Set Fire to the Rain

I came to the realization last summer that there is no anger more futile than anger at the weather.

Because there is just absolutely nothing you can do with that sort of anger. You can’t write letters to your representative. You can’t try a different method of communication. You can’t dedicate your life to medical or scientific research. You can’t do anything. All you can do is wait for it to change.

I don’t know what the weather was like in the rest of the world this winter, at least in terms of whether it was “normal” or not. Thanks to facebook and tumblr I see people post of course, but it’s harder to gauge if things are happening the way they are expected to based on one person in Arizona, in Canada, in the UK. Not impossible–I trust my friends and their perceptions, but it’s a lot different than seeing an overwhelming majority of the people you know expressing the same complains about the weather you are feeling yourself.

Basically, this winter has been a really terrible time to live in the Mid-Atlantic region. I can’t even qualify that with an “if you don’t like cold weather,” because I remember far colder winters. The weather has just been unstable. My birthday is in October which provides a pretty good frame of reference for my memory of fall temperatures, and this October definitely seemed to get colder, faster. Then we had Hurricane Sandy just before Halloween. Then we made up for slightly warmer temperatures by an exceedingly grey holiday season. Now, days after the spring equinox, we had: temperatures in the 60s on Saturday, the lower 40s Sunday morning, sleet that turned into snow that had accumulated close to 5″ by Sunday night, and I woke up this morning to completely clear roads (despite the fact that it was still snowing) and temperatures in the upper 30s. Oh, and on my lunch break, it dropped 5 degrees over the course of an hour and went from thinning clouds, to simultaneous snow and rain. After the sun went down I’m pretty sure I would have been okay without my coat.

And I want to be so angry at this. I want to be angry at the fact that I’ve been wearing long sleeves since September, that the clouds just Wont. Go. Away. When I have a day off in late March, I want it to be nice enough to work out in the yard. I would love to finish clearing the winter trash out of our flowerbeds before the flowers actually start to bloom, but it’s just hard to do that when there is snow on the ground, it’s raining, or it’s near freezing.

I want to rant about climate change, because that’s the closest to effectual anger I can come up with in terms of being mad at the weather. It still won’t make spring get here any faster, or stop hurricanes from ruining trick-or-treating, but it will at least serve as a way to channel all this rage, right? But science is far better at raging about climate change than I am, and my day off will have come and gone before it does me any good, anyway.

Instead, I have an anecdote.

Last June, Billy and I went to Acadia National Park for our annual week-long camping trip. We’d both always had Maine marked as a place we’d like to visit some day, and figured we may as well go before we had kids and it became a lot more difficult (seeing as I am currently 6 months pregnant, this was obviously a well-timed decision).

What we did not understand when we booked this trip, was how vastly different the weather would be from what we were used to. We read forecasts, looked at historical reports from that time of the year, and we were expecting it to be cooler (a lot cooler–to our credit, we did at least bring enough layers. We may not have intended to wear all of them all the time, but we had them), and that we would probably see rain a day, maybe two. What we got, was a stretch of days that never went higher than the mid-fifties, and rain for almost a solid week. And for a day we went with it. We explored Bar Harbor, had a wonderful meal, talked to a few locals (who quickly informed us we came up about three weeks too soon), and drank some really good beer. Then the rain picked up. And by the time we got back to camp the clothes we were wearing were drenched. And the wind had knocked our tarp partially down so a lot of our gear was drenched. And we hadn’t done a good job of pulling our sleeping bags far enough to the center of the tent, so they had folded down against the door over the course of the day so our sleeping bags were drenched. I don’t think I need to mention the state of our firewood.

Here’s the thing about being out in the woods in an unfamiliar area a 17 hour drive from home: you have no options. In retrospect we could have just gone to a hotel, at least for a night until we could dry our clothes, but it didn’t actually occur to either of us at the time, and given we were in Bar Harbor, Maine on a Richmond, Virginia budget, I don’t actually think we could have afforded a room anywhere even if it had.

