Raised in a Barn: A Heist

When I was a kid we went from our home in New York City to our work-in-progress barn in Massachusetts virtually every weekend. Among other things, this meant that my brother and I got very good at packing. My father had a system for packing, which meant we had packing lessons and were supervised by my father until he was certain that we could be trusted to follow the protocol. All clothes were to be folded and then rolled into neat tubes which could then be stacked in our brightly colored duffels (mine pink, my brother’s, blue). This allowed one to pack an extraordinary amount of stuff–far more than one generally needed for a two-day weekend.

In addition to the duffels, routine weekend luggage included my parents’ suitcase, whatever luggage weekend guests were bringing, and an object that we called the Meat Bag. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: A Heist”

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.

We Are Stardust

The Antennae Galaxies in Collision
The Antennae Galaxies in Collision from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

We subscribe to New Scientist, the British science magazine that provides short reports on newsworthy bits of research worldwide, several excellent columnists, and a couple of deep dives into important topics each week.

Reading each issue will remind you that our Earth is complex and interconnected and that we human beings have not come close to knowing everything there is to know about the place or, indeed, about ourselves.

Likewise, each issue will make it clear that the Universe is so vast as to be far beyond our comprehension and knowledge, at least now. We have only bits of knowledge about our little solar system, much less the Milky Way galaxy in which we reside, and both those are small potatoes within the Universe as a whole.

I also practice meditation. Of late, I’ve been meditating in the way taught by Master Li Junfeng of Sheng Zhen, which translates as the path of unconditional love, and am currently taking an online class from him to learn a form known as Heaven Earth Heart Contemplation.

When we meditate, we draw on the Earth and the Universe. As I start, I often think of the Earth – its molten core, the tectonic plates, everything from mountains to deserts to wetlands, the oceans and all the creatures – and then go out toward the Universe until I feel that I am one with the Universe.

And at the same time, I feel like I am a tiny speck in that Universe, that even the Earth is a tiny speck in it. Oddly, I find this very comforting. All those things we take so very seriously – even those on the level of life and death – don’t matter so much when I feel like this tiny bit of stardust.

That is, I come to the same place from both meditation and thinking about physics. Continue reading “We Are Stardust”

Yet Another Evacuation, The Report

I live in the mountains in a redwood forest in Central Coast California. I love this place and the deep serenity it has brought me. But there’s a down side to every locale, and wildfires are part of the ecology of this region. Much of the plant life, including redwoods, has evolved to survive and even thrive with periodic conflagrations. Humans, on the other hand, aren’t too fond of having their homes burned down, so they put out little fires, allow

Half a block from us

underbrush to build up, and are loathe to control flammable invasive species (like broom). Increasingly long, hot, dry summers that are the result of climate change turns the region, like many in the West, into a tinderbox. Last summer’s freak lightning storm ignited thousands of small fires that merged into huge ones. I’ve written earlier about my experience being evacuated and watching, day by day, as fires engulfed this area but the heroic efforts of fire fighters spared my own street.

Almost as soon as the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, local authorities began an campaign of education and preparation for the next phase of this rolling disaster: debris flows. Debris flows are a type of mudslides.

Debris flows … are fast-moving downslope flows of mud that may include rocks, vegetation, and other debris. These flows begin during intense rainfall as shallow landslides on steep slopes. The rapid movement and sudden arrival of debris flows pose a hazard to life and property during and immediately following the triggering rainfall.1

In other words, debris flows are rivers of cement 15 or more feet high and moving at up to 40 mph. If you can see it, it’s too late. There’s no way to prepare except to get out of the way. Debris flows caused massive property damage and over 20 fatalities in 2018 in Montecito, Southern California. Our local agencies were understandably concerned.

We all studied the maps of debris flow risk and watched the weather forecast. November and December passed with only occasional gentle showers, well belong the threshold for triggering a debris flow. Some of us began to relax, hoping for a dry “La Niña” year. Old timers warned that often the real rains don’t set in until January. They were right. Continue reading “Yet Another Evacuation, The Report”

Color Therapy

Since about last May, I’ve been doing a whole lot of sewing. (Fortuitously, I replaced my ancient sewing machine a couple of months earlier.) Most of it has been masks. With MaskUpNM, a volunteer group, I’ve been making masks for health care workers, women’s shelters, the Navajo Nation and other New Mexico tribes, impoverished school children, and so on.

In December, the group started making scrub caps for ICU nurses at local hospitals, who have been exhausted and overwhelmed taking care of Covid patients. Many of them don’t get issued scrub caps by their employers, or only get disposable ones that are uncomfortable and wasteful of resources. After replacing my ancient serger, which seized up halfway through this project, I just finished the second round of scrub caps for this effort – 48 caps.

Continue reading “Color Therapy”

Narrative and Agenda

I just finished reading Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I recommend highly. The author of the eight Little House books, she wrote about her childhood during the push west by homesteaders and farmers. “I told the truth,” she said. “But not the whole truth.” The books are a “good parts” version of her life, but some important “truths” were omitted, because Wilder (and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was her secret beta reader, line editor, and editorial advisor) took out things that didn’t underscore her narrative. The narrative? That her family (in particular her adored father, Charles Ingalls) survived and flourished through hard work, love, and self-reliance, and that self-reliance, a core virtue of westward expansion, is a uniquely American virtue.

This is a weird time in American history to be reading this book, let me tell you.  The message Wilder was crafting seems to me to have curdled, fueling rage and insurrection. Rose would have loved it. Continue reading “Narrative and Agenda”

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Assigning Blame

It’s all your fault. You — you personally — didn’t do enough to stay safe from the pandemic.

