#readingwednesday: the left hand of darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that’s always hovered along my peripheral vision as a casual reader of science fiction. I’ve always tended to be a little pickier about my sci-fi than about my fantasy (though I’ve gotten pickier about that in my ~old age~ as well), likely because mainstream science fiction always feels a lot like a boys’ club that just kind of reinforces all the same old tropes and structures of existing society. Jane Espenson, one of my very favorite TV writers in sci-fi, said it better than I could:

“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”

To me, science fiction, at its core, should be about exploring concepts in interesting ways, finding ways to explore the reaches of human diversity and imagination. Gender is one of the most interesting concepts to twist and examine and play with, yet so much of science fiction just falls into playing out the generally accepted sex binary. Boring, team. Just…boring.

One of the reasons I think I’ve kept The Left Hand of Darkness on the back-burner of my “to-read” list for so long is that its status as a “classic” made me suspect it would be more of the same “rugged individualistic wonder-of-space” cliches that have made me skirt around so much of classic science fiction. Recently, though, it turned up on a list of “feminist sci-fi” that included people like Octavia E. Butler (another major favorite), and that made me do a double-take, because no way does someone who plays into “white dude looks at space” tropes end up on the same list as Octavia E. Butler, Feminist Literary Queen of My Heart.

And yes, that is how I refer to her in my head.

Reading The Left Hand of Darkness cover to cover took me about four days worth of commutes, which is to say, not very long. In a lot of ways, this book felt like more of a philosophical text than a novel, which isn’t to say that I didn’t like that part–in all honesty, I think it made me like it more. The world (universe?) building was original and interesting, with the Ekumen taking more of a coordination role rather than one of law enforcement (see: the Galactic Senate, the United Federation of Planets, etc). Le Guin creates universes of culture, religion, government, sex, gender; her worlds are multifaceted and fascinating in a way that manages to elicit the quiet objectivity of a researcher woven with the subjective reactions of a tourist experiencing constant low-grade culture shock, or, more accurately, an ambassador who has spent some time at their post but continues to find themselves continuously surprised by the differences between the culture of their current environment compared to that of their native world.

The exploration of sex, gender, and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness was fairly groundbreaking when it was published, and, in all likelihood, probably still would be if it had been published today. The Gethenians, the humans who inhabit the planet Gethen, or “Winter” as the protagonist calls it, the name the planet was given before contact was made, are sexually androgynous. They are able to be sexually active only during certain parts of each month, similar to a menstrual cycle, and it’s during this period, kemmer, that they take on what we would call “binary” primary sex characteristics in order to mate and conceive. Because during each kemmer period the Gethenians could take on male or female characteristics, there is no sex or gender binary in the way that we think of it, no gender identity in the way that we think of it. To our protagonist, who comes from a “bisexual” (here referring not to sexuality, but to sexual dimorphism) society, it’s a constant cause for comparison, as he regularly encounters scenarios in which his own socialization in a gendered culture butts up against the desexualized culture of Gethen. There is no masculinity to protect, no battles for sexual dominance, no sexualization of bodies and products and commerce. Sexual violence doesn’t exist; unplanned pregnancies all but unheard of, reproductive violence nonexistence. As a reader, it’s baffling, but at the same time, not utopic–after all, an exchange was made: everyday sexuality sacrificed in exchange for sexual safety and an egalitarian society. Our protagonist wonders, outright, if explicit sexuality and true egalitarianism can co-exist, and doesn’t come up with an answer. It’s questions like this that make The Left Hand of Darkness stand out as a philosophical science fiction text–after all, sci-fi, at its core, is designed to make you wonder, to ask questions.

Lazy sci-fi answers those questions for you. Good sci-fi leaves you wondering, and makes you do the work yourself.

