Blog Post, Personal

My Word for 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Road in Etten, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774)

I noticed a trend this year, one that apparently has been around for some time but which I have either missed or ignored, wherein people choose one word to make their “word of the year.” The idea is to start the new year with a single focus, a word that can inspire a philosophical perspective, an emotional change, some kind of personal growth or achievement, etc. I decided, considering I’m continuing my stoic journey this year, and with much more focus and intention than I have given it in the past, this “word of the year” might be a beneficial opportunity.

My word for 2018 is: SEE. To see. To notice. To be attentive.

In 2018, I’m continuing a path that I began a few years ago, around my second year of doctoral studies, toward outward living; toward charity, kindness, and compassion, and away from non-essential distractions. This has been a very slow process for me, not helped at all by the tumultuous last couple of years. I have been wholly consumed by politics and global affairs, much of which I have very little control over but which has “demanded” my attention, my energy, my words, my time. I haven’t been able to see clearly enough how deeply all of this has influenced my mental, physical, and emotional health, and how little it has helped my relationships with other people (in some cases, it has actively hurt them).

So, in pursuing a much more intentional stoic course of study and commitment this year, I want to embrace this word, see, in a variety of ways, and allow it to help me achieve a stoic way of living, which is to say, a life free from unnecessary distractions and a perspective that allows my attention to be drawn only to those things over which I have control.

This year, I want to see my surroundings. I moved with my husband to a new state, a new region of the United States, four months ago. We have found time to explore some new-to-us things, and to take an adventure or two, but I want to do much more of this in the coming year. I want to put away my “smart” phone, to step away from social media, and engage with my new city, with a new community, and all the new goals and opportunities they might bring. There is, for example, a group in the area that meets weekly to discuss science and philosophy and art, and all sorts of interesting things. I located it before we even moved here, and yet every week goes by without my even attempting to drive over and sit in on a meeting. These are the sorts of opportunities I see as valuable, and so I want to begin engaging with them.

I want to see my husband more clearly, and help him see me more clearly as well. Again, stepping away from these digital devices and spending quality time together will go a long way in helping us do this. I want to manage this, too, in a budget-conscious way and find ways for us to be together without the stress and strain of financial burdens. Part of stoicism is breaking free from financial debts, as well as embracing what is good for me.

To that last point, I want to see ways of politely but effectively saying “No” to what I do not want to do, and see ways of saying “Yes” to those things that I do. I am often mistaking these two things and, instead of embracing the things I am genuinely interested in, the things that will help me live a better and richer life, and become a better person, I say “Yes” to the things I think I should do, whether because I’m worried about what people will think of me if I say no, or of disappointing someone, or of looking bad at work. I hope to see more clearly the paths that will lead to “Yes” and to accept those that are truly right for me. This also means saying “No” when I already have enough to do.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b

I want to see the people in my life for who they are, not for the ideals I hold them to, and then respond accordingly. This means seeing my family, friends, and colleagues more clearly and completely, and either deciding to accept them without judgment or to move on from relationships that are not positive ones. This is a path I began to take years ago as well, and most of the negative influences have, I think, been removed; but I also want to be an authentic friend, brother, son, cousin, uncle to those I am keeping in my life, which means seeing who these people are, truly, and how they affect me, and allowing myself to be seen by them.

Finally, I want to see my priorities clearly and objectively. I want to learn how to acknowledge the difficulties in front of me so that I can better plan how to accomplish what I want to accomplish and achieve what I want to achieve. To this end, I have cut my reading goal for this year nearly in half, so that I can instead spend more time writing. I will be working on major projects, such as ongoing preparations (a years’ long project) for academic tenure; writing, preparing, and submitting work for publication; and attending academic conferences for professional development, personal fulfilment, and networking. I need to see how important these activities are to me and begin a true pursuit of them, rather than limiting myself to a perpetual state of “eventually.”

