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.

Jokes that hurt without meaning to

This post is not about racists, homophobes, ableists, sexists and other recognized deplorables telling deplorable jokes that we can all agree are damaging and not funny.

Sorry. It’s been done. Here are some links (on people who get mad that women don’t fake laugh at sexist jokes anymore. and how bigoted jokes change who it is socially acceptable to hate), if you need a post about that. It is also a real issue.

This is the “dig a little deeper” post.

Jokes that hurt image.jpg

We—and here I mean progressive, kind, good-hearted people who don’t want to hurt anyone—need to think about what happens when we accidentally or carelessly tell a joke that hurts someone.

There’s a Facebook meme that says, “If I ever confuse ‘their’ versus ‘there’ and ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ in the same post, you should take it as a sign that I have been kidnapped and I’m signaling for help.”

I’m a linguist, a grammar buff and an ESL teacher. I get why this is funny.

Those who know and care about the differences in words and who feel that the integrity of language matters get frustrated with the apparent lackadaisical attitude of many on social media toward the written word.

To many of us, sloppy spelling and grammar is the equivalent of going out in public with your fly down, food on your chin, morning breath, body odor and your hair not brushed for three days. It reflects poorly on the person posting a message and discredits what they have to say.

Meanwhile, to many people on social media, typing is simply a different way of talking and the faster it’s done the better.

The joke is funny because:

1. The person who posts the joke is poking some fun at her/himself for being a bit of a grammar nerd,

2. We all know a lot of people online who just don’t care whether they make those mistakes and there is a light rivalry between them and the grammar nerds.

3. Some people’s grammar and spelling is really hilarious.

Um… What? Wait just a minute there.

Number three is a problem. If poor grammar on social media is the equivalent of going out in public disheveled, then laughing at people who present poor grammar is the equivalent of ridiculing a person in public who looks disheveled.

And that person might just be homeless.

Or in the online version, they might be dyslexic, blind, an ESL learner, uneducated due to generational poverty or so stressed by difficult life circumstances that they can’t check over their posts.

Imagine if you will a similar Facebook meme stating, “If I ever start stuffing my face and turn into a fatty, you should take it to mean that I’m trapped in an abusive relationship under threat of violence and that’s how I’m signaling for help.” Imagine a really slim friend posting this.

Okay, it is no longer funny at all. We can probably all agree that this would be insensitive and cruel.

The analogy is closer to home than you may think. Obesity is often considered a product of lazy, lackadaisical habits, just as poor spelling is. But both are often actually caused by or exacerbated by factors beyond a person’s control. Both are also the focus of a lot of overt harassment and ridicule.

I cannot count the number of times someone has called me out online for mixing up a homonym, for a dropped comma or for not catching a bad autocorrect. My specific reasons for these mistakes are being 90 percent blind, using voice recognition to type and being a stressed-out parent on modest means. I’m geographically isolated enough to need social media for both work and social interaction. So I try anyway, but my online escapades are far from perfect.

I’m a professional writer and I graduated suma cum laude in linguistics, so I shouldn’t be sensitive about this

But... ridicule is hard to take, and growing up with a disability I’ve received my full measure. When I see other people ridiculed for it online, even when they are my political opponents, I feel threatened.

Okay, I’ll agree that a president really should check over his tweets. If I were president, I wouldn’t be sending out anything I hadn’t had checked by someone else. There’s having a text disability and there’s being smart about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Presidents can afford line editors and so there isn’t much excuse beyond arrogance and lack of care.

But I still don’t engage in those particular jabs at 45.

I think I did once find that grammar meme funny, years ago, when I first got on social media. I had the same problems I have now with text, but I had not yet encountered the online ridicule over it. A person’s experience of having been ridiculed about the point of the joke does matter.

I recently overreacted to such a joke and called out a friend over it. I felt bad later. I don’t want to be harsh or mean, especially when I’m pretty sure the person who posted it had the first two reasons for humor in mind, not so much the problematic third.

But it is an issue worth thinking about. I have seen my friends who are only intermediate in English be dismissed and laughed off of social media, when it took significant courage for them to speak up in a foreign language. I have been ridiculed for posting in the language of the country where I am an immigrant. It is also a second language for me and I know I make mistakes.

And this is by far not the only joke that many of us may find funny, while it hits someone else like a sucker punch. Some jokes about family relationships may really hurt people who have lost family through adoption or estrangement. Some jokes may reference something sensitive for one group that the individual telling the joke genuinely didn’t realize would be sensitive. Think bananas, jungles and “gypsy” fortune tellers for instance.

I may be experienced enough to personally avoid these, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. There is a joke out there somewhere that I will think is hilarious and either laugh at or share, which will actually hurt someone. And I can pretty much guarantee that the same is true for you.

We don’t know for sure and we’re all likely to make this mistake, no matter what our personal background is. A lot of people will take that as a reason to dismiss the whole thing and say that we should all grow thicker skins and learn to take a joke.

But we know where that leads.

If we say it is all right to tell jokes that hurt people with invisible disabilities or ESL learners, we will be that much closer to social acceptability of overtly racist jokes.

