Three Years of Wisdom and Ignorance

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Today Umur and I have been married for three years. It’s hard to believe time has gone by so quickly. I have been searching and searching for the right words to explain what these last three years of marriage have meant to me, but summing it up feels like an impossible task. Not to mention it also feels like a task I am not qualified for. Though in some ways we have come so far, and learned so much about each other and about marriage, we also still have so much left to figure out. To pretend that three years is enough to be experts on marriage would be absurd. But today I want to reflect on the things we have learned, the things we have become good at and the things we are continually working on.

First and most importantly, we have learned that it’s okay to have bad days. We have our days when we are perfectly in sync and love spending time together and we also have our days when one of us or both of us are just off. It’s impossible to be “on” all the time and to expect that from another person isn’t fair. We are almost literally together 24/7, so it is inevitable that there are times when we aren’t at our best. If nothing else, marriage has taught me to be patient, and to have the strength to remain still in these tough moments and wait it out. It’s tempting to try to fix things every time your partner is upset or having a rough day. We end up running around like chickens with our heads cut off, in panic mode, believing that one moment or day of discontent might bring down our whole marriage. It won’t. And giving each other the freedom and space to have a bad day without trying to fix it is one of the most important things we can do for one another. I’ve also learned not to make Umur’s tough moments about me. The natural instinct when your spouse is in a bad mood is “what did I do to deserve this?” or “why are you being mean to me?” When we indulge that instinct though we minimize the pain of our partner and make them feel less able to share that pain in the future.

I think we demand 24/7 happiness from other people because we are afraid that a crack in their happiness might shine a light on the cracks in our own. It’s not so much that we expect other people to really be happy all the time, but we want them to at least maintain the illusion of happiness. In a world dominated by social media, where we see the highlights of people’s lives rather than the realities, it has become taboo to allow the world to see your struggles. This makes it all the more important that we break down these barriers in a marriage. It is exhausting to maintain that illusion of happiness at all times, and if you can’t be honest and raw with your spouse, there is no reprieve from that illusion. But also, if you don’t allow your spouse to show you their moments of darkness, you don’t really get to know them fully. Part of the wonder of love and marriage is that we see each other at our absolute worst, and love each other anyways. And part of our bond is that we are privy to each other’s secret darkness and struggle.

Another thing we have learned is that the day we got married we did not, contrary to popular belief, magically become one person. We are two distinct people. We have our own hopes and dreams and hobbies; And the moment when these things diverge is not the moment that our marriage begins to weaken, but rather when it is strengthened. In allowing each other to have our own separate lives, we honor each other more than we could by forcing those two lives together at all times. For example, Umur loves cars. He thinks cars are the coolest. I have only ever had the ability to describe a car by its color. “Oh sick white car you have there.” It’s perfectly okay that I don’t engage or even fully understand this hobby of his. The fact that we can have areas of our lives that are entirely our own and that we don’t share, enables us to maintain that sense of being two distinct people. Being two separate people with different views, goals and lives can make marriage pretty challenging at times. However, by making compromises and supporting each other even when we don’t share the same goal, we make our marriage stronger. It’s easy to be happy for someone or to support someone when you want all the same things, because you are working for your happiness as much as you are for theirs. But to support someone when you have nothing to gain, solely for the sake of their happiness, is what love is really supposed to be about. I take no pleasure from Umur’s expensive sports car. It’s loud and hard to get in and out of, and he washes it too much and takes too many pictures of it. But it makes him happy and I love him too much to stand in the way of that happiness. I, on the other hand, am made extremely happy by having one million pets. So he puts up with our house being a zoo, a dog sleeping on top of him, and cats that have a knack for pooping every time we are eating dinner. Marriage isn’t necessarily about putting another person’s happiness above your own, but it is about placing the same value on their happiness as you do on yours. It is also about not equating their happiness with the avoidance of your mild discontent. This is not something that comes easily or feels natural. It’s safe to say this is one of those things we are continually working on.

We have also learned that sitting on the couch next to each other on our phones does not count as quality time together. It’s easy when you live together to get in the habit of spending a ton of time together, but very little quality time. Early in our marriage we realized that we were always together, but never actually present. Now we recognize that it’s better to spend one hour a day of quality time together, than three hours of half-present, distracted time together. Since we both have bad habits of scrolling through our phones whenever we are in the house not doing anything, we try to carve out time to actually get outside the house and do things together. We love to (over)eat, so for us quality time tends to mean going out to a good dinner. Friday is date night and I can honestly say I look forward to it all week. The important thing is to find whatever it is that you bond over, and always make time to do it.

The last thing that we have learned and are still working on is focusing on the big picture and not getting caught up in the small stuff. It’s easy to allow every day responsibilities to overshadow the more important work that we are trying to do, which is build a life together. We have had the somewhat unique experience of getting married before we fully entered into adult life. We had both recently graduated and had little idea what real life would look and feel like. In the beginning of our marriage, we were definitely overwhelmed by all the adult responsibilities that had recently fallen into our laps. We were always stressed about jobs, bills and how the hell a person was supposed to work and still have a life. We struggled with these things together, which was both a blessing and a curse. In one sense, it was comforting to be able to share this experience together and to not feel alone in it. But on the flip side, we frequently took out the stresses of every day adult life on each other. We hadn’t recognized that it was possible for all areas of our lives to be complete and utter disasters, but for our marriage to still feel good and strong. If I had a bad day at work, I brought it home with me and Umur was sure to have a bad night. We were constantly picking at each other and arguing over stupid small things. I yelled at the top of my lungs that the dishwasher being loaded improperly was the source of ALL my unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. Of course the things that we fought about were never the true problems we were facing. Very rarely did our actual problems even have anything to do with each other. That was a difficult thing to recognize and the pattern of taking out our frustrations on each other and finding fault was a hard one to break.

