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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren

I don't have kids and have never dealt with the difficulty of getting good, affordable childcare, but by the end of the first chapter of Persist, I cared so passionately about national childcare that, typing this sentence while eating a carrot, I got excited enough to swallow the wrong way and had to lurch from my desk to open my airway.

 

How is it possible to explain the tax code, tax deductions, and how business is constantly subsidized by all of us (aka socialized wealth distribution; what people are so afraid of is already going on, but the recipients are large corporations and billionaires!*) so clearly that the reader has an aha about the movement of money in the economy resulting in a feeling that she can articulate life itself: all life is movement and change, and Warren ties that to the economy so simply and coherently that you will never not understand this again, and hence, never not understand inequity of investment that is built into our system and an imbalance that will eventually topple us all if not corrected.

 

Simply put, Elizabeth Warren is a great teacher. I understand why Rep. Katie Porter changed her life while taking Warren's class (a wonderful anecdote). As I type this, I'm now in the middle of an explanation of a two-cent wealth tax and what that would mean and how it would work, and again, it's so exciting, I'm chewing my carrot extra carefully in order to stay at the computer.

 

One of my other favorite teachers, Bertice Berry, recently did a video about how being your authentic self brings light to all situations and people, so if another person who is not being authentic is illuminated in that light, it can expose them and make them really angry. I thought of this when Warren first talked about former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. I remembered her stunning exposure of his arrogance during the presidential debates (deliciously reported later in the book in a chapter called A Fighter). In that moment she exposed her authentic brilliance in a way that constantly flows through this well-made book.** Read More 

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Understanding the Joy of Lying

I was an actor in my twenties and was approaching a building where I was in rehearsal for a children's play. As I neared the entrance to the building, another member of the cast, a guy in his twenties, glommed onto me. "Let's go in together," he said, smiling.

 

Thinking nothing of it, I walked through the front door with him, and as we approached our director standing in the hallway, my now-escort grinned broadly and announced to our boss, "We've been rehearsing together."

 

I was too stunned to correct him. A few steps later, as we entered the theater I recovered my voice. "Why did you say that?" I gasped.

 

He smiled, shrugged, and went on his way.

 

This was my first personal encounter with a pathological liar. I've since met and had to negotiate with others. And the thing I've learned is that they lie because they can. They have no inner conscience scolding them, no allegiance to truth, absolutely no reason at all to adhere to truth. They lie for fun, for self-aggrandizement, for some twisted sense of power or for dominance. They lie because they have no sense of consequences. Because they feel no shame if they are confronted with their lies. They shrug, laugh, smile. "So what?" they'll even say, if pressed.

 

People with strong ethics cannot understand this. But people with ethics can actually have their ethical sense so eroded by the joy of lying (yes, there is joy once you assume no consequences) that they can lose all inhabitions about doing it.

 

Trump taught the Republican party leaders the joy of lying. Joy and the freedom of this exhilarating release from truth spreads to others who would normally declare that truth matters. If they believe that their freedom is in danger and the liars are the truthtellers, this is an obscenely easy conversion for pathological liars to engender.

 

This is how our current Republican leadership can one minute say there was election fraud and the next, say the opposite.

 

Pathological liars create such confusion that people stop trying to discern truth from lies.

 

So this is where we are.

 

 

Liz Cheney is one of the rare people who will not be swayed by the herd, no matter what the imagined benefits. I do not agree with her on most policies, but I respect her backbone, patriotism, and willingness to do what's uncomfortable.

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Why I Support Changes in American History Education

According to Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” enews this morning (dated May 2, 2021):

On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the "quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history." The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages "projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning."

I couldn't check out the public comments portal fast enough.

 

I am seventy years old. It was not until around twenty years ago when I found myself working for an organization that had indigenous rights projects that I realized millions of people all over the world had worldwide conferences and had been screaming (and ignored) for centuries about land theft, culture obliteration, and the destruction of their families. I met many of these people and felt as though I'd been living under a rock all my life. This led to a self-education project that escalated during the Trump era when racism became acceptable. I've read book after book (see end of this essay for references*) that horrified me at what my white school never taught. I felt embarrassed and also infuriated at the blatantly false history I'd been led to believe was true.

