Saturday, February 15, 2014

Small Lives

Small lives. That is the name of a story (poem? collection of thoughts?) I wrote a while ago, during one of my less happy days. Most of the things I write are somewhat sad. Some are even dark. There is no better way of overcoming negative emotions than to put them down on paper. At least for me there isn't. And so today I decided to translate one of my stories (poems? collections of thoughts?) into English, and put it out there for the world to see (or at least for those of you who read this!). So here it is. It's called "Small Lives". I am posting the German original, followed by the best English translation I could manage. Feel free to tell me what you think by leaving a comment. Over time, I might feel brave enough to post more of my creations.

Kleine Leben

Sein Leben ist ein kleines Leben. 
Er träumt kleine Träume. 
Sich die warme Sonne auf den Pelz scheinen lassen. 
Im Gras liegen und die Wolken beobachten. 
Einen trockenen Platz zum Schlafen und immer genug zu essen.
Frei zu sein von Angst und Schmerzen, umgeben von denen, die er liebt.
Sein kleines Leben ist nichts wert.
Sagen wir.
Er ist nur ein Tier.
Hat keine Gefühle.
Kein Bewusstsein.
Sein Leben ist ein kleines Leben und kleine Leben zählen nicht.
Weil es so viele gibt.
Kleine Leben.
Mit kleinen Träumen.
Die er hat.
Aber nicht haben kann, weil er ein Tier ist.
Und Tiere haben keine Träume.
Aber das weiß er nicht.
Deswegen sitzt er da, in seinem Käfig, umgeben von Dunkelheit und Angst und Gestank und Schmerz.
Tagein, tagaus sitzt er da. Und träumt.

Mein Leben ist ein kleines Leben.
Ich träume kleine Träume.
Mir die warme Sonne auf den Haut scheinen lassen. 
Im Gras liegen und die Wolken beobachten. 
Einen trockenen Platz zum Schlafen und immer genug zu essen.
Frei zu sein von Angst und Schmerzen, umgeben von denen, die ich liebe.
Mein kleines Leben ist etwas wert, zumindest ein bisschen.
Sagen wir.
Auch ich bin ein Tier, aber ein anderes Tier.
Aber ich habe Gefühle.
Ein Bewusstsein.
Mein Leben ist ein kleines Leben, aber es zählt, zumindest ein bisschen.
Obwohl es so viele gibt.
Aber eben nur ein bisschen.
Kleine Leben.
Mit kleinen Träumen.
Die ich habe, genau wie er.
Aber die er nicht haben darf, weil er nicht so ist wie ich.
Tiere haben keine Träume. Zumindest solche Tiere nicht.
Aber das weiß er nicht.
Und ich auch nicht.
Aber wir müssen es lernen, er und ich.
Und dann, wenn wir es gelernt haben, dann hören wir auf zu träumen.
Wir beide.
Weil wir es nicht mehr können. Wir haben keine Träume mehr.

Kleine Leben eben.
Davon gibt es so viele.

Small Lives

His life is a small life. 
He dreams small dreams.
To let the sun warm his fur.
To lie in the grass and watch the clouds pass by.
To have a dry place to sleep and always enough to eat.
To be free of fear and pain, surrounded by those he loves.
His small life isn’t worth anything.
We say.
He is only an animal.
He has no feelings.
No consciousness.
His life is a small life, and small lives don’t count.
Because there are so many.
Small lives.
With small dreams.
Which he has.
But he can’t have them, because he is an animal.
And animals don’t have dreams.
But he doesn’t know that.
That’s why he is sitting there, in his cage, surrounded by darkness and fear and stench and pain.
Day in, day out he sits there. And dreams.