And yet laughter and humor is in desperately short supply. Our hearts cry that the solution cannot be that we walk on eggshells around sharing anything funny.

The best I have for you is this:

1. When I am hurt by such a joke or comment in the future, I will say simply, “That hurts. Here’s why.” I will go back to psychology 101 and use statements starting with “I” rather than accusing the other person of something. I invite you to join me in this resolution.

2. When that unhappy but inevitable day comes when I am told that my humor hurt someone else, I will listen and truly think it through. I will delete jokes that hurt people if it’s online. And I’ll apologize for hurting that person, even if I had no intention of doing so, even if I don’t quite think they are justified.

The experience of hurt is a fact. If it comes from me then I did the hurting. Intention is not irrelevant but it is also not everything. Neither is reasonableness. Saying, “I’m sorry my joke hurt you. Thanks for letting me know. I will try not to hurt you in the future,” costs little.

This isn’t going to solve all the problems of social media or dinner party discourse, let alone the broader world. But it can make our personal circle of social interaction more aware and safer for those who have already had their full measure of hurt.

Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

Doing poverty well: How to actually deal with clutter

I’ve run across at least a dozen blogger responses to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series on fighting clutter for a less stressful lifestyle. Several of these have already pointed out that the show is deeply classist.

I’m not going to belabor the point. It is. Getting rid of everything you haven’t used recently and assuming you can just buy one later if you need it is a choice only viable for the economically privileged. Berating people who don’t currently have or recently didn’t have that privilege for “clutter” is classist. And environmentally unsustainable to boot.

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

I’m sure the show and its advice is helpful to some. There are people who senselessly horde or acquire stuff without planning or a focus on reusing and upcycling. There probably are middle class people who have a lot of junk they really legitimately don’t need and will never use. The show may well be helpful to them and might result in less stress in their lives.

That’s a good thing and if there was any indication of compassion or understanding that we don’t all have this luxury, I wouldn’t be even mildly irritated at the show. It’s the support of the bubble of privileged comfort that some in the western middle class, which is actually in the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people, dwell within that bothers me and a few other bloggers. The show doesn’t mention that it is only designed for a very select group, because some in that group don’t feel comfortable when they are reminded of their privileged status in the world. It’s just a thing you don’t say if you want their approval ratings..

The show irritates those of us who stumble across it, but don’t fit into its demographic. And yes, some of us have a broad definition of the word “family” when it comes to both the dinner table and Netflix family passwords and thus some of us occasionally have Netflix.

But I digress. This post isn’t so much about the show as it is about solutions for the rest of us.

You see, clutter is a problem for those with modest means. In fact, it is likely to be a bigger problem for us than it is for the middle class.

First, let me define “us.”

Some will rightly complain that I’m not “poor enough” to talk about doing poverty well. I live a reasonably comfortable lifestyle after all. My children have never gone to bed hungry, except for those couple of nights when they went on strike from regular food in a desperate bid to force a one-hundred-percent noodle, ketchup and candy diet that simply didn’t pan out with Mama bear in the kitchen. So what am I complaining about?

I’m not. Complaining, that is.

My family lives well below the US poverty line in a middling Eastern European country, where we’re actually pretty middle class. I grew up more genuinely poor and in my twenties I went through some winters where cabbage and potatoes were really all I could afford. But my point isn’t to bemoan “poverty.” I, in fact, hold that if most of the world lived close to our consumption level, we could be environmentally sustainable and comfortable enough.

My goal isn’t to become wealthier but rather to live better with what we have. And dealing with clutter is part of that. My solutions are just different from Marie Kondo’s.

When you live close to or below what has been arbitrarily (but in this case handily) designated as the US poverty line, you are in a situation where you can usually buy one small item that you need at a time or save up for a larger item, but you can’t simply acquire what you need when you need it. If you have lived this way for long, it is unlikely you “throw away” anything that isn’t actually useless. You most likely have a running mental list of those who could use, recycle, upcycle or re-enliven something you no longer want.

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

You may well store a lot of things that you don’t need immediately. Your first thought when finding an odd castoff mechanical part is more likely to be, “I wonder what this could be useful for?” than “Why is this old thing still around?” You plan and save and put together what you need.

And there’s another thing. Your entertainment is more likely to be self-made. You don’t go on distant vacations. If you go on vacation, it usually requires a lot of stuff—like tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and so forth. And if you don’t go on vacations, you have other interests, many of which entail making things, which requires supplies and equipment.

Your job likely also requires supplies. You likely fix clothing, cars, furniture and other things when they are broken rather than throwing them out, which means your home may well have the necessities for sewing, auto work and carpentry. You are actually more likely than the middle class to own your own cement mixer, sewing machine, towing cables or power saw. I own all four. Lacking a home of your own, you may not own these things, but you very likely own a sewing kit and a set of tools, no matter how makeshift.

And all these things are clutter when piled up into a small home, apartment, car, backpack or whatever you live out of.

