lives and interactions with women, vows to take action, admissions of bewilderment and surprise at what’s going on, and flat out denial and attack.

The kind of response that seems to be the most common, though, is one I’ve seen in quite a few comment sections in several different forums. It goes something like this:

There is a post by someone (usually a woman, but sometimes also a man) pointing out that yes, this issue is far more widespread and pervasive in our culture than most men realize, and men need to acknowledge the part they play in that and take an active role in changing things. Without fail, the comments section will be filled with a significant number of men saying something to the effect of “I feel bad for what all you women have suffered, but not all men are the problem / I am a good man who’s always treated women respectfully / it’s not fair to blame all men for the acts of a few creeps or predators / don’t equate flirting or asking someone on a date with rape / you’re going to alienate all men if you unfairly accuse them.” As is often the case in difficult conversations, people engaged in the same conversation are talking about two very different things. While troubling, this is hardly surprising.

I have two older brothers, and they are both deeply good, decent men. They respect women. The thought of them ever saying something crude or demeaning to a woman is ludicrous to me because what I know of their character, nature, and a lifetime of observed behavior is completely antithetical to that. But here’s what’s also true: even though we grew up in the same house, went to the same church, attended the same schools, and walked/biked/played on the same streets, we lived—at least in some ways—in two very different worlds.

I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian home, where clothes were modest, language and behavior were expected to be above reproach, and contact with “worldliness” (movies, television, school dances, makeup, rock music, dating) was extremely limited. And yet by the age of 15, I had experienced boys/men yelling out of car windows or from bikes as they whizzed by that I should suck their dicks or fuck them. When faded jeans came into fashion and I wore my first pair to school, a boy jeeringly asked me how they got so faded at the knees. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was something bad and degrading, and I thought about it every time I put on those jeans.

When I was in the eighth grade, my mother took me shopping and bought me a new pair of white capri pants and a red shirt with white buttons on the front. I often wore my sister’s hand-me-downs, so it was exciting to have a brand new outfit. When I put it on for the first time to wear to school, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I looked pretty, which wasn’t something I thought often in junior high. I loved the bright colors and felt happy in that outfit all day. Then, on the bike ride home from school, I rode past a man in a black Trans Am (one of those with a gold eagle painted on the hood) who was stopped at a light and whistled as I went by. I didn’t think much of it until I saw him drive past me, pull into a driveway, wait until I passed, then drive ahead and wait for me to pass again in another driveway. Each time I passed, he made crude comments about what he’d like to do to me from his open window. He followed me for over a mile, and I managed to get away from him only when I faked him out at a light, pretending I was going to wait and cross in one direction, then pedaling ahead through a yellow light after he’d made the turn. I rode the rest of the way home in terror, looking over my shoulder constantly, waiting to see if he’d reappear. I never wore that outfit to school again, and for weeks after that on my bike rides home, my heart would pound and I would start to shake if I caught even a glimpse of a black car. I was thirteen.

I have been followed by men on numerous other occasions, endured speculation about whether Asian women really do have tighter vaginas, been subjected to “jokes” by drunk college boys on the commuter bus from Cambridge to Wellesley when I was coming home from seeing a movie with friends (sample: “How is a piece of gum like a dick? It goes in hard and dry and comes out wet and soft”). I’ve been groped by strangers while riding public transportation or walking through crowded areas. I’ve walked by males sitting with their brothers/buddies who’ve called out numbered scores rating my appearance/body. And, of course, there are the demeaning names, prompts from strange men to give them a smile, the whistling, and the body-raking looks that are too numerous to count.

And here’s the thing: I’m pretty certain my brothers don’t know about any of these incidents. Why? Because it wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about. When I was a child/teenager and these kinds of things would happen, my response would usually be surprise and confusion (Are they talking to me? But what does that mean? Why are they saying that to me? Did I do something?) followed by embarrassment and shame, a feeling of degradation and dirtiness. I wanted to forget about and hide those experiences, not talk about them openly. There was no model for talking about those things openly, so it didn’t even occur to me that I could talk about them, much less know how to do so. As I got older and these incidents became more and more numerous, I learned—as most if not all women do—to ignore or shut them out, to move on with my life and not define myself according to these incidents (a luxury some women aren’t able to enjoy due to far worse experiences). I took self-defense classes. I bought pepper spray. I learned to wear a mask of cool oblivion and carry my keys pointing out when passing men in pairs or groups.

To those who might be asking, “Why didn’t you speak out against those guys?” there are several reasons. 1) I was too surprised/caught off guard in the moment and didn’t have the chance to formulate an appropriate response (although I’d spend hours later imagining things I could have said/done).  2) It would have been unsafe to do so.  3) When I did speak out, I was told I needed to get a sense of humor, to learn how to take a compliment, to stop being over-sensitive or over-reacting, or to not be such a frigid/uptight bitch.

