Joy in the Harshest Season

We’ve had such a lovely mild-to-warm climate change autumn, but then it went too far. Last week we had muggy, 80° hurricane weather. It felt all wrong. But suddenly a cold front rolled in, which led to the melancholy Axl Rose described (cold November rain). This morning, 30° daylight broke across frosty lawns and shriveled flowers. After weeks of jacket-free days and slightly cool evenings, late fall has finally arrived. And, as usual, I feel a bit devastated by barren trees and an almost constant chill in my hands and feet.

Winter is the season when I struggle most. But if I’ve learned anything from these last few months of intense therapy, it’s that mundane sources of joy reveal themselves every single day when I stop resisting the inevitable and just let life happen. So in the spirit of making the most of this sudden season, here are some things I actually enjoy about winter:

  • A respite from the humidity My crackers stay crunchy, my bread won’t mold so fast, my hair frizzes less, and the wet clothes I hang on the laundry rack will actually dry.
  • The absence of leaves changes the sky in interesting ways I see more sunlight in my home, more blue sky on clear days, more interesting cloudscapes on gray days, more full moon through criss-crossed branches. And it’s so quiet when a breeze rolls over the trees–nothing to flutter.
  • Couch cocooning How I love the comfort of a throw blanket! But not as much as my dog loves to burrow beneath it and curl up against my side. We make great blanket buddies. I get way more dog snuggles this time of year.
  • Savoring hot liquids This is when I get to lean into my love of tea, cocoa, cider, soup, and showers. If I’m not taking a hot shower, I’m probably pressing a warm mug of something against my sternum.
  • The green that remains is so green Thank goodness for the deep, unmissable hue of ivies, hollies, and evergreens. It took me a while to appreciate this about Carolina Piedmont winters. The weather may be chilly, nasty, wet and muddy everywhere, the colors of spring and autumn just distant dreams or memories. Yet there is always some green to be seen, and it is quite vibrant compared to everything around it.
  • Southern snow storms Sometimes it snows, the whole town shuts down, and we all go out and play in this strange, shimmering powder landscape. The prettier it is, the more days off you get.
  • Quality time with the sun My frenemy and I get along way better in winter, when long sleeves and pants are a must and only my face requires SPF 50. No need to worry about sweating off sunblock! I can walk so freely in the sunlight. Winter is the one time of year I crave the beach, so ready to bask in solar glow.
  • No mosquitos ‘Nuff said.
  • My kid loves winter My theory is that everyone hates whatever season was harshest in the place where they grew up. I suspect no matter how long I live in the south, I will always carry within my bones the sensation of sleeping in a cold Michigan basement bedroom. My daughter, on the other hand, is a southern native. She hates summer. She wants to scream every time she enters a sunbaked car on a 90° day. Cold air suits her just fine. And I benefit from her good attitude as we wait for the car to warm up on a freezing morning (even if I’m a bit of a grump).
  • I get to be an awful busybody about how other people dress for the weather Honestly, I groan at least once a day at the things I see. Hoodies are not coats! No hat on a 20° day?! Hypothermia is gonna mess you up way worse than wearing a big, shapeless coat will. Who cares about being fashionable? THIS IS NOT THE SEASON FOR SKIMPING ON FABRIC. (I could go on, but you get the idea — my know-it-all self thrives this time of year.)
  • It’s homebody season I love home. I love domiciles. Always have. I love being in a warm, familiar place with my little family more than anything. I like filling that space with the smell of good food, enjoying a tasty meal at the dining room table, then curling up on the couch to watch TV. I also love hanging out in my bedroom, reading or writing on the bed, or meditating on my cushion. I love to not go out much, except to enjoy long walks around my town. The pandemic has taught me how to expand my sense of home beyond these four walls. I’ve learned that I really love this hilly old town. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel really at home and rooted in this city. I love walking and exploring, finding new parks, neighborhoods, and places to love. But the best part, always, is coming back to the house where my husband, kid, and dog reside. The emotional warmth I absorb from the people who love me most feels highly seasoned when I’m literally coming in from the cold. It’s the reward I get for embracing the elements.
A view of downtown Winston-Salem that can only be seen when the leaves go away

To the Left, To the Left

Five of Swords card from the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot deck depicts a smug man holding two swords while leaning another. Two more swords lie near his feet. He stares wt two men in the distance who seem to have their heads hung in anguish.