So we were upset. I cried. We fought with each other while we restrung the tarp. Then we stood under it, dripping wet, with a fire starter we’d grumbled about but ultimately decided to buy, and clinked together beer bottles with peeling and waterlogged labels, surveying in the last dark grey light of the day our ruined campsite and wondering what to do with all of this futile anger. Our answer?

We set fire to the rain.

Literally.

Using the fire starter, the driest wood we could find, and the sort of determination to get your way that only a Libra-Rat can muster, I built us a fire. It started small and under the tarp until it got strong enough for us to move it to the fire ring, where we ended up with a roaring blaze that did not care that it was raining. It allowed us to dry our clothes, and, armed with the knowledge of what to do (and after a very wet night), to repeat the process the next day enough to actually dry our sleeping bags.

I have a lot of opinions on man’s conquering of nature, and very few of them are good. Not things like climate control, shelter, or refrigeration, but things like artificial clouds that keep sports stadiums cool in the middle of summer, artificial islands in the shape of whatever you feel like paying for them to be, and genetically modified food that is dangerous and unnatural just for the sake of marketability and corporate profit. So, I feel like we cheated that trip a little bit, by forcing a campfire when nature so clearly did not feel that was appropriate.

But I also feel like we compromised. We took what could have been a miserable week of fighting with each other and overspending by escaping the rain in town, and found a way to coexist. It might not have been the most environmentally sound thing for us to do, but then, neither would spending a lot of time in our car, or taking our sleeping bags to dry at a laundromat, or chalking up a 1600 mile round trip to a few nights in the woods and one day of bar-hopping. And by drying our belongings, neither of us got sick, which we would have if we’d spent our remaining nights sleeping in wet clothes and wet bags.

Even though this was less than a year ago (or maybe because this was only a year ago), I’ve come back to it a lot this winter. Some days it helps. Some days it doesn’t. I love hot weather. I love warm weather too, and even slightly cool weather in the fall, but I also love hot weather. I hate cold weather. I understand and appreciate the role that winter plays. I even like a few nights out of the year in my warmest, fuzziest pajamas cuddled on the couch with a cup of hot tea and leftover soup in the fridge. I don’t want it disappear–I am just more suited for climate zones with mild winters with shorter frost periods. Being cold is physically painful to me, and I am very strongly affected by the absence of the sun. So when, three months after the return of the sun and almost a week after the first day of spring the skies are still grey and there is snow on the ground, I think of last summer, and of learning to exist with the elements, rather than running from them or relying on artificial means of controlling them.

Which really just means, I think, that the only way to get over the futility of being mad at the weather is to throw out your arms and surrender to it.

Embracing the Darkness, and the Practice Of Faith

My faith is in my optimism.

I started coming to this realization at the beginning of August, during one of the most stressful, exhausting weeks I have had in quite some time, and it’s come up for me a few times since, in various forms of thought.

I have never had a problem with faith. I’ve spent the better part of my life not feeling a particular affinity to the Christian religion, and spent a lot of time saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” before I finally realized–while walking a pilgrim route rooted in Catholicism of all things–that it has never been religion that I have a problem with. I’m just not a Christian. Growing up in a Christian household that always felt like the sort of thing you didn’t say unless you really, really meant it, and even then, there was always that cloud hanging over your head that just thinking it was a sentence to hell, so it was easier to just dismiss religion in general.

It’s the sort of thing that means something different to any number of different people, but what it really boils down to for me is not a problem with religion itself. I am a person of faith, just not a person who ascribes to the teachings found in one particular holy book.

I say my faith is in my optimism because in the face of a lot of recent personal challenges–my past coming back, my present not making a whole lot of sense, and wondering how much of my future I’m really in control of, 2012 has so far been a pretty bad year for me–for most of the people I know, as well. And I am not a person who sits there on December 31 and thinks about how terrible the past year has been and how much I can’t wait to start fresh. As written in a previous blog post, the new year, to me, is about looking forward, but it’s about a threshold of hope, a feeling that floats on the air connecting strangers to strangers. I see people all the time waiting to dispose of the previous year, and I always wonder. I’ve had bad years, to be sure, but 2012 is the first time I can honestly say I’ve had the thought “is this year over yet?”

I do not feel content. I do not feel peace. I feel stress, all the time. I feel things crashing down around me and I can’t even lift my arms to cover my head. I have very little motivation for anything. I cry constantly, sometimes for no other reason than it’s the Thing To Do.

And yet–I can look around me, and know there is light. I might not feel it, may not even see it, but I still know it is there. Even with any number of awful things happening, I have never lost sight of the fact that light exists, that it’s all around us. I acknowledge that I am not able to see it, but not that is has disappeared, or that I will not be able to see it again.

And that… That’s faith. That’s the basis of it. The unwavering belief in something you cannot see, cannot always even feel. And my faith is in my optimism.

So the next part is… How do you practice that? In a religion-based faith, when you start to despair, start to question, there are Gods and Goddesses, prayers, rituals, holy books, other members of your faith to speak with. But this is–I hesitate to say more personal, as religion and faith are always different, and can be and often are extraordinarily personal. And what I am talking about is still connected to a belief in that which is beyond what we see. It’s more than having a bad day at work but believing the next day could be a good day. It, too, is other-worldy, a belief based on light and love, something ethereal, something higher. A spiritual connectedness.

Not theosophy–this is not a life-force or spirit energy. It’s why I choose the word optimism.

And the question is, when you feel like you are alone in the dark, but you know just outside of that darkness there is light, and that there is nothing trapping you in there, what practices do you take to open your eyes and find that light?

Intention. Gratitude. Love. Acceptance. Charity. Compassion. Empathy. Patience. Opening yourself.

As an HR/administrative supervisor for the largest department store chain in the country, it goes without saying that the holiday season is the busiest time of year for me at work–and my holiday season really starts around mid-August, and lasts through the end of January, with the peak busyness running from mid-October through Christmas Day.

Last year, I got through. The bitterness I feel now, that started well beforehand, and I carried it with me every day. I wrote about it, often. I wrote about wanting to overcome it. But when I was not consciously thinking about choosing to see the good, I did not.

This year, I don’t want that. I want to feel joy, to feel the “holiday spirit” so to speak. I want to be energized when I talk to people, and to come home and feel at home, to do things with my husband, our families, my friends, not just sit around and wait until I feel it’s late enough to go to bed.

Here is another thing I struggle with–accepting within myself that I do not always demonstrate the optimism I feel. That I do despair. That my bitterness and cynicism is not “just a phase,” and one day I will wake up and feel differently, without putting in any effort.

I write when I am struck with the beauty of the world, and it renews me and reminds me of the light that I believe in. But I don’t write about that beauty when I don’t feel it. Why, I wonder? I know that part of it, is I do not like to accept those times. I choose to ignore them, determined they are only passing moods. That the “real me” is the person who, 5-6 times a year, writes an inspiring blog post about how wonderful the world is, if only we would open our eyes. But if I write when that mood takes me, and I am not writing that often, doesn’t that then mean that the rest of the time I am jaded? And wouldn’t that, then, be the “real me?” Or the better question–aren’t they both who I am? And if I am at the low points, but still telling myself “This is not who I am–I am a positive person who believes in the good,” why does it feel like I cannot give those times any gravity? That trying to write from that point of view will in some way validate the fact that I am not always cheerful and optimistic?

And here’s where the practice comes in.

