Thursday, April 25, 2013

On Never Growing Up...

I’ve been told my whole life that I’d give up or grow out of my convictions. Certainly, there are a lot of things I’ve grown out of, for example: 

* Ding-Dong-Ditch and prank phone calls
* The Electric Company and my membership in the Sonny and Cher Fan Club
* Grape Fanta and Bubble Yum
* Black fingernail polish and purple hair dye
* Bad-for-me boyfriends and waking up with hangovers 

These things come and go, as they should. The idea of dropping my core values like they are last year’s embarrassing fashion trend, though, is something entirely different. I have been assured by people most of my life that I would do just that, though. Quite simply, they were wrong. 

When I was fifteen and a new vegetarian, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would go back to meat the first time I really craved a hamburger, and I was told as a young feminist activist that when I eventually understood “how the world works,” I would just learn to accept it. Neither of these predictions repeated to me as fact by so many people came true. At all. As a new vegan, I was told by countless people that I would abandon my veganism once it stopped being convenient and as a new mother, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my goals of breastfeeding and cloth-diapering.   

These gloomy forecasts were repeated to me in a matter-of-fact, confident manner by those who, by their own accounts, had tried and failed to maintain those same aspirations. People who had once been “like me” took it upon themselves to debrief me on my inevitable future defeat, letting me know that eventually, I would settle into a comfortable place of acquiescence with the Real World, just as they had. I’d be humbled. I’d realize that these were just impulsive, ill-considered whims. In the mean time, my puerile zest was kind of sweet and adorable. 

There are some key designations society tries to affix to those who reject the status quo. One is that it is arrogant to do so, and another is that it is naive. There are some even more cynical insinuations about those of us who are guided by our values, implying that it means we are self-absorbed, rude, immature, attention-seeking. The skeptics can pull the “I was once like you so I can speak of this with authority” card to try to legitimize their opinions and get the final word. “I know better than you because I once was you,” as one former vegetarian told me.  

Why are people often so resentful of values-driven action? Why is our society so dead-set on trampling down those who are being led by their passions and values? Why do those of us with deep convictions ignite a desire in so many others to keep us in our place even if we are just minding our own business? What is behind this pessimistic drive? 

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reconnect with old friends in recent years and it’s so interesting to me how many tell me the same thing after we’ve caught up with each other: “You haven’t changed.” Not in a negative way but in an admiring way. Even after becoming a mother, even after a few grey hairs, even when it can no longer be attributable it to naiveté, I am still who I always was. I can only wonder, though, why I wouldn’t still be passionate about the things I cared about when they first knew me. What does this say about us, and society’s expectations of us, as we mature beyond that first blush of our enthusiasm? 

Our society considers idealism and convictions to be endearing but childish qualities that we will eventually grow out of, once the we’ve been disappointed too many times or had enough of life’s hard lessons knock them out of us. There are those of us, though, who have been disappointed plenty and who have had lots of life experiences and yet we still retain our core values. Why are we perceived as such rarities? I have to say, I’ve only felt my beliefs and determination flourish over the years, the fire burning brighter as I check days off the calendar. Yes, the rougher edges that come with youthful zeal have been softened some, and I can certainly accept the complex nuances of human behavior more now than I did as a neophyte. Instead of knocking me down, though, life’s turbulence just serves to make me less easily distracted and more focused on the things that excite me and bring me joy, which, naturally, includes some things people think I would have grown out of long ago. Do I have a preternatural discipline? An iron will? I wish I could say so but, no, I don’t. I am just living proof that there is no reason that our unique ethical drives, as personal to us as our own fingerprints, should be expected to wither away over time. We still retain our fingerprints as we grow older. Why shouldn’t we still have our unique passions? 

I think that one belief that might age us most is accepting the false dichotomy that tells us that we must give up the things we love and compromise our values for what we believe we should be doing with our lives. Giving them up because of this faulty idea makes us cynical, older than our years, resentful and even suspicious of those who haven’t. When I think of people who really thrived in their elder years - Georgia O’Keefe, Howard Zinn, Gandhi, Martha Graham, Studs Terkel as well as every senior with enduring, quirky, consuming passions - all I can think is, “Thank goodness they didn’t tamper down their enthusiasm and drive in exchange for some slippers and an easy chair.” Thank goodness for that. 