Sometimes I daydream about quitting socialist organizing, because I get tired of all the resentment. I’ve felt my share of resentment over the years — for people not stepping up or not following through with commitments. Now that I’m doing EMDR therapy (which I discussed in my last essay), I notice this process of resolving old trauma is freeing me from a lot of that judgment. I’m not giving myself such a hard time about grinding for the cause, which means I’m going easier on other people, too. That part of my recovery feels really liberating.

So now I just have to reckon with another sort of resentment, the kind that comes from bad social interactions with fellow leftists. I’m sick of the knee-jerk snobbery and condescension I often experience, especially from dudes. Their prickliness usually feels like some combination of misogyny and ageism. The immediate assumption that I don’t know things, or require their direction. Lots of talk about their specific tendency, and the implied or sometimes stated understanding that their politics are far to my left. Or sometimes they come at me with a mean, eyerolly sort of hostility, which mainly feels like hatred for middle aged, normie moms. I’ve dealt with these incidents so frequently in the past five years, I sometimes wonder what batshit alternate reality I’ve stumbled into. Why am I trying to be in any kind of movement with these people?

Okay, I know why — the truth is that there are a lot of leftists I couldn’t stand at first who grew on me after a while, and then we did some good work together. This is how it usually goes: we meet, they say something rude to me, and I think, “Wow, what a prick.” But I still deal with them as I see them, and make sure someone (maybe not me) calls them when we’re doing organizational outreach. Eventually they notice I’m a serious and dedicated organizer who’s respected by her peers. They become nicer and we get along fine. And then we do some good work together.

As much as I value all these relationships that begin a bit rocky, I’m now at a point where I’m no longer interested in earning basic respect from someone who just met me. I think it’s important to note the difference between trust and respect. Trust must be earned, especially in political and social justice organizing groups. I don’t expect anyone who just met me to trust me. Particularly as a white woman, I understand that when I’m first getting to know a person of color, or someone who’s experienced extreme poverty, it might be a while before they believe I’m not some fake-nice Karen who’s gonna turn on them. That sort of slow process is just to be expected, and I don’t take it personally. On the other hand, when another middle-class white person that I just met talks down to me because I clearly don’t spend my free time reading obscure philosophical texts, that’s just called being an asshole. Treating others with respect should be a default setting. I shouldn’t need to go through any kind of trial period just to earn basic politeness. 

And for sure, I’m sensitive. I notice slights that perhaps weren’t intended to be rude. Sometimes when a very serious young man with soft hands is calmly explaining to me that his politics are far too radical to be associated with anything I might be organizing, I can tell he’s just doing his due diligence for the revolution. Or so he believes. Who knows, maybe he maintains some personal beliefs that would completely blow my normie mom mind. I rather suspect that he just spends a lot more time thinking about the intellectual stuff than I do. And that’s great! Our anti-capitalist movement needs theory nerds. I’m just not one of them. I do other work for the movement. I get people to show up and do stuff, from phone banking to canvassing to rallying. And I’m good at it. That’s enough for a working mom. I don’t need to beat my brains out trying to learn theory. I hope someday these guys realize that it takes all kinds when you’re trying to defeat capitalism, and maybe we can work together.

On the other hand, some fellow leftists are just plain hostile. And that’s probably because many of us have severe, untreated trauma. People work out their aggression in left organizing spaces because they’ve never received justice for the pain they’ve experienced under various systems of oppression, and too many can’t afford mental healthcare. It sucks! Yet as much as I feel for anyone who’s been screwed by any kind of system, toxic behavior just shouldn’t be tolerated. I’m a real stickler about this. I completely avoid anyone who is chronically aggressive toward other leftists. Most of them don’t act out in person, but they’ll talk a lot of trash online. They’re always bad news! Even when their cause is righteous, you can always tell it’s really about their ego or personal gain. Or I can, anyway. Some of these people are very good at getting into positions of power, because they’re charming or charismatic. They might be friendly at first, becoming more caustic over time.

