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Polyamorists: Make Room in Your Life to Innovate

2017.June.21

I don’t often post about nonmonogamy, except from the periphery of other topics, but as I was reading another thinkpiece about the relationship escalator, I recognized something I needed to address from my own experience. I don’t think it’s universal, but I can’t put my finger on who does it and who doesn’t; I bet if it hasn’t been an issue for you, it’s at least happened to someone you know (maybe even someone you love, or tried to love).

Polyamorists and other nonmonogamists do not always make enough time to be nonmonogamous.

[There’s a TL;DR below if you’d like to skip my experience and theory and get to practical input.]

When I was caregiving, my entire life revolved around the person who needed me; any spare time I could claim was spent with one of three partners. We were non-hierarchical, with frequent, brooding conversations about what was working for whom, and no small amount of playing that old game “telephone”, where you pass messages through intermediary/ies and something inevitably gets lost in translation. When you’re a kid, it’s supposed to be a laugh and also a lesson in listening comprehension. When you’re a polyamorous adult, it can be a cringe-worthy lesson in emotional literacy, expectations, and filtering your communication so that it finds the right ears in the most helpful manner. We each (myself especially) had layers of self-care missing at the time, and as my grandfather drained me, and I drained them, and no one really replenished any of us as fully as we needed, the logistics of nonmonogamy took up more and more time and energy. When no one is getting everything they need, it gets a lot easier to see something you’re not getting in someone else’s hands.

I’ll spend the rest of my life unpacking the push and pull of those five years between my caregiving responsibilities and my failings as a multiple-lover, but I’m really just setting the stage for a problem that has remained, even as two of those relationships have ended and my grandfather has passed away.

We all hear (or should hear) to make time for self-care, maybe even to treat yourself as an additional relationship in your polycule. I, of course, failed to heed that advice, as caregiving brought with it an inconsolable loneliness and I depended on my 9-5 loves to fill whatever gaps they could. My time alone was spent on unhealthy diversions and obsessions: TV that didn’t really relax me, household problems that never really got resolved. My whole life became as my garage: a stack of problems I was going to get to later (I didn’t realize I was a low-key hoarder until nearly a year after moving my grandfather into memory care).

My partners encouraged me to socialize wherever I could, and I sustained some long-distance connections early on and a play partner/friend-with-benefits or two later, but I never made extra time to socialize with my caregiver friends (because they wouldn’t understand me!). I never called up friends who’d promised to always be there and ask them to show up. I never reached out to new friends to distract me with whatever wonderful thing they were studying in grad school or showing off in their sex-positive workshops. I never got that dog I needed for company. I didn’t even do a very good job of connecting with those people who kept odd hours like I did, who actually COULD hang out in the afternoons or the late weeknights.

My best self-care practices were picking up new social justice learnings from the Internet and brooding over them internally (as much as I did write and post about them, processing out loud with anyone who was foolish enough to ask, they were on my mind ten times as much). But activism requires respite. Solidarity. Compassion for self and others. The angrier I got at the systems in which I’d always been complicit, the less human I treated myself, and the more my poor three loves, knowing nothing better to do, tried to fill in the gaps of my humanity.

The activities I engaged instead of self-care are distinct to me, but I have seen similar patterns in others: polyamorists like me have so much affection to give or receive (for me it works in cycles around stress level, maybe for you, too?), we never leave time to idle, to exist as a neutral being. We are always feeding one relationship or another (and if not, we are pursuing the next one, because relationships are fun or something) and then running to work and take care of kids and “catching up” on logistics or even self-caring by medical necessity, but we’re never just sitting around waiting to see what might happen if we stand still.

It may or may not be different for you, but even when I’m poly-saturated, I like to be open to new sparks in my romantic and/or sexual life. This, too, could be its own post, but suffice it to say that polyamory includes elements of exploration for me — exploring humanity by dating different types of people, exploring myself by getting to know the contrasts between us all. For all the conquerors out there who see nonmonogamy as a knife with which to notch the proverbial bedpost, I like finding new ways to connect, communicate, and sustain openness. For all my apathy toward modern art, I would happily wander a gallery of abstract relationship configurations; I have just defaulted to created such works myself where possible because I haven’t met many others who seemed to be doing it well.

Of course, I haven’t done it well in a long time. If polyamory is my art (which is not to say whether I am good at love and/or sex, only that it feels like self-expression when relationships are going well and self-denial when they are not), if polya is my art then my palette is dry, my canvases torn, and my brushes worn to a nub. But while I’m regrouping, deciding what to repurpose and what to discard, I am noticing other things that happen. My “studio” (that is, the space in my life where I make relationship “art”) has room for other things. Obviously, it’s a smaller total space because I had to make room for grad school, but the rest of the space is getting more open and inviting. Not for relationships — I haven’t started even a casual relationship with anyone new in years — but for other things that nourish the self. There is room for visitors; I actually hang out with my friends once in a while, and talk about work and family and hopes and dreams with someone who is not overtly part of them. There is room for getting sick once in a while, or taking care of someone else when they are sick. There is room for clearing out some of the material clutter in my life (which, wouldn’t you know it, helps clear the emotional clutter as well — hoarders, I am told, place greater-than-average emotional value in objects, whether practical or sentimental, so we’re talking all levels of baggage here). There is room to plan research and contemplate publication. I think there might be room for spirituality, or at least room to try to make more room for spirituality (there I go again with the unfinished projects…). There is room to plan ahead, actually plan ahead! People do that! I never knew. There is room to cry and laugh and succeed and fail. There is room to contemplate my gender and my attractions without such thinkies bumping up against contrary forces. There is room to say goodbyes, and there is room to say hellos.