My life is a small life.
I dream small dreams.
To let the sun warm my skin.
To lie in the grass and watch the clouds pass by.
To have a dry place to sleep and always enough to eat.
To be free of fear and pain, surrounded by those I love.
My small life is worth something, at least a little bit.
We say.
I am an animal, too, but a different kind of animal.
But I have feelings.
A consciousness.
My life is a small life, but it counts, at least a little bit.
Despite the fact that there are so many.
But only a little bit.
Small lives.
With small dreams.
Which I have, just like him.
Which he isn’t allowed to have, because he isn’t like me.
Animals don’t have dreams. At least not animals like him.
But he doesn’t know that.
And neither do I.
But we have to learn, he and I.
And then, when we’ve learned it, we’ll stop dreaming.
Both of us.
Because we can’t do it anymore. We have no dreams left.

Small lives.
There are so many.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Up-Cycle, Re-Cycle, Re-Purpose ... Making a Jewelry Holder

As I was procrastinating on the internet a little while ago, I found this blog entry on A Time For Everything about a crafts project: a self-made jewelry holder, made out of an old tray.

I really liked the idea, but I did not have a tray at hand, so I decided to improvise a little bit. I stuck with the wooden spools and the little boxes to hold odds and ends, but I used a basked instead of the tray. Here are some pictures of the finished product:

I wrapped the foam board in the cat-print fabric first, then covered the top with the chocolate-brown burlap. Earrings can be hung directly from the burlap, which makes them very accessible, and also looks good. I store the backs of the earrings in one of the little boxes on the bottom.

I attached a spool to the outside of the basket as well, for longer necklaces. The spools are attached by inserting a plastic screw anchor in the hole in the center of the spool. Then, the screw is fitted with a washer, to distribute pressure over a bigger area of the basket, and minimize the chance of the screw breaking through the basket when weight is applied to the spool. You can see the washer in the picture below - I used one when fixing the spool to the side of the basket as well.

If I make another one of these, I want to paint the spools in either an off-white, or a very light shade of teal.

The little boxes are wrapped in teal fabric. I glued the lids to the bottom of the boxes and wrapped them in the same chocolate-colored burlap. They are perfect for small earrings, rings, pendants, and bracelets.

And ... it even matches this piece of "cat furniture" - Dana and Scully's favorite cardboard box, visually improved by the addition of the very same fabric.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Eating Vegan in Madison - Pizza

Pizza may not seem like the most "natural" vegan food (after all, don't people eat pizza mainly for the cheese?!?!?), but I have come to realize that vegan pizza is actually quite delicious! In fact, simply cheese-less pizza, without any vegan cheese, may be my favorite yet. I used to think pizza "without cheese" would not be worth eating, but once you try it, you will find that all the other toppings, as well as the sauce, are in fact "drowned out" by cheese. You will experience a much richer, more nuanced pizza when you leave off the cheese.

That being said, Madison is actually pretty great when it comes to all varieties of vegan pizza - the cheese-less kind as well as the kind boasting vegan cheese. Here's a list of places that offer vegan pizza in the area:

Ian's Pizza: Ian's offers a number of vegan options. A variety of their pizzas can easily be ordered vegan - dairy cheese is then simply replaced by Daiya cheese. Even Ian's classics, such as their "Macaroni and Cheese"-pie, can be ordered vegan any time. From time to time, their weekly specialty pies will include vegan options, which makes it possible to order vegan pizza by the slice, without having to order a whole pizza. Ian's also recently started a "Vegan Pizza Night" on Monday nights (at their downtown location), where vegan slices are available. Ian's also delivers.

Glassnickel Pizza: I have only ever ordered Glassnickel pizza, so I cannot say much about the experience of eating in their restaurants, but their online menu is pretty vegan-friendly. The Build-Your-Own pizzas can be made vegan (the crust and some of their sauces are vegan), and you can choose to leave off the cheese, or substitute it with Daiya cheese instead. For a vegan, having pizza delivered is a rare thing, so I was very excited when Glassnickel decided to expand their vegan options.

Salvatore's Tomato Pies: This is one of my favorite places to get vegan pizza. It is a local, non-chain pizza place in Sun Prairie (just north of Madison). Salvatore's uses mainly local, organic ingredients, their crust and sauce are vegan, and they replace dairy cheese with a delicious home-made vegan cheese made of white bean puree. You can choose to veganize one of their specialty pizzas (most often, this is done with their "Mediterranean Pie") or you can opt to build your own pizza.