As a reading experience the book has been criticized by some readers over the years for spending too much time on exposition and internal monologue and not enough time on “real plot”, but personally, I don’t find this to be a down side. The book has plenty of action in its own time, but it’s not the space battles and explosions we usually get in sci-fi–it’s a cooler (ha, weather joke!) sort of action, political intrigue and character-vs-nature. This isn’t to say that the plot itself is boring, but that what moves the book along is the strength of the characters, their relationships to one another and to the environment, and the strength of the questions and concepts that the book explores. For my own part, I’ll take interesting characters, philosophically interesting world-building, and geopolitical intrigue over space battles any day of the week.

The argument has also been made, more recently, that Le Guin could have gone farther in exploring the gender concepts in the book and dismantling patriarchal ideas. To that, I’d say that I think that those critics might be missing the point. While I don’t doubt that Le Guin set out to write a transformative text and that she took great enjoyment and fascination with yanking the rug out from under those who take sexual dimorphism and patriarchal gender roles as given in any and all stories, I don’t think her goal was to say fuck you to the patriarchy so much as to invite questions and curiosity so that people could give their own fuck yous to the patriarchy. In her introduction, Le Guin points out that,

“science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future… a prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist… the outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer… somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life… Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Le Guin’s goal, at its purest point, was to take an interesting idea, and a fascinating question, and turn it into a story. She isn’t an academic, she isn’t a scholar of feminist theory–she’s a storyteller. And an excellent storyteller at that.

Team, if you, like me, have been avoiding The Left Hand of Darkness due to worries that it might be old-fashioned or trope-y or full of dude-bro cliches, give it a shot. Do be aware that, for all its progressive gender ideas, it was published in 1969. One of the things that jumped out at me, the use of he/him pronouns in a society that was hypothetically gender-less, probably would have been written differently today. But for me, at least, that wasn’t a deal breaker, and paved the way–as Le Guin probably would prefer it–for me to ask my own questions about what this story would look like if the concepts in it were explored today.

Like I said: good science fiction makes you work for the full experience.

But I think the work is the fun part.

Don’t you?

10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

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#readingwednesday: black girl dangerous

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The third and last full book I picked up for my Black History Month challenge of only reading books published by Black authors was Mia McKenzie’s Black Girl Dangerous, a collection of posts originally published on blackgirldangerous.org, a (seriously amazing) collective writing project that works to “amplify the voices, experiences and expressions of queer and trans people of color.” The book itself features posts that are no longer available on the site, and are presented, to some extent, with the context of their publication and some follow-up notes about how the posts were originally received and if McKenzie’s thoughts or positions had changed since the original post went up.

I downloaded the eBook of Black Girl Dangerous to read on a trip to New York to participate in a two-day staff meeting with my new job, and I think this ended up being a perfect time to read this book. I ended up reading the majority of the book on my train ride home, after participating in two days’ worth of strategic planning, organizing, and discussion around mindfully Jewish spiritual practice. This wasn’t just mindful in theory, but in practice–we engaged in mindfulness meditation, constant check-ins about what was happening with our feelings and bodies, and an intentional focus on creating a safe space for everyone in the room to be heard and to reflect on their on thoughts and processes.

Coming off two days of this sort of meeting, I was extremely conscious of my responses, both physical and emotional, as I read through this book. I started my reading already acknowledging that I was in a place of physical and mental weariness (as well as fairly substantial physical pain), which I do have the presence of mind to recognize is probably not the best frame of mind and body to approach a text that is insightful but entirely (and rightfully!) unapologetic in its approach to exploring intersectional issues of race, gender, queerness, and class. But coming from that mindful place, I was able–more than I usually am–to listen to the responses of my body and mind as I moved through the text. I recognized the times that I felt defensive (“‘Whack Jobs’ Are Not The Problem. You Are.”, certain sections of “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege”, “Hey, White Liberals”), the times I felt moved but wondered if I was co-opting feelings that don’t belong to me (“You Mad Yet? On the Murder of Trayvon Martin and the Question of Tipping Points”, “Resistance Is The Secret Of Queer Joy”, “To The Queer Black Kids”).