But hey, we’ve got narcissists and sociopaths in all walks of life. I think what makes all this very rude behavior on the left a special sort of hell is that it’s so often coupled with an air of moral superiority. Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Most of us were liberal activist types at some point, and thought, “Anyone who disagrees with me is bad, and anyone who isn’t fighting alongside me just doesn’t care.” Unlearning that mindset takes a lot of time and effort. For years I thought that when people didn’t show up or flaked out on their tasks, it was because they didn’t care enough. The fact is, there’s simply no way for me to know exactly how much a person cares vs. all the other factors that complicate their time and energy. So why get hung up on it? All I can do is persuade them to take action, and not take it personally when they don’t.

In conclusion, I would love for any leftists reading this to walk away knowing that no matter what your political beliefs are, how hard you organize, how much theory you read, or how angry you are about injustice and oppression, you are not actually better than other people. We’re all just people, and we want at least some of the same things. I want whatever power and goods the working class can get. And I won’t quit. I’ll keep organizing. But just know, the next time someone I never met before decides to give me free advice or a political education lecture, wants to sneer at my hippie nerd mom style or project lots of weird assumptions about me being an anti-revolutionary lib, I’m probably gonna say something really blunt or make fun of them to their face. As someone who is lucky enough to be receiving the mental healthcare she needs, I now understand that I no longer want to be in a movement where anyone working in good faith gets treated that way.

Five of Swords card from the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot deck depicts a smug man holding two swords while leaning another. Two more swords lie near his feet. He stares wt two men in the distance who seem to have their heads hung in anguish.
The Five of Swords from Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot

People Can Change

As I begin this essay, I’m three months free of alcohol. Hooray! I feel proud. It hasn’t been an easy season. At no point did I have to fight off the urge to drink; even when I’m hit with nostalgia for wine at dinner or a mimosa with brunch, I instantly recall the indigestion and poor sleep that made me quit in the first place. The much harder part of this journey has been the dual impact of short-term depression and my inability to numb my mind the way I did before. Unfortunately, it’s become way harder for me to block out some old voices in my head that tell me I’m an asshole.

If you’ve ever experienced the joy of waking up fully refreshed the day after a massive hangover, it might be hard to believe that quitting booze can lead to short-term depression. Well, it turns out if you drink heavily or even just frequently, your brain gets used to pumping out dopamine. It’s that sense of “WOOHOO party!” you might feel when the waiter brings the first round. Then your brain keeps chugging out the dopamine to counteract the depressant, which is the thing that causes you to slur and get sloppy if you keep going. Before I quit I was rarely drinking to excess, but I did imbibe often. When I went cold turkey my brain quit making so much dopamine, which left me feeling incredibly blah. And then when some other troubling stuff happened, both internal (vitamin deficiencies) and external (so long, Roe v Wade!), my sense of ennui turned to despair.

The hardest part of quitting booze is now I must fully deal with myself. I used to feel enormous regret about my past, mainly all the bad, irresponsible choices I made in my twenties. I thought I made peace with all that a while ago by working on my self-compassion and giving myself the same grace I extend to others who struggle as young people on their own. But it turned out that self-critical voice inside me never went away. I just did a better job ignoring it by gettin’ my drink on. Feeling that dopamine rush is frankly way more fun than listening to some harsh biddy who tells me I’m an enormous fuck-up!

The worst moment in this dreadful reunion with my mean inner voice happened in early August, right after my daughter returned home from visiting her grandparents. My husband was out of town for a conference so I was coming off this glorious weekend staycation where I had the house to myself, plus a break from summertime stay-at-home parenting. And then there I was, parenting alone. I was already feeling a little stressed. My daughter and I settled down to watch her new favorite cartoon series when I noticed a familiar name in the opening credits — an old housemate from my college co-op days. This was a woman I always thought was pretty cool, but I got the distinct feeling she found me kind of annoying. Even worse, I felt like she was a cooler, more sophisticated version of me. We shared similar interests in music, movies, and writing. But she was from a big city and went on to live in Europe, whereas I dropped out of college and stayed in the same town until I met my husband. And here we are in the present — she, the head writer of a really great animated program for kids, vs. me, who struggles to care for one well-behaved child while working a part-time data entry gig. All I could think at that moment was UGH YOU ARE SUCH A LOSER, TARA.