Pizza Brutta: This place probably offers the most authentically "italian" pizza in Madison - wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, according to their website. The "Pizza Marinara" is a naturally cheese-less option that is offered on their regular menu, and requires absolutely no alterations. Pizza Brutta offers no vegan cheese options, but you can request other pizzas to be made without cheese. If you are a fan of thin-crust, traditionally italian-style pizza (as opposed to its Americanized cousin available at Ian's and Glassnickel), this is the place for you!

If anyone has additional information or thoughts on vegan pizza in Madison, feel free to leave a comment! :)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"An Act of True Love": Why Disney's "Frozen" may be the very first truly feminist princess movie

I know I am pretty late to the game, but I only got around to watching "Frozen" recently. I have to admit, though I am a sucker for all things animated, and animated movies are certainly one of my guilty pleasures, I was in no hurry to see "Frozen" when it first came out on Thanksgiving. The reason? It's a PRINCESS movie, and (with a few exceptions), Disney's track record of creating believable female characters is pretty bad, especially when it comes to princesses. Yes, many of them show some positive, admirable qualities (I am thinking of Belle and her love of books, for example), but most of them are, in the end, saved by "Prince Charming" - and even when they are not literally being saved, the highly romanticized notion "love at first sight" permeates pretty much all Disney (princess) movies. Here are some examples:

Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are saved by a kiss. Ariel gives up her voice to be with her prince. And while Belle or Mulan or Pocahontas or Rapunzel are more independent, interesting characters, the story is still firmly centered around its "boy meets girl" aspect. So what is different in "Frozen"? 

The story revolves around the sisters Elsa and Anna, princesses in the kingdom of Arrendelle. Elsa has magical powers - the power to create ice and snow - but starts to fear her own powers after an accident that almost killed Anna. Anna is saved, but her memory of Elsa's powers is erased in the process. From them on, Elsa avoids Anna and spends most of her time locked in her room, alone, trying to conceal, control, and hide her power. She grows more and more afraid of herself and her powers. After their parents die, Elsa becomes queen of Arrendelle. That day, the gates to the castle are opened for the first time in years, and the sisters react differently: Anna with excitement, Elsa with fear. Anna falls in love with Prince Hans, who immediately proposes. When they tell Elsa about this, she becomes deeply upset, which causes her to lose control of her powers. She runs away into the mountains, but causes eternal winter to come over Arrendelle. Anna heads out to find Elsa, convince her to bring back summer, and return to Arrendelle. She is accompanied by Kristoff and his reindeer Sven. When they find and confront Elsa, she accidentally hits Anna in the heart with her magic, causing her heart to turn to ice. Kristoff takes Anna to be saved by an old troll living in the woods, but he informs them that he cannot save her, and that only an "act of true love" could melt a frozen heart.

  • Hans and Anna - a new twist on an old Disney clichéYes, I'll admit it - when Princess Anna falls head over heels in love with the charming, attractive, perfect Prince Hans, I was almost appalled. Here we are, in 2014, and THAT'S what Disney is trying to sell me? The notion of falling in love with a stranger, in an instant, which creates a bond so strong and true that Prince Hans risks everything to save his Anna? The idea that finding "the one" can save you, and cure loneliness, and fill the hole in your heart created by losing the bond you once shared with your sister? But what happens when Kristoff takes Anna back to the castle, so that a kiss from Hans (an act of true love) can save her from turning to ice? Hans tells her that he never loved her. He saw her loneliness and desperation, and spotted a chance to marry her to get closer to a throne (he is 13th in line in his homeland). He picked Anna, as Elsa was utterly unapproachable, and was planning to arrange for an "accident" to kill Elsa after his wedding to Anna. He leaves Anna to die and heads out to kill Elsa, whom he has branded as a monster who killed Anna. This turn of events was utterly unexpected to me, and surprised me with its break with traditional Disney princess patterns.
  • Let it Go" - Elsa's transformation: While Anna's story is fundamentally about love, the yearning for love, and the different faces of love, Elsa's story is about individuality, fear, loneliness, and power. Elsa is afraid of her own powers. Her parents are afraid of her powers. She spends her life hidden away, trying to conceal who she is and what she is capable of, out of fear. Fear of what she could do. Fear of what she is. Fear of what others will think or say when they find out the truth. Elsa tries to keep herself hidden, and to keep everyone out, because she is afraid that others will see her for what she is - different. In her central scene, after running away from Arrendelle upon seeing her secret revealed, Elsa finally accepts who she is:  She is no longer afraid or ashamed of herself, she accepts her differences, she even embraces it. Elsa, like Anna, suffers from deep isolation and loneliness, but, unlike Anna, Elsa discovers that what she needs first and foremost is to accept herself. Elsa's isolation is caused by her fear of what others will think, but most importantly, it is caused by her fear of her own capabilities. As a young child, she embraces and celebrates her magical powers, but after the accident, she grows afraid of them. Her parents contribute to this, because they convince her that she needs to be protected from herself, and until she has managed to conceal her powers, she needs to be hidden away from everyone else, for their - and her own - protection. Elsa's story is not about finding validation in someone else, it's about accepting herself, and about not being ashamed of it.

