“Pay no attention to that sign, ma’am”

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The complexity of drama

Despite spending most of my adulthood in the digital age, I have never created an online dating profile. This has been a matter of chance more than intent; I just met my long-term partners in other ways. But I do have close friends and family who have – one of them even wrote a very funny blog about her experiences with online dating – and so I have some familiarity with the genre. Online dating profiles have common themes, and I’ve noticed that a great many of them – usually men’s – contain the same two-word phrase: “No drama.”

Ostensibly, what is meant by “no drama” is that these men prefer to avoid interactions like those memorialized in films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. But those women, and the personality-disordered psychological types they represent, are fairly rare in comparison to the number of men who are expressing a disdain for them. (And I always laughed at men’s apparent belief that such women would read their profile, see themselves instantly, and thoughtfully give the gentleman’s profile a pass: “Oh, he doesn’t like drama! I’d better look elsewhere.”)

It won’t surprise you that I have a theory about our cultural disdain for “drama”, and here it is: It’s really about emotion, particularly negative emotion, and even more particularly, about the negative emotions of others. When you see someone decrying drama, they are really just expressing frustration that they must be caught in the hurricane of others’ difficult feelings. And that is not as neat a category as we’d like, is it? How frustrating to find that “drama is bad!” fails as too simplistic.

Because sometimes, drama is unfortunate and unproductive, and sometimes, it’s simply a necessary part of human relations. Unfortunately, the culture at large tends to categorize women’s feelings and actions as “drama” far more often than men’s. (And sadly, this is often done by other women.) One other thing I’ve noticed anecdotally is that, conveniently, it’s a person’s emotional reaction to provocation that gets categorized as “drama.” And so we see that when someone decries “drama”, what they’re really upset that people won’t be quiet about things that hurt them.

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Uh, could you please get off my back?

And then there are the times that drama is really just the discomfort that occurs when people work through difficult conflicts. This is often intense and uncomfortable, but it leads to better understanding and stronger relationships.

I’ve seen all of this play out recently in a Facebook creative group that I help administer. The situation had all the ingredients for an interpersonal disaster: a group of mostly female creatives; prior ties to a different group, headed by a male author with a very large platform and a pattern of abusive behavior, including periodic, public slander of the administrators of the new group (disclosure: this includes me); the normalization of that behavior because of its frequency; people who wanted to navigate the divide and be liked by everyone, and who still wanted to be affiliated with both, which requires ignoring abusive behavior.

And then, as these things do, the breaking point was reached, stands were taken, and questions asked.

In short, drama ensued. Oh, the dreaded drama.

In situations such as these, it’s important to understand that speaking out may cost you. Some people resent being asked to think about things, particularly things about which they feel, on a subsurface level, somewhat guilty. I’ve never been one to encourage people to be vulnerable on the grounds that everything will be okay and it won’t be as bad as we fear; because often, it will be exactly as bad as we fear. But making yourself vulnerable is sometimes necessary to represent yourself, and because it’s also necessary for authentic human connection. (An author-friend wrote of her decision to speak out, and the values behind that decision, here.)

In our case, things worked out pretty well; some people became extremely angry and defensive with us, accused us of fomenting the dreaded drama (instead of the original provocateur) and left. This is for the best; not every relationship should be maintained, particularly when fundamental values aren’t shared.

But the rest of it – wow. The rest of it was like watching a film unfold on the best of humanity. I watched people wrestle with difficult questions, to listen even when we were not always easy to listen to, and to alter their behavior if they found it wanting. I’m often suspicious of groups and group dynamics, but this was genuinely inspiring.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote:

An honorable human relationship…is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they tell each other….It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

I’m so thankful for the people who went the hard way with us; there were more of them than those who wouldn’t. It was a risk to have this soul-excavating discussion, but it was also necessary. We are constantly told that humanity is at its worst on social media, but I’ve also seen it at its best.

Drama, it would seem, sometimes pays dividends; never as an end in itself, but as they necessary byproduct of working things out. But you have to keep breathing, let go, ride the waves and stick with it until the storm subsides. And then, be grateful for everyone who can do it with you, and wish peace on those who can’t.

Look, it’s a mother.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the day I became a parent. Of course, it’s also my son’s birthday. That’s the primary holiday, but I can’t help but remember how it felt to undergo such a radical shift on that Sunday morning a decade and a half ago.

