An antidote to environmental depression

All I had to go on was a vague and anonymous Facebook notification. I followed my Maps app to the address but got lost when some of the Renaissance-era buildings weren’t numbered. A young Vietnamese immigrant with a child on her hip set me straight.

Finally, there was a sheet of paper taped to the mail box of a building in a narrow Prague street. A large Dagaz rune (which Ralph Blum called Breakthrough) tipped sideways was printed on the paper and repeated on one of the doorbells. It’s supposed to be a stylized hourglass, but my first impression was of the rune and a surprising good omen.

I rang, but there was no answer.

I gently pushed and the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside was a dim hallway, like so many in the ancient city. A decorative railing ran around a spiral stairway and light filtered down from sunbeams coming through windows somewhere far overhead.

I passed a young man with long hair to the middle of his back, but then hesitated, glancing back at him. Prague is the kind of place where one might find new friends in a dimly lit stairwell.

“Are you with us?” he asked softly in Czech, addressing me in the informal grammar reserved for close family and friends..

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

“Probably.” I grinned, “if you’re the meeting.”

“Go right up,” he nodded and the welcome in his voice was again almost shocking to my battered nerves, accustomed to the acrimony and judgement so rampant in today’s society.

The sunlit room upstairs was filled with more of the same, open hands reaching to bring me into the circle, smiles and enthusiastic voices. I had come prepared for cynicism, long arguments, social cliques, power trips, poorly hidden political agendas and all the other problems that have plagued activism circles for decades. This friendly reception was already more than I’d hoped for, but would it turn out to be just a shiny package for the same old dead ends?

I took a seat and watched as the meeting unfolded. Someone took the lead but then quickly passed the speaking role to another. Everyone was introduced in 10 minutes. The agenda was on a board with precise times that were kept without strain. Plans and methods were explained with professional clarity as well as with heart. We broke into groups to discuss specific projects.

I have rarely seen an activist meeting run so well, reaching goal after goal with no sense of rush.

Activism? Who has time for that nonsense these days, you might well ask.

The focus of this group is no mystery—taking real, practical action to force government agencies and industry to behave responsibly on the climate crisis. It was nothing short of our survival at stake and for once the activist proposals were not merely about leaflets or poetry slams or rallies. The work on the table was practical resistance to destruction.

Instead of being frustrated by a long, acrimonious meeting and incremental pace as I had in countless community organizations before, I had to question whether or not I was ready to jump into this swift flowing stream.

This was my first Extinction Rebellion meeting—out on the expanding fringe of the movement in Eastern Europe. And I had to hand it to them. Excellent organization. Solid tactics. Laser-focused goals. And the flexibility to learn in a new country.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I have been struggling with deep environmental depression for years now. And a lot of that really is environmental—as in ecological. I grow my garden, hoard rain water, ride the train, recycle, try to speak up and all that. But it is clearly ineffective. For the past few years, I have looked for organizations to join off and on, but they were either inaccessible, just plain lazy or more serious about their donor’s goals than the real work at hand.

Keeping hope had become a chore. And a lot of serious environmentalists today have a lot of unpleasant things to say about hope.

So, is Extinction Rebellion just a bunch of well-organized naive idealists?

I might have thought so from just the one meeting. But deeper research reveals a strong foundation in realism and practicality. The movement is spread through local talks or lectures that summarize the status of climate science, describe the mounting effects of climate change and then outline the demands and strategy of the Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly anti-inflammatory, technical lecture to spread a revolution.

But even with level-headed words the scientific conclusions are pretty depressing. At the end of the talk, an opinion is given about whether or not we can still avert the worst effects of climate change even if we can generate the “political will.” The scientific jury seems to still be out on that. But there are plenty of reasons to believe we might not be able to stop a climate catastrophe that will seriously endanger our way of life and civilization no matter what we do today.

In the context of a motivational talk, this isn’t a logical way to convince masses of people. We are told that political and industrial leaders are ignoring the crisis and our best hope is to force them to pay attention and act through non-violent civil resistance. Yet we don’t even know whether or not it is already too late for them to avert disaster before they’ve even meaningfully started.

Still it’s real and honest.

Why do anything if the cause may well be hopeless? The Extinction Rebellion response is a question, “What does it mean to be human today?”

For me, it is about the quality of whatever life we have left. I have a choice. I can either live in a fog of depression and anxiety or I can do what needs to be done because it needs doing. Taking steps in the right direction is the only way out of depression I know of.

If that isn’t exactly a rousing pep talk, then so be it. Maybe the Rebellion is already rubbing off on me.

To my newfound co-conspirators in rebellion, I’ll give you some fair warning. I’m socially awkward, even a dork. I don’t do modern fashions. I can’t recognize faces and I can’t run as fast as I used to. I sometimes speak before I think and my daily life is pretty rugged at the moment.

But I have been in this kind of struggle before. I know about walking miles to distribute fliers and about herding cats. I know about long nights and the times when a lot of work goes for naught. I’m worth having around. I pack a good herbal first-aid kit and I’ve usually got food if you’re batteries are running low.

I have also always wanted to end my conversations and posts this way:

Love and courage! .