We are just a few days into the new year, but already I have noticed a distinct change in my perspectives. I hope seeing my plans and goals, strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, more clearly will help me to grow as a person, a writer, a teacher, a spouse, a friend. This might sometimes mean accepting that I am not who I thought I was to someone else, that I cannot always be what and whom everyone wants me to be, and that I will sometimes be a disappointment. Again, over others’ perceptions, I have little control, and so I need to let that go in order to focus on the things that I actually can do, and the things that will make my daily life richer and more meaningful, and perhaps even more peaceful.

Most importantly, as I work my way slowly through stoic readings, I plan to incorporate daily reflective writing; and as I work my way slowly through a literary reading of the bible, I plan to incorporate weekly and monthly reflective writing as well. In addition, I am keeping a personal journal and will be writing on the blog, as well as working on my fiction and non-fiction. My final hope in all of these writing exercises is that I will begin to see myself more clearly. I ask my students to see their progress through reflective journaling about their own work over the course of a semester; it is time that I see my own forward—and backward—motion in the same way.

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Blog Post, Personal

What a Year for a New Year

So, here we are on the cusp of another new year. I don’t quite know how to feel about this new year’s eve. I didn’t know what to expect of 2017, and I feel somehow even less sure about 2018. 

Of course, every year brings its ups and downs. I know there will probably be some good things in 2018, just as there were in this last year. In 2017, I finished my PhD, achieved my second publication, and accepted a faculty position in a new state. I know there will probably be some bad things ahead, too, just as 2017 had its share of difficulties. This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. And I know that the good and the bad, though they come every year, are not always fairly balanced. 

But stoic teachings remind me constantly that, while I can’t always control what happens to me, I do have control over how I respond. So, I’ll try to respond to the good and the bad in the same way, with patience, acceptance, and maybe even a bit of levity. And while I enter the new year without any expectations, I do have one wish: that you will find health and happiness in the days ahead. That you will find genuine friendship, be treated to happy surprises, and experience many more ups than downs. I wish that, on the inevitable bad days, you will find strength and support, and the empathy of others. 

They say nature abhors a vacuum. After a year such as this, I think it’s important to remember that hate, as a force of nature, will try its damnedest to seep into every crack and crevice, at every opportunity. In 2018, let’s insulate ourselves with love and let it be our impenetrable armor; let it fill us to the brim so that there are no cracks, no crevices–no vacuums–for hate to enter; let us live our days with decisions made of love, in everything from our driving habits, to our patience in the grocery check-out line, to the way we treat our co-workers, friends, and family; let’s love so hard and so long that we become exhausted with it, and then take a nap and carry on. 

This year, if we could all accomplish one thing, let it be that we love until our spirits feel truly warm, and safe, and bright, and until hate has been left out in the cold for good. Let’s make 2018 a year of love.

Happy New Year. I’ll see you on the other side.

(P.S. To most of the world who are ahead of us in time zones, I know you’ll get to the new year first – but no spoilers!)  

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Blog Post, Personal

1 John 3:17-18

Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband. 

I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.) 

Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”? 

I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences? 

Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.

Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger. 

When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place. 

For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both. 

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Book Blogger Appreciation Week, Book Haul, Books, Personal

October Book Swap

For about two years (wow!), I’ve been participating in a private book swap with about 15 friends/participants. The host schedules about 3 swaps per year, so every few months we get a new partner, time to shop, and time to ship. I have participated in every round so far because it is just so much fun to shop for books and personal gifts for someone who loves these sorts of things just as much as I do. Something I’ve neglected to do, though, is share my own gifts from others (except in our private group page where we all talk.) I would like to change that from now on!

This swap, taking place in October, was a fall/Halloween theme. Now, Halloween is my favorite holiday – my husband and I even got married on that holiday! I’ve been lucky to get swap partners in the past who have been thoughtful enough to think about not just me, but my anniversary. This year, as you can see, I got an awesome framed decorative “skeleton couple,” which I have set out for the season (but to be honest I’ll probably keep it out all year). In addition, I receive three awesome books from my wish list: Thank You for Arguing; Tropic of Capricorn; and Poe: A Life Cut Short. I’ve already read the Poe book, and it was good! It put me in the mood to see The Raven, John Cusack’s film from about a decade ago. I usually watch it once per year, around Halloween of course.

