The Past Comes Back

Well. Through a series of unexpected events, a whole chunk of my past came back and hit like a brick today. A piece that I’ve placed neatly away in my mind, like a movie or a dream or a memory. I rarely talk about it, rarely engage with it. Denial stains everything about it.

The wayback machine brought me to an old blog I’d thought lost, and I encountered raw and real and open writing. Things that I’d probably not talk about now, so openly. This bit struck me:

” For me, there is a permanent homelessness that follows in my heart wherever I am. When I think of home, residences are not the foremost visions in my mind. The essence of a home – somewhere that you know you belong, somewhere that you fit no matter what happens – this essence is something I seek. Something I have sought. An essence that is altoghether missing from my life. So while he drives and stares, my brother reads and waits, I just wonder if and when I will ever go home again.” May 28, 2012

Nine years later, I’ve found home. I’m relieved for Jess of 2012. She found her way through everything these past 9 years. I used to seek that external home – that place I’d walk in and feel “myself”, or that person who could make it so. The essence of belonging, of being whole.

Nine years later, home is within me. Back then, I didn’t feel I belonged in myself, let alone the world. Now, I am the world I need. I expand into the world, I inhabit spaces, learn from them, absorb them, become more at home as I expand my experiences, knowledge, mind, space. I’ll always be at home, because I have found a way to love myself, to forgive myself, to accept myself where and how I am.

It’s a damn journey, one that still makes me anxious at times. But nine years later, I. AM. home.

Ableist Against Myself

I have been chronically ill for 12 years. Even though I’ve cohabitated with my body in varying stages of “physically broken” during this time, I struggled, and still do, to feel comfortable using assistance I need when I need it. Yes, I encourage others to ask for accommodation. Yes, I help my friends and co-workers get what they need. Yes, I create safe spaces for people to speak about their mental and physical health struggles. Even with all of this I do for others, I actively discourage and delay myself in asking for assistance when I need it.

You see, internalized ableism is insidious. Like other “isms”, it creeps in through our media, social norms, and values. I’ve learned throughout my life to feel that if I am not capable of accomplishing, that I am fundamentally not worthy. Of love, of care, of basic dignity. Even though I do not believe this is true – I believe strongly that basic human rights are human RIGHTS – when it comes to my own existence and ability, I don’t afford myself the same consideration.

The most clear way this shows up for me is any time my invisible disability makes itself visible. I work from home, so I can hide most of my daily struggles. Further, with new and better treatment for AS, I experience symptoms that are far less frequent, and generally much less intense. So, when I do need a mobility aid (for example, forearm crutches or airport travel assistance), I feel like I should “just be able to do things” or “power through it”. Even though I know that using mobility aids in difficult times leads to substantially better outcomes, I wrestle with the necessity – do I really have to show people my weakness? Why can’t I just keep hiding, and then suffer later, in private?

Of course, now that life is opening up again (post-pandemic, vaccinations more available), now that I can meet people and travel again, all of these issues I’ve been able to avoid for the past year resurface. As I am meeting new people and developing new relationships, it is simultaneously exciting to have so much more ability (because medication) and also terrifying when that comes to a screeching halt (because, disability doesn’t end where meds begin). I’m facing my own feelings and judgements about my own ability. And I know that they are my own, because the people in my life have always been supportive of me, and have encouraged me to do what is most helpful for my health and life.

I’m not sure how long it will take me to overcome these feelings. To accept that I have a disability that is attacking my body, that will not always be 100% fixed by medication, that will require me to ask for and receive assistance. I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel “normal” when I need my mobility aids, even though I understand logically that they are the best choice for my body and future health.

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable, and that in itself is ableism and privilege. The discomfort I feel is ableism; the privilege is that I can frequently hide and avoid the ableism I may experience from others, or more often place on myself. I don’t understand why I am okay with others doing what they need to do to help themselves, but I struggle so much when applying the same rules to myself, and I know this is something I need to unlearn. And I wonder, do other people feel this way about themselves? Do others experience this fractured relationship of logic and feeling when they differentiate between their own needs and the needs of others?



