What To Do Right Now

Sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon, eyeing the implacable to-do list. I’ve always believed a freelance writer’s work is never done. There is always another magazine to pitch, another blog to write, another idea to flesh out, another email to send, another newsletter to read. The opportunities are as limitless as grains of sand and each one missed feels like a small but meaningful moral failure.

That is my archaic Protestant blood; the part of me descended from Huguenots and who knows what else: Methodists, Calvinists, Puritans? They’re mixed up in my family tree. The clear line is work, duty and the precariousness of salvation. All I did was replace the fear of damnation with the fear of failure.

It is a poor exchange. The reward is as evanescent as the demands are arbitrary. What heaven? Whose definition of success?

Meanwhile, Trump threatens nuclear war. White supremacists roam free across the US. Britain is committing slow motion suicide in the name of Brexit.

We live in the proverbial interesting times.

I would like to have something wise to say about this and don’t.

What I can recommend to everyone, starting with myself, is to take the to-do list lightly. After the mushroom cloud, no one will remember or care if you ticked that last item off the list. Instead, spend serious time on things that have meaning right now. Like cooking a good meal, drinking a glass of wine, talking (not texting) to a friend. And reading books. Lots of books.

Media adds to the chaos and noise. There’s too much information, too much bullshit, too much chatter, too many memes, too much clickbait, too many ads disguised as editorial.

Books don’t have hyperlinks. Books create space for your mind to breathe. Books tell us how things worked out the last time around Off the top of my head, here are seven books you should read because they’ll help you make sense of right now.

  1. EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy
  2. Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War
  3. Earnest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
  4. Joseph Heller – Catch-22
  5. George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia
  6. Emma Goldman – Essays on Anarchism
  7. Eric Ambler – Uncommon Danger
  8. Wilfred Own – The Collected Poems

Add your suggestions please!

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Boys Scouts, Trump and American Values

To paraphrase he-who-shall-not-be-named “who the hell wants to talk about politics on a writing blog?” Alas. These are the times we live in. Times when we have no choice but to acknowledge the shitshow unfolding in the World’s Greatest Nation (TM).

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Even the Senegalese hawkers selling beach blankets on Andalusia’s Costa de la Luz have opinions about HWSNBN, and are happy to share them. We can hide, apparently, but we can’t run from the catastrophic wrong of 8 November, 2016.

That disaster touched down at the Boy Scouts Jamboree on 24 July, ripping through common sense and common decency like a Russian-sponsored tornado.

A few things I learned reading the TIME transcript of Trump’s Boy Scout speech.

The United States has no better citizens than its Boy Scouts.

Boys, ONLY BOYS, make the best citizens.

“Many of my top advisers in the White House were Scouts. Ten members of my cabinet were Scouts.”

Or maybe just the best yes-men to megalomaniacs?

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is here tonight…. Ryan is an Eagle Scout from Big Sky Country in Montana…. He makes sure that we leave our national parks and federal lands better than we found them in the best scouting tradition.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry of Texas, an Eagle Scout from the great state…. So, Rick, thank you very much for being here. And we’re doing — we’re doing a lot with energy. And very soon, Rick, we will be an energy exporter. Isn’t that nice? An energy exporter.

What he didn’t add was that the administration’s bright idea for energy production involves stripping federal lands of environmental protections so private companies can devastate more of America’s vanishing wilderness.

Secretary Tom Price is also here today. Dr. Price still lives the Scout oath… And hopefully he’s going to gets the votes tomorrow to start our path toward killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare that’s really hurting us.

Ah yes, it’s Obamacare that hurts people. Not being bankrupted by medical bills; watching a loved one die too soon because they couldn’t afford healthcare; or being shut out of healthcare by rapacious insurance companies that refuse to cover “preexisting conditions”. Nope. Not that. Definitely the Affordable Care Act. Definitely to blame.

As the Scout law says, a scout is trustworthy, loyal — we could use some more loyalty I will tell that you that.

Blind loyalty. Wonderful character trait. For a Nazi foot soldier.

The fake media will say, “President Trump spoke” — you know what is — “President Trump spoke before a small crowd of Boy Scouts today.” That’s some — that is some crowd. Fake media. Fake news.