I would be lying if I said it’s not something we still struggle with. But we are getting better at taking a step back and saying “What is really wrong here? What are you actually upset about?” Sometimes the answer is simply that one of us is stressed and had a bad day, and there is actually nothing wrong at all. Umur is better than I am at pointing out these moments and steering our interaction back to a more positive place. Sometimes the answer is more complicated and is something we really need to talk about and work through. Either way, we have learned not get so caught up in the small struggles and complaints of daily life. We try to remember that this is the process of building a life together. That it is sometimes hard and that’s okay. But we also try to remember that this is our life, right now. Amid the stressful, responsibility-crushing, mundane of every day, we are growing and our relationship is strengthening, and that’s something worth celebrating.

If we treat these years solely as building blocks for our future life to come, we risk missing the beauty of this moment of our life. In this moment, we are just two kids in love, struggling to figure out what life is really about and how we can make the most of it. Though we look forward to the years when our lives feel more settled, our souls less restless and our love a little more calm, there is something beautiful about this struggle. There is something beautiful about choosing each other, every day, even when we feel incapable of choosing anything else. Umur, you are the only thing I am sure about. I love you. Today and always.

-S

 

Tattoos and the Quest for Authenticity

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It’s been forever since I have posted. I’m inconsistent. That’s my thing. Let’s move on.

I got a new tattoo last week which got me thinking about why I get tattoos. I get this question a lot, whether explicitly or simply through a raised eyebrow and head shake of disapproval. Everyone has their own reasons for getting tattoos and I can’t speak to all of them, but I can at least shed a little light on what led me to get tattoos and what they mean to me.

For most of my life, I placed a high value on what other people thought of me. When I was a kid, I was always a little weird and different from everyone else. So when I started to grow up and become more aware of other people’s opinions of me, I started toning down my weirdness and trying harder to fit in. I’ve always been good at reading other people, so I used this skill to my advantage and figured out what other people wanted me to do or say, and generally went with that. The result was that I had lots of friends, or at least very few people who disliked me, and very few people who really knew me.

As I became an adult, this compulsive need for other people to like me became more burdensome. At least in high school, I didn’t have to try very hard to be like my friends because we were all pretty similar to start with. College presented me with a whole new, more difficult, arena of people to imitate: people in Lily Pulitzer dresses and Jack Rogers shoes, with Longchamp purses and Patagonia fleeces. I knew immediately that I didn’t fit in, that this wasn’t me. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the people I was meeting, but I was worried my differences were too apparent, and that they wouldn’t like me. My confidence during this time was at an all time low.  I had all the things you’d expect a college student experiencing an identity crisis to have: a tendency to drink too much, an emotionally unhealthy relationship, and the remarkable ability to pretend that none of it was happening. That ability to detach myself and say “this is what I’m doing, but it’s not who I am” was the enabling force in my identity crisis.

I had a couple experiences that felt like bright spots in the middle of this identity crisis. First, I studied abroad (I know…so basic), and got to experience independence in a brand new city where I felt like I could be whoever I wanted. During that semester in Scotland I felt more like myself than I had at any other time in college. It was liberating. I commemorated the feeling with my first tattoo. It was a compass, to remind me that sometimes you have to get lost in order to find yourself and that the journey to self-discovery is a never-ending one.

The other experience that allowed me to be more myself was meeting my now husband, Umur. Anyone who knows Umur knows that generally, he doesn’t give a fuck what other people think. He is unapologetically himself regardless of the situation and regardless of who he’s with. When I met him, I watched in awe how joyful and easy life can be when you aren’t living in your own head. He didn’t constantly gauge other people’s reactions and adjust accordingly the way I did. He didn’t replay interactions for days after the fact, wondering if he’d said something he shouldn’t have. He is easy to get to know, and he is the kind of person that makes other people feel more free to be themselves. And with his contagious authenticity, I started to let go of my fear of standing out and embrace the freedom that comes with that.

After we were together for about a year and a half, he asked me to marry him. I said yes and I was thrilled, but my happiness was tainted with anxiety. Even though I knew this was the guy I wanted to spend my life with, the overwhelming fear of what people would think came flooding back. Coming from an upper class highly-educated community, getting married at 23 is not exactly viewed favorably. I knew that in the eyes of my peers, I was supposed to be focusing on my career, on traveling and living a fabulous instagram-worthy life. I knew that people would secretly think that I was somehow throwing my life away or settling. Though I wanted to marry him and I felt that it was the right choice for me, I obsessed over what people would think. Were people talking about me behind my back? Did they disapprove? What did this make them think of me?

