Seedlings

The last three nights, Michiko Theurer, Jonathan Leal, and I organized a series of evening conversations and gatherings with the theme of Seedlings (featuring guests Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris on their new project EarthSeed, and Jonathan and Charlie Vela on their upcoming project Futuro Conjunto. I’ll update/add these links as the projects release!) The third night was an evening of community gathering, for each of us to share bits of things we’ve been thinking about and working on. Michi and I both, independently, host similar events in person in our living rooms, during non-pandemic times, and now we had a chance to bring them together. All three evenings were beautiful and, to me, life giving. 

I wanted to share a couple of bits of writing I did for the evenings. 

Text Statement about our hopes for this space, in solidarity with uprisings against police brutality inflicted upon Black people in the US, to share at the start of our evenings.

Injustice has long been woven into the fabric of our society, in this country, this world. There are countless dimensions to this injustice, so many of which are painfully apparent right now. Now, when Black, Indigenous, and Brown people are suffering disproportionately worse health outcomes in the middle of a pandemic, continuing to experience state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police and militaries, and facing an increasingly precarious future under growing xenophobia and a changing climate, it is crucial that all of us come together to care for one another, protest alongside one another, and fight for justice in whatever ways we can. Equally, it is important that we come together to find joy, connection, and solidarity in the present, so that we can imagine radically better futures. So that we can begin to build these better futures through acts of vulnerability, bravery, and care. We hope this evening is a space in which we can imagine better, and share our imaginings, and so nurse the flame of change. We hope this evening will nourish us and energize us so that we can build and keep building a more just world.   

And here’s what I wrote to share at the third evening.

When all of your searching leads you to the same unexpected thoughts, as a jarring unfamiliar discomfort turns into a familiar revelation, you know that you are heading somewhere true. I wonder if this is what it feels like for a seedling to wake up each morning, knowing that its direction is set: sun-ward.

The thought that I’ve been encountering, over and over again in these last few months, is that everything lives in the tension between things. For me, these have been months in which global upheaval has coincided with reaching a stable and clear sense of myself and my place in the world. That, right there, is a tension. In my work as an evolutionary biologist, I’m coming to fully inhabit the idea that nature lives in the tension between stasis and change. Honestly, everything—and everybody—lives in the tension between stasis and change. We live, individually and societally, in the tension between trauma and freedom. The work of emancipation lives in the tension between simple and impossible. Seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.

And what’s wonderful about the tension between things is that it’s where the imagination sprouts. With my eyes, mind, and heart opened to this tension, there is a springiness to existence (a “bouncy feeling” as my yoga teacher says). A buoyancy in which anything feels possible. And so it is no longer surprising to me that in the last few months, as I have found this sense of tension to be everywhere, I have also found god. What I’m realizing now, as I type this, is that, for me, god is an unfettered imagination born from tension. An infinity of seeds suspended in a giant spider web, floating somewhere above my head. I angle my eyes slightly upwards and with a soft focus, to talk with my god, this curtain of seeds and tough silk.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with the silhouettes, in the New York Times, of the one hundred thousand people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. It was hard not to see each of them as seeds. Even a life lived long and lived well can hold promise. Death is close, always, and a seed knows that. Hence its hard coat. Hence its fatty sustenance. I think of all the older people I know from the context of recovery programs, how they are germinating into their truest selves at sixty-five, seventy, eighty-two. They’ve endured the longest winter, and now they live in a pandemic world that says to them, “Enough. No longer. You are not wanted here.” I wish that by the time I am old, I have found a way to make peace with death. I try to broker that peace now, just in case, because I am lucky to have found both my soil and my sunshine.

*****

It is the season, here, of fruit trees. My partner and my house mate are both low key obsessed with fruit trees. They pin locations of fruit trees in maps, and delightedly report new discoveries to one another and to me, of a laden loquat tree just down the road whose fruit are sadly out of reach, behind a fence, perhaps, or just too high. Or a fig whose fruit will ripen months from now. The other day they were discussing the present state of a neighborly persimmon tree—I tuned out, in part because I know for a fact its fruit won’t be ready to eat until August! But then it struck me that this conversation isn’t about what we can take from the fruit trees. It’s about seeing fruit trees as members of our community. Seeing their wholeness, slowing down, living in tree time.

 

IMG_0624

 

Notes on “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller.

I love this book. I came upon it thanks to a recommendation from a dear friend, someone who is so similar to me in growth trajectory that we joke (but not really) about how they just give me all the advice they give themselves and it is always exactly the thing I need to hear. So when they suggested this book to me, part of me knew I needed to read it. But another part of me was wounded at the suggestion that I wasn’t a good listener already! Thankfully, the book is written for exactly those of us that think this.

The week that I decided to read this book was the week I finally—finally—took an honest-to-goodness break from work, possibly for the first time ever. I don’t mean just that I didn’t work. I mean that I stopped working and also, miraculously, stopped thinking about the work I wasn’t doing. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but it was necessary. It was a moment of throwing my hands up, because every aspect of plodding along and working, working, working felt unmanageable. Every bit of doing work had been bleeding joy for months, years, and what remained was exhaustion. Stopping felt like the only thing I could do. (Thank a strong union for hard-won paid time off. Stand in solidarity with those of us who don’t yet have that.)

Because work has long been my coping mechanism for dealing with stress, dysfunction, and more, not working has felt like an acknowledgement of all the ways in which I’m healthier now—I no longer need to work to feel okay. But the question remained—what do you do with a coping mechanism that grew in dysfunction but that has been rewarded by the world you live in, those rewards in turn proving necessary (but definitely not sufficient; the rest is privilege) for building the safety and security in which I could heal? When I stopped working, I did not know what the answer would be. How am I going to work when I run out of time off?

Into this void of possibility came “Listening Well.” I found myself well-poised to make the changes the author was suggesting. (Not perfectly! That’s the work of a lifetime. But with consciousness and intention). Moreover, I agreed with the author that learning to listen well is more than just a set of skills worth developing. It changes how I exist in the world. And crucially, it gives the overworked part of my mind a foundation from which to engage with the world again, but healthily this time. It gives my logic part something to do, a calm and stable fixed point to return to as it works to unlearn longstanding patterns of obsession, rumination, and single-mindedness.

Because at the heart of listening well, according to Miller, is both noticing and connecting. It is meditative and communal. It’s about taking risks in engaging with another, where being wrong is beside the point. It is all about vulnerability without self-centeredness. These are all the directions in which I want to grow, as a person.

And so I have no doubt that these practices are going to shift how I am in my relationships (slowly! imperfectly!). I’m loving all the chances I get to practice them, in person within my social-distancing bubble, on the phone, by text. I’ve realized, of course, that I don’t always want to listen well—sometimes, I want to talk about me, lean into weird banter, distract from the conversation because I noticed or remembered something unrelated, or not engage at all. Nevertheless, this book has crystallized something very powerful for me.

And what I’m most excited about is what this practice of listening well could do for my work as a behavioral ecologist and soon-to-be-professor. Many aspects of being an academic— writing, editing, teaching, and mentorship, most obviously—are in no small part about listening well and creating from a place of responsive empathy. But so is the work of science itself—I want to observe the world, read papers, and understand ideas from this same place of generosity and curiosity that “Listening Well” centers. Science is the work of noticing, distilling, and extending ideas a little further, which is exactly the work of listening well. I want the science I do to make the room for both nature and my community of scientists to prolong the conversation.

With this approach as my bedrock, I’m starting to feel excited about getting back to work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Listening Well

#WorldMentalHealthDay

Note: this post was written by an academic peer of mine, and I’m hosting it here anonymously because (1) I agree with it completely and (2) I want these powerful words to exist in a place where they can help others feel some solidarity, as we fight against a system that diminishes our mental health struggles. And if you’re struggling in the here and now, reach out for help and support–it’s so difficult, I know, but trust me, it will be worth it. 

It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessDay. Twitter is abuzz with talk of self-care, and work-life balance. And I’m furious. Because implicit to so many messages that I’ve seen, messages that are ostensibly advocating for mental health, is the idea that if you are suffering, it is YOUR fault. You are not engaging in enough self-care. You are not managing your time well enough. You are not mindful enough. You do not have enough gratitude. And in the case of mental illness – be it major depression, or generalized anxiety, or whatever else may be plaguing one’s mind—this narrative is so, so damaging.