So, let’s get back to articles like this and the responses to them where men say “Don’t blame all men / I’m not one of the bad guys / etc.” No one (at least in the articles that I’ve read) is calling all men terrible. No one is equating the average Joe nice guy with predators and rapists. What they are trying to point out is that the attitudes and behaviors that lead to this kind of widespread mistreatment of women are a deeply rooted, inherent part of our culture, and culture is something everyone is both shaped by and responsible for, however active or passive our participation. And, men, when you still have so much more power than women in so many of the arenas that shape this culture, you also have that much more responsibility.

To provide an analogous situation, I don’t consider myself a racist person. I’ve been subject to racism myself and believe in respect and justice for all who bear God’s image. That said, I also have to acknowledge that I live a very privileged and oblivious life in many ways that others in my neighborhood, city, and country aren’t able to, and that’s not right. I also have to acknowledge that I am capable of high levels of self-deception and my memory is highly selective. I might not be as “innocent” as I believe I am. So, yes, there are a lot of good men out there when it comes to how they view/treat women. But the assertion that it’s only a minority of men who are responsible for anything bad or wrong doesn’t match the widespread nature and sheer volume of negative experiences that females have or have had. The numbers just don’t add up. When men insist they’ve never witnessed any of this type of treatment of women or don’t know what women are talking about, that’s not a defense—it’s an unwitting confession of their lack of awareness.

Where it gets complicated (and it IS complicated) is all those grey areas, which is where most of us live.

Example #1: I once borrowed a shirt from a male coworker for a school spirit dress up day, and when I returned it to him, I told him I’d washed it so it was clean. He responded, “Oh, so my shirt got washed with your underwear? Hmm…” and he waggled his eyebrows and laughed. I felt uncomfortable, but I also laughed and said, “Actually, I washed it with a load of my dad’s boxers.” This happened years ago, and I’ve now worked with and been friends with this man for 20 years. He’s a good man–a husband, father, and mentor to countless young people whose lives he’s shaped for the better. At the time he made this comment, we were both single, and I think he was trying to be a little flirty or just funny. I recognized that he didn’t mean any harm, which is why I gave him a pass and let it go. I didn’t want to make a “big deal” out of it. Still, it was an inappropriate comment and it made me feel kind of icky. He’s a man who, if I pointed it out to him now, would recognize it was wrong and apologize to me. But he didn’t recognize it at the time, and I’m guessing he probably thinks of himself as one of the “good guys.” And he is a good guy. But good guys can think/say/do inappropriate things too.

Example #2: A pastor at my church preached a sermon on the book of Ruth one Sunday this summer. He prefaced it by expressing his own previous lack of interest in the story and generalized that into the premise that a lot of people tend to overlook this story because “it’s such a domestic story.” He went on to assert that this “domestic” tale (he used the term several times) was actually—surprisingly (at least to him)—a story rich with meaning and significance. I’m pretty sure he was just trying to set up the rest of his sermon in an engaging way, but it still came across a little like, Hey! A story about two women and how one of them gets married can actually have importance and relevance to everyone! Who’d a thunk it? And yet this is another really great guy—a deeply thoughtful, intellectual, and perceptive man who has always shown great respect for women.

Example #3: When I was a teenager playing a game with my brothers and some of their friends, there was a lot of typical guy joking—insults and teasing, primarily. When I joined in (after just listening and observing for a while) and teased one of them in a similar manner, he was clearly taken aback, and another one of them said, “Katherine, you’d better watch that sharp tongue of yours or no man is going to want to marry you.” There was an uncomfortable silence, during which I smarted, humiliated. My brothers didn’t say anything, and the game continued.

Now what do any of these examples have to do with men catcalling or stalking or groping women? Not much, on the surface of things. But if you consider that behavior and the attitudes that inform behavior exist on a spectrum, there is a connection. It’s a subtle connection, easy to overlook or deny, but it’s still there. It’s there in the message that men are the main characters in this world and women are the supporting players; there in the socialization of girls and women to be “nice” and always consider other people’s feelings first—to not cause a fuss; there in the frequent assumption that women’s concerns / issues / experiences are relevant only to them while men’s concerns/ issues /experiences are typically assumed to be universal; there in the widespread portrayal and discussion of girls and women in pop culture and media as primarily sexual objects to be evaluated by their appearance / bodies and treated accordingly. It’s there in the looks, the jokes, the tones of voice.

It’s there in the language.

Here’s a list of words/terms from the English language, both historic and present, that can be (and are often) used by men to address or describe adult women in a way that’s condescending / diminishing / disparaging:

girl
young lady
sweetheart/sweetie
baby
honey
little lady
air head
ditz
spinster
old maid
cougar
MILF
nag
scold
shrew
tart
skank
slut
whore
bitch
cunt

Now, here’s a list of terms used to address or talk about grown men in a condescending / diminishing / disparaging way:

boy (though more rare as a negative unless directed towards an African American man)
jerk
creep
pussy
douchebag
son-of-a-bitch
prick
dick
bastard
asshole
cocksucker

Now, let’s take out the terms that still manage to denigrate/stigmatize women even though they’re aimed at men, along with the one that denigrates gays. That leaves us with:

boy
creep
jerk
prick
dick
asshole

I’m probably forgetting words from both lists, but this gives you an idea. And it’s just one area of many where there are significant disparities that contribute to a culture of sexual harassment.

