Starting at the same point

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Taken at the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse, Cleveland, Ohio.

From 1995 through 2013, I worked at a non-profit organization that regularly took policy positions that would be considered progressive. During that period, the people of the United States grew more and more politically polarized. Through the lens of my job, I witnessed the birth of Fox News and MSNBC, the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair, the Bush v. Gore decision, the ongoing outbursts of Rush Limbaugh, and many other milestones in the widening divide.

The letters, phone calls, emails, and online comments that we received every day could be brutal. The creepy messages that came from clearly troubled people—like the man who imagined a not-too-distant future where “sons are favored and daughters hated”—were sickening but fairly easy not to take personally.

But I struggled not to feel hostile toward the people who seemed level-headed and relatively polite yet disagreed so vehemently with our mission. Also troubling was the tendency of true believers on either side of the aisle to generalize about and demean the folks on the other side.

Here’s the stereotype I saw emerge of liberals as expressed by conservatives: Snobby, weak, always taking offense, quick to play the race or woman card, think everyone else is racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., want to take away all guns, godless, sexually immoral, baby killers, environmental dupes, want to destroy traditional families, prone to coddling poor people with other people’s tax dollars, eager to perpetuate class war, think big government can solve everything, and completely snowed by their leaders.

And here’s the stereotype that emerged of conservatives as expressed by liberals: Ignorant, naïve, fact-averse, reactive, blindly religious, simplistically patriotic, gun nuts, violent, bullying, judgmental, hypocritical, stubborn, racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., prudes, possibly closeted, insecure, immature, mean and spiteful, anti-science, don’t think poor people deserve help, nostalgic for an idealized/discriminatory past, think capitalism/tax cuts can solve everything, and completely snowed by their leaders.

At least we all have that last one in our column, right?

But seriously, facing the reality of this divide on a daily basis was wearying and downright disheartening. In order not to completely give up, I started trying to focus on the human characteristics that we all share, regardless of political persuasion. I was in search of those common threads that tie us all together.

One way to do this is to ask: What do people truly want? What do they most fear? I believe that these questions are just flip sides of each other. And you have to answer them in the purest way possible. You have to get at the answer behind the answer, behind the answer.

Here’s what I came up with…

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On a street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

All people want to believe that they are in control of nearly every aspect of their lives. Doing something and expecting a certain outcome is pretty much the bread and butter of our existence. Otherwise, life is chaos.

However, we do not have full control over our lives at all times, and that realization can be terrifying, or at minimum pretty friggin’ frustrating. When control is taken away from you in an area where you thought you had things covered, stress and anger are usually the result. Imagine working hard to improve your health only to discover that you have developed an illness that could not have been prevented. Or losing out on a promotion at work despite doing everything “right.” Or installing a security system in your home only to have it broken into the next day.

When these types of things happen, many people look for something or someone to blame. It sucks to admit that the world can be random and senseless. If we ultimately have little to no control, then why even bother? Humans want to bother, for the most part, so we often go looking for excuses as to why something went awry. And it’s through those excuses that we start to part ways.

People also want to be respected. They want to be treated with dignity, which means being seen, heard, and taken seriously. When someone is disrespected, laughed at, or looked down upon, it produces a reaction that can range from mild annoyance to outright rage. And again, it is our varying approaches to dealing with feeling small and insulted that separates us into different camps.

People like to think of themselves as special. Of course, we are all unique. But we are also tiny, fleeting parts of a vast universe. No one wants to think of themselves as a standard-model cog in the machine. We like to think that we all have something singular that we contribute. We want to count, to matter in some small way to others or the world. After all, what is love but evidence that someone finds us exceptional and distinct. I think we all worry at some point in our lives that we are not as smart or talented or strong or whatever as we think we are or hope to be. This is why people often insist that they are right even when that insistence is just making matters worse. Admitting that you are wrong, or just as fallible as everyone else, is scary and people have been known to avoid it at all costs.

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So many cats at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

Lastly, in addition to being special, everyone also wants to belong. Even if you are as non-conformist as they come, I’m willing to bet that at some point you have sought out people with whom you share a preference in movies, or music, or food, or body modification, or historical reenactments, or something.

If an individual were to seek out their tribe, no matter how small it might be, and if that tribe were to reject them…well, I can’t imagine a person who wouldn’t be hurt by that exclusion. Betrayal and abandonment can be seen as strong indicators that perhaps you weren’t worthy of being included in the first place. When this happens, people can strike out at those by whom they feel dismissed.

I believe that all humans share these characteristics, although in varying degrees and with varying strategies and skills for dealing with disappointment.

I try to remember this when I’m arguing with someone who disagrees strongly with me. I try to remember that we both want to feel in control of our lives, that we both want to be respected, and that we both want to feel appreciated for our uniqueness and embraced for our humanity.

