Digital Minimalism in a Digitized World

In my quest this year to explore releasing what no longer serves to build or nurture me, I’ve been re-evaluating a lot of my habits. I have a few criteria that I’m using.

  1. Does it make me feel more connected to myself?
  2. Does it make me feel more connected to people with whom I want to connect?
  3. Does it instill me with hope, rejuvenation, inspiration, joy, etc.?
  4. Does it drain me?

I’ve been surprised to notice how much technology fails these questions, often with three no’s and the wrong yes.

Social media has increasingly become a dissatisfactory means of trying to connect with others. I find that I much prefer individual conversations either in person or through another means of distance communication. It also has long since ceased to instill hope and inspiration, much less joy. It’s draining…and I don’t feel connected to myself when I’m using it.

When I deleted social media apps off my phone, forcing myself to make more intentional choices about when I logged on, I began to notice a pattern: On days when I would log on and scroll for longer than a few minutes, I would feel frustrated, disconnected, and…almost dissociated!

Then I began to notice that a similar thing happened if I watched movies all day, played a video game all day, tried to write digitally all day.

Meanwhile, as I began to search for things to fill up the time that had previously been consumed by technology, I noticed that writing by hand left me feeling the opposite from writing by tech. Reading an actual book made me feel energized rather than increasingly lethargic. Working on a physical jigsaw puzzle made me feel focused rather than hazy.

The most poignant moment of this came when I was trying to force inspiration for writing on myself the other day. I was in a familiar pattern, sitting with my laptop on my lap and staring at a blank screen. I felt scattered and irritated the longer I sat, and the old itch to distract myself by flipping over to Facebook or Twitter took over.

Finally, out of sheer frustration, I shut my laptop.

I began to look around my living room, noticing my altar to welcome the spring, the tattered copy of Stephen King’s It that I’ve been trying to make my way through before the binding falls apart, pictures of friends and loved ones—things that served to remind me of what was important to me.

And then, I heard the ticking of the analog clock on the wall, a steady metronome of time.

I began to feel more at peace as I listened to the contentment of each moment having is second-long space before making way for the next. I re-entered my body. My thoughts cleared. I felt connected again.

Curious, I reopened my laptop, thinking maybe I could start writing. Instantly, I felt sucked back into this world of tension and fog. I could still hear the clock ticking, but the calm of it was gone. The pause of each moment was drowned by the hum of my digital tool. With my face staring once more at a blank screen, I could no longer see the world around me or feel my place within that world.

I closed my laptop again and sank once more into the peace of being physically, mentally, and spiritually present in the room with myself and time.

Whereas before I had planned to reward myself after writing by watching an episode of a show, I now realized I didn’t want to fritter away an hour in front of a screen for either purpose. I pulled out my journal and wrote, noticing the irony of no longer struggling with “what to write” once I had moved to long-hand. Then, I picked up my book and enjoyed a better escapist reward curled around actual paper and words, while the analog clock tick-ticked the moments contentedly by.

We live in a world where anything that exists in “analog” has also largely been digitized. From clocks to books to games to friendships. Some think that everything will be digital in the future, but I am increasingly interested in what it might mean to be a digital minimalist—someone who uses technology for intentional and specific purposes but who doesn’t make the television the center of the living room or computers the center of work and creative endeavors or the smartphone the center of entertainment and communication.

Technology is useful—necessary even if I want to participate in the modern world—but I’m beginning to realize that it doesn’t need to be at the forefront of my world.

So I’m going to go work on sorting puzzle pieces with my friendly analog clock to keep me company.



The Research Validation Trap

There’s a perspective on being trans that is beginning to gain traction in activist circles—this idea that gender is visible in the brain, that there are “female” brains and “male” brains. It’s been popular because it seems to offer credence to trans people’s experience. Researchers are studying the brain functioning of trans people to try to prove that trans women, though assigned as men at birth, have brains that function more like women’s brains than men’s, and vice versa.

I’ve struggled with this perspective—or any perspective that implies gender essentialism through the argument that women’s and men’s brains function differently. It seems antithetical to so much of the work that feminists have tried to accomplish over the years to claim equality and access. So much of that fight has been targeting the stereotypes and rigid gender roles assigned to women to keep them suppressed, and I’m suspicious of the possibility of this research to reinforce oppressive structures rather than dismantle them.

