Hats: Grandview roof lines in the summer

“Hats” is a series of photos of roof lines backed by sky, taken on my walks through Grandview Heights and the Fifth by Northwest neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio.

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Meaning, mission, and our valuable time

Out of all of the things we do, which activities relate to our mission, and which operate silently in the background? A weekly visit to church, a diet or exercise plan, or a creative hobby could be one person’s lifestyle but another’s scaffold, holding space for other meaningful things. The question could be parsed: is our mission personal, communal, or professional? If these diverge, do they overlap, remain discrete, or enable each other?

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When people describe their ideal personal and professional lives, no matter how related, they often seek the intersection of meaning and happiness, and focus on a job for at least part of that, as jobs occupy so many hours. For some, employment is purposeful, while for others, it steals time from purpose.

Finding your balance point can be as challenging as seeking purpose itself. Meaning doesn’t arrive only in one big chunk, nor does it exist in direct proportion to time. It’s unsurprising that sweet, small moments, or quick challenges are as important to our sense of purpose as our 40-hour-a-week lives. And, as we routinize things (like food shopping, diet, exercise, even work or hobbies, depending on your life balance), they can come to support our sense of a meaningful life instead of operating as meaning themselves. Alternatively, we may find that we need to become experts at certain routines and expand their space in our lives, so strong is the sense of connection.

If you are reading this, you might ask: what routines bear personal meaning? What challenges do you hope to “turn routine”? And what larger impacts do you hope to have that, combined with the efforts of others, can be greater than yourself?

Magnifying our impacts through collaboration is one goal of the workplace. Honing expertise to maximize impact is one goal of work for those who work alone. In this vein, I separate work from hobby, which animates the personal space and engenders connection and community. Hobbies that transform spaces might be rightly described as work within a community. What lends meaning to you, and what lends happiness? How do you prioritize your work, communities, and hobbies?

Ten Days of Repentance, The Days of Awe

We celebrated Jewish New Year last week, and we are now in the “Days of Awe,” the ten Days of Repentance in between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). As a child, the days of repentance were an apology window. We recite every year that “Teschuvah [Repentance], Tefilah [Prayer], and Tzedakah [Charity] temper judgement’s severe decree,” and so I would rack my brain for people I had wronged. But why does repentance loom so large to me, when there are three actions that can help us be signed and sealed in the Book of Life?

Jewish friends on social media are posting their holiday reflections. Someone recommended the Stuff Jews Should Know podcast, and I listened to and loved their Rosh Hashanah and Days of Repentance episodes. They dug into the word Teschuvah. We most commonly translate it to Repentance, but perhaps it could more accurately be translated from the Hebrew as Return, as in return to self.

The cyclical nature of life is a frequent theme in Judaism. We have a holiday in which the congregation rolls the Torah scroll back to the beginning after reading the last parsha [section]. We fully unroll it first, as if to say, “see all we discussed this year. We return to the beginning to build another year layered on tradition. We are enriched by the perspectives of this lived year, and from the knowledge our history has brought to this year of our lives.” Challot are symbolically round during Rosh Hashanah. Per the podcast, in the orbit of our year, this is the time we are closest with G-d.

And so I love the interpretation of teschuvah as return. It implies that there is a good core on which to build. Teschuvah, according to the podcast, also invites us to consider not how we sinned but how we missed the mark; did we express our best selves during the year? If not, can we? We have ten days to clarify our goals and start building new patterns.

How can we translate Tefilah and Tzedakah? I don’t speak Hebrew. These interpretations are my own. This year, tefilah is intention. If the larger goal for the year is to course-correct and live as our best selves, we must regularly consider and articulate what that is, and then affirm it through practice. Awareness, articulation, and action are part of intention and tefilah for this year.

Tzedakah is easy in our modern world. Like many of you, I have automatic deductions set up to give monthly donations to different organizations. This is a start. But the translation to “charity” seems too simplistic, because the word reinforces the idea that we give to those who have nothing. In fact, we donate to those those who have something to give, but are hindered by lack. And when we give, we receive. Individually we receive the satisfaction of giving and often our wallets don’t hurt for the donation, so it is like we get something for nothing. Societally, we reap the benefits of what that person or institution is able to contribute, now that they are not in need. In the end, there is more than simply what was given. And so this year, I will think of tzedakah as amplification. Whose voices, whose missions, whose worthy practices do we amplify? What within ourselves is worthy of this support?

In these ten days, I look forward to my connection with my core self, return; my practice of my best self, the action that follows my guiding intention; and in seeing a world made better by voices that deserve to be heard, amplification. May you be signed and sealed in the Book of Life, and enjoy a sweet and good new year.

Reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Just finished this apocalyptic book, set in the mid-to-late 2020s, in which the American president wants to “Make America Great Again.” It was written in 1993.