No, men, of course you are not all horrible creeps and predators. No, women aren’t saints—we have our dysfunction and brokenness too. And yes, we live in a world that is messy and complicated and confusing. It is also beautiful and amazing and good. But things are not as they should be, and some of that wrongness and imbalance is happening right under your nose, has possibly happened in your own life and interactions. And maybe it’s not fair that you have to bear the weight and responsibility of other men’s sins. But that’s what girls and women have had to do (and still have to do) on a regular basis for more years and in more ways than can ever be counted.

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Four Poems

Sparrows

We found them after the tree trimmers
had loaded up their machines and gone—
two baby sparrows in the grass, tumbled
like ripe fruit. We placed a shoebox on a heating
pad, lined it with soft cloth, and watched them
squeak and squirm, all purplish crepe skin,
bulging eyes shut. Our mother promised us
she’d feed them when it was time to go to school,
sugar water squeezed from a tiny dropper
into even tinier beaks. I picture her kneeling
over the box every two hours, laboring to save
what could not possibly be saved. Twenty years
later, her pale limbs swollen and still under a light
blue blanket, we too labor, squeezing water
from pink sponges into her slack mouth, more
of it dribbling out than in, love compelling us,
as it does, through the motions of giving life,
as though death had not already made its claim.

 

Power

True that tenderness never stopped
a bomb, got a man elected
president, or netted billions
in market shares. But when
my father stands in the wedge
between car and car door,
clutching the frame and trembling,
and my brother positions the wheelchair
behind him, grasps him under the arms,
guides him into the nylon seat
for the hundredth time as gently
and unhurried as the first,
I want to bow down.

(first published in Qu Summer 2017 issue:
http://www.qulitmag.com/sparrows/
http://www.qulitmag.com/power/)

 

dream : logic

Last night I dreamed I was at a party with a house full of people,
and there was only   one     small cake     and a tiny    carton
of ice cream      and I was raging     at the one      responsible
for thinking     that would be     enough      then       (already
it is slipping away)    I was trying     to type           my name
into a computer     to register      for something       and a man
next to me     also typing      kept      erasing it      with his
I was in     an airport terminal      and my dead mother      was
rolling a carry-on     urging me to hurry        so we wouldn’t be
late to meet     my brother      who came out           of another
terminal   rolling a bag amid   a crowd of travelers  rolling bags
and I wonder   what it all    means     if there’s       a lesson:
there should always be enough cake and ice cream for everyone,
and hard as you try to be someone, someone else’s trying might
be stronger, and we will carry a bag with us in heaven and we’ll
find who we’ve been looking for arriving at the next gate.

 

Fake It

At least go through the motions
of kindness, generosity, love,

working out your prune heart
in reps of ten, then twenty—

whatever makes you feel
the ache of something changing.

Your father peeled an orange
every morning of your childhood,

dropped membraned portions
into your hands, cupped

with readiness. You know how
it is done. Dig with your thumbs,

pierce the pebbled rind.
Peel away the bitter until

the juice below sprays up
and stings the eye.

(first published in The Timberline Review Summer/Fall 2017 issue:
http://timberlinereview.com/)

All The Married Ladies

Going to church has become something of a fraught experience in the last year, and not for the reasons people might think. It’s got nothing to do with God or doubts about my faith. It’s got everything to do with the fact that, after years of being happily single, I am now happily in a relationship, and I am discovering that, as Caitlan Moran writes in her book How to Be A Woman, “For some reason, the world really wants to know when women are having children.” I would add that the world also really wants to know when women are going to get married and how their romantic relationships are going, as if their lives have become an ongoing rom-com and the world is its eager, popcorn-eating audience.

I’ve encountered this as a single woman plenty of times, but what I hadn’t realized is that it gets even worse once you’ve been dating someone long enough for it to be considered, you know, a relationship. A few months into mine, a woman I typically speak to about twice a year strode up to me and breathlessly asked, “Are you still dating X?” “Um, yeah,” I replied, unsure of how to interpret her abrupt intensity. “Oh, good! I mean, I haven’t seen you two together in a while, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear! I hope Katherine hasn’t broken X’s heart!'” At which point she laughed like it was all jolly good fun while I wrestled with the implication that I would obviously be the one to end the relationship and break hearts. Granted, X has been through some tragic stuff that the entire church knows about, so there are some pretty high hopes for his happiness and general well-being (no pressure there!), which I get, but still.

About the time X and I hit the year mark of dating, I was coming out of the bathroom at church and ran into a woman I hadn’t spoken to in months. I asked how she was doing, she talked some about her kids, and pretty much the next question out of her mouth was, “Are you and X are still dating?” When I confirmed that we were, she asked, “So are you guys talking about marriage?”