Something worth saving

There seems to be stiff competition in any contemporary discussion of climate change to see who can be the most demoralizing.

It may not always be conscious but if you’ve joined many of these discussions, you will know what I mean. You have the harried, frantic campaigners, struggling to put the latest data into scientifically correct but humanly relatable disaster scenarios to motivate the apathetic masses. There are the still uninformed, who have somehow managed to get through elementary school and at least several years of modern life without paying attention.

Then of course, there are the denialists, who buck science and insist that because some scientist somewhere was wrong about something, climate change predictions are clearly wrong. Some of those are wishful, magical thinkers. Some are cynical manipulators who have a plan for getting theirs while the getting’s good.

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

And there are the prophets of the apocalypse with theories about gasses released from under melting glaciers and tipping points. They claim they are certain we have only a few more years to live no matter what we do. It’s hopeless and no carbon-cutting measures matter in the slightest. All the while these prophets of doom are still having children and paying for their children’s college educations. Most of them are also doing it without much attempt to reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, there is always someone ready to say humanity doesn’t deserve to be saved, whether we can or not. And that’s usually the point in the conversation where everyone either drifts away or descends into verbal trench warfare.

That cynicism pervades a lot of society, even beyond any considerations of environmental or social collapse. Post-modernism insisted that we grow up and cast off idealistic dreams of equality and interconnection. Now we are post-post-modern. Anything less than jaded nihilism is regarded as childish. And this self-righteous cynicism is taken to the point of illogical absurdities to avoid anything that smacks of vulnerability.

In this stifling morass, what could possibly provide any air movement, much less a breath of fresh air?

Well, something both childish and utterly logical, of course.

What is both childish and logical? It sounds like the first line of a weird joke. But the world actually got a real-life answer some months ago.

Greta Thunberg.

If you believe in science, imagine what a young, very intelligent, scientific and utterly logical mind must make of our world. For most of us, it doesn’t really bear contemplating for long. If stark reality were to be seen clearly by a very young person without any of the padding of social distractions and peer conformity, the result would have to be insanity.

When Greta Thunberg, a little girl in Sweden, first learned about climate change as a bright eight-year-old she was confused. Something didn’t add up. Her science books clearly marked out a problem with devastating consequences and a theoretical solution. It showed that adults all over the world knew all of this, and yet Greta heard no one talking about it. And she saw adults going about business as usual as if no such crisis existed, only occasionally putting something into a recycling bin.

Greta Thunberg - climate, environment, children, empowererment - from Twitter account 2.jpg

She went to her parents and then to teachers and finally to scientists a seeking the missing piece—something that would tell her it wasn’t really true, something that would explain the silence and lack of action she observed among adults.

Many children may have felt this disconnect, but they also feel the frustration and difficulty of acting outside of social norms. And that explains to them well enough why their elders dither. Greta has Asperger Syndrome, a neuro-diverse condition, which often results in a very logical outlook, great attention to detail and difficulty understanding social rituals and conventions.

Greta is that theoretical example of a logical, yet freshly innocent mind made flesh. Her initial reaction was sickness. She developed OCD and selective mutism. She was withdrawn and apparently disillusioned by age eleven.

But eventually she won a writing competition and became involved with a youth environmental group planning climate actions. During a phone meeting, she supported the idea of a school strike for the climate. If the kids really believed that their entire future rested on this issue, she reasoned, solving it should logically take precedence over education and everything else.

If science is real, why aren’t we acting like it?

But she couldn’t get support for the idea from others. A school strike required a lot of commitment and very likely some unpleasant consequences. Even though the other kids were activists, they weren’t there yet. They focused on organizing more standard demonstrations and Greta dropped out of the group.

Most kids—almost every kid—faced with their idea rejected by a group of friendly peers would be willing to let it go. But Greta, whether because of Asperger or because of utter personal stubbornness, didn’t care.

Last August, when her school year started, she didn’t go to school. Instead she took a small sign and went to sit by a wall outside the Swedish Parliament building. She was on strike.

I remember seeing the early images of her sitting there, knees drawn up to her chin. She is in ninth grade this year. One kid. Alone.

I was an activist inclined kid. I know all too well what it is like to have idea after idea shot down. I might well have proposed such a thing as a teenager. I too am often accused of being too logical, too brutally real. I was also a loner, willing to stand out from the crowd. I instantly respected her and recognized her.

But when I saw her there alone, I thought, she was sweet and sad. And I thought she didn’t have a prayer. One kid. Alone. The news media will do a spot on that, because she’s cute and the world will move on, I thought. That’s one reason I have never done anything like that—completely alone—even though I’ve been sorely tempted.

The difference with Greta is that she just did it. And damn the social reaction.

It didn’t matter that no one supported her or joined her at first. It didn’t matter whether or not her solitary protest would make any difference.

You can imagine what it would be like for a kid—in today’s fast-paced, entertainment-focused world—to sit there all day. Not playing on a phone, just sitting and looking at people with her sign, occasionally handing out fliers.

All day? Try five weeks.

This is what makes me stop breathing for a moment. She not only did it, did what very few of us would even consider doing. She did it for five weeks.

Some people supported her. Some attacked her. She was told that she should stay in her place. She was told she should go to school and become a scientist if she cared. She was accused of being a slacker. She was accused of being a paid activist, trying to milk people concerned about environmental issues.

