Dear Santa…Dismantling The Taboo of Desire

Spoiler alert: I am going to briefly talk about character information from The Haunting of Hill House Netflix show and The Winter of the Witch, both of which are fantastic and highly recommended for viewing/reading. I’m not giving away endings, but if you don’t want to know some of the middle material, wait to read this.

I’m getting ready to write my annual letter to Santa, and in the process I’m thinking about what it means to want. I typically include several requests for the world and others who are on my mind as well as general requests for help with intangible goals.

I also generally include a smaller list of requests for material things, but in years past, I’ve felt strangely guilty for asking for material wants.

That guilt is one often reinforced in our culture in its strangely consumeristic yet anti-materialistic attitude toward Christmas. Few people abstain from actually giving gifts, especially to children. And the myth of Santa is built around this concept of a jolly old man who enjoys gift giving.

Yet when children behave like Nell in the Haunting of Hill House, writing to request gifts for other loved ones but not for themselves, they’re praised and held up as virtuous—LOOK HOW SELFLESS AND ALTRUISTIC!!!

I didn’t think to question that mindset until I was reading the advanced reader’s copy of The Winter of the Witch* by Katherine Arden. At one point in the book, Vasya is negotiating with some men about whether she will gather the chyerti (Russian folk creatures) to help them. In the process, Morozko (I can’t sufficiently explain who he is unless you’ve read the series, so read the series!) is expressing concern about whether her own desire for recognition, fame, power, and victory is clouding her, making her susceptible to being manipulated by a specific chyerti who enjoys twisting people to his nefarious ends.

She bares with Morozko’s questioning for a time, but finally snaps, “I’m allowed to want things.”

It wasn’t one of those passages that stood out right away, but it came back to my mind when I started to think about my letter to Santa. I suddenly realized that at some point I had adopted the subtle cultural message that wanting—asking—at Christmas was secretly a sign of deficient character. If I were genuinely a Good PersonTM, I would only want the types of things sung about in “My Grown Up Christmas List.”

It’s not that I don’t want to want those things. I do want them.

But at some point our culture made it seem like they were the only worthy things to want.

But the truth is, like Vasya, I’m allowed to want. Wanting is natural. Wanting something special for myself doesn’t decrease my ability to want good things for others.

I also learned from Vasya that wanting is most likely to cloud my judgment and unconsciously manipulate when I’m unaware of the presence and influence of my own desires. There is a point at which one can pursue one’s own desires to the detriment of others, but that isn’t at the point of simply wanting. Rather it’s when a want is so strong that we’re blinded or willing to hurt others to get it.

Being able to name wants, put them out there, recognize that they’re present—that actually increases the ability to see the role they play and pick the best approach to dealing with their influence and presence.

In The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer talks about the important difference between asking and demanding. For her, asking requires the ability to accept a “no.” When “no” isn’t an acceptable response, it’s a demand, no matter how it’s phrased.

I think that difference is key in being able to destigmatize the concept of requesting our desires, whether in a romantic relationship or in an interaction with a stranger. We’ve all experienced the discomfort of a request that is actually a demand (think Dudley on his birthday, pissed off because he only got 17 presents this year). Demands are distasteful when we’re on the receiving end of them because we feel them clawing at our autonomy.

But I also believe that the inability to accept disappointment is most often what drives someone to turn their requests into demands, whether at Christmas or not.

I know that many struggle with the feeling of obligation at Christmas—spending money, giving gifts because it’s expected–so it makes sense why utter selflessness would come to be viewed as a virtue. It’s almost like a permission to hate the obligation we’re feeling towards others. But I’m afraid that in the process it’s teaching people that to want is a sin. It’s not actually teaching people to handle their desires or disappointments better, just teaching them to be ashamed of having them.

How many of us have found ourselves saying, “Oh I don’t want anything” when asked what we want for Christmas…even though we don’t really mean that answer? How many of us have worked hard to stifle disappointment that someone didn’t pick up on the clues we were dropping because we were afraid of seeming too forward if we specifically said, “I would really like to get something like this as a gift.”?

And to what extent does doing that actually help free us from a burden of obligation around gift-giving?