Later after we were married, I realized that I almost let this uncontrollable need for people to approve of my decisions ruin what should have been the best day of my life. I loved Umur deeply and I knew in my heart that marrying him was the right choice for me, and yet I couldn’t push away the anxiety that came along with taking a different path from most people I knew. And I let this anxiety consume me. I let it infect and diminish my happiness. And though at times I wish more than anything that I hadn’t felt this way and that I could go back and do it all differently, I think it was the wake up call I needed to change. I stopped caring what other people thought initially because I had to, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to move forward in my life. But I also stopped caring because I was horrified at what that compulsive need had turned me into. I had become a person who almost let other people’s opinions dictate the course of my life. And then I almost let other people’s opinions stop me from enjoying one of the most important moments of my life. Since then I have decided to be different. I have decided to value my happiness more than other people’s opinions. I have decided to embrace who I am, even when other people don’t like it or understand it.

When I got that first tattoo in Scotland, I remember feeling so free. Free to be who I was and to make a decision for myself, with complete disregard for what anyone else thought. It was like putting down the very heavy load of public opinion and feeling how much lighter and easier it was to just be myself. My tattoos are almost literally my heart on my sleeve. They are my way of embracing who I am and letting go of the fear that other people won’t like me. In some ways, my tattoos are maybe even a kind of test for the people I interact with. I don’t want people in my life who judge others without knowing anything about them. If someone is going to write me off because I have tattoos, then quite honestly, they are not the kind of person I want to impress anyways. I’d rather be around people who care more about what kind of person I am. My tattoos don’t allow me to hide or try to blend in. They force me to be myself, in every situation, even when it feels scary. They are also my reminder to not take life so seriously and to not live crippled by fear. It’s easy to become paralyzed by the fear that you might regret something in the future. This fear causes a lot of people to never do what they really want to do, and to waste their lives terrified of making a mistake.

I get asked a lot, “what if you regret that tattoo when you are 80?” My first response is always, “Listen, I’m going to look like shit when I’m 80. I think this tattoo will be the least of my concerns.” But in all seriousness, I don’t think I could ever regret something that felt authentic and meaningful at the time. If it loses its original meaning to me over the years, at least it will serve as a reminder for a time I felt bold enough to be who I was. I know there will be times in my life when I will again find myself caught up in what other people think. I hope in those moments my tattoos remind me that I don’t have to live that way and that there is freedom and happiness on the other side of that fear.

-S

S-Town Review: Indulging voyeurism or stoking empathy?

Note: BIG spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t listened to the podcast in its entirety and you intend to.

 

I recently finished listening to S-Town, a podcast by the creators of Serial and This American Life, and found myself with some very conflicting feelings about it. First and foremost, I think this podcast is rich, engaging, beautiful and heart-breaking. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it. I came into it expecting something similar to Serial, and though I loved Serial, I was happily surprised to find something totally different.

After the first two episodes, the podcast wildly veered off the Serial course, breaking the true-crime narrative and diving into something much more interesting. For anyone who was hoping for a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, “who done it” crime thriller, they were sorely disappointed. S-Town was at some points extremely slow, but I think for those willing to stick with it, it was worth it in the end. After the initial addicting marathon listening sessions ended though, I was left wondering why I was so intrigued by this podcast, and whether there was something sinister about my interest in it.

The podcast begins with the investigation of the cover-up of an alleged murder, led by a tipster named John B. McElmore. Soon after the story begins though, it becomes clear that the evidence of the crime is lacking and eventually we find out that the alleged murder never happened. John’s tirades about his home, “Shittown,” Alabama dominate most of the narrative. It slowly becomes clear that the crime is not the story at all. John is eccentric, brilliant, unstable, funny and depressed. His views of Shittown and the state of the world are dark and apocalyptic, but also surprisingly astute and especially relevant given the ever-widening expanse between rural and urban America. During the second episode, the host, Brian Reed, gets a call from someone in S-Town: John has committed suicide. As I listened to this episode, headphones in, at my desk at work, my breath caught in my chest. I blinked away tears, hoping no one was looking at me, and felt this incredible weight of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

In some way I felt complicit; I had sat at my desk in the comfort of my cushy upper-class suburban life, eagerly hoping to hear my worst suspicions and stereotypes about Southern, rural, backwards, Trump-loving America confirmed. I sat, listening to the mad rantings of a man who so casually talked of his own suicide, just hoping to feel engaged.  I literally thought to myself at one point “man, I hope something more interesting is going to happen.” And in the midst of my pastime, a man had killed himself. And the most disturbing part is that the narrative foray into the life and secrets of a dead-man were about to be even more captivating than I could have hoped for. Indeed the episodes that followed poked and prodded through the life of a man with many complexities. As the podcast went on, the more I learned about John B. Mclemore, his secrets, his hopes and his struggles, the more I wanted to know. My curiosity couldn’t be satiated, and no matter how many private details I learned of this man’s life, it was never enough.

When I finished the podcast and took a step back, I was all the sudden struck by how invasive it all was. This wasn’t a man who had given his consent to his private life being exposed. And it struck me that maybe that’s why I was so interested. Because it was a raw glimpse into a person that wasn’t filtered by the way the person wanted to be perceived. Certainly the tragedy and sorrow of his life had something to do with my interest in it as well.  It’s human nature to be attracted to tragedy, to stare catastrophe in the face even when the decent thing to do is to look away. There’s a reason sensationalism is sweeping through U.S. media, as I mentioned in a previous post: because that’s what we want. The more shocking, the more depraved, the better. Privacy ceases to matter, boundaries cease to exist; the only thing that matters is that we get more information. The same was true of the life of John B. McLemore. The obsession over who he was and uncovering the secrets of his life was nothing short of voyeurism. In this case I use the word voyeur to mean a “prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous.”