Reading the world, slowly

Back in 2015, I had my final inpatient mental hospitalization. That May, I’d experienced the first break-up of my second marriage. I was hurt beyond imagination – we both were. Then there were dramas with my family. Summer of 2015 hit me hard, and I was unsure if I could tolerate my own hopelessness and grief. 

So unsure, that I drove myself to the hospital for help. I spent the next two August weeks with a small pile of books and a roommate who was an art student, ten years younger; the thing I remember about her is telling crazy stories about my childhood and my life and teaching, and the two of us laughing so hard at midnight that the nursing staff banged on our door to tell us to shut up. I spent time thinking about how to reconnect with my purpose of being.

At some point during those weeks, I committed to dive head-first into becoming a better human. I embraced my curiosity as a lease on life. as the thing that could save me from being swallowed by my own small mind. 

When I got home from that last stay, I did two things: I got my tattoo, and I started thinking about making meaning in my life. I started reading more blogs from different writers. I don’t recall where on the internet I found this blog about one woman’s mission to Read the World in year, but it struck me then as such a profound way to experience the vastness of the world, and the beauty. I decided I would read the world, but, slowly.  Starting with the books I already owned (yes, book collector for life!), I began reading and learning from voices and perspectives and stories that so differed from my own. 

As I read a story, book, essay, or poem from an author in one country, I’d make notes in my journal, and write short reviews of the experience. Through a series of unfortunate technical fails, the blog content was lost in 2016. All I have remaining from the reading and writing I did during that year is a google sheet where I tracked authors and books from each country, and the status of my reading. A checklist. I was so frustrated that I left the project behind not long after (I think maybe I updated the spreadsheet once in the past 5 years). 

Until recently, I had all but forgotten this project, and its origins in my life. Opening that spreadsheet with its checklist, I remembered the awe I felt when first compiling it. So many countries, so many histories, and so many stories that exist, and for each of those, multitudes that will never be told. 

In a way, I’m glad I forgot about this, because when I started it, it was probably more “goal oriented” than it should have been. Remembering anew has caused a desire in me to dig into stories, to learn from this world that has felt so inaccessible this past year. And now, six years after that hot August hospital stay, I have so many better questions to ask the stories.

The Gate (Nooner)

This poem is after a close reading of the poem The Storm (Bear), by Mary Oliver. I focused intentionally on attempting to replicate the rhythm and meter Oliver chose, as well as other grammatical choices she made, such as tense and sentence structure. Find the poem and my close reading below

The Gate (Nooner)

New upon the shaky gate my kitten
    climbs, crying determined mews
    with new confidence.

Spine and tail, wriggling, anxious,
    her view of the top, she claws, grasps
Until the gate’s cloth divider freys
    in small, delicate pieces,
    An early warning foreshadowing
    the struggles of my mind in this world.

You know, I didn’t see it coming myself.

Close Reading and Notes
Reading Mary Oliver’s original poem The Storm (Bear) and working from it caught me by surprise, because in my first reading, it seemed simple. That simplicity is deceptive upon closer reading. As I worked to tell the story of my kitten, Nooner, I noticed that Oliver’s poem’s simplicity was quite intentional and well-crafted.

Oliver sets up the reader with the scene, setting, and details, using familiar and causal language that make it easy to connect with a scene between animal and human. In the second stanza, Oliver expands on the narrative set in the first, connecting the verb in the first stanza to the three parts of the second stanza.

The first part of the second stanza, Oliver describes and expands on the verb; in the second part, she reveals the ending or aftermath of the action/verb; in the third section, she uses metaphor to relate the experience of the animal in that moment to the human experience. In Oliver’s poem, she uses the following as the third section of the second stanza:

     a long sentence, expressing
     the pleasures of the body in this world

In the third stanza, she responds to the metaphor she has expressed with her own voice and feelings on the matter.

Normally, I try to use the overall tone, grammar choices, and narrative structure of a work as a guide to my study, but it felt important for me to discover how Oliver crafted such a beautiful work that resonated with clarity and beauty, leaving the reader with feelings both simple and profound. I’m glad I spent time with this poem and worked to attempt to understand how Oliver constructed such a poem. I enjoyed this week’s etude, and I hope you enjoy Mary Oliver’s poem, as well as my own attempts to learn from her work.

