Author: neil

Getting Past Your Doubts to Finish

My main, aka longer form project that I am working on right now is about baby sleep, or more like surviving it when you have the most horrible sleeper on the block.

I’m passing through the middle, where I start to think, I think it’s getting boring? Who is going to want to read this anyway?

My thought process of hanging in there goes something like, I’m trying to get it out of my system, clear my mental desk, and keep the pipeline going. Besides, I do have a few things to say about the topic, which is why I stuck with it so far.

Sharing a couple of sources that I feel much comfort from in this state:

This diagram from Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (stolen from Maureen McHugh) that tells me that’s the way it usually is.

And this quote from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

Even if you made a truly rotten piece of art, it may be a necessary stepping-stone to your next work. Art matures spasmodically and requires ugly-duckling growth stages.

And yes, you do learn from actual writing and finishing. More than from any reading or learning about various advice and tips.

How Money and Religion Blind Us to the Greater Good

As of this writing, the U.S. has more than 75,000 COVID-19 deaths, has not bended the curve sufficiently, nor does it have enough testing and yet the dominant issue is reopening the economy despite the certain loss of further lives.

And we got locked into this difficult position in the first place by downplaying the severity and contagiousness of the coronavirus primarily for the sake of stock market numbers.

While thinking about this state of affairs in disbelief, I remembered a quote from the eminent psychologist Albert Bandura that I read in Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan, that seems especially relevant to these times.

One of the most prominent ways in which people justify their harmful practices is by using arguments about money to obscure moral and social issues. Because we can’t and won’t acknowledge that some of our choices are socially and morally harmful, we distance ourselves from them by claiming they’re necessary for the creation of economic wealth.

The economic justification makes the environmentally damaging decision possible.

Albert Bandura

And now in the context of the pandemic, the economic justification makes even the sacrificing of lives possible.

Studies on the psychology of money by Kathleen D. Vohs and others also tell us that money motivates individual effort but makes us selfish, isolated, less helpful, and less concerned for others. And the mere presence of money elicits market-pricing orientation toward world. People feel self-sufficient, they don’t need or care about others; each man for himself.

Mere reminders of money increase endorsement of social inequality. Such as the existing social system in the United States and free-market capitalism, the assertion that victims deserve their fate, and the belief that socially advantaged groups should dominate socially disadvantaged groups.

I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian household. And experienced various ways in which religion can suppress our minds and hearts. Here are some I feel are relevant to our current state.

Choosing leaders and relationships, even who you do business with based on their professed religion.

A lack of empathy for the “other”. Sure, love your neighbors, but care for fellow believers first. Never mind the fact that others will burn in hell for eternity.

A lack of care for the environment since earth is merely our temporary home. Jesus’ second coming will save us before earth becomes uninhabitable.

Since there is only one truth, no need to listen to or learn from others leading to notably a disrespect of science. Exacerbated whenever there is conflict with the literal wording of the Bible.

In church, people were not encouraged to think for themselves, but rather blindly follow “God ordained” authority.

And no true responsibility or sense of agency since everything was “all God’s doing”.

We all have blind spots. But money and religion in combination is a powerful force that blinds and binds individuals and whole societies. Which is why those that are not quite as strongly under its grasp may feel incredulous at times as to how others cannot see the obvious.

The Shadows of Fundraising Culture

People who have only lived in the United States may not quite as aware of this but fundraising is especially pervasive in the culture here. Calls for donations through your social circle, through celebrities, etc. are frequent and seem a part of everyday life. Fundraising drives for every perceivable cause and organizations exist. In recent years crowdfunding platforms made this even easier for everyday folk.

I was raised about half the time abroad. There were charities. As students there was widespread expectation to spend some time volunteering. And there were occasional news about celebrities donating to certain charities. But that was about it. There was no fundraising for schools or arts or pretty much any organization. And especially no individual efforts for economic hardship and medical bills. As individuals without much wealth of note we rarely came across any calls for donation.