 

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The Cost of Kindness

Receiving a direct deposit of my stimulus check this morning stimulated a contemplation ... about cost:


The other guy stopped the active printing of checks to have his name printed on them ($) and have them reprinted ($). Then they were sent out by mail, as not-so-subliminal promo ($).


I was glad to receive them, but wondered why, since I file taxes online, I had not received a direct deposit, costing no printing or postage or envelope.


Today's deposit cost a lot less. True compassion and kindness and concern for another's well-being cost a lot less.


Follow the dots. What would it cost if I committed to kindness and compassion as my #1 action? Absolutely zero.

 

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Old Novels as Therapy

I am a published novelist and a rabid reader, but I've been stalled in both those areas. Between the cultural tumult and my almost-15-year-old dog's terminal kidney disease, I've become a worried political activist and an exhausted canine hospice caregiver.

 

I have two novels circulating to publishers through my agent (the newest of which deals with the cultural and political turmoil we are all living through right now), but since there is no discernible response, I see no point writing more—which nicely compliments my complete lack of inspiration.

Between my dog's IV drips and endless treks up and down my four flights of stairs to walk her, I found I cannot concentrate on reading new novels, let alone meeting new characters and remembering who everybody is. So suddenly my reading habit—a great source of joy—stalled.

 

In these incredibly dark days, I've found solace talking to people I've known since childhood. And, likewise, I realized I need books with a personal foundation already in place: books that I already know are outstanding, that I know will transport me—books that I trust because of my long history with them. I have such books already on my shelves, but I also bought a couple more.

 

Complete article published in the January 4, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly.

 

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William Still's 1872 book Underground Railroad Records

book cover William Still's Underground Railroad Records

The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom

by William Still, Quincy T. Mills (Editor), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Introduction)

 

Imagine it's you: You are kidnapped from your family, stripped naked, shipped like cargo, body stacked on body, in the hold of a ship. If you survive, this transport is followed by being "owned" and worked by other people. Some of the "owners" claim you're not human; others say, "Gee, I'd like to let you go, but I'm too poor and my dead husband left me only you." Or "When you get old enough, you can be free." Or "You can buy yourself for $500." So on some level they know you're a person just like them. But it simply doesn't matter to them.

 

Imagine you are beaten, raped, have your children ripped away from you and sold like a bag of potatoes. Maybe you escape, only to have to leave babies behind. Or your wife or husband. Or one of them fights tooth and nail, escapes and then comes back to try to rescue you. And then is killed.

 

All the time, you are a feeling, thinking, intelligent, maybe brilliant, talented, agonized person, and this treatment is condoned and supported by a whole culture that lives fairly well off of your enslavement.

 

This book of firsthand accounts of escapes on the Underground Railroad, first published in 1872, makes you feel it—as if it's you. And the rage I feel is beyond expression. I got so angry I shook.

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At the Root of Our Problems

From my new favorite teacher, sociologist, writer, wisdom teacher Bertice Berry. Listen and contemplate.

 

Here's my contemplation:

 

More and more I think that at the root of our problems is a lack of imagination: if something has not happened to us or someone close to us, we at some level cannot imagine it is true, along with the full spectrum of feelings that come with that.

 

I fancy myself pretty imaginative. After all, I was an actor and am a fiction writer. But recently I realized that because of my childhood, I have never really imagined a "good family." Therefore I never wanted a family. What an aha when a sudden healing opened my heart enough to realize what I've been blind to all my life.

 

Seeing my own lack of imagination allows me to correlate it to people who are so horrified by the current violence (and please understand that I too abhor violence), but only the violence of protestors. In the horror, you're painting all protestors as horrifying--same as I unconsciously painted all families as a torturous experience. I'm guessing you think my delusion is pretty extreme. Good imagining--you're right. Now correlate that extremism to your own if you cannot understand the pain of the majority of peaceful protestors. We all do this. I am hardly alone.

