Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The ideological virus

I think most people can understand the pain of losing a close friend or family member to drug addiction, but a less understood pain is the loss of someone to extremist, cultlike religion.
To be clear, I'm not saying one is "worse" than the other. Drug addiction is certainly more dangerous to physical health and is more likely to land people in legal trouble, but religious fundamentalism can also be deeply harmful. It erodes at individuality, curiosity, creativity, and compassion. It replaces a fully realized human being with a set of prepackaged values intent on conquering all other worldviews. Essentially, it's a virus that masquerades as a cure. I don't believe that religion itself is a virus. It can be practiced in a healthy way. But fundamentalism is never healthy, either to oneself or to others. It also seems to have more social support than narcotic addiction because it comes with the veneer of a moral high ground--not only a sense of superiority over those who are not religious, but also over those who are spiritual but not obsessive about it.
I have watched as unique, brilliant, funny, completely benevolent people have succumbed to drug addiction and religious extremism alike. It's heartbreaking in both situations. A cherished old friend of mine now believes I'm going to hell because I don't think you have to be Christian to be a good person, nor do I believe that non-Christians are damned, and because I am bi. It's so chilling to look at someone you used to know so well and see that they no longer recognize you, and vice versa. To know they sincerely believe you are destined for a place of neverending torment and that you will deserve every moment of it because you're not straight and you don't share their beliefs. Yet they tell you in the same breath that they "love" you. How can you love somebody if you believe that the ultimate judge of the highest good has already deemed them worthless? If you think they deserve to be tortured? I'm not only disturbed on my own behalf, but also on account of the way they're treating other people. The constant proselytizing, the vandalism of others' sacred spaces with fire and brimstone. The way they behave toward the LGBT community. I have always found the idea of anybody ever being designated to hell to be abhorrent, and reject it because it could not coexist with any kind of goodness in the world.
Hopefully they will come around eventually. Hopefully their emotional and intellectual immune system will fight off this virus and they'll be back to themselves someday. This is my most urgent wish right now. There are few things as painful as watching a beautiful person deliberately suffocate everything that makes them who they are.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Anti-poor and anti-gay attitudes often echo one another's talking points.
People who are classist and those who are homophobic (and many are both) believe they are choices; that they're the fault of those who are oppressed for living with the labels. Bigoted individuals insist that a person's financial circumstances, sexual orientation, and gender identity can be easily changed at will. They believe people choose those identities or those stations in life out of laziness, fear, or a desire for "special rights" and validation. They honestly think that being LGBT or being poor are privileged statuses that shield people from any kind of accountability. This perspective insists that those who fall under both umbrellas are pampered, attention-seeking brats who refuse to live as adults.
Gay, bisexual, trans, and non-gender conforming identities would exist regardless of society's attitudes about them*, and there would be no danger to living as a LGBT person if those negative attitudes didn't exist. Poverty, however, is a social construct--and by that, I don't mean it's any less real, but that it only exists because people cause it to. Layers of oppression cause and perpetuate poverty. But people are judged as responsible not only for their financial struggles and for their gender and sexual orientations, but for others' reactions to it as well.
              There are, of course, straight people living in poverty who espouse anti-LGBT beliefs, and financially well-off LGBT individuals who look down on the poor (although it's worth noting that the common perception of gay people as affluent is largely a myth). But both groups are discriminated against on the same basis, even if members of those groups sometimes discriminate against one another.
Anyone who knows what it's like to be poor is painfully aware that nobody would willingly choose it. Where's the "luxury" in putting off going to see a doctor as your health takes a nosedive, and then ending up spending more on emergency care? Where's the luxury in having to decide whether grabbing so much as a Snapple or a cup of coffee is worth the indulgence, even if it's your only frivolity of the week, and then having to answer to a frustrated spouse if you do choose to spend that money? And then seeing the guilt and inner conflict on your partner's face because they want you to be able to enjoy such basic pleasures? Where's the luxury in having to constantly arrange your social outings around watered-down (or almost liquidated) finances and turning down invites when you would love nothing more than to go? Or living in terror of pregnancy, not because you don't love children or wouldn't want them, but because even providing for yourself is such a strain?
The same is true for being non-heterosexual or not fitting into a proscribed gender mold. Nobody would choose an orientation that's too controversial to be represented in most media because you are not "family friendly." No one would choose an identity that isolates you from family, friends, and ideologies which are deeply committed to not understanding. Nobody would opt to be seen as an objectified prop, either to bolster someone else's progressive credentials or to serve as an experiment for somebody who says they're just curious. It's so hurtful to be referred to as "practice." Practice for what? For a relationship with someone of another gender, because that's the only legitimate kind? For someone who says you're fun to hook up with and they love you as a person, but you're no more than a friend? Meanwhile, you want to draw their every mesmerizing feature and hand them bouquets of blooming words and show them all your favorite books and songs and know all of theirs in return. To bring them to all your treasured spaces, both tangible and mental, and bask in a shared world you can add to together. No person would ever choose an identity that's spat at and called immoral, even though nothing can be more moral than love.
If any of those examples sound autobiographical, it's because they are. They're all problems I have faced at different points in time, but those stories are not only mine. They belong to anyone who doesn't fit into the middle class and strictly heterosexual mold. People who think these are choices do not believe we face those kinds of struggles. They convince themselves that we live in taxpayer-funded bubbles of decadence, but they are the ones who live in insulated bubbles and are terrified of having their illusions popped.