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Parenthood, the reptile way.

My motherhood was a happy accident. I never would have done such a thing intentionally, even as I vaguely thought I would be a parent someday. But at heart, I’m mostly a coward, and usually reluctant to commit to anything beyond lunch on a given day.  Also, I’m not a fan of vulnerability. And if you want the clearest possible lesson about how little control you have over your own heart and what happens to it, try parenthood.

Motherhood for me has been an open field with no place to hide – from myself, from the frailties of others, and from the vagaries of fortune. It’s the place where bullshit goes to die. Typically, that is the kind of environment in which I’ve done the most growing. And grown I have; had I never been a parent, I would have had fewer of the finer human qualities, like empathy, steadfastness, and resilience.  For me, the existence of a person I would never give up on – would never even consider giving up on – has been an enormous gift.

I spent the first five years of my son’s life trying to come to grips with the anxiety of it all. I missed the years before my son was born when I regarded the prospect of my own death with near indifference. About that possibility, I remember thinking, Well, I won’t know about it, so who cares? A feeling of invincibility is heady stuff, and parenthood will wipe away the high of it without a trace. There’s a palpable loss of freedom when you have to care what happens to you.

Then came a sudden and humiliating divorce, and with it, a choice: succumb to bitterness, or don’t. And though I know my own sense of self and hunger for life is what dictated my choice, the constant need to show up for my son only cemented it. In a way, the divorce forged our close relationship, as we have been on our own, in a way. His dad is involved, and he has a constant and supportive stepdad, but Sean and I are an everyday unit.

Still, though, no accounting of parenthood can be honest or complete without the longings and the empty spaces of my own that come with it. When they say that mothers are self-sacrificing, they aren’t kidding. And I’m not persuaded that’s a good thing, though we pretend to venerate it as a society. Over and over again, I see men looking at parenthood differently; they seem to feel freer to rely on mothers to do their jobs in a way those mothers can’t necessarily look to them to do. Without raising a cry of “Not all Men!” the best way I can put it is this: To retain and nourish our own selves, mothers must execute a faster and nimbler tap dance, on average, than fathers.

Parenthood, then, is many things, at many different times. And lately, among those things is alarm at how fast it’s proceeded, how soon the full-time part of it will be over, and how many children I’ve had over the years, in just one boy.

There are times when I long for the infant days, when I would hold him against my chest with my face buried in his sweet-smelling hair, and it was, without a doubt, the closest and most perfect bond I’ve ever shared with another human being.

And then I realize that if the universe gave me the impossible gift of going back to that time, even for just a few minutes, I’d be overwhelmed with missing the boy of today, the archly funny, animal-loving justice-seeker who lives in my house right now. So I will pass on the time machine, and simply rely on memory.

So happy anniversary to me, of the day I stepped onto the roller coaster.

Tiny deer, big storm

I have a lot of ties in south Florida and the Upper Keys particularly, so when Irma came though this weekend, I watched in horror, like so many did. In addition to the places I knew so well, I was particularly worried about the Key Deer.

Key Deer are a seriously endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. They are tiny little things, probably only slightly bigger than my dog. They are the smallest species of North American deer.

The first mention of Key Deer in the historical record is, I believe, from the journals of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, who was shipwrecked in the Keys as a young teenager in the mid-1500’s, and remained a captive of the Calusa Indians for the next 17 years. His memoir contains references to “large bears” on the islands and a fox-like animal thought to be a raccoon. He continues:

But what was a great wonder to the captives who were there, and to those of us in other places, was the existence of deer on the Islands of Cuchiyaga, the town of which I have spoken. 

The Key Deer, once numerous, now only number in the few hundred. In the middle of the 20th century, their numbers were truly dire, dipping down into the double digits, but they have rebounded since. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in the 1960’s. Last year, though, a parasitic infection killed 135 of them before it was vanquished, a number the species could ill-afford to lose.

And then Irma. Although Key Deer have been living through hurricanes for centuries, their numbers are low enough now that conservationists were concerned. Last week on Twitter, I had an exchange with someone who also thought to mention the Key Deer. Yesterday, someone tweeted this video, taken by some journalists on Big Pine Key, in response:

 

Some of them, then, made it. We’ll have to wait to see how the larger population has fared.