I also received two cool bookmarks, one from Iceland (along with Icelandic chocolate!) and one of a young Kurt Vonnegut, along with a Kurt Vonnegut doll. As plenty of people know, Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorites (he and Poe are probably my two favorite male writers). I’m so grateful for all these gifts, plus a pumpkin candle that smells absolutely incredible (we have been watching Halloween-themed movies since October 1st and light it for the viewings — atmosphere!), and a personalized drawing from my swap partner’s  daughter (which is now hanging up in my office, using the little Poe magnet I also received in this swap! See it sitting there on the Ackroyd book?) And of course, the card is perfect. 

When people ask why book blogging is so great, why I continue to bother with it, this is a great example. It’s not about the gifts (although giving and receiving are both great); it’s about the community. I’ve known some of these folks for almost a decade, now, and whether or not we’re all still keeping up with our blogs isn’t even the point. Wherever we are in the world, and we are everywhere, the connections we first made through our love of books and writing about books has gone so much farther and deeper than that. It’s not anything I ever expected to happen, but I’m sure grateful for it.

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Blog Post, Personal

The Blessings of Liberty

What do these all have in common?

  • Religious fanatic who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Political ideologue who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Racist who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Mentally ill person who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Homophobe who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Seemingly “normal” person who snaps and slaughters people with a gun.
  • Child who accidentally kills himself or someone else with a gun.
  • Individual who commits suicide with a gun.

I’m done with the pitiful attempts at injecting false nuance into this debate. I’m done with the lazy, cowardly responses that “anyone who wants to get a gun will.” I’m done with legislators who want to legislate everything else about our lives but refuse to legislate the one thing robbing us of life itself.

Yes, there are any number of factors that could contribute to any of these incidents. But there is ONE result made more possible by ONE factor. Easy ACCESS to an overabundance of unnecessarily lethal weapons.

They say the second amendment is sacred, nevermind how outdated. But what about our “Unalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What about the Constitution’s first purpose: to “insure domestic Tranquility . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”?  Are we tranquil? Are we well and safe? Did the children of Newtown receive their Blessings of Liberty?

It is past time to demand that the Second Amendment no longer speak for the entire Constitution.

It is past time to demand that our lawmakers respect OUR will and speak OUR voice, rather than perform at the pleasure of the NRA and other powerful moneyed interests.

It is past time to demand that the 97% of the population who want to see progress on this are freed from their bondage to the other 3%.

It is past time that we start to value our right to survive more than we value someone else’s right to murder us.

It can be done. It has been done in other places. We in “the home of the brave” need to grow a spine and do it here.

It is time for courage.

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Blog Post, Personal

To Hold a Candle in the Darkness

I was up late last night, hanging on to minuscule and unlikely shreds of hope. I was up early this morning, stirring with a strange mixture of fear and disbelief, as if from a terrible dream that followed me, clawing, into waking life.

I thought about my Mom, who is in the hospital right now, and couldn’t help but wonder: what will we do if something happens to my Dad? How will my sister and I take care of her if this party’s promise to dismantle healthcare goes forward?

I thought about my husband, who cried with me last night and who cried with me this morning. And I wondered: what happens if Donald Trump’s promise to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who’ll overturn marriage equality goes forward?

I thought about my Muslim and Latino friends, my disabled friends, who have been publicly and repeatedly bullied, disparaged, embarrassed, and threatened by our new President-elect and his supporters over the course of the last year, and I wondered: what will I be able to do for them if Donald Trump’s example about how we treat people in this country continues to go forward?

I thought about my female friends who have been sexually harassed, who have been abused, who have been assaulted, who have been raped, and I wondered: how did we get to a point in this country where we would put a man who openly brags about taking these actions against women, and who has promised to overturn their rights to their own bodies, into the highest, most respected and awe-inspiring office in the world?