We may have each traveled a different path, but we started at the same point.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • The Four Ps
  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment

 

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Of eggs, guts, and glory

I’m taking another week off from my planned subjects to dash off a quick update on my “journey” (which is the central topic of this blog, after all). Back to regularly scheduled musings next week. 

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Grilled veggies to go in my olive tapenade/guacamole (guacanade?) mashup.

Every person has at least one thing (usually more) that they find intimidating or difficult. I have plenty such things, though fewer as I grow older.

Driving has haunted me for most of my adult life. Over the past few years I’ve had to drive more than ever, so my fear has subsided considerably. But I used to panic whenever I got lost: One wrong turn, and I would break out in a cold sweat. And forget about merging into traffic on a big highway—I might as well be jumping out of a plane! Most people probably can’t relate to this level of anxiety around driving, while others know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I was a kid, I was very shy. The idea of reading a report in front of class or even ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s freaked me out. When I got to college, I pushed myself to take a speech class. Turns out I really liked it, so I started taking drama classes. By senior year, I was earning a minor in speech and drama and acting in that year’s school play. I don’t think I was a very good, but I enjoyed it, and I was proud of myself for taking on the challenge.

Part of my current journey includes doing more things that scare me—stuff I might normally put off or avoid altogether. I’m in search of a life less comfortable and predictable.

So, when I learned that a festival for fans of the Big Green Egg grill would be happening not far from where we live this month, I decided my husband and I should go and cook at the event. We bought our Big Green Egg at one of these festivals where a friend of ours grilled. At the time, I never imagined that we would eventually want to cook at one ourselves.

To some of you, grilling at a festival alongside other amateur cooks might not sound like a big deal. For me, this challenge was the perfect ratio of “really want to do it” to “kinda terrified of doing it.”

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Lamb kofte kebabs on the grill at the Eggs on the Chesapeake festival in Edgewater, Md.

Not long after we arrived at the “Eggs on the Chesapeake” fest it became obvious that we were the newbies there. The people next to us, who had decorated their booth as if it were a charming little shop, stepped in and helped us with a few things, like taping our tablecloth to the table so it wouldn’t blow away and loaning me disposable gloves for working with raw meat in public.

We ran out of plates, and we really should have brought napkins and forks for the tasters. We were a little awkward sometimes, and ideas for efficiency came to us late in the day. But we brought the perfect amount of food, and people seemed to like what we made. It was sort of like being on an episode of Top Chef, except I’m pretty sure we would’ve been in the bottom three. I don’t think Padma would have kicked us off, though. Our food was good, it was just the presentation that was lacking.

While we did not place among the top three cooks that day, we did get a fair amount of tokens dropped in our bowl from people who appreciated our food. I’m happy to report that it was a great experience: We talked to strangers about our food and shared tips about grilling tools and methods. I even presented a new recipe of my own, which several people asked for.

Yep, we did something new and learned a lot in the process. And I’m pretty sure we’ll do it again. I don’t think we’re ready for one of the larger festivals just yet, but maybe after we get a couple more small ones under our belts.

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Our first token/vote at the Eggs on the Chesapeake festival in Edgewater, Md.

What did I do to get past this and other fears? I think I’ve narrowed it down to two key strategies.

First, don’t delay—just jump in there. If it makes you feel better, allow yourself one short set amount of procrastination time, and that’s it. With the Eggfest, I checked out the event website on a Saturday and saw that there was one slot left to cook. I was nervous and wanted to talk it over with my husband and give him some time to warm up to the idea. So I told myself I would go back to the website Sunday morning, and if the spot was still available, I would sign up immediately. I did, it was, and I did!

Also, for things that are really scaring the bejeesus out of you, try thinking through the worst things that could go wrong and how you would deal with those outcomes. When my husband and I bought our house four years ago, we had a moment of sheer panic about halfway through the process. We still had to sell our townhouse, and what if we couldn’t find a buyer? We sat down and slowly went through some of the worst case scenarios. We decided that as awful as they sounded, they wouldn’t be the end of the world. We could handle them, and having a plan gave us permission to take the risk.

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The Scotch Eggs from Melissa Joulwan’s Well Fed cookbook/blog were a big hit!

An upcoming challenge that I might take on is speaking at a storytelling open mic night. The idea came from the Magic Lessons podcast, and I’m seriously considering it. I’ve already started writing the piece. But when the time comes, will I be able to get up there and read it in front of a crowd? What horrifying things could happen if I did? Well, my mouth might completely dry up, then my throat could close up, and I could have a coughing attack and have to flee the stage. I swear something like this happened once during a rehearsal in a drama class at college.