Then there was the time I was washing my hands in the bathroom (no, I don’t spend all my time in the bathroom–it’s just where I tend to run into other women), and in walked a woman whom I’ve been avoiding the last few months. Why? Because the last time I saw her, she’d jubilantly exclaimed, “I can stop praying for you now that you’ve found such a wonderful man!” and then told one of my single friends, “Now we need to pray for YOU!” So there I was in the bathroom, trapped at the sink, and as she started to ask me something (three guesses what), I interrupted her to tell her I had to run because I was on duty in the nursery. Which was entirely true since I volunteer to help out there once a month. My secret satisfaction at having a bullet-proof ‘out’ from an awkward conversation I didn’t want to have burst when she nodded knowingly and said, “The nursery? Good! Getting some practice, eh?”

A few weeks later, I was in the middle of talking to some people, and another woman I’ve had about six conversations with in the past fifteen years snuck up behind me, grabbed my left hand, and crowed, “Just checking!”

I could go on. And here’s the thing. These are nice ladies. The one making comments about getting baby practice and the one grabbing my hand are both bedrocks of our church—the kind of ladies who wear corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks and will drop everything to bake a casserole for anyone in need. They are motherly and sweet and good, and I truly do honor and love them. And the other women who have made comments and asked questions? Also really nice, good, intelligent people.

But I’ve got to be honest: these comments, questions, and little winky moments are really fucking annoying. Here’s why:

  1. While they may not be consciously doing so, they are making some pretty big assumptions. They are assuming that I automatically want to get married and have babies and that these are the only things that will truly make me happy and fulfilled.
  2. They are ignoring (and therefore devaluing) all the other wonderful things going on in my life that are an important part of who I am.
  3. They are being nosy and intrusive about things that are really none of their business.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does still shock me that we are living in 2017 and there are still so many women—married women—who assume that the primary aim of all other women is to find a man and have babies. And yes, I’m singling out women, because I have never experienced a man asking me about my dating life, asking whether I’m talking marriage with my boyfriend, or making comments to me about babies. Men ask me about what I’m reading, how work is going, what TV shows I’m currently watching, and so on. Anyway, back to some women and their assumptions and why I get fired up about this:

  1. Assuming a woman’s highest happiness/fulfillment comes from a husband and children is limiting and even damaging in two ways: it demeans single women and sets up unrealistic expectations for women who do get married and have kids and think that’s going to lead to an automatic happily-ever-after. I have written before about being single, and I can truthfully say that I found that time of my life to be just as meaningful, happy, and fulfilling as my current life of being in a relationship. In fact, part of what makes my current relationship so great is that I came into it NOT looking for it or needing it. I wasn’t looking for a man to fulfill me or make me feel happy or special. X doesn’t have to complete me or fill some hole inside me. And thank goodness, because what a lot of pressure on him that would be and often is for many men and women in relationships. It’s not to say that I don’t need anything from him, but that what I need is for the good of nurturing our relationship with each other, not for fulfilling me as an individual. Loving him and experiencing him loving me is wonderful, but it’s the gravy on an already full plate. And I think that’s really healthy and good—for both of us—and has led to a rich, joyful, and easy-going dating experience with pretty much zero drama. As for babies? That ship has sailed, folks. Have I wanted them in some hypothetical way in the past? Yes, now and then. But when I didn’t have them and it became clear that it was unlikely I was going to have any, I discovered I was really okay with that. And now, as I head toward my 44th year on this earth, I can say without any doubt in any corner of my heart or mind that I definitely do NOT want to have any babies. I am too old and too tired and too interested in other things to want to create a human being that will be dependent upon me for the next 18-20+ years. The weird thing is that admitting this publicly feels a little risky to me because there is a very real possibility that some people might judge me as selfish or unfeminine or whatever other negative things people think about women who admit they don’t really want babies. Do they think the same things about men who either don’t want or are ambivalent about having kids? Do men even get asked about that nearly as much as women do? I don’t have any hard data, but I’m guessing they do not. So, married church ladies, that’s #1. Some women—maybe even a lot of women—really want to find a husband and have babies. But not all women. Some women are equally okay (or even better off) with other kinds of lives, or the men/children in their lives are wonderful but not their entire world.
  2. When people (including women) talk to my boyfriend, they ask him about his kids, which makes sense since he’s got some and, as a widower, he’s a single parent bearing full responsibility for them. But they also (and mostly) ask him about his work and his creative projects and talk to him about things they know he’s interested in and/or has expertise in that have nothing to do with his kids or his relationship with me. They do not see his role as father and boyfriend as his sole identity or interest. Why, then, do women so often define other women according to these roles—even when the other women aren’t in these roles (in which case, they are defined by their ‘lack’)? We are not living in the olden days, where women were defined solely by their relationships to males and children and did not exist as individual adults in the eyes of the law. Women now have the freedom and right to use their God-given talents and abilities in a variety of ways that better the world, and to live many different kinds of lives. Yes, the fact that I am dating a great guy is interesting and exciting. Also interesting and exciting? My job, where I impact hundreds of lives and have to use a high level of skill and creativity daily to educate, inspire, and meet the needs of my students. My writing, which I have dedicated myself to pursuing in a disciplined and meaningful way for over two decades. There’s also travel and literature and music and current culture and politics, etc. All things I love and/or am interested in! The truth is that the large majority of people I encounter at my church and the world at large recognize this and are lovely, gracious, open-minded people who treat me as a whole person and engage with me in all sorts of ways. That’s why I think it’s so jarring when I bump up against those who engage with me only as a Woman-Who-Is-Dating-Someone.
  3. Curiosity does not always justify an inquiry. X’s close friends and my close friends have the right to ask and know how our relationship is going, and really, that’s all who needs to know. I’m not walking up to married women I seldom speak to and asking them how their marriage is going or whether they’ve ever considered divorce. Because that would be rude. Also? Not all dating relationships become marriages. Some people break up. Some people date for a really long time before they get married. Some people get married quickly and eagerly and end up unhappy. There are many different possibilities and outcomes, and adding pressure to two people already engaged in the delicate and complicated business of building a relationship is not helpful. In fact, church ladies, now would be the time to start praying, not stop.