Go on. Infect the minds of impressionable kids with your disgusting, manipulative paranoia-mongering bullshit. Your the President. It’s your prerogative.

he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won’t go any more than that, because you’re Boy Scouts so I’m not going to tell you what he did.
(CROWD CHANTING)
Should I tell you? Should I tell you?
(APPLAUSE)
You’re Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life.

Did it involve pussy grabbing?

We have a tremendous disadvantage in the Electoral College. Popular vote is much easier.

Which you lost.

Under the Trump administration you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again when you go shopping, believe me.

But only in December. The rest of the year it’ll be: Sieg heil!

Do you see the billions and billions and billions of additional money that we’re putting back into our military? Billions of dollars. New planes, new ships, great equipment for our people that are so great to us. We love our vets. We love our soldiers.

Not enough to, you know, provide them with proper healthcare or mental health services, but still.

It’s the newest, largest and most advanced aircraft carrier anywhere in the world, and it’s named for an Eagle Scout — the USS Gerald R. Ford. Everywhere it sails that great Scout’s name will be feared and revered,

“Feared and revered” — it’s the new “winning hearts and minds”.

What you’ve done few have done before you.

Erm, been a Boy Scout? Pretty sure a few people have done that in the past 107 years.

But the words “duty,” “country” and “God” are beautiful words.

As long as you’re not Muslim. If you’re Muslim and say anything about duty or God we’ll call you a terrorist and lock you the fuck up.

What we did, in all fairness, is an unbelievable tribute to you and all of the other millions and millions of people that came out and voted for make America great again.

Either he’s admitting voter fraud, or he’s confused about the age of Boy Scouts.

 

This should be funny. It’s not, because it’s true. There is nothing funny about that man. Nothing funny about the wrecking ball he is gleefully swinging at the already fragile American infrastructure. Nothing funny for the people trapped in the rubble.

We have to find the words to fight back. Here are some books that can help us find them.

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Common Sense – Thomas Payne

On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

No is Not Enough – Naomi Klein

Civil Disobedience – Henry David Thoreau

Requiem for the American Dream – Noam Chomsky

 

 

 

Is it normal to feel this crazy?

Ever have days where you just. Feel. Crazy? Like your mental timing belt snapped and the engine of your brain is beating itself to death inside the bonnet?

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Michel de Montaigne – Essays

Keeping a notebook gives you the privilege of looking back on these moments. Below, you’ll find links to books by writers who articulate this feeling much better than I.

18 June 2016 is it normal to feel this crazy?

For every 10 waking minutes I feel confident, competent, generally positive about where I am and where I’m going, I spend roughly 27 minutes in a sea of anxiety, 13 minutes moderately depressed and/or hopeless, seven minutes angry/outraged and the other three minutes I’m eating, or drunk. Is this normal? Do other people feel their nerves are being prised apart fibre by fibre with dull tweezers? Or like their soul is wearing one of those lead aprons they weighed me down with when I got dental x-rays as a kid? How do other people feel? Am I normal? I can’t be normal; I’m pretty sure I’m crazy, or getting there. But how crazy. Should I section myself now? Kill myself now? Is that something only a crazy person would think?

It was Montaigne who wrote about the power of fear — that men are so frightened of death they run out and kill themselves. I feel like that a lot of the time. I’m so afraid of things happening I want to make them happen, just to get over the horrible anticipation. Having a shitty day and your boyfriend’s hanging out with his ex? Dump him immediately, because 1 + 1 = the square root of ohmygodhowcouldhelovemeasmuchasheloveshertheyhaveadogandeverything.

Not the thoughts of a sane person.

But the question remains, nagging. Am I a little crazy or a lot crazy. If I work really hard to keep it under wraps can I pass as eccentric? Or am I so fundamentally unreliable I should be straitjacketed immediately? I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know how crazy other people really are. Because the sane thing to do, when you suspect you’re crazy, is lie like crazy.

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Cheryl Strayed – Wild 

Fill your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed with motivational quotes and pictures of sunsets (check), do yoga (check), tell people how doing yoga has transformed your life (check, plus it’s true), update your LinkedIn profile so you look smarter and more employable (check), network (check), laugh (check), use mascara (check), shave your legs (one of these days). There are ten thousand ways to fraudulently present oneself to the world as a functioning adult. I try. Other people presumably try. Or maybe their smiles are genuine, maybe that sunset really lifted their mood, maybe they are in fact super smart and ragingly employable. I have no way of knowing.

