Hurricane Season

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Happy Hurricane Season.

We are still reeling from Harvey, remembering the anniversary of Katrina, and looking over our shoulder at Irma.

Hurricane season. The time of year when many of us get to gamble about whether to stay or whether to leave, whether to be foolish or brave. Time to face that, no matter how much we hate our neighbor, it just may be his generosity that pulls us out of the flood.

I’ve been doing a lot of hating on my neighbors lately.

Not necessarily my literal neighbors – although the 3 am revelers get special curses – but my metaphorical neighbors who proudly and defiantly still support the other guy.

I have even more special curses for them and for their stupidity. Why they would vote for someone who bragged about grabbing pussies, who clearly and demonstrably lied every time he opened his mouth, is beyond me. No time to talk to people that stupid.

I don’t suffer fools well.

When I was in public relations, I had a client – let’s just say they were concerned with mental health – that never wanted to use language that they called “blaming and shaming.”

I got where they were coming from – those who had mental health issues had enough to deal with without stigmatizing language. So, I carefully wrote language that talked about “people with mental health challenges” as opposed to “schizophrenics.” It is the kind of language that has come up with the tongue-twisting “differently-abled” instead of “disabled” or “handicapped.”

And, while I wrote this stuff – they were the client, they paid the bills – I secretly sneered. In real life, I’m all about the blame and shame.

Call a spade a spade. Idiots are idiots, and life’s too short.

But here’s what I see on Facebook:

–people on BOTH sides spreading fake news

–people on BOTH sides getting angry about things that don’t matter (okay, admittedly bad optics, but does it really matter that Melania wore heels to Harvey? Really?)

–people on BOTH sides slinging insults (Libtard, Trumptard, etc.) and just not listening.

And, I get it. Yes, call a spade a spade. A racist is a racist is a racist. It shouldn’t matter why.

Except, it does. Because just shaming and blaming does nothing to change things. It’s not like a racist is going to see my scorn, slap his head in dismay, and realize that he has been mistaken his whole life.

And, I realize that I have the white privilege to just scorn something that doesn’t affect me personally.

Still…

That client liked to change my language from using, “but” to using “and.”

“Different things can co-exist,” she used to say.

People can vote their self-interest AND still sacrifice to save others during a hurricane. People can have a fundamentally different mind-set AND still be lovable.

So, it’s hurricane season.

Maybe it’s time to wash away all the shit we’ve been wading in since November. To pull our neighbors out of the flood of invective. To hold out a hand and say, “Hi, I’m differently politically-abled than you are. Want a seat in my boat?”

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Opinions vs Experts

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There is an arrogance that has seized us. It insists that we “know” better than anyone else, based on the lies we tell ourselves.

I don’t know when it started. Maybe it was when, in certain parts of the country, education was mocked because it didn’t lead to as much money as selling drugs, or playing sports, or being famous for simply being.

It continued on a wave of holding our hands over our ears and humming when someone with a medical degree mentioned vaccines, or when a scientist mentioned global warming.

It has led us here.

Here is where Donald Trump appoints party planners and big donors to head agencies, awards patronage jobs at the Department of Energy to people who didn’t know that nuclear energy was part of their portfolio, and laymen to job of chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency. Patronage jobs are nothing new, especially in government, but this administration has raised to an art the act of placing people in jobs they are not only unsuitable for, but in agencies they have an active opposition to.

Here is where Congress has let itself get so caught up in election cycles that it has forgotten how to legislate – an act that requires compromise and doing things that weaken poll numbers in order to move us toward good, even if the steps are incremental.

And here is where the media finds itself without the armor of credibility after years of chasing ad revenue and ratings and offering the entertaining rather than the enlightening. The media has promoted the pretty rather than the competent, and offered cheap, unscripted entertainment, because it fills the public belly like cheap, un-nutritious popcorn. And, while it has debased its entertainment, it has hamstrung its news side.

No one trusts the experts.

I understand this trend.

I come from a family that trusted instinct over education, always.

And there is some merit to the suspicion.

Besides the media and politicians, scientists have been influenced by chasing the next funding grant and polls have been purchased that cynically reflect the best interests of the person paying for the poll. And, as for the medical field, Big Pharma has cast a large shadow over the purity of medical advice.

But, there is a reason I don’t want my friends doing my brain surgery or flying my plane – unless, of course, they happen to be award-winning brain surgeons or stellar pilots.

In my family, doctors’ instructions were to be followed unless they were not. My dad, who had low blood pressure his whole life, was on blood pressure medication for a suspicious fluctuation in his pressure. According to his wife, he stopped taking it when his pressure leveled off, despite his doctor’s instructions.

My dad’s no longer with us.

Did his refusal to believe the experts kill him?

The medical experts who examined my dad weren’t sure. So, I have my opinion, but it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Because sometimes, what you “feel” is true doesn’t trump education.

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Catching Creativity

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(Editor’s Note: This appeared initially as a blog for SKIRT Magazine)

I was never much good at catching fireflies.

In my youth, fireflies would twinkle in the soft light, creating magic on the back lawn.

My cousins would burst out into the twilight, armed with glass baby food jars, their legs streaked with the blood of the last swatted mosquito like some kind of warpaint. The evening would be filled with the fwop-fwop sound of their palms slapping to seal the fireflies inside the jars. They compared who would have the brightest firefly nightlight at their bedside.

I would wander much more slowly through the dew-slick grass, an ambler where my cousins were marching warriors. The fairy lights attracted me but once I captured a firefly, it looked puny in its glass prison, its magic diminished with captivity.

Eventually, I let the fireflies be.

As an adult and a writer, I found that the bright sparkle of creativity too would diminish the harder I tried to tame it. Grabbing onto a muse was like trying to pick up a raw egg yolk with your fingers – it slipped and slid just out of your grasp.

Creativity is supposed to be a spark, implying that you can just strike two blunt things together repeatedly until it happens.

It doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t force creativity directly. I can’t even sneak up on it. If I stare at it directly, it wisps away. I can only catch it out of the corner of my eye and let it sneak up on me.

Creativity sparks when I shamelessly eavesdrop on other people’s dramas, the tears of an overwrought stranger watering my creativity. It sparks when two disparate things suddenly seem related, like butterflies and physics. And it sparks when it is most inconvenient – nudging me awake at 3 am to get up and capture a scene or a dream.

But, the times I sit alone before dawn at my keyboard, hammering out the words that seem to come at the speed of light?

Creativity hovers like a bright cloud of fireflies.

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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Good Riddance, 2016!

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When the clock strikes midnight (or, in our case, when the glowing white numerals silently flip), I will scrape 2016 off my shoe like something nasty I stepped in.

Because I am done.

I am done with family members dying, I am done with friends dying, I am done with beloved celebrities dying.

I am finished with truculent Trumps on the television and emboldened bigots spewing hatred on social media.

I am over hurricanes that topple ancient trees, and floods that send creatures skittering into our walls for shelter.

I am beyond over zippers that strain and jowls that jiggle and photographs that capture a funhouse mirror version of me.

That is not to say these things will be done with me in 2017. But, like the polite person who pretends to ignore the malodorous lingering of 2016 on the sole of my shoe, I plan to just carry on as though there is no stench. Even if it means I have to hold my nose a bit in order to do so.

Happy new year – finally!

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.