*Gender norms are a social construct, but gender itself is not. Also, it's important to remember that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate things.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Remember Her Name

           I was heading down to the bus stop on Chapel Street to wait for my ride to work. It was unusually balmy for an October morning, and the city dwellers seemed restless. On the way over a lone cockroach had caused a hilarious uproar on the bus, to the scorn of a pair of New Yorkers. From the time I stepped onto the bus until leaving the Green, I had been called Strawberry Shortcake and Carrot Top. I’d been approached by separate strangers suggesting I take their business cards, get tattoo sleeves, become a Jehovah’s Witness, and smoke weed with one of them in the bathroom (apparently in that order). They had a lot of strong opinions about what I should do with my day. It could get a little overwhelming, but I loved the energy of downtown New Haven. I always came home bursting with stories.
            Passing Foot Locker, I noticed there were a number of people lounging on the benches at the bus stop. There was one open space next to a woman, so I sat beside her. A bald, middle-aged man spoke up.
            “Miss, you got a husband?”
            They used to ask if I had a boyfriend. Maybe I was getting old.
            “Yeah. Sorry, man.”
            “Oh.” He paused. “You got fifty cents?”
            The woman seated next to me laughed. “Gary, are you trying to pick up white girls again?” She turned my way. “Is he bothering you?”
            I shook my head and smiled at her.
            The woman was dressed in baggy black clothes. Her skin was dark and she had long dreads pulled back in a bandana. Her face was very kind, and strikingly ageless. She could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty. There was a beer bottle in her lap, wrapped in a crinkled brown bag. She sipped from it periodically.
            “What’s your name?” she asked, holding out her hand.
            “Emily.” I shook it.
            “I’m Stacey. You going somewhere?”
            “Yeah, taking the bus to work. It won’t be here for a while.”
            “Where do you work?” she asked.
            “New Haven Register.”
            I was about to ask her the same question but caught myself.
            Stacey craned her neck to peer at someone behind me.
            “Quick, let’s switch seats,” she said.
            I complied, letting her sit closest to the sidewalk.
            “There were some men I know over there and I didn’t want them to see you,” she explained in a hushed voice. “They bother girls over here. Not me, though. They leave me alone.”
            “Thank you.”
            She winked and took another swig of her 40. “Us ladies, we gotta look out for each other.”
            We chatted for a few minutes before she said, “Are they paying you enough at your job? You make sure they are. Go to the higher-ups if they’re not.”
            “I’m doing all right,” I said.
            “Well, that’s good. Me, I’m not working right now.”
            I fumbled for a reassuring reply. “Yeah, the economy’s been doing a number on everyone…”
            “It’s not the economy. It’s me. I have a real problem,” she said, gesturing toward her beer. “I made some bad choices.”
            “We all have,” I told her.
            “They don’t land everyone here, though. Hey, you don’t have a dollar, do you?”
            The way she asked, it didn’t sound like the discussion had been leading up to that request. It seemed like a peripheral thought.
            “I’m sorry. I only have enough for bus fare,” I said. It was true.
            “It’s okay, hon. You keep your bus money.”
            I rummaged around in my bag and pulled out a cake pop from Starbucks. “You can have this if you want.”
            Stacey’s eyes lit up as she took the pastry. “Is that chocolate? I haven’t had chocolate forever! I have to make this last. Before I eat it, I’ll watch it melt a little in the sun. It’ll look real pretty.”
            A pang of sadness struck me, but I thought maybe I shouldn’t be sad. She was appreciating something I wouldn’t have even noticed.
            A mother and daughter stood in front of us on the sidewalk. The girl must have been about four. She bounded around her mother in circles, chattering excitedly.
            Stacey hadn’t touched her 40 in a while. She looked thoughtfully at the cake pop.
            “I think I’m gonna give this to her,” she said. “I have a daughter, too. I’d give her the candy if she was here. But my daughter…she had to get taken away.” Her voice caught in the air and she was quiet for a moment. “Have to do it when the mama’s not looking, though. Don’t want her to think I’m trying to poison her kid.”
            There was a lump in my throat that hadn’t been there before.
            “That’s really considerate,” I said.
            Before it could fully sink in, a wiry old man ambled up to our bench, struggling to hold his pants up. He was laughing and babbling exuberantly, much like the four-year-old child. His two front teeth were missing.
            “Harvey, get your skinny ass over here!” Stacey reached over to re-buckle his belt, tutting in disapproval. “I gave you this belt. At least wear it right, not like some fool kid with his pants around his ankles! How’s anyone gonna want to help you, looking like that? How’s anyone gonna give you a job?”
            She tucked in his shirt and he lowered himself onto the bench opposite from ours, swaying slightly.
            “You’re like a mom to them,” I said.
            “Well, somebody has to be.”
            As she chided and joked with her friends, I was ashamed to realize that I’d never thought homeless people would have such comradery. Wouldn’t they be fighting for the same resources? But here they were, laughing and teasing one another and fixing each other’s clothes. How could I have been such an ignorant snob? How could I have ever assumed that people wouldn’t need each other, especially if they had nothing else?
            Stacey glanced back at the girl and her mother.
            “Not everyone here looks after their kids,” she sighed. “Some of these kids—twelve, thirteen years old—they run around the Green at night. Run wild. Sometimes they kick us in our sleep. And we can’t tell nobody, cause then they’ll come after us even worse.”
            A chill spread over me. “That’s horrible! Is there anything I can do?”
            Stacey shook her head sadly. “I’m not worried about me. It’s just awful no one raised them right. You’d never do that. I wouldn’t, either. I was raised to treat everyone with dignity, no matter who they are.”
            I was ready to burst with the insistence that something had to be done, that there was no way a just or even marginally decent society could sleep at night knowing that homeless people couldn’t. But Stacey continued.
            “Let me tell you something,” she said, gazing at me intently. “This is important. Not everybody has parents, so cherish yours. Treasure and honor them. I wish I still had mine. I lost my mama a long time ago, and it fucked me up in a lot of ways.” She cast her eyes down and took a deep swig.
            It seemed that as brutal irony had decided, Stacey started drinking when she lost her mother and then lost her own daughter because of it. They might have been trapped in bottles generationally; living in glass houses, floating out with desperate messages inside. I thought of baby bottles evolving into the other kind. She could no longer be a mom to her daughter, but she could be one to everyone else.
“If you want to help me, there is one thing you can do,” Stacey went on.
            I waited.
            “You work for the newspaper, so look for my friend Carton’s obituary. He was a good man. He…had an accident. You don’t have to bring me the obituary. Just find it. People don’t remember our names, Emily. I just want his name in the paper. And even if I never see you again, remember my name, too.”
            My bus was approaching but I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t look away and didn’t want to.
            As the bus shuddered to a halt in front of us, Stacey fell against me. She dropped her head on my shoulder and clutched my arm with icicle fingers. I couldn’t breathe.
            I tried to jerk away, but she only wanted a hug. I held her.
            Her eyes glazed over for a moment. She drew my face close, speaking in the most intense whisper I’d ever heard.
            “God told me to tell you something,” she said. “He said you’re special. If you help somebody else, God is gonna help you.”
            We broke apart in time for me to catch my bus. She waved goodbye. I waved back and told her I’d look for Carton’s obituary.
            I never did find it, but I remember. I haven’t seen Stacey since.
            For the rest of the day I felt heavier, but not in a burdened way. More like I’d been entrusted to carry something invaluable and find somewhere safe to keep it. So I’m putting it here on this page, and trusting you with it, too. We can all look after it together.
            I don’t think Stacey’s message came from a god. It breached to the surface from somewhere inside her, outside of the bottle and straight from her core. She thought I was special just for listening and caring, but I’m not special. I’m a hypocrite.
            I still don’t give her friends money, but I try to carry food around to have something to offer. I promised to make sure she won’t be forgotten, but put off writing this for a year because of my own discomfort. I lost sleep thinking about her, but she doesn’t even have a bed.
            I’ll never forget Stacey’s story, and I hope you remember it, too. Remember that there are friends who become family and take care of each other when no one else will. Remember the children who roam the Green at night, kicking homeless people while they sleep because their parents never taught them not to. Remember there are people who give each other everything they have, and everything they don’t, no matter what it costs them. And remember there’s an ageless woman in New Haven who sees beauty in chocolate melting in the sun.
            Her name is Stacey. Remember her name.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wholeness, writers, and imperfect love