Does that mean you should take Marie Kondo’s advice and get rid of anything you haven’t used recently and then every object that does not give you joy. The toilet plunger would be top of the list for me… and how would that go?

The worn-out clothes I garden in aren’t comfy old favorites. They are very specifically, clothes I hate that I expect will be torn and dirty beyond repair in a rough season or two. My cracked mismatched dishes don’t bring me joy. The set of nice dishes brought out only for holidays and adult company do. And the reason they are still nice and joyful is that we don’t use them for everyday.

Nope. That method isn’t going to work for dealing with our clutter.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I live in a small, compact house. There isn’t an inch of space that isn’t in planful use. I run a business out of my home that requires me to meet clients in my home daily. My home has to be neat and tidy. Local social norms require it for such a business. Beyond that, I’m ninety percent blind and a pile of junk is truly a problem for me to wade through. Things need to have places.

But all the above still applies. I cook all of my family’s meals from scratch because instant food that won’t kill you is expensive. Thus I have a fully stocked kitchen and a jam-packed pantry. I also have a vegetable garden and that means I have a shed full of tools and supplies, window sills full of seedlings and a cellar and freezers full of produce.

My business requires extensive teaching supplies. I also have kids and they have stuff. We live hours from the nearest English-language library, so we have our own library shelves, particularly full of children’s books. Modern technology has meant some slimming of our bookshelves, DVDs and CDs but subscription services cost money and reference books get used a lot around here.

Beyond that, there is my mental health. Like most people in my situation, I don’t have relaxing vacations or spa treatments or even weekends away. I have interests instead. I study medicinal herbs and recently I’ve taken up candle and soap making. These also require stuff—materials, supplies and storage space.

So it goes for many of us. I go through my pantry regularly from top to bottom every six months and reorganize a bit every month or two. I am always weeding through clothing hordes, swapping out tattered and laundry-shrunken clothes for clothes from the hand-me-down network or bought at an amazing second-hand shop we hit on a trip two years ago that finally fit my kids.

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

My kids each have a few drawers for the clothes currently in use. There are are also three bins in their closets that contain clothes. The lowest, easiest-to-reach bin contains still-useful, only mildly tattered clothes that are too small for my kids. These are fed back into our hand-me-down network on a regular basis. The second bin contains off-season clothes—winter clothes in summer, summer clothes in winter. The final bin contains the hoard of clothes that don’t yet fit my kids. Most of these are a year or two from fitting but a few particularly nice bits are being hoarded for a distant future.

That’s how I handle clutter. Or at least it’s one example.

Mostly handling clutter well when you live the way I do means organization, labeling and taking periodic inventory..

I have bins for tools, wire, glue, rope, rubber bands, nails, small boxes, plastic bags, art supplies and plenty of other categories. The skeptical will inevitably remark that there is a lot there that we will never actually use. It’s true that about a third of it eventually gets cycled out when its usefulness is determined to have been overestimated. But all of these things are things acquired free, extremely cheaply or by mistake, as everyone sometimes acquires things. We don’t seek them out but when they come in, if they might be useful, we store them rather than fill the landfill.

Once I observed a middle-class American doing an art project and gaped in surprise at the clean-up, which was apparently routine. Not only were the drop clothes not washed and hung to dry. They were simply bundled with all the scrap material inside and tossed into the garbage can—unused paints, barely opened glue tubes, brushes and all. In my world, only a few stray scraps would have ended up in the garbage, and even then only if they couldn’t conceivably become confetti, decoration for children’s projects or… fire starter.

Yup, there’s a bin for tinder as well, containing candle drippings, soiled wax baking paper, nutshells and paper scraps free enough of chemicals to be deemed compost-safe once burned.

The crucial thing is to be able to find what you need when you eventually do need it. That’s where storage systems, labels and bins come in. Last year, I had what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my class. I got to design my own work space and actually see it built. The photos in this post are from my new space, which features many small shelves and storage compartments. Some of the storage has doors to cover it. But much of it does not, in order to allow quick and handy access.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

I learned valuable organizational principles during this process and here is my advice to rival Marie Kondo’s.

Before you shop, always take inventory and organize:

  • Categorize items by type and label clearly.

  • Store categories near where they are most used. Have at most two places where the same category is stored. (Glue may be in the wood shop as well as the office.)

  • If an item has a single use only, store it with the items used with it rather than with it’s type. (Gardening sheers are stored with gardening things, not with scissors.)

  • Use up one package or container of a material as much as possible before opening another, even if it isn’t convenient. Recycle or re-purpose the packaging.

  • Be creative in finding storage space. Not everything must be stored in heated rooms of your home. Building raised beds or hollow kitchen benches with lids for seats will often dramatically increase your storage space. If you are able to build your own shelves, carefully plan out what you need to store where and plan the depth, width and height of shelves with the storage containers you have and are likely to have in the future in mind.

  • While building a separate pantry or walk-in closet may seem like it significantly shrinks your living space, if you can line it with shelves and store what you need inside it, it will significantly decrease clutter and increase the usability of the space you have.

