Reading List: We Are All Our Own Works in Progress

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Unfinished Work

I’ve been wracking my brain for the last week trying to figure out how to complete a poem. Right now, it’s about 10 lines long, and I have been keeping it in my “works in progress” folder. Whenever I get something new in that folder, I tend to obsess over it for a few days, trying all kinds of directions to try and “finish” the poem.

That Works in Progress folder sometimes feels like it’s mocking me. For the last while, I’ve been trying to not get angry and frustrated with myself for all the works in that folder. And that Works in Progress has been taking on a new meaning for me. By not judging myself for having “too many” things in that folder, I’ve been realizing that a “Work in Progress” is far from something to judge myself harshly for. It’s the sign of work happening. It’s the sign that creativity is happening (something that, for a long time in the depths of my depression, had been hiding from me). In fact, having works in progress, to me, is a sign of life.

Works in progress need to be respected for exactly what they are and where they are. Their potentiality exists, but respecting them for what they might be instead of what they are seems like a path to insanity.

Brain Pickings: The Psychology of Your Future Self

Quoting philosopher Joshua Knobe and author Daniel Gilbert, Maria Popova’s always-thought-provoking Brain Pickings considers the question of present self and future self. The constant challenge of long-term planning — we are the people we are now, trying to guess what the people we are in the future might like.

Gilbert argues that we’re bedeviled by a “fundamental misconception about the power of time” and a dangerous misconception known as “the end of history illusion” — at any point along our personal journey, we tend to believe that who we are at that moment is the final destination of our becoming. Which, of course, is not only wrong but a source of much of our unhappiness.

I really like the idea of the end of history illusion — because the idea that someone is “done” or is “perfect” or that everyone reaches a point of being “complete” is something I’ve struggled with a lot. Like a poem that doesn’t quite feel right, constantly stressing over that incompleteness ends up making things worse. After we reach a supposed “finish line” we still need to wake up the next morning, after all.

The Fat Nutritionist: Real Food

And the fact that we are all works-in-progress and deserve the respect for that very effort is highlighted in a heart-wrenching way by Michelle, the Fat Nutritionist in her post about “Real Food”:

Right this minute, there is someone going through chemotherapy shopping at your grocery store, buying popsicles and ice cream to help their sore mouth, and worrying what the cashier is going to think.

There is someone on hemodialysis buying white bread instead of whole wheat, trying to keep their phosphorus levels reasonable between appointments and hoping for the best.

There is a person attending intensive outpatient treatment for their eating disorder who has been challenged by their therapist to buy a Frappuccino.

There are dietitians picking up a dozen different candy bars to eat with their clients, who feel ashamed and guilty about enjoying them.

There is someone who just doesn’t have it in them to cook right now, and this frozen pizza and canned soup will keep them going.

There are people recovering from chronic dieting and semi-starvation who are buying chocolate and chips at their deprived body’s insistence.

All around us are people listening to what their bodies need and attempting to make the best possible choice within a context of overwhelming food pressure. All of their choices are valid, and every single one of these foods is “real.”

It is not a coincidence that the foods popularly imbued with “realness” map so cleanly onto class-related ideas of healthy, high-status food.

Everyone deserves respect and kindness from others, and almost more importantly from themselves. That respect and kindness, sometimes, can be very difficult because it involves standing up for yourself, which sometimes doesn’t feel kind. However, unless you show kindness and empathy and respect for yourself, then showing it to others can become draining, because unless your own needs are met, you don’t have a chance to rebuild enough energy for others.

Meghan Tonjes F.A.T.: Love isn’t Unconditional

And Meghan Tonjes, who I am a constant fangirl of, makes some extraordinary points about this in this F.A.T. video, where she points out that it’s better to “give people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the very best they can.” In this same video, she highlights how incredibly important it is to treat yourself with that same kindness and benefit. As she puts it,

“You never feel like you have to stick by something … that doesn’t serve you on your journey to being a healthier person.”

“Love isn’t unconditional. Love thrives on the condition that you treat me with respect.”