Coping Ahead: What to do when you feel like you can’t do anything

This post is about my personal experience with physical health problems, and does not necessarily reflect the unique needs of other individuals with similar issues.

I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, and a body that doesn’t cooperate with me as much as I’d like. At the same time, I work a full time job and run my own small business, while maintaining as active a lifestyle as I can manage. First of all, everyone is different. There are days where I actually, literally, cannot move. For some people with fibromyalgia or other similar illnesses, this is most days. Many people ask me how I manage full-time physical health problems while I manage my other responsibilities. The short answer is a skill called “Coping Ahead”. A lot of people do may use this skill without realizing it (including my grandmother, who suffers with several of the same conditions I do). Coping ahead is skill that almost anyone with fibromyalgia or a similar illness can use to help themselves on their worst days.

So, what is coping ahead? The “cope ahead” strategy is used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy work to help people prepare themselves for situations that make them emotionally or mentally uncomfortable. So, for example, if I have to have an uncomfortable conversation with a client or a supervisor, I can cope ahead by thinking about my key points, anticipating sticky responses, and thinking of ways to respond to pushback while maintaining my points and my values. I don’t know how the other person will respond to the conversation, but preparing my response and can help me stay focused and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome from a potentially difficult interaction.

I’ve found that coping ahead is also extremely useful as I manage an unpredictable physical problem like fibromyalgia. People with illnesses like fibromyalgia can often find the unpredictability of symptoms very physically, emotionally, and mentally disruptive. During the first year before my diagnosis, I was constantly frustrated and angry, as I couldn’t plan sometimes even an hour in advance. I didn’t know what my body would decide to from one moment to the next. At the same time, I was working full time and taking 15 credits a semester for my masters degree. Every unexpected turn caused me turmoil.

Over time (when I say time, I mean years), I’ve discovered different strategies to help me cope with my fickle body. I’ve always been a list-maker and planner. Yet, on a “foggy” fibro day, sometimes I have difficulty to even find the words I need to finish a sentence. Thinking clearly enough to make a list is sometimes not an option. That doesn’t make working, paying bills, or doing household tasks easy. To cope ahead for the inevitable “fibro fog”, I use a strategy similar to the epic/story/task strategy in software development. In my planner (I use GoodNotes on my ipad for this kind of planning), I have a notebook for everything that I need to do to make my life work: house, bills, teaching, writing, job, business, etc. In each of those notebooks, I have a list of projects. Each project gets one page. Some of the projects seem like silly things to make a checklist for – say, cleaning the closet, or making flashcards. But I do make task lists for each project, and sometimes I break it down further with subtasks if the task is complex.

Frequently, I can go through my day without referencing my planner. However, on a mental “fibro” day, it can be difficult for me to even decide where to start on my to-do list. On those days, I can check my planner and use my planning from the good days to help set me on autopilot for bad ones. I have coped ahead for what otherwise can be distressing, and this strategy has helped me so many times!

From a physical standpoint, coping ahead means traveling with mobility aids, so that when my body decides to quit, I am prepared to deal with the aftermath. For a long, LONG, long time, I wouldn’t use mobility aids at all. After my friend and co-worker Cori pointed out that I needn’t feel shame for using mobility aids, I began to carry them with me, and to request assistance for long-distance travel. The direct result was much more ease and comfort during the trip, with far fewer symptoms once I arrived at my destination. There are a lot of reasons I was stubborn about coping ahead this way, ranging from external judgements, to my own internalized sense of ableism telling me that I “should” be able to do everything on my own. By making the decision to work on my shame and overcome the ableist thoughts in my head, I have been able to cope ahead successfully, and travel changed for the better. Even today, when I need to use mobility aids for shopping or moving around my building, I sometimes feel the twinge of shame, but when I am not in pain and can walk for extended periods of time, it reminds me that coping ahead with my mobility aids is helpful, and that my shame is not justified.