Two Poems

Barbershop

When my sister’s hair began to fall out,
she was told to go to a barber
as he would be more skilled
than the average stylist
in applying the razor
to her tender scalp, which has always
been covered by hair, even if
just a fine baby down,
but would now be laid bare.

She sits in the chair, surrounded by men,
and explains to the barber three times
that yes, she wants him
to shave it all off.
His English isn’t good.
A man who’s brought his son in
for his first cut translates. “Yes, todos–all.”
My sister points to a photo of a muscled
bald man on the wall.

And so it begins, hair falling
to the floor like soft grass cuttings
to be swept up and thrown away.
A pause after each row
so she can reach for a tissue.
The men in the shop fall silent
and avert their eyes, thinking, maybe,
of their sisters or their wives
as the electric razor whines.

(first published in Poet Lore Fall/Winter 2016; www.poetlore.com )

 

The Craftsmen

All the shoe repairers and tailors and watch-battery replacers
are little old men with shiny heads bald
except for the rim of white hair circling
the border of where hair used to be,
and ears and noses where hair still sprouts,
weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.

They stand behind their laminate counters with tired shoulders
and peer with mournful eyes at the offering you’ve brought,
turning it in their hands, shaking their heads,
clucking in the back of their throats.

And just as you are teetering off the precipice into
hopelessness, they nod and say, “Come back Thursday”
and quote a price so low
you feel you should talk them higher.

What will happen when all these little old men,
with their secret knowledge brought with them
from another land and learned in another tongue,
go the way of their fathers?

Who will take over their musty strip mall shops,
the same faded shoes and blouses displayed
since the eighties? Who will fill out the little tags
in shaky pencil and know just how to tighten that shoe
strap or hem your pants or maneuver those tiny
tools into the crevice of your watch to pop it open?

Just think of all the broken heels, pants dragging
in the dirt, the watches gone silent and still.

(first published in The Naugatuck River Review Summer/Fall 2016  https://naugatuckriverreview.com/)

Holy in the Humble (Advent 2016)

Holy in the deep
Holy in the high places
Holy in the blackbird calling
to the morning
that has not yet arrived
Holy in the pain
that cracks the calloused heart
wide open
Holy in the bell’s ring floating
through the evening air
Holy in the many laughing
with a shared joy
Holy in the silence
that hovers in the space
between words
Holy in warm skin
and the clasp of another’s hand
Holy holy holy
is Lord God Almighty
who sparks each
humble miracle
lights each stumbling path

Neighbors, Not Enemies

I’m going to start this post by acknowledging that the last thing anyone really needs is another essay/article/commentary on the election and the current state of our nation. If you are tired of all things related to this topic and would rather not spend another minute of your life on this, especially reading a post by someone with no more knowledge or authority about much of anything (except, maybe, grammar) than you, I completely understand and support you in stopping here. As is usually the case with what I write on this blog, I am writing primarily to figure out my own thoughts, and while I genuinely hope that in doing so I might help one or two other people out there, I harbor no illusions that my ramblings are doing the world any type of great service. I understand that everyone functions just fine without hearing from me. Thank goodness.

A little bit about me related to politics, none of which I have ever shared publicly before: I am registered as an Independent. I tend to favor fiscally conservative policies, but also believe it is the collective people’s responsibility (represented by the government) to provide and care for its most vulnerable members. I’m against the death penalty and for increased gun control. I’m anti-abortion and support banning third-trimester abortions (except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk), but think providing women easier access to IUD’s is a smarter way to reduce abortion rates than attempting to criminalize all abortions. I support gay marriage and the right of any two consenting adults to marry, but I don’t think it’s the government’s place to force a small/private business owner to provide services for a wedding they feel conflicts with their religious beliefs. I think the government has a responsibility to err on the side of great caution and care with regards to the environment and to be proactive in funding research and development of alternative and green energy. I voted for Hillary Clinton, about whom I harbored a number of misgivings, but saw (and still see) her as a more competent and reasonable choice than Trump.

That paragraph was hard for me to write (and will be hard for me to post), because there are statements in it that any number of people, from both ends of the spectrum, might vehemently disagree with and object to. There are assumptions people might make about me and labels (or unpleasant names) that some could find easy to apply to me, especially if they (you) don’t know me personally or only know me superficially. In those cases, all you have to judge me by are those few statements, which can’t even begin to capture the amount of thought I’ve put into all of them over the span of years (often changing my mind) and the doubt I still harbor that I could be very wrong about most of them. Okay, maybe all of them, although I’d like to think that I could be right about at least one.

