Resolutions of Truth

As 2017 limps to a close and 2018 looms, many of us have New Year’s resolutions dancing in our heads. Some of them are things to do—this year I will eat more blueberries, kale, and salmon, exercise 5 days a week, keep my desk tidy—and others are things not to do—this year I will not eat so much refined sugar, I won’t press the snooze alarm, and I won’t engage in arguments over trivial matters at work.

Self-improvement resolutions aren’t a bad idea for some people, and they may inspire positive change. Of course, most of us forget our New Year’s resolutions within a few days.

I have been thinking about another type of resolution, however. Not a resolution to do or not do a particular thing, but instead resolutions as statements of (my) truth.

I was a member of the UVM debate team, back in the day (Class of ’91). The debates centered on resolutions, or controversial claims that a reasonable person could consider to have both advantages and disadvantages or strengths and weaknesses. Teams took turns supporting (affirmative) and rejecting (negative) the resolution. For example: “The US Supreme Court, on balance, has granted excessive power to law enforcement agencies.” This is arguably true in some cases and clearly not in others, creating the potential for good debates.

I loved debate—and I married one of my teammates—so it’s no surprise that I have, shall we say, strong resolutions about a lot of social and political issues, and that I am typically quite happy to debate. Admittedly, my ability to engage in productive debate has never been as sorely tested as it has during the 2016 presidential election and its fallout. “Alternative facts” and fun-house-mirror versions of reality offered up as truth by elected officials and Fox “News” exhaust and frighten me.

As I move into 2018, I want to embrace some core resolutions, things I know to be true. Inspired by writer Anne Lamott’s TED Talk, here are some things that I resolve to be true.

Bad things—like cancer, earthquakes, and traffic accidents—happen, often for no reason. Blaming ourselves or a scapegoat feels safer than living with the horrifying truth that we cannot protect ourselves from randomness or chance, but it is not.

Forgive whenever you can possibly bring yourself to do so—not because you owe it to the person or because it will get you into heaven or because your family wants you to, but because the refusal to forgive eats away at our hearts, marinating us in bitterness and pain. (Note: forgiveness does NOT include allowing someone to continue to mistreat you.)

Fur babies are awesome. Yes, they take some care, and some of your friends are allergic to them, and the vet bills can be a burden, but the joy they bring nearly every day cannot be overestimated. Westley and Buttercup make me laugh, offer comfort, help me to relax, remind me to play, and keep me company.

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Books are powerful—novels, creative nonfiction, biographies, memoir, short story collections, scholarly texts—and necessary. Books help us reflect on who we are, who we want to be, and what other possibilities exist. Books are places to rest, to escape, to imagine, to rebuild, to explore, to hope.

The world looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels different, based on our social positions. Everyone’s perspective is partial, and members of less powerful groups live with what W.E.B. DuBois called double-consciousness, or their own view of the world and that of the dominant group.

Egalitarian partner relationships based on mutual love, respect, and kindness are possible, and they are also tons of work to establish and maintain.

Language matters. We need to name experiences, claim identities, articulate viewpoints, and express our feelings and desires. Language continually evolves as we speak our truths.

The Beatles lied when they said, “all you need is love.” Love is great, but you also need a lot of other stuff, and love alone does not solve huge problems such as poverty, racism, and drought.

Chocolate is its own, wonderful food group.

Anytime we divide the world up into only two categories (women and men, gay and straight, the 99% and the 1%, North and South, black and white), we are lying, or at least distorting truth. Reality is always more complicated than that.

These are my resolutions, what I believe in my heart, soul, mind, and gut to be true. I want to hold them close in 2018, no matter what happens.

What are your resolutions of truth?

 

The Pleasures of Rereading

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I have read several “best of 2017” book lists as we near year’s end. My favorite escape has always been books, and the calamity of our political climate is such that I have wanted to run and hide in books even more than usual.

I moved a lot growing up, and one of the things that comforted me when I landed in another new town was rereading my favorites, particularly the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I identified with the author/heroine whose name I share and with her itinerant childhood, one part adventure and one part anxious longing for a permanent home.

So in the spirit of fostering comfort and respite, I offer a brief list of my favorite rereads of the year, books I have turned to again and again—one fantasy trilogy, one nonfiction book that offers hope, and one affirming tragedy.