Or, the audience could be totally indifferent to my piece—they could whisper to each other and stare at their phones. When I’m done, they could applaud politely but with zero enthusiasm.

These results are entirely possible. But if they take place, I will have at least gotten up there and tried my best. And I will survive. In fact, if I pay attention to the other storytellers and the audience reactions, I should be able to learn something that could help me in the future. That is, if I dare to do it once and then again.

Reading Brené Brown is always inspiring when I’m feeling small and afraid, so I plan to turn to her before taking on this next challenge. As Brown says: “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”

Upcoming blog topics:

 

Embracing nature, in life and through writing

As I began planning the subjects that I would cover in this blog, the list pretty much wrote itself. Most of the themes that I am addressing have been simmering inside me for months—years even. But I do plan to challenge myself periodically to take on matters that I don’t typically contemplate or put into words. So, here is the first topic from outside my comfort zone… 

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Geoff walking along the path at Lake Linganore, Md.

Naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned since moving to a more rural area.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager dreaming of escaping the boring suburbs and living in the big city. At the age of 21, I made this dream come true (with a little help from my friends). For close to eight years, I luxuriated in the civilized nectar that is New York City, and I didn’t think much about the natural world. I liked the look of the big trees in Central Park, but that was about it. I preferred instead to gaze upon the tall buildings and intricate bridges.

I then moved on to the suburban sprawl outside Washington, D.C. These suburbs weren’t quite as dull as the Florida one I grew up in, but they weren’t exactly inspiring either.

The yearning to live in a rustic environment snuck up on me. The seed was planted when we briefly rented a rundown house with a big back yard in a tree-lined postwar neighborhood.

But maybe the desire to be closer to nature is just something that happens as many of us get older, as the years of being out of touch with the earth accumulate? Perhaps it’s related to the search for self, to the desire to be grounded and connected.

Whatever the impulse, I find myself living now on a lake, surrounded by plants and animals and water. Sometimes it feels like I’m inhabiting a classic Disney cartoon.

The squirrels are literally everywhere, and the lake is full of geese and ducks. Sightings of chipmunks are sporadic, but they always provoke a squeal (from me, not them), as they are exceptionally cute and tiny. The rabbits out here are also small, and the raccoons are huge. In late summer the insects are downright prehistoric looking.

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Rooster at England Acres farm in Mt. Airy, Md.

My husband and I find ourselves trying to mimic the distinct songs of our favorite birds. The owls sound like howling dogs. The egrets and other herons are beautiful to observe as they gingerly walk along the lake looking for fish, but their screeches can be terrifying.

We drive by farms every day, where we can see cows, horses, goats, and the occasional herd of alpacas. Deer are ubiquitous. We have a mother deer who sometimes shelters under the trees in our backyard, and we once saw her nurse one of her young in our neighbor’s yard. Bald eagles soar over the lake on rare occasions, and they take my breath away every time.

I’ve fallen in love with how the seasons change and how flowers appear seemingly out of nowhere. The colors, the textures, the shapes—how could one not admire the accomplishment of a perfect flower in bloom?

My favorite sight is the sunlight glimmering on the water. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, the light can look quite different, but it always makes me feel awestruck and at peace. I’ve started using this image while meditating, and it almost always relaxes my chattering, preoccupied brain.

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Kayaking on Lake Linganore, Md.

Of course, even Disney cartoons aren’t all rainbows and roses—just look at Bambi. Nature means life and death, growth and destruction. You can’t drive around in our area without seeing a dead animal on the side of the road. I even ran over a very large raccoon one night, and I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not elaborating on the experience.

We’ve seen the damage that water, wind, and tree limbs can cause. In the ongoing clash between humans and nature, it often feels like nature has the upper hand (probably because it does).

One day I was in the yard, yanking at the ivy that grows everywhere. I was angry at it—the way it spread wherever it wanted, invaded territory without invitation. With perverse pleasure, I jerked another strand out by its root. Why do I hate it so much, I wondered.

Is it because the ivy is bold and remorseless, because it doesn’t need permission to run wild? Is the cautious, timid side of me jealous of the ivy that runs rampant in my yard?

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Flowers in our backyard on Lake Linganore, Md.

That might sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded: Nature is just like the people in our lives. Sometimes we love it and want to surround ourselves with it. Other times it drives us crazy, and we wish it would just do what we want it to do.

And maybe that isn’t so unusual, because we are nature and nature is us. Learning to live with nature, and each other, is our only option. It won’t always turn out perfect, but it’s in our best interest to find fruitful ways to coexist. Paying attention and learning from nature might just save us after all.

So, there it is—my first “off-topic” blog post. Not sure yet how I feel about it, but one thing’s for sure…there’s lots of room for improvement! 