This is my experience using coping ahead as a strategy for physical health issues. I have also used it to help me face difficult conversations, or even anxiety around potentially stressful interactions. If you have times where you feel that you have high anxiety around an unpredictable physical, emotional, or mental situation, I recommend using the cope ahead skill to help ease the stress. You can learn more about what the skill is, and isn’t, at the following:

Educational Psychologist Sue writes about using Cope Ahead strategies to work with her disability, Macular Degeneration

Kim Sullivan Cope Ahead Video

Sewing (or, How I Refactor My Clothes)

In this week’s study, I write about the process of making clothing alterations, or “refactoring clothing” as my friend Pete Walen put it. Until he made that comment, I had never thought about sewing in relation to other skills I have. In this week’s etude, I show you how I refactor some clothing, talk about why it’s necessary and what I enjoy, and reveal some of the challenges, all while thinking about how these skills relate to  software testing and refactoring software. And that poem from last week? It’s still in-progress.

The first time I sewed, I was five years old. My grandmother gave me “sewing cards”, cards of heavy cardboard that I could “sew” on, using a large plastic needle and yarn. That same year, my mother let me try her sewing machine. With guidance, I made a pencil case out of 1970’s stretch polyester fabric, black with white diamonds.

Fast forward to my first apartment. I got a sewing machine of my own, and made my first dress. I don’t have pictures, but it was a formal dress with a lace overlay. I struggled and struggled, understanding nothing about patterns or fit or measurements. I just assumed that the sewing instructions were like cooking instructions: follow the recipe, get the result. I did get a dress and it was wearable, but the fit was, well, off.

I’d always done alterations to my clothing by hand, for theater, for prom, even for my senior violin recital as an undergrad at the University of Vermont. Because, let’s face it, every human body is different, and no machine can make a thousand, or two thousand, or more garments to the unique specifications of each wearer. With all of the changes my body has encountered, whether through illness or age, I’ve found my sewing skills more necessary (and useful) than ever.

When I first got started with altering – ahem, refactoring – my clothes, I was at a stage in my life where I was less, well, big, and so I didn’t need to do as many alterations. My size back then made it easy for me to find clothes off the rack. I assumed my clothes would always fit, off the rack, with little adjustment. I bought my first good sewing machine in 2010, and learned how to properly hem pants. Next, I tried working on taking in the side-seams of dresses or shirts. This year, I shortened the sleeves of three vegan-leather jackets that I found on clearance! Most recently, after reading many books, watching lots of youtube tutorials, and practicing, I deconstructed dress pants, taking in the waist and seat, and reconstructed the pants. It’s something I detest, but at least I know I can do it.

The Project

Of course, now that I know I have this skill, I want to make everything fit better, and I have a stack of items “to sew” to prove it. This week, I worked on two items from my sewing pile, two blouses that I love, but that are a bit too large. I used a computer desk in my living room as a workspace (multi-purposing is key in under 700sq.ft), armed with my new Elna machine and my trusty Janome overlocker.

Elna Excellence 660 Sewing Machine and Janome Magnolia 7034D Serger/Overlocker, on Jess’s messy table

After setting up my workstation, I got to work fitting. For this post, I tried on the garment and took a picture first. Normally, I would start by turning the garment inside out and pinning (I like to use safety pins. They move around a lot less when I try things on). This part of the process is almost completely trial and error when working alone. With the shirt inside out, I pin a few places, turn it right side out, try on. What do I think?

The shirt with the bicycle pattern before I did anything to it. It’s too big in most places
The shirt with the bicycle pattern, after pinning one side. (the left side). It was good enough that I decided to keep going.

I repeat this process as much as necessary to get a good fit. To be honest, a lot of how exact I am depends on a few things: how much I paid for the garment, the quality of the fabric, and the cost of making a mistake (Is the garment easy to replace? If I mess up, can I have a professional come in and help me out?) Here’s the part that is quite like refactoring – I am taking clothes that do what they need to do, but don’t function in the best way for my body, and reworking them so that they do function for my body. In this instance, for the second shirt, I actually tried AND pinned two different kinds of darts before settling on taking in the side seams. Once I did lots of fiddling back and forth between pinning and trying on, I was ready to sew.

For the bicycle shirt, I didn’t bother with a basting stitch (though I probably should have). Instead, I went direct to the overlock/serger, and I was done. If you don’t know what an overlock machine is, look at whatever shirt you have on now. Flip the bottom hem so you can see the inside. If there is a zig-zag looking stitch of thread, that was likely made on an overlock at the factory where your clothing was produced. Overlocks are great for keeping fabric from fraying. (Now you know!)