The Circle Trilogy (Morrigan’s Cross, Dance of the Gods, Valley of Silence) by Nora Roberts. This is like Lord of the Rings crossed with a romance and an evil vampire saga, with time travel thrown in. As an academic, I am supposed to disdain genre fiction, particularly romance and “chick lit,” but I do not. Although I confess that my feminist sensibilities voice frequent objections, I adore this series, particularly the audiobook version. Six people—a witch, a wizard, a warrior, a scholar, a shape shifter, and a (good) vampire—join together to fight Lilith, the evil vampire queen. It takes three books to time travel, cross the Atlantic to Ireland, journey to the mythical land of Gael, have all three couples fall in love, wield lots of magic, and fight an epic battle, but (spoiler alert!) they save the (admittedly gender-stereotyped) world in the end. Yay!!!!

Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott. This is nonfiction, a reflection on prayer, which Lamott makes clear can be aimed at any sort of Higher Power, benevolent universe, Cosmic Muffin, or other god figure you like (she is a feminist and a liberal Christian.) She explains that “help!” “thanks!” and “wow!” enable us to reach outside of ourselves and connect with something larger. I have read this on Kindle and in paper, and also have the audiobook version, which I began to listen to on repeat instead of NPR after the political climate grew so grim I could no longer bear it during my morning commute. Help and thanks are self-explanatory, but wow (as a prayer) was unexpected. We say wow when a miracle occurs or we behold beauty, but we also say it as we witness the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. Lamott suggests experiencing our inability to fully comprehend either epic suffering or magnificence is a prayer. She’s irreverent, self-deprecating, and compassionate; she calms me down and offers me hope.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Two snarky teenagers meet in a badly run cancer support group. The disappointing movie reduces the story to star-crossed lovers, but the book is much richer and nuanced, despite its brevity. Hazel shares her favorite book, reread dozens of times, with Augustus, and this sparks friendship, love, and an adventure. I have never read a more accessible, more delightful, or more painful embodiment of the fundamental truth that bad things happen to good people. Eighty-percent of childhood cancer patients now survive, and that means the other 20%—thousands of kids—and their families experience excruciating loss that is magnified by the shame and bewilderment of ending up in the grim minority. Green affirms that life is not fair, that cancer happens to good people and not-so-good people alike, and that many who fight, persist, and pray suffer and die anyway. Kids with cancer are neither one-dimensional heroes nor angels but imperfect, regular people, and they don’t die because their parents didn’t pray hard enough or because of God’s plan. They die because that’s how it goes sometimes. I know this sounds depressing, but it comforts me enormously to hear again and again that cancer isn’t anyone’s fault, that we don’t owe it to anyone to be inspirational, that cancer sucks, and that we are still individuals (not just cancer statistics).

So that’s it, this year’s revisited narrative hiding places that sustained me when the strain of life became too much. May one of them prove to be a shelter for you when you need one.

(I do not receive any compensation for book recommendations.)

Open house, full heart

My back, shoulders, and (biological) foot and knee all ache, and I have a blister on the skin at the edge of my prosthesis. But I’m smiling as I write this. Glenn and I hosted a holiday open house yesterday, and it was lovely.

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It was also exhausting—three whole days of work. I spent a day cleaning with a generous friend who organized all my clutter, a day planning the menu, shopping for food, and digging out holiday dishes and table cloths, and a day cooking, hosting, and cleaning up. Glenn did a ton of work, too, virtually all of the heavy lifting, and was incredibly patient with my control-freakiness. My mother kindly cooked some of the food and made the cookies and frostings for kids to decorate, and several friends helped us cook and serve, washed dishes, and gathered up dirty paper plates and other detritus during the party. And today we will have to spend at least a couple more hours cleaning up and putting things away.

But even with all the work involved, the process of opening my house to friends reaffirmed for me the fundamental truth that humans are designed to live in community with others.

I saw friends from different parts of my life come together in moments of politeness, kindness, and genuine interest in each other. Kids enthusiastically decorated cookies with gorgeous swirls and smears of frosting, brightly colored sugars, and sprinkles. I received more offers of help than I could imagine. I didn’t get as much time to talk to some people as I would have liked, but even that felt kind of good, like I was blessed to have so many wonderful people in one place that I couldn’t get enough of them in one afternoon.

In lieu of gifts, we asked for guests to bring warm socks, and our friends brought dozens of pairs that will be donated to people who are homeless in our local community.