  • Designate a storage space for repourposed materials like boxes, bags, building scraps and paper supplies. Containers which the given material won’t quickly overflow out of are ideal. When space is limited, consider carefully the storage needs of given materials. Paper boxes must be kept in a dry place, but heat and cold don’t matter. Cans of paint can tolerate occasional moister but cannot tolerate great differences in temperature or any frost. Some materials, like cloth, are susceptible to pests.

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

Getting rid of things you don’t need

  • Certain types of supplies tend to accumulate more quickly than others. Cardboard boxes and water-proof bags (usually plastic up until recently) are essential for many activities and expensive to buy when needed. They can accumulate quickly, depending on your activities. Keep a supply of a dozen smaller boxes and several larger boxes. Keep a plastic bag full of plastic bags of similar size. If you have more than that and don’t need them for a specific reason, recycle those that are getting tattered.

  • Keep spare parts together. If you really have the skills to use a spare part to fix something later, it is okay to keep spare parts which are in good condition. Recycle parts that are damaged or which you would not be able to use given your skills and tools.

  • Fix broken tools when possible. If it is not possible to fix a tool, it is best to separate it into materials to be recycled.

  • Store craft, cooking and gardening supplies well, usually in air-tight containers. Don’t throw out half-full packages unless the contents are damaged. If the packaging is damaged, repackage and store for later use. If the material itself is damaged, dried up or spoiled, dispose of it in the most conservationist way possible.

  • The hierarchy of disposal should be: 1. Repair/reuse/repurpose, 2. Channel to those who can repair, reuse or repurpose in your network, 3. Give to charity, 4. Use as or give to others for animal feed, 5. Use as compost, mulch or construction material, 6. Burn as fuel, 7. Breakdown and recycle, 8. Landfill. An item that you don’t need or can’t use starts at the top of the hierarchy. You assess its possibilities for usefulness and put it in the first category in which it can be truly useful.

  • The upper part of the hierarchy is focused on disposal which will benefit someone else. Some of this may be actual charity. Much of it is not charity at all. One of the key elements of doing poverty well is to have a hand-me-down network, and hand-me-downs are not all clothes by far. Lettuce scraps are a welcome hand-me-down to a chicken owner or gardener.

  • There is often not a direct return of the favor but those who give into such a network also receive when others have a surplus or an unneeded-but-still-useful item. I calculate that about 30 percent of my family’s food supply comes free or very cheaply from our network and it is all top quality organic products. This is one of the main reasons I can claim to live quite well below the US poverty line. As a result, not a day goes by when I don’t find myself considering if an item or materials I need to dispose of could be used by someone else in my network.

  • The other methods in the disposal hierarchy get as much residual use out of materials as possible and minimize both the costs of acquiring other materials and the harm to the environment. There is a stereotype that poor people don’t care about environmental issues. Sometimes people have been misled to misunderstand what “environmentalism” means, but people of modest means are also more vulnerable to ecological disruption, whether we are urban or rural dwellers. In the same way that you feed and protect your hand-me-down network for your own benefit, it is in your interests to nourish and protect your environment.

Restocking

  • When you live with modest means, it is good to be on the look-out for items or materials that you may need in the future that are being offered free or extremely cheaply. Stocking this way is an imperfect science or even an art. You will inevitably misjudge some things and end up storing something you will never need. The most important consideration is making sure that getting rid of something will not be an undue burden before you acquire it. Secondly, think of where you will store it while you are considering acquiring something. And finally, make sure there is actually a reasonable likelihood you’ll need what you’re acquiring. Ideally you’ll turn down far more than you bring in.

  • Each person’s needs are quite different. If your job requires you to dress in an expensive fashion, you may have to store a fair amount of clothing to make it work. This is different than simply hording clothes for fun, although that can be a hobby for some. Inventory and reassessment still applies, unless you consider this a hobby.

  • When new disposable items come in, place them UNDER or BEHIND older or half-used equivalents and use the older and half-used equivalents first. (If you acquire new tape very cheaply before your supply has run out, do not place it on top of the old supply.)

  • Some people will become so good at this that they will become a network hub and acquire things they don’t personally need in order to feed them into their network. As with many other parts of this barter economy, there is a fuzzy line between the skilled networker and the out-of-control pack rat. The difference will be in both organization and generosity.

I hope my experience may be helpful, whether you are voluntarily or involuntarily living on modest means. These are some of the ways to both contain clutter and organize materials to be both sustainable and useful.

Best wishes to all!

Considering the uses of a border wall

My brain is a trouble-maker. I swear it isn’t really me. Just my brain.

Every other time I write something online it brings out the attack dogs. I try to tell my brain to cool it. But my brain is like, “Look at this! Just take a look at the facts!”

  • As early as the 1970s, Exxon (now ExxonMobil), the world’s largest oil company, had convincing evidence of the threat of climate change connected to the burning of fossil fuels. For decades they responded by funding misinformation campaigns in an effort to conceal the evidence, but their own scientists were well aware of the truth. The wealthy individuals and corporations, who now fund the campaigns of the most powerful policy makers and also fund climate change denial spin, have all the data. They know that they are lying.