I've been having a thought-provoking conversation with a good friend over the past few days. It started with a Facebook status in which I wrote, "Often times we cling to destructive worldviews and values because they were taught to us by people we love, or because we came to those conclusions during especially significant times of our lives. Changing our values can either feel like betraying those who instilled them in us, or admitting that a dramatic change was pointless and that we struggled all for nothing. To deconstruct harmful mindsets, it's important to be able to acknowledge that our teachers were flawed and to see that it's not an act of disloyalty to admit it. It also helps to recognize that the struggle wasn't pointless just because it didn't lead to a permanent conclusion. A belief system or way of life could have been meant for you, even if not meant for you permanently. Even a destructive one can lead to a deeper understanding if you're able to extricate yourself from it and try to help others untangle themselves along the way. The fact that it never stops evolving makes it all the more meaningful."
My friend Victoria responded that she relates to that because she has felt a profound bond to certain authors and philosophers over the years, and has come to a point of disillusionment with some of them. There are ones she still loves but no longer admires on account of the fact that they express some ideas she finds short sighted, if not downright troubling. She said she has come to the same conclusion about many people she currently cares about, or has previously loved, in real life.
I told her that I know what she means about loving certain writers and thinkers without admiring them, and how that also relates to individuals she personally knows. This doesn't mean that authors aren't real, but those we only know from their work do seem to take on the quality of a novel's protagonist—or antagonist, at times. The way I see it is that genuine love not only allows us to see another's flaws, but requires it. I think it's not possible to fully love somebody unless we have a realistic understanding of who they are. If not, we just adore an ideal we created. An ideal, essentially, of what we ourselves wish to be. Even if an author seems almost fictional themselves, a reader can know and care for that writer even more wholly than they love people whose faults they cannot see.
Victoria replied that we can definitely see somebody's flaws without loving them for who they are, but for what they inspire in ourselves. She said she thinks it's possible to recognize an author "more deeply through their work than through the everyday interaction and persona people hide behind."
             I told her I agree. One can see another's faults without feeling any attachment to them. I just mean that I don't think it's possible to love someone genuinely and completely without seeing their flaws along with their wonderful qualities. Feeling loyalty to and affection for someone because you think they're perfect is always a letdown, and can lead to a devastating sense of disillusionment once you see they're not faultless. You can then learn to love them in a new way that allows room to acknowledge their flaws, but not everybody can do it. In that sense, such a type of bond can be very fragile. It reminds me of the way that fundamentalist religious beliefs are so brittle, because they rely entirely on the assumption that every single tenet of the faith, or an ancient text, is flawless and immutable. Then if the fundamentalist starts to see cracks in the structure, the whole thing will come crumbling down instead of stretching to make room for fallibility.
Also, I agree with Victoria's belief that love can exist without reciprocity. It has certainly inspired many of the writers whom we, as readers, feel that sense of non-reciprocated love for. But maybe they did, and do, love their audiences. They may not have been writing for specific people, but they care deeply about their readers altogether. They want to offer sustenance, and can only hope it's able to nourish and provide.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rinse, reuse, rephrase