This has turned into a way more personal essay than I’d intended, so let me bring it back around to broader experiences and (hopefully) offer some useful bulletpoints:

[TL;DR, start reading here!]

Suggestions for Ethical Nonmonogamists Who Need to Make Space for Better Relationship Art

For those of us who have come to nonmonogamy out of a place that is philosophical, ethical, resistant to norms, and culturally charged, it is not enough to make a few changes in how you define a relationship and then find someone(s) who more or less agree with you. We are subverting long traditions of unthinking relationships and socially-coded courting. This necessitates developing a sense of not just being AGAINST those traditions but actually being FOR something else. Which means exploring. Which means fucking up. Which means involving others (consensually! or GTFO) in your exploration. Which means communicating better but still hurting people sometimes. Which means skill-building and no small amount of emotional intelligence. Which means work. Which means having room to work.

I’ve drawn up a list, should be helpful to me. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful, too.

  • We cannot explore anything if every minute of every day is planned.
  • We cannot know ourselves if we do not spend time alone.
  • We cannot challenge our own assumptions if we only date people who do what we want, anticipate our needs, coddle us, and generally minimize our discomfort — chances are, they are burying their own, anyway.
  • We cannot build on one another’s ideas without group conversations that challenge our assumptions.
  • We cannot bother calling ourselves ethical anything if nonmonogamy is only something we do on the weekends or at burns/cons. Neither can we call it ethical if we don’t recognize that libidos, affections, and connections cycle up and down and require check-ins, anticipation, and patience to sort out.
  • We cannot have strong conversations about important topics if we spend more time pseudo-recruiting monogamists and courting newbies than working with other polyamours (whether our partners or not) on navigating hard times.
  • We cannot dictate to ourselves or our partners who, when, or why we’ll experience attraction or fall in love. We can, however, develop ideas about how to address concerns before and when they arise.
  • We cannot go fast until we’ve tested the brakes.
  • We cannot see our true value in relationships, nor check our advantages them and leverage them in support of others, unless we empower those around us to speak openly about our best, worst, and least interesting qualities.

Bonus: Suggestions for Making Space in Nonmonogamist Spaces

  • We cannot explore the idea of what ethical nonmonogamy is if we only talk about it with people we might sleep with.
  • We cannot create a dating world that is separated from the political, social, and economic world around us.
  • We cannot be prescriptive, assuming there is “one twue polyamory” that must fit all relationship models. If you think someone else’s version is a pile of shit, just step around it and keep doing what works for you.
  • We cannot all make time to read everything that’s ever been written about nonmonogamy, but we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to read something once in a while and to share what we learn with others (who can then read something else).
  • We cannot just borrow our hard conversations from BDSM, tantra, swingers, Christian self-help, dead religions, or anyone else (even other polyamorists — GASP!); each of these spaces has their own history and their own hangups — they may inform your practice, but not everyone feels welcome there (nor even wants to) so you have to find a way to make it your own — and empower your partners to do the same.
  • We cannot create inclusive spaces that break polynormative patterns (young, hot, white, wealthy) if we do not empower the voices of women/trans/nonbinary folks, people of color, queer folks, people with disabilities, people without economic means, people who are not conventionally attractive (or even attractive to us), people with kids, people with less education than us. THIS WILL REQUIRE US TO SPEAK LESS AND LISTEN MORE — ESPECIALLY WHITE CISMEN WHO ARE USED TO BEING IN CHARGE.
  • We cannot have big conversations if everyone defers to one or two proxy leaders (local or national) to speak for them; at some point, you’re going to have to form an opinion of your own. Also, if your chosen poly idol looks just like you or someone you’d like to take to bed, you might not be looking very hard.
  • We cannot talk about hierarchies and non-hierarchical approaches unless we explore the ways we favor a centralized leadership model and at least once in a while talk about alternatives. (And for goodness sake, talk to an actual anarchist sometime before you self-describe as RA.)
  • We cannot build sustainable networks while retaining explosive, side-taking break-ups or a flame-war approach to internet fora. Learn to identify your own bad habits and recruit others to help contain them.
  • We cannot build spaces that are safe for exploring ourselves and our ideas if we do not talk about consent, abuse, discrimination, exclusion, and whether a particular space believes someone can be rehabilitated (let alone how). What, this sounds exhausting and might interfere with? I thought polyamory was supposed to be “graduate school for relationships”? /sarcasm
  • We cannot have impactful cons without breaks, breakouts, and unstructured spaces for people to ruminate and connect informally. (Organizers: See tips for individuals above and ask whether con-goers can do these things.) Neither can we build solidarity or even a quality network if ALL local events are social events.

In summation: If ethical nonmonogamy is something that we believe is good for us, we need to create the space to let it flourish.