At the end of this video, I wanted to stand on my chair and high-five this beautiful woman. Being a work in progress doesn’t mean you are required to stunt your journey for others. Responding authentically includes being willing to cut someone out that simply is not healthy for you.

Jill Malone: Four Agreements

And finally, we return to Jill Malone. In her post Four Agreements, Jill lays out how important it is to not protect someone from their journey. The entire short post is worth a full read, but here’s the conclusion:

My life is easier when I don’t attempt to decipher the behavior of others. If I have questions I’ll ask. If I’m curious I’ll engage. But I’m not here to save anyone, which is lucky, because I can’t.

Embracing the Work in Progress

A work in progress is just that — not finished. As human beings, I believe we all have a right to learn from our experiences, and treat ourselves and others with respect. A big part of this is being willing to embrace with open arms that we make mistakes, we can’t figure some things out, and that we are worth respecting ourselves. Like the poem that just isn’t quite finished, it’s a sign of life, a sign of respect, and a daily practice of self-care to care for ourselves first.

The Power of Your Story

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In a system where data-driven is the lifeblood of business, of corporations, of education, of communication, a story provides personalized color and context. It is less stripped-down, less numerically based and less “big picture important” than the data-driven approach. The story fills in the data that humanizes numbers.

We are all a collection of labels — the things we identify as what makes us “us” — but those labels are nothing more than chapter headings. What creates excitement and interest and power in those labels is the story that tells how they fit together and solve the seeming conflicts. Labels can be limiting — stories can be liberating. Though the opposite can be true and freedom can found in adopting a label, it is the part that label plays in the story of you that creates that space.

Knowing one another’s stories takes effort and takes a willingness to be vulnerable. That vulnerability, in small groups and communities, develops naturally. With groups that know us well, labels become less necessary, because context comes built-in. The further outside our built communities we get, the more important and less precise these labels become.

Reclaiming your story is a huge part of defining who you are, and who you might want to be. Informational and aspirational. The data provides the structure that, in practice, becomes a measure of the authenticity of a story.

A story will always be told. Always. We often crave a fill-in to the labels that we see, perceive, or believe exist. When a story is not provided, we create one. The stories will always be understood in ways that can be perceived by the person hearing (or creating) the story. Knowing a story will always be told, and that vacuum of space between labels will crave filler, telling and reclaiming and claiming your own story is a process not only of self-definition, but also a process of self-discovery that asks us to figure out how we fill in that space for ourselves.

Trying to tell someone else’s story when you do not know it means that you are filling in details as you understand them, details based on your perceptions and ideas. Telling someone else’s story means making assumptions about them.

Telling your own story, though, is a beautiful, powerful, and liberating thing. Owning your story means being willing to live in your own skin, with all of the changes and flexibility and resilience and experimentation that involves. It means being willing to try on different things, see how they fit, keep what works, and change what doesn’t. It means owning that experimental period in college, your terrible taste in music during middle school, all of the choices and experiences that add up to you.

When you are willing to tell your story, even in limited contexts to limited audiences, even to just yourself, then it’s a willingness to not make assumptions about yourself. To define what your own labels mean to you. When your internal space between labels has already been filled, then the story someone else tries to tell about you can have less impact, and the fewer assumptions they have to make. It seems like a path towards creating a more authentic interaction for everyone.

Reading List: “No” Is A Complete Sentence

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In my wanderings around the web, I often find myself in themes and topic areas that end up tying together in interesting ways. This is a compilation of the blogs, books, and reading around a particular topic and my thoughts connecting them.

Photo by Ariel G on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

A question of consent and self-determination

The interplay between self-determination and consent culture has been on my mind, which has been playing out in my reading. The idea of consent (or enthusiastic consent) have proven very sticky wickets, because, frankly, the bright line between “yes” and “no” get very grey — not because “no” is ever grey — no means no means no — but because what all might be a “yes”, assumed, believed, implied, or spoken, gets complex when mixing together social, personal, and interpersonal.

Clear, unequivocal consent is the gold standard — the enthusiastic “YES!”. What it takes, in one’s own head and one’s own daily patterns of action, to have the self-determination to speak up in either direction, is where that kind of consent culture must begin.