Then a worse memory hit me — I had moved into this woman’s room when she graduated college and left the co-op. She asked if I wanted to take over her private phone line. I was like “Sure, I’ll be totally responsible for that!” and then did not pay the bill because I was a total flake with money and due dates. Since that part of my life is a blur of many bad choices, I do not remember if we’d changed the bill out of her name or if/when I paid it off. Oh the shame! Being a loser is one thing, but fucking up someone else’s credit felt even worse. 

I shared all this with my therapist. I told her I’m self-aware enough to see I’m giving myself an unreasonably hard time. And yet I struggled to not get swept away in these waves of self-consciousness that convinced me I’m an awful person. So she suggested I start a new type of therapy called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Basically it’s a technique that uses eye movement to help the brain reprocess past traumatic experiences so they don’t maintain a stranglehold on your wellbeing. The way I understand it is that I’ve got that mean old bitch voice on one side of my brain telling me I suck, and then there’s the rational voice on the other side saying, “Hmm that’s pretty harsh, I think you’re doing your best.” This therapy brings the two voices together so the rational voice can tell the bitch voice to shut the fuck up. And then I can move on. The traumatic memory that fuels the bitch voice doesn’t go away. But maybe it won’t send me into a meltdown. 

We’re just getting started with this process but I’m hopeful it’ll help me deal with the internal stew that made me want to numb my brain. In the meantime, I’ve been taking good care of myself in other ways. I meditate, exercise, and drink lots of water every day. My kid’s school started so now I have way more of that solo time I very much need. I’m taking vitamins and feeling my mood shift away from that “meh” withdrawal mindset. 

I’ve also been getting lots of laughs from watching the Netflix sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave. Every ITYSL vignette features a character whose emotional reaction to a situation goes way too far. My favorite sketch stars series creator Tim Robinson as a dude at a party who asks to hold his friend’s newborn baby. When the baby cries in his arms he says to his friend, “Probably doesn’t like me ‘cause I used to be a piece of shit.” When she says the baby’s just fussy, he insists this infant must know about his checkered past. He begins confessing his old douchebag behavior to other partygoers — “Slicked back hair, white bathing suit, sloppy steaks, white couch… You would not have liked me back then!” This situation escalates in ridiculous fashion, which I won’t even attempt to spoil for you — it’s all too hilariously absurd for me to translate. I will say that the sketch ends with a sort of redemption that’s quite funny at first. But upon repeat viewings, I now find it rather profound and beautiful. As the main character keeps insisting, “People can change.” This sketch is a healing reminder that even at my worst, some part of me always wanted to be better.

Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave, S2E2 (Netflix)

An Introvert’s Guide to Saving Ourselves

2022 is rich with calamities. Roe v. Wade overturned. Climate catastrophes burn and flood our planet. Right wing violence and fascism on the rise. Plagues abound. 

You may be wondering, “When will any of this get better?”

Well, here’s what I’ve learned over the past eight years…

You must first accept that no one is coming to save us – not from climate change, fascists, pandemics, none of it. But we are not doomed, because WE will save us! Sounds like a lot of responsibility, right? You might feel overwhelmed, perhaps a bit cheated as you contemplate this massive task. Please know this was always the only scenario that would work in the long run.

We have clear enemies. They are billionaires, fossil fuel execs, arms manufacturers, right wing politicians, useless liberal electeds, and probably also your boss. They possess too much power and too many resources, and care mainly about growing their vast fortunes at our expense. We must build a mass movement to take their power.