For that matter, you didn’t do enough to prepare for retirement or for getting laid off or for getting sick or injured so you couldn’t work.

You borrowed too much money to go to school or buy a house and now it’s your fault that you don’t make enough money to pay it back.

And it goes without saying that you bought too many things, took too many trips, and didn’t recycle. You caused climate change.

I could go on, but you get the gist. It’s all about personal responsibility here. If things are wrong in our society, our world, it’s all your fault and my fault and the fault of every individual who ever had to make a decision on the fly in an over-complicated world.

Bullshit. Continue reading “Assigning Blame”

Still True: Seeking Emotional Sobriety in Troubled Times

Back in 2016, I wrote a series of essays following the presidential election, entitled “In Troubled Times.” Some of these strike me as valid now, “In Tumultuous Times” as then. This one is on “Emotional Sobriety.”

Most of us who drink alcohol have sooner or later imbibed too much of it. Setting aside the embarrassing and unhealthful effect of such overindulgence, we then got to experience nature’s own payback: a hangover. Not only do we feel wretched, we grapple with the fact that we inflicted this misery on ourselves by our own choices.

Recently I’ve noticed behaviors (other than drinking) that leave me with a feeling of emotional or spiritual malaise. Not “What was I drinking?” but “What was I thinking?”

When I take note of the symptoms of “spiritual or emotional” hangover, I become aware of the situations, topics, or even people that lead me to abandon my center. While it is undoubtedly theoretically true that no one can make me feel or behave in ways I will regret, in practice my will power needs help.

When I am already anxious, distracted, confused, or all the other things I have been feeling since the election, I’m not at my best. My judgment can be unreliable. Ditto my self-control. If I put myself in compromising situations, I am likely to say things I will regret. The regret stems not so much from external consequences but from how I then feel about myself. No matter how I value kindness, I can behave in harsh, unkind ways when I’m in over my head. Over the years I’ve gotten very good at admitting error and making things right, to the point that I would much rather avoid acting badly to begin with.

Many of us have remarked how social media is both addictive and inflammatory. In a fit of irritation or self-righteousness, we zip off a caustic comment and push ENTER. Then we keep coming back for another dose. It’s an engraved invitation to insanity. Very few of us are capable of going cold turkey, and I’m not sure that’s really a solution. When we return to social media, as most of us will, we will be in exactly the same state in which we left it. We won’t be any more skillful in detaching ourselves or of passing by the temptation to be cruel or snarky. We won’t be any closer to finding communities, people, topics, or environments that help us to feel calmer, kinder, and more hopeful. We’ll be like alcoholics who stop drinking but never address the underlying issues or the consequences.

In addition to being careful about situations that may provoke me to things I’ll regret, I can ask myself what keeps me coming back. Is it the illusion that news (including gossip) will somehow make me safe? Or popular? Or smart? What do I get from visiting those sites (maybe there is something positive)? Is there a grey area in which the positive benefits become negative, and if so, how can I better discern it?

What situations leave me with heart lifted and spirits mended? Who or what gives me hope? In what settings do I act my best? Who brings out the qualities in me that I value? How do I seek out such encounters?

Gossip and Community

The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It’s so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it’s in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.

To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the ‘net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.

I’ve been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I’ve been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?

Gossip is either one of the forms of glue that bind a community together — “news,” as it were — or else a pernicious form of social control, of putting people down/who’s in-who’s out/of taking glee in the misfortunes of others, of basking in reflected and unearned glory.

Where this is leading is that such statements can be hurtful and damaging whether they are true or not. They are particularly embarrassing to the tellers when they are false and that falsehood is revealed. Human beings are peculiar creatures. When we have injured someone by passing on a rumor, false or not, instead of doing what we can to ameliorate the situation, we set about defending ourselves. “But it was true!” is one tactic, or “I didn’t know!” or “Blame the person who told this to me!” Or we find some way to shift responsibility to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Even well-meaning people, people who see themselves as honest and kind, people who should have known better than to spread rumors, do this.

I believe that when we engage in gossip or rumor, we damage not only the person we have spoken ill of, but the bonds of trust in our community. We divide ourselves into those who are safe confidantes and those who are tattlers, between those who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and those who will use any excuse to criticize and condemn us.

A huge piece of the problem, in my experience, is that we are inundated with role models of gossipers. We are told overtly and covertly that it is not only acceptable but enjoyable to speak ill of others and to relish their misfortune. If they have no discernible misfortune to begin with — well then, we will create some! If media portray the pain of those who are gossiped about, it is often to glorify retaliation in kind. Almost never are we taught what to do when we speak badly. Saying “I’m sorry,” or “Shake hands and make up,” (as we’re forced to do as small children) does not make amends.

Certainly, we must begin by looking fearlessly at what we have done or said (or left undone and unsaid), but we must also be willing to accept that there is no justification for our behavior. It doesn’t matter if what we said was true or not if it harmed someone. It doesn’t matter if we were hurting or grieving or too Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired.

What we have done does not make us unworthy, unlovable, inadequate, or anything except wrong. Good people can be wrong. Good people, when wrong, strive to make things right.

When we do this, we strengthen not only our relationships and our communities, but our own ability to choose better next time. As we have compassion for others, we owe ourselves compassion — not excuses, not defenders, not “who’s on my side,” but gentle understanding, encouragement, patience, and courage.