After returning to the United States as an adult and noticing this difference I had a vague wondering about it. At times I thought it is something to admire. That it is because America is a first world country and noblesse oblige is alive and well in its wealthy. And look at how everyone is taking initiative over their fate! At other times I had a vague sense of discomfort and fatigue. Perhaps even a sense of guilt since I can’t possibly donate to all the worthy causes that cross my path. And how do you even gauge which are more worthy?

And now with a pandemic upon us, all these vague wonderings about this culture so heavily dependent upon donations suddenly came into sharper focus. Fundraising of every stripe was common before and now it is everywhere. For the health workers, and first responders, medical equipment, protective gear, food for impacted families and children, education initiatives, domestic abuse, service industry workers and others who are out of work, the list goes on and on. And of course personal GoFundMe’s for medical expenses or funeral costs, etc.

What could possibly be wrong with this culture of philanthropy where we all demonstrate how we care with our money and bring attention to this fact?

For starters, who are you asking all this of? Much of the population has been impacted in one way or another. Many literally don’t have enough money to maintain their lives. Others do not have the time or energy to sift through all these causes that compete for attention and money.

Weren’t we already paying anywhere from 10 to 37% in taxes so that our country and state would take care of most of this for us? Isn’t that what experts should be doing? Allocating all those resources in the best possible way?

Depending on our social networks and fame, fundraising introduces a new unfairness of who gets help. How well connected are you and who do you know? How much awareness is there for your problem?

Even before Covid-19 medical costs were the largest category on GoFundMe, which surprised the founders as they had envisioned funding for ideas and dreams among other things.

Individual fundraising efforts serve an important function. But it should be just a few things here and there where the system wasn’t able to fill a need. Human systems aren’t perfect even when we strive to be and we can expect there will always be little pockets that we forget about.

But our systems should not be relying on these. I wonder if those in the United States have become so used to this culture that we no longer question it. Passing off these widespread systemic shortcomings as an external cost that the populace will take care of through the goodness of their hearts.

If we are all doing our part in maintaining each of our lives and those that depend on us and pay our taxes, that should be enough with few exceptions. Even celebrities shouldn’t have to signal that they care so often with calls to charity if most resources were allocated fairly. Then we can all just focus on doing our actual jobs and living our lives better.

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien

After finishing writing my own little book, Animals of the Homestead, I started to wonder what other “me and my bird” stories are out there. As expected, majority of animal stories were about dogs, and some about horses.

I might never have read this book, had I not had the few months experience with chickens that led me to write my own little story. Because I had no idea how fascinating birds could be. How intelligent and even social they are. And chickens possibly have one of the worst stereotypes as being dumb.

I am glad that I got to read this book. Unlike myself, who was a complete newbie with animals, Stacey was a biologist, and she spent 19 years with Wesley, the barn owl. I found it hard to put down this book and finished it over two days. There were fascinating tidbits about owls.

For example, the adult male owl usually eats 3 mice. When nesting, the male does all hunting while the larger female, eats 4, defends their nest of 5 babies, who need 6 mice each. Crazy to hunt 37 mice a day.

Her story was funny, but even more than that, admirable.

She copes with him not sleeping, owls being nocturnal. And not being able to use babysitters in the early months, since he has imprinted on her as “mom” and depends solely on her for survival. Takes much time in getting Wesley to understand what she is doing so that she doesn’t have to forcefully hold him to trim his beak and talons.

She calls this “the Way of the Owl”. And she does all this because “the owl never forgets.”

I don’t think this was the main intention of this book. I think she wrote this mostly to show us how amazing owls, and other wild animals are. But I couldn’t help but see the analogy to parenting.

Stacey goes to great lengths to not lose Wesley’s trust and understand his instincts. Perhaps greater lengths than many parents do with their own children. They often think this is okay because the babies won’t remember. And we all survived similar or worse parenting. But more and more research is showing that our body and our psyche does remember.

“The owl never forgets.” Actually, neither do children.