Keep a gratitude journal. It’s something I started doing a long time ago, and then abandoned and never went back to it until recently. I have a friend who does this, and I love reading her gratitudes. And–it’s incredible what that does to a bad day. It’s very simple: write down 5 things that happened during that day for which you are grateful. Or ten things. Or two things. They don’t have to be big. Maybe you got a green light you weren’t expecting, or a stranger held a door open, or your coffee tasted really good. Or the weather was nice. Or you had clean water to drink.

Write out your intentions. For tomorrow. For next week. Next month. I wrote several out for myself for the holiday season last night. You don’t need a landmark like the new year to choose to make resolutions for yourself. Not even specific goals, but a general theme you want for yourself.

Follow through. Read over your intentions. How many of us have been in a class, motivational lecture, or even seen some form of advice on the internet, suggesting you write out your goals and put them somewhere you will see them every day? Do this with your intentions. If you don’t want to pin them to your desk, or tape them to your mirror, put them at the front of your gratitude journal and read over them every night when you write your gratitudes. Think about what you did today that was in line with your intentions, and what was not. Journal about it if you choose, but at least acknowledge it.

Accept your faults. If you’re waiting until you feel like the person you want to be to accept the person that you are, you’re going to spend a lot of time not doing the things you want, because you don’t feel like it’s the time to do them. This is one of the hardest things for me to do, personally. But I’m trying to look at this from the point of view of Maggie the Cat, from Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:

“When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant…”

Take Pause. When you’re stressed. When you’re happy. When you’re alone, or in a crowd, or with friends. From time to time just stop and observe. In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” C.S. Lewis discusses how you cannot simultaneously describe and experience something, and this is completely true. So while I’m not encouraging distance from experience, sometimes–take pause. If what is happening to you is good, you can take in more of your surroundings. If what is happening isn’t so good, you can more easily see the bigger picture.

These are just the practices that I am trying, but there are any number of others. I’ve spent too long thinking that optimism, that feeling peace within chaos, were things that were inherent. They used to come naturally–but I think it was more the practice of feeling these that came naturally. And as with anything, the more you do something, the more it becomes a habit, and then something you just do.

So, have faith.

Hey! Ho! To the bottle I go!

With increasing conversations between Billy and I about starting a family, the possible proximity of motherhood has, naturally, made me reexamine my drinking habits, which has in turn made me think about cultural drinking habits in general. I had a GYN appointment not too long ago, a new doctor, so naturally they asked the typical questions–do you smoke (no), do you drink (yes), how much (1-2 drinks a day). She asked me to clarify, and I said I have a drink with dinner and often one after dinner, so she nodded, and said “I’ll put down one drink a day because it sounds better.”

I did a decent amount of research on it one night, looking at US drinking averages vs other countries, and the results basically turned out that the US Dep’t of Heath has a much stricter policy than most other countries’ equivalent public health groups, while there is not a widely correlational change in alcohol related illness and death–and in both the US and Europe, drunk driving and violence hold the top two slots for alcohol related death and injuries. Not to say the risks aren’t there, and health problems don’t increase drastically as drinking increases, of course.

It’s not a huge difference. But in the US, it is recommended to not have more than 1 unit/day to be safe. Most other countries with a body that issues any kind of statement say 2, or 2/3 is fine, and a lot of countries have a weekly correspondence to this–such as the US, which no more than 7/8 units/week, vs 14/15 is other countries.

Which really just led to reading about the cultural attitudes towards drinking, which is nothing I did not know, but basically comes down to: in the US, drinking daily is considered a problem, where as getting drunk is not. But in places like Italy, drinking daily is a part of the social and familial culture, while getting drunk is offensive.

And then there is the idea of drinking while pregnant, and the cultural differences there. Almost every body governing public health recommends minimal drinking while pregnant if not complete abstinence, but the cultural attitudes towards it are completely different. Rather than a culture where 1-2 units/week (even up to 7/8 units/week!) is considered acceptable with little to no effects shown in babies’ development, even mention it in the US and you get responses like “you can’t wait 9 months?” or “is one drink really more important than your baby?” (The same research about units/week is true across the board, it’s just hushed a lot more in the US because it’s so taboo.)