The good news is that there are way more of us than them. Hooray! We just have to work together to defeat them, which is also the bad news 😦  Sigh. I so often hate dealing with other people. But I also want a habitable planet, democracy, and free abortion on demand, so I accept my fate and work with others. That’s why I became a member of Team Save Us.

We must do more than voting once or twice a year. “More than” can mean many things, but it does not include yelling “VOTE” on the internet. In fact, yelling anything on the internet barely helps at all, except maybe if you’re famous. And if you’re reading this, you’re not famous. You and I are just the everyday Us. We don’t have big platforms.

The next step is to get involved with an organization that aligns with your values. You probably have no idea what you’re doing and that’s okay, as long as you’re willing to learn. You’ll learn best from other people who’ve been doing this longer than you have. 

We only save ourselves through the combined power of many, many everyday people. That means we have to talk to each other, strategize, and act collectively. You might be thinking, “Surely there must be a more efficient way.” At some point someone will try to sell you an app that saves you the trouble of dealing with other people. You just type a message in the thingie and then others will do your bidding. Easy peasy, right? Haha, this is the exact same thing as yelling stuff on the internet! Nothing will come of it. There are no shortcuts. Building a mass movement means building relationships. You must engage in conversation and persuasion, and that’s a social muscle you have to keep working. 

All this human interaction can be a real mixed bag. There’s a wonderful side to dealing with people, which is finding joyful community — meeting like-minded individuals, bonding over shared interests, making friends, maybe even falling in love. Then there’s the unpleasant part — encountering other people’s bad ideas, bad manners, or their myriad quirks. Sometimes I’ll be interacting with a person I find deeply irritating and ask myself, “Is this person an enemy?” It’s too bad they never are because then I could discard them without a second thought. I used to discard annoying people willy nilly. But if you stick around a community long enough you sometimes see them commit brilliant and brave acts. We’re not going to like all the people needed to defeat our enemies. But we need every single one of us who is willing to work together in good faith.

This isn’t about being a good person, it’s about shifting power. I strive to be a good person. But ultimately this is about taking power and resources away from the small group of Clear Enemies so that Team Us can start running the show. On a personal level, I do feel a moral obligation to participate (mainly because I’m a parent), but that’s just my flavor of motivation. I don’t expect that of everyone. The thing with moral superiority is that it often does the opposite of what we want; it tends to alienate people rather than drawing them into this big, messy work of building relationships. Over time, I’ve come to understand I’m not morally better than anyone who isn’t already on Team Us. I just haven’t persuaded them to join yet. 

None of this is charity. Sure I donate to causes and fundraisers just like anyone with a few bucks and a beating heart. We must find ways to help the most vulnerable people in this moment. But we are all vulnerable. Climate change and fascism will come for us all in the long run. Team Us doesn’t fight for charitable donations. Our goal is to tear down systems of oppression that serve the Clear Enemies’ interests and replace all that with something better — food, housing, education, childcare, healthcare, ecologically sustainable communities, democratic control of our government and economy, and lots of leisure time with people we love. I have an enormous personal stake in all that coming to be. I’m in this for all of us, and that most definitely includes me and mine. I expect everyone else on Team Us to be just as personally invested. We fight together in solidarity, not as an act of charity.

We learn from losing. Underdogs lose a lot. The Clear Enemies have way more money and power, and they’ll play every dirty trick to keep it that way. When we lose it’s okay to bitch about the unfairness of it all for a little while. But then we get together and ask ourselves, “What will we do differently next time?” We incorporate that knowledge and keep going. 

Trying feels better than not trying. Once you fully internalize the truth that no one is coming to save us, you have a couple options – nihilism or action. Personally, I’m no good at nihilism. I believe a far better world is 100% achievable eventually, if not in my lifetime. So I do my little part of this big, messy work. And I feel so much better than I did when I used to vacillate between denial and panic. I do experience occasional moments of hopelessness. I’ve learned that’s just part of the deal. We live in dispiriting times. Lately, I’ve felt a strong urge to retreat within myself entirely, because I’m too sad to be available to others. For a moment, I even considered what it would look like to quit my organization and just give up. I quickly assessed that giving up would hurt me more than anything else has hurt in 2022, and that’s saying a lot. Doing movement work is not about feeling like a good person, but it does connect me to something bigger than myself. I don’t assume the existence of a higher power or an afterlife. My only religion is solidarity, and I have a lot to learn. I’m still figuring out how to be a team player instead of a loner. Our current systems of oppression thrive on millions of us staying lonely. Building with others doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s the number one best antidote to the hopelessness that makes me want to give up.