The bicycle shirt, sewn to fit.
The bicycle shirt, sewn to fit.

 

I tried to be more careful with the second blouse, DKNY blouse from the 2019 Fall collection. I really liked the fabric and design when I bought it. I couldn’t get the right fit, though, so I opted to go up a size and refactor. Because this fabric is delicate and the shirt was expensive, I did some basting stitches to test my fit. 

However, I had some problems with the basting stitch. My machine made the worst sound as both threads knotted and jammed the machine. I had to debug! I raised the presser-foot and gently tried to release the threads, being extra careful not to damage the shirt. Once I had snipped some of the threads free, I could see that the bobbin thread was loose, resulting in a terrifying vision on a delicate fabric.

The thing was, I couldn’t find anything wrong with the bobbin when I pulled it out of the machine. It was wound tightly, no knots. I had placed it correctly and threaded it in the right direction. Stumped, I turned to my phone and searched loose bobbin thread. In what seemed like stack overflow for the craft set, I found the answer: the loose bobbin thread was a red herring.  In my haste, I incorrectly threaded the top thread, which had the side-effect of causing a loose bobbin thread. So, I re-threaded the machine, and then removed the faulty stitches from the shirt.

Thread crunch from loose bobbin thread
Thread crunch from loose bobbin thread

 

Once I fixed my mistake and tried my shirt on, I was happy, so finished the side seams with my overlocker. Yes, I needed to iron the shirt. But when sewing for myself, I am far more focused on getting things done than on doing things 100 “by the book”, and that includes ironing.

Pink shirt, overlocked
Pink shirt, overlocked

 

Pink shirt, end result after overlocking. Not yet ironed
Pink shirt, end result after overlocking. Not yet ironed at seams.

 

Reflecting on the Process

As far as the sewing is concerned, I am happier with the general fit and feeling of these blouses now, since they fit the way I like. Every time I tailor clothing, I learn about how clothes are constructed.  As I research different fit problems, I’ve learned new sewing techniques, which is a win-win! 

I never thought about this process like refactoring, but in many ways, it’s so similar. I start out with someone else’s idea and fabrication of an item, and make changes so it is more fit for my purpose. When I encounter an issue, I have the core skills to make a solution happen, but I don’t necessarily know the specifics to solve my particular fit problem (Too much gap in the waist? Not enough definition in the stomach? Too short? Too long?). Sewing lets me use a machine to do work more efficiently, to see the results of what I imagine (think of it like a compiler for clothing – make a decision, execute the task, and, if you have done everything correctly, the end result is a great fitting shirt).

While I do wish I had more time and space to explore everything (I love exploring and trying things!), I appreciate that working from a refactoring space, instead of from scratch, gives me the opportunity to sew and see results from my work. Personally, I can learn a lot this way, and I found thinking about this quite fun. Thanks for checking this out 🙂

 

Beauty in the Process

This week, I experienced starting a lot of different types of learning. I am working on obtaining my AWS certification, so studying for that; I also started working on a piece of music and that meant needing to learn how to use a new looper pedal! AND I started writing a new poem.

Toward the end of the week, I also read a tweet from a good friend who felt very frustrated with his inability to focus. This got me thinking about the idea that we have to focus our energy in long, intense sessions in order to achieve something.

For example, this week (and most weeks), I don’t really have TIME to focus for very long. Maybe I get a free half hour during the work day, and then another hour before bed to do calmer things like reading, writing, or planning for my day.

One of the things I tried this week was practicing an etude. It turns out that etudes are a great metaphor for many things we want to do in life. Most musicians detest etudes at some early point in their career. Etudes seem a bit pointless; we practice them, but the benefit is unclear in the short term. During my undergrad, those 30 minutes a day I spent on my weekly etude were frustrating at first. After a year, though, I started to love etudes! These short studies forced focus by only being “about” one thing – one bow technique, or one left hand technique, or one musical technique. The structure of the etude allowed me to use a shorter period of time to improve one area over the span of a week.