I have not given up my values and convictions but even as they have become more nuanced  and complex over the years, they have also become more heartfelt and integrated to who I am. They have also become more personal. Giving them up would be giving up essential parts of myself and that’s not going to happen. They are still unfolding and ripening, too. I know that I am not alone with this. 

Let’s hear it for never growing up. Never, ever do it. The best things in the world depend on this. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Shining the Light

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” - Anne Frank

Will we ever collectively grow out of our most cruel and violent impulses? Haven’t we explored slavery, war, rape, cruelty and murder enough over these many thousands of years of human existence to internalize the lesson that they are very bad things? Despite our more sophisticated language, if we strip the horrors we inflict on one another, the animals, and the earth to their essence and germ, are they any different now than they were 150 years ago or 2,000 years ago? We have some new, horrible weapons at our disposal but they are essentially born of the same twisted root. 
With the Boston Marathon bombings, we are reminded again how vulnerable we all are to this dark side of our collective nature. It may be a sick and deviant side, but it has reliably made itself known throughout human history. Today, there are drones in Afghanistan, child armies in Uganda, thousands being murdered in Syria, billions of animals brutally slaughtered every year. 

Will we ever evolve beyond this base, reptilian part of the brain? I don’t know. I do know that perhaps the best we can is simply keep shining the light of kindness and awareness wherever we can. As long as we are moving more forward than we are backward, this may be the most that we can hope for, really. All we can do is keep shining a light on the path toward justice and compassion and keep doing our part to move humanity in that direction.  

My personal window into the dark side of human nature started in fifth grade. I was that kid who was picked on, one of many, I know, but I can only speak of my own experience. 

From fifth grade through eighth grade, I was picked on and apart daily by the mean kids who prowled my school, kids whose eyes lit up with a sadistic glee when they saw me. They loudly inventoried every possible flaw I was guilty of: my hair was unkempt (so it had to follow that I had lice); my skin was a flaky, itchy mess from psoriasis; the ointment I used for the psoriasis covered my skin with a greasy film (so it was determined by a panel of my peers that I must not be bathing); I developed breasts early so open season was declared on my bra straps by the boys who sat behind me in history and English. Every day, walking into gym or the cafeteria, I felt a painful, twisty knot in the pit of my stomach: what humiliations were around the corner?

At home, believe it or not, things were worse. An alcoholic, frequently raging, and unpredictable parent tends to make the bad things in your life inevitably, incalculably worse. So every week day morning, I walked out the front door, shook off whatever had happened the night before, and entered the war zone that was my middle school. And every week day afternoon, I left the hell that was middle school - that day’s taunts and assaults against my self-esteem still reverberating in the echo chamber of my head - and returned “home” to perhaps worse. There was no true sanctuary, save for the occasional weekend with my grandparents. In seventh grade, though, my grandfather started developing dementia, so I eventually lost that, too. 

Through it all, though, there were kind people. There were a few friends who thought I was funny, who never made fun of my hair, who helped me forget that most of the time I wanted to curl up and die. (God, this is depressing and revealing and uncomfortable but I hope that it serves some purpose in the end.) When nothing else could be counted on, when even my dog growled at me (which was kind of a lot because he was a gorgeous but inbred cocker spaniel), I had my friends. Perhaps because of this reason alone, I could see some glimpses of sunlight through the persistent gloom of my childhood. They risked their own security at school by being friends with the girl with the weird hair but they did it anyway. My life improved by leaps and bounds after I left my home and went to college but I will always be someone who is immensely grateful for these pockets of light, wherever I can find them. I seek them out like my cat seeks out the sunny spots on the radiator. 