It would, I think, be very easy to read this book, get defensive, and put it away. And the reactions that McKenzie discusses that she received to the initial publication of these posts speaks to that–people who could not acknowledge their role in perpetuating these harmful systems and instead pushed back against McKenzie for her tone, her (intentional) word choice, her anger. Even as someone who likes to think that she tries her best to be open to being called out and told to check my shit at the door if I’m welcome in the room at all, I found myself responding to some of the book with a knee-jerk “wait, but–” and had to call myself back to a more mindful, receptive state of being. Once I re-centered myself, I could look at those reactions and try to examine why I was responding in those ways, and in what ways those responses were in and of themselves a reflection of my privilege.

If I’d had the time this month, there are so many other texts I wish I could have read: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, Paradise by Toni Morrison, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander–the list goes on, and I have all of these and more on my bookshelf and can’t wait to tackle them. But as I reflect, I think that Black Girl Dangerous was the perfect closing text for this month. It reminded me, more explicitly than Bad Feminist or Between the World and Me, that it is part of my ongoing work as a person who (regardless of my own marginalized identities) benefits from the tremendous privilege of whiteness to intentionally and mindfully direct my energies to dismantling these systems of white supremacy.

Pirkei avot, the words of the fathers, tell us that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to ignore it, and the call-outs of Black Girl Dangerous reflect this. I don’t believe that Mia McKenzie is telling me that it is my job as a white person to single-handedly take apart systems of institutional white heteropatriarchy, because she’s a damn smart woman and knows that’s not how it works. But I sure as hell believe that she’s telling me that if I claim at all to fight for racial justice, I am not free to ignore the ways that I benefit from my privilege, and to fight back against the systems that give it to me.

Black Girl Dangerous began as a response to a trauma that was both personal and political, as so many such things do, and became a transformative movement, dedicated to raising up silenced voices and building up black queer communities. In her final essay, “How To Be Black In America,” McKenzie ends her book with this reminder: “Don’t forget about love.”

Put defensiveness away, fellow white people, because that shit is not helpful. Acknowledge it if it comes up, and then move past it. Move forward. Build up this movement, and quiet the inner voices that tell you to speak over others when it is their time (because it has always been their time, but we have never listened) to be heard.

Love.

to support Black Girl Dangerous, donate here.

#readingwednesday: between the world and me

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But all our phrasing- race relations, racial chasms, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

The first time I cried at a novel, I was fifteen years old and reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

This was, I realize now, the result of a special sort of privileged naiveté. I was a fifteen-year-old white girl in a WASP-y as hell town in southeast Massachusetts, and Beloved was my first real, gut-wrenching exposure to the horrifying assault of black bodies that was slavery and racism in America.

I say privileged naiveté intentionally, because that’s what it was–I went fifteen years without seeing racism as anything other than a concept we learned about in history and reflected on during Black History Month, and as I think back now, I can’t imagine a greater privilege than to soar so easily through life, blissfully unaware of the discrimination and abuse still happening around me. My experiences with inequality were based on gender and sexuality and religion–being the queer Jewish girl who was the face of the queer student alliance gave me some recognition, and not all of it friendly–and these gave me empathy, but not understanding, not truly.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was not written for me. This book is a deeply personal one, written while race relations (that term again) were–are–tense and unsettling in the United States. A litany of names memorials across the country, and it seems like a new hashtag is born every other day–#iftheygunnedmedown, #ifidieinpolicecustody, #sayhername, and the one that started it all, but still rings on so many empty ears: #blacklivesmatter. Coates frames this story of understanding what it is to live in a black body in America as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, who left the room after hearing the Michael Brown verdict, who waited to see justice done for Trayvon Martin and instead saw his killer walk free, who is growing up in a world with a black president and Beyonce albums and social media empowerment but who still has a target painted on his back for no reason other than the shade of his skin.