  • The most widely supported current models for climate change predict that even with the international goal of limiting climate change to a 2°C global temperature rise much of Central America, the Middle East and North Africa could become uninhabitable or at least unfarmable. These regions. which already experience significant drought, will likely have so little water by 2050 that widespread and extreme famine is probable. (I know it happens to be cold right now for many of us, but in Australia the daytime temperature is melting car tires. The small global temperature rise is just an indicator scientists use to talk about a much more complex change. It’s the extreme drought in farm country that will probably end up troubling you.)

  • Border walls are the new “in” thing internationally. All over the world countries have gone from high-tech border security solutions to the medieval wall tactic. At the end of WWII, there were only seven border walls or fences around the world. Today there are seventy-seven. Several of them have been erected specifically because of climate migration, such as the massive 1,700 mile barbed wire fence between relatively prosperous India and low-lying Bangladesh, which is densely populated and loses more of its land area to flooding from rising oceans each year.

  • Europe has already witnessed crowds of desperate, climate refugees massing at border barricades and being forced back .

  • Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall—together with the supposition that Mexico would pay for it—was so cartoonish that even his supporters didn’t seem to entirely believe him. Trump supporters at the time were often on TV saying, “I don’t care if Mexico really pays it, but I love that he says it.” But now Trump has made significant political and economic sacrifice in an attempt to force the construction and US-tax-payer financing of his border wall.

  • Illegal crossings over the southern US border are at an all-time low. Most “illegal migration” in the US today involves people arriving by air and overstaying their vises. And rising illegal migration from Asia is currently a bigger issue than that from Central America. It is more than strange that Trump is insisting on this wall now. Analysts pass it off as crowd-pleasing for his anti-immigrant base. But the political and economic costs of the lengthy government shutdown go beyond crowd pleasing and seem likely to sour even Trump’s supporters.

Too complicated? OK, boil that down:

  1. The border wall isn’t needed for real security now.

  2. Trump is making significant sacrifices to get a border wall.

  3. Elites all over the world are building border walls, particularly against areas hit by climate disasters.

  4. Climate change analysis warns that Central America could become uninhabitable through drought and famine within decades.

  5. Trump and his primary supporters in the fossil fuel industry have had access to evidence of this very climate change longer than anyone else.

“So….” my brain winks suggestively.

OK, I’ll say it, though it will no doubt bring the attack dogs out yet again.

I think it is possible that Trump is well aware that the border wall will not help with current security, but his vehement insistence and significant sacrifices to ensure that it is built actually are rooted in rational—if cold-blooded—reasoning.

If climate change creates massive, unending drought in Central America there will not just be caravans of refugees or migrant workers. There will be waves of starving people.

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Millions of starving people.

We have seen a military-style response on the border with tear-gas being fired at refugees. I fear that we are being prepared for a new normal, in which we will be outraged, but in the end, helpless to stop a full military defense at a border wall with deadly ammunition in a situation in which food and most particularly water have become significantly more scarce commodities.

Do I have proof?

Not more than the facts piling up. I don’t have a memo from fossil fuel execs to Trump directing him to stick to his guns on the border wall or we’ll be invaded by millions of starving climate refugees, which by sheer numbers would probably spark actual economic hardship rather than the economic boost that current immigration brings to the country.

No, but the general public has just about everything short of that.

Am I just being alarmist and depressing?

I know that things like this tend to demotivate and depress people, as in, “The future is bleak. Let’s go drink and binge watch Netflix.”

Nope. Not helpful.

What is helpful is recognizing the deeper reasons behind policies and addressing root causes. Until now, we may not have considered immigration reform advocates and climate activists to be close allies, but we should be. Not only would the physical wall itself harm delicate desert ecosystems and perpetuate inhumane foreign and immigration policies, it is also very possibly a crutch to allow the fossil fuel industry and their bought policy makers to continue to ignore the immanent threat of climate change.

Just saying.

Dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality are at the core of racism and ableism

We consider ourselves to be unbiased, color-blind, tolerant and accepting of all. And yet the accusations of racism and ableism against ordinary, good people in our society never cease.

It brings up defensiveness, anxiety and eventually anger. We don’t see the point.

So what if someone made a slip of the tongue? So what if a group of kids smirked in the general direction of a Native American elder?

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

"There are good reasons. The kids were provoked by a weird religious cult that was racist against white people! There you have it. It’s really all reverse discrimination, a bunch of losers whining because they don’t have what it takes to make it in direct competition, so they want affirmative action and cry ‘racism’ or ‘ableism’ at every turn.”

It is rarely said that coherently and in one breath, but it is what a lot of people think.

I know because I used to think essentially that, except for including ableism in it or resenting affirmative action. I was 18 at the time and I was and still am ninety percent blind. I was mildly, quietly resentful of the focus on racial justice at my university. There was almost no mention of ableism back then and I felt that discrimination against people with disabilities was given short shrift.

It was and often still is. But that did not mean that racism was any less of a problem than the students of color said it was. They were exhausted over the endless fight with it and they were far more tired of the topic than I could ever have been. That was the part I didn’t understand.