This year, I really want to reframe my mindset. I want to feel in my bones that it’s okay to want. Not only that, it’s okay to ask for what I want, as long as I recognize that I might not get what I ask for. I can want at the same time as being grateful for what I have. I can think about others while also thinking about myself. I can enjoy giving something special to someone else while also enjoying receiving what others give to me. I can balance pursuing my own desires with trying to make the world a better place. I can balance expressing love through a gift without making my attachment completely about material things. None of these are mutually exclusive.

They’re the very heart of the Christmas spirit.

*Please note: The final book hasn’t been officially published yet, so I’m referencing the ARC version. Most ARCs include a note expressing that quoted or referenced material needs to be checked against the final product since editing can still happen before publication. So please read the published version when it comes out. I will be rereading it myself. 

 

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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.

 

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!)

 

 

Books! Books! Books!

I tried counting my books once. I got to about a thousand, give or take, based on what was just on my shelves at that moment, not counting those in storage boxes from lack of space. Most of the time, I’m content with how many I have…or I want more because you can never have enough books, right?

Every once in a while, I get into one of those bizarre moods where I suddenly think, “I have too many books. I need to get rid of some!”

It’s usually driven more by appearances than anything. I see my brimming shelves with books stacked on top of books and in front of books, and the J part of my INFJ kicks in and desperately wants a single row of alphabetized, upright books per shelf.

Then I go through this sincere attempt of rooting through all of my books trying to choose which ones will leave. This week, I even opened up the boxed books, thinking that since I hadn’t seen or read them in years I’d probably be ready to pass them on to someone else.

Instead, I found myself sitting on the floor, surrounded by books, bemoaning the fact that this book or that book had been hidden away for so long. Instead of clearing out shelves, I was adding to them.

It’s not unusual that when I try to get rid of books, I think of every reason to keep them. Even books I hate often hold an important place for me. Some, or course, are easier. I’ve been developing the habit of getting rid of any fiction book I find badly written after I’m done reading it, especially if I’ve given up on trying to finish it at least twice.

Non-fiction books are much harder though, regardless of whether they were written well or whether I agree with the content.

I have nearly a whole bookshelf dedicated to various religious books, with at least a shelf and a half filled with books specifically related to my former cult’s doctrines and teachings. I keep the terrible, awful marriage books that blame wives for their husbands’ infidelity and encourage and condone sexual coercion in the marriage. I keep the terrible, illogical books that twist and contort to cover their own doctrinal contradictions. As much as I hate them, I need them because I find them useful to reference if I need to demonstrate some of the teachings I used to be under.

I do the same for politics, though not as religiously (har har). I have books on Communism, Anarchism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Capitalism, Feminism, etc. etc.

Some books I buy and read simply because they are historically significant or referenced in other important works. I might hate them. I might not even be able to fully read them! (I gave up on Kierkegaard as soon as I established that he took pages and pages to craft cleverly concealed circular arguments).

But I have them, and I familiarize myself with them because books are important. Reading a book is one of the better ways of exploring different perspectives, especially if I have my own strong feelings about one particular stance. Books are clean in that the author has usually put a lot of effort into researching and crafting just what they want to say in the way they want to say it to be as clear and (hopefully) concise as they can be, which means I’m often getting a more thorough and well-thought view of that perspective than I might otherwise get just conversing with someone who holds loosely to that viewpoint but hasn’t developed much insight into the nuts and bolts of their worldview.

Better yet, I can yell at the book all I want—I can even throw it across the room— and it will still be there for me to finish when I’m ready.

Reading a broad range of books deepens my understanding of where others are coming from, which in turn helps me to know how to discuss things with them in a manner that might help both of us grow. It also challenges me to deepen my own understanding of my own worldview so that I can adjust where it’s flawed or bolster the weaker points.

See why it’s so hard to clean out my shelves?!

I did eventually create a substantial pile of books I’m ready to pass on so that I can (of course) bring in new books that are more relevant to my life right now, but the process reminded me of how treasured even the most despised book on my shelf is to me—of the role that books have played in my own freedom and development.  It also reminded me of how important access to books and information is to a free society.

At the end of September, bookstores and libraries will be celebrating banned book week. Throughout the month, many will have displays of books that have been banned, challenged, or censored in various parts of the U.S. or world. It’s an important time to take a look at the ways that governments and communities have attempted to police people’s thoughts.

Make a visit, take a look, let yourself be surprised/horrified/made uncomfortable at what has been censored in the past (no joke, the dictionary is on that list), and finally, pick something to read that you haven’t read before, maybe even something that challenges your perspective.