Words may sometimes be wasted, but language is still the purest form of recycling. Words and letters are constantly renewed, reused, reformed. They're eaten but never permanently consumed, and there's a seemingly infinite supply created from a tiny source of sounds and symbols. They do leave an impact on the environment, but whether their affect harms or helps is for us to decide.

Reflections and echoes

In first or second grade, I came up with a fantasy about reflections and mirrors. It developed further throughout elementary school, but first came about when I was around seven. I imagined that everyone's reflection is an alternate version of themselves from a parallel world we see via the mirror—that everything in a reflection was really in that other place. And a reflection shows a reverse image because everything over there is the opposite of the way it is here, including ourselves. I decided every person had a polar twin, and their names were our names spelled backwards. Mine was Ylime (pronounced E-lime). These counterparts were necessary in order to understand ourselves because if we knew what we were not, than we'd know what we were. Windows and water surfaces were weaker portals into Opposite Land, because you only caught a partial view.
I'd sometimes study my reflection, watching to see if it blinked when I didn't blink or slipped up and moved in a different way. When there was a crack in a mirror, I'd pretend it was the Opposite People trying to break through from the other side. Part of me wanted to meet them, but I was unsure whether or not they could be trusted. When I did something I wouldn't normally do, I imagined it was Ylime influencing me. I thought the Opposite Peoples' goal was to come through and replace us because they hated being constrained to a life of copying our every move. They wanted autonomy. Whenever I had to turn around, I'd turn clockwise, because I feared that spinning counterclockwise would land me in the world behind the mirror and I would become my reflection instead of the "real me." If that happened, we would switch places and I'd become trapped.
At the same time, I wondered if the people in this world were really the reflections, and what we believed to be our mirror images were the original source. What if we were the ones trapped behind the mirror and didn't know it? What if truth and reality was the opposite of all we believed, because this was actually Opposite Land? How could anyone be sure?
When a mirror broke, I'd imagine what it would be like to step out into the other side and see everything for the way it was. And for a moment, I'd wonder whether that might be the way to freedom.

Just an idear.

I have a theory that every time somebody drops an "r" off the end of a word (like people with New York accents who say "stay-ahs" instead of "stairs"), those Rs all accumulate in a separate linguistic dimension, which is borrowed from by everyone who pronounces "idea" as "idear." That's where all the missing ones end up.

"-Isms" vs. individuals

There is often a problem, both in religion and in many other "-isms," of prioritizing one's philosophy over people. A lot of it seems to stem from the belief that whatever ideology you ascribe to, you have to swallow it whole. It's the unwillingness to examine the tenets and to reject ones that marginalize people and fly in the face of compassion. It's the immediate inclination to reject a person entirely because they differ on certain points of belief, and to decide they must be immoral because of it.
To be clear, I'm not criticizing the act of rejecting someone who holds oppressive views. For example, a person committed to anti-racism is absolutely justified in cutting off someone who expresses deeply racist beliefs. Such a perspective does active harm to others. But I know Christians who have ended friendships with other Christians for not believing in hell. I know socialists who refuse to engage with cohorts who espouse Marxism as opposed to Leninism. I know hardline atheists who don't want to talk to other atheists who are not interested in "de-converting" people. When you allow for no criticism of any part of your cause, you become too quick to dismiss others who differ on any points at all. Also, I think a sign of fanaticism is the belief that anyone who disagrees even slightly is the real fanatic.
They tell you not to pick and choose, but for a healthy perspective, you have to. Selectivity is not the problem. The problem is refusing to admit to being selective while demanding that others adhere to every orthodoxy. The problem is the parts that people select.
This is where the issue of tolerance comes in for me. Bigots love to accuse others of being hypocrites for not tolerating their bigotry. But here's the thing: I have never claimed that it's reasonable or productive to be tolerant of everything. I don't tolerate hate and stereotypes that are heaped on people for factors they can't control. It's petty to cry persecution after being criticized for a polarizing opinion. We can choose our opinions. We can't choose our race, gender, or sexual orientation, so I'm all for not rejecting anyone on the basis of those factors. However, it's reasonable to resolve to avoid oppressive people.

