The Shame Game

For the past three days I have avoided writing. Strange for a writer whose compulsion to express was laid in her cradle. Or perhaps for that very reason. Because writing succeeds the decision to tell the truth. Or at least my version of it.

And so I will spend the next few lines making you, dear reader, feel safe. My intention is not to attack you, but you may feel uncomfortable at some point. But I can’t worry about that now. Things have gone too far.

The world has reached a critical mass of crisis: environmental, social, political. As a human race, we are experiencing a collective uprising. These are troubling times from a moral perspective. From a leadership perspective. From a national and global perspective. Disgusting behavior has been normalized for so long then when someone finally speaks out about such moral depravity, it feels like a jolt to the system we did so well to numb.

Hollywood is based on illusion. Or the promise of illusion. If you look closer, you will see how people have trivialized sexual abuse for decades. As if the victim should somehow “take it” as a part of the deal. And powerful men – for the most part, at least – allowed it to happen. Condoned it. Did it themselves. And shrugged it off as a part of their DNA.

And I mean honestly? Can we really believe everyone who is coming forward?

In the name of Christ. Yes, we can.

The #metoo movement on social media that encourages people who have been sexually harassed or abused to come forward, was originally the idea of an activist Tarana Burke who has been helping sexual assault victims for ten years. Actress Alyssa Milano took it to Twitter and since then, my social media feeds have been filled with the hashstag.

#MeToo

Age 11. When my grandfather thought it a good idea to “check” how I was developing.

Age 16. When my married boss thought it fun to give me alcohol in exchange for a cuddle behind the salad bar. (I didn’t).

Age 21. When my boss (a different one) thought I was cute, even though he was old enough to be my dad (so was the other one).

Age 46. When I stood, trapped in a crowd of 100 people, in front of a police barrier in Trinidad and the guy behind me thought it a good idea to rub his hard-on off on me (a young woman was murdered right near that spot that very night).

I thought long and hard about all the other times I have been touched inappropriately, talked or gawked at as if I were property. The feeling of shame to admit these things happened is the burden we feel. I have an aversion to the term “victim”. I was taught that you are never a victim. But what if that isn’t true? What if I really couldn’t do anything about all the men that have assaulted me over the years? Why do we women think it is our fault?

We are encouraged to keep quiet. Forget about it. Don’t make a fuss, cause a stir or say anything. It’s better that way…

I no longer do. I will no longer be silent. And I sense a deep-rooted anger that I have to pass on that fear to my daughter with pepper spray and warnings to never, ever let someone touch you if you don’t want them to.

And because I tend to look not only at the problem, but also the solution, we need to remember this: we can do something about it. Persecute the perpetrators. Speak up. Raise our sons to understand what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Model good behavior. Show respect. Demand respect. And punish those who go beyond appropriate boundaries. Throw out the man in the highest office of the land for downplaying his despicableness as “locker room talk”, knowing full well that he is not only capable of doing such harm, but has done so. Over and over again.

If you have made it to the end of this post, I thank you. For listening. For taking me seriously. And for understanding that to not speak out, we become a part of the problem. Complicit and ducking our heads down out of fear and shame.

It’s not your fault. It wasn’t mine either.

Have you ever ghosted someone? It hurts more than you realize.

Ghosting, simmering, icing. I recently learned about these terms in the context of personal relationships. If you have spent any time at all online, you most likely have experienced it too.

Essentially, the terms mean to ignore someone’s message. Whether it is a text message, an inbox message or email, ghosting means to disappear or not respond. It is common practice and somehow considered nearly socially acceptable in today’s ultra-fast-paced world.  It makes us feel bad on the receiving end. And we have experienced what it feels like too. And yet we do it with virtually no consequence in real-time. We don’t have to see the person’s pain. The threshold for rudeness is lowered considerably. It happened to me with someone I had had an intense relationship for years. And suddenly, she didn’t respond to my text one day. And that was that.

Ignoring all in the name of busy. Or avoidance. Or simply not caring.

All in the name of “not enough time”. “I’ve got to go.” “I’ve got to run.” “I’ve got to..”

What exactly?

According to an April 2017 report drawn from a survey by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 8.3 million American adults or 3.4 percent of the U.S. population suffer from serious psychological distress. That includes anxiety, depression and stress. While some point to economic factors resulting from the Great Recession starting in 2007 as the origin of our collective pain, I would hazard to guess that there are other variables that have added to our failing well-being as well.

Consider this. 2007 was also the birth year of the very first iPhone. Social media became a new platform of expression as people carried their social lives in the palm of their hands. Texting was no longer novel as it was easier to type – and ignore messages.

The rise of channels such as Snapchat offer a great example of heartless and brainless engagement. My sixteen-year-old son told me that even he finds it ridiculous to send quick photos of anything at all to friends just to keep up the number of „flames“ that are supposed to reflect your commitment to your relationship with that person.

“Snapchatting a picture of the ground just to stay on top of your flames? It’s ludicrous,“ he told me.

It is almost as if life has become one big video game. According to NHS data in the UK, social media is a large component of poor mental health among girls age 17 and below. Online activity has become a feeding ground for discontent, plummeting self-esteem and sadness.

Social media is a numbers game. How many followers/fans/friends can you attract? How many likes/loves/laughs? Meanwhile, true engagement with the people right next to you at the dinner table doesn’t happen because our heads are buried in our screens.

According to MediaKix, the average Internet user will spend 5 years and 4 months of his or her life on social media and only 1 year and 3 months socializing in person.

I am not a technophobe, Facebook dissenter or social media curmudgeon. In fact, I use technology and social media daily. It is how I make my living. It can have great value if we use it properly. But I have noticed a rapidly growing trend of disconnection while feeding into our inherent need as human beings to connect.

We are connecting with machines, not the people using them.

Note to Self podcaster Manoush Zomorodi recently discussed our obsession with our phones with her guest Esther Perel. Ms. Perel’s advice is the same I would give.

  • Take five minutes out of your day to call someone you care about. Don’t text. Don’t inbox a message. Speak to the person. No one in distress would ever say, „Damn, I wish you hadn’t called.“
  • Make a list of people you have ghosted. You know you have a few. Clean up the mess. It will lead to less distress – for you and the person affected.
  • Regain control of your social media usage. If you see something interesting from a friend on Facebook, for instance, ask that person to meet for coffee to discuss it more. Use Facebook to inform what you will talk about in person – or on the phone if that person lives far away.
  • Look people in the eye. Practice at the check-out counter. When completing your transaction, look at the clerk directly. Say „Thank you.“ Smile.
  • Put away your phone more than usual. Start slowly, such as leaving it outside the bathroom while you do your business there.
  • Create gadget-free zones. Mine is the kitchen table. Food, beverages and conversation belong there. Not i-Anything Else.
  • The best way to teach empathy is to be empathetic. Actions speak volumes. Words – especially 140 characters – do not.

In a November 2016 Philadelphia magazine article entitled “How We Became Me“, Sandy Hingston bemoans the massive decrease in civic activity and our growing lack of exposure to people who don’t quite think as we do. We used to engage in sports, the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, church events and the like that required a higher level of tolerance amongst various groups of people. Today, we build online networks of like-minded people. As a result, our ability to tolerate different mentalities is shrinking.

It is easy to lock ourselves away in a bubble of online activity. But true human connection starts with true human beings. Using social media responsibly is an important step in making us feel better about ourselves and our surroundings. Joining a club may not be the answer, but it is worth asking the question: How will I spend my time today?

6,000 reasons why Twitter is so powerful

Too much information? Yes, we have too much information. Take Twitter, for example. On average Twitter users produce 500 million tweets per day. It’s a (social media) jungle out there. I have learned to navigate it, using the principles of Slow. It’s not for the faint at heart. Consider this.

When words fail you, what can you say?

Words are not supposed to escape writers. After all, is it not our mandate to use them, wisely, powerfully, pointedly?

In the face of so much bad news – from the post-Hurricane Maria public health issues of Puerto Rico to the single white male slaughter in Las Vegas to the rise in alt-right party voters in Germany – I am at a loss for words. My instinct is to comfort, to hold a candle, to lighten the world with all that is good in it. It feels, on some level, hollow to do so.

Bodensee_Juni_2017_sunsetAnd yet that inner optimist who looks at the bright side of life, nearly blinded by the silver lining in the cloud of tears, brings me back to that which is working.

Look to the helpers, I said to my son as we cringed at the nightly news images. They are there. They are always there.

My children were too young to witness 9/11, but they carry the sorrow of our collective history with them. They have heard enough stories and seen enough footage to know it marked the beginning of the end of the United States as I had known it.

A place of hope. A place of courage. A place of possibility.

Or so the myth goes. In truth, the current political climate has merely brought the dredges of my country to the fore. The ugly nature of hate, supremacist thinking and racism has been there all along. The arrogance. The naïveté.

But I didn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it.

Now we have no choice.

As my mama always says, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. What matters is how you respond.

I have said time and again that I will always choose love. It is the only way out of the wordlessness.

Love is our key to freedom.

The Key to Unhappiness

It is time to turn the tables. Typically, I focus on what works in life. But today I’m taking a new approach.

It hit me like a ton of sun-baked bricks this morning as I observed life and the people in it that there is one surefire way to ensure a consistent level of unhappiness. And as I scan the headlines and Facebook feeds and other news outlets, I see how easy it is to overlook how often we all do it.

That is to judge others. To wish they were different. To complain when they aren’t. To pick and criticize and throw major tantrums. To catapult oneself into a tirade about how very unjust everyone else is being.

2017-06-11 21.00.43If you have been there in the checkout line or the traffic lane or the dentist’s office or any other place where there are people other than just you, you may have experienced how you have looked at another person and judged him or her on the spot without any basis of understanding of who that person is. And subconsciously you may have waited to find evidence that your thoughts are somehow based in reality. So you wait, like a pounce-happy panther, until you prove yourself right.

And then you laugh or cry or rage about it with friends who think just like you do. And you feel, deep down, justified in your judgements.

Am I judging myself for admitting this?

Oh! To be human is to judge. And assess. And want to be right. About pretty much everything. On a personal level, it can lead to disharmony. On a global one, it can lead to war.

All the posturing and posing and presupposing can be quite exhausting. I’m wondering if we, for a moment, could pause from all the judgement to take a deep, long breath and remember how connected we all are. To exercise compassion even when we don’t feel like reminding ourselves that it is true. Because, whether we agree or not, we all share this planet. We all share the human experience.

And there I go again. Looking at what works. Because clearly what we are currently doing to each other doesn’t.

I’m wondering, even if it is hard, to admit we make unfair judgements sometimes. It is what we #ShareTogether. But that doesn’t mean it has to tear us apart. Does it?

Misery loves company. But so does something else.

One nation. Indivisible. For liberty and justice for all. And yet we’re pretty darn divided. In what we believe. In whom we support. We are so torn apart ideologically that many of us, including myself, have forgotten what we have in common. We have become married to our misery, seeking comfort in those who think like we do. And we are getting nowhere fast as we forge distances from those who do not.

And yet empathy, that great emotion of connectivity, is what helps us feel others’ pain. It is what helps us understand another person’s point of view. Compassion is a precious human characteristic, one that can help us find a way back to each other.

Lake Constance, 2017

Lake Constance, 2017

What we have in common is a lot more than you think. And as I got to thinking about it, I realized seeing common ground helps me see more possibilities. And seeing possibilities makes me hopeful. Which makes me grateful. And where there is gratitude, there is no fear, which is at the root of our collective problem. You see, we have a collective problem. You and I. That’s one of the things we #ShareTogether. Our problem is the separateness we feel about people who don’t think like we do.

So I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to come up with all the things we share together, not only as Americans, but as human beings. In order to do it, I need your input.

What is the thing that we all share? I’ve started a list that I will share in meme form on Facebook individually. But first, I’d love to hear yours, which I will happily share with name credit (and with your permission) to my social media network.

#ShareTogether

#WhatWeHaveInCommon

Oxygen. We all need it to survive. Every one of us uses it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A birthplace. Every one of us was born somewhere. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Skin. It’s the largest organ we have. Every one of us has skin. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A favorite song, book or movie. You don’t have to be an expert to hold a favorite song, book or movie close to your heart. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Time. Every one of us has time, even if we live like we don’t. Most of us measure it by the 24-hour clock, others by the rhythm of the Earth. Either way we measure it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The planet. Unless you’re an astronaut currently in space, you’re on it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The sun’s movement. Many celebrated the solar eclipse in the United States yesterday. The sun’s movement is something every one of us experiences daily. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Technology. If you’re reading this, you have access to technology. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Death. You may have never experienced it, but you will one day. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A belief system. Even if you don’t believe in a Higher Power, you believe in something, even if it is nothing. That’s a belief system too. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Childhood. Every one of us has (had) one. Good, bad or indifferent. The fact is every one of us is a child at some point, typically chronologically from the start of life until the end of our teens. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The ability to cry. We have all done it at least once. There is salt in every one of our tears. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for sleep. While the amount can vary, every one of us requires sleep to survive. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for drinking water. It is an essential life force. Without it, every one of us would perish. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

What are your thoughts? Today is a new day. Misery may love company, but gratitude sure does too. Let’s #ShareTogether.