So why put myself out there and make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding, contempt, or attack? I suppose because I need to be reminded that behind every opinion and stance is a person with a life and context that has shaped and formed them, for better or worse, and to be reminded that I need to be as open-minded and respectful with them as I hope they would be with me. The old Golden Rule, which, as it so happens, is still a pretty good rule.

One of the things I’ve deplored most about Trump and his campaign was his active stoking of and appeal to some of people’s worst traits: fear, bigotry, and misogyny, to name a few. The easiest response to such hateful behavior? Respond with hatred. Someone scorns the rights and dignity of others? Scorn their rights and dignity. They make negative assumptions about entire groups of people? Let’s make negative assumptions about all of them. The Golden Rule might sound nice, but An Eye for An Eye feels so much better, at least in the moment. But the result is a lot of maimed and blind people, not to mention hypocrisy.

As I struggle to wrap my head around this election and the reality that so many Americans seem to truly know and understand each other so little, I’m finding some glimmers of hope in, well, neighborliness. There’s a couple down the street from me who regularly open their garage, set out lawn chairs (as well as wine, beer, and snacks), and host happy hour for anyone and everyone who wants to join them. A couple evenings after the election, I joined them and another couple from our neighborhood. Before long, the election came up. I shared who I had voted for and why, and they all listened respectfully. The hosting couple shared that they had found themselves unable to vote for either candidate, and the other couple shared that they had voted for Trump. They acknowledged their uneasiness with his flaws and explained why they felt he was still the better choice. I drank my wine and listened. And I thought about what I know about them as people.

Though I disagree with their choice, I cannot deny that these are good people, because I know them. In the more than ten years we’ve been neighbors, they’ve opened their home to numerous individuals and entire families who have needed a place to stay, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few years. They once walled off their dining room and turned it into a bedroom for over a year to accommodate one such guest—a woman with health issues who wasn’t able to work and lost her apartment. They also care for three dogs and somewhere between 7 and 9 cats, all strays they’ve adopted. Every time they come to happy hour, they bring plates full of food, eager to share what they have. They are some of the most generous and loving people I’ve ever encountered. They don’t just say they love others; they actually live it out in their actions in a deeply sacrificial way. They are not a stereotype, and they are certainly deserving of respect and compassion for the concerns they shared.

But what about those who are not-so-nice? Shouldn’t we condemn those who mistreat others and distance ourselves from them? Yes and no. Yes, we should speak out against injustice, and yes, we should speak up for what is right and good (assuming we know what that is). But distancing ourselves? Cutting off relationship? I don’t think that’s the answer. I think something approaching the answer is in this story, which details the transformation a white supremacist underwent, causing him to leave a movement he was once the shining star of. It’s an incredible story, and what struck me most in reading it was that his change of heart came from a classmate who invited him over for a Shabbat dinner and other attendees of that dinner who were equally willing to engage with this young man. Had they shunned and condemned him in the way he might have deserved in some of their eyes, he might still be a white supremacist. Instead, they treated him as a neighbor, inviting him to their table, and connecting with him as a person first, viewpoint second.

Scripture commands me to love my neighbor as myself, which can be interpreted as “love your neighbor as much as you love yourself” and/or “love your neighbor as though that neighbor were actually you.” Both require engagement and connection. Both require sacrifice and a valuing of the “other.” I struggle with this, but I’m recognizing I can only get better at it when challenged by those who differ with me and are different from me.

So, in the words of Mr. Rogers, won’t you be my neighbor?

 

 

Reality

Lately, unless you are completely unplugged from media (social and otherwise), you cannot escape politics and the near-constant flood of Trump/Clinton stories, along with analysis of and heated opinions about these stories, followed by arguments about said analyses and opinions. I’ve found myself reading (sometimes against my better judgment) long threads of arguments in the comments sections of people’s Facebook posts about one candidate or the other. There have been a few instances where this has been genuinely informative and given me some good things to think about and investigate. But mostly this has been, for lack of a better term, a huge bummer, albeit a fascinating bummer.

The bummer part is how deeply entrenched most people seem to be in their current position and worldview, and how completely unwilling many of them are to allow for even the slightest possibility that they might be wrong, or that they might not know as much as they seem to think they know, or that the way they’re thinking and coming to conclusions might be flawed. There are a lot of people out there who are absolutely certain they know what is true, and everyone who disagrees or doesn’t think like they do is a fool and/or terrible person and/or insert-dismissive-all-encompassing-generalization-here. It’s as though they have coated their reality in Teflon, and nothing that might contradict or add even the slightest shade of grey can penetrate. Or at least that’s my perception—one that can make me want to plug my ears and close my eyes and hide out in some cave until after the November election.