It took traveling and living in thirty different countries, listening to hundreds of people tell me their stories while I wrote about social justice issues as a journalist and becoming part of an ethnically mixed family to entirely change my views.

Today, I have to say that such dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality, which once had me duped, is not just the mild fringe of racism and ableism, but rather its heart and core.

Two days ago my third-grade daughter came home from school upset. Her hands were shaking while she told me that some boys had been drawing insulting pictures of Asians on the blackboard when the teacher wasn’t in the room. They were laughing and saying derogatory things about Asian people. A few Asian families have moved to our small town in the past few years. Most classes at the school now have an Asian kid or two in them. My daughter’s class doesn’t have an Asian kid, but it does have my daughter, the only person of color in the classroom.

My daughter, who is generally pretty timid, went up to the boys and asked them, “How would you like it if someone laughed at you that way?”

One of the boys turned to her and said, “You of all people had better shut up. You’re the most brown of any of us.”

My daughter went back to her friends. She was upset and one of her friends was sympathetic. My daughter was too afraid to do anything about it or report it. The classroom has an anonymous tip box for the teacher, where the kids can put a note if they have a problem they don’t want to talk to the teacher about personally but want to resolve. My daughter’s friend offered to write a note and put it in the box because my daughter was too afraid.

Then, in the evening I wrote a note to the teacher through the parent-teacher communication system. My daughter’s teacher has generally been wonderful and exceptionally kind.

I had done multicultural sensitivity workshops in the preschool but have since been overwhelmed with work, health problems and family troubles for the last few years. They had wanted me to come back but I just couldn’t do it. It takes several days to plan, gather materials and do the workshops, and I have to take the time off of work. There usually isn’t a budget for any materials, so I have to fund that myself. Obviously I’m doing it as a volunteer, not getting paid.

But I decided it was time to get back into it. I offered the teacher my help in doing some workshops for her class and told her what I had understood from my daughter’s description. I happily anticipated being able to solve the problem with the sympathetic and helpful teacher.

This evening I got the teacher’s reply, And it hit me like a sucker punch. The teacher didn’t dispute anything I said. She said that the note she got in the box completely agreed with the version I recounted. She said she doesn’t think it’s a problem that the boys draw pictures of Chinese people on the board because they draw pictures of the Simpsons as well. “They’re just having fun.”

She didn’t mention what the boy said to my daughter but she said that in general she doesn’t think the incident is important. She said she had heard the children laugh about “Chinese people“ and she doesn’t think that’s a problem. She said maybe I could do a writing workshop for her class.

I was concerned when my daughter told me about it. On the one hand, I wish my children would never have to be exposed to racism, either as a bystander or a target. But I am no longer the naive eighteen-year-old who used to think we lived in a post-racial world. It’s going to happen, and frankly, my concern was tempered by the small, relatively controlled environment of the third-grade classroom and my assumption of the teacher as an ally.

The teacher’s dismissal not only makes the situation many times worse, but it also shows me how much deeper the problem likely runs in the community. Hence my claim that dismissal and excuse aren’t some kind of benevolent mild fringe of prejudice but rather its fortifying center.

There is another scene that haunts me nearly daily from when my children were toddlers. Two family members had been making comments, saying they didn’t think I was “safe with kids” or “could be a safe parent” because of my vision impairment. I had never had a serious safety scare with my kids. My job involved teaching groups of preschool-age children. I had pulled a drowning child out of water four times and none of those was a child I was supposed to be watching at the moment.

I was very physically active and adept with many physical skills, and I was hurt by those comments. I was even more hurt by their practical implications, as I was prohibited from watching my nieces and nephews during my rare trans-Atlantic visits, it impacted my children’s ability to know their cousins.

One of the family members repeated the hurtful comments at the beginning of an extended family camping trip, and I could feel my whole world quaking. But I appealed to the rest of the family and asked for a family meeting. I was sure that with family consensus and the fact of my good track record on my side, I could be rid of these comments and the accompanying stigma.

My family has always been progressive and openly against all prejudice after all. My brothers and I were brought up to be independent and free-thinking. We always spoke out against racism and my vision impairment was rarely mentioned outside of medical necessities. We were the tolerant, accepting, progressive folks. And so I was sure I would be heard.

Instead I learned a bitter lesson.

The extended family meeting decided unanimously that I was overreacting. They agreed that there was no reason to doubt my safety with kids but also declared “neutrality” in the “argument” over it. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” I was told.

My defense of my parenting bona fides was deemed “disruptive to the family,” whereas the prejudiced remarks and discriminatory actions of other members, which actively harmed children in the family, were deemed “a reasonable matter of opinion."

I felt as though I had been frozen inside a block of ice. A week later, I got on a flight back across the Atlantic and the incident was forgotten by most in the family. Water under the bridge.

This was how I learned how much greater harm dismissal does than even the initial prejudice. And I swore I would never again dismiss prejudice when I happened to land on the more privileged side of the equation, as is the case with racism.