So in this scenario, was listening to and engaging in this podcast indulging one of our worst human instincts of voyeurism? I think that for most people it probably was. However, I think the motivation for starting it is transcended by the sentiment that lingers after it ends.  Undoubtedly, a large part of the audience for this podcast (and really any podcast) is the liberal upper-middle/upper class. It’s impossible to listen to this story and not notice how contrasting the world of the rural south is with your own. At various times in the podcast, listeners were confronted with characters who out of context, might be considered contemptible. Yet something about this narrative humanized them. So that by the end of the podcast, it was almost impossible to characterize any of the people in it as good or bad. They were just people: flawed, full of contradictions, and products of their environment. And out of this realization came a deep sense of empathy specifically for John, a man that you had never met, the likes of which you may never meet. There are many things to dislike about John. He is arguably racist, sexist, masochistic and bleak. Had you just encountered him or any the other people in this story in a passing way, you would probably have written them off. But when you hear their stories something changes. They morph from caricatures to real people and all the stereotypes and judgment fall away. What’s left is empathy and compassion.

With all the divisiveness in the world today, I think that creating this kind of empathy is an admirable pursuit. In this case, the ends justify the means. Though what first draws people to these kinds of stories is voyeurism, if the ever-elusive empathy is the result, maybe the motive for listening in the first place doesn’t matter.

-S

Vulnerability in Writing

I’m alive! The last month or so has been a little rough for me which is why I have been MIA from the blog. I’ve noticed that when I’m in one of my slumps I find it very hard, even impossible, to write. I have sat down to write this post so many times over the last few weeks, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I started thinking about what was stopping me. Initially I just knew that I didn’t want to talk about all the things that have been going on in my head, and because my writing is usually pretty autobiographical, I obviously couldn’t write. Then I thought, “OK, I’ll just write something very objective and completely unrelated to my personal life and personal thoughts. Then at least I will be writing.” I brainstormed different subjects, but every time I actually tried to write no words came to me. Then it dawned on me that all writing is personal regardless of whether or not you are explicitly talking about your personal life. And if you are trying to leave certain pieces of your life out of your writing it makes it difficult to really produce anything of quality.

This has been one of the biggest struggles that I have had with writing. I am naturally a pretty private person, particularly when it comes to my struggles. I’d just rather not have everyone know about my flaws and I don’t like people to see me on my bad days. I think part of the reason for this is that I don’t like to address problems that I don’t yet have solutions for. I like things being neatly tied up, well-thought out and reasoned through in my mind before I talk about them.

Unfortunately, a lot of the questions that we struggle with don’t have clear answers and it is these unanswerable questions are often the central themes of writing. They are questions like: Why are we here? How do we live lives full of meaning and purpose? How do we make sense of all the suffering and tragedy in the world? How do we make and sustain connections with other people? Though these questions seem deeper and more profound than the subject of most writing, they are usually lying beneath the surface, quietly asserting their presence and their relevance.

Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” This kind of honesty however can be very difficult to muster. Not everyone is willing to bleed so openly and freely for all to see. To write is inevitably to be vulnerable, and for me, and I imagine for many others, that is the hardest part. Regardless of what you are writing about, you are always writing about yourself. Your writing always reveals more about who you are than it reveals about your subject. And when you have secrets or things you don’t want to share with the world, it becomes very difficult to write anything at all.

So my goal for my writing is to not shut down when I am not in the best place mentally. I want to try not to partition off my struggles, but instead to allow them to infect and simultaneously to nourish my writing. Objectivity is impossible in creative pursuits, as it should be. So I will try to embrace the messy, the unanswerable and the painful questions because not to do so would be dishonest.

So in the spirit of honesty, here it is: I’ve had a bad couple of weeks. I feel stuck and directionless and unfulfilled. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Sometimes all I can do is get up and go through the motions. I’ve set goals that I don’t care about because it felt better to have a plan than to admit that I don’t know what I want. And I’ve watched some of those goals disintigrate before my eyes with surprising indifference, leading me to wonder if I don’t care about what I have pretended to, what do I care about? I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. I do know though, that writing has always felt like something I was meant to do. So for now I am going to write, release the need to have it all figured out, and hope for the best.

I realize now that my attempt to remove my personal struggles from my writing inevitably robs it of its substance. Without the gut-wrenching honesty of these struggles, my writing is stripped of its core, and what is left is a hollow shell of words clumsily strung together. If we wait for the answers to life’s nagging questions to come to us before we begin writing about them, the page will always remain blank, the blinking cursor mocking our ignorance.

-S

Rage: The New Political Currency

It’s been 3 weeks since Donald Trump took office, and I confess myself exhausted. It seems like every day on the news there is some new ridiculous and horrible thing he and his administration have done to be outraged about. I, like a lot of people right now, am torn between the urge to be informed and the urge to bury my head in the sand for the next four years. In a previous post I touched on the dangers of the 24-hour news cycle, and how addicting it can be. I think the last few weeks have underscored the argument that this addiction to news is not healthy. But more than that, what has been made abundantly clear is that anger is dominating the political scene, on both sides of the spectrum. It is almost impossible to be politically well-informed and not be angry. It seems we are in a time when one must take sides. There is no gray area in many of the political issues we have been debating, and most people feel passionately one way or the other.