At the end of the party, we lingered with several friends, talking and laughing and sharing our lives. We discussed books we had read recently. We all agreed that the new Thor movie is clever and surprisingly funny, and that it is classier to describe the actor Chris Hemsworth as “easy on the eyes,” rather than “freakin’ hot,” but really, both are accurate. I was able to offer support to one friend who is dealing with some extremely tough times, and it felt good to listen to her and offer her sincere compassion and admiration.

There is something about opening up your house, putting on your festive gear, preparing tasty tidbits, and welcoming your particular assortment of kith and kin into your personal space that feels both vulnerable and gratifying. It is a way of saying to others, this is our home where we are comfortable (which in our case includes a sheen of cat fur on most surfaces), and we hope you enjoy sharing our space for a little while.

Holidays can get busy and stressful, but this party was worth every ounce of time and energy because it fed my soul with human connection. While I am almost always a social person anyway, it nonetheless felt special to have so many people I care about in my home enjoying themselves.

Tomorrow I’ll get back to planning next quarter’s syllabus and working on my latest research paper. But right now I am relaxing with a sense of belonging and hope, a much-needed counter point to the crushing pain of national politics and the depression I have to fight off every morning in the face of each day’s new sexual harassment scandal.

For a brief time, we ate and drank and made merry together, and that is a wonderful thing.

You’ve Gotta Friend

I had coffee with friends this morning—well, I had Diet Coke and they had coffee—with whom I have gathered at local coffee shops most Wednesday mornings for the past 15 years. We shared laughter, our to-do lists, updates on mutual friends, and a little bit about the news. I left feeling nurtured and connected, with the added benefit of two recommendations for contractors who clean and repair rain gutters.

I love getting together with these women (and other friends) to share our lives, loves, and relationships, to support each other, and in short, to gather. There is no substitute for sitting, walking, playing, and eating together with friends. I truly value many long distance friendships, and I enjoy keeping in touch via Facebook and email and texting and phone calls. But I crave face-to-face communication with friends. I felt this way before surviving cancer, but recognition of the centrality of friends in my life deepened  during cancer and my ongoing struggle with late effects in the decades that have followed.

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The weekly coffee date grew out of an early morning water aerobics class that some of us still attend. A few weeks before my 49th birthday, I am one of the youngest of the group, with the others ranging in age to their mid-70s. This group overlaps substantially with a group that gathers once a month as part of the Dining for Women organization, and also with some of my past and current co-workers. Having friends of all different ages is a tremendous gift.

My older friends have hilarious stories and tales of epic failures from having maintained  relationships—or not—and a wealth of fascinating experiences. Many of them are retired and have time for shopping trips, lunches, or theatre with me, all while continuing to pursue their interests in photography, genealogy, lay ministry, travel, sea turtles, volunteering, church, or good books.

I have friends who are close to my own age, and with them I have the comfort of sharing historical reference points—we remember when Jimmy Carter was elected President and where we were when the Challenger exploded. We enjoy singing along to the hits of the 80s while driving up the highway and groan over pictures of our big 80s hair. Recently we have noticed that we approaching our half-century mark.

And I love having friends who are younger than me. I have two millennial friends who are former students of mine who used to do house sitting and cat care for us when we traveled, and who are now my honorary nieces. They teach me things like what’s new in music and what current slang means. For example, it turned out that “Netflix and chill” does not mean what I thought it meant!

New faculty and graduate students I meet often are 15 or 20 years younger than I am, digital natives who can always seem to get the projector to hook up to my laptop correctly. They understand the academic world in a way that I no longer remember—when theory and methodology and enormous bodies of research still spread out before me as vast, uncharted wilderness to explore, and the language of academia had yet to be absorbed. I recall that I was terrified of learning to conduct my own research and looked with awe at senior scholars whose work I had read, but I can’t remember what the thrill and terror and awe felt like in my bones.

When I hang out with new scholars, I glimpse a time when I was less cynical and less sure I knew my field. I learn a lot from my younger colleagues’ fresh perspectives and keen awareness of the cutting edges of our fields. They ask different questions and make different connections among ideas than I do, and I love that.

My friend Bill Rawlins’ research on communication in friendship across the life span richly describes the rewards and challenges of friendship. “Friendship is part of living well, a part of being able to connect with others, a part of productivity, a part of a good romantic relationship, a part of facilitating community building, and it teaches people how to treat others with respect and joy,” he says. I agree.

I make it a priority to foster friendships both as rich, meaningful ends unto themselves and as sources of help, companionship, and, of course, recommendations for getting my gutters cleaned.