I’m LIVID that in the face of rampant systematic barriers to equity, amid omnipresent stigma, those who are supposed to be advocating for mental health are merely proposing the 2010’s equivalent of “get over it”. Call it “mindfulness”, call it “self-care”, call it whatever you want. If you say that solving a mental health challenge is up to the sufferer alone, you are telling them to “get over it”. Advocating for self care in the absence of calls for systemic change is nothing if not virtue signaling.

You know what people with mental health difficulties need? The systems around us to change. We need things like leave policies that provide time off for dealing with crisis, and for seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist. We need the people we work with to learn how to interact with us, to appreciate the difference between illness and perceived laziness, to know what to do if we need help. We need there to be support for mental health infrastructure, so that we don’t need to wait for months to get an appointment if something is going wrong now. We need to know that coming out as mentally ill won’t destroy our chances of getting a job, or finding a mentor.

Yes, I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m sick of being an academic with mental illness surrounded by institutions who think the solution to the mental health crisis is to run another workshop on mindfulness or time management. I’m sick of having my institutions tell me to get over it. I’m resentful that I’m so afraid of the backlash to this paragraph that I’m publishing this anonymously. I should not have to be afraid. But in a world where my suffering is seen as my own fault, I don’t have much choice. Change needs to come from the top down—because I guarantee you, those of us suffering from mental illness are already doing the most we can.

IMG_2208

How to Find a Therapist

One of the best consequences of being open about my mental health struggles is that people have begun to ask me for advice on how to get help with maintaining their own mental wellbeing. I’ve now conveyed my thoughts about finding a therapist to several friends, and figured I may as well share those thoughts here. This assumes that (a) you are in the U.S. and (b) that you have health insurance that covers visits to therapists (if not, some therapists offer sliding scale charges, though they’re often quite a bit, and other low cost options do exist. I’ll update with links after searching for this information). In the interest of making this a communal resource, if you have anything to add or disagree with anything I’ve said below, please leave a comment!

In searching for a therapist, start on Psychology Today’s search website. Filter by your location, insurance type, and any other preferences you know you have. I often begin by searching for licensed clinical social workers (LICSW) because in my experience their focus feels broader, with an emphasis on societal factors outside of you as an individual…also they seem more compassionate. But my current therapist isn’t a LICSW, and also she’s someone I found out about by word of mouth, so ask your trusted friends for their recommendations but know also that personal preferences vary wildly. Then once you see the therapists’ profiles/websites, listen to your gut instinct on whether you’ll feel comfortable with them, and if yes, schedule a phone consultation (always free). Not everyone will get back to you, and insurance information on websites is often out of date. Make sure you know what in-network and out-of-network benefits you have to be able to ask pointed questions re: insurance.

On the phone, have a brief summary ready of why you’re looking for a therapist, and maybe think a bit about what you’re worried about in finding a good therapist. Have a couple of questions for them about their practice/values. For example, I always ask about whether they have experience interacting with racial and sexual minorities. A friend asks if they know what the “A” stands for in LGBTQIA–they only get the green light if they know it’s “asexual” and not “ally”. Pay attention to your instincts in gauging their responses, and see if you can discern from them what you want or don’t want. For example, I knew I wasn’t looking for a cognitive behavioral therapist–that felt too logical and goal-oriented for me, and so I paid attention to how much people would talk about feelings vs. logic in their descriptions of how they practice.

Then, be prepared to go to a bunch of first sessions. It’s like dating. Many of these may suck, and it’s tough–it takes work to rebuild yourself after you’ve been vulnerable with someone who doesn’t know what to do with that vulnerability. Look for the feeling of being safe, for someone who is kind, and will respond with compassion to the things you beat yourself up about. Schedule in some recovery time after these, don’t expect to be able to go straight back to work/life. Try not to be too guarded unless you know right away that they’re terrible, because it then might be tougher to get a feel for how they’ll respond when you’re unguarded. I’m pretty picky at this stage–if I don’t feel unambiguously good about them after a first session, I don’t go back. Resist the pressure when they ask if you want to schedule another appointment–a good therapist will not assume that the session was a good one, and will ask you first about how you felt.

Good luck!

cropped-dscn2008.jpg