Struggle and sacrifice

People with addiction problems are assumed to be lazy or completely self-serving, but often those stereotypes are untrue. Addiction is not laziness. If anything, you have to exhaust huge amounts of time and effort in accessing whatever you're addicted to. You have to think, plan, and act constantly in service to it. This is not about selfishness or decadence. Addicts sacrifice a great deal of personal comfort in order to maintain their habits. If anything, it's a compulsive need to serve the substance or activity—not to serve the self. The self gets lost in the process.
Same is true for homelessness, and it's no coincidence that so many homeless people are immediately assumed to be both lazy and addicted. Those associations are frequently lumped together, and people jump to conclusions. To survive on the streets is not lazy. Those who do it are not sitting around and relaxing all day. They're constantly vigilant, looking over their shoulders to make sure nobody attacks them or robs them of what little they have. There's also a lot of planning that goes into basic, day-to-day survival and making sure their immediate physical needs are met. This is why so many can't plan for the extended future, but they still get criticized for it.

Our Creations, Ourselves

What we create is often an extension of ourselves, so destroying a person's work could be seen almost as an act of violence against them. This raises some odd questions, like does it count as a form of symbolic cannibalism to eat a meal that somebody else cooked? (Not that this should ever stop someone from eating. It's just food for thought.) This isn't meant to say that property is on par with life, or that nothing that's been built should ever be dismantled. But where do we end and our creations begin? I think this is worth examining. Some people take the concept too far in viewing their children, the people they've formed, as a part of themselves to a point where they don't want their kids to have free will. Others define their own value completely by what they've made, which can lead them to feel worthless if they're unhappy with a project. There has to be a middle ground in which we value our creations but are able to separate ourselves from them to a certain degree and say, "This may be an extension of me, but it doesn't encompass me." And in turn, we apply the same standards to others.

I might be on a roll.

(From November 6th)

I've learned a lot from using crutches and a wheelchair since last weekend.

The bad:

A lot of sidewalks are really not designed to accommodate wheelchairs. Mike has to lift the chair over the curb a lot of times, and that's a hassle.

I miss being able to carry things. This is something I never thought about before. On crutches, I can't hold anything else.

People who steal wheelchairs to use for joyrides are the absolute worst. I always knew that was an awful thing to do, but again, I didn't really think much about it until now. When we can walk without difficulty, we take so much for granted.

The good:

I no longer have to worry about not being able to find a seat in public. But if I'm in a room full of chairs, the surrounding ones often need to be shifted around like a game of Tetris.

A flying jet-powered wheelchair would be so badass. There should be a comic superhero who has one, if there isn't already.

My legs are really strong, and my arms are getting stronger from the crutches. I might get a skateboard so I can lay across it on my stomach and propel myself around for killer abs. (Not really, Mike! Don't worry.)

Also, not wheelchair or crutch related, but the swelling in my feet has gone down a bit. They still feel really tight and pressurized, but there's less pain. And the bruises are turning all kinds of awesome psychedelic colors.


(From November 1st)

At 1:30 a.m. this morning, Michael and I were almost killed in a car wreck.
We were on a freeway in Milford, heading home from a night out with friends in downtown New Haven. There were drunk people swerving all over the road. I tried to catch the license plate number of a particularly trashed driver and call 911 to report them. Suddenly, another sloshed driver came barreling out in front of us, zigzagging across the road like he was trying to stitch the lanes together. Then, several things happened at once. There was a sickening crunch. We shot forward as the windshield cracked into spiderweb patterns, rippling out across the whole pane. The glittering shards rained down. Time and sound seemed to freeze. I bit my tongue and braced my feet, but felt nothing. Mike screamed, "Oh, shit!" Then the car jolted to a stop.
Mike asked if I was okay. He said he felt fine. I said my feet hurt, and couldn't stop shivering. Two people from the highway stood guard around us, told us what happened, called the ambulance. My phone was somewhere on the floor, but I wasn't about to dig through broken glass to find it.
I checked to see if my cyborg Halloween makeup was still intact. Weird what we prioritize when in shock.
EMTs showed up. They took off my boots, and my right foot was ballooning. I couldn't walk. They strapped me down to a stretcher and rolled me into the ambulance. All I could think was that the ride was bumpy. They fiddled with wires, pumped something stronger than morphine into my veins. Told me Mike was in the other ambulance and he was fine. I answered all the questions they asked: my name, birth date, social security number. I clung to those answers as static truths in the speeding white van. Gathered the facts of my identity, like piecing the shattered glass back together.
"I'm Emily Kirchner."
"I was born on November 26, 1986."
"I'm married to Michael O'Malley, and he's going to be okay."
There were other truths flying haphazardly around in the background: Who I am. Who Mike is. What we believe and love and want. But for now, the basics would have to hold.
Mike and I stayed in the hospital until 7 in the morning and didn't sleep. The car was totaled. It was a near head-on collision; engine to engine. If we'd been in a smaller car, we would have died. He had bruised ribs, a banged up shin, and raging asthma from the powder that had burst from the airbags. The doctors thought I had broken both my ankles, but they were sprained. They hooked me up to wires and I joked that now I was like a real cyborg. Finally, we were able to go home.
Our friend Mike G. stayed in the hospital with us all morning and drove us out to a diner, where they had to carry me into the bathroom in excruciating pain. We talked about finding me a wheelchair. Mike G. dropped off our Percocet prescription and drove us home. He had been awake for more than 24 hours at that point and was worried sick.
Michael's sister Terri stopped over later and brought us to CVS. She helped me around, talked with us about graphic novels. We've had friends visiting and calling and bringing food all day. Fola made me an incredible Jamaican dinner. I can't imagine what I could have done to deserve such wonderful people in my life, but you have my gratitude and my love.
This puts a lot of things into perspective. I may not be able to walk for a while, but it could have been so much worse. It's astounding that we're alive. Earlier that night I'd been scolding my husband for getting too rowdy and in-character for his Halloween costume. He later apologized, and we both were quiet as we thought of how much we matter to each other. All things considered, we'd had a good time up to that point. The outing was terrific and we'd left fully sated, so at least this didn't happen until afterward.
Interesting that a night of dressing up like a cyborg would show just how human we are.