Upcoming blog topics:

 

The three main factors controlling our lives

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Me, my grandfather, and my mom at the Sandy Cove church retreat in Maryland.

When I was a kid, all I wanted was to have a normal family. I know now that the words “normal” and “family” have little overlap in the real world. But the fact that I had a somewhat unconventional home life was the peg upon which I hung most of my youthful disappointments and frustrations.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my family. Still, I had a single mom back when all my friends had married parents living under the same roof. I didn’t know my father—never even laid eyes on a photo of the man. My mom and I lived with my retired grandparents; my mother worked full time, and we didn’t have much money.

When I was about 15, my mom suffered a serious depression during which she barely came out of her room. This experience was frightening and lonely, and it forever shifted the balance of our parent and child roles.

On a scale of personal trauma or tragedy, the situation into which I was born and raised doesn’t rank very high. But it left its mark on me. My tangled roots, my less-than-typical origin story will always be there behind me. I definitely learned a thing or two from my jagged beginnings, but the question lingers . . . what if things had started out differently?

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Roulette wheel hanging out in the back of a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.

When thinking about how our lives unfold—the advantages we enjoy and the challenges we face—I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s crucial to acknowledge the three main factors that contribute to our fate.

The first is luck: What point in time we are born and where, into what economic circumstances, what gender, what race and ethnicity, what family structure, what health conditions and physical abilities, and so on.

Luck jumps in at other junctures throughout our lives as well, reminding us that we are not in full control. Some luck is happy, like meeting the love of your life, or a much-wanted pregnancy when you’re least expecting it. But most of the examples that come to mind are negative: Weather disasters, car accidents, cancer, a parent’s desertion, the loss of a child, being in the wrong place at the wrong time in any number of ways.

Some folks will proclaim that people need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and overcome their disadvantages. But it would go a long way toward mutual understanding if we could all appreciate, just a bit more, the varying and often unforgiving forces that mold each of our lives.

The obstacles I’m talking about here have been thrown in our paths; they were not brought on by our own actions. But we must reckon with them all the same.

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Old swingset in our neighbor’s yard on Lake Linganore, Md.

Which brings us to the second factor: personal control. Yes, we humans do have willpower, grit, passion, and all those internal resources that can turn things around and change our lives. We can make our own fate—within reason. I think it’s fair to admit that we don’t all have the same type or level of internal resources to draw upon, so some struggle more than others in certain areas. One person’s breaking point may be another person’s turning point.

In my case, there came a time when I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and stop bemoaning all the stuff I felt cheated out of having, like a father and a mother with a partner to lean on. I had to become my own cheerleader and my own coach, and I had to push myself harder than I really wanted. The results have been mixed, and the evidence that self-determination is a never-ending effort is right here in this blog.

The third factor is institutional. Some people prefer not to focus on this influence, while others spend a large portion of their lives trying to shape it. I’m talking about the form of government and financial structures under which we live, the various laws we must abide by, our voting rights (or lack thereof), the make-up of our health care system—I could go on and on.

To a certain degree we are stuck with the institutions that are in effect in the place and time in which we live. There is little doubt that these institutions hold some people back while giving others a leg up. Many people go bankrupt, are jailed, and even die because the rules and conventions of society have great power over people’s lives.

You might think that this factor intersects with luck, and to some extent it does. But many of the institutions I consider part of this category can be molded, changed—even torn down altogether. Humans, working together, can alter or upend these institutions because we are the ones who create and maintain them. But we cannot do this alone. We must form alliances.

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Three supporters at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2009.

I worked for nearly two decades at a non-profit organization dedicated to social justice. We saw many victories and many losses. But we knew that we had the power to make change. We also knew that some of that change might not take place in our lifetimes, but hopefully some of it would. Just look at the fight for equal marriage, which began in earnest right around the time I started working for social justice and is now a reality.

Perhaps these three factors seem obvious. They certainly bear a striking resemblance to the famous Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how they took shape in my head, thinking about them helps me feel centered and grounded.

First, I recognize that luck exists, but I try not to dwell on it—I try to cut myself (and my mother) a break, and then move on. I also make an effort to understand the different ways that other people’s lives have been impacted by the cards they have been dealt.

Second, I do my best to take control of my life wherever I can. I promise to check in with myself regularly and ask: Is there something different I could be doing to make my life more complete, more productive, more fulfilling?

Third, I look for ways to work toward the societal change that I think will bring justice and opportunity to people’s lives. How can I use the skills and resources I possess to help bring about a better world?

None of this is easy. Sometimes it’s so much simpler to complain, deny, and avoid (see my previous post on negativity). But ultimately, the most satisfying results come from doing right by yourself and marking the way for others.

Upcoming blog topics: