Ambivalence and Compliance

The soft light of the alarm clock begins to glow at 4:10 and intensifies so I wake before the recording of the blackbirds begins. I’m grateful for this cheap, but fancy clock. It’s a gentle way to begin the day.

The morning ritual is set. Bathroom to stairwell, to alarm panel, to sliding glass door, all with Leonard at my heels. I put the button to warm up the coffee machine while I drink a glass of water, fill the dog bowl and wait for Leonard to trip back into the house to get his treat. Then I take my coffee to the little library and turn on the computer. From here, all order falls apart.

On days like today, no words come. There is a quiet weight in my chest and an almost neutral calm. I breathe. I suppose this waiting is a form of meditation. Definitely a form of faith: with faith’s discomfort.

There are days when no news, no comment, no achievement can be good enough. When there is still unfulfilled anticipation. Something beyond hope really. It’s a feeling that touches back to childhood and naive expectations of a vague “good” that is just around the corner. Surprise me! Come on.

In two hours my watch alarm will vibrate to remind me to take the medication that keeps that feeling at bay. Or at least keeps it from being much more than a memory of a feeling.

Another cup of coffee for now. Another sober look at the wasp project and the steep learning curve as I pick up paintbrushes and charcoal again. Wishing I had the confidence of anticipating the “good” now.

It’s odd how self-confidence can abandon you as decisively as a disappointed mentor, shrugging and saying, “I guess I was wrong about you”. A sigh. “But keep working… Who knows.”

A sigh is still a breath, I suppose.

Excuse the Rant this Morning

I am in such a rush for this school year to be over I am counting down the weeks in small, manageable units. This begins week 2 of 5 before Easter break. Then 5 again before the summer.

At the same time, I hate that I am willing the weeks to roll by quickly. I’m painfully aware of how precious time is now. I need to find a way to sit with this contradiction, knowing that there’s no way to resolve it. In theory yes: breathe into the discomfort, stay in the moment, find perspective on the emotions. But in praxis?

I know I’m not alone. Just when we thought that the pandemic was over in terms of a real threat to whole communities, new threats flame up like half-forgotten campfires.

I am not happy with my writing this morning, but I can hear the crackling of wood re-igniting. The unpredictable popping. And a sizzle. It seems like a meditative transition from the fires in the world right now: to pull up a campfire. Maybe go sit with one. Away from all the uncontained fury online. I think I need that. I need to get away from the dominant rubric for politics that dominates the media.

I want to understand.

Understanding why someone might do something, seeing their perspective, does not mean endorsing their actions or their perspective. It is also possible to understand and still condemn.

And there is no such thing as pure left and right – it is one hellava messy Venn diagram of issues and opinions and perspectives. I have stopped reading US news sources because of this bizarre divide.

It is especially odd that this binary is solidifying at the same time many people are questioning other binaries. Odd is putting it mildly. It is a kind of hypocrisy.

And it is why I have thought I should leave social media so often. It doesn’t bring people together to promote understanding. It brings them together to reinforce predetermined opinions. To form a front. To intimidate and shut down perspectives that aren’t militantly aligned with their own. Slogan for slogan. Rage is contagious. And rage is rarely helpful. Second-hand rage seems especially fruitless.

I think about what people did to one another under the occupation here. Intentional, accidental. I think about literal and metaphorical witch hunts and the settling of old grudges under convenient new banners – consciously or unconsciously.

Old hates just shift their headlines.

Facebook has lifted its ban on hate speech when it is regarding Russian soldiers. There was a two-week window when hate speech aimed at the Irian leaders was permitted. Facebook is determining – around much of the world – what is “socially” acceptable to hate. Are we thinking about the implications of that while we are reading our feeds?

I think I am smart. But I am uncomfortably aware of how malleable my opinions are, how easily I am swayed without my even noticing. I catch myself now and then going with the flow.

I condemn the actions of Putin as much as anyone I know. But I won’t celebrate dead Russian soldiers. I don’t think those these are inseparable. There are more than two columns to separate the world into.

Real-life is not 0 and 1.

I think a few minutes on the beach with a small bonfire might do me good. This isn’t ending anytime soon. Or ever actually. Waiting for a vacation is just foolish.

Deep breath. Find the awesome things out there and sit with them. Right?

In Our Hearts

Thursday already. A free week flying by – though in a witch on a broom kind of way despite the sunshine. I wake up every morning and wonder if I should check the news first thing. Before writing, before coffee, before anything else. And I do. And I am left with the same exact uncomfortable anticipation.

Wanting, hoping… that is not the same as anticipation. There’s a horrible, unspeakable desire for it to be “over” before it gets worse. It is what I want. But not what I anticipate will happen.

I was wondering when my social media feeds would return to normal and am disappointed to see how quickly they are. Sort of. And I am only sort of disappointed. I mean, this really isn’t something that will be solved or “over” quickly, and the days go on as they do where we are – yes, with a shadow over them – but there is still dinner to cook, and evenings to be filled with something other than a meditation on pain.