Written in March '14

Social media makes us nostalgic. The websites are expansive rooms filled with everyone we've known over the years, existing in the present and in a time lock. We perpetually run both backwards and forwards, each half in the opposite direction, and then wonder why we never feel like a cohesive whole. Photos are nostalgic by nature, by the act of harnessing time. We exist in pixels, colors and frames. Photos offer an illusion of stasis, but even the images and recollections alter with perspective. We just do what we can to hold on.
Nostalgia even emerges from times that were terrible, because I miss not knowing. I miss the unconstrained possibilities. Even if they weren't actually infinite and everything followed its inherent course, I miss having no idea what would happen while holding endless ideas of what could.
At 4 a.m., or on Facebook, or alone with the quiet and impassive reality of time, I greet my sadness. It always lingers in the periphery, but now there are no distractions. It's late at night and I can see it reflected back in every letter and pixel onscreen. The clock carries weight in each tick. I need that grief, because the pit in which I can lose myself is the wellspring that sustains me. Compassion, creativity and connection flow from its stream, which permeates everything that matters. And so I embrace the paradox of an ache that can consume me but also fuels my inspiration, and the paradox of a website that links us to each other but divides us from ourselves.
No one is fully cohesive. We're spread out in words and pictures and ambitions and memories, dispersed into each other and scattered through time. Being bound to a million different places may not always feel freeing, but in a way, it also makes us limitless. We can choose where we want to be.

Absolutism is argued in bad faith.

There's a common reaction when somebody says that not all people are suited for certain roles or institutions—marriage, monogamy, traditional gender roles, or religion, to name a few. When you say that not everyone can be fairly expected to engage in those practices/adopt those identities, somebody always responds by assuming you believe that all of those things are entirely wrong and that nobody should partake in them, even by choice. But pointing out that certain traditional expectations don't suit every person is not saying they should be abolished; it's saying they shouldn't be compulsory. People who equate lifting a mandate to instilling a ban are revealing that they themselves are the ones who promote compulsory standards.
Someone might argue, "Well, if it's all up to each person how they want to live, then it's okay if somebody is racist, right? Or if they don't support equal rights?" I disagree, and this is why: personal choices and identity affect yourself, but oppressive attitudes cause harm to others—and on an institutional scale, no less. People are free to espouse those beliefs, but they shouldn't be encouraged. Therein lies the difference.

Consider the selfie

A lot of people critique the trend (or, rather, abundance) of selfies. I understand that it seems narcissistic, but I don't think that's the root of the criticism. After all, plenty of high art is basically naval gazing, but with a veil of sophistication that makes people afraid to call it that, lest anyone think they don't "get it." Selfies are mocked because the self focus is so honest. Egocentrism is forgivable as long as you make some attempt at irony or try to be subtle. But essentially, that's like taking a selfie while wearing a mask.
If you think about it, all good art contains the artist. It may not be entirely a self portrait, but you can see its creator within it. Taking photos of other people or doing projects that focus on them is honorable and interesting. All the same, it's not really accurate to claim that it's separate from its maker, or that the artist is not at least partly seeking to leave their own mark in addition to publicizing their theme. In the end, every person who sings or writes or films or plays or draws anything is joining hands with all the other creators and their subjects in calling out into the distance, "We are here. Don't forget us."
And it's okay. We can acknowledge that.

Love and growth

Love of any kind is supposed to help you grow, but there's a distinction between adding to a person's identity and just stretching it out. When you do the latter, you think you're helping them grow but are really just spreading them thin with unrealistic expectations.
Healthy love is a weird paradox. You consume each other without depleting one another; supplementing what was there to begin with.

The illusion of permanent distress

Depression and anxiety have a way of convincing you that whatever issues may be distressing you at that moment are actually a perpetual weight you drag around; that the only reason you don't feel them constantly is because you ignore their pull. Then once you're in a more positive state, you realize how wrong that is. The issues may still be there but you're no longer sinking in them. The bog of negativity just tricks you into thinking it's permanent, that it hibernates in the marrow of your bones.

Changing communication

It's often said that the internet has changed the way we communicate. It's true, but there's more to it than that. The online world has changed how we learn and how we educate others. Obviously it's made information a lot more widely accessible—although not all the content can be trusted. Pre-internet, it took more effort to find articles and studies. You'd have to take classes, go to the library, and do other things that would require leaving your home and sometimes spending money. That was a barrier for some who might have otherwise been able or willing to learn. Still, I wonder if the easy access we now have can become a deterrent as well. We know that this wealth of knowledge is only a search and click away, so we let the bookmarks pile up with the assurance that we'll read everything later because we can.
It changes the way we relay knowledge, too. If we want to prove a point or pass along a story, we share links. There's no requirement to first digest it ourselves and then explain it in our own words. We don't have to memorize facts; they're available to go back and reference. This can make it more challenging to talk to people face to face without the internet at hand, because it's frustrating to want to show them exactly what you're talking about but not have the source available.