There has been a lot of speculation about how a man like Donald Trump rose to power. Most people acknowledge that he tapped in to the rage of the overlooked white working class, and harnessed that rage and turned it into a movement. It didn’t matter that he said little about policy and had no experience in the political realm. He manipulated and played into the fears of the masses, and his strategy was successful. Now he is our president and he is still playing into the irrational fears of the masses in villainizing immigrants and Democrats and anyone who opposes him or threatens his family wealth.

However, the difference now is the Democrats are beginning to play on the rage that has surfaced in opposition to Donald Trump. It’s no longer accurate to say that anger only characterizes Republicans and Trump supporters. Anger now characterizes almost everyone, regardless of party. Some of this anger is justified and productive. For example, the outrage sparked by the Muslim ban arguably played a large role in the temporary dismantling of it. This rage was useful. We were angry; we were defending human rights; and there was an end goal to our outrage. There is however, outrage that is not useful. There is outrage that will consume your life if you let it and does not actually achieve anything productive. Liberals have made a big stink about how Donald Trump supporters have allowed themselves to be pawns in Trump’s political agenda, but perhaps we need to consider the ways in which we ourselves have become pawns. There are plenty of Democrats who have dramatized and stoked our anger, and for us to pretend that they do so only for the greater good of what we are accomplishing is naïve. There are future elections to think about, and arguably there are plenty of politicians attempting to become the angry voice of the progressive left in efforts to bolster their own political aims.

I’m not presuming to know anyone’s motives in stoking outrage, but I am suggesting we not allow ourselves to be manipulated. If you are going to take up arms over every single ridiculous tweet that Donald sends out, you are only going to affect your own quality of life. If you allow yourself to be baited by every politically incorrect thing he says, you’re in for a long four years. I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting we allow his outrageous actions to pass unnoticed or unopposed. I am just saying we should choose our battles. And we should keep in mind that this chaos and outrage is exactly what he wants. Yes, it is absolutely ridiculous and even unethical that the President of the United States is tweeting at Nordstrom, saying they are mean for no longer buying his daughter’s product. But is it really worth your outrage? At some point you have to decide that some of his actions are too stupid to even respond to. If we choose to respond to every provocation, it allows him to paint the progressive left as angry and irrational, the same way that the left has often painted the tea party and the far right. Fair or not, our anger can sometimes undermine us and strip us of credibility. We go from being well-informed rational people who can carefully and articulately defend our beliefs, to raging crazy people who are not to be taken seriously.  I think outrage can be useful when it has a clear end goal. We need to take a step back and realize that this outrage that follows the 24-hour news cycle is not accomplishing anything. If we allow ourselves to be consumed by anger, we not only will fail to achieve anything in the political sphere, but we most likely will make our own lives pretty miserable in the process. I physically can’t walk around being angry about Donald all the time. It’s not sustainable. So, I choose to save my anger and my strength for the outrages that really matter to me. You are no less informed or passionate about your causes because you chose not to think about them 24/7. It’s quality, not quantity, of your resistance that matters.

-S

Waiting for the Barbarians…or the Islamic Terrorists

The Muslim ban executive order signed into law by Donald Trump on Saturday has alarmed and enraged people all over the country over the past few days, myself included. Trump and his cronies of course have a problem with people calling this what it is and what it was intended to be: a Muslim ban. Of course we have plenty of reason to believe that a Muslim ban is exactly what this is, since a large part of Trump’s presidential platform was a ban on ALL Muslims entering the United States. And on Sunday he tweeted that we should be concerned about the Christians being killed in the Middle East, even though Muslims have been killed in far greater numbers. His order also gives preferential treatment to Christians attempting to enter the U.S. from these countries. There is also good reason to believe that the Muslim countries not included in the ban were excluded because of Trum’s business ties there. So let’s not beat around the bush: this is a Muslim ban.

Now that we have established that, the question is why is this happening? Why has Trump continually emphasized the danger that “radical Islamic terrorists” pose to this great free Christian nation? In thinking about this issue over the last year or so, I find myself drawing parallels to one of my favorite books, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. The book is about a great unnamed Empire threatened by an indigineous group of barbarians who are plotting to overthrow it. The barbarians are frequently painted as less than human, and though as a whole they demonstrate no ill-will towards the Empire, they are singled out as the enemy and the potential downfall of civilization. Of course, the Empire has actually invaded the natives’ land and attempted to force their culture and civilization on them. The Empire labels the natives as barbarians in order to justify their imperialism and to give its people a feeling of purpose and a common enemy.