I spent a long time sitting with this book, trying to find a way to write about it that felt genuine, that didn’t feel like I was co-opting another person’s story or words. I’ve had Between the World and Me on my shelf for some time and was waiting for the right time to read it, and chose to pick it up as part of my decision to read only books by black authors in February. Because what better time to read this text than during Black History Month, right?

The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful — the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you — the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.

As white children, we get the privilege to grow up learning about racism as a construct and a concept, something washed down the drain of America’s less savory past along with slavery and segregation. We get to learn that the police are the safe people we run to if we lose our parents in the grocery store, that anything is possible if we just believe in ourselves, that the world is full of opportunities that just need to be seized. Even now, after years of working to educate myself about intersectional feminism and the multiple, intersecting ways that institutional powers inflict harm on black and brown bodies, I still find myself struggling to step back, to keep from crying out defensively (because #notallwhitepeople, right? except yes, all white people), to instead listen to the words being spoken by the activists around me, those who are sometimes kind enough to let me come to their spaces and listen, and to understand that other times, most times, I am not welcome.

Between the World and Me was not written for me, but I needed to read it. Toni Morrison, of Beloved fame, calls this book “required reading,” and I truly believe that she is right. This book should not be required reading for Black History Month but for all months, all days, all years, by all peoples but by white people–or people who believe themselves to be white, as Coates more accurately phrases it; those of us who are recognized and borne up by systems of whiteness–most especially.

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In this book, Coates talks about his childhood, about his college days, his young adulthood, his life as a friend and a partner and a parent and a son. He talks of the fear that he saw in the parents who beat their children, because the beatings would come from them or the police, and better it came from them. He talks of the fear he feels for his own son, who lives in a world of stop and frisk and twelve-year-old boys gunned down by police for playing with toy guns in parks.

This book made me cry in a way that Beloved didn’t, in a way that clawed my soul. The raw emotion in this book doesn’t take away from the urgency of it, but it wraps the message in a sort of emotive beauty that pulls you in from Dear Son to I saw the rain coming down in sheets. This book holds you by the heart and doesn’t let you go, doesn’t let you breathe, because every paragraph deconstructs the world of whiteness and shapes the world through black eyes, takes individual stories and sets them against generalizations and voices. This book is 9/11 and Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter, but it is also a white woman who pushes Coates’s son on an escalator, steps taken onto The Yard at Howard University in D.C., the blood of his friend Prince Jones spilling onto the ground and taking with it all the love that had been poured into his body throughout his life.

When I was fifteen, I read Beloved, and I cried at the idea of racism, but still thought it was over.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book for his fifteen-year-old son, who saw himself in Michael Brown, in Trayvon Martin, in Tamir Rice.

Required reading, Morrison writes.

Yes.

#readingwednesday: this is women’s work

“In stories, women must always be punished for being too big, too beautiful, too brilliant, or too brash, for forever communing with snakes. The lesson is always the same: women like this must be reviled and feared, shunned and shuttered. Yet I am inclined to bring those women into my family and add my name to the list of those with wings and rage and a wide capacity for self-definition. They are all welcome here.”
This is Women’s Work, introduction: “Our Unclaimed Hallelujahs”

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My first year of college, I took a required class called a University Writing Seminar. There were plenty of options of UWS courses, designed to suck first year students into college writing while appealing to our interests. Since I was a huge nerd, I took the Fantasy Literature UWS, which took us through writing a close reading essay, a lens essay, and a research paper with such excruciating slowness that I nearly threw myself out the classroom window.

Putting aside the fact that I found this class absolutely awful in the way it was designed, organized, and taught and probably only survived it by watching the doomed romance between my roommate and one of our classmates and silently exchanging bets with another classmate, one of the primary things that stuck out to me about this class was the totally awful treatment of women in the books and essays we read. We spent a fairly significant amount of class time discussing fantasy archetypes, and nearly every archetypical example of women and girls in fantasy lit was either evil or helpless, and all of them were wrapped up in so much patriarchal bullshit I nearly staged a revolt.