Political approaches to non-political beliefs

People often approach both political and non-political philosophies in ways that are similar to government. Someone who practices and spreads their beliefs in a capitalistic way wants to compete with other worldviews and try to dominate them. However, they may accept peers with other viewpoints as long as those people have influence and can possibly do them favors.
Somebody who approaches their own opinions in a more socialistic sense wants their standpoint to be communal, but abides by others having their own views on an individual level. They just don't want the ideologies which are diametrically opposed to theirs to have overarching political/social influence.
A dictatorial approach to one’s beliefs is more or less self-explanatory.
              This isn’t about the actual belief in capitalism, socialism, or dictatorships. A supporter of socialism could express and relate to their views in a capitalistic way, or vice versa. And this doesn’t just pertain to political philosophies. It could be the way one chooses to look at and disseminate any of their perspectives. This is probably a major oversimplification of all of those ideas, and maybe I’m not informed enough about the structures of capitalism or socialism to make this an accurate metaphor. It was just a thought that occurred to me.

Courage and disclosure

If somebody has a mental health issue or a learning/cognitive disability and they're open to discussing it, that's often seen as a lot more personal than talking about a physical health problem. Many will call it brave. I think this speaks to the fact that while both can be stigmatized, mental and cognitive issues tend to be more so. They're judged as conditions that reflect on your character, rather than a part of your genetic makeup. This is really unfortunate and demonstrates exactly why it's so important for the taboo to be broken. Not that anyone with any kind of disability or health issue, mental or otherwise, is obligated to discuss it. Privacy needs to be respected and curiosity-assuaging explanations are not owed. But if someone is willing to talk about their experiences with a mental health disorder or another cognitive condition, I think it's best not to say they're oversharing or to categorize it as more personal than other things. The reason why it's such sensitive information is because society made it that way. Hopefully we can someday reach a point where being vocal about it is broadly accepted, rather than brave.

People I cannot be friends with

There are two specific kinds of people whom I have tried to befriend and engage in constructive dialogue with, but it never seems to work. And those are social Darwinists and religious fundamentalists. When a person is invested in either of those mindsets, I can never be close friends with them. This is why:
Social Darwinism is, essentially, a sociopathic philosophy. It teaches that we as human beings have no moral responsibility to help others in need, and that those who are deemed "weaker" (due to disability, mental health issues, addiction, poverty, or physical ailments) should just be left to die off if they can't help themselves. I suspect that most who identify as social Darwinists are selective with whom they apply it to. It's doubtful that most of them would refuse to help family members or friends, and if anyone close to them were struggling, I don't think they'd want to let them suffer or die. Nonetheless, they hold a selfish and unsympathetic attitude in regard to most people. A social Darwinist who makes no exceptions, however, is a true sociopath.
Religious fundamentalism can easily become sociopathic as well. If you honestly believe that anyone who doesn't intellectually assent to a specific set of theological statements (even if they subscribe to your religion; just not your particular strand of it) will be punished with eternal torment, you will react in one of three ways. The first way is to be crushed with anxiety on behalf of everyone you care about who does not share your beliefs. You'll pray and worry about them constantly, expending all your efforts on trying to convert them, which will likely drive them away. If you don't respond with fear, there's a second option: you’ll get angry. You will resent anyone who has a different religious perspective and choose to cut them out of your life because keeping that distance shields you from the pain of believing they're going to hell. Getting angry rationalizes what you see as their fate; you decide they deserve it, so you don't have to feel sorry or scared for them. The third option is avoidance. You'll just push it to the back of your mind and try to ignore the cognitive dissonance. Friendships between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists rarely seem to work, because the closer you are, the more tense it becomes. If a fundamentalist can't convert you to their specific form of religious thought, they'll eventually cut you off—or you'll walk away because you're tired of being judged and preached at.
A religious fundamentalist believes you deserve unlimited suffering if you don't share their beliefs, and a social Darwinist believes you deserve unlimited suffering if you don't have the money or inner resources to dig yourself out.
I've tried to be friends with people of both of these philosophies, because I thought it would be hypocritical of me to expect others to accept my beliefs unless I also accepted theirs. But some beliefs truly kill compassion and connection, or justify a lack of compassion that the person already has. I won't say they're necessarily hopeless. I used to believe all kinds of destructive things, and if there was hope for me, there's hope for anyone. But that doesn't mean you're obligated to stick around and mutually try to change each other's minds.