Science already tells us what we need to know. We have less than a decade to change. We don’t need Greta to be a scientist to fix this. She knows it. And we know it.

She writes, “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it’. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. Because either we limit the warming to 1,5 degrees C over pre industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.”

She got plenty of hate mail and in her responses on social media, you can tell she is vulnerable. It hurts her. She is a kid who has been excluded and bullied in some social situations because she was different. There isn’t one Asperger kid who hasn’t been.

But her response, unscripted and in her own slightly Euro-English diction, is the one thing I think might still save us: “Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis) a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.”

Instead of giving back hate for hate. She gives back comprehension for why others are uninformed.

Greta posts on Twitter and Facebook, stating her truth in her own words: “Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself.”

Greta says her actions were partly inspired by the students of Parkland and their activism for gun control in the United States. Because of social media, she in turn was seen and heard far beyond what my jaded assumptions where early on. Now, half a year later, there are demonstrations of tens of thousands in mid-sized cities all over Western Europe, primarily led by teenage girls, inspired by Greta.

The demonstrations in major cities, like Paris, have been twice and three times larger than the more widely reported “yellow vest” protests that struck down some climate friendly measures. The mainstream media has largely ignored this response but it continues to grow. In the US, the response has taken the form of groups of kids visiting Congressional offices and demanding support for the Green New Deal.

Will this change every thing? Did Greta single-handedly push us into a new era.

I hope so. But I doubt it.

If the media continues to ignore the amazing response to her strike by young people across Europe and the United States, then it may well fizzle within another year.

I too am overly logical and I am older. I’ve seen how activist things work and what it takes to last. I’m realistic.

But there is one thing that Greta did that will never be wiped away. She gave me the certain knowledge that there is something in the younger generation worth saving. Now when I see the spiraling mess of climate change discussions with the usual race for the bottom of cynicism and disillusionment, I think of Greta and the rest of it becomes obsolete.

She went to the Davos climate meeting and she told world leaders, “When I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis.”

It took 1,500 airline flights to get delegates to Davos, a sizable climate impact. It took Greta a 32-hour train ride. She never lets up with that logical approach.

A path through the wilderness: How I beat isolation-fueled depression

What do depression, parenting, scuba diving, being a racial minority and riding a bicycle all have in common?

You don’t know what it is really like unless you have been there and done it personally.

Depression is a real and often serious illness. It is most broadly described as an illness causing pervasive, long-term feelings of sadness and despair to a degree that hinders daily life. People who have experienced it know that it isn’t easy to beat depression.

Every illness has a cause of some kind. Depression can be sparked by negative events, such as the death of a loved one, limitations brought on by accident or sickness, or prolonged unlivable or oppressive conditions. But grief is not depression and hardships often don’t lead to depression. Most often depression is at least partly caused by biochemical problems, which may have genetic, lifestyle or environmental roots.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Depression is not “all in your head” or just something you can get over by thinking yourself out of the problem. But some thoughts can help. However, people telling you to think differently or that all you need is a positive attitude are pretty much guaranteed not to be helpful.

I know about this because I went through depression. My depression was mostly caused by a long-term problematic situation but exacerbated by my genetic tendency toward depression.

I can tell my own story, for what it’s worth. It isn’t a prescription for anyone else though. It’s just footprints in the howling wilderness that is depression, a sign that someone went this way before.

Depression and loneliness often coincide. Being alone and having little social contact can seriously exacerbate many types of depression. And yet people with depression often feel a desire to be alone, not because they don’t like people but because they need quiet to heal, because talk can easily wander into things that cause them pain, and because interaction requires energy. One of the major factors in depression is often a sensation of weight on the body or long-standing exhaustion.

Beyond that, people with depression are often not that easy to be around. Some look and act like what you’d expect from a sad person. Many don’t, but they can exhibit other difficult symptoms, such as irritability, anger, difficulty concentrating, fidgeting or hyperactivity, neediness, rejection of others and/or excessive, unnecessary chatter. As a result, some people with depression may end up more socially isolated because other people avoid them due to things related to the depression, often creating a vicious spiral.

My depression had some of that.

It started with bullying and social ostracism at school. I’ve written about the particulars in other posts. In short, I went through a lot of social exclusion up until about age twenty due to my vision impairment, different looking face and a-typical upbringing.

I had almost no close friends and very little social interaction beyond my family as a child and as a teen. I went through years of schooling in which I was always in a crowd and never allowed to participate socially. At the same time, I was hyper aware of constant “feel good” messages directed at people my age, claiming that friendship is the most important thing in life.

Messages meant to help struggling students stressed that academics and great careers don’t really lead to happiness or a fulfilling life. “The only thing that really matters,” every book, movie and counseling office pamphlet seemed to tell me, “is how many people like you.”

Mostly they didn’t come right out and say the word “popularity,” but instead used the nicer sounding term “friendship,” but I got the message loud and clear. My straight As, athletic skills, artistic talents, volunteer activities and everything else I tried to feel good about were all second best because of the social stigma that kept me isolated.