(Instead of officially revolting, I used every possible opportunity to write essays about female writers, female characters who gave a firm middle finger to the patriarchy, and wrote my final essay about BDSM and empowered sex workers in fantasy literature. SUCK IT.)

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When I picked up this week’s book, Dominique Christina’s This is Woman’s Work, from the shelf at my local library, I was expecting it to be about women’s work in the way it’s often discussed in feminist and social justice circles: the often underpaid, if paid at all, emotional, physical, and mental labor performed by women, with little to no acknowledgment from families, workplaces, and social institutions in general. I was expecting a fairly academic text, maybe with a touch of humor or discussion.

The reality of this book, guys? It was so much better.

In This is Women’s Work, slam poet Dominique Christina creates a book that is part poetry anthology, part instructive text, part essay collection, part writing prompt collection, part journey of self-discovery and self-disclosure. She writes that a woman’s work “is to define herself,” and invites her readers to join her in exploring archetypes of women created and identified not through a patriarchal lens but through perhaps the very opposite: the eyes of a brilliant, creative queer woman of color.

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Rejecting traditional archetypes of the mother and the whore, the ingénue and the orphan, Christina introduces the Rebel Woman, who forms her identity in opposition to some external force, the Woman with Cool Hands, who provides a balm to those around her and finds calm in caring, the Howling Woman, who lives in suffering and grief. She pairs each archetype with a poem and a writing exercise, inviting readers to identify parts of themselves with each woman she names and explores. She provides examples, both real and fictional, of each archetype, and guides her readers through finding connections to the feared and loved parts of themselves in each “inner woman”—the parts of ourselves that we both revere and reject, the parts that we hide away and the parts that we display with pride.

After receiving a degree in writing that, even at my super liberal university, still spent a huge amount of time highlighting white male voices in literature, throwing myself into This is Woman’s Work feels like a plunge into a clean, cool lake on a hot, sticky summer day. Christina’s voice is refreshing in its clarity and poignancy; she pulls no punches and does not shy away from sharing the most intimate and vicious of experiences: pregnancy and childbirth, the discovery of sexuality, the sick anger and violation of sexual assault, the raging power of creativity.

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Whether you’re a writer, a woman, a lover of poetry, a student of literature, an avid reader, or any combination of the above: you need to read this book. It’s an eye-opening, gorgeous way to discover archetypes of women that push back against classic roles and instead demand recognition and appreciation. The inspirational writing exercises, poetic descriptions, and brilliant depictions of each and every incarnation of womanhood create a beautiful lens through which the reader explores their own journey of self. Each line spills across the page like poetry, and the text sucks you in soul-first and doesn’t let go.

“Praise the atoms and the cells that make your body a cathedral. Praise. Praise that there is so much of you left. Praise. Praise the otherworldly algorithm that is your heart. Yes, especially that. Praise and praise and praise. Revolution is the sound of your heart still beating. So praise. Praise. Praise.”

photos used without permission from www.dominiquechristina.com

looking back on 2015: a year of passion planning

So I’m a huge nerd about planners.

This should come as a shock to approximately nobody who knows me, and even less of a shock to anyone who knows my mother. Guys, my mom is a planner champion. Growing up, my sister and I knew that my mom never went anywhere for more than a few hours without her “book”, otherwise known as the planner binder that contained her schedule, our schedules, vague attention to my dad’s schedule, family addresses and phone numbers (this was before cell phones), family birthdays (this was after birthdays)–this book was the household bible, and we were well aware that if that book ever got lost, the entire family was screwed.

Needless to say, some of that got internalized, and I may or may not have grown totally obsessed over the years with finding the perfect planner. Since high school, I’ve gone through a series of planners of just about every size, shape, and orientation imaginable, but always found myself supplementing with extra notebooks, binders, or just straight-up to-do lists.

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Grad school is awful.