On the other hand, I also find all of this behavior fascinating because it gets me thinking and wondering about all kinds of interesting things, which is something I happen to enjoy. For example, are people really more entrenched in their worldview/rightness now than, say, fifty years ago, or does it just seem that way because of social media and the fact that we are exposed to so many more people’s opinions than we were when we had to talk to each other directly or just read a few angry letters in the newspaper? Is the flood of information we now have access to making people feel more knowledgeable and informed (even though some of that ‘knowledge’ is specious), and that’s part of the problem?

It also makes me think about the nature of reality, which is often far more fluid and difficult to nail down than most people like to acknowledge. I’m not talking about pure relativism here. I actually believe that there are some absolutes and fixed realities in the universe. But what I question is our capacity to actually perceive and correctly interpret these absolutes and realities.

When I was in college, I borrowed a book from my brother to read on a long flight called Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. It was my first introduction to a physics that I actually found interesting, high school physics seeming to consist mostly of math equations, which I did not enjoy at all. I don’t remember much from that book as it’s now been over 20 years since I read it and my brain doesn’t hold on to information like that very well, but one thing I clearly remember was Kaku’s discussion about various dimensions whose existence has been mathematically proven by really smart people. However, these dimensions remain in the theoretical realm as we simply don’t have the capacity to physically perceive them. To illustrate this, he gave an example of a two-dimensional stick figure drawn on a piece of paper. If a three-dimensional ball were to pass through the paper, the two-dimensional man would only see a point stretching into small circles, widening to larger circles, then constricting back into smaller circles back down to a point. He would then run around excitedly to his friends, telling them about this weird phenomenon of circles and points, not understanding or having the capacity to conceive of something entirely different. Namely, a ball.

This kind of blew my mind, which is probably why I remember it and nothing else, because it gave me a metaphor for my interaction with all of reality. How often, I wondered, did I only see a small and distorted part of the whole, interpreting the fragment I could perceive and classifying it as something that was completely other from what it really was? When it came to my understanding of God, it was easy for me to say that that was probably true 99% of the time. But what if that were true for other aspects of my life—my perception of the people around me, of situations I was in, my understanding of the world around me, my perception of myself? In a way, I have my older siblings to thank for being open to the possibility that I might be wrong or have incomplete knowledge on a regular basis. Growing up, they were always smarter than I was, more knowledgeable, and if I ever brought up a memory of something none of them remembered, I was told that I had “dreamed it.”

The more education I’ve had and the more I’ve read, watched, listened to, and people I’ve engaged with, the more I realize how regularly I’m wrong, whether it’s in assuming something based on not much of anything or seeing only a part of the picture. For example, for the past two years, I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and Exodus with two friends, one of whom is an Old Testament scholar. Stories that have been long familiar to me, that I’ve assumed I’ve fully understood, have become completely new to me due to this friend’s knowledge of ancient near eastern culture, the Hebrew language (and the wordplay often at work in OT literature), and the careful attention to detail and analysis of those details by both friends. Another example: assuming that systemic racism wasn’t really a thing these days except in some isolated circumstances, then reading article after article, historical and statistical documentation, personal narratives, literature, watching documentaries, plays, etc. that have completely contradicted that assumption.

What I am realizing more and more as I get older (and, hopefully, a little wiser) is that the closest we can get to a complete truth or reality is through a multiplicity of sources and people, and disagreeing ones, at that. Such tensions, rather than posing a threat, actually open the way to understanding something greater than our pea-brains can conjure all by themselves. In discussing reality and poetry, Christian Wiman asserts that with the greats, there is “some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.” He goes on to refer to what physicists call “quantum weirdness.” I explored that term for myself and came across an article in the NY Times, which explains this phenomena through an experiment involving electrons being fired at a screen. Through various tests and under different conditions, the electrons behave in baffling ways, pointing to completely contradictory conclusions about the known physical realities of electrons. The author concludes, “What this research implies is that we are not just hearing different ‘stories’ about the electron, one of which may be true. Rather, there is one true story, but it has many facets, seemingly in contradiction.”

Our country could learn a thing or two from physics—namely, that the person we disagree with most might have an important piece of the whole. Might they also be repugnant and offensive to us in some way and maybe wrong about a lot of stuff? Absolutely. But to dismiss what contradicts or offends us entirely risks dismissing a facet of the truth, keeping us stick figures stuck on a page instead of fully alive to the world around us. Reality, then, is most complete in community—not just with those who are like us, but those completely other.

Haste

During dinner last night, a friend shared her concern that her daughters  are diving into intense and committed relationships at ages 19 and 21 and exclaimed, “Why are they in such a hurry? Everyone is rushing everything these days, but there’s time! There’s time to fall in love and get married and have kids and do what you want to do in life!” She then added, “I mean, there’s not time, in one sense, but in another sense, there is.” Which pretty much sums up a conundrum I’ve wrestled with for years. Life is short, time flies, and yet we create our own realities of life and time through mindset, habit, and lifestyle.