I thought about being mad, but I’m not mad. I thought about being confused, but I’m not confused. I thought about being shocked, but I’m not shocked. If I’m anything, I am terribly sad.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just voted for two men who want to invalidate my marriage.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just voted for a Vice President who thinks I can be “converted” to normalcy, who thinks I don’t need to be served equally in the marketplace, and who thinks I’m not “fit” to hold a job because of my sexuality.

I’m sad because people who say they love my husband just voted for a man who kicked-off his campaign by calling people like my husband and his family rapists and murderers.

I’m sad because people who say they didn’t vote “for” Trump but “against” politics as usual just voted to keep the same party in control of Congress that has been in control of it for the last six years, making their claim either totally ignorant or totally false.

I’m sad because people who say they love me refuse to see me. Refuse to hear me. Refuse to acknowledge my pain. I’m sad because when they say, “it will be okay,” they only mean okay for themselves and for people like them; “it will be okay” is an empty promise that people who have nothing real to offer make to those who they cannot or will not help.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just made it clear that not only do they not understand how many of us are truly not okay, but they care so little about us that they actively voted for people who want to make us less okay. To put us at greater risk. To choose leaders who want to make us less equal.

Maybe the next four years will be wonderful. Maybe the next four years will be awful. No one can say for sure what will happen. But what I do know for sure, now, is how little we really value people in this country. How little we respect the experiences, the difficulties, the struggles, and the inequalities faced by those who are not like us. I know we are broken.

So, I’m not angry, though perhaps I should be. I’m not shocked or confused, because I think most of us have seen this coming. But I am sad. And I am in pain. Not because my candidate lost, but because people who want to erase me and so many others, have won.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” There are so many candle-holders in my life. And I’ll continue trying to be one, too. Even when the dark is so very heavy.

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Blog Post, Personal

The Death of Genius?

contentItem-6493112-52396551-zgw8xb4h1ypag-orI recently finished reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries (collected as A Writer’s Diary). It did more than just solidify Woolf’s permanent position on my “forever favorites” shelf, but perhaps there will be time to elaborate on that further another day.

The death of genius haunts me. I think of the wonderfully, terrifyingly talented souls who have left us recently (from Prince to Alan Rickman to Muhammad Ali) and fall down the rabbit hole, following that train of thought backwards in time to think about all of the greatness and wonder that has left this world, from Shakespeare to Woolf to Tennessee Williams. We’ve been graced with their lasting gifts, creations of art, cinema, music, thought. Still, I can’t help but feel that the best of the world and all it has to offer is not ahead of us, but behind.

Yes, this is a cynical thought from someone who typically tends toward the optimistic. But this feeling comes stronger and stronger as the days go by. We still have brilliance among us, of course. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bob Dylan, Stephen Hawking, and I suppose countless others, including my personal favorite genius who goes unnamed (because I’m selfish and possessive). I still don’t know what my generation will leave for the future, though, and why it is so difficult for genius to survive, thrive, shine, be acknowledged. Maybe that’s the way it has always been and maybe other people in other generations have sat and wondered the same thing, lamented the same concern.

I can’t shake it, though. To me, lately, the world seems to be growing colder, angrier, drearier as the days go by. We’re a disturbingly promising species, and yet we’re destroying ourselves and our planet. Why? As I said to Jane Goodall: Ego, I think. Our own “I am” and “I want” and “I need” comes before anything else. This could be a byproduct of being American in the Trump era; I do hope it is very different in other countries, but is it? What is human nature? Throw the dice and you’ll probably get an equal number saying “to strive for individual greatness” and “to make the world better for all.”

And which camp do I fall into? Is it possible to have it both ways?

Talk about anxiety. Self-consciousness. Fear of, what, being inconsequential? I sit here and think about genius, about my generation and my place in it, and I wonder: just what the hell am I supposed to be doing? Is it enough to, perhaps, make a small difference in one or two small lives every now and then? What do I – what can I – leave behind when I’m gone?  

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