The diverse main cast of characters includes a dozen men, women, and children of color. Many books that I read as a child had me creating mental images of white characters. When Parable introduces two white women, they are described as ‘medium size white women with brown hair.’ Hah! A far cry from the ‘flowing [very specific shade, length, and texture of hair],’ beauty-as-virtue descriptions utilized for white literary heroines. I devoured YA fantasy, and the women were frequently headstrong and clever. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lack of diversity and that my mental image was never challenged. I digress.

Parable of the Sower deals in the mysticism of religion in a way that felt practical, but also one that made me mentally push back on Earthseed, the main character’s religion. It made me echo the question that the book asks throughout, about our communities and our country: “What keeps change from trending corrupt?” Considering my copy of the book was published with discussion questions, I think Butler wants us to talk about it.

Parable deals in problems which have historically plagued the country, and that have perhaps never fully disappeared and could return: workforce privatization as monopoly resulting from destabilization, de-facto debtors slavery, water shortages, widespread gun violence and drug abuse, states’ rights overpowering national unity, lack of birth control, lack of education, the precarious future of the space travel program, the way infrastructure shapes communities or doesn’t, and perhaps most interesting to me, homesteading as subsistence survivalism, instead of a bountiful, community-based, anti-capitalist exercise of choice. If any of this piques your interest, I’d recommend that you read the book.

Here are some parts I marked as I read. Slight spoilers, but not much more than above.

All successful life is
Adaptable,
Opportunistic,
Tenacious,
Interconnected, and
Fecund.
Understand this.
Use it.
Shape God.
–pp 124-125, Earthseed poem

The Self must create
Its own reasons for being.
To shape God,
Shape Self.
–pp 259, Earthseed poem

“He nodded. “All right. But tell me, what do people have to do to be good members of an Earthseed Community?”
A nice, door-opening question. “The essentials,” I answered, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.”
“And why should people bother about the Destiny, farfetched as it is? What’s in it for them?”
“A unifying, purposeful life here on Earth, and the hope of heaven for themselves and their children. A real heaven, not mythology or philosophy. A heaven that will be theirs to shape.”
“Or a hell,” he said. His mouth twitched. “Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.” He thought for a moment. “It sounds too simple, you know.”
–pp 261-262

Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you — 
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.
–pp 279, Earthseed poem

“We all had to buy a few things, but Emery squandered too much money on pears and walnuts for everyone. She delighted in passing these around, in being able to give us something for a change. She’s all right. We’ll have to teach her about shopping and the value of money, but she’s worth something. Emery is. And she’s decided she’s one of us.”
–pp 313

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
that God has provided.
They are everwhere, 
in everything.
God is Change–
Seed to tree,
tree to forest; 
Rain to river, 
river to sea; 
Grubs to bees,
bees to swarm.
From one, many;
from many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving–
forever Changing.
The universe
is God’s self-portrait.
–pp 315, Earthseed poem

On essential energies: George Saunders on the Rookie podcast

“If you have an essential energy, or a desire, even if it’s a little bit of a weird desire, I feel like, as somebody who’s almost 60, part of your job as a young person is to burn through that desire. Don’t look askance at it. If you want to be famous, alright, that’s how you were made — go for it. Whatever your desire is, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, I think the idea is to burn through it quickly, cause then you find out what’s on the other side of it….

You can deny those essential energies, in which case they just fester your whole life and you’re frustrated, or you can say, “yea, I really want to be this.” And the quicker you do it — which means, if you’re gonna be something, be a good one — then I think you have the possibility of arriving at another place, where you’re like, “oh yea, actually, I don’t want fame, I want to be known for doing something good.” And you might burn through that into some other…. Throw down, a little bit.

…If you don’t take care of that stuff, then you’re not going to be fully present for the people who need you later. Even if you try and fail, you’re still gonna be free of that burden a little bit. So I think it can be a form of, I don’t know what you’d call it, sort of kindness to your future self, to go for it. If you want to go for it, go for it.”

Tavi Gevinson interviews George Saunders on the Rookie podcast, “The Split Second of Intuition,” May 16, 2017

Reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, Part 2

Mental illness and violence in America:
“Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately put it, ‘When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever its immersed in — the surrounding culture’s illness.’ ” –pp122

Language opening a landscape for change:
“Language is power. When you turn ‘torture’ into ‘enhanced interrogation,’ or murdered children into ‘collateral damage,’ you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let along change it. Vernacular phrases — ‘Catch 22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ — have helped up to describe but also to reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” –pp129

No violence can be isolated, it also operates in a culture and of degrees:
“Six years ago, when I sat down and wrote the essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example  of being patronized by a man, I ended with rapes and murders. We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I’m saying is: it’s a slipper slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.” –pp134

The long journey of progress:
“Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has nine hundred ninety-nine miles to go and will never get anywhere.” — pp140

Progressive ideas and setbacks:
“What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters.” –pp142

When language limits women:
“And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a Wall Street Journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term ‘female careerism.’ Salon writer Amanda Marcotte notes, ‘Incidentally, if you Google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you Google ‘male careerism,’ Google asks if you really  meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘mahle careers.’ ‘Careerism’ — the pathological need to have paid employment — is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.” — pp148