But I only recently began thinking about another aspect of this argument that grates against me, perhaps one that is more important—and it’s an angst that I’ve carried for a long time as a bisexual person. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that a person’s stated experience of their attraction or identity needs to be corroborated by genetics or biological function.

Researchers have long used research as a means of erasing or denying the existence of bisexuality, usually by deliberately ignoring people’s expressed attraction to multiple genders in favor of an “objective” measurement of their sexual arousal. There was the infamous “gay, straight, or lying” study that perpetuated the myth that men are being deceptive if they claim to be attracted to multiple genders. More recently there was the reverse, in which women were universally declared to be bi regardless of how they identify.

I’ve written about my frustration with this attitude and these kinds of studies before over here, but the basic idea is that I find the attitude that the researcher rather than the individual is the most important thing in determining the existence and validity of someone’s identity horribly off-balance.

Now, though, I see it happening in a different way. While the female/male brain argument seems to validate trans people, it’s a validation with strings attached. It’s a validation that says, “I will acknowledge your internal experience, not because I respect and trust you to know yourself, but because it aligns with my current hypothesis and means of measuring.”

Similarly to the gay gene search, the male/female brain studies (or the reliance on them as “proof” of the existence of transgender people) seem to imply that the only reason why trans people should be respected and accepted in society is because they have a biological imperative.

But do we really want societal acceptance to be based on “well, they can’t help it”?

Do we want the autonomy to define one’s identity and gender expression to be taken away from individuals and handed to someone else who is evaluating whether or not they are legitimate?

Do we really want trans acceptance to be rooted in reinforcing gender binaries and biological essentialism? (And where do all the non-binary folks fit in with this model?!)

Or do we want to work towards a world where people are treated with dignity and respect, where they have the choice of how to express themselves, the freedom to explore their identity, and the access to civil and human rights because they are human?

I don’t know about others, but I want to live in a world where I can say, “This is who I am attracted to and this is who I am” without someone else saying, “Well, okay, we’ll see if your genitals respond a certain way or if your brain functions a certain way. If it does, then I’ll accept what you say about yourself and grant you the right to exist in my society.”

Because underneath that response is the implication that it’s okay to erase me, co-opt my voice, discriminate against me, or harass me for failing to comply with that other person’s boxes and expectations of who I should be in society.

Looking to research to justify one’s dignity or validate one’s existence is a trap of asking for permission to be. Choice or Imperative. Nature or nurture. People deserve equality, respect, and freedom regardless.

Note: I haven’t read the actual studies that have been referenced in this way, so I am primarily speaking to the way they are being referenced and used in society (for example, in the recent Katie Couric documentary “Gender Revolution.”) I would eventually like to find the actual research to do a more thorough critique of methodology, application, and interpretation of results, but that is beyond the scope of this post. 

Releasing the Old as I Head into the New

I’m starting out this new year with a lot of re-evaluation and releasing. Yesterday, while I stayed home from my usual responsibilities with a cold and laryngitis, I sorted through a bunch of stuff in storage, finding things that I’d forgotten to return to others and weeding out what I no longer needed to keep for myself.

I suppose it’s sort of like a New Year’s resolution—I’ve set the intention of only taking with me that which still serves me, beginning with the physical but not stopping there.

Some things are super easy to get rid of because they hold little significance outside of their physical use. Old coats with torn linings, broken picture frames, dried up markers.

Others are harder because they’re not just objects. They hold a psychological and emotional significance. I can feel the readiness to release them from my life, but I have a harder time actually letting go.

Yesterday, perhaps for the first time in a decade, I decided to recycle some of the therapeutic projects I’d done earlier in my healing journey with my therapist. Dioramas and collages that had helped me process and grow–projects that had been sitting around for 5 or more years.

In some ways, I felt guilty. I had put so much energy into creating these that it seemed downright sacrilegious to get rid of them, yet I realized that in many ways I had already released what they represented. I no longer returned to them or wanted to pull them out to look at them. I didn’t struggle with remembering the truths expressed because I had internalized those truths. I no longer needed them to help me process.