It’s not hard to see the parallels here to the United State’s relationship to the Middle East. For decades we have invaded its lands, stripped these countries of their natural resources, overthrown their governments from the inside out, and attempted to force Western democracy on them. In doing so we have created terrorist organizations within the region whose main purpose is rebelling against Western influence and seizing power in instable countries that are vulnerable. Their aims have little to do with Islam, and much to do with the human instinct to seek and retain power. Make an entire region feel powerless and ruled by an alien external force for years and you are bound to create people whose sole aim is to take that power back and wield it with cruel intentions. Of course, I am oversimplifying the problems that have created so much instability within the Middle East. I couldn’t possibly write a post long enough to detail all the factors that have contributed to the instability in the region, and I don’t claim to be knowledgeable enough to do so. But, my point is that the U.S. has played a decisive hand in this instability and bears the responsibility for much of the chaos that is driving people to seek refugee status in more stable Western countries. Coincidentally the other day Trump said we should have kept the oil from Iraq after we withdrew our troops, because the oil was the only reason ISIS was able to financially support itself. He also suggested that the next time we invade a sovereign country, we will be sure to take all their resources so there is no wealth left to prop up any kind of a successful government or terrorist organization.

Now we have people fleeing from the terrorists that we created (and in some cases armed), and we will deny them access to our great free country because they pose a threat to it. And to top it off, rather than acknowledging the nuances of terrorism and its relationship to Islam, we now have a president and a large group of Americans who claim that the problem is Islam, not the terrorists who have corrupted it and twisted it to justify their actions. Muslims are being painted with a broad brush, as an enemy of Christian America, as people who seek to do us great harm. It seems to me to be no coincidence that after a particularly disastrous first week in the presidency, Trump attempted to draw our attention back to our common enemy: Muslims. In claiming that Muslims from this region pose a great threat to the safety of our country, Trump creates an atmosphere of fear, chaos and mistrust, primed for the consolidation of power and wide-spread approval of his actions that seek to “protect” America.

As in Waiting for the Barbarians, America is awaiting the barbarians that we believe to be Muslims to strike, only to find out that the barbarians are here, within our midst, masquerading as saviors. Make no mistake: turning our back on refugees fleeing the terrorism and instability that we helped to create, is barbaric. What we should have learned from ISIS and from the recent executive orders and from the entire history of war and persecution, is that cruelty and the seeking of power has nothing to do with religion. The dark side of human nature can flourish wherever there is suffering and chaos. Attrocities and injustice can be commited falsely under any God’s name, in the haze of fear and instability. Many attrocities have also been commited in the name of Christianity. The actions of few do not justify the condemnation and persecution of an entire group of people. Just as I hope that the rest of the world does not condemn all Americans for the actions of the ignorant, hateful demogauge that is currently running our country, I refuse to condemn all Muslims for the actions of a few. The act of pitting Americans against Muslims is nothing more than the desperate attempt to unite a fractured country and distract us from the real problems that we face such as poverty, climate change, gender inequality, racial ineqaulity, and the high cost and low coverage of our health care system. These are problems which this administration is unlikely to find solutions to, or to even address in any meaningful way, and they know this. So their solution is to distract us with fear and mistrust of foreigners and the rest of the world. It is important to note, that this tactic is not only manifested in this administration’s policies towards Muslims from the Middle East, but also in their policies towards Mexican immigrants. While we are waiting for the barbarians, our country is crumbling. How long will it take this country to realize that our threats come from the inside, not the outside?

-S

Framing Your Way to Happiness

I listened to a great podcast the other day on TED Radio Hour called “Simply Happy” which got me thinking about the nature of happiness. The premise of the combined TED Talks was that happiness is actually not as complicated as we make it out to be and that the human brain is actually wired to be happy. Happiness in the human brain is kind of a homeostatic state; regardless of our varying moods, our minds eventually settle into happiness, or at least into contentment. The podcast referenced a study which showed that even people who suffered very traumatic experiences returned to their previous baseline state of happiness within 2-3 months. They started diving into why this is the case, and it all boils down to our brain’s ability to frame things in different lights. So when we experience negative things, our brains attempt to frame them in positive lights, or at least to not dwell on them. This is more a survival instinct than anything; our brain wants us to be happy and so it allows us to frame things in a perspective that allows us to be happy. So in part, your brain does the work for you in creating and returning to happiness. But we also are responsible for this process, and this is the part that really got me thinking about what we can do to affect our own happiness. Though I used to groan at the cliche of “you create your own happiness” as I get older I find myself buying into this theory more and more.

Part of the reason I am more convinced by the day that we can control and create our own happiness is because I have seen the ways that it has worked in my own life. After I graduated college I had, as most people do, a very rude awakening. I had to get a job and support myself. I had to enter the “real” world which seemed like an onslaught of responsibility, chores, and just generally things I didn’t want to do or deal with. And for a while there I was really in a slump. I felt drained by the responsibilities of adulthood and I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be happy while having to pay a utility bill. (I fully recognize now the extent of my privilege that this felt so inconceivable to me). I dragged myself to work and then home and then to work again. I dragged myself to the gym, and to clean the house and to go out and do fun things. I had this mentality of “everything is hard.” And then it became too much effort to keep up this charade of misery. I realized that I was the reason that I was unhappy, and that it had nothing to do with my environment or with external circumstances. It all came down to the way I was thinking about and framing my life. And it was actually really hard work to constantly think about things in such a negative light. Since that difficult year after college I have made a point to be very careful about how I think about things. If I find myself wandering through the darker corners of my mind, I pull myself back out. I don’t sit around thinking about mistakes I made in the past, and I don’t dwell on negative things that I can’t control. I’m not trying to make this sound easy, or like I have all the answers, because it’s not and I don’t. But I do think that learning to train your mind to think in certain ways can make a world of difference in your outlook on life and your day-to-day happiness. And I think that when you start learning to control your mind, you realize it’s not really an uphill battle. Your mind doesn’t actually want to think about your ex-boyfriend, or that time the other day when a stranger waved to someone behind you and you thought they were waving to you, so you waved, and then realized their wave wasn’t meant for you and you wanted to die a little. Our minds really don’t want to dwell on the negative things in our lives, we just force them to.