What I know is that for every minute of relative calm and productivity, I experience eight on a negative emotional scale that encompasses frustration, anger, judgement, anxiety, depression, panic, fear, self-loathing, doubt, despair, indifference, or plain boredom. Then there’s a minute when I’m drunk or eating. If for some reason I’m not drinking that extra minute gets devoted to the negative scale. If I’m hungover, 35 seconds of my good minute are converted to self-loathing.

Where does this leave me? I don’t know. I don’t know where I started, or where I’m going. Is there any chance I’m ever going to understand what it feels like to not feel crazy?

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Books to staunch the crazy

Being Married

Getting married is a peak experience. Being married is climbing a mountain.

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Grand Teton, Wyoming

I don’t mean that in a negative way. Standing in thin air gets boring. But the shift to day-to-day, one foot in front of the other is a major adjustment. In such times, it is essential to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before. Especially if your family history includes a succession of marriages with the sinking/explosive properties of depth charges.

We began married life with Joan Didion’s gimlet-eyed appraisal of ’60s Vegas,  “Marrying Absurd” from her astonishing essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlahem.slouching

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

My husband and I wed within 48 hours of getting the marriage licence. Our engagement (unannounced) lasted about two weeks. Why the rush? Because it passed the last day test, e.g. if tomorrow were my last day on earth, I wanted to spend it as his wife.

Here we are, then, married.

Life continues.

Specifically, he is still on the road with work. I’m staying with family, living out of a suitcase for the final weeks of his contract. Some time in the next month we hope to have a home in Spain. If everything works out. We count on things working out.

Optimism is a prerequisite for any marriage. Ours is probably no more demanding than any other, just different.

It is easy to feel alone in this new thing so I am grateful to my dear friend, the gifted writer Melissa Madenski. When she says, “you should read” I listen. Over coffee at Tabor Space — a coffee shop sanctuary tucked into a church in Southeast Portland — she recommended This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

happy marriage

A couple years ago I read and loathed both The Patron Saint of Liars and Truth & Beauty but Melissa doesn’t give bad advice so I trotted off to get …Happy Marriage.

Among other things, it taught me to be willing to give writers another chance. Though I have no desire to read any more of her fiction, Patchett’s essay on marriage sends reverberations down the long bones of my legs. She writes of her relationship with her second husband which, for over a decade, was defined by her refusal to marry. After a disastrous first marriage she decided there was no need to ever do that again. A sensible stance, if you ask me.

Then her partner is diagnosed with a serious heart condition. “All these years I had thought to be afraid of only one potential ending: by not marrying Karl, we could never get divorced,” she writes. “By not marrying him, he would never be lost to me. Now I could see the failure of my imagination. I had accounted only for the loss I knew enough to fear.”

I know that feeling, the hammer-blow realisation that what I’m scared of isn’t what’s at stake. Fear is provocative, especially in relationships. Not fear of what is, but fear of what we remember, and what we imagine might be.

Adrienne Rich describes it as “pain… flashing its bleak torch in my eyes/blotting out her particular being/the details of her love. (From “Splittings” in Dream of a Common Language). We all have baggage, remembered wounds that flare up under the heat of common languageemotional intensity. The memory of pain become a self-perpetuating cycle of fear, if you let it. Fear is a virus that needs us to replicate. It will multiply and gorge itself on our happiness unless we keep our eyes locked on the details of our love.

Patchett recognises the consequences of letting the virus breed. “The fact that we came so close to missing out, missing out because of my own fear of failing, makes me think I avoided a mortal accident by the thickness of a coat of paint. We are, on this earth, so incredibly small, in the history of time, in the crowd of the world, we are practically invisible, not even a dot, and yet we have each other to hold on to.”

Holding on to each other is the privilege and work of being married. Writing that, it occurs to me to wonder how this will read to me when I’ve been married a year? Five? Ten? What will time tell? Should I save this post as a draft for a few years to make sure things work out?

I could. But that would be to blink in the face of pain’s bleak torch. And I can’t see the path ahead if my eyes are shut.