What I Learned from Putting Together Two Little Books of Poems

An Appreciation of Poetry Collections

It all started when I was sifting through my notes of hundreds of scraps of rhymes written over the years. I had thought of these as almost throwaway pieces but for some reason on this day I opened my mind to considering what these could become and realized that they clustered into a few themes. 

Turns out, there is an art form to stringing together all those separate pieces into a cohesive whole. Even with the very same pieces, their order may give them a whole new meaning.

I found myself moving back and forth between four different activities. 

1. Deciding what to include or exclude in a particular collection. 

2. Editing the poems.

3. Ordering the pieces. Considering the themes, repeating words, contrasts, lengths or strengths of the poems, and a sense of narrative or growth and evolution.

4. Writing new poems. Just going through the poems as a whole sparked new ideas. Other times I wrote to fill a hole in the collection.

The first time I tried this, with Techtopia, the process took months. Even though it is chapbook length and has one fairly clear theme. How to order the pieces was a real headache and I tried many different versions. Many times it came down to some hard to explain feeling.

The second time with Nothing Wrong the ordering was a bit easier as there was some sense of chronology and changes in understanding. I also trusted my intuition more. Still this too took a few months as I found myself writing more pieces to add to the collection. Granted, I only had short bursts of time each day to work on the project.

As with anything, trying this myself gave me a much bigger appreciation to what is involved in putting out a book of poetry as opposed to just writing individual pieces. Even before things like cover design, thinking of a compelling title and even chapter titles, the front and back matter of the  book, and other nitty gritty details of publishing that will enhance the whole experience and bring more clarity to the overall vision.

For me, poetry has the fewest of words that take the longest to read and also to write. It may take a surprisingly long time to build up a collection, years even decades. It was validating to hear of the “tectonic pace of the poet” but I can’t recall where I encountered this. Of course there are prolific exceptions. But in general, word count has little meaning in the world of poetry. 

I also noticed that compared to prose books, a book of poetry requires much more effort into formatting. Making sure it looks just so in each format, even though mine don’t have that much visual elements.

This is also why I’d like more people to create, even if it’s not “good enough”. Because we learn so much more when we try to make things ourselves compared to when we simply consume what others have made. You also enjoy a deeper level of appreciation and comprehension of others’ work as well.

Many thanks to this article by April Ossmann, poet and editor, which I referred to multiple times throughout the process when I had no idea what I was doing.

Rain and Embers by Ali Nuri

Poetry is never a quick read for me and if a collection is not compelling there is a high risk that I’m not able to hold my interest. This book however I was able to finish over many days. There is a sense of narrative in the intimate glimpses into the poet’s life, feelings, and thoughts.

One important aspect of his life is that he is an Iraqi refugee. With the politicized debate on refugees and immigrants, depending on your political leaning, some may not even give this a chance. Or some might argue this work is important because of political reasons. But I would say this misses the point.

I am not a refugee, nor of the same religion or race, and our beginnings are worlds apart but I resonated with much of this work. The sense of not belonging here or there, childhood trauma, religion, isolation, being silenced, finding love, even musings on our technology and earth. Ali Nuri’s beautiful artwork is a bonus. 

Despite differences in the details, it reminds us we are not alone.

Thank you for sharing your voice.

Nothing Wrong: Extra Notes

In the years since I started writing these poems, I learned that much of what I was trying to express had labels. And that the reason for my pain and suffering were not as inexplicable as I thought. 

Labels

Sometimes it just helps to know that there is a label for what has happened to us. Below is a list of labels that pertain to the poems in “Nothing Wrong”. This list will be updated as I learn more myself.

  • parentification
  • selective mutism
  • the identified patient
  • medical neglect
  • religious abuse
  • religious trauma syndrome
  • narcissistic abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • emotional neglect
  • emotional incest
  • witnessing abuse and/or violence
  • sexual abuse
  • dissociation
  • attachment disorder
  • adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • developmental trauma
  • complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)
  • intergenerational trauma
  • gender preference
  • filial piety
  • patriarchy
  • selective amnesia
  • culture shock
  • third culture kids

Recommended Reading

Pete Walker, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold