Ways of Seeing, Rebecca Kneale Gould: How I made it through last year
Last autumn I took a year off from writing “Ways of Seeing” columns to focus on some other projects. And what a year it was. While I missed the regular writing (and I missed you, my dear readers) I also often felt relieved about taking a pause, for I was practically struck dumb by the world in which I found myself after November 8, 2016.
Those who know me will hasten to point out that having nothing to say is rather unusual for me. But that is honestly how I have felt through much of 2017. What could I possibly say about the roiling bigotry, incivility and blatant disregard for facts and rational argument that had become commonplace in the months leading up to the election and then erupted in full force immediately following?
How could I meaningfully speak to the fear and pain I felt driving by Confederate flags, reading about the uptick in anti-LGBTQ violence or scrubbing a hastily scrawled swastika off the door of the Havurah House? Could I address the “Charles Murray event” at Middlebury College in ways that would be thoughtful, compassionate and fair to students, friends and colleagues who were standing firmly on opposing sides of an issue that is far too complex to even really have “sides?” Quite honestly, it was easier not to write about these things and, in some cases, far better simply to be quiet and listen.
Lest my readers fear that after a year of silence, I am about to launch into a political screed of my own, let me add that what has also distressed me is the way incivility, hostility and refusal to listen have crossed all manner of political and cultural lines. Nor am I immune to these behaviors myself. On more than one occasion (okay, quite a few) I have caught myself hurling choice epithets at the car radio while driving to and from work.
This is harmless behavior one might say, with no one being on the receiving end and the car windows rolled up tight. But the truth is, while venting in the car may be constructive prophylaxis against hurling epithets at actual people (and therefore, not a bad idea), I don’t like how I look or feel when I do it. Feeling angry and bitter ultimately hurts me more than anyone else.
Over the course of the last year, then, I have searched for strategies that are nourishing and life-affirming in a time that feels like anything but that. And even if you are happy with the current political state of affairs, there are still plenty of Things Going On that might be shaking you to the core also. Let me share a few practices that have been helpful for me with the intention of nudging you to find some of your own.
To begin, with regard to the aforementioned hurling of epithets at the car radio, I have become very intentional about when and for how long I consume the news. Like most scholars I know, I am hungry for all kinds of information about practically anything interesting, but when it comes to the daily news, my emotional skin has always been rather porous. Too much bad news puts me in a bad place. Too much angry news ignites anger in my own soul. And fake news (not to mention brilliantly researched news that is decried as fake) simply drives me crazy.
So I still listen to the news on my errands and commutes, but when I feel the mercury in my emotional thermometer rising, I make the obvious healthy choice: Turn On Broadway. Guys and Dolls, Brigadoon, Hamilton, Come From Away — there’s a Rogers and Hammerstein or Manuel Lin Miranda song for almost every emotional occasion. For you it may be Vivaldi, Loretta Lynn or the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but whoever your artist of choice may be, listening to music and/or singing at the top of your lungs is very good for the soul.
Spending quiet time in the natural world is another winner. In a certain way, I have to “get over myself” when it comes to taking Nature’s Cure. I teach an entire course on ideas of nature in America, getting students to think about how our ideas about nature are never neutral, but are always shaped by race, class, gender and privilege in ways that we often don’t see. Going to woodlands and wildlands to experience the balm of nature is, in fact, a practice that white, privileged Americans (like me) tend to do more than others and for a complex range of social-cultural reasons. Pondering all of this can make it hard simply to go on a hike for fun! But no matter. I’ve learned to stop thinking about nature and just Be in it. Climb a mountain, hug a sheep, lie in a hammock and look up at the trees. What might that look like for you? And if not in nature, where do you find moments of calm and healing? Wherever that might be, seek it and go after it.
Finally, no matter how busy life seems, I’ve been trying to say “Yes” at least once a week to any invitation to be in community with others. It’s so easy and tempting to hole up in my office or stay home to rake the yard (our sheep mow the lawn, but unfortunately they don’t rake). Indeed, there’s always too much to do. But we really need one another right now.
We need to say “yes” to connecting and helping each other out. For me, it may be attending a Shabbat service, listening to a colleague’s struggles over coffee, having dinner with old friends or even pausing to chat with neighbors I’ve never met while dropping off the recycling. Yes, gathering together for protests, political organizing and public talks that challenge your assumptions are all crucial “to-dos” in this particular time and place. But there is also just being together for the sake of connection itself. As much as possible, when I am enjoying such moments, I try to stop and truly notice how enjoyable such moments really are, how grateful I am to be having them, how so many others are digging out of hurricanes, fires, unemployment or food insecurity and I am lucky enough to be having coffee with a friend.
Yes, after a year off from writing columns, I have plenty to say about the state of the world around me. But I am starting with some thoughts on cultivating the world within. So often, in tumultuous times, that is where we need to return before launching ourselves back into the fray.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, with a focus of comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton and tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.
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