 

Notebook Heroes: Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was genius at keeping a notebook. Some of his extensive journal became Walden, a timeless, beautiful assertion of Transcendent philosophy and call to individuality and authenticity.walden

 

The Journal is a doorstop volume gleaned from Thoreau’s notebooks. It is a treasure drove of description, anecdote and inspiration from a writer who was never short of — nor shy of expressing — ideas. The following excerpts are from a journaling workshop I run from time to time. Savour them then pick up a pen start your own notebook.

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Henry David Thoreau, The Journal

Nov. 9. In our walks C. takes out his note-book sometimes and tries to write as I do, but all in vain. He soon puts it up again, or contents himself with scrawling some sketch of the landscape. Observing me still scribbling, he will say that he confines himself to the ideal, purely ideal remarks; he leaves the facts to me. Sometimes, too, he will say a little petulantly, “I am universal; I have nothing to do with the particular and definite.” He is the moodiest person, perhaps, that I ever saw. As naturally whimsical as a cow is brindled, both in his tenderness and his roughness he belies himself. He can be incredibly selfish and unexpectedly generous. He is conceited, and yet there is in him far more than usual to ground conceit upon.

I, too, would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures; they should be material to the mythology which I am writing; not facts to assist men to make money, farmers to farm profitably, in any common sense; facts to tell who I am, and where I have been or what I have thought: as now the bell rings for evening meeting, and its volumes of sound, like smoke with rises from where a cannon is fired, make the tent in which I dwell. My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought.

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Nov. 12. Write often, write upon a thousand themes, rather than long at a time, not trying to turn too many feeble somersets in the air, — and so come down upon your head at last. Antaeus-like, be not long absent from the ground. Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life, — a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring-board.

C. is one who will not stoop to rise (to change the subject). He wants something for which he will not pay the going price. He will only learn slowly by failure, — not a noble, but disgraceful, failure. This is not a noble method of learning, to be educated by inevitable suffering, like De Quincey, for instance. Better dive like a muskrat into the mud, and pile up a few weeds to sit on during the floods, a foundation of your own laying, a house of your own building, however cold and cheerless.

Methinks the hawk that soars so loftily and circles so steadily and apparently without effort has earned this power by faithfully creeping on the ground as a reptile in a former state of existence. You must creep before you can run; you must run before you can fly.

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Jan. 27. Trench says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willed-ness, not mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almight is wild above all, as fate is.

What are our fields but felds or felled woods. They bear a more recent name than the woods, suggesting that previously the earth was covered with woods. Always in the new country a field is a clearing.

The Journal and Walden on Amazon

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Digital Detox

Somewhere along the way, my phone got out of hand.
Rather, it was never out of my hand.

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So, so addictive

Alarm chimes. Hand goes to phone. Depending on the latest incoming message a cobalt or green-means-go light flashes from the top right corner of my phone, a tiny beacon. Before I’m even awake my fingers are stubbing out the unlock code, skimming across the screen; my half-shut eyes are skimming Guardian headlines or reading messages.

At some point I roll out of bed and head downstairs to start coffee, phone firmly in hand. While the kettle boils I’m scanning email or Tweeting. The cat, my partner, and my mental health are all forgotten in an urgent need to catch up on Instagram.

Friday night, Chris and I were sitting side by side. I was absorbed in my phone. He said something. I wasn’t listening. As I struggled to tune in to reality, it occurred to me what a waste it to substitute a smartphone for human interaction. What was I going to miss? Another blast of bad news, a Gap e-flyer, a handful of photos by people I’ve never met and probably never will. In other words, nothing. Nothing of value, nothing of note, nothing that substitutes for time spent with someone I love.

So I turned my phone off and said: “I’m having a break.”

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Stoic philosophy

Saturday morning, I woke up before Chris. With my phone switched off, I reached for my Kindle and read a couple of chapters before coffee. Without the distraction of my phone, I had time to meditate for a few minutes. I read a chapter of Epictetus and mused on it.

We went for a long walk, looping through Overton Park and back to the house through the Evergreen Historic District. In the afternoon we did errands and talked. Came home, had a glass of rose and discussed plans for the coming months.

There were a few times I missed my phone: in the car, sans Spotify; needing to look up an address; wanting to look in an online shop. Those moments brought home to me how much I rely on my phone for distraction. Whenever there is a lull, I reach for it. Sometimes the pretext is information or function, but none of it is urgent. The address was for a letter that wouldn’t post until Monday anyway, the online shopping was (needless to say) not that important. And guess what, FM radio still exists.