By that point, they had lost the magic of holding for me what I was unable to hold within myself—be it grief or anger or hope or remembrance. They were a tool that had served its purpose and now were ready to be let go.

Once I had worked through the guilt, I realized that tools like these that have finished their purpose actually take on another purpose.

Their new purpose becomes helping me learn to release.

My journey has taken me to new places psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. I will never lose what has been involved in creating me, but I also no longer need to “stay” there energetically. It’s okay for me to reach a point where I can say, “This has been important to me, but it’s time to make room for something new.”

I think I’m reaching that point with other things in my life as well. I’m re-evaluating what role I want my blog to play in 2018.

It has been such an important platform for me to have a voice, but I no longer feel that weekly posts either feed my growth or replenish my zeal for life.

Perhaps I will move to a monthly schedule or just post as the mood fits. I’m craving less and less online activity and more privacy for personal reflection, so I’ll have to see what balance I can strike to continue allowing this tool to play a role in my life without needing to try to keep it in the same role that it’s been in for the last five or more years.

It’s a new year…it’s time for new adventures! (Or at least new approaches to familiar adventures to make room for renewed creativity!)



Solstice Thoughts and Hopes

“Hope whispers, ‘And I will follow till you love me too.’”

This line from Linda Ronstadt’s song “Winter Light” stood out to me yesterday as I was celebrating the winter solstice. It’s such a poignant thought to me…that Hope stalks me, waiting for me to open my heart to it.

It reminds me that hope is something I often have to choose.

I speak of this time of the year as a season for hope and resurrection…the rebirth of the sun! But actually, there’s not a lot of evidence of that initially. Following the longest night of the year, I don’t instantly become aware of the lengthening days.

Most of the stories that I find about the winter solstice involve some sort of tragedy—someone kills the sun or steals/hoards the light or the light goes into mourning or descends into the underworld. In short, the winter comes because of death, loss, and destruction. As with Pandora’s box, Hope is what follows, not what starts the whole process.  Rebirth cannot happen without first a death.

But the solstice somehow becomes a celebration of the return of light in spite of the fact that it’s still dark as fuck out there. And that’s the significance!

The solstice and all the myths associated with it remind me that I can trust that brighter days are coming, even when I don’t see the evidence of it yet, because I know brighter days have always followed the longest nights in the past. So I celebrate not just at the height of summer, but also at the darkest point of the year because I know that the darkness cannot last forever.

In fact, seasonal myths are one of the most beautiful ways that my global ancestors remind me that nothing in life is static. Everything is transitory.

Even chronic pain, when tuned into, has an ebb and flow to it.

Even depression, anger, and sadness change and morph as I grant them much-needed compassionate attention.

What feels permanent and unchanging is made up of constantly shifting moments if I can only allow myself to pay attention to those moments.

Yesterday, I embraced the darkness and rekindled my love affair with Hope.

Happy Solstice, dear readers!


The Nervous System: The Most Important Ally Social Justice Needs

Reading Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory has strangely converged on some critical thinking I’ve been doing regarding social justice, difficult conversations, and change.

I like to question.

I like to think.

I like to grow.

It’s just part of who I am.

In each of my classes, my professors had to face the realization that I was going to pick things apart. Rarely was there a day when I didn’t have my hand high up in the air like a grad-school Hermione Granger.

It’s how I learn.

I take the idea presented to me, break it down, challenge it according to previous knowledge and experience, and figure out how to integrate it. Even when I’m not taking classes, I will seek out books, articles, and videos that challenge my thinking and stretch my comfort zone.

Those professors who could appreciate and embrace my need to question found me an engaged and enthusiastic student.

But even as someone who values critical thinking and open-mindedness, I have limits. If I feel trapped into a conversation and unable to exit, if I’m not free to question all sides of the issue, or if I feel demeaned or forced to change, one of two things will happen.

I will shut down and refuse to engage.


I will become actively suspicious, defensive, and potentially hostile.