That’s why I speak out against it and hold my ground. To truly feel you love people of all colors and shapes is not enough. Even to try to be unbiased and kind is not enough. We must learn to listen when someone says our actions or the actions of those connected to us have caused hurt or appear to come from prejudice.

Certainly, disingenuous accusations have been made somewhere in the world at some time, but believing the vulnerable party is always the better bet. Redress is rarely more than saying with open-hearted sincerity, “I am sorry my words or actions hurt you. What can I do to make sure prejudice isn’t perpetuated?”

Even sincere acknowledgement costs little. The cost of dismissal, on the other hand, is devastating.

ADHD, brain regulation and guided meditation: An actual parenting tip from Arie

I think my readers might tend to cringe, when I mention parenting. No one has told me they do. I’m just guessing because my posts about parenting tend to fall into three categories: 1. how blind people parent, 2. how not to parent and how miserable it can be, or 3. sarcasm and snark.

I really have read dozens of parenting books, actually implemented their methods, found them to work great with 90 percent of kids and occasionally to fail entirely. That has led to a lot of my cynicism.

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

It isn’t that the methods don’t work. If you are a frazzled parent and you don’t know about counting in an ominous tone, time outs, making everything out to be your kid’s choice when it actually means you are in charge, avoiding power struggles and teaching through your own example, by all means, go read the experts. I specifically recommend:

Parenting by Temperament,

Pick Up Your Socks,

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline,

and depending on your circumstances Attachment in Adoption

However, my posts tend to assume you are like me—a parent who is obsessive enough to research and read books before the kid can even walk (or let’s be honest, before the kid is even born). That’s why I don’t generally go on about the methods in these books, which you should most definitely read and practice.

It’s the five percent of the time when they just plain don’t work that will kill you, cause premature hair loss and end your marriage or partnership. And I usually don’t have much beyond commiseration to offer those of you who have run into that wall with me.

But today I do actually have something worth sharing, a technique I have NOT found in any expert parenting book, which actually worked wonders on my out-of-control, neuro-diverse kid.

Bedtime is often a nightmare for parents of neuro-diverse kids. Some kids don’t run on the same schedule as the school bells or even the sun. Some kids can’t just tell their brains it’s time to calm down and go to sleep. Some kids don’t know what to do with exhaustion and instead of winding down, they amp up.

I have kept a very strict routine with my kids, ever since the day we brought them home. Routine helps. Like a train on rails, my daughter will often stumble from one part to another—with hissing steam and screeching noises but in the end shunted from the teeth-brushing track, to the pajamas track to the story track to the bed track. On a good night, the routine takes only an hour and a half, now that she’s ten.

But not every night is a good night. At age ten, my daughter still has frequent meltdowns and needs the kind of supervision usually reserved for the under-three crowd. By the end of the day, whoever has been dealing with her—and her load of homework assigned by the school in hopes of keeping her somewhere in the ballpark of grade level—is staggering on their feet.

There are nights when after all of it, after the hours of one-on-one attention and the lengthy, carefully designed bedtime routine, she won’t go to sleep. She is up and around the house after bedtime. She wants snacks and she shrieks in protest. Getting her into bed is a literal physical battle that we still win by main force but only just. And then nothing can hold her there and no one can sleep with the racket.

This strife goes on anywhere from one to two hours on those nights and they averaged about once a week, up until recently.

I want to be very clear here about what directly preceded this bit of creative parenting. That is I had two full days and two nights at home alone. My husband took the kids on a skiing trip, returning so drunk with exhaustion out of a snowy night that I shuddered to think of how he managed the two-and-a-half-hour drive.

I sent him straight to bed and prepared to do battle alone, well rested as I was.

I got both kids out of their tight, damp skiing clothes and fed them. My eight-year-old son was blinking and crying, he was so tired. I knew I couldn’t physically handle both, so I got his teeth brushed and let him fall into bed first. He was literally asleep within seconds.

Then I tackled the more difficult kid. My daughter was exhausted too, lashing out randomly and swinging wildly from glee to rage. Her entire body hummed with tension. I could feel it as I helped her undress and brush her teeth. I told her a brief story and settled her down with her audio book in hopes that physical exhaustion would do its magic.

But no such luck. Not that night.

Thirty minutes turned into 40 minutes beyond bedtime and even my two-day reserve of regenerated energy was starting to flag. She wouldn’t even stay in bed to listen to her story and when she was up, she was into everything, requiring constant supervision and making nerve-rattling shrieks every one to two seconds. A hand on her shoulder told me that her body still thrummed with pent-up energy.

On most nights, this would have been the point where I started laying down the law and rolling out consequences, “You can choose. Either you stay up and keep me up and you won’t be able to have audio book tomorrow night or you lay down and relax and go to sleep and you’ll still have audio book tomorrow.” And so forth. It only occasionally works anyway.

Many nights the chaos continues for another hour and finally ends in her being locked in her room until she wears herself out—not a stellar parenting performance.

One of the more helpful things I had recently gleaned from rereading a few of the expert books was to focus on the concept of addressing the child’s deeper need. Clearly, my daughter needed sleep. She was exhausted, but she had no idea how to calm her dis-regulated brain and win some peace.