An ethic of wonder

One day a couple of years ago, I was spending a day doing one of my favorite things: walking along a remote creek in western Indiana, near the Fall Creek Gorge. It was this creek, the same one I wrote about here.

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There is, along this creek, a spot where butterflies puddle. “Puddling” is when butterflies gather on wet sand, or something dead and rotting, or some kind of animal scat, and slurp up the moisture and minerals they find there. I have walked to this spot over and over again, and there has never been a time — at least in summer — when butterflies were not present.

The first time I stumbled onto this place, I noticed an enormous Eastern swallowtail perched on the wet sand on the edge of the creek. And then I noticed another. And another. And still another. And suddenly it became clear that I had wandered into a cloud of fluttering swallowtails, all taking their turns on the wet sand. I looked around. The sun shone through the trees and bounced off the canyon walls, lighting the butterflies’ wings into a kind of humming yellow glow, as they zinged past my face, danced around my hair, and swooped in to take their turn on the sand, sending other swallowtails up into orbit around my head.

Meanwhile, I had stopped cold, and time had stopped too. On some level, I recognized the moment for what it was: an encounter with the greatest of human emotions, a moment of wonder. “Oh!” I thought. “This is it!” But then I let the thought go, let it fly into the breeze, and just joined the butterflies. It may have been five minutes or it may have been an hour. I really have no idea.

Recently, I saw someone, probably on social media, ask the question: What is your favorite emotion? I saw a lot of “joy”, “happiness”, and “love” in the responses. All strong contenders, and certainly in my top five choices.

But nothing else comes close to awe.  Wonder and awe are the mechanisms that propel us to transcendence, that generate the other emotions in the longer term. Scientists are interested in it now, too, working to identify it, examine its contours, and determine its connections to other emotions and its impact on the human condition. One article confirms my suspicion that awe makes time screech to a halt. The same piece notes that among the range of human feelings, “awe occupies unique standing as an emotion rooted in joy, but tinged with that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.”

Maybe. For some of us, the Kierkegaardian fear and trembling are part of the payoff. But whatever the exact contours of it, wonder is a state in which the mystical has achieved a complete occupation of our deepest selves. We have been overcome by the forces of the whole shebang, of the universe. It has, for the moment, harnessed us completely.

Wonder and awe, though, are not universally available experiences. Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder, tells us that a capacity for wonder is wired into us all, but it’s often suppressed as we grow.  About twenty years ago, I walked out of my home with a house guest, a busy investment banker, as he took his leave. It was October, and the trees were softly aglow in the morning overcast, their vibrant colors piercing the morning mist. I exclaimed over their beauty, and asked him if the colors were at their peak at his home. “I don’t know,” he said dismissively. “I never notice things like that.”

To experience wonder requires a deliberate surrender that some just can’t allow.  When the universe offers us an invitation to encounter the transcendent, an implied condition is that we are not in the driver’s seat. When we are focused on ourselves, our imagined superiority, or our delusion that we have control, we can’t accept the invitation.

But it’s also difficult when you’re hungry, frightened, pressured, or depressed. This is basic Maslow; some needs come before others. We must eat, for example, simply to exist, and if we’re struggling to do that, then all of our self must be dedicated to the task. Or as one writer put it, when summarizing recent research, “[w]e now understand that the pressure of scarcity literally taxes our brains; our mind’s field of vision narrows, and the beauty of the world is very often blocked from view….in short, wonder is very often a privilege for those who have their basic survival and relational needs met.”

Put another way, had I been looking desperately for food along that creek, I wouldn’t have given the butterflies a second glance. But for those of us who have dragged ourselves to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, or were born there, it’s much easier to be open to it.

It’s important to me to be keenly aware, when I write as I do about the experience of wonder, that it’s as much a luxury as my fully-stocked refrigerator, and a house on which the utilities have been easily paid. For some of us, existence requires a constant focus and hypervigilance; there is nothing left for butterflies, or colorful autumn mornings. I know this, because I haven’t always been able to access the wondrous myself. But when I can, it is a matter of gratitude, and part of what underlies my beliefs about justice and equality. Wonder should be a universally available experience. And to write about it as if it is universal would be the antithesis of what underlies it; wonder and awe are about extending out from ourselves, and connecting to something larger, not assuming everyone else has the same opportunities we do.

So we experience it, and we write about it, and we hope to instill an ethic of wonder. Tap into it, if you can. And then offer a hand so someone else can.