So though it makes me sound like a crazy hippie yogi, I’m going to say it: When you control your thoughts, you control your life.

 

-S

 

Disclaimer: When I talk about happiness and our control over it, I recognize that for some people with clinical depression or other mental health issues, this is not the case. My theories on happiness only relate to people under relatively normal circumstances, without any kind of mental health issue.

Project 333: Minimalist Fashion

One of my new year’s resolutions (cliche I know) is to downsize my closet. I feel like I have a ton of clothes, most of which I never wear that are just taking up space in my closet. I also have been feeling lately like I want to detach myself a bit from the culture of consumerism. I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Minimalism: a documentary about the important things” and it really made me think about how much I am consuming on a daily basis. In America, the overwhelming sentiment is that in order to be more we must have more. We slave away at jobs we hate just to be able to afford things we don’t need, or really want. I am definitely guilty of over-consumption (of food mostly, but that’s not what I’m referring to here) and it’s something I want to work on. I think that there are a lot of reasons that people over-consume. For me, when it comes to clothes it is just because I really like clothes. I feel good when I look good. But I also feel an overwhelming need to collect clothes and when I go to throw them away find myself saying “But what if in some very bizarre scenario I want to wear a shirt that has shrunk to be two sizes too small??? What if the new fashion is shrunken crop tops??” I have also been feeling lately like this overwhelming need to buy things really has nothing to do with the things that I am buying. And so it is my resolution to be more conscious about my consumption and to get rid of things that I don’t really like. I have already created a nice big pile for Goodwill and I can’t wait to get rid of it.

So in working towards this goal I decided to participate in Project 333. The concept is pretty simple: you chose 33 items from your closet and for 3 months you can only wear those 33 items. This includes shoes, jewelry and accessories. It does not include workout clothes or wear around the house clothes. When I tell most people I am doing this they are like “Oh, 33 items?? That doesn’t sound hard at all!” Well when you have over 200 items in your closet (I counted), narrowing it down to just 33 items to wear in 3 months is actually pretty tough. I made some pretty tough choices (Do I want this red plaid shirt or should I pick the green plaid one!?!? The agony!). Below is a picture of the items that I chose:

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I mostly chose a lot of tops because I like to have variety there. I was able to narrow it down to 4 pairs of pants and 4 shoes (not a big shoe person, plus it’s winter so not a ton of options), and two necklaces. I don’t wear a ton of accessories so cutting those out wasn’t hard, because it also doesn’t include wedding rings or jewelry of sentimental value. One thing I want to add to the challenge once I do this for a few weeks is to only choose 10 or so items of workout clothes to wear, because workout stuff makes up a huge portion of my closet.

I’m about a week into this challenge and so far it is going really well! I put these items at the front of my closet and then shoved everything else together in the back. It is really refreshing when I am getting ready in the morning to not have as many options. And since I chose all my favorite things, I don’t really feel like I am missing much. It has made me realize how much crap I have that I really don’t care about. My last day of the challenge will be April 1st. Let’s hope we don’t have a crazy heat wave before then.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this is because I wanted to do something concrete to work towards my resolutions. I feel like a lot of people just say “Oh I want to be better about this…” but then they don’t put a plan in place to do that. I think rather than making a bunch of idealistic goals that don’t fit into your life very well, you have to start small. For example, I wasn’t going to all the sudden say “I’M NOT BUYING ANY CLOTHES IN 2017!” Instead I chose something a little more manageable that I know I can actually accomplish, and I put a plan in place to do so. Baby steps, people. You’re not going to change your whole life over night, but you can make small concrete changes that push you towards where you want to be.

-S

Why I Got a Dog

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This weekend Umur and I welcomed a new rescue pup to our family. We named her Luna, Luna Lovegood to be exact. She’s had a rough start to life after someone dumped her in a lake as a puppy hoping she would drown. She has spent the last 6 months or so in various shelters and foster care systems. It’s unimaginable to me how people can be so cruel and heartless, especially to animals that are incapable of such cruelty. I have always been a huge animal lover, so the obvious reason why we got Luna is because of this life-long obsession. When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a vet, until I found out you had to be good at science to be a vet, and then I quickly disposed of that dream. Another big reason I wanted to get a dog was because I wanted to rescue a dog. Not buy one at a pet store or from a breeder, but really rescue a dog that would have had an unfortunate life otherwise. We have created a terrible situation for dogs through excessive breeding which has landed millions of dogs in shelters all across the country, and I think we bear the responsibility for taking care of these animals. The easiest reason to explain for why I wanted a dog was because I have the ability to take care of her and I knew that I could make her life better. There is a sense of purpose that comes from that knowledge (and also a sense of overwhelming responsibility).