So, when a friend of mine shared the Passion Planner Kickstarter with me last year, I just about lost my mind. A planner that doubles as a notebook, a sketchbook, a goal planner, a to-do list, a doodle pad, an inspirational journal, and a self-care tool? SIGN ME THE HELL UP, TEAM.

I was a little late to the game to buy a Passion Planner last year, but the creator of Passion Planner, Angelia Trinidad is a truly wonderful lady who decided to make multiple PDF versions of the Passion Planner available online for free so that people could print individual weekly layouts or even an entire planner at their local store (or even at home, if you’ve got the technology!). Talk about a woman who puts her product right into the hands of the people who need it. I downloaded a full 2015 planner, and marched my tushie right to Staples to print it.

I won’t lie, it took me a little while to get used to this planner style. Part of me was a little daunted by the gorgeous, beautifully decorated planners I saw online, but I was also just a little nervous about getting into the fully integrated method of using this system, but after awhile, I got really into it, I’m not gonna lie.

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I did not, however, get better at taking pictures.

Once I got into the planner properly, though, I got really into it. I made my weekly goals. I set my daily focuses. I tracked my to-do lists and paid attention to the different and assignments we were given each week. I didn’t always complete the assignment, but at the very least, I tried to focus on it and take it to heart.

I even started adding in my own doodling and quotes!

(Always giving credit to the folks at @passionplanner, obvs.)

One of the best parts of the Passion Planner system was that it provided monthly reflections to help users look back at each month to determine what was learned, who was helpful, how you got closer to your goals, if you were happy with how you spent your time, and what you hoped to do differently in the coming month. I wasn’t as diligent about doing these as I maybe should have been (full disclosure: I still haven’t done my December 2015 reflection) but it was absolutely wonderful to be able to look back at each month and see how I grew and whether I was happy with what I did.

I know that a lot of people are really into the whole digital planner thing, and that there are probably billions of apps and calendars that do all the things that the Passion Planner does. But in all honesty, and maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, having a paper planner is something that really makes me connect to what I’m doing. Maybe because it reminds me of learning the art of organization from my mom, maybe because I’m a packrat who loves memories and keepsakes, but I just can’t connect to a digital planner the way I do with a paper-and-ink one. And at the end of the year, something about looking at this just fills me with warmth and gooey happiness.

2016 marks my second year using a Passion Planner, and in a lot of ways I’m in a similar place as I was last year–filled with a lot of uncertainties and looking ahead to a lot of transitions and changes. But if my mom taught me anything, it’s that as long as you’ve got your trusty planner by your side, you can handle just about anything the world throws at you. So here we go, 2016. Let’s do this thing.

choosing kindness, learning patience

As much as “Kind, Caring, Compassionate” is a motto for social workers and one I try to internalize, I am becoming more and more comfortable with admitting that kindness and patience are not things that come naturally to me.

This isn’t to say that I’m an unkind person. I spend what might be too much time thinking about other people and trying to do as much as I can for my clients and my various social justice causes. But at the same time, I have a lot of inner Gryffindor that needs to be contended with.

When I grew up reading Harry Potter, I always thought I was too smart to be in Gryffindor. “Surely I’m a Ravenclaw!”, I thought. “I’m so clever! And practical! And I always think about things! And I get really passionate about social justice, but I try to be well-researched, and…”

(oh. oops.)

So, here I am, trying to reconcile my Gryffindor identity (which is starting to make an uncomfortable amount of sense with my Leo personality) with my social work career path, which asks, amongst other things, that clinicians be kind and compassionate, understanding and thoughtful, careful with our words and actions, gentle with our judgments, and cautious with our interventions.

There are a lot of ways baby social workers might go about learning the skills that don’t necessarily come naturally to us. Read a book, role-play with a friend or supervisor, seek extra supervision…all great ways of developing those skills.

I decided to get a dog.

