Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Troubled Times: 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?

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Troubled Times: Finding an Inner Guide to Political Action

Like many others, I did not sleep well on election night or the following nights. Shock and dismay had hijacked my mind. I felt as if I had been catapulted into a very dark Twilight Zone episode. My thoughts went hither and yon, partly batted about by a political racket, partly going from shiny/horror to next shiny/horror.

In my recovery from PTSD, I have learned to be protective of my sleep and my inner balance. I quickly detected warning signs and realized that I had to put my own mental and physical health first. Without that foundation, I wasn’t going to be able to make any sense or take effective action. So I set about using my “tool box” to reduce my anxiety. Besides sleep management and calming techniques, I reached out to my family and close friends. I tried as best I could to keep the focus on myself and my feelings, not politics. I took notice of which conversations made me feel better and which did not.

I felt better about myself when there was something I could do for the person close to me. Perhaps this was because I felt less powerless, but I believe it was because I felt more connected. Research suggests human beings are hard-wired to feel pleasure from helping others. Whether or not this is true, feeling valued and needed is a good thing.

So the first “movement” of my journey was to take care of myself and then to reach out to those around me.

Once I was feeling a bit more settled, I started to look around for other actions I might take. This required a great deal of filtering of news and social media. News sources inundated me with blow after terrible blow as events (and nominations or appointments) unfolded. I realized I could spend 100 hours a day on the various calls to action, and that not all of them were appropriate for me. Some would put me right back in the zone of risking my mental health.

How then are we to know how to proceed and what actions will not damage us?

We listen for that sense of rightness, no matter how frightening the prospect. I learned a great deal about this process from hanging out with Quakers. They talk about “discernment” and “leadings of the Spirit.” It’s one of the things that makes Quaker action different from other activism. One is led to take action by the promptings of the inner light, which means that arguments for or against make little difference. This made Quaker abolitionists (for example) tenacious in their cause.

What am I led to do? How will I know when that happens?

I’m still listening, and while I do that, I pay attention to small things that I feel able to do. They may not qualify as “Spirit-led,” but they seem possible. Then I notice how I feel. As an example, I wrote a letter of support to the nearest mosque; I felt lighter and more hopeful after I had mailed it. On the other hand, I felt low and discouraged after speaking with certain people I had otherwise reason to trust. I’m not likely to try that again.

I do not know how or even if this process of trial and reflection, slowly feeling my way, will lead to action on a state or national level. I’m definitely not going to fly across the country to attend a march in Washington D.C. or New York City. Because I’ve felt energized by writing letters, I am more likely to do that again. I’m considering volunteering in person at Planned Parenthood (where I volunteered when I was in grad school, before Roe v. Wade) or the ACLU, but do not yet see a clear path.

Meanwhile, I continue to practice reaching out, and find that the circle keeps getting bigger. By listening compassionately and seeking out safe places to share my own fears, I join a community of light. By sharing suggestions of actions, I become aware of those I might be willing to take, or inspire others to take actions I am not comfortable with. Who knows? Maybe knowing someone who is brave enough (or skilled enough) to do something will show me the way. Or perhaps the way will open in community once I see I do not have to act alone.


Friday, November 25, 2016

OryCon 2016 Report

Any report I make of OryCon (in Portland OR, on or near Veterans Day weekend) must be seen in highly personal context. For me, it’s never been just another convention, but part of other aspects of my life. I used to attend OryCon regularly. I’d gone to college and then graduate school in Portland and retained a fondness for the city. My best friend from college still lived there, and I’d stayed in close touch with her. So attending OryCon also meant a visit, usually after the con when decompression with long-time friendship, and maybe a long trail ride, were especially welcome. These visits became even more important when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I made a number of trips to Portland to help her and her family through the rounds of chemo that led to a series of remissions. In the nearly five years that followed, our OryCon visits became even more precious. In fall 2013, she entered hospice, and again I was present to do whatever was necessary to support her and her family in that transition. She died in October, when the weather had already turned chill and overcast with the approach of winter. That year, attending OryCon was out of the question, nor could I bring myself to consider returning to Portland for some time. This year, however, I ventured north with my older daughter to a reunion at our alma mater, Reed College. That shifted my thinking enough so that when I received an invitation to be a guest panelist at OryCon, I happily accepted. Of course, the first thing to arrange was a visit with my friend’s surviving family. Two visits, actually; one before and one after the con. A family dinner, complete with home made lasagna (vegetarian and vegan versions) marked an auspicious welcome back to Portland.

I won’t go into a recitation of all things travel and hotel. Needless to say, my usual disorientation upon encountering a new venue kicked into high gear, fueled by the vertical arrangement of the hotel (events were on 4 different floors, or was it 5 plus the green room on the 16th floor?) The OryConOps folks were as warm and welcoming as ever. I had a splendid roomie in Irene Radford, although we were both a bit too old to stay up all night talking.

My panels began Saturday morning with the topic “Fantasy vs. Science Fiction,” in which panelists and audience attempted to discern why anyone would think one better than the other when we all love them both. Conventional wisdom suggests that in science fiction, the laws of physics must be observed (with the notable exceptions of psi powers and faster-than-light travel); whereas in fantasy, magic introduces a fundamentally different system. The level of technology of the setting tends to put low-tech, medieval worlds into the fantasy camp and modern, futuristic, or space settings into science fiction. I threw out the idea that readers expect different experiences (fantasy – emotional, science fiction – intellectual, idea-driven) from the two genres, hoping it would provoke a juicy discussion. We all agreed that with the popularity of cross-overs, none of these distinctions holds true any longer.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

In Memoriam, Andre Pereira


Just learned that longtime Darkover fan André Pereira has died of cancer. Adelandeyo... Namarië... Go in grace, my friend.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Anxiety, Curiosity, and Creativity

Recently I wrote about “Election Anxiety Disorder,” characterized by – among other things – obsessively checking news sources, social media, polling results, election prediction sites, and the like. Our simian brains seem to be hardwired to zoom in on changes, even small ones, in our environments. Fast-changing visual media like news programs and advertisements rely on this response to attract and hold our attention. In the same way our ancestors might have scanned the horizon for the movement of herds of prey animals or signs of a stalking predator, we scan our information horizon for signs of threat (or reassurance). So it can be difficult to tear ourselves away from that screen or newspaper, particularly when our lives are in so many other ways attached to the flow of information. For many of us, this constant reactivation and connection with sources of perceived threat our anxiety. However, some people use information as a way of managing their anxiety. 

There are many styles of dealing with anxiety, from purely physical to purely intellectual, with pharmaceutical – legal or otherwise – thrown in there, too. I should modify that statement to say these are starting points. Deep, slow breathing and concomitant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline secretion, etc., also affects our thoughts. Talking ourselves through a stressful situation or changing how we think about ourselves or the problems we face also reduces the physiological symptoms of anxiety. No matter where we begin, we end up at the same place.

As I mentioned above, one way to manage anxiety is through information. If we can find out more about something that worries us, often it becomes less threatening. (Not always, of course.) Our fears can distort perceptions and amplify dangers, but information acts as an antidote. It also suggests logical, effective actions to deal with the problem, things that are more likely to be successful than just flying off the handle. Our minds reassure us of our ability to cope with the situation, and the resulting calm further increases our likelihood of success.