(And we can’t get very far by just jotting down lists when we get a notion and putting it up on the Internet, hoping a few people read it. I’m certain I’ve left stuff out. I’m certain I’ve overlooked something important or misspoken above. Call me on it, if you are so inclined. Write something of your own. Have a conversation with your people. Get to dialogue-ing, yall.)

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The Privilege Paradox

2017.April.19

Everyone says if you’re a caregiver, you’re supposed to take time for yourself. If you’re stressed, you’re supposed to ask for help. If you’re hurting, you’re supposed to make sure you get what you need.

But the implicit assumption about all of that advice is probably gendered, isn’t it? Or at least reflects that the person receiving the advice is not already doing those things, or not already privileged to do them? These are responses to emotional labor, and emotional labor is gendered feminine in this Western paradigm. It is aimed at people who are socialized to always put others first and themselves last.

So what happens when the party in question is not socialized feminine? Let’s say, through flukes of bastardy and empathy, the person is a sensitive, compassionate male, who develops great need for healing from caregiving in all of those ways, but who has already over-extended the available support because his gender socializatoin has privileged him to unconsciously TAKE WHAT WAS AVAILABLE ALREADY.

Gender paradigms hurts men, but this is a rather nuanced manifestation of that harm. What happens when someone — through miracle or luck or careful learning has reached status of adult male while yet valuing the ability to cry, expression and honesty, listening to the experiences of others, and considering fairness and equality as attainable ideals — reaches his breaking point without ever quite discerning how much silent support and lack of discouragement he was receiving from others along the way? Maybe he counts himself fortunate, but just doesn’t grok the magnitude — how could he? How could anyone who hasn’t been broken by trauma ever really understand the scope of human generosity?

There are situations so intense, so enduring, that it is nigh impossible NOT to exhaust every resource that is available. In such situations, most people, however they are gendered, will take on an adrenal stance by default. If you can’t predict what’s happening for months or years at a time, you stop trying. You focus on being READY. You don’t know what for, you just know you’re going to be surprised and you’re going to have to respond quickly and effectively. It’s a survival mode. But if you’re socialized masculine, you’re less likely to realize how much you’ve received. What seems obvious to everyone else is too big to even notice.

And what happens when you come out of that long, arduous trial, and despite some progress you’re still pretty much in survival mode, and you’re trying to listen to all that advice given to emotional laborers (who are covertly gendered feminine) and you, you’re still privileged male. You’ve taken more than you’ve known, asked more than you remember asking, worn down everyone who had your back by doing things you never realized were problematic. You still think speaking with authority means you are competent; you still think if you treat people as equals they can return the favor; you still think that recognizing societal patterns about concerns of safety, judgment, bodily autonomy, competency, sanity experienced every day by people more feminine than yourself means you are above participating in them (or having them volunteered on your behalf — who has the time to demonstrate to every stranger that you’re one of the “good ones”?).

If you’re like me (and this is all me that I’m feigning hypothetical here), you speak up MORE. You ask for help MORE. You speak your pain MORE. You center your needs MORE. And to you and to people who haven’t been watching the sausage being made up-close, it looks like you’re being brave and open and taking care of your shit. You’re following advice given to all caregivers.

But to those who’ve been making your sausage so you could fix someone else’s… It waxes selfish. It grows entitled. It gets unwieldy. It becomes unsafe.

And because men are socialized to see things in rigid, discrete terms, you start to think EVERYONE ELSE is the problem.

Or if you’re aware enough to resist that kind of nonsense, then you invert it all and YOU become the worst person in the world. And that’s downright exhausting to all parties involved, because the only thing that takes up more space than a man who thinks he deserves everything is a man who thinks he deserves NOTHING.

I don’t have a solution yet. I have notions of listening more and learning through graduate school and calling on a larger, more deliberate group of friends for support (so no one person has to take on too much… theoretically…). I’m already radically shifting my relationship with digital and in-person connections (to the extent I can while also going to graduate school). I’m trying to bring yoga and mindfulness back into my life. I started laughing again recently; that’s been nice.

But at the end of the day (or at the end of an accidental online fall-apart steeped with obsessive communication expectations and a dozen or so friends patiently taking turns telling me the ways I can be unreasonable), I still gotta learn to filter. I still gotta learn to get people’s consent before I start unloading my shit on them. I still gotta stop setting down and picking up my gender when it’s convenient for maximal sympathy (because the privilege is there always). I even gotta stop framing the problem like it started with caregiving; there’s a powerful difference between a catalyst and an amplifier!

And while it’s nice to be able to (occasionally, selectively, consensually) ask really nuanced questions about how my healing interacts with the newly-mysterious greater world, I gotta learn more shit on my own, without being prompted/told/shoved in the right direction by an exasperated party.

To do that, I gotta slow down.

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Caregiving Will Be Intersectional or It Is Not My Revolution

2017.March.16

[This is a greatly abridged version of an essay I submitted for class last week. In womanism, personal, everyday narratives hold great value, so I aspired to merge my personal and academic trajectories. This shorter version should be more accessible to my friends outside of academia, but please let me know if there are any glaring inconsistencies or questions.]

“Social change, for womanists, begins with healing.” — Layli Maparyan, The Womanist Idea

Second to shutting up and listening, the most important action I’ve found for shifting perspective as a person of privilege is to serve someone else in a holistic way. Beyond parenting or merely putting a friend up with a broken leg, the type of care I mean is on the magnitude of years; in my case, the care recipient gradually declined (as opposed to improving, or adapting to a new baseline) and both parties were irreversibly changed. My time as a caregiver, which began in 2011 and only ended last month, allowed me to see deeply into my loved one’s humanity and, simultaneously, gave me my first glimpses into the womanist perspective. The parallels were not apparent to me at first, but as I have begun to study womanism formally, they appear as relevant as two feet conveying one person. Early on, I had a mirage of “community”. For four years (about twice as long as I’d been caregiving at this point), I’d invested my time, energy, and money into a local network of people around an ideal of ethical sexual liberation; my instincts were telling me my grandfather would need me, and that I would need a community space to return to once he was gone, but I had no religion, no core friends groups, not even an alumni association or book club. I did not, then, recognize the difference between a “community” and a “network” (let alone an online one), nor even really how you could convene hundreds of people around a single word or phrase and end up with radically disparate values there. It would take another two years years to realize “my people” were not really my people at all.

Early on, I was trying to make sure that no matter what his state, there were still two lives being lived between the two of us, but a person who is losing their mind can be hard to anticipate and to reason with. Because I was always primed for an emergency, I developed physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, which I would then replenish by leaning hard on the dwindling friends who remained close (most of my peers, I have since learned, simply didn’t know what to say, so they remained silent). I prepared for worst-case scenarios, but got a very gradual, very smooth decline. Poised as I was for an emergency at any moment, I learned some hard lessons about self-care, but they only slowed my descent. I even tried to re-envision it as a spiritual practice — what better practice for mindfulness than tending the every need of someone whose worldview was shrinking? — but I lacked the discipline, training, and support to see it through. Any and all negativity that arose was redirected toward picking apart my lifetime of misspent advantages and unfixable transgressions. As his light faded, so did mine.

I discovered womanism on Twitter, but did not immediately see the connections with my experience as a caregiver. When time came to move my grandfather into a memory care facilitiy, I resolved to study and support other caregivers, but also to include and humanize the broadest range I could. Who knows better about the delicate balance between caring and obligation than those whose framework is grounded in a generational history of caring for other people’s children and chaotic affection for their own. In an introduction to her The Womanist Reader, Layli Maparyan states that women of color, particularly black women, are the most qualified to lead social change because they “have been at the bottom of every social hierarchy created by man, particularly during the four centuries of the modern era, and multiply so, based on the interaction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and systems of identity”. In her second book on womanism, The Womanist Idea, Layli Maparyan invokes spirituality not just as a corollary of womanism but as an essential component, including six detailed qualities of womanist spirituality, “eclectic, synthetic, holistic, personal, visionary, and pragmatic”. Caregiving is, for me, a spiritual exercise for these same reasons (as if my “instincts” hadn’t been enough of a clue!).

Beyond spirituality, Maparyan also cites the following as qualities of womanism: antioppressionist, vernacular, nonideological, and communitarian. Caregiving is antioppressionist because it shows us a dynamic where privilege is irrelevant. Serving in such silence must needs demonstrate to the caregiver who they REALLY are when no one is looking. Vernacular also takes on new meaning in a caregiving dynamic, as the caregiver must communicate at whatever level possible with the care recipient, be it an accent, be it a mumble, be it a gesture and a specific hallucination. The caregiver must be nonideological not only with the care recipient but also with the limited resources available. Caregiving, like womanism, is about real life, not about politics. Finally, caregiving is communitarian, because caregiving calls for absolute compassion and absolute service, to see the humanity in a person or persons who may not see it themselves. Everything caregivers practice on their care recipients and on themselves will make them more compassionate and understanding community members — if it does not break them, which reiterates the community’s investment in the individual as well. Like many womanist texts, an absolute choice of the individual or the community (and not some balance of the two) harms all parties involved.

Academia is the only realm I know where a smart-but-broken white guy can research what just happened to him in a broader social context while also developing a lens created by people historically oppressed by his predecessors. The death of my grandfather has created emotional and financial hardships, but it has also tempered my resolve to help others and has cleared the way for me to focus on my studies as never before. The rest of my story, however interesting, no longer feels important; I am simply writing from where I am.

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“An American Dream”: Eulogy for Ed Hodson

2017.February.18

I want to tell you about The American Dream: I don’t believe in it.

I don’t really think I’ve ever had the chance to believe in it, and neither have most of my peers from Generation X or the Millenials (I was born right in-between).

We younger people have seen so many great institutions crumble and cower,

that there has never really been the opportunity for most of us to buy in.

 

I have not grown up in a world where you leave a family farm to serve in the military,

you go to war but come back in one piece,

you marry your sweetheart, you spend your entire life working for one company;

you save your money, buy a car, build a home, buy a nicer car, put a little something back,

and then you retire, you get a cat, and you start wearing clothes that even you admit are “kind-y loud”.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the American Dream is real,

— I DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE AMERICAN DREAM —

but I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

And the greatest thing about Ed Hodson was how he could make you believe in yourself, too.

 

I think every person here knows that it would be impossible for me

to stand up here and talk about how great Ed was,

how generous and patient, how good-humored and impossible to anger,

it would be impossible to talk about how great Ed was without talking a lot about myself.

Our fates have been closely linked since long before I served as his caregiver for, oh,

5 years, 12 weeks, 5 days, and, let’s say one hour…

or even longer than the nine and a half years we lived together after E passed away…

You ask me to tell you what all I think Ed has accomplished?

I may as well just print my resume in your programs!

 

(That’s J-E-F-F-R-E-Y… yes, R-E-Y. Not E-R-Y.)

 

I’m going to try very hard to ignore the obvious and talk about the truths underneath.

That way, you don’t have to make sense of any of the weird things I do,

you only have to see the ways Ed has acted the same toward you.

 

I think we can all agree he was just about the nicest person we’ve ever met.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was calm and he was giving — and he was these things all the time.

Did you ever meet someone so reliable?

He worked hard, and he wasn’t afraid to learn something new.

He accumulated an impressive nest egg and then he

SPENT IT ON EVERY PERSON WHO WALKED THROUGH HIS DOOR.

He was shrewd yet he was humble.

He didn’t have a thousand talents, but whatever he had to do, he did it well.

If you proved him wrong about something, get this, he’d admit it!

He wanted your best because he wanted everyone’s best.

He might ask questions, but he didn’t talk down to you

and he genuinely seemed to have your best interest at heart.

 

(I’m told the guys at GM used to say Ed was the only person who could chew your ass out and you’d thank him for it.)

 

I never saw him raise his voice at anyone,

except during E’s last days.

Sleep-deprived and miserable, but still utterly devoted to her,

I heard them snap at each other the way some couples say hello,

but I knew it was fatigue and grief talking.

It wasn’t really Ed,

because I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

Over twenty years ago, I gave my mom some random questionnaire

(how well you know each other or something)

and it asked who your hero was.

I didn’t even have an answer, really, but Mom came back with “Ed”

and it was obvious she was right.

I scored her double on that one.

 

But ever since that day, I’ve been trying to pin down exactly what it was that has made Ed my hero.

Was it because he was so good to me?

because he was so good to everyone?

or both?

 

Or was it just that he made it all look

so

easy?

I learned one of his secret weapons over the last 5-10 years,

but it isn’t any secret at all.

Behind the scenes, there was always E.

You may have heard of “devotion” in marriage, but no one did it like Ed.

E was the decider for most of their marriage, and he followed her instructions faithfully.

And I mean, like, it didn’t matter if he gave you a twenty-dollar bill and told you

it was just between the two of you,

you can guarantee E had put it in his hand.

 

But I don’t just mean that E was the brains behind the operation.

I mean that Ed was able to be calm and generous because he was so deeply,

so comfortably, so securely

in love.

There are a thousand ways that we’ve all seen someone — maybe even ourselves —

say that everything would be perfect if only this

or if I could just that,

or if those people over there would stop doing whatever,

but deep down some part of us fears that we don’t deserve it

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

Or–or!

We all know someone — or have been someone —

who thinks we deserve something so much,

that we are so talented and lovable and clever,

that we may as well not even try, because that thing we want is just going to fall in our lap

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

 

Ed led the charmed life of never thinking too little or too much of himself and doing

EVERYTHING HE WANTED with it.

All he wanted was The American Dream: wife, home, career

— and the part they don’t tell you about the American dream —

to do it all while staying friendly

and effective.

Friendly and effective.

That’s the dream of America, isn’t it? Not just having it all, but having it all and remaining humble.

When we think the best of our country,

we want to believe that we deserve it because we are friendly and we are effective.

Well, I’ve already told you I don’t believe in the American Dream,

but I believe in Ed Hodson!

 

Do you know what Millenials call a straight-A student? The kind of kid who carries around a lot of books and studies all the time and is in a thousand clubs and never sits still?

A “try-hard”.

Like that’s a bad thing. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s the opposite of a back-handed compliment,

an open fist or something?

Well I tell you that Ed didn’t have to try hard at everything

(Ed didn’t have to try hard to love E and devote himself to her, for example),

but when he did try hard, he succeeded.

And when he succeeded, he kept on trying

and he encouraged others to do the same.

Maybe Ed was the original Try-hard.

 

Ed only ever had two regrets in his life. I say two regrets, but it was more like one regret

and one mystery.

The first regret was that he never used his G.I. Bill to get a college education.

It wasn’t a sad regret, like he was secretly building a time machine to go back and fix something,

just one of those lessons you learn the hard way and pass on so you can spare others.

Still, he gladly took every training GM ever sent him on (or the Navy before that),

he worked his way up the ladder until there was no room for him to grow

not without a college degree.

So that was his big regret, that he never got his college diploma.

The original try-hard wanted to TRY HARDER.

 

(Same, to be honest.)

(I believe in Ed Hodson.)

 

Ed’s other regret, that one great mystery out of life, was after E passed away when he’d say,

“I don’t understand why the good Lord would take away one spouse

and leave the other one behind.”

Ed Hodson, the original Try-hard, was sixty years into a relationship

— and six years into day-and-night caregiving —

and he wanted to TRY HARDER.

He didn’t think he could take her pain away, and he didn’t sit around waiting for a miracle or for someone else to do it. He just gave everything he had

because he believed in E

and he believed he was better with her.

 

Imagine living life so well

that you already knew when the best part was over.

 

If I were to write a book on how to live, it would be called “The Book of Ed.”

I have no idea what I’d say in it, but there’s probably be a chapter on loving people completely, and being open-minded about people (even people you don’t like), and there’d have to be one about how to eat all that sugar without gaining weight or becoming diabetic.

 

(I believe Ed Hodson had an excellent metabolism.)

Here’s something I said at E’s funeral.

It still fits.

 

In E’s final hour, Ed turned to us, tears in his eyes, E’s hand in his, and said, “I hope you all are lucky enough to have a 60-year love.” And I know E would agree.

For theirs was a love for sharing,

a love that cannot help but spread beyond the two people who build it,

a love that has lived and will continue to live within each of us who has been touched by it.

It has traveled with us to corners of the world where neither Ed nor E ever set foot.

It touches and soothes people whom Ed and E never met.

But we are not burying that love here, today. When generations have passed and Ed and E are ancient figures, possibly forgotten altogether, their love will still touch people, as it has for 60

[now 70]

years, through our actions and the actions of the people we meet, and those they meet, and so on.

So whatever your odds are for finding a 60-year love, remember, that you’ve already been a part of something that grand, and that it is yet a part of you. E

[and Ed] would be proud to know that this is [their] finest legacy,

to spread joy and love for having known someone so rare that you can’t help being changed forever.

 

And so here, today, 2017, I’d like to leave you with something Ed would say to me in his “Golden moments” over the last fifteen months. There were days when I left Ed and I was almost in tears, but there were days when I just felt invincible, and it was because of these words.

When he had a pretty good sense of what was going on,

and a pretty good sense what I was doing, he’d take my hand

and grip it tight,

and Ed would tell me, “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be alright. You go live your life.”

I believe in Ed Hodson,

and Ed Hodson believed that we shouldn’t worry about him and that we

— you, me, the old, the young —

“You go live your life.”

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Extended Obituary for Ed Hodson

2017.February.14
The official online obituary was shorting and cropped some text, but you can view it and a slide show here.

This photo from February 2013 features Ed (early in his illness) and the author, his caregiver.

 

Ed Hodson quietly slipped out to reunite with his beloved wife Saturday afternoon in Arlington.

 

——————–

 

Ed Hodson was the youngest boy in a family of fourteen, raised on a family farm outside Joplin, Missouri. He was good at Math, and bad at History (he never saw the point in it), and so he and his sister Flora (AKA “Fid”) would help each other out. After he graduated from Alba High School, Ed got permission from his mother to enlist in the Navy, four months before Pearl Harbor. Through World War II, Ed repaired fighter plane engines in the South Pacific: Guam and Guadalcanal.

 

Ed met his great love, Marie Mainey, a waitress, on leave in Kansas City. When Ed finished his tour, he started training for General Motors in California, and E joined him there. They were married in Kansas City in 1946, and the two were inseparable until her death on April 7th, 2006. Those last few years of her life, Ed was her caregiver around the clock.

 

Ed and E enjoyed the nightlife in Kansas City, where they were also close to E’s family in Topeka and Ed’s family outside Joplin. E made an agreement with Ed that she’d handle their money if she didn’t have to work, and Ed gladly accepted. Ed was making an impression at General Motors; although he’d been training for airplanes, they ended up putting him to work in automobile manufacturing. A few years in, Ed’s supervisor was re-assigned to Texas and when asked to pick a team to go with him, Ed was his first choice. So in 1954, it was Ed who drove the very first car off the Arlington assembly line: a 4-door Pontiac Chieftain.

 

Ed worked his way up as a friendly and effective supervisor, who revitalized teams and resolved disputes throughout the plant. He was best known for his work in Repair and Trim, though. As the plant and the city grew, Ed encouraged family and friends to come work for GM, so many members of the Hodson family came to the area because of Ed. He retired from General Motors in 1980, as Superintendent of the Trim Department.

 

It took a while for Ed and E to adjust to living away from a big town like Kansas City, but they found friends and dancing in Fort Worth, and occasionally Dallas. It was in East Fort Worth in the late ‘70s that they met Betty Lawson, who quickly became their favorite bartender. Betty was estranged from her family (not too far from Joplin), so they all kind of “adopted” each other as family right here. When Betty became a single mom in 1980, “Ed and Marie” became “Ed and E” because Jeffrey’s first three words were “Ed”, “Mom”, and “E”. The ties of chosen family became unbreakable, and extended with the arrival of Kevin, and then later with Kevin’s kids, Chelsea, Skyler, and Ace.

 

Ed and E’s home provided a sanctuary of laughter and generosity, where these kids had more toys than they knew what to do with. Ed developed a green thumb in retirement, so there was plenty of lush outdoor space for the kids to play in. And when things got tough at home, which they sometimes do, Kevin and Jeffrey, and Chelsea and Skyler and Ace, knew they could come over to 1610 University Drive and feel secure and lots of encouragement.

 

Ed is preceded in death by his wife, Marie Teresa Hodson, and 11 sisters and brothers: Othal, Twila, Juanita, Cora, George, twins Jessie and Essie, Myrtle, John (AKA “Big”), Flora, and baby Bobby (plus two nephews who grew up alongside Ed: John (AKA “Little”) and Bobby).