  • "We used to be best buddies" - A bond between sisters: Despite Anna's search for romantic love - and the fact that she does end up with Kristoff in the end - the central relationship that is being explored in this movie is that between Anna and Elsa. We watch them being best friends in their childhood, we see how the accident, Elsa's fear and her subsequent rejection of Anna creates a gulf between them that seems too wide to bridge. Anna is deeply lonely, mostly because she has lost her sister, but she has no idea why. She remembers being close to Elsa, but she does not remember the accident, and so Elsa's distancing is incomprehensible to Anna. She has lost one of the most important people in her life, and she attempts to fill that void with Hans, her too-good-to-be-true love interest. Elsa pulls back from Anna out of fear and out of love. She fears that by being around her, she would endanger her sister, and so she pushes Anna away. After many movies about jealousy and competition between sisters (think "Cinderella", for example), this movie explores the idea that sisters can be close, that they can be allies, that they can care deeply for each other, and that the loss of and rejection by a sister can wound us just as deeply. The connection between Anna and Elsa does not take second place to Anna's relationship with Hans and/or Kristoff. It is, and remains, the central relationship being explored in this movie.
  • "An Act of True Love", redefined: When Anna is told that only an act of true love can save her, she and Kristoff immediately think of Hans. A kiss by Anna's true love will surely save her. So they rush her back to the cancel, only to discover that Hans does not care for Anna at all. Kristoff has left the castle after dropping Anna off, but he soon realizes that something has gone wrong, so he and Sven rush back to Arrendelle. In the meantime, Anna (with the help of Olaf, a snowman created and brought to life by Elsa's magic) realizes that Kristoff might actually love her. After all, he brought her back to the castle and then left, assuming that he was doing what was best for her, and was leaving her in the care of her true love. When they see Kristoff heading back towards to castle, Anna decides that a kiss from Kristoff might do what a kiss from Hans could not. Anna, Kristoff, Elsa, and Hans all find themselves on the frozen fjord, in the middle of a snow storm created by Elsa's emotions. Hans confronts Elsa and tells her that she has killed her sister. The shock and sadness Elsa experiences because of this revelation causes her to break down and the storm to subside. Anna sees Kristoff rushing towards her, but she also sees that Hans is about to kill Elsa, so she turns away from Hans and throws herself between Hans and Elsa, saving her sister's life. She chooses to save her sister, even though she is convinced that this means sacrificing her own life. In the end, that ends up being the act of true love that saves both Anna and Elsa. It is not a kiss, it is not being loved by someone else, it is the act of truly loving someone that melts the ice in Anna's heart. Twice, Disney leads us to believe that being kissed by a man (first Hans, then Kristoff) will be what saves Anna's life. Both times we believe them, and both times we are "disappointed". True love ends up being what Anna feels for her sister, and that feeling is what saves Anna. She saves herself, and that is a truly novel idea in the Disney universe.
So what makes "Frozen" different from even the more progressive princess movies Disney has created in the past? Partly it is the dismantling of "Prince Charming", partly it is the idea that the Princess can save herself, and does not need to be saved. But most of all, it is the fundamental redefinition of what an "act of true love" can refer to. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Ego Trap

This post was inspired by an article I read today about the magnetism of negative emotions. Think about it. Feeling sad, feeling down, can - and frequently does - suck us in. We lose ourselves in it. We wallow in self-pity. I have done it. Many, many times. I still do it sometimes.

It goes like this: something does not go the way I want it. Someone hurts me. Something bad happens to me at work. Someone does not behave the way I wanted them to (how DARE they???) and I am overcome by this great wave of negativity. I lose motivation. I don't want to do anything, I don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone. Nothing interests me, I lose my appetite, I don't WANT to be distracted or comforted.

And it doesn't even have to be that extreme. Sometimes it's just a simple annoyance. I am angry or upset about something. When I am like this, I don't WANT anyone to point out the silver lining, or to comfort me. If they try, I get angry at them. I snap at them. I push them away.

Why? Do I really WANT to be miserable? No. At least not consciously. But there is something magnetic, almost addictive about wallowing on our own misery. It is one of those moments when everything is all about US.

*I* have been mistreated. *I* have been hurt. Things are going badly for *me*. We feel - I feel - as if the world is revolving around me. Why is all this happening to me? I did nothing to deserve this! It's not fair! The world is conspiring to make things hard for me, to screw everything up, to make me sad and miserable.

It almost seems to speak to two of our fundamental impulses: to see ourselves as powerless and not responsible, and to see the world as all about us.

This is what I mean by "ego trap", and I fall into it more often than I would like - and more often than I'd like to admit. Usually I only realize it in hindsight. I think about a conversation I have had with a friend, and I become aware that I did not really listen to what they were saying, because I was so busy making it about me. Someone offers constructive criticism, and I take it personally. My flight gets cancelled, and I react as if it's a personal insult.  

Why are you doing this to me? What have I done to deserve this? Why are you treating me like this? All of these questions are expressions of that ego trap. We assume that what others do and say is because of us, not because of something that is going on in their lives (because, of course, what could be going on in *their* life that is more important than me?).

I don't think I am the most egoistical person around. I try to be considerate. I try to fair. I try to be respectful of others and their feelings. I try to see the good in people (I don't always succeed, but I try! ). I try to be honest without being brutal. I try my best to do all these things, and yet I find myself in the ego trap quite frequently. I imagine I am not the only one who experiences this. I, for my part, feel ashamed whenever I realize I've done it again (is that just another disguise of the ego trap - making it about ourselves again, as if *I* had failed some grand test?), but I am far from immune to it.

Going back to the magnetism of negative emotions, I think these two things are closely related. When we suffer, we can indulge the ego trap. We can expect others to try and comfort us and help us and fix things for us, while simultaneously pushing them away when they try, shutting them out when they want to help us, and blaming them for not doing enough, for falling short of what we expected them to do. How can they *not* drop everything and come to our rescue? How can they assume that what they say or do can actually make things better? Don't they KNOW how miserable we are, and how awful everything is?

This does not mean that we should not feel negative emotions, or that there aren't reasons why we feel them. Life IS unfair, and it sucks sometimes. And negative emotions are a vital part of life, and dealing with life. They need to be felt and acknowledged. But what we -  what I - need to learn is not to let them take control, no matter how tempting it may seem at any given moment.

'Twas the Season ... Thoughts about "Love" in all its variations

With the holiday season just behind us, and Christmas being just around the corner, we are being bombarded by two kinds of messages: "Buy Buy Buy" and "Love and Peace on Earth". Our society is torn between an unattainable ideal of love on one hand (and if you don't have *that* kind of love, you better feel lonely and unworthy!), and  a disregard, almost contempt, for other kinds of love on the other hand. A narrow straightjacket of what "love" is, should be, and can be.

Love. There is no other emotion that has generated so much fuss, has inspired so many books, poems, movies, songs, and paintings. There is also no other emotion that seems to have so many different definitions. "Love" has so many faces. "Love" is supposed to be pure and good, yet people commit murder and violence, and express cruelty, all in the name of what they call "love".  

There are also different kinds of "love", supposedly. The love we feel for friends. The love parents feel for their children. Romantic love. Love of things. The love we feel for our non-human companions. Love of God. Love of country. Universal love for humankind. Love of power.

We believe that love can make us blind. Crazy. Obsessed. Love makes us into better people. Love hurts. Love heals. Love brings out the best in us. Love is eternal. Love is patient. Love makes us jealous. Love makes us brave. Love makes us possessive. 

People search for love. They crave love. Chase love. Yearn for love.

But what is "love"? There is a quote from the 1987 movie "Nuts" starring Barbra Streisand that I've always loved:

Francis MacMillan: You don't believe your mother loves you? 
Claudia Draper: God, of course, she loves me. She told you that. Didn't you hear her? He wrote it down. Now you stand up there asking, "Do you love your daughter?" And she says, "Yes, I love my daughter." And you think you've asked something real? And she thinks she said something real? You think because you toss this word "love" around like a Frisbee we're all gonna get warm and runny. No. Sometimes people love you so much their love is like a goddamn gun that keeps firing straight into your head. They love you so much you go right into a hospital. Right, Mama?
Rose Kirk: I didn't know. I didn't know. 
Claudia Draper: No, you didn't want to know. 
Francis MacMillan: Mrs. Draper, I'm a little confused. Do you love your mother? 
Claudia Draper: Sure, I love her. So what?

Is it love? Can love be cruel, and still be love? Can we love people we don't even like? Those who do not like us? Is love involuntary? Or have we simply bought into a myth? Does love exist, or have we combined a whole host of emotions, and labeled them with one overarching term? Just like people seem to realize that the term "cancer" refers to a multitude of illnesses, does the term "love" likewise refer to countless emotions? And is there one "true" form of love? One that is truer, better, purer, more noble than the others? Do we sometimes use to word "love" to mask more sinister, more selfish, even cruel motives and intentions? Is love something so strong we are helpless in its face? Another quote, this time from the TV series "Desperate Housewives":

It’s impossible to grasp just how powerful love is. It can sustain us through trying times or motivate us to make extraordinary sacrifices. It can force decent men to commit the darkest deeds or compel ordinary women to search for hidden truths and long after we’re gone, love remains burned into our memories. We all search for love, but some of us, after we found it, wish we hadn’t.

Can we love someone, and then hate them the next moment, because they did not behave the way we wanted them to? Because they did not love us back? Because they hurt us or left us? Is this really LOVE, or is it a mixture of selfishness, ownership, jealousy, and imagination? I love you - or at least that picture that I have of you. I love you (or so I say) and because of that you have to act a certain way. If I can't have you, nobody can. I can't live without you, so I will kill us both. All of these things have been, and still are, being sold to us as love, not only as love, but as the true, highest, purest form of romantic love. The kind of love that drives us to do crazy things. The kind of love that ends in tragic death. The kind that makes people destroy other people's lives. But is it really love? Was it ever love? If we are capable of intentionally hurting the very person we professed to love not more than a few days, or even moments, did we ever love them? 

Sometimes, what is being advertised as "love" is nothing more than need, selfishness, control, possessiveness, and a fear of being alone.

Can we feel (romantic) love for more than one person? Again, I quote from a  movie (Prince of Tides, 1991):

Susan Lowenstein: Just admit it. You love her more.Tom Wingo: No. Not more, Lowenstein. Only longer.

I have known in my heat for a long time that my definition of love seems to differ from that of many other people. I don't believe that we have different kinds of love for different kinds of people. The love we feel for a friend or a romantic partner are not different in nature, they are only different in intensity. Sexual attraction is not always a sign of love, and its presence or absence does not define how much we love someone. If mutual feelings of love coincide with mutual attraction, if a close emotional bond includes physical intimacy, then we have found "romantic love". But just because we do not feel attracted to the other people we care about does not mean we love them less. Just because we feel attracted to someone does not mean we really care about them. While it is great when physical attraction and emotional closeness coincide, one does not cause, or even predict, the other.

It is also true that we, from a  very early age, are being conditioned to look for a certain kind of love. Romantic love is valued above and beyond all other kinds of love. It is mystified, elevated above everything else, presented as the holy grail of all. The one thing we need to be complete and successful. Yes, we all strive for intimacy. Emotional intimacy, and physical intimacy. We look for someone we can trust, we can be ourselves with, we can share our fears and mistakes and insecurities with. That, I believe, is a truly universal (or almost universal) desire. But this is where conditioning comes in: From a very early age, we are taught that we can only attain this goal, find this kind of intimacy, by looking for one "mate" from the opposite sex. Society, or culture, or the "system" tells us: Sure, go out and look for this intimacy, but make sure to look only within a certain set of people. Those of the opposite sex. Those within a certain range of your own age. Those of the same skin color. Those of the same religion. Those of the same nationality. Those of the same socio-economic status. As much as we love stories about people finding romantic love across gaps, gulfs, walls, and other boundaries, we also make sure to let these stories end dramatically. No happy ending for Romeo and Juliet. Why?

Because society as we know it, the system we live in, the system we serve, depends on people adhering to this narrow standard of love. Romantic love is better/more worthy/more precious than other kinds of love. You can only ever feel "true" romantic love for that one person, the love of your life, without whom you are forever incomplete. The love of your life can only be a certain kind of person. When you have found that one, idealized, seemingly perfect "other half" within this severely limited subset of the population, you have to express your love in certain, societally approved ways. You have to get married. You have to move in together. You have to become part of one another. Our wish for closeness, our wish for intimacy, our need for a connection is being exploited for social control. Yes, you need to find "love", but don't you dare find it outside of the "norm". 

If we feel love, romantic love, outside of these tight norms, we are being told to question ourselves. Can it work? (Can we EVER be sure of that?) Am I making a fool of myself? (Don't we always risk that when we open our heart to another being?) Am I kidding myself? Should I feel guilty? (Mutual affection and attraction between consenting adults is nothing to feel guilty about, in my opinion, but people frequently do. I have - and so has almost everyone else I know). The list goes on and on. The voice of societal control speaks to us from within our own heads.

This expands beyond romantic love. Yes, we are supposed to love our friends, but don't you dare love them "more" than your spouse. Yes, we love our aunts and uncles and grandparents, but if we love a cat or dog or mouse or spider with all our heart, we are being branded as pathetic laughingstocks. To feel love for an "animal"? Sure, as long as you don't "pretend" it's the same thing as loving a human being.

And then there is the love parents feel for their children. Without a doubt, this bond is special and cannot be fully understood by those who do not have children. It is a deep connection that oftentimes seems to come closest to truly unconditional love. But again, society/culture/the system steps in to tell parents (specifically mothers) what they have to do to make the rest of us believe they truly love their children. The expectations and pressures and guilt and shame sometimes reach a level that seems impossible to bear, and all of these things are primarily directed at mothers. This is what makes you a "good" mother. This is what makes you a "bad" mother. This is what makes you a "failure" as a mother. And so on. The list is endless. A double-bind. A lose-lose situation.

We all have fallen into some, or all, of these traps. I know I have. I have been in relationships just to be in relationships. Not because I did not want to be alone, but because I was afraid that others might see my lack of romantic partner as a failure. I got over this several years ago, but it was not easy. Even today, I am sometimes selfish towards those I love. I see what I want more clearly than what they want. I am self-centered. I think they think about me more than they do, and in attempts to reassure them, all I do is force them to pay attention to me. I am far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I tell myself that at least I am able to see those mistakes for what they are. That is, after all, the first step towards learning from them.