Jill Malone: Mine

Let’s start with Jill Malone, one of my very favorite authors and bloggers out there. In her post “Mine”, Jill discusses in beautiful detail the kind of unintional predator-prey relationship that a lack of boundaries can create, and what it takes to stand up to that.

“I get to say what my terms are. And I get to change them whenever I want to. I can stop you in the middle. I can stop you before you’re through the doorway. I can stop you years from now. You need my consent to have a relationship with me, and you need my consent at every level of intimacy.

I didn’t always know that. And once I learned it, it was hard to employ consistently without feeling like a dick. I belong to myself. That is all. I am my own. You’re just visiting, and you have to be invited. This isn’t just the way I finally learned to date, it’s also the way I finally learned to love.”

Captain Awkward: Dating an Atheist

That boundaries issue, and the challenging no-win type situations that trying to set those boundaries can create, are explored in this great Captain Awkward post.

“know that there is no perfect feel-good way to say “BOUNDARIES!” to people who are trammeling yours”

Which the Captain then points out that even when setting those boundaries, there are some people that may just not want to accept those that you set.

“With this group, it sounds like WHATEVER you say that is not “Oh yes you’re right thank you so much for your kind concern, I will do what you say immediately” will be taken as a) the HEIGHT of rudeness and b) proof positive that this boyfriend is a bad influence on you and that they are right to try to separate you.The game is sort of rigged so that if they win if you break up with him, they win if you go all out trying to convert him, and they win the longer they get you to pay attention to them and the more you try to convince them that he’s great, because it gives them the illusion that you care about their opinion about this and that they have power in this arena. Any of those outcomes validates the idea that they were right to speak up.”

And this kind of no-win situation, where any response is one that validates the opinion of the person expressing it, is one where the person expressing / touching / acting shows little respect for the idea that your boundaries are valid. It’s tough to not feel like a dick in that situation, because they’re the ones imposing their reality, and the social contract says we should adjust to match others as much as we can.

Captain Awkward: Splitting the Bill

And sticking with the Captain, how that disrespect of your right to have an opinion is further higlighted in the post about trying to split the check with the in-laws, where the Captain points out how this kind of no-win situation gets set up:

“You say they are “sensitive,” aka, easily offended, which it sounds like they wield as a manipulation tool. Let’s break this down, shall we? They repeatedly act like total clods, leaving you to pay their tab, and then they are the ones who are offended if you bring it up? … And you are sort of …not allowed…to get offended yourself at their behavior? They are taking advantage of the social contract that says it’s rude to call attention to rude behavior, and deliberately trying to make it emotionally expensive for you to challenge them so they can keep enjoying the status quo where you take on the entire financial and emotional burden.”
“Only you and your husband can decide what feels right, just know: It will never change on its own. They will never get it on their own. Hints do not work, they just create a sea of plausible deniability for clueless and malicious people to swim around in.”

That sea of plausible deniability is one that is easy to swim in. Not actively looking for enthusiastic consent and/or assuming consent takes standing up to, not just hoping it will change.

Persephone Magazine: Beauty Therapy and Consent culture

How often many people (and often women) do not feel that speaking up is their right, or feel that speaking up is not “worth it” gets highlighted by P-Mag’s great short piece about just shutting up and taking one for the so-called team:

“All of us – all of us – had stories about how, in the course of some treatment that we willingly undertook to look or feel better, the person doing the treatment touched us somewhere we weren’t expecting; touched us intimately; made us physically uncomfortable; hurt us or injured us. And none of us said a word at the time.”

Militant Baker: Why We’ve Learned To Hate Ourselves

Building the kind of culture where individuals don’t feel that the self-determination exists to say “YES!” or “No”, even in situations where they supposedly have all the power, becomes an in-depth discussion from the Militant Baker’s history lesson on self-hate, where she talks about exactly where this fear of providing or removing conset comes from.