The many conveniences and options we have available to us are simultaneously an amazing luxury and an overwhelming source of time-distortion. We have machines to cut hours of labor out of our lives, make travel from one distant location to another a fraction of what it would otherwise be, and have learned to be impatient when it takes a website more than two seconds to load. Things can be done more quickly, which makes us want to do more. If we want to relax with a little entertainment, we have literally thousands of options—cable TV channels; streaming movies or TV shows from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and dozens of other platforms; access to thousands of book titles, music options, and podcasts that we can download with the click of a button. Then there’s the internet, and the millions of articles, videos, and blogs (sorry) to read, watch, and listen to. It’s not uncommon for me to turn on my computer to check and send a couple e-mails, something that should take about 10 minutes, only to find myself still at the computer an hour and a half later due to some rabbit hole I’ve gone down because of something on my screen that looked enticing (gaarr, Facebook!)—an interesting article, a funny video, a recipe that promises to be easy and delicious using only 4 ingredients that will give me a flat belly. This doesn’t even include all the other daily busyness: working, doctor’s appointments, going to the dry cleaner’s, meeting up with friends.

And because there is so much to do and see and it all seems so (theoretically) attainable, time is constantly slipping away. As a result, I try to speed everything up. I hurry and rush. I multitask, my attention often skipping from one thing to the next without ever quite settling. I know I’m not the only one, and I wonder about the impact of all these conveniences and options on our collective psyches and the way it shapes our culture as a whole, which I know has probably been written about extensively and I could read all about by just typing a few key words into Google. But I’m just going to wonder about it for myself for now. Is it impacting my friend’s daughters, causing them to hurry even in potentially life-changing situations because that is the mode they are accustomed to operating in, or are they just being typical young people with a tendency towards speed and intensity? In what ways do all of us rush and hurry in all areas of our lives (including emotional and spiritual) because that’s become our default modality?

I think of another friend whose washing machine broke mid-cycle a few weeks ago. She had to take out all of her clothes, rinse and wring them as best she could in her sink, then put them into the dryer. Just the rinsing and wringing of one load took her over an hour. In relating this story, she expressed sympathy for women doing laundry prior to washing machines and dryers, and we marveled at how just that one task would take all day in “olden times.”

While I’m deeply thankful not to have to spend entire days washing my clothes, it does make me reflect on the differences between spending all day on one clear task vs. rushing through twenty different tasks. Time would definitely feel like it was going by more slowly, and I imagine there might be more peace. Less stress and less anxiety. Probably a lot more soul-killing boredom and drudgery as well. But if one replaces doing laundry with something more enjoyable and meaningful (not to say that clean laundry doesn’t have its importance), the entire self devoted to a single action and purpose for an extended period of time, it seems like it could offer a kind of antidote to the plague of hurry and rush. Or at least a balancing corrective.

Poet Theodore Roethke seems to think so. In his words, “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” This is a guy who died long before personal computers and smart phones, but apparently haste was already a marker of life in the first half of the 20th century. I find this to be such a true and insightful comment, because it recognizes that there is a cost to haste and that our lives tend to be full of “everything else”: things that consume our hours but don’t really have any lasting or deep significance. And the antidote comes from “art.”

I think this is a big part of why I’ve always loved poetry and why I’ve been particularly drawn to reading and writing it in the last several years. Poetry and haste are completely antithetical. You can’t skim a poem. Truly, you can’t (try it). The way poetry is written demands careful attention, thoroughness, and a slow pace. To really get a poem and appreciate it, you have to invest some time, lingering over particular words and phrases, considering line breaks, visualizing images. The same thing is true of writing it. Those poems that come out in a rush intacto, the ones you don’t have to do much to, are wonderful but also rare. Most of the time, poems need a lot of work to become good poems. I can lose hours playing with line breaks and form, figuring out what can be cut, what words or phrases can be reworded to be stronger, what images or metaphors are most effective, what will produce the best rhythm and music in a line, etc. I enjoy going through this process in editing my friends’ poems just as much. And even though those hours are “lost” in the sense that I lose all track of time and more of it goes by than I usually anticipate, that passage of time produces a very different effect from spending that time on other kinds of activities.

After spending a large chunk of time reading articles online, watching TV, or meandering through Facebook, I typically feel a sense of anxiety and, in some cases, guilt/disgust. The time feels wasted. Though I might experience some enjoyment or pleasure in the moment, those positive feelings rarely last beyond that moment. Instead, my most typical response when I look at the clock is to spring into action, rushing to get through whatever’s on my list for the day and make up for the time lost. However, when I spend time reading literature and writing, I come out of those hours with a sense of deep contentment and satisfaction that lasts the rest of the day. On those days, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t get to some of the things on my list. I am freed from guilt and hurry.  Yes, I may have spent half an hour writing and rewriting the same two lines, but that doesn’t feel like wasted time.

I don’t know that what I’m engaged in is capital “A” Art, but it’s at least an orientation and movement toward art, which I think serves the same purpose. And, as someone who has a tendency towards haste (as anyone who’s driven in a car with me can tell you), this is a wonderful thing, a discipline in taking my time. I experience this when I play the piano and pray as well. “Art” can encompass many things, after all. For some, it might be drawing or photography; for others, gardening or tinkering on a car’s engine. Rather than defining it by whether or not it can be hung in a museum or published in a journal, Roethke defines it by how it affects our relationship with time. And that’s a definition I find beautiful and, well, timely.