Polyvagal Theory helps me understand why that happens. It’s not a function of being stubborn or hard-headed or unwilling to consider someone else’s perspective—it’s a function of a nervous system designed for survival.

When learning about the autonomic nervous system in the past, I got the impression that arousal meant fight/flight (the sympathetic nervous system engaged) whereas the opposite was the parasympathetic nervous system promoting rest and peace.

What Porges brings out is that safety isn’t about the lack of arousal. Rather, arousal also happens within the context of social engagement, balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Creativity, exploration, and play all require a certain amount of arousal…but the arousal doesn’t signal the body to danger when the social engagement system is on and tuned into the smiles, melodic vocals, and eye contact of others that tells our nervous system that they aren’t a threat.

In other words, the difference between a playful wrestling match and an actual fight has to do with cues that our nervous system receives from others and sends  to others that “this is play, not war.”

If our nervous system receives cues of aggression or doesn’t receive cues of safety from the person with whom we are engaging, it is likely to switch into a fight/flight or shut-down mode without our conscious choice or control.

Which means that our creativity, open-mindedness, and willingness to explore will suddenly dramatically reduce or cease altogether.

Woah! Right?!

I mean, it makes sense when I think about my own experience. I can’t consider alternative points of view or think about creative solutions to a problem if I’m high into my mobilization energy or have disconnected from my myself because I’ve been overwhelmed.

But how often do we think about that when we approach a difficult conversation with someone else?

Reading about the nervous system has led me to completely reconsider certain concepts that seem taken for granted in social justice circles. Not that I hadn’t been rethinking those on my own. I’ve been considering the toxicity of the shame-culture and call-out culture with which I’ve become deeply disillusioned for quite some time.

But learning about the nervous system takes this thinking to a whole new level. I’ve gone from wondering if there’s a better approach to realizing that in many ways we have set ourselves up for failure as advocates if we aren’t paying attention to how the nervous system works.

Our conversations with those with whom we disagree are often riddled with tension, aggression, anger, and distrust…yet we want people to be willing to critically think, empathically engage with us, and be open to change—things which neither we nor they are probably capable of given the physiological state induced by the cues present in the conversation!

It makes me curious. What would social justice look like if we approached it from a neurophysiological standpoint?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic!


Shifting in the Darkness: From Fear to Hope

There’s a beautiful magic that happens shortly after Halloween ends. I’m always a little sad to see November begin, knowing that the spider webs and skeletons will come down, the costumes will be put into storage, and the jack’o’lanterns tossed into the compost.

But then I see the first lit trees in my local park…and I feel a visceral shift in my body. My psyche, satiated on darkness, suddenly craves light and the magic of hope.

The world is still steeped in its own darkness. The days will continue to get shorter for a while. But this is the darkness that beckons for comforting things like blankets and books, hot chocolate, and toasty fires. I’m ready for stories replete with impossibly happy endings.

Soon I’ll be changing my death altar to a winter one, and I know that my ability to revel in the solstice season stems from having allowed myself to step into the darkness of the previous one.  And it reminds me of how intimately connected hope is to darkness.

I’ve mentioned before that hope is one of the funny little positive emotions that doesn’t show up generally when things are going well. It shows up when things are hard–dark, and it’s the positive emotion that helps us pull through the dark times, working towards an uncertain future.

I become ridiculously…childlike, I guess, during the solstice season. I write letters to Santa, leave cookies and milk out, watch all the feel-good movies, freak out over the excitement of wrapped gifts, and desperately hope that there’s at least one toy in my stocking. I love the snow, the lights, and the bustle of the season. I adore the carols and songs.

Yet I know that it’s partly because of how dark I allow myself to get in October that I can really delve into fostering the child-like wonder and belief in December…er, November (let’s face it, Thanksgiving is a toss-away holiday on the way to the next). In my mind, the sugar-sweet hope is only as good as the awareness of how it could be absent.

Otherwise, it’s just denial.

Darkness can be a symbol of grief, death, and fear—all of what I just immersed myself in—but it’s also a symbol of nurturing, gestation, and rest. So in the coming weeks, I will release the finished energy of the summer and look to what I will begin to birth in the spring.

But first, it’s time to snuggle in and get cozy.