In that spirit, I have approached the past few weeks. My learning and products are not done. Is learning ever done? At any rate, I was pretty reluctant to share this week, because it’s hard to share something when it doesn’t feel finished. That said, I think it’s important to share with you the poem I’m halfway through writing.

handwritten draft of a poem I’m working on, after Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

The above picture is of my journal from this past week, as I’ve worked on my poem, modeled after Lady Lazarus, by Sylvia Plath. It is one of her later poems, one that I’ve known for more than twenty years now. In all that time, I never read the poem quite as I did during the past week. For the first time, the rich depth of her imagery choices became apparent to me. It is difficult to craft a poem the way she does, and I found myself stuck. I couldn’t finish the poem in time for this week’s post. Instead, I give you this, an unfinished work. A reminder: just because you don’t have all the time, all the energy, all the focus, or all the answers, doesn’t mean to let go of what you want to accomplish. Accept yourself, where you are, and know that you’ll get where you want to be with steady effort, regardless of the bumps. And hopefully, I’ll be able to share a complete poem with you next week. Cheers!

How To Leave Home

I have chosen to model this poem after the poem Facts by Philip Levine (published in What Work Is). The poem attempts to employ a casual, narrative tone, exploring one large narrative by creating smaller narratives within each stanza. I don’t feel I’ve done the best job, but I have made every attempt to adhere to the spirit and style of Levine’s work. I definitely felt the challenge in my learning this week as I stretched these muscles!

How To Leave Home

The ferry from New York to Vermont rocked on the
lake, not yet frozen solid. Every fifteen minutes, at
all hours of the day, boats departed. On the ferry,
our cars swayed, and we swayed inside.

If you’re careful, you can actually transport a
table, and all four chairs, more than one hundred miles,
tied to the top of a 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser
station wagon — just in case you ever need to.

I didn’t plan to leave Plattsburgh, in the beginning.
Sure, some people did, but most people I knew stayed.
They stayed and complained about their dead-end jobs,
egotistical bosses, abusive husbands or nagging wives.

John Dewey, renowned philosopher, attended the University of
Vermont. A student there insisted to me that Dewey wrote his
great works in one of the residence halls. I was on my way to my
admissions audition; the student was probably high.

An Oldsmobile Cutlass cruiser is a moderately reliable vehicle, and
people from Plattsburgh routinely drive fourteen-year-old cars.
Monthly payments for new cars are too costly, but the repairs for
old cars can be put on credit and paid, over time.

My boyfriend’s brother was ashamed to be seen riding in my
fourteen-year-old Olds, when he visited Plattsburgh from
Queens. If he had worked for the privileges in his
young life, he would have felt differently.

I don’t blame the student for being high, especially with a
dull job as the student librarian. He may have been bored, or
fighting anxiety, for the library is filled with intimidating
intellects such as myself, unafraid to speak our minds.

There is a lie in the previous stanza. Yes, I’m
smart, but not intimidating. Frequently, I face my own
ignorance and despite my best efforts, I’m still stunned by the
increasing gap between myself and that which I don’t yet know.

I was the most ignorant when I lived in Plattsburgh.
Mediocrity was not questioned, and chaos was normal.
I looked for escape in second-hand encyclopedias and
piles of library books, growing a world in my mind.

The upstanding citizens, professors and business leaders,
praised my curiosity, but chided my ambition. They didn’t
understand my need to be a part of a bigger world.
Each was satisfied to be the big fish in a shrinking pond.

I will never return to Plattsburgh, or Burlington, not to
watch the leaves dance on autumn trees, nor to
pay homage to family or tradition. I know that I
don’t belong, and I don’t have the heart to face it.

On Solitude

I have chosen to model this essay after ‘On Noise’ by Seneca. The essay attempts to employ a casual tone, with plain language, in the casual style of a letter. (reference: https://thewonderreflex.blogspot.com/2013/08/seneca-on-noise.html)

People are surprised to find that I am undisturbed by solitude, especially during a pandemic. I cannot see the benefit of being constantly surrounded by people. Here I am, living alone and in solitude by choice for many years now, the happy introvert. I wake up each morning, thoroughly using and enjoying the whole of my bed, arms dangling over the top right corner, legs crooked and peeking over the sides, toes over the bottom. My refrigerator and sink are exactly as I left them the night before, filled with the foods I like. I know my coffee will be ready, and that nobody has used the last of the cream and forgotten to remind me to get more. Think of the artist who focuses on his painting, watching daylight dance over his still life, casting changing shadows. Hear the slow, steady tick of the metronome as the musician draws her violin bow across each string, coaxing steady warmth from each tone. 