“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

Love, in any form, is rare. Oftentimes, we confuse it with other feelings. We bury it with attachment and dependency and fear and control. We are scared by it, and by the vulnerability it entails. We reject so as not to be rejected. We built walls and fences. We pair up just to pair up, because we are afraid of being alone, afraid of being seen a failure. But only when we love and accept ourselves in all our flawed humanity can we ever love another being.

Put differently: What if love is none of those things? What if love is not about us, but about the person we love? What if love is not about us feeling complete, and achieving intimacy, and being understood, but is a truly selfless feeling? What if it truly means wanting the best for someone, even if that does not include you?

But, oh how glorious it is if it does include you!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thank you for existing, Secretary Clinton!

With Political Animals premiering on USA yesterday, it seemed the appropriate time for this post. Of course, the series is technically not about Hillary Rodham Clinton - it is about the fictional character Elaine Barrish, former First Lady, unsuccessful presidential candidate, divorced from her affair-prone husband, and currently serving as Secretary of State. But of course there are so many parallels that everybody knows it's really a show about Hillary Clinton. First of, a disclaimer: I have always admired Clinton. In fact, she's one of my all-time role-models, together with (among others) Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Madonna, Ellen DeGeneres, and, most recently, Ashley Judd. Quite an eclectic list, I know! Anyway, back to Political Animals, and to Clinton.

I watched it for two reasons, one being the fact that I like Sigourney Weaver, but the other, more important aspect being my interest in how they would choose to portray Clinton. As has been abundantly demonstrated, the gulf between those hat like and admire Clinton, and those that despise her, couldn't be wider. Ever since she appeared on the political scene many years ago, she has been demonized and ridiculed. Descriptions of her alternate between "She's cold, ambitious, robot-like and driven, and all she ever cared about was power" and the (equally flattering) "She's staying with Bill because she's weak, has no self-respect, and is a disgrace for modern women". Of course we've also all heard the "Bill cheated on her because she is old/fat/ugly/bad in bed"-version of the tale. There are countless jokes about her physical attractiveness, her wardrobe, her headbands, her decision (not to) wear make-up, and countless other things. 

I was pleased by the show's willingness and ability to portray Clinton  ... I mean Barrish ... as a complex being, a woman who is not only ambitious (though she clearly is) but also caring, who struggles, who is not perfect ... who is, for lack of a better word, real. It is clear from the start that the audience is supposed to be on her side, to root for her ... and that is, quite frankly, a nice change.

I have spent a lot of time (too much time, frankly) pondering the reasons behind the vitriol and hatred directed against Clinton. It is like she serves as a key, a red flag, opening the gates, so the hidden river of sexism and misogyny can pour out freely, openly exposed for everyone to see. And the saddest thing is, so many don't. They either don't see, or they don't care. It almost seems as if, as long as you claim you're "only" referring to Clinton, you can get away with anything and everything. I have never been able to understand why, and I still don't. I probably never will. I read somewhere once that an acquaintance described her as "100 years ahead of her time". Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the fact that she does not try to "disguise" herself the same way many other powerful women do. She does not try to appear to be "less", in any sense of the word, than she really is. 

I know that many (myself included) were worried, after the outpour of sexism during the 2008 primary season, about the message sent to young women and girls. Would even more be turned away, thinking "If that's how you're treated when you want "too much", reach "too high" and cross "too many" lines and try "too hard" to break that glass ceiling, I don't want to try it. It's not worth it." But then I thought again. That's not at all what Clinton has taught us, despite the fact that she did not secure the nomination (and that was certainly in part due simply to miscalculations and mistakes by her campaign). She has taught us how to be strong and gracious, even in defeat. How to ambitious without putting yourself before everyone and everything else. How to be tough without being hard. How to be self-confident without being full of yourself, still retaining a sense of humor and an ability to not take yourself too seriously. How to be something that still, even in today's world, is very much a rarity: a woman in a position in power. Clinton is quoted to have, at some point, said something like" Whenever I say something, people look at me as if I were a talking dog". That's probably true, even today. But certainly, because of her, fewer women will be looked at that way in the future. 

Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for not giving up. For blazing a trail, for staying your course, for fighting against sexism. Thank you for existing!