As a high-strung creative person, I do know what it is like to be exhausted after a long day’s work and to lie in bed with nerves jangling, a thousand thoughts whirling around my brain. Prominent among those thoughts is often the desperate need to sleep, in order to be ready for the challenges and trials of the next day.

So, I asked myself, how I get to sleep when I’m in such a state?

“Badly,” came quickly to mind. But also “quietly.” On such nights, I often lie awake in silence after it is clear that no audio book is going to help. I do relaxation exercises, deep breathing and progressive muscle contraction and release, which make me feel virtuous but don’t make me sleep. And then, more than anything I descend into a childhood fantasy and rehash versions of the adventurous and purposeful life I once dreamed of.

And that usually does help.

With that thought and the understanding that much of my daughter’s difficulty comes from an inability to regulate her own brain and do such things for herself, I came and sat on the edge of her bed and began to make up the fantasy for her.

At first, she was too jittery even to listen or lie down. I had to grab her attention mercilessly. I know what she obsesses over after all—preteen YouTube celebrity girls with shopping infomercials and flaunting conspicuous wealth. There isn’t much beyond kinky sex and hard drugs I would less like my child to be delving into at this age but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Imagine you’re at the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen with all your friends from school and Everly, Ava and Jojo Siwa are there too, just to see you…”

She stopped jerking around and actually settled back on her pillow, her eyes wide and staring. I could still feel her muscles pulsing with nervous energy through the blanket but at least she was in the actual bed.

“It’s your birthday party,” I continued, “and everyone is there to wish you a happy birthday and play with you in the warm sunshine. There are fun things to climb on and the most beautiful cake you can imagine.”

The way my words came out made me think of those relaxation exercises I had so little luck with. I was originally taught those by an eccentric French teacher in my tiny rural high school in Oregon. She had the five kids in her class, me and four ranch kids, lie on the floor of loose wooden boards and do relaxation exercises.

She had also done guided meditation, which the boys had interspersed with rude comments. I had been cooperative but more because I felt a bit sorry for the teacher than anything else. I never did like guided meditation. I encountered it again at a handful of workshops and events over the years.

It didn’t work for me because my brain is entirely capable of paying full attention to the audio meditation, doing the visualizations and thinking of one or two other complex things at the same time. It isn’t relaxing because it doesn’t overwhelm me enough. It is not that other thoughts intrude on the meditation. They simply occur in a different place and the meditation continues without a hitch.

I did eventually find a form of meditation that consumes enough of my consciousness to work as intended but it requires memorized recitation along with practiced movements. Once the words and movements became automatic to me, the meditation worked because it was difficult enough that it took all the excess brain activity with it.

My daughter’s brain is probably the opposite of mine. That has been a large part of our miscommunication. For me, directing my mental attention to something or doing several mental things at the same time is no problem. The only significant problem is prolonged lack of mental activity.

So, it occurred to me that while guided meditation might be boring and insufficient for me, it might be immensely relaxing and freeing to her. Released from the need to try to control her brain, she could coast to sleep on a ready-made fantasy.

I could tell right away that the fantasy I had constructed for her, while successfully capturing her attention was too exciting to induce sleep. Slowly I shifted the focus of the words, describing more the surrounding natural environment and less of the celebrities and then even gently removing the other people from the picture.

“Your friends step into little boats on the lake and start to drift away over the waves. They float slowly up and down, up and down. And they wave back to you calling, ‘Good bye! We love you! Have a good rest!' As they drift away you sit down under the big oak tree. You can feel the warm, smooth bark on your back. You slide down to feel the soft, dry moss under the tree and lay your head on a soft, moss-covered root.”

I could feel her miraculously relaxing. Even her breath was calming. I included some deep breaths in the story and almost magically she took deep breaths as suggested, something that is usually impossible for her

Finally, I concluded the story with my daughter drifting into sleep in the beautiful park by the lake. The entire guided meditation took only about eight minutes. When I stood up, she made one drowsy noise but subsided again. I left the room and didn’t hear from her for the rest of the night.

Since then I’ve used guided fantasy to calm her several times in situations where she used to be unable to calm. Certainly children are as diverse as different species of animals. Just as this type of meditation didn’t work for me, it may not help many children. But what is universal in the technique is the parenting tool of looking at what the child needs on a deeper level and designing something that fits the child’s specific temperament to reach that goal.

How you get the exhausted child to sleep or the frustrated child to calm enough to complete their homework is not that important. We get stuck on having a specific way that such things should be done. There is a standard way that works pretty well with most kids, but not with all neuro-diverse kids.

“Do what works,” a fellow disability rights activist used to tell me. “Just do what works, regardless of how it looks.”

I hope someday my daughter will be able to learn to use guided meditation tapes to steer her own brain and gain a sense of self mastery. I’ve gained a new respect for a technique I previously rejected as too simplistic and manipulative. We all need different things.

On parenting, as usual, don’t judge other parents and do what works.

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.