Ed is survived by daughter, Betty Lawson; grandsons Jeffrey and Kevin Lawson; great-grandkids, Chelsea Wyatt and Skyler and Ace Lawson; sisters Velda Murphy of Plano and Iris Dowell of Buena Park, California; numerous nieces and nephews; and a lifetime of friends.

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The Self as Unreliable Narrator of Self

2016.October.16

search: define gaslighting

“gaslight: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” — Google

“Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.” — Wikipedia

“Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.” — Everyday Feminism

There is a struggle going on in my brain. I think about it every day, but I don’t talk about it much because it’s so deeply personal I haven’t trusted myself to filter it outward through language. There are three prevailing forces, not battling each other like it’s a war so much as bumping against each other uncomfortably, like too many people on a subway platform; need for personal space aside, it only gets scary if one gets pushed too close to the edge, but then what is only an obnoxious daily ritual to others becomes a matter of life and death for that one, who is silently measuring their own balance, agility, and friction for a way to shift back where there may no longer be room.

I don’t know if gaslighting is the appropriate term, but I do feel like my own mind is making me question my own sanity.

The forces:

  • The human brain likes to give us the illusion of a static reality. The same instincts that see fluid movement instead of choppy frames when we watch a film reel also simplify our account of other people and especially of ourselves. It’s why stereotypes and binary judgments can be hard to unlearn. And whatever our relationship with the reality that people change, the brain especially doesn’t like to accommodate the fact that “people” include oneself. In other words, this force is the stereotype I hold of myself, foundational lens to all knowledge and experience.
  • My political and cultural inquisitions have always moved me toward greater acceptance and inclusivity, but only for the last 2-3 years have I honed the will to consciously identify and contradict privilege (especially male privilege; my childhood gave me unique perspectives on whiteness that have made those confrontations far easier by comparison).
  • Despite being exactly where I want to be in life, and with the people I want to be with, my mental health remains set by terms I don’t understand/recognize from the prolonged trauma of caregiver isolation and burnout.

With these forces so easily identified, it shouldn’t be hard to see how they play out: some potential* confrontation of privilege arises, I give it my activist zeal, but it shorts out my self-perception or de-legitimizes some important social memory/context. I over-commit to addressing it (being a caregiver has heightened my previous strength of “fighting fires”, i.e., dealing with problems as emergencies, to the extent that it is hard to see any problem as anything but an emergency) but underestimate the scope or otherwise approach it with inadequate resources. While the two forces in conflict crash into one another, my caregiver brain determines whether I will calmly choose a direction, take a moment to regroup, or crumble on the floor in anxiety. And since these moments often arise in my head, whatever support I have means I face them functionally alone. By the time I realize I even need help, I am often either incapable of asking or stuck in a situation where no one is immediately available (never mind whether this hypothetical person would be well enough versed in how my brain is working to be any help).

[*Note: I have yet to identify a potential privilege that didn’t end up being real in some way, but I have often identified the wrong one for the problem at hand and gotten sidetracked from a more urgent matter, especially if I exhaust myself or other parties in doing so.]

I am coming to see how much baggage I carry with me. I never thought much about that slang as it became popular in the 90s, but I have seen (through recognizing my hoarding tendencies as I reclaim my living living space, through lukewarm reciprocity as I traveled to reconnect with faraway friends, through continual reflection over the role of my family of origin) how tightly I hold onto things material and ethereal. People. Ideas. Connections. Myths. As comical as it sounds, picture me carrying ten or twelve giant bags and suitcases, all so entangled that it is no longer possible to let go of certain ones without the whole pile crashing down upon me. I can’t look at that pile of baggage and tell you when it reached ridiculous or how to undo it; this was a lifelong accumulation, a slow tsunami of grief emerging from nowhere and everywhere.

Isolation, leadership, and masculinity have become triggers for me, but I still want to be motivated, I want to work to improve this world in idealistic fashions, and I don’t always slow down and examine the paternalism of logical, articulate, academic assumptions and statements. Making hard choices alone reminds me of caregiving. And asking for help reminds me of unchecked privilege. And not asking for help feels like perpetuating the toxic status quo. System error.

Loved ones have probably seen isolated examples of this short-circuit happening but may not realize how often or how deeply it’s happening. There’s usually a dilemma around it, so the deeper terror doesn’t get noticed. It doesn’t help that I lost some of the best allies I had in this process during caregiving because I would just emit my raw discomfort in all directions (I call it emotional radiation) and it was too psychically violent for them to remain close (they practiced self-care, and I am heartened by their having done so). I was unable to make meaningful new connections while I was caregiving at home. I kept my agenda full the first half of this year because I was trying to make room for all the people who had gone to come back (they didn’t). I am now too busy with school to make new connections elsewhere (and there I am nervous about how much of my particular crazy to share if it isn’t going to lead to a peer-reviewed article).

One of my primary assumptions for unpacking privilege is that I am fallible and don’t always understand my own reality, but if you deepen that doubt without breaks or support or reinforcement (and have you ever tried to take a break from your own brain?), the entire structure of perception itself starts to break down.  I thought my overall trajectory this semester would be simplifying my life: picking priorities and streamlining them, setting healthy boundaries, all that, but I’m starting to think I should be focusing instead on doing something about my life’s fractures.