I definitely plan to do the same…especially since I’ve got some blank spaces on my shelves that need to be filled!

 

Sonnet to Poetry

I’m busy this weekend with a wedding and managing existential dread about nuclear annihilation, so I am posting a silly little thing I wrote the other day when I was realizing how much I miss creating poetry. So enjoy the light humor of some melodramatic song; I hope you have a good weekend!

Sonnet to Poetry

How long it’s been since I have played with words!
Too much has passed since last I crafted those
Delightful sounds that opened up the worlds
Of my imagination long ago!
It must be years my pen has gathered dust,
My dictionary yellowing with age,
While I have chased pedestrian pursuits—
Neglecting all my passion for the page.
No more will I allow my heart to drift
From that which fed my soul in infancy.
The gods have granted me the sacred gift
Of song, and I must use it faithfully.
The words come shyly back to me tonight;
Through ink my magic births creative light.

Radical Self-Care Doesn’t End Here

Over the last three years in grad school, I’ve been aware of the necessity for and committed to radical self-care. I couldn’t have gotten through grad school without that commitment.

Now that I’m graduated, the importance of self-care has not diminished, but the urgency is no longer as pressing. I have plenty of time to make sure I’m eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, having fun, hanging out with friends, stimulating my mind, caring for my emotions, etc. etc. etc.

I don’t have to choose what to sacrifice and what to give attention to anymore.

Ironically, now is when I’m realizing that I’m easily lulled into not caring for myself in the way that I need to.

Some things that I’ve sorely missed have been more readily done. I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on getting outside and exercising a solid 30-60 minutes most days of the week—which is great! I’ve missed running and haven’t felt great in my body for a while. I really enjoy being able to take an hour to move my body without the pressure of deadlines looming.

Other aspects of my wellness are harder though. I have to remind myself to make plans with friends—to not let that piece of me that is introverted and passive about social activities to drown out the part of me that needs to see people and be assertive.

I also have to remind myself not to become too obsessed with one project or activity. My time limitations are no longer set by syllabi; I have to determine, on my own, how much time is appropriate to spend on something like a political discussion or novel. And I’ve discovered that while I might feel incredibly energized and engaged for a LONG time on one thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for me to remain buried in that one thing for so long.

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that self-care was easier when I was in grad school…but in some ways I think it was. I knew how important it was to carve out time for my various needs because I could feel the energy depletions happening on me at every moment.

The five, ten, or thirty minutes that I would scavenge to practice my spirituality or write in my journal were precious. I could feel them keeping me going.

Now, I don’t feel my energy depleting as quickly. It’s easy to say, “Oh I can do that tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. I don’t need to bother with that today.”

But I do.

I need to bother with making sure I stay balanced.

In the process of realizing that I need to renew my commitment to radical self-care, I’ve been having conversations with people about the definition of “radical.”

Colloquially, it has come to represent a word that means zealous—almost to extremism.

My understanding of and commitment to radical self-care certainly sometimes felt that way—when it seemed like I was making extreme choices to prioritize my well-being over the never-ending obligations and demands around me.

However, as I’ve been talking with people about how radical also means “to the root,” it’s been shifting what radical self-care means to me.

What does it mean to be committed to the root of self-care—to the necessity for balance of the multi-faceted aspects of wellness, to the rejection of habits or cultural norms that delegitimize my well-being or erase certain aspects of my self which are important to my well-being?

I know that radical self-care has always partially been about more than my individual choices. There is a huge component related to work practices in the U.S., gender role expectations, familial obligations, etc. The environment and outside factors cannot be ignored.

Yet how often do we actually talk about those factors as more than obstacles? I don’t know about others, but I have never been to a meeting with an organization to determine how the organization can improve the atmosphere of wellness for those working for it. If an organization is going to get involved in a conversation about self-care, it’s generally going to be because an individual hit burnout territory—the meeting will be about what the individual needs to do differently or what they’re not doing enough of.

I’ve been itching to be able to delve into an exploration of the external factors involved in wellness and how radical self-care relates to those, and now I have time!

Which means that along with reminding myself to take breaks and diversify what gets my attention, I can also finally begin looking more seriously at the systemic issues.

I am zealous about self-care, as a form of self-love and preservation but also as a form of resistance; that means getting to the roots, not just of my own well-being but of the self-within-society because, as Donne once wrote, “no man is an island.”