Over the years, I developed a deep depression—the kind that often goes undiagnosed. I used anger to fuel my energy, despite the heavy sadness that weighed me down. I decided that if I could not have friends, I would be the best in something else. I excelled academically, learned to write professionally and travailed the world.

I found that in distant countries where the culture was very different from my own, I was seen primarily as an exotic foreigner and my vision impairment and different face were often overlooked. I made friends, though due to the conditions of travelling these were often brief, if intense friendships. In the days before universal email, I corresponded with dear friends on several continents by letter, carrying my little green address book around as protectively as my passport.

Each chance to settle in a new place brought hope that here I would finally get it right and make lasting friendships.

That was another message I had absorbed. I knew on some level that much of my social isolation was due to factors beyond my control, but because well-meaning teachers had noticed my social problems in school, I had often been subjected to lectures and training designed to teach “social skills.”

I understood that implicitly, something was wrong with my social skills. In short, my isolation was also my own fault.

Some of those exercises attempted to correct “blindisms,” like my tendency to stare at my fingers while listening to someone talk because I couldn’t see their face, my inability to make eye contact and my difficulty in perceiving other people’s non-verbal communication. I learned not to stare at my fingers or other objects and to endure the discomfort of a world out of focus while I listened attentively. I learned to fake eye contact by looking intently but not fixedly toward where I thought a person’s eyes were. I learned to guess at non-verbal communication fairly effectively.

Other parts of this “social skills” education aimed to moderate the anger that came as a result of the isolation, essentially teaching me to be extra passive, extra nice, extra polite and to focus on other peoples’ interests while making small talk. Some teachers attempted to teach me to dress fashionably, smile demurely and feign normalcy. While I did reasonably well at the first type of lessons, I was not a star student in the second set.

For one thing, I was angry. For another thing, I had difficulty believing that appearances really matter all that much.

I’ve never heard of that last being something common to blind people. I know blind women who are fashion obsessed. But I found the fixation of most of the world on how a person dressed, their posture and even their facial expression to be ridiculous. It took a long time for me to come to terms with that unwelcome reality and to learn both adequate fashion sense and a basic grasp of popular culture.

Empathy for my family and few sighted friends convinced me to try to adapt to their world and curb things they said were an appearance problem.

Still, even as an adult, I was often alone. Due to the work and traveling I did, I was far from my home and family and while I made friends, they were often people who had busy lives and older friendships they cared about more. I was a peripheral person to almost everyone I knew.

When my chosen profession of newspaper journalism became mostly obsolete and I ran into significant health problems in just a few short years, my lack of a local social network became intensely painful again. By this time, I had many dear friends but most of them lived far from where I eventually settled, close to my husband’s job. We had moved to a small town and found the gossip mill to be as vicious as it had been in high school.

The terror of being alone returned. Days spent working alone at my computer were tortuous. I dreaded the approach of weekends alone. I had long since internalized the belief that being alone was a sign of failure and utter rejection. I frantically joined whatever my husband was doing or volunteered in community organizations to make sure I was not alone. And then I found myself miserable and exhausted among people I didn’t really know and couldn’t visually recognize if I did.

I sank back into deep depression and saw no hope of ever getting out.

Unfortunately, I didn’t even keep good journals during that period, so I don’t know exactly how things changed. I know that the circumstances didn’t change. I couldn’t afford therapy and because I maintained a basic level of daily routine through sheer stubbornness, I didn’t end up with medication for depression.

What changed was my assumptions about the purpose of life. Through a mix of extensive reading, spiritual practice and writing a memoir, I came to the conclusion that the core message I had absorbed in my childhood—as well-intentioned as it might have been—was wrong.

Friendship is not the only thing that matters. The number of people who like you or spend time with you is not the primary measure of happiness.

For some reason, our society tells children that in an attempt to make disappointments in academics, sports, competitions and even family conflict feel less bitter. But it is no more true than the hollow hope that money will make one happy.

The second realization came from taking the Myers-Briggs personality test, which showed that I am clearly an introvert, defined as a person who needs significant amounts of time alone. I knew that I often didn’t enjoy social occasions and often felt exhausted around people for long periods of time. But I had believed this was simply a failing on my part.

Once I realized that I actually needed solitude and I let myself think of all the things I loved to do alone—writing, crafts, studying herbs, making videos, reading—I felt an odd slow-motion liberation.

It didn’t happen in one day or even one month or one year. But slowly I decided to build a life in which I would be happy even if I was alone. I did not give up on social interaction. I still welcomed time with friends but I didn’t strive after it. I focused my attention on those things I could more directly control. I built my home around my interests and scheduled my time around what fulfilled me.

Recently, the question of how to work one’s way out of depression connected to loneliness was put to me on an advice forum.

My answer begins with examining the reasons why a person is alone more than they would like. This examination assumes that if the person is asking this question, they are not “just bitter and driving people away” as is one common assumption about lonely people. If a person is truly seeking social contact and interested enough to ask the question and look for ways to handle their own depression, the loneliness is likely not simply “their fault.”

So, there are three other possibilities:

1. You may be truly objectively isolated (living in a place far from other people or amid people where you are a member of a very small and rejected minority..
 
2. You may be an extravert but have some disability or other difference that makes social interaction difficult and causes other people to be prejudiced against you.
 