“Fear can be a healthy response and is necessary for some forms of survival; we do inherently have fight or flight for a reason. But our hatred (which is fundamentally fear) of bodies that look different is learned. Its a scheme created by wealthy men in smoke filled offices over 50 years ago. Allow me to ask you this: are you going to let your value as a human decrease because of a business man who is no longer alive? Are you going to base your decisions on how you live your life on a profit scheme? Are you going to hate yourself for not living up to a standard that does. Not. Exist? Lord, help us all.”

When She Woke

The self-defeating nature of what comes from this fear is succinctly put in the great book When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, which I picked up at random while wandering through Powell’s Books clearance section.

“She was thinking about shame… what had carrying all that guilt and self loathing accomplished? Nothing, except to sap her confidence and enfeeble her. And she couldn’t afford to be weak, not if she wanted to survive. No more, she resolved. She was done with shame.”

And while I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that weakness has no place, I do have to say I grok with the idea that a deep sense of self-determination is extraordinarily important.

Elephant Journal: Can Polyamory Help Destroy Rape Culture?

Coming full circle, to what happens when a culture values speaking up and providing clear, consistent, and enthusiastic consent is discussed by Tikva Wolf writing in the Elephant Journal, when she talks about one of the biggest necessities in functioning, ethical non-monogamy — making consent and communication expected and sexy.

“I used to think that stolen kisses were sexy, but now I see them as a sign of emotional immaturity and dissociation. I would much rather my partners be obviously interested in what I want than trying to see what they can get out of me. I would much rather be telling them what I want than waiting for them to guess.”

Explanation is Intimacy?

And while there are thousands more blogs, posts, stories, movies, and discussions out there about this expansive and important topic, I think the most important point made is this: that consent is a two-way street. Having the self-determination to actually stand up and express and opinion is the biggest piece of that. Respecting other’s ability to do so, and their opinions when they are expressed, is the other side. If no means no (as it should), then yes must mean yes. Both “no” and “yes” should be treated as complete sentences, because any further discussion beyond that is allowing someone else a level of intimacy that you have the right to consent to — or not.

Playing Catch-Up With Slow Time

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This house does not have “history” in that deep-time, thick sense that a house hundreds of years old has. It doesn’t ooze history out of its walls and have hidden nooks and crannies with generations of stories. What this house does have, though, is a history that we know, comparatively, well. We are the 4th owners of the home. The home was built and landscaped by an arborist, who placed all of the plant life that we fell in love with. It was then bought by a couple that put in and stocked the shop. When half of that couple passed away, the shop was closed and (I think) rarely opened, and the maintenance of the house fell by the wayside. Then the gentleman we bought it from bought the house, with every intention, I think, of caring for the property, but age and medical problems intervened.

There are a lot of reasons, but the end result is that some parts of this property hasn’t been cared for, in some ways at all, in 5-10 years. Since it was built 34 years ago, that’s a pretty significant chunk of its life. So we’re playing catch-up with the very real impact of the slow march of time.

In some places, taking care of the problem is comparatively easy — trimming a few trees, taking out brush and undergrowth, repairing the stretched wire on a fence that is coming apart. The bigger challenge is in seeing, deciding on, and then accepting that there are some places where the damage has simply been done. It may have started as something that was supposed to be helpful. In fact, in most places, the damage started as something very positive — a piece of wire to prop up a brand-new sapling, plastic put down to keep the weeds at bay just long enough for things to get established, a watering system put in with the intention of keeping the ground alive. Like many things in life, every intention was positive, and for a while, it really was helpful.

Frayed Support
The challenge comes when emergence begins to take over. What was intended to be helpful is not constantly re-evaluated and adjusted to match current needs. What was supposed to make things easier gets worn at the edges and the plan is to dedicate time and energy to fixing it tomorrow. Something breaks, and fixing the immediate problem takes precedence over deciding if the break is an indicator of a larger problem. No matter what the reason, sometimes what worked wonderfully for a while becomes a hindrance.