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(she’s sad because I took her picture instead of cuddling her)

Meet Sammi, my new housemate. She’s a hound/lab mix, with a little bit of Rhodesian Ridgeback thrown in there somewhere (she looks freakishly like my brother- and sister-in-law’s dog, Charlie), somewhere between a year and a half and two years old. She is a cuddly sweetheart who bounces back and forth between “let me lie on your lap and love you!” and “I WILL RUN EVERYWHERE GOODBYE.”

What was that about patience, again?

Here’s the thing about dogs. Dogs are, by nature…dogs. They don’t have the same moral reasoning that people do, and as such you can’t hold them to the same moral standard. If a dog gets freaked out because you’re leaving the house and runs back and forth across the house REALLY FREAKING FAST because they’re terrified that you will never come back ever (even if you’re just, I don’t know, popping out to the car to get the last bag of groceries), they’re not doing it to piss you off. All you can do is remake the bed, straighten the carpet, and go back to your day. If they slip by you on your way out the door to go to brunch and lead you on a wild goose (dog?) chase through the woods around your house for an hour and you only catch them because they’ve decided to become BFFs with the neighbor’s St. Bernard down the road and tire themselves out, they’re doing it because they are dogs, and outside is SUPER FUN, and of course they want to run around without a leash! All you can do is snap their leash back on, wash them off at home, thank your lucky stars individually and by name that they didn’t run into the street, and sign them up for a training class.

And as frustrating as it is, you just…can’t get mad. Partially because they turn those big puppy eyes on you and you melt like butter on a warm pancake, but also because it doesn’t help anything. All you can do is take a deep breath, handle the situation calmly, and come up with a better training regimen or a more careful way to leave the house.

A lot of this comes from the understanding that dogs can’t tell us what they’re thinking. They can’t tell you that they’re sad that you’re leaving because they’ve been bounced from home to home, or that they run when they have the chance because a person was mean to them or they saw something they really wanted to chase.  For those of us who adopted our dogs, there are a ton of blank spots to fill in. Who left you so often that you’re terrified every time I leave for work in the morning? Who didn’t train you to wait by the door so that you don’t bolt out if I fail to close it behind me fast enough? Do you bark at any sudden movement because it’s instinct, or because something scared you? Do you bark at me because you need something you’re not getting, or because you want something and aggressiveness was the only way to get it in the last place you lived? TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU SO THAT I CAN FIX EVERYTHING.

(Spoilers, they don’t usually answer that question.)

After awhile, this train of thought gets uncomfortably close to the tenets of trauma-informed care. Which, for someone who is definitely on the struggle bus with the whole “give the benefit of the doubt” thing, is actually pretty awesome, because it slots everything into place. “Oh,” you think to yourself as you sit across from a client who is throwing things against the wall again, “this is how I felt when Sammi was barking up a storm yesterday. Something must have happened that made this the reaction that makes sense to this client in this situation.” And all of a sudden, instead of wanting to bash your head into the wall, it makes a lot more sense to take a deep breath and respond with patience. You can’t undo whatever happened to them before you came into their lives. All you can do is try to be the best person for them moving forward, whether that’s deconstructing and changing negative behavior or reinforcing positive behavior.

Just because patience is not your instinctual response doesn’t mean you can’t become a person who practices patience. Just because your initial response to conflict or aggression is to snap right back doesn’t mean you can’t learn to react with kindness, even if your mind is still mentally listing all the snappy comebacks you could have used. There are times and places for action and debate and all the other fun things we Gryffindors like to do instead of quietly and calmly and kindly discussing an issue (anyone who has ever had a social justice conversation with me knows how low “be friendly” is on my list of priorities in those chats), but there are times and places where patience and kindness are what works better. Are what’s needed.

So:

Take a breath. Flip through your mental Rolodex of kind words and find the right ones for this situation. Handle this moment with kindness and compassion. Finish your session. Finish your walk. Gently disengage your client’s fingers from whatever she is throwing. Sit quietly until your dog understands that barking will not get your attention. Breathe.

And when it’s over, have a nice glass of wine.

(You earned it.)