After college, I worked in humane education at a large animal shelter. At the shelter, I saw the best and the worst of humanity routinely. I met people who would keep dogs chained outside in the Chicago year-round with just a dirty plastic bowl of water, and I met people who would break into these horrible back yards in the middle of the night and take the dogs to place them in loving homes.  I met people who turned in their 12-year-old cats because they found a great new apartment that didn’t allow pets and I met people who would be homeless before they would give up a family member. I met people who would set fire to animals and I met people who would cross busy lanes of traffic on the highway to rescue strays. Most of the people I met through working at the shelter were in the middle of this continuum but there were staggering highs and crushing lows on either side. As soon as I thought I’d lost all hope in humanity, I’d meet someone who was so compassionate and generous and truly saint-like, my hope would be more than restored. This was daily life at an animal shelter. While there, I learned that humanity is capable of shocking acts of brutality and an essential goodness that would leave me speechless, humbled, awed. 

There will probably always be kids who are picked on. We need to be raising children who are self-assured enough to outshine that. There will probably always be this nugget of cruelty hardwired in our DNA. We need to keep shining a light on a different way to live, to behave and exist. We may always have senseless brutality and violence; making peace with this might mean that we will keep shining our light regardless, focusing our efforts on moving toward the evolutionary leap that may or may not ever happen. Even if it this shift doesn’t happen biologically, existing this part of our collective brain, we are moving more in that direction. We just need to keep shining our light.

I believe that the good in humanity far outnumbers the bad and that we are the ambassadors for ushering in positive change. Keep shining your light. It may not feel like enough, you may feel crowded out by the darkness, but you are not. In the end, this light may be the only real tool we have and this is just fine because it may be the only tool we need. Keep shining it. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

20 Things I’d Rather Do Than Hear You Go On About Your Paleo Diet

1. Drop a kettlebell on my foot.
2. Get pulled over for speeding with an expired license in a car that has failed the emissions test with a “Bad Cop, No Donut” bumper sticker.
3. Be the sole adult responsible for two dozen 3rd graders at a large waterpark on “free soda refills” day.
4. Learn that the guy sitting next to me on my six-hour ride airplane is an evangelist who also sells timeshares. Plus, he’s very chatty.
5. Run into an ex on sweatpants-and-shower-free Sunday.
6. Forget to bring any of my 3,068 canvas bags on the day that the teacher who runs my son’s Green Team is behind me in the checkout lane at the grocery store.
7. Notice just a little too late that the expiration date on my coconut yogurt was two weeks ago.
8. Be on a nearly empty train and have the guy who keeps muttering, twitching and scratching himself decide to sit down right next to me.
9. You know that feeling when your car seems a little louder than usual and keeps pulling in one side and you’re all like, “Please don’t let it be a flat tire,” and then you hear that flapping sound so you pull over to check and, indeed, it’s flat? I’d rather feel that.
10. Get stuck on an elevator with the guys from #4 and #8. And a small marching band.
11. Walk barefoot over a floor my son has scattered with Legos. (Wait, I already do that.)
12. Mistake the curry powder for the cinnamon on my morning oatmeal.
13. Get on the bus driven by the driver who has decided that today is the day she’s going to show the other motorists who’s boss.
14. Hear the train approaching as I am putting my money in to get a train card but the machine keeps spitting out my dollar and the train is getting closer and I am desperately trying to flatten out the dollar against the machine but goddamn it! It’s not working.
15. That little speck of dust on my dog? It just jumped and, upon closer inspection, there are many, many more of them.
16. Realize that my keys are in my other coat pocket after I’ve already pulled the locked door shut. And so is my phone.
17. Notice that my parking meter is expired two minutes after the person writing the ticket did.
18. Have someone discreetly whisper to me that my skirt is tucked into my tights at a big event I’ve organized twenty minutes after I was last in the bathroom. (I speak from experience on this one and I’d still rather have this happen again.)
19. Remember at 10:30 p.m. that we are out of toothpaste.
20. You know how sometimes the bunch of bananas you bought looked fine on the outside but then when you pull down the peel, they’re all weird and squishy and rotten inside? Yeah, that. Plus now you have fruit flies.

All this and more, people! How about you?