One of the comments I found, and oh I wish I could find it again so I could copy and paste it, but it was basically: ‘There are no health benefits to drinking anyway so why would you ever take that risk? Wait until the baby is born and then hire a nanny so you can take a two week vacation and spend it getting drunk while you commiserate that life as you know it is over.’

Because THAT attitude towards motherhood is SO much healthier and better for a child’s development than a glass of wine from time to time, right?

Which leads into another problem with our culture, which is our utter obsession with controlling pregnant women, and our complete disregard for actually helping children and babies. The entire pro-life movement is completely reflective of this. A group of people who uses shame and scare tactics because they love babies, but very rarely do anything to show they actually care about these babies once they are born. Once they enter school. Once they become adults who are damaged because they were born to mothers who were not ready.

And the point of this entry really isn’t about that, but it really is about how obsessed we are as a culture with judging other people. Back to drinking: If someone says they have 1-2 drinks a day, it sounds terrible. But yet, if someone talks about the partying they did over the weekend, bragging about their consumption (that often totals 7-14 units anyway), we find that acceptable because it is–what, social? I find sharing a new, fancy beer with friends social. I find drinking wine or beer with my husband with dinner each night a part of our family culture. I probably drink less per week than the average frat boy, or even less than one of my coworkers’ husbands, who parties with his friends every weekend despite being a 50+ year old retired cop. But because I spread mine out over the course of the week rather than cramming it all into one night, my drinking habits are more looked down upon in this country on paper.

I will try and find some of my sources and attach them. I was doing a lot of this research a couple weeks back and didn’t bookmark the links. But it’s really just… Both annoying, and interesting.

There is also what *else* people drink that is non-alcoholic where I am also far more European, as I really only drink water, coffee, tea, and beer or wine. I don’t drink soda, I don’t drink flavored beverages, I don’t drink dairy, and I don’t even drink that much store-bought juice because most of it is so sugary I can’t stand it. And it doesn’t seem like that is often factored into general public attitudes anyway. I personally find soda to be terrible in basically every regard, and it is pushed on Americans from a very young age, in spite of all the health problems it can cause.

Just… interesting.

Introduction

It has taken me a long time to start a blog. I’ve had a livejournal for years, and started a tumblr awhile back with the intention of it serving as a blog, but have yet to really venture into actual blogging.

There are three reasons for this:

One, is what exactly I wanted my blog to be about. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but I never really could find just *one* that I felt I could consistently write on without either straying from the purpose or becoming redundant.

The second, is a title. Yes, a title. If I was going to claim a small plot of webspace to write about my thoughts and opinions, I needed something to call it. And without really knowing for certain which thoughts and opinions I would be expressing, it was even harder to narrow this one down.

The final reason, is a first post. I have lots of idea for posts, but it’s that first one, the one where I am supposed to give some definition, that had me stumped. I thought about not even bothering with an introduction and just writing something, but then, it seemed whatever that first post is would define the entries to follow. It’s a lot like any sort of writing for me–that introductory paragraph, that first chapter, you have to get it right the first time, or so it always feels.

So, here is the hurdle of the introductory post, and here is me jumping over it.

This blog is going to be a lot of different things. Because rather than narrow it down to one specific topic, trying to pick one interest, I would rather just take those interests and connect them.

This is also a disclaimer, which I may move to a permanent place on this page, but for now: I am very liberal. I suppose reproductive freedom, and marriage equality. I believe that religious freedom means allowing other people to openly practice whatever they wish as long as it is not harming others, and I believe it is our responsibility to care for the planet. This is not a blog about politics, but I have beliefs that are very fundamental to the way I view the world that will come up, particularly in regards to environmental stewardship.

And now that I have gotten this out of the way, hopefully I can start on chapter two, and get this thing going!