 

The Backward and Hateful Mind

Nestled in the aggregate air of three countries rolled into one atmosphere, I lay awake one starry night to ponder the hating heart. We arrived to our campground on Lake Constance that borders Switzerland, Germany and Austria to the news of a gun shooting at a nearby club just miles from our site. We later ambled to a shopping centre, looking for a chaise lounge, only to see the yellow crime scene tape of the shut down club fluttering in the wind next to the store we intended to enter.

Death’s pallor held sway over us for the remainder of the day. We held our children a little tighter that night and into the following morning. Then news of the neo-Nazi pro-Robert E Lee monument rally in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, hit my Facebook news feed. Standing in our camper in 90 degree heat, I stood slack-jawed and sucker punched at the close proximity of such madness. Again.

In a recent Newsweek article, Deepak Chopra speaks of the hateful brain in which tribalism, our inherent need to belong to a group, can dull our ability for empathy. And as we are entrenched in our own belief systems, we grow farther apart from people who don’t think like we do.

By any measure, it is incomprehensible for me to accept a set of beliefs that excludes an entire race or ethnic group or a group of human beings who love differently than I do. And yet neo-Nazis and white supremacists truly believe they are better and hold the exclusive right to existence.

It’s ludicrous. It’s backward. And it appears to be as prevalent today as it was before the Civil Rights movement.

I have argued unsuccessfully with many a right-wing mind over the past nine months. It has not brought me any closer to understanding why they are so angry, why they feel disenfranchised, unheard, excluded. Like an angry child who didn’t get his way, they stew in their maladjusted righteousness. But about what?

The United States is in trouble. Its political leadership is (in) trouble. Civil society is facing challenges it hasn’t seen since the 1960s. And yet a crowd ten times as large as the rally last Saturday in Charlottesville convened on the UVA Lawn to take it back from the vacuous vitriol the alt-right had sprayed across the grounds just days before and chanted “Love wins.” To regain the dignity of the town in which I grew up. Where I first saw the movie Star Wars. Where I got my ears pierced at the mall. Where I bought my first Levis. Where my family resides to this day.

Hatred lives in the brains of those disconnected from the greater good. How can we draw them back into the fold to seek the light and the love that will overcome the deleterious acts of the uninformed and angered?

I am for the winning team. I am for love. Are you?

 

Lonely Planet

Backpackers be warned. The planet has just gotten a little lonelier today.

Remember the days of yesteryear? When “Lonely Planet” stood for that dog-earred guide that led dusty travelers to the farthest corners of the Earth? To places of discovery and wonder? To waterfalls and arid deserts? To exotic temples and camel rides?

The Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. The whole world, which is clearly impacted by climate change, came together under the agreement to combat its effects. To do something about it. To move from denial to definite action. It was a monumental decision and recognition that we are in this together. The environment does not recognize titles or boundaries or politics. It only knows how to do what it is designed to do.

Nature has unbounded intelligence. It can adapt. It will survive.

We may not.

The only exceptions to the signatories? The Holy See (Vatican) as it is an observer state; Nicaragua, whose emissary claims they are doing climate change on their own; and Syria, a country embattled in a civil war.

148 of those parties have ratified or acceded to the Agreement, even China and India, the countries with three of the four largest greenhouse gas emissions of the signatories’ total (about 42% together).

Where is the United States on the scale of greenhouse gas emissions? The country spews out 17.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas. And yet it represents only 4.34% of the world’s population. Hmmm….

And yet Trump, whose delusions of grandeur as he peers from his perch at the top of his world seem to grow with each passing tweet, has decided to poop in the world’s sandbox by withdrawing the United States from the agreement. He wants to push the coal industry and “save American jobs”. What he is doing is not only short-sighted, it also won’t work. The clean energy industry has surpassed traditional sources in jobs and innovation. China is spreading its green technology throughout Africa, for instance, a profitable opportunity the United States is missing completely.

According to a recent Sierra Club report based on the Department of Energy 2017 jobs data, “[c]lean energy jobs, including those from solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grid technology and battery storage, vastly outnumber all fossil fuel jobs nationwide from the coal, oil and gas sectors. That includes jobs in power generation, mining, and other forms of fossil fuel extraction.”

The US President claims he works for the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. For starters, Paris was the location of the conference where the agreement was adopted on December 12, 2015, then entered into force November 4, 2016, just four days before the tragedy that is US politics unfurled with his election win. The best part is it was actually signed at the UN headquarters in New York City, just paces away from his place of residence.  If the man would take just a moment to cursorily review the document, and I mean just the title, he would see that it pertains to the whole world, which includes Pittsburgh, unless the city decides to secede from the planet, which could get interesting. Perhaps Trump would join them then. And we can finally put this whole thing to bed.

In other worlds, Trump is speaking to a handful of constituents at the expense of 7 billion other people.

It is yet another demonstration of the perils this fine nation intends to inflict upon the rest of the planet. And the deep, deep selfishness that fosters hatred in the hearts of those who despise his ignorance.

Yes, Trump, it’s lonely at the top. And as you alienate the country you claim to lead from everyone else, your fall will be even harder.

The Search for Simplicity

The sweet, satisfied sigh that ensues a Sudoku puzzle accomplished.

The chubby rolls of a baby’s leg.

The quickly abated tragedy put aside with ice cream and a game of catch.

The nightly news that speaks of a neighborhood robbery, not the salacious stealing of our souls.

Counting on the World Order.

Counting on World Leaders.

Counting our blessings.

These are the days I miss.

As I looked about the lush, green lawn on a self-imposed smartphone sabbatical amidst hundreds of fellow bathers today, I recognized how complicated our lives have become. Admittedly, everyone appears on the same level when they show up in bathing suits. Fat or thin, mal- or well-nourished, dark skinned or light skinned, freckled or frowning. Nothing smacks of grassroots democracy more than a day at the community pool.

My children are no longer small or even medium-sized kids. They are in their mid- and late-teens. The intricate web of complication called growing up has begun as they navigate this world under very different circumstances than I did at their age.

They have to battle the constant onslaught of (mis)information. Of competitive Instagram appearances. Of snap-chat that and oh, please this. We can never start a meal until someone has photographed it first to share with the universe.

Simply put: Life has gotten complicated.

So I recognized, even as I put away my phone last night with no excuse that I needed it on my nightstand to serve as an alarm clock, that I struggle with my habitual need to be needed. Or to be needy. Or to be — simply put — on.

On what? God knows. On much of social media, I’ve witnessed rampaging rants and rude thrusts of opinion; excusing misbehavior and playground bullying.

Only the world stage is not a playground. And it is hard with each passing day not to succumb to equally ruthless wickedness that has besieged us since November.

But the hopeful are the last to die. And I shall not perish without a good fight. It is time to find pockets of simplicity.

You can find it

  • in the dusty pages of that Sudoku puzzle book at the foot of your nightstand
  • in the gloriousness of homemade lemonade on a bright sunny summer morning
  • in the accomplishment you feel when you walk 10,000 daily steps (FitBit fans unite!)
  • in the sweet smell of your loved one’s neck that says “I am here for you. Because I am here.”
  • in re-watching that old movie from the late 1980s that reminds you of the times when you knew less and it didn’t matter
  • in the kindness you show every single day to those you know and to those you don’t simply because the world deserves your care
  • in the absence of malice when you could have chosen otherwise
  • in the words “I am thinking of you”.

The search for simplicity may never end as we combat the avalanche of our modern world. I vote for its pursuit anyway.

In my view it is a battle worth attempting. Yes, indeed. It’s that simple.

Uprooted, upended, upside down

Change. The thing you find lying randomly on the sidewalk. And that other thing that defines what being alive means.

My one and only daughter turned eighteen the other day. I experienced a mixture of sadness and elation. Sad that her childhood is slowly coming to a close. And elated that she is now responsible (at least legally) for the actions she takes.

“I can shop online now!” she said.

“You can do your own paperwork now.” I said.

“I can drive a car now.” she said.

“You can look into how much it will cost. And pay for (most of) it.” I said.

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Her younger brother congratulated her and said in the same breath, “Now you are no longer under Mom’s thumb. You can do whatever you want!” he said.

“I’m still under her thumb,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Ah yes. That pesky financial dependence thingy.

This past week we looked at a one-year college prep program. It is as far away as she could possibly get and still be in a German-speaking country. I duly took note of it, but then realized how perfect it all seemed for her. She will attend for a year, then see if she might apply elsewhere.

And when her birthday — in the midst of our college tour — came around, I felt the swirl of her roots, the tangle and gentle sprouts, twirling in a new direction, branching out farther away than I felt comfortable with and yet so appropriate to gain the nourishment they need to sustain themselves away from the Mother Tree.

I felt upended and it wasn’t only the grueling 1,000 mile drive that did it. It was the sense that freedom comes with a cost. She may not know it yet. But she will. And, speaking from experience: living in a different country will indeed be the best thing for her to experience what being on her own is really like.

I may never get over it. Neither will she. And that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Even when the tree topples.

Upside down and all.