“You must be mad to want to spend any more time alone!” You may say, after spending the past four or five months in semi-quarantined solitude. But time alone in my space is no different to me than putting in headphones on the most crowded of subway trains, isolated in a sea of strangers. It is far more bothersome to be partially attached, sharing space with someone who does not respect or accept the need for my human soul to have its moments alone, or worse, someone who has never taken the time to look inward.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

This may well be true. We have never been more able to be connected to others as we are now. Mere months ago, one could find, in any number of cafes or bars, groups of friends, together alone, tweeting and texting and posting. Disconnected while social. And this, this is dangerous. This disconnectedness from our fellow humans when we are with them bleeds into our relationships with ourselves. So many I know have found themselves for weeks or even months locked away from family and friends that they see (but don’t connect with!), and they are missing their friends, quite naturally. So they are looking to their empty homes, their digital book and music collections, their fashionable clothes and handbags, all currency in their social worlds, sitting around them like a pile of money in the apocalypse. And in their isolation, they may appear to be in a relationship with themselves, but this is no reason to suppose that introspection or connection is happening. To sit with oneself in solitude is to be in an active discussion, even interrogation, with one’s own mind. Confronted with the pain of the past, the struggles of the present, and the promise of the future. Deeply acquainted with one’s own strengths, weaknesses, misgivings, doubts, and regrets.  

Every now and then, we give the impression that solitude is a problem because we are bored, because technology is amazing, because we have to work, because, because, because. Yet, it appears many are driven from solitude not to avoid boredom or to experience technology or to do work, but rather to avoid themselves. We’ve painted solitude as the homeland of the loner, the solitude-stricken “unpopular” nerd, the psycho, the serial killer. The most dangerous temperament of all is the one that cannot sit with themselves; those with such temperaments have perpetrated the worst crimes on our society. The president tweets at 3am, but doesn’t know why he feels so insecure.  Cops band together to murder civilians who have not committed crimes, defending their actions ‘out of fear’, never examining the source of the fear they claim. Despots ruling with iron fists commit genocide, surrounded by sycophants serving as their inner voices. 

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” Deepak Chopra

The president, the cop, the despot: they are afraid. Pick out the weakest, most harmful person, and you will see someone who has not been in solitude with themselves. Someone who is not comfortable sitting with who they are and what they have done in their lives. Someone seeking constantly and completely the company and approval of others, no matter what the cost. Shift to thinking about those most admirable humans who have been considered successful, and you will notice they are at ease with themselves. The Dalai Lama, men and women of the buddhist traditions, anyone who can sit alone after five months of a pandemic, in peace with themselves, and smile because their life is not something to be avoided, but appreciated. 

“This is all well and good,” you may say, “but wouldn’t it be better to just get out of your head and your house and spend some time not thinking so deeply?” Sometimes, yes. I will concede this point. Avoiding myself is much, much easier than sitting with myself in solitude. Losing my thoughts and worries in shelves of books and crates of records is always preferable, even if less beneficial, than sitting in solitude. But, when I can venture back into the world again, I’ll do so with a stronger, centered self.

A Thing A Week

Many of you know that I have a million interests, and with quarantine going solid for me in month 5, I’ve had no shortage of time to spend playing violin, taking writing classes, and doing some tech learning and teaching. Each weekend, I’ll be doing a blog post themed “A Thing A Week”, where I will post about my learning journey through a piece of music, writing, tech, or whatever other topic I end up exploring.

My memoir class wrapped up tonight, and in our final class, we discussed ways to continue working and finding inspiration (I really recommend thewriterstudio.com to anyone who wants to take incredible writing classes; they have many options!). One of the things that we learn in all of the classes is how to do close reading as a means of learning to write. The practice is incredible, and through several classes, I feel able to try the close reading method on work outside of class.

This week, I’ll be working on a close reading of the personal essay “On Noise” by Seneca, and I’ll be writing my own personal essay in that style as well. I’m excited to explore this work and post this weekend!