Aside from these clear and easy to understand reasons for why I wanted a dog, there was also another reason. This is the one that would most likely get me funny looks, so I usually go with the easier to explain reasons when asked. But really, I wanted a dog because I wanted to go on walks and be outside more. I know that sounds like a really silly reason to get a dog, but in the past few years of working I have felt more and more like my world exists inside several screens, rather than in the actual physical world. If I had to guess, I would say on an average day I spend about 10 minutes outside. I get in my car in my garage, drive to work where I sit inside all day without moving, then drive home, then drive to the gym and walk to the door which is about 20 steps from my car and that’s it. So maybe not even 10 minutes. The rest of the time I spend in front of my computer at work, and then in front of my tv and phone at home. And spending all this time in front of screens is enough to make a person feel very detached, easily distracted, impatient and even incapable of enjoying simple pleasures like taking a walk. I got a dog because I wanted to remember what it felt like to go on a walk outside and just take my time, without rushing to the next thing I have to do, or compulsively checking my phone every few seconds. Even in this act of walking her though, I can feel my impatience dulling the pleasure I take from it. I have even found myself telling her to hurry up when she is zig-zagging in front of me smelling every bit of grass in our neighborhood. This impatience I think will be hard to break, but I’m working on it.

The other day Umur and I went on a walk with Luna, and it was the first time in a long time I can remember us going on a walk together, with our phones away, just walking and talking and watching our crazy dog. I felt an immense sense of peace and authenticity in that moment. I felt connected to the world and to the living things around me and I felt present. I think she will bring me a lot of these moments throughout our lives together. We like to think that we are training our dogs to be better, but I think she is training me to be better as well. She is teaching me to be more present, more patient and more grateful for life’s simple pleasures. And that’s why I really got a dog.

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-S

Our Obsession with Progress

I almost quoted Dolores Umbridge for the title to this blog, but I just couldn’t do it. I’ve been thinking lately about our society’s obsession with the future and with continual improvement. Kate’s last post got me thinking about the nature of happiness and then I was reading Outline by Rachel Cusk and was struck by this passage:

“In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love. If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming again, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress, saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction and war, for which both of us demonstrated just as much energy and aptitude as always.”

Do you even read something and for a second just feel completely seen and understood? That’s how I felt when I read this passage and it’s a little bit unnerving. My life has been a series of goals with the finish line of one race turning in to the starting line of another. I feel lost without goals and without the next tangible thing that I am working towards. Anytime I am confronted with a moment of stillness, I automatically find a new goal or a new thing to do to fill my time. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Though this kind of work ethic is a good thing, I wonder whether it is an attempt to distract ourselves. We are so uncomfortable with this feeling of stillness that the moment we stop moving we assume we’re doing something horribly wrong. It’s such a deep culturally rooted feeling that it’s even evident in the way we talk about our lives. We talk about being in ruts, about being stagnant and complacent and about settling. These are all the things we don’t want and we are so scared of doing. So instead we always frame our lives, relationships and careers in terms of what we want to do next. We bombard each other and ourselves with questions about the future as though the present without an imagined future is worthless. When you were younger the questions were about where you wanted to go to college; when you were in college the questions were about what you were going to do when you graduated; when you graduated and got a job the questions were about what you were going to do next; when you are in a relationship the questions are about when you will get married; when you are married the questions are about when you will buy a house and when you will have kids. We are all so concerned about our next steps and about everyone else’s next steps. I wonder what will happen in life or in love when there is no obvious next step. Once you have finally acquired everything you think you should have and have checked off all the life accomplishments you think you should check off, then what?

I think part of the reason we glorify this continual improvement model of life is that happiness is most easily felt when it is juxtaposed with struggle and unhappiness. We struggle towards our goals and once we achieve them, for a brief moment, it feels like perfect incandescent euphoria. The kind of happiness felt in stable, long-term contentment is very subtle and not easy to appreciate. It’s like when you have a cold, and you swear on everything that is holy that you will be so grateful when you are healthy again. You will breath in and out of both nostrils and seize the day! And then you get healthy again and you forget again how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils. Because you can’t know how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils unless you remember vividly and painfully how bad it feels to not be able to breathe in and out of both nostrils. And our capacity to remember feeling is actually pretty limited. We can remember events, but to fully conjure how they made us feel is almost impossible. So we have to move away from this kind of happiness that is only found in juxtaposition to struggle. The real accomplishment in life is being able to stomach stillness and to find that eternal source of happiness within yourself.

I think finding that subtle happiness is powerfully linked to gratitude. Not gratitude for material things or big accomplishments, but gratitude for small moments of contentment, the ones that you barely notice when you are so busy moving from thing to thing. Like Kate’s peppermint scented, candle-lit bath she talked about in her previous post. These small moments can be very powerful when we fully immerse ourselves in them. We are scared of stillness because it is harder to recognize and fully feel those subtle moments of happiness. In contrast, the euphoria that comes with drastic swings between struggle and achievement is glaring and palpable. We embrace struggle when it is for the sake of progress, but when it comes to happiness we try to take the easy way out. But once you have tuned in to gratitude and small moments of happiness, you can allow yourself to be filled up by them. Gratitude is a habit and it can be formed as easily as it can be broken. So my challenge to myself and to anyone reading this is: don’t get so caught up in the quest for your next achievement and forget that happiness too is a struggle and must be worked for. Because one day you’ll achieve all those things that you were supposed to achieve and everything will be still and calm at last, which is what you always said you wanted, and you won’t know how to feel content and at peace.

-S