3. You may be an introvert, meaning that you really do need to have time alone, but you have developed the common assumption that being an introvert is "bad"  and being alone is a sign that you are a failure or a loser. Even if you don't think these things consciously, they may be in your subconscious. 

In the first instance, loneliness is an environmental hardship but it doesn’t reflect poorly on you. It may be a struggle to stay out of depression anyway. Keeping active, maintaining a daily routine and maintaining long-distance contact with friends can help, if the main issue is geographic or other physical separation from others.

In the case of discrimination, depression is harder to avoid. You may be physically with people but still excluded. Still there will be those who accept you. They may just be few and far between.

In the end, you are left with a somewhat more difficult situation. You are geographically separated from those who do accept you, but you can still maintain long-distance contacts and maintain your routine.

It is the third instance, that needs the most internal work but also the one that is the most solvable. If your loneliness stems mainly from the fact that you are actually an introvert, changing your thinking can significantly help. Realizing that solitude can be a good thing is powerful anti-depression medicine. It is unlikely to happen over night, but finding joy in your interests and activities alone can go a long way toward fighting depression.

My struggle with loneliness and depression was a combination of these three factors. I am an introvert, but not an extreme introvert. I need time alone to recharge but I can be very social and gregarious with people. I didn’t always understand that you don’t have to be shy or self-contained to be an introvert. I am talkative and expressive. I just get my energy and rest from being alone.

I took on the common western assumption that being an introvert is "bad"  and that the "key to happiness" is the number and volume of one's friends. As a result, I became seriously depressed. I thought I had to be social all the time to not be “a loser.”

I was terrified of being alone. When I was alone I was miserable, always thinking about why I had no option to be with someone. To avoid this, I ran community organizations, volunteered and got involved in all sorts of things. While this had its uses, I was exhausted and rarely enjoyed the social interaction. I was always under strain because I am an introvert by temperament and that means that I really physically need time alone to recharge, even when I didn't know it.
 
The key was understanding that being alone is not bad or a sign of failure, that I could enjoy my interests alone, that I needed solitude on a deep biological level and that some people would not accept me no matter what I did or how many “social skills” I learned. The first step was throwing off the stereotype I had absorbed from pop culture that says that your happiness is based on how many friends you have, on being one of those smiling faces in a big crowd on a Facebook photo and getting a ton of "likes" under it.

I learned to live in a way that I truly enjoy rather than in a way that I thought I was supposed to enjoy. Your way may be different from mine but the key is finding what it is, what makes you happy and what fulfills you.. If you are at least partly an introvert, you will have interests that can be pursued alone.

You may have been discouraged from doing things alone and warned that if you “shut yourself away,” you will never have any friends. That is only a danger if you see being alone as a failure and a sign of rejection. If you are enjoying yourself and allowing the solitude to refuel you, you will likely reemerge ready to take on the social world on a regular basis.

Who would I have been in the days leading up to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or US slavery times?

In 1996, I sat in a class of American college students on a study-abroad program in Olomouc in the Czech Republic. A Czech man just a few years older than us came in to give a lecture about life in the 1980s under Stalinist totalitarianism and the Soviet occupation. I don’t remember the exact details of the lecture but it was good. It was moving and detailed and real.

I was the only one in the class who knew much of it already and who spoke Czech. I had been to the country before in 1992 and had my mind exploded during a week in a rustic cabin with a group of young people who had been quiet dissidents three years earlier, copying down illegal protest songs by hand in tattered notebooks.

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

I absorbed the university lecture eagerly, asking several questions at the end to draw out interesting parts of the man’s story. Then I made myself stop. I didn’t want to hog the space and I knew I should let the others ask. But when I looked around there was not one hand raised.

One of the American college students, sprawled in a chair at the back of the class, drawled, “Yeah, that’s the difference over here. Americans would never have put up with that.”

It sounds like a cliche but I really felt like something hit me in the chest. I had no breath. Before I could recover, the class broke up and the lecturer exited quickly, while my classmates put their notebooks away and went out for an afternoon of Czech beer.

Listening to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme Court and the protesters screaming for all they were worth from the gallery, I thought of that remark and of Jan Palach, the student who lit himself on fire in protest of the Soviet invasion of 1968. Palach is a symbol of the final and most extreme protest when oppression has become so immense that dissent is easily silenced, dismissed, buried or imprisoned.

Things have gone from bad to worse in the US in the past two years. The quiet corporate coop that made a mockery of electoral democracy for decades has become overt. The extreme racist, misogynist, eco-cidal ideology that was threatening before has taken more and more power by more and more unjustifiable means.

Plenty of readers will sneer at my title and say that I should not compare this to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Czechoslovakia or slavery times. We are not seeing people shot in the streets… well, except when they are black and vaguely suspected of something. We can still protest. We cannot compare ourselves to Jan Palach and those who had all of their other options taken away.

And that is true. We still can protest. And that is why those screams made me think of Jan Palach. Those protesters hauled off by security were mocked by many. They screamed as a man credibly accused of sexual assault, a man with clearly stated misogynist and extremist views was given lifetime power over us.