We made Thai green curry for dinner. I simmered sweet potato, onion, red pepper, courgette and cherry tomatoes in a rich coconut milk sauce. Chris blacked Indian aubergines beneath the grill, peeling the charred skin at the last minute and adding the smoky flesh to the vegetables along with fistfuls of spinach and a handful of fresh basil leaves. We cooked a big pot of basmati rice, drank more rose. With our phones out of sight and mind, we concentrated on the food and conversation.

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Buddhist wisdom

Chris wanted to read after dinner. I’d finished my book so started the only other “new” book on my Kindle, Radical Compassion — a collection of essays by contemporary Buddhists. Without the lure of my phone, I concentrated more; thought more about what I was reading.

There was even time, in the midst of everything else, to write for a while.

Before going to bed, I looked at my phone. Should I turn it on to set the alarm for morning? It was strange to see it lying on the night stand, reduced to its real dimensions, just a slab of black plastic. The flicker of temptation passed. My phone is a significant part of my routine, a valuable accessory, but it’s not essential.

Communication is essential. Closeness. Caring. Connection. All these things the phone can facilitate. It can also be an attention black hole. It was good to take a day off and remind myself what’s important and where things stand.

If you don’t hear from me on a Saturday don’t worry, it’s digital detox day.

 

 

 

Resist List

A shitstorm’s a’coming, America, and it is tempting to sit like a rabbit in the headlights of 24/7 all-you-can-eat-non-stop-over-the-top media madness. It is easy to feel helpless as a bunny in front of a bazooka. Which is what They want. They want good people to be frightened, disempowered, anxious, depressed, fatalistic. They get us that way by generating global drama to distract us from the simple business of living in our own skin.

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Do your damnedest

Who has time to help a neighbour, volunteer, or read a book when THE END IS NIGH?

Not us, if They can help it.

Let’s call out that lie. Let’s insist on the value and validity of our lives. Let’s resist by doing small things to help, encourage, support, and contribute to our community.

Resistance comes in all shapes, sizes and creeds. Environmental activism, visiting the elderly, leading a youth group, donating to an animal shelter. It’s all good. It all matters. Every small act of care for a sentient being is a pebble in Goliath’s eye.

Here’s my resist list. What’s yours?

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Stand for something

Tip cash

Cash tips mostly go to servers. Card tips mostly disappear into an accounting black hole. Also, if you’re in the USA, do a quick Google search and check state law on tipping. In Oregon, employers have to pay the full minimum wage, tips are extra. In Tennessee, employers pay as little as $2.13/hour as tips count towards the paltry $7.25/hour minimum wage. If your home state is in a similar situation contact your Representatives & Congress people, and agitate against these oppressive laws that protect bosses.

Buy less/buy second hand

Because A) They want you to be doped on ads, neck-deep in debt and dissatisfied; and
B) Stuff ties you down. Stay free, stay mobile.

Avoid cheap new goods; they are the product of exploitation. As the great Victorian critic John Ruskin pointed out, if something is sold for less the true cost of production, it is stolen. They are also an environmental nightmare. Resell, re-buy, reuse. Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, garage sales, and thrift stores are a good place to start.

Get a library card

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Read for your rights

Libraries are the perfect place to plot a revolution. Read the books They don’t want you to read. Study. Learn. Connect to worlds of wisdom and possibility.

Exercise

The only proven treatment for depression that has no negative side effects? Exercise.
It also prevents heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia, etc etc. They are happy to have a weak, sick, docile population. Stay strong and resist.

Speak

Even if you think it doesn’t affect you. Never forget the words of Martin Niemoller,
a German Protestant minister who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Listen

To the people you love: because it’s easy to take then for granted,  take out our stress on them, or assume we know them. Ask questions, even if you think you know the answer.

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Be alert

To people you disagree with: antagonism and mutual mistrust is what got us here, it won’t get us out. Let’s none of us build walls.

To people no one else hears: kids, homeless, older, female, coloured… there are a lot of things that get you ignored. Make a conscious effort to give them your ear.

 

Share your Resist List in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke your #resistlist