 

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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A partial journal of reading this very long book

 

7/7/20 My Facebook Post

I am very late to this classic. The first paragraph landed so hard I have to stop reading and do errands to let this process through my body. Here's what did it—from Columbus's log when he was met with an extraordinary welcome by Arawak people who inhabited the Bahamas:

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The legacy of this mindset is nauseating. The misinterpretation of love, altruism, and gifts to honor visitors, from a Western perspective of power and possessions and the arrogant belief that any culture that is different from theirs is necessarily ignorant or stupid rather than perhaps more evolved and connected to oneness? ... I do not know where to begin. I have been reading and editing Native material the last few months, and seeing and feeling the roots of the pain leaves me moaning in my own agony. I will absorb this book as fast I'm capable.  Read More 

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Educator and sociologist Robin DiAngelo is brilliantly thorough, and I am grateful beyond expression. This is unapologetically a book by a white woman written for white people who dispute our part in our historically racist system. It's for people who find the discomfort of the discussion intolerable. And it's also for white people like me who have accepted culpability and have committed themselves to being as uncomfortable as it takes in an effort to become an antiracist—and it gets pretty damned uncomfortable; my last read, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, gave a new-to-me history that I was never taught in white school and a vivid new awareness of systemic racism and how black people have coped with it that's changed my vision.

 

White Fragility is clarifying, supportive, and further strengthens my commitment, even as the clear articulation of everything made me sometimes squirm. DiAngelo's genius is the ability to break things down and deliver them as digestible facts. And with that, I'll turn it over to Professor DiAngelo:

 

What is white fragility?

 

Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven't had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. (1-2)

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Listen and Atone: A Message for White People

Even if you have never knowingly done something to hurt another person.

Even if you consider yourself "color blind."

Even if you live in an enclave of peace and harmony.

Even if you don't know any people of another race, so how could you be guilty of offending or hurting?

Even if you have lived a life of groveling in the mud and have worked for every dime you've ever had.

Even if the whole notion of "white privilege" strikes you as ignorant of your pain and suffering to merely survive.

Even then, please listen.

 

"But, but, but . . ." you protest.

 

All I'm whispering is, "Listen." What will it cost you?

 

Think of a time you were hurt—maybe as a vulnerable child—and nobody heard your screams. Or maybe they did hear, but they didn't help or they actually made you hurt more.

 

Think of a time life was unfair. You did everything right, but still you were rejected, tossed out.

 

Now think of our history: Europeans landed on an inhabited land where they were welcomed. In response, they committed brutal sustained genocide, stole land, stole children, put Natives in virtual concentration camps—

 

"But I didn't do that," you protest.

 

Please, I'm pleading with you. Listen.

 

These settlers built an economy based on free labor. Human beings were sold by African warlords because they saw white man's money and wanted it. These people were ripped from their families, shackled and packed like sardines, shipped across the ocean, raped, brutalized, tortured, murdered. Even after the slave trade was declared illegal, it continued. White people declared that other humans were not human, purveying it as a spiritual truth, because it justified what they knew in their deepest hearts was immoral. They defended it, and therefore their economy and right to a certain life style, by turning against their own government, flying their own flag, and fighting a war. Which they lost.

 

But still the abuse continued. By now it was woven into the culture. Our DNA.

 

"But I've never—"

 

Hush. I'm begging. Read More 

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Percival Everett Has a New Book!

I made this video as part of the Authors Guild's initiative, #SupportAuthors, to promote new books in the age quarantine.

 

The websites mentioned are Graywolf Press's page for Percival Everett's new book Telephone

and the wonderful new bookshop.org that supports independent bookstores--here is their page for the book: bookshop.org.

 

 

Now that I have just finished this magnificent book, my review:

 

How on earth do you review a book that is as personal, as tender, and as unnamable as your own soul? Reading Percival Everett, and this new novel in particular, is like entering the territory where all life comes from. I had such a hit of this when I first began the book that I literally passed out. In yoga there are names for this. Suffice it to say that it's when your consciousness is overwhelmed, stretched beyond its normal capacity.

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Joys of Solitude 101: 10 Tips

As a person who woke with dread for the four decades I was compelled to work with other people in offices, silently thinking "if only I could work alone," I may have some wisdom for people who normally leap out of bed in anticipation of social contact—people who are now forced into a routine that requires low levels of oxytocin to enjoy. So to you, I offer the following tips, the first one of which got me through my years of mandated social agony:

 

1. It's only temporary. If you can just do this for the required time in order to stay well, know that one day you will be able to revert to your happy natural self. Anything is do-able, even life, if you remember that the only consistent thing is change, and this too shall change.

 

2. No more makeup, no more appropriate dressing of any kind. No more need for clothes! Think of the money you'll save.

 

3. You can fart with abandon.

 

4. Relax your facial muscles. I'll bet you have no idea how much time you've spent stress smiling, faking care when you really didn't want to hear about Bob's grandmother's operation, pretending you were okay with that guy/girl in the neighboring cubicle latching onto you when their very presence made you want to shower. No more pretending! Feel the relief and let it move through your now-flaccid body.

 

5. To keep that flaccid body from melting into a puddle of adipose, exercise at home—YouTube videos, Kathy Smith videos are my go-to, free weights, a treadmill, dance like nobody's watching—because nobody is. Nobody to impress. Enjoy some private endorphins. Work up a sweat. And, again, fart with abandon.

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I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, "Was my father handsome?"
She replied, "Some might say yes."
"Was he smart?" I asked.
She stared at the television. "Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman's chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?"
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died. (pp. 84-85)

I've quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named "Not Sidney Poitier" although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.

 

However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.

 

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a quest story—a search for identity, or one's true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people's perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people's projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, and locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:  Read More 

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I Wish More People Would Read Books

Because I write books, of course I wish more people would read them. But I write fiction, and this morning, after seeing a plethora of fearful social media posts as well as the New York Times's trepidatious headline about Bernie Sanders's New Hampshire primary win ("Tightens Grip on Party's Liberal Wing"), my wish is that people would read more nonfiction.

 

Why?

 

Because, unless the books are the fabrication of a good ghost writer (i.e., The Art of the Deal, now disavowed by repentant ghostwriter Tony Schwartz), people tend to expose who they really are when they write.

 

Since the 2016 election, I have read a lot of political books:

 

In A Higher Loyalty, former head of the FBI James Comey came across as thoughtful and introspective . . . with a fatal flaw that turned off his self-analysis talent: blind righteousness when it came to his decision to talk about an ongoing investigation, despite the fact that it was against FBI policy.

 

In Hillary Clinton's post-mortem, What Happened, she is warm, funny, dedicated, smart, and unbelievably oblivious when she dismisses, with one line, the Democratic National Committee's rigging of the primaries—because it was legal, albeit completely unethical. She gives not one thought to all the people who felt betrayed to find out what really happened in that instance. It is the same oblivion that allowed her to condemn "deplorables" and promise unemployment for coal miners. For a smart and usually ridiculously controlled person, she could be incredibly flippant.

 

I like Comey and Clinton—a lot. I understand flaws and have plenty of them. I don't believe either one of them wants anything other than the best for this country, but they have blind spots—a similar tendency to instantly dismiss what they disagree with.

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Awakening the Ancient Power of Snake by Dawn Baumann Brunke

 

I used to work as managing editor of a magazine whose theme was spirituality. Despite its subject, it was news and research-based at its core. Readers liked this, but often we would get pitches from New Age writers who couldn't understand the importance of science, verification, and credentials. It was my job to gently explain that although I understood that people had powerful personal experiences, for us to publish a "fact" story, the writer and/or material had to have had some kind of vetting.

 

I cannot imagine a better writer than Dawn Baumann Brunke for material that might otherwise fall into the "woo-woo" category for many readers. She is not only a deep dreamer with apparently 20/20 vision for details that she remembers, but she is a skeptical analyst of all things and a researcher who understands that history matters—that everything, including dream images, has history that informs meaning. And it helps that she is also an elegant writer who knows how to tell a story.

 

Who better to write about one of the most potent and controversial animals—snake? Snake is worshipped and loathed. It is embedded in our stories and architecture and reflected in our DNA. There is even a named phobia (ophidiophobia) because fear of snakes is common among our species.

 

This generously illustrated book is so full—from history, art, myth, and science, to personal stories of owning and feeding snakes, to understanding why our feelings about the iconic snake (in body and in image) are indicative of the sharp divides in today's culture, how these divides came to be, and what we might do to accept the synthesis of opposites offered by one of the most ancient symbols of healing, protection, and oneness. Read More 

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