They yelled and made a scene and they were ultimately powerless to do anything. The charade of “democracy” went on with smug indifference. Those in power snicker and call their “tantrums” futile and petty.

But it is not nothing to scream at injustice and the destruction of a democratic country. It is not nothing. It is the one thing that still stands between us and the likes of Jan Palach. We can still scream where it is heard. He couldn’t without ending up being tortured in a dark cell.

There is a meme on Facebook that says “You now know what you would have done in Nazi Germany. You’re doing it right now.”

The idea is that the early days of Nazi Germany did not look so different from our current situation, a terribly polarized country with a ridiculous, extreme right-wing faction gaining popular support among a certain frustrated portion of the population while most of the traditional powers tut-tutted and insisted that any resistance be done through their channels. Most of the middle class and intellectuals were sure for a very long time that it wasn’t really that bad, that these nuts would not get total control. They considered the Nazis to be deplorable certainly but not a real threat.

And most people either were swept up into the extremism because they were easily swayed by advertising and razzle-dazzle or they disliked the extremists who gained power but just grumbled quietly about it and mostly made sure not to take any great personal risks.

The thinking behind the meme is that the beginnings of Nazi Germany looked a lot like the United States today and so it is now easy to tell what kind of person you would have been then. And in some ways that meme is right. We have far different technology and public discourse and we are more aware of totalitarianism than most people were then. But the same dynamic is clearly visible, the same divided groups and the same vulnerability to manipulative extremism.

I don’t compare our times to the height of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or slavery times. I do compare our times to the run-up to such moments in history. We are still in the stage where we can scream and not be shot—most of us. We are not yet faced with the choice Jan Palach perceived—to live in utter oppression or to die loudly enough that the scream will at least break the oppressive silence.

And so I ask myself who would I have been in the days leading up to the darkest times in history?

And today I know the answer.

I would have been a writer who wrote the truth even if it meant losing jobs—and eventually a career—over it. I have done that. I have lost jobs and lost my hard-fought career in newspaper journalism with one of the best national newspapers in large part because I wouldn’t tow the line and I broke out of the mold of the celebrity-focused, reality-impaired news too often. I had a couple of run-ins with censorship of historical facts and ended up on the NRA’s journalist “hit list” before I was done.

I would have been a member of a vulnerable group who could not get work or participate in mainstream society in my own country because of the self-destructive way that country was organized which directly excluded my group. Because of that I would have been forced to leave the country and spend my life far from my home and family. I left the United States twenty years ago because as a legally blind person I could not be independent and fully participate in society without public transportation, which is today one of the greatest needs for everyone to combat climate change. Because I am legally blind, the community I emigrated to does not entirely accept me either, but I do have public transportation and so I can have a normal life, a family and a job. The same was true of many who fled destructive regimes for other reasons—less-than enthusiastic welcome but a chance to live.

Whether I stayed or left, I would have been active in protest movements, organizing as long and as hard as I could. I led protests against the war in Iraq in my city, even though it cost me another job and impacted my health. But for a long time I would not have been among those who dropped everything to protest full-time or risked the most. I participated in actions to support Greenpeace blockaders who did risk their lives to protest US imperialism and environmental destruction. I was terribly afraid when I was almost caught by military police while bringing food to an encampment. All I risked that time was a trip to the local jail, a fine and a record. But I quaked with fear and because I was trying to adopt children and didn’t want the possible bureaucratic repercussions, I didn’t ask to take on a riskier role in the protests.

In those other times, I still would have adopted children from a vulnerable group, despite disapproval from many sides. I have done that. I would have been one of those people who held down a hearth and cooked food and let people traveling to protests or fleeing from danger sleep in their home. That too I have done.

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

I would also have been among those who eventually became too exhausted by hand-to-mouth work and health problems to go to most protests. I am exhausted. Most protests are too far and too difficult for me to get to anymore. Then again, needy children keep me tied down. I would have been one of those who found a small corner to hide in when I got older and less physically strong. I would have continued in small ways to resist personally and to give help to the endangered ones who crossed my path.

I would have been among those who wished to do something significant, to join the “real resistance,” but didn’t first because of fear and later because of those who already depended on me. I have fantasies of helping refugees from war-torn and climate-devastated regions. I have fantasies of going off to live in camps at places like Standing Rock to put my body between the corporations and the destruction of the earth’s climate and our children’s future. But I haven’t done it. I am less afraid now that I am older. There is less at stake because there is less of my life and no career or adoption process left to lose.

I would have been a quiet ally to those most targeted by the oppression. I would have stood up for them against social bullying and helped if I could. But I wouldn’t have had either the energy or the capacity to do much that really mattered, because I am also not among the privileged and because even when I don’t fear for my own life and livelihood, I fear for my children, and because of distance and lack of funds and reticence toward cold, hard living.

I would not have been a hero or one remembered by history. I would not have been a collaborator or someone who willfully didn’t see what was happening. I would have been willing to sacrifice a job or a career, but not my family in order to tell the truth. I would have done small things to help those worst affected and felt guilty that I didn’t do more. I would have been among those taking carefully measured risks. And unless I was among the unlucky few—like say Heather Heyer— I wouldn’t have paid the highest price. I know because that is the kind of character I am in our current story.

Have you let yourself think this through? Who would you have been?

Avoid falsely easy answers. You may be among those targeted by hate today but there are likely others who are in greater danger—assuming you have the leisure to be reading my blog.

If you are among those most targeted today, consider that victims also had options back then. Would you have been among those who left early, who found a way out or a way to fight back? Would you have been among those who covered their ears and prayed that it would not go so far? Would you have been among those who blamed your friends and neighbors or joined with them in mutual aid to survive? What is it you are doing today? Are you lashing out at allies or frozen with fear or getting your children to safety and building alliances?

And if you are part of a group that is not yet targeted, who would you have been then? Would you have been the bystander who knew a bit of what was going on but chose not to get too involved? Would you have been the one who who shut their ears and eyes to the suffering of others and the devastation of their homes? Would you have had the courage to use what rights you had to say “no,” to protest loudly when you could and to give aid quietly?

Who would you have been? A lot of the wondering has been resolved in the past two years. Who are you now?

When "no politics" isn't neutral

Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.

The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.

And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all. 

But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is. 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

"Chicken," you reply.

"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."

"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"

And someone mutters. "Getting political already." 

The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"

Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.

"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."

Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.

After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."

The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics. 

Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms. 

"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks. 

"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.

"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"

"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do  you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"

"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."

It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree). 

The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century. 

The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women. 

"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently. 

The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names. 

Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."

The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.

"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks. 

The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere. 

You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"

"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."

"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."

"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."

"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"

"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted. 

"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?" 

"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.

The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.

At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.

The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."

Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.

The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."

Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.

You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.

"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."

"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political." 

You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here. 

You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified. 

The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.

You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came. 

You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing. 

"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace." 

"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."

---

There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics. 

To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction. 

Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo. 

Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.

The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.

Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders. 

There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act. 

What does the "all bodies are beautiful" message actually tell our daughters?

"Everyone says you're ugly anyway." 

It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay. 

She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.

Arie teaching 4.jpg

"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.

I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?

I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?

She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.

And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.

My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle. 

My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine. 

But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people. 

Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go. 

I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice. 

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.

This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.

But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards. 

Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line. 

This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.

We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs. 

I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm." 

I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say. 

But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty. 

Irritating meme about how everyone is beautiful.png

And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on  to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.

But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful. 

Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.

Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.

I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to. 

These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."

I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.

While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this: 

  1. Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
  2. Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
  3. And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.

That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: 

Friends, children, old people, people all over the world, homeless people, refugees, bankers and presidents, gay people, straight people, black, brown and white people, wheeled people, stick people and running-all-around people, I mean all of you.

Your worth is not defined by your appearance, by your brain, your body or even by your abilities, by your wealth or sophistication or even your manners, by your country, your house, your car, your ancestry, your social media rating, your popularity or your job. Your worth is defined by how hard you strive for something beyond those trappings, by your passion for something beyond yourself and by the depth of your relationships, rather than by their number.

You have strengths, no matter how close to rock bottom you've hit. You may not be beautiful, healthy, popular, smart and wealthy all at once. But there is something in you, that the world needs. You also have your weak spots. You probably are not beautiful, healthy, popular, smart AND wealthy, and if you are, you almost certainly have some other large problem. And that problem does not define you or make you unworthy.

You will in the end choose your own worth because worth can only be measured by things that a person can choose, not by those things that life hands to you. And another thing, that kind of worth cannot be quantified or compared. It just is.

That line between guts and a bad decision

I stood at the top of the red slope just where the relatively flat ledge drops off on the steep face of the mountain, forcing myself to take slow trembling breaths.

"Come on! You can do it!" the guide hollered up from thirty feet below.

My brain kept imagining the impact, the feeling of hitting the snow fast. My legs and back cringed from imagined crashes and the thought of an unwary skier slamming into me from behind.

"It isn't that much different from the blue, You're ready for this!" the guide tried to reassure me. But his hazy, darker shape on the glaring snow was rocking back and forth in a way I recognized meant he was climbing slowly back up toward me. His movement and the touch of uncertainty in his tone both belied his confident words. 

Arie snow ski mountains trees - Arie Farnam.jpg

There was no one who could possibly say if I was ready for this. I was twelve and usually up for dare-devil stuff. But I was also legally blind and I had crooked legs and missing ligaments in my ankles. That guide had known me for all of an hour and a half. 

"I'm ready!" I called down to him. I was very far from sure that was true. But the one thing I was more afraid of than the red slope was being a failure.

He stopped rocking back and forth. I inched the tips of my skis over the lip of the ledge. I knew that wasn't the way to do it. I needed speed or I really would fall. 

I jumped a bit in the boots and dug in with my poles. Not much. You shouldn't be picturing anything very dramatic here. But I had just enough momentum to topple over the edge and into a hard snowplow and then a painfully slow curve. 

My knees and ankles screamed with pain, but I gritted my teeth. The guide lurched into motion and made the turn below me, calling out in that singsong that follows the contours of the land so a blind skier can guess the terrain ahead, "TuuUURN right! TUuurn leeeeft! Turn right! Turn LEeeft!"