This whole thing makes me wish I were one to give blessings before dinner. I suddenly understand the whole purpose of such a beautiful ritual. I never imagined that “the starving children in China” blessings had any potential to be anything more than racist, guilt-inducing tactics to make children in privileged countries eat vegetables.

Only now am I understanding that gratitude can be disconnected from guilt. This is how we can experience the small, but significant moments of joy.

This disconnection (guilt from gratitude) is probably the only way that gratitude can ease the pain of living. And dying.

It’s not a new question: How much do we take on ourselves in terms of the world’s pain? In solidarity? In community? How much do we do so in self-preservation – out of fear – as performance – as opportunists?

How much of today’s private moments of ease do we turn our backs on in deference to future and potential troubles? How do we honor and acknowledge the suffering of so many, while authentically acknowledging our own ignorance, avoiding masquerading/appropriation… How do we unashamedly focus on gratitude rather than guilt?

Computer language is binary, but the real world isn’t either/or.

What can we hold in our arms? “This, too.”

“And also…”

Under one arm are my private sorrows: my own struggles and the pain belonging to people I love (and am losing right now). Under the other, the knowledge I have of all of the people who are (violently) losing their loved ones or facing the (violent) loss of their own lives.

Exactly how do we carry the joy?

I have never been an occasional poet.

I think that’s because at some point I realized that my best writing comes from the body.

Writing is difficult right now.

To Cry, “Hold, hold!”

The lateral flow tests have been negative all along, but I’ve had something – something that is finally letting go. It’s getting just a little bit easier to move around in my body. To think of running again and morning yoga.

Nothing can ever go back to normal – back to anything. It never could, though only now do I feel the truth of that acutely. The universe is in a slow deconstruction but every moment brings new (sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying) constellations. However fleeting each will be. Maybe the art of living is to notice, then to let go of all of them as they pass.

There has to be a reason humans have always wanted to fix their experience of the world in stone. It seems to me that classical Greek artwork is an attempt to capture the past. Because a smooth thigh is always nostalgia. The visible maps that living etches into a forearm, over a chest, are the present and the inevitable future. The present, breathing body is more threat than comfort. Every inhalation of oxygen is destructive.

In the absence of oxygen human life is measured in minutes. In the presence of oxygen, normal metabolism generates reactive species (ROS) that have the potential to cause cell injury contributing to human aging and disease.

What gives us life, inevitably kills us. So often used as a metaphor, our need to breathe is a cliche that is impossible to break down to its basic, startling truth. It is so ingrained in the art of language that it has become necessary to reverse engineer the metaphor. Breathing is like being in love with the wrong person.

Breathing is like belonging to a family, a community, a nation.

The Romans celebrated the struggle. The statues’ sinewy arms in battle with creatures real and imagined. The faces are expressive and contorted. Though still nostalgic. En medias res, we want to cry out, “Stop, stop” before it’s too late. We want to stop one another/ourselves.

But caught in stone, it is never too late. The sculpture can still generate the feeling of hope: that things will go back to normal.

I could subtitle this essay Art as Momentary Comfort.

What Goes Viral

I’m going through another round of insomnia. E. and I go through a kind of checklist of what might be keeping me up nights and days. We both expect it to be like a button: when we name it, I’d get some kind of an electric shock to light up the path from initial thought to anxiety. But no. My conscious mind is as flat as a salt lake.

Nothing is bothering me.

But the news is filled with headlines to provoke the most gut-wrenching responses. And on social media artists of all kinds are using the war to promote their own careers/identity: “support” the cause by purchasing my books because I am donating proceeds to…

My son reminds me that people are more often acting from a place of good intentions than exploitation. I can’t help but see a variation of Mother Courage, in a culture where image means even more than capital.

But I vow to push that image aside and to stop myself from assuming the worst in people’s motives.

The pharmacies in Norway are almost out of iodine tablets. So once again I ask myself what is overreacting, and what is naively hoping for the best? Even in the event of a nuclear explosion, people over 40 don’t need iodine supplements, according to the national news. I feel relieved. And I also remember I still have iodine drops in the cupboard left-over from my brief foray into a vegan diet. I relax a little.

I wrote that before I realized that foray is a military term.

The UN released a new climate report.

I’m sure everyone can guess the summary.

I remind myself that these are not post-apocalyptic times. And if they are apocalyptic times, well then what’s new in the large scale of the world? Why not here and now? But the thing is, the apocalypse itself? It won’t happen in a cut-away – before the story picks up again, what’s left of us wandering in fur coats, ripping at dried meat with our teeth.

I ask what I can do. Knowing that cluttering the internet with memes and potential disinformation isn’t helping anyone. Knowing I am not a qualified armchair general, and that my perspective on events I have no first-hand knowledge of is irrelevant and only adds to the noise. What can I do?

There are monks and nuns who will sit in a cave for years to (in essence) pray for the world. I wish I believed in that kind of supernatural power.

What I do believe is that if I take a chunk of time in the day to focus on compassion, it might linger in my heart the rest of the day. It might guide my words and my actions.

Maybe I can believe there is some kind of supernatural chain-reaction of compassion mirror neurons (as there clearly is for anger and fear). Maybe it is real and maybe it matters. One person at a time.

A virus spread around the world that way.