The things we take from ourselves

Eleven years ago today, I spent my birthday at Glacier National Park. That was back when I owned a house in northwest Montana, and I spent every possible moment there. And because it was my birthday, I wanted to go to Glacier, because I love Glacier. I looked back at my ancient blog Trailheadcase (I’ve been blogging continuously at one site or another since 2005), and was reminded that it was chilly enough up at Logan Pass to require a coat on my almost-four year old (now almost 15), but warm enough to play in Lake McDonald in shorts and a t-shirt. Such is life at elevation.

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St. Mary’s Lake at early afternoon, during the 2003 fires.

Tonight, eleven years later, Glacier is on fire. A lot of it is burning. The venerable Sperry Chalet, one of Glacier’s famous backcountry lodges, was overtaken by flame. I’ve been watching this beloved place of mine — all of Montana, really — burning for weeks on the news. I spent a day in Glacier the last time it was this tormented by fire, in 2003. It was a hellscape, and my lungs were scratchy from smoke inhalation at the end of the day. These fires are immeasurably worse.

At the same time, the Columbia River Gorge — a place I lived near for three years around the same time — is alight as well. The story is that a teenager tossed some fireworks into a a canyon for lulz, giggled, and walked away, trapping more than 100 hikers on a trail I can recall hiking about exactly ten years ago.  At the end of that trail is Punchbowl Falls, a sublimely chilly pool where a smallish, homely bird called the water ouzel plows into the falls and skims the bottom for food before popping up again, calm and collected, to enjoy its meal.

The trapped hikers made it out. I don’t know the condition of Punchbowl Falls, but as of yesterday, the fire had spread to 30,000 acres, enough to threaten all of the other wonderful trails in the Gorge and some historic structures, some of which I was lucky enough to see again when I was there last month. Although everyone wants to junk punch this teenager, his casual maliciousness could never have had the effect it did had this July and August not been the third driest on record in Oregon.

061-3FL17On the other side of the country, Hurricane Irma, among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, is on trajectory for a head-on collision with south Florida — another place I’ve spent significant time, both in my childhood and as an adult.   I took my first steps at the Kon-tiki resort in the Florida Keys. I wonder about my grandparents’ old house west of Ft. Lauderdale. I worry about my stepdaughter in Orlando, working as an intern at Disney. I worry about my aunt in Ocala, and my dear cousin in Palm Coast. I worry about the monkeys on the Silver River, and the willets on Marineland Beach.

And this is all on the heels of some of the worst flooding in United States history in Houston, which saw my husband’s childhood neighborhood drowned.

I lived out west about ten years ago, and it was there I became acquainted with the reality of climate change, as so many of us did. Climate change somehow became a political question, and a refusal to believe the established science became a tribal litmus test for the right — to the profound and devastating misfortune of the earth.  I don’t know how much longer that denial will work for people, as one out-sized natural disaster after another befalls us. Sadly, I fear that the denial well is nowhere near as dry as the woods in Montana and Oregon.

And so this is likely to be what the last half of my life looks like, watching these gorgeous and meaningful places die, not to come back in my lifetime. I suppose I’m lucky I saw them while they lasted; my kids’ generation isn’t so fortunate. The earth will outlast us, of course. Whole books have been written about that. The World Without Us talks about what an earth suddenly unstressed by human occupation would look like. Some things, like plastic, are here to stay. But the carbon in the atmosphere would clear after many thousands of years.

These things aren’t so much about the earth, exactly. Climate change has always been more about what we take from ourselves, and from the wilds. And whether we admit it the cause or not, we are starting to lose a great deal.

 

Waiting

We visited this lavender farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on a Sunday in early August. The morning air was cool, misty, and carrying a bit of smoke from the wildfires in British Columbia.

This is my spouse and favorite travel companion, sitting in the lavender as I wander the fields. Waiting.

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Fire in the air

In the last few days I’ve been been in the Pacific Northwest, and we wandered out to Salt Creek in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Fires are burning in British Columbia and central Washington, and a haze hangs over everything. During a Pacific Northwest summer, you can usually see the volcanoes and the Olympic range from a good distance; not so now.

I was in Glacier National Park for the crazy wildfires of 2003 (we were the last vehicle to exit the park at Apgar when they closed it down, just ahead of the sirens, and I’m sure I took three years off my life from smoke inhalation). So from my photography there that year, I know how wildfires can produce weird, surreal light.

I was hoping that the sun would sink further down toward the horizon and spill some light toward the island before it was swallowed up into the haze entirely, but this is as far as it got. Elemental.

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Home(s)

Many of the homes I’ve lived in, over the time I spent in them, came to be invested with a lot of emotional significance. Home and place are sensitive concepts for me. When I love a home, I have a lot of sadness — more than is perhaps entirely proportional — moving out of it. When I don’t love a home, I don’t. When I love a home, I can’t drive by it or go back to it for a long time after. I sold the home I had when my son was born, a walkout ranch tucked into a small neighborhood off Indianapolis’ Michigan Road, twelve years ago.  It was the first home I owned, and it sat on an acre overlooking Crooked Creek, and had 1100 square feet of two-story deck from which I could take in the nature preserve. When my ex-husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon, we had to sell it. When I moved back to Indy in three years later, I wished we had just rented it out.

I can drive by now, but it took almost a decade. In fact, the only home I can’t go back to, still, is the house in Montana I owned while we lived out west. This is true despite the fact that friends of mine own it now, and have offered to let me come back whenever I’d like. But I haven’t been able to bring myself even to the town it’s in, despite being in Montana last summer. Then again, it’s only been eight years. Maybe another two will do the trick.

After this pattern became apparent to me over the course of leaving several homes, I looked for the source of all this overwrought sentimentalism, and found it — as we so often do — in my childhood. My parents divorced when I was eight, and that event meant a move out of my childhood home — a walkout ranch on a large lot, of course — into an apartment complex on Meridian Street in Indianapolis that no longer exists. It was a jarring feeling for a sheltered kid like me, and I wanted my family home back in the worst way. One of my childhood friends still lived across the street, and I went back to visit her once, a short time after we’d moved out. We were playing outside, running around zanily as kids do, and I had to go to the bathroom or something. I completely forgot the situation of my life, the reality that we no longer lived there — despite the fact that I had just been introduced to the new owners that day by my friends’ parents — and on reflex, habit and muscle memory, I burst in the front door of my old home. That was, after all, where I ran to while playing outside when I needed something.

As an adult, I can’t blame this woman for what she did, as I must have at least startled the hell out of her. But she screamed at me, and I stopped cold in the entryway, too shocked to move. Reality came flooding back as she yelled at me: “You don’t live here anymore, get out!” I’ve always been extremely sensitive to criticism and elevated voices. It’s easy to imagine my son, who is not, saying “Oops, sorry,” turning around and running out, without a single enduring emotional effect. But that was not me as an 8-year old. I melted down in tears, and after regaining control of my feet, I turned around and ran out, back to my friend’s house. I was a disintegrated mess of tears, woundedness and anxiety as I tried to figure out where to go. I was terrified this story would get back to my parents and they would be upset with me. (Nowadays, I’m pretty sure they would’ve been sympathetic.)

So, the lesson that wired itself into my brain without any conscious awareness: Places that aren’t yours anymore aren’t safe. The loss feels too big.

That story is almost four decades old, and I’m a tougher character now, but there isn’t much I can do about my brain and its anachronistic clinging to the things it’s experienced. And that’s okay. It’s how this life works.

This last Monday, my husband and I closed on a new house, again in Indianapolis. It’s — you guessed it — a walkout ranch that sits on an acre and a quarter. We’ve been working all day and painting in the evenings, and the second evening we were there, our yard was visited by a deer, a hawk, a red fox, and a great-horned owl. I think it’s going to be one of those places I love. And if we sell it, it’ll be to move back west. Hopefully that will be the last big home transition.

I will be able to drive by my current house immediately after we leave, as I don’t particularly love it. But fate was kind enough to remove the things I do love about it before I leave it. The house sits on a pond, and when we moved in, it had two willow trees and two Bradford pears — the weak, split-prone trees that keep tree-removal businesses hopping — that reached up to the second floor bathroom. Storms took out the willows earlier this year, and a few weeks ago, I heard a huge crash during a storm. The Bradford pear tree had split down the middle and narrowly missed the sunroom. The yard, once a shady, mystical habitat for birds and squirrels, is now bare and baking in the sun.

20258467_1707310809279593_1814202389444997376_nIt’s time to go. And this time, I’m glad.