My brain shorts out when someone close to me expresses displeasure or contradicts my understanding of reality. Buy they also call me on my mistakes, of which there are an alarming number. That’s when it feels like self-gaslighting, when I have to trust others more than I can trust myself. I say things and forget them — not from 6 months or 6 years ago, but like yesterday. So at the same time I’m trying to reprogram my brain to not default to “dadspeak” or presumptions of shared understanding, the programming itself seems to be more glitchy than I think. What if in updating an app on your phone, it suddenly forgot the program language or wrote an error into the operating system? Where do you find IT for a system you’ve built from scratch around your own experience? I have a therapist and she’s been instrumental in reprogramming my thoughts, but glitches are deeper, and I’m not sure how much she realizes I still try to do on my own…

I still don’t know how to deal with general anxiety; I assume and envy how those who’ve lived with anxiety for decades probably got an initiation, a process of learning to live around it when their lives were simpler and they had better support, and here I am waltzing in in my mid-30s like I’m capable of doing anything. Sometimes I think about that meme, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” and wonder if I am that mediocre white man. I’ve dug a hole so deep I don’t know how to get out or even how to describe where I am, let alone what help would even look like.

It’s possible I’ve always been this needy, but my needs were sated until I spent 4 years living two lives (not terribly well), taxing every faculty; I’ve been moving in the direction of balance and self-care for almost a year now, but I still stumble often (and it takes a lot more for me to get back up than I expect). Every emotional wound goes more deeply than it should. Every moment of confusion links to another. I relish the concentration of throwing myself into a project because it’s an excuse to focus and tune everything else out, but anything short of an obsessive deadline that will prove everything I can still do is at risk of disruption and distraction. I heal faster when I have too much to do (it’s easier to stabilize a bike that’s going fast), so I do grad school and graduate assistantship and part-time caregiving and two relationships and assistant parenting and therapy and yoga (ha) and dietary changes and commuting and friendships and social justice and queering my own identity because if I don’t do it all at once I will do worse at ALL of it (and I probably won’t heal).

 

I’m not sure how much of this is still physical exhaustion or poor nutrition or compassion fatigue or navel-gazing or being distracted by a confusing break-up 2 years ago or my failure to meditate with any regularity, but I can rarely get the question out before I fall apart. When I recover from one of these short-circuits (usually with help: touch, affirmation, food), it’s usually to focus on something else: relationship stuff, scheduling, classwork, logistics of my commute to school and work. The question that tripped me in the first place remains unanswered (often unasked).

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Progression: the Role of White Friendship

2016.September.22

I’m going to share two links with a bridge of text between them. I’m not going to modify anything, but I think they’ll offer a nice point-counterpoint on a topic I’ve been trying to articulate for years now. The first link is from a blogger I don’t know (haven’t been active on Tumblr in a long while), but was shared on Facebook by a white friend, leading to my comment (which remains unanswered there). The last link is a different take on the same subject by another friend (who has a complicated ethnic background but benefits from white privilege), with whom these thoughts have been percolating for some time.

If nothing else, skip to the last link — I share their conclusions, but they said it way better than I could.

Link 1: White dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas…

This is powerful and important, and it may even explain the growing distance between myself and the very friends with whom I used to debate in just such a manner… but I have a slightly different conclusion.

People who have some privilege (especially people who are/appear white) also have more sway with those same friends precisely because of our privilege. Every time a person of color gets tired of answering an “innocent” question, or a woman gets mansplained, that is an opportunity for someone with privilege who also gets it to step up and reinforce those unheard voices. If we’re looking for our stake in the life-or-death struggles that don’t actually threaten our lives (and I’m speaking as a white guy), it is answering those stupid questions or standing up to the microaggressions in ways that others cannot/shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t have to mean speaking for someone else’s experience, but it can mean referring to relevant texts and saying what we learned from them, it can mean re-humanizing when someone is being othered, it can mean starting conversations rather than waiting until someone is raw/guarded/upset.

In short, sometimes, we need to keep those friends (albeit at arm’s length), we need to spend time with offensive family members, we need to use the access that our privilege grants to raise questions in the very spaces we wish to dismantle.

I’m not saying every person with privilege should have all hard conversations at all times — a lot of times the privilege stems in part from the fact or impression that we constitute a majority (or should), so a little should go a long way. I’m not saying we’re going to change a lot of minds right away — the culture of hostility our peers have created built up over generations with lots of skewed anecdotes, incomplete narratives, and no small amount of pseudoscience along the way.

I’m not saying which individuals should or should not bring bottled water to protests or question the diversity of their workplaces or work on taking up less space in activist spaces. We each have to find our strengths and our allies. But I am saying that when our privilege allows us to relax — and here it is important to note the difference between what offends you vs. what actually threatens your life — that’s when our work begins. If we dismiss those instances, those people, we repeat the mistake of generations of “sympathetic” people before us, who, under pressure, would eventually chose to cast out the obvious examples of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia rather than unpacking its origins, looking it in the eye, and being the friend who says, “You’re better than this.”

Link 2: Dear “Woke White Folk”

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