Marginalized groups don't create bigotry

Various forms of bigotry are very often excused by saying that a person only became a bigot after having a bad experience with (insert marginalized group here). But bad experiences are not responsible for such beliefs, because the person in question has most likely also had negative run-ins with those of dominant or privileged groups and did not hold those groups responsible.
This judgment is often made when a member of a persecuted population does something that matches a stereotype. A white person who has been assaulted by a racial minority could use that as justification to hate that ethnicity and say the stereotypes are true, but odds are that they've also been attacked by other white people, or known someone who has, and didn't decide that whites are violent. I've known straight people who were sexually assaulted by gay people and concluded that the gay community is mostly composed of rapists, but they don't look at all the hetero folks who commit rape and decide that straight people are sexual predators. I've known people who were cheated out of money by Jewish individuals and used that as justification for anti-Semitism, but they've also been swindled by plenty of non-Jewish peers and they don't associate financial scams with non-Jews.
This is not at all to say that a person from an oppressed group is justified in doing abusive or otherwise unethical things, or that they shouldn't face social/legal consequences for it. I'm saying that these behaviors are not due to their minority status. (Certain behaviors may be connected to oppression, such as a poor person who robs others out of desperation, but that's a topic for a whole other discussion.) To develop bigotry toward a disadvantaged populace because someone of that group has wronged you, you must have already believed stereotypes about them in order to make that connection and generalization. A person who does this while not holding dominant groups responsible for those same actions, and not assigning overall blame to dominant groups, does so because they see such people as the default—yet another example of their preexisting unawareness of privilege.

Ferguson: An Abridged Guide

Dear Facebookers and bloggers who have been posting about Ferguson,

If you’ve seen my posts on this topic, you know that I stand with Mike Brown’s family and the protesters. You might not, and it’s true that we all have a right to our own opinions. But if you support Darren Wilson or are opposed to the protests, please keep these five things in mind.

If you refer to protesters as “animals” or “savages,” it’s going to sound racist. You may say that you’re not using those terms to refer to them being black. You may say that you apply that term to anyone who protests in a way you object to, regardless of their ethnicity. But “animal” and “savage” are words that cannot be untangled from their ethnic connotations. For centuries, they have been used to dehumanize non-white people. If you want to criticize the way the protests are being conducted, that’s your opinion to express, but please understand the implications of the words you use. Also, please be aware that many non-black people are determined to tell black people how to conduct themselves, no matter what they do.

Most of the protesters are not looting. Those who are doing so have been targeting the same stores over and over again. It’s not as if every shop in the area is in shambles. Additionally, droves of Mike Brown-supporting protesters have banded together to guard stores from looters, and some places have only been looted in order to gather supplies for medical emergencies in situations where they could not otherwise be obtained. (For example, the protesters who broke into a McDonalds to grab milk to pour over the eyes of those who had been tear gassed.) Finally, life is immeasurably more valuable than property.

White people riot, too, but it’s hardly ever described as rioting when we do it. This fact is not brought up as a way to “attack white people,” but to point out the double standards in the ways in which we discuss riots.

This is not an isolated incident. It’s not solely about Mike Brown. It’s an explosion of terror, pain, and rage resulting from years of disenfranchisement and abuse. This has been a long time coming. Additionally, those of us who are pointing out the racism which drives this pain are not “making this about race.” It’s already largely about race. Yes, there are other factors, but race is a primary component. To acknowledge this fact is not to cause it. Many are accusing those of us who support the protesters of “race baiting” and then go on to post videos of black people assaulting white people, but they don’t consider that to be race baiting. They are either trying to force their own white narrative onto the issue and make it all about themselves, or they are trying to justify anti-black violence. Yes, there are some black people who assault white people or each other, but: 1) it is tasteless and irrelevant to inject that into this discussion, and 2) it is not nearly as common for black people to commit violent crimes against whites as vice versa, and black people lack the overall institutional power that whites possess. If you believe that white people are being persecuted by minorities and that minorities need to have their rights stripped away, then please unfriend me instead of trying to argue that point. I have numerous resources which will tell you differently, but you’ve already proven that you won’t accept any facts that don’t further a white victim/black aggressor narrative.

Finally, I have friends who are being threatened because of this. I have friends who have spent the last few days being attacked with racist rants, racial slurs, and endless antagonism because of their support for Ferguson protesters, and some are currently afraid to leave their homes. I hate to bring this up, because it’s hard to do so without inadvertently sounding like I’m patting myself on the back for having black friends—which doesn’t make me special at all. But it’s important for everyone to know the real impact this is having on the lives of black people. For many, this isn’t just a topic to muse about behind a computer screen. This is everyday life.

There are a lot of resources available from black Americans, and I’ve already taken up too much space on this topic. If you want to learn more, you can follow Colorlines, Color of Change, The Root, Huffpost Black Voices, or For Harriet. There’s plenty more out there, but those are the sources that immediately come to mind. Also, follow Phoenix Calida. She’s an activist who has been to Ferguson to help out in person, and she is brilliant.

That’s all for now, folks. Thanks.

Labels and perception

Finding a label for a social phenomenon can be both liberating and limiting. It's a huge relief to finally discover that others are sharing your lens; that you're observing something real instead of trying to describe an occurrence as subjective and elusive as a dream. But labels can also become constricting when they become buzzwords, are stretched onto things and people they don't fit, and when they're used as shorthand instead of actually exploring the topic they refer to.
On a related note, often times an experience or observation is only seen as real when it's shared. The confirmation is believed to validate it, but this is not always the case. Obviously, multitudes of people can believe a falsehood, and an event or perception can still be just as true if you're the only one it touches. This isn't to say that everyone's perception is equally correct; some are entirely wrong. I just wonder where to draw the line. This sort of connects to the classic question of whether a falling tree makes a sound if no one is around to hear it. A more modern version would be, "If you post something on social media and no one 'likes' it or comments, is that the sound of one hand clapping?" I think it might be.