For many of our trees, that emergence soon became a hindrance, which then became a scar, and is now well on its way to being healed over. For injuries that are not attended to eventually become a part of our fabric. So, for many of our trees, the steel cables and plastic hose that once propped them up and helped them grow now hang out of trunks, helpless but caught in the wood. We could try and exorcise the rough metal from the wood, but the two have become so intertwined that doing so could involve sacrificing a large part of the tree itself. We leave the cables there rather than cutting them to the quick — it may mean that the tree has more to grow in and around, but it also provides a reminder that, should that tree require deep pruning or cutting in that area, that there is more than simple wood hidden under the bark.

So instead, like the tree slowly enveloping the steel cable, it’s a process of acceptance. The tree is beautiful not only for the fruit and shade and life it provides, but the proof that no matter what the scars we may all carry and no matter how long we wait to address them, we can still be ourselves — just with a few frayed steel cables sticking out at odd angles, reminding us to tend the structures we create and never be afraid to adjust what was once necessary to prop us up.

Spring’s Creative Destruction

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Cherry Blossom
When we moved in to this house last year, it was at the very tail end of fruit season, and we knew there was a lot of work to be done. Now that winter is pretty solidly shaken off, we’re getting the chance to really dig in and see what’s going on.

The grape vine had grown up into, and then pulled down, a 14 foot arborvitae along our back fence.

The grape vine had grown up into, and then pulled down, a 14 foot arborvitae along our back fence.

And what we’ve found is – a lot more than we expected. There are a couple of groves of chokecherries that have grown up and around behind the shop and garage. Cherry tree saplings have popped up just about everywhere, many of them in and around fences, other trees, and buildings. We’ve been doing a lot of cutting down, clearing out, and trimming back. It’s a lot of destruction during a season of what would usually be bursting at the seams with growth.

At the same time, it’s all creative destruction. In addressing the huge overgrowth of honeysuckle and chokecherries, we discovered a grape vine that is much, much, much older and larger than we first thought. In plowing up the vegetable garden bed, we discovered a raspberry patch that’s thriving, healthy, and spreading like crazy. A single puff-tail rabbit seems to want to call our yard home, and we’ve planted extra leaf lettuce near where we see him in an effort to keep him away from the rest of the vegetables.

The quince bush that appeared thorny and dead is now covered in blooms that have attracted droves of hummingbirds. There are even about 150 snap pea plants poking up out of the soil; we expected the old seeds to germinate at a much lower rate, but this just means we’ll have plenty of peas.

RhubarbAnd, like a promise of that soon-to-be summer, the rhubarb is showing dark, curly green leaves and bright red stalks. The stringy, fruity vegetable is incredible to dip directly into a cup of sugar. Sitting on the porch while the setting sun shafts through the trees, reading a familiar book and relaxing with friends, makes all the work worth it. The acid from the rhubarb tastes sharp, bright, almost overwhelming on my tongue… just like the beautiful, creative destruction of spring.


Spring Equinox Sunrise

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Spring Equinox

This morning’s sunrise
Kissed as it was with
Cold wind and colder frost
Was also a sunrise
Of warmth and promise

A sunrise to mark the balance
Of the quiet slumber of death
That is beginning to pass
With the ecstatic explosion of life
That is yet to come

A sunrise to mark the transition
Where things are in wonderful
And challenging balance

The kind of balance that comes
At the bottom of the exhale
That comes in that moment
After a deep and cleansing sigh
But before the release is felt

These moments of transition
Where things are in balance
And can go either direction
Are powerful for their very
Unsettled and unsettling nature

When the veil is thinnest
And we are all given the chance
To revel in and celebrate
The places we have been
While moving towards the places
That we may wish to be

This morning’s sunrise was not
And shall never be a clear dividing line
But is instead a moment to appreciate
That a dividing line is only
What we make it
And this springtime sunrise
Is a chance to appreciate
The always-moving transitions
That make up the wheel of life

Winter Solstice

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Winter Solstice Sunset
On this, the darkest of nights
Is when the celebration of light
Has the most meaning
For no matter how dark the sunset
This is an ending, beginning
Transition to revel in
And with open arms, celebrate

Celebrate not what we do not have
But revel in the joy
Of what seems so distant
But is yet abundant

On this Solstice night
We recognize the joy
Already in our lives
Welcome the incoming light
And celebrate the abundance
Of ever present light