Wednesday, November 21, 2018

it's fine

Unfortunately, I am always thinking about self-improvement. To the point that I am starting a pretend nonprofit called IT'S FINE. IT'S FINE's mission is that whatever is going on is fine. Could we use volunteers and donations and a board? I mean, maybe, but mostly we're fine.

IT'S FINE was born because panic--the concern that MAYBE EVERYTHING IS WRONG WITH EVERYTHING, AND WE'VE BEEN DOING IT ALL WRONG UP UNTIL NOW, BURN IT DOWN, BURN IT DOWN AND START OVER, BUT THIS TIME BE PERFECT!--usually doesn't make anything better.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash
I'm better at getting better when getting better is a whispered goal rather than a shouted one.

So this is one thing I've been thinking about. At work and in my personal life. Not as much in my writing life, which is the one place I default to growth orientation and/or act like the mature human I strive to be elsewhere.

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Here's another worky analogy for how I want to be in the world. Bear with me.

I was raised on Microsoft Word and still use it for my just-for-me writing projects. I always thought the goal was to create a perfect document that you could share with others, but not let them touch. You have to hit "save" to overwrite anything, meaning you have to make a conscious decision about what is true, and worth keeping.

Oldie that I am, I only started using Google Docs regularly a year ago. In Google Docs, you work together, and every change is real.

At 826LA, we use the phrase "build it out" a lot. As in, "I've created an outline for that campaign, and I'm starting to build it out." I think we may have borrowed that phrase from Rachel, who comes from the design world. I like it. I like the idea that campaigns/documents/life are this thing you're always building, even if at times it feels like the Winchester Mystery House (which was actually not the work of a madwoman, but rather an amateur architect who didn't have a lot of outlets for her creativity--check out the 99% Invisible episode about Sarah Winchester!).

Mysterious, yes. Crazy, no.
I like the idea that progress is incremental and a team effort. It's hard to explain how I think of teamwork and work, in general, differently now than I did pre-826LA, but it feels more three-dimensional now. It feels both more challenging and more comforting. I want to carry this idea into my personal life and daily habits, where I hope to be less perfectionistic and, paradoxically, better.

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I'm reading Joshua Mohr's addiction memoir, Sirens, and his relationship with drugs and alcohol feels a lot like (all too much like) my relationship with food, which has not been great lately. Here's a quote that especially resonates with me:

If I zero in on my life, if I scour and stew on any aspect, I'll always locate some benign reason to give up. To fail and flee. So the question becomes, is that what I want? Do I want to end up alone and alcoholic?"

No, of course not.

Yes, of course.

I was raised in the cult of Personal Responsibility (a Microsoft Wordy cult) that half our country is still obsessed with. Hard work fixes all, etc. In a country where corporations have more rights than humans, this is bullshit; meritocracy is the opiate of America's masses.

I try to reorient myself toward the systemic. On a recent episode of This American Life, David Kestenbaum talked about why, as a scientist, he doesn't really believe in free will, and I was right there with him. We are the product of our atoms and our circumstances. No one can really be any different than how they are, or they would be.

But does that make me a person who can't help but guzzle eggnog until I hate myself, or does that make me a person who has a habit of guzzling eggnog and hating herself, but who ultimately stops leaning into self-sabotage and develops some healthier habits for more than a week at a stretch? Either could be written in my bones, my circumstances, my "choices."

But in a plastic cup, and refilled three times.
What is the line between acknowledging the reality of your situation and looking for reasons to fail? As someone prone to addict-esque black-and-white thinking, I think the main thing for me to remember is that there is a line.

Yes, it is exhausting working full time and raising a kid, despite all the help and resources I have. Yes, the holidays are a minefield of cookies. That doesn't mean I have to race ahead of those facts and gain thirty (more) pounds just because. That doesn't mean I'm-fucked-so-why-bother-trying. That does mean the serenity prayer. It all comes down to the serenity prayer.

A friend in recovery told me addicts tend to see themselves as either special or terrible. Another wrote this amazing post about how both sexual abuse and cancer can trigger the same kind of thinking. And even though I'm not an abuse survivor or someone addicted to anything you can quit cold turkey, I'm like yes yes yes.

Photo by InĂªs Pimentel on Unsplash
Being better--to my body, my soul, my family--means accepting that I am neither special nor terrible. I am average. I need food and rest and time to think, and without those things, I get grouchy, and that's okay. I have strengths and weaknesses. My strengths are special because they are unique to me, but I am not fundamentally set apart from everyone else. This is so boring. This feels like accepting that, after a lifetime of believing I was either a unicorn or an ogre, I am in fact beige carpet.

But it's fine.



Sunday, November 11, 2018

the three mothers

1. suspiria/mother of sighs

“When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them, you accuse them of delusion.” –Suspiria, 2018

Susie is the new girl in the dance troupe, pulled from the flat fields of Ohio as if by an umbilical cord, to a Berlin still catching its breath from the war. The Helena Markos company is a palace of mirrors, where dancers’ bodies twist and break as dancers’ bodies do, to live a story larger than any one ugly foot on one wooden floor. Susie says: More, please.

Sara is an unknowing ambassador to the cabinet of curiosities that lurks beneath the floorboards, with the hair and wrecked bodies and bespoke metal hooks. She is a sweet English rose.

Dr. Klemperer is an old psychoanalyst who does not believe in witches or ghosts, but he lost his true love to the Third Reich. He believes in what a group of people can do, when organized, to other people.

More, please.
Sara and Dr. Klemperer meet over trembling teacups. I think I am supposed to root for them to get to the root of this evil, for Sara to land in some sunlit room, and this knowledge is a kind of sigh.

Madame Blanc is the maestro with no eyebrows or lashes who says: “After the war, there are two things dance can never be again. Those things are beautiful, and cheerful.”

I cannot turn my face toward cheer, and this film won’t make me do it. It is a sigh of relief, this new knowledge.

Susie says: “Why are you so afraid of the mess that’s still to come?”

I am afraid. In the dark theater, I lean into the bloodbath. I crave this world of women as sex and unsex, life and afterlife, intestines and beating hearts, easy as a pear to slice, hard as folklore to destroy.

If you want to see a movie that both features Tilda Swinton and is the cinematic embodiment of Tilda Swinton, Suspiria is that movie.
But at night I transform my fear of mess into the banal, my own alchemy. I have done the reverse before—turned a dull ache into the apocalypse—and I know the ins and outs of such spells. What if AK’s headaches last forever? What if I become only a body shuttling to and from one kind of work to another kind of work? What if my body fails?

We cut our son’s umbilical cord when he was born. His birthmother in the room, bloody. It was magical and cruel, simple and sterile. It wasn’t spaghetti; it was thick, durable, like something from the bottom of the ocean.

2. the dream/mother of darkness

It is not a true crime podcast, but it unfolds like one. Or: It is the truest crime. Our host, from a flat farm town in Michigan, recalls the Mary Kay parties of her youth. The women who gathered and laughed, told stories about tangled pantyhose and a grandmother who wore furs as a child, ate Jell-o, sold each other lipstick.

There are women and warmth and camaraderie, promises of beauty and riches, and this is how the cults get you. Not a pyramid, they say, just a structure that happens to be large at the bottom and small at the top. Guess which part you’re on.

Our host takes us through legal cases and a bit of stunt journalism, signing up her coworker to sell beauty products whose names are modified by adjectives like: perfect, enduring, rich.

I am horrified by this spell in plain sight. Betsy DeVos is an Amway heir. Donald Trump flew to the White House on Amway air. He is made of air.

Flashing gang signs. Someone issue an injunction, please.
The message of every multilevel marketing training is: If this isn’t working for you, the problem is you. You must not be perfect. If you cannot endure, you will never be rich. The message of America is this, also.

I fall for the spell. I know what it is to hustle, in a nonprofit sort of way; I know what is easy and what is not. And yet that makeup sparkles like mica in a gum-pocked sidewalk. The idea of myself in a pinstriped girl-boss suit holds a certain appeal. I was raised on the myth of meritocracy, as American as fat-free Devil’s Food SnackWells.

3. seven/mother of tears

Today I would be the mother of seven-year-olds. Two boys who were only ever tissue and blood. I am only tissue and blood.

A cyst that has not drawn any blood vessels to it is probably benign. I am probably benign.

A headache that retracts with rest is probably benign. A mystery to be unraveled one pill and one yoga class at a time, not a single thing to be attacked with a scalpel. Or so we have reason to believe, even though I don’t completely believe in reason anymore. Even as I say my incantations to the gods of Google.

The mind-body connection is real, but is has been borrowed by the Mother of Darkness, sold as Herbalife and Isotonix. You must be the reason for your headaches, your lack of sales, your dead babies. Do not look over there. Do not look at that man made of air or the pyramid behind him.

How to take a thing that is kind of true and turn it into a zillion dollar quackery industry.
I want to stage a cry-in. Me and all the people fucked so much harder than me, who have learned not to fear the mess. I fear the mess. But for the purposes of this spell, let’s say that I don’t. All of us will summon our salt tears and make a tsunami. Turn the pyramid back into sand. Wiggle our ugly toes in it.