The singsong grew a bit faster. The pain in my legs had spread so that there was no point that stood out anymore. It was all just a blazing ache. But they held. My legs held the V and the slope, turn after turn.

I could barely see my guide, a wavering gray shape in the undistinguished whiteness all around.  But despite my slowness, he stayed just far enough ahead and not too far, clearly having to plow himself to stay with me. 

Just as I sensed more than saw the looming darkness of trees on my left, a black shape flashed across my path, scraping the tips of my skis. I jolted and nearly fell but managed to stay up. 

"StoooOOP!" the shout was not abrupt like you might expect. It swooped just so that I knew how big a turn to make to stop and how the ground would rise a bit under my skis as I did. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I made the turn and stopped but my guide was gone. I caught the flicker of his gray shape below me, chasing another shape, then turning, forcing the other shape to the side. They were too far away for me to hear more than the low, angry tone as my guide chewed out the stunt skier who thought it would be fun to zip between me and my guide on our first run down the red slope. 

A moment later, he let the skier go and called up to me, directing me with tone over the humps and valleys of the slope and around an adult and child skiing together.

I made it down the red slope that day and several other times, though I never learned to like the red more than the blue. I loved to fly over the smooth white snow of the blue runs, where there are not so many moguls and almost no stunt skiers. 

That was one of five guides I worked with in three years of skiing in a blind skiers program as a kid. Some of those guides were spectacular in both skill and patience. Others struggled to ski so precisely and master the voice methods used to guide blind skiers at the same time. Either way. they were the difference between skiing and not skiing--i.e. the difference between a kid's long-awaited day of exhilaration and a kid's resignation to yet another "can't." 

I wanted to ski. It's hard to describe how badly I wanted to. I couldn't ride a bike fast or skateboard or roller skate, except in a small defined rink--and even then slowly. I knew I'd never drive. To me the only speed, the only feel of control and competence in the physical realm was skiing. And the guides that made it possible were among my childhood heroes. 

Most people who have never seen a blind skier and guide work together are skeptical or even disbelieving. "How could you ski? Even with a guide? Just how?" They'll admit that maybe I could, because I can see some. But I've known totally blind skiers who could do it much better than I can. 

It took three years of hard work for me to get to the point where I could tip over the lip and make it down the red slope reasonably well. It took patience and encouragement and not thinking about the dangers or how my dad broke both his legs skiing when he was a kid. 

But because of that training, I can ski after a fashion. It isn't pretty. It isn't nimble, but today I even ski without a guide on easy, well-known slopes. In the brief years of the blind skiers program I learned enough to last decades.

But now I'm over forty. My legs aren't just crooked. They're creaky. My calves are balls of muscle to compensate for the missing ligaments. And my eyes are funkier than ever with slowly failing retinas. And I still want to ski.

I don't much anymore though. It's too hard and too expensive. But I've skied enough to make sure my own two kids are better at it than me. This year I thought I'd miss out on skiing entirely, until I was called in to be a substitute teacher at an ESL skiing camp for Czech homeschoolers in the Krkonos Mountains. 

On Saturday, after classes were over, my husband and kids wanted to ski down from our lodge to a major ski area near the town of Rakovnik nad Jezirkou. This required entering the slope near the top and on a red run. Then I could ski to the bottom and ride the lift up to ski the blue slope thereafter.

My husband isn't quite like the intrepid blind-skier guides. He has all he can handle just to ski without having to turn his head back on every swerve to yodel the way the land rolls. So I just followed his fuzzy shape silently through the snow. To do this I have to fix my eyes on him and never look away. If I glance away, I'll never be able to tell which fuzzy shape is my husband again and other skiers don't do what I need them to. 

We came out on the red run and started down the crowded, ice-packed slope, weaving in and out among other skiers, while making my painfully slow curves. Then the run narrowed and suddenly dropped. There was no lip this time, just a hump and we were onto a sheer steep slope on a sheet of ice. And there was no more plowing or slow curves. I made one, lost my bead on my makeshift guide and went down on my back.

I tried not to think about the skis of people behind me cutting into me as I blocked the way. Instead I struggled to get up on the steep ice. But I quickly realized that probably wasn't worth the fight. 

"Good snowsuits are the better part of valor," I grumbled under my breath, lifted my skis in the air and coasted the rest of the way down the hill on my backside. My husband and kids were a bit embarrassed to be with me that day, but that was my call.

I've been told by eye doctors, that I'd better not fall hard anymore or get hit in the head or any such thing. If I do, I might well wake up not seeing anything. And crappy as my vision may seem to most people, it comes in rather handy to me. So I've finally become cautious in my middle age. 

All in all, I've never been particularly comfortable with that line, "You can do it!" Who knows what another person can or can't do. Mostly we don't even really understand what takes courage for another individual and we certainly don't know where the line between courage and foolishness might be for them. 

I'm the lady skiing along with less than ten percent of everyone else's eyesight. I skim over the snow on the blue slope that everyone else says is boring. And I'm flying. My heart is singing with my own version of freedom, while I avoid the red runs and never even want to go near the black.

So for whatever it's worth, here's my take.  Push your own limits, just enough to feel fully alive. There are things that really are dangerous and not worth the risk. The better part of valor is using your a brain... and good protective gear.  

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.