Drier Times

I’m currently in a period of not drinking alcohol, an arc in a longer phase of drinking less than I used to. I don’t feel comfortable discussing this with you, which is exactly why I’m bringing it up. No one I know talks about how much they drink except the teetotalers. And when they talk about abstaining, it’s usually just to gripe about acquaintances asking them, “Well, why not?” It seems like a lot of people are imbibing these days, maybe more than they ever have before. Makes sense. Pretty typical response to the world burning.

My therapist once told me, “Shame hates the light.” So I’m gonna shine a light on this truth — I never want to have a hangover again, because they always leave me feeling very ashamed. Part of this comes from growing up Catholic and part of it comes from having an alcoholic dad. In any case, I hate how the after effects of excess alcohol make me feel about myself… like I’m a fuck-up. And I find it very annoying that “too much” looks like nothing compared to what I used to swill. Twenty years ago, a hangover was this wretched, puking, headachey thing that happened when I closed out the bar with friends, continued drinking at one of our houses afterward, smoked half a pack of cigarettes, didn’t take one sip of water, and woke up before noon for some dumb reason. God, I would probably fall asleep at the bar by midnight if I tried any of that now.

This is what a hangover looks like these days: no headache and no vomit, but I’m dead tired. Maybe I had more than two drinks the night before, or maybe I just partied a little too late (after 9:30pm). I’ll get ready for bed by 11, do my healthy nighttime ritual, go to sleep, and then wake up exactly four hours later, fuzzy and confused. Then I either don’t get back to sleep or don’t sleep enough. I feel weird, guilty, and probably a little crabby. And then that opens up the possibility that my drinking becomes someone else’s problem.

Thinking about that reminds me of this really dumb Elvis movie called Roustabout. In the scene where The King first meets his love interest, he makes a bad impression on her surly dad. They’re all rough and tumble carnies, so the mood quickly turns dicey, but then Barbara Stanwyck (the carnie matriarch) says to the grumpy dad, “Cut it out! It’s not his fault you have a hangover!” Just the way she delivers that line, with her classic no-bullshit intonation… maybe I’ll record it on my phone and play it any time someone’s a jerk to me for no good reason. Unfortunately, I have a terribly good memory for the occasions when I’ve been treated that way and have realized in hindsight that the person lashing out at me was probably hungover at the time. And that makes me as mad as a Stanwyck. So I really don’t ever wanna be that guy. Who would wanna be the angry drunk carnie dad at odds with Elvis?

If I’m gonna be a total drag, I’d rather be like Millie. Millie is a character from the ‘80s throwback teen dramedy “Freaks and Geeks,” the former best friend of protagonist Lindsay. Lindsay is a straight-A student who suddenly starts wearing her dad’s green Army jacket and hanging with the burnout crowd following an existential crisis. I was a lot like her in high school. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the good sense exhibited by her uptight pal Millie, a hyper-religious mathlete who worries about her old friend running with a bad crowd. In one of my favorite episodes, Lindsay’s freak friends convince her to throw a keg party when her parents go out of town. She’s surprised when a disapproving Millie shows up at her door. Millie enters the house and announces with stoic determination, “I’m gonna have more fun than any of you. Sober.” 

Again, the delivery on this line just kills me. The heavy-handed seriousness cracks me up, but then Millie does have a fun time! At one point she sits down at the piano and belts out “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me” backed up by resident stoner Nick. I don’t regret my own experiences with youthful partying, or that I also eschewed religion and mathleticism when I was a teen. But I’m glad I’ve come around to a place where I’m learning the joy of sober fun.

See, the thing with drinking is that it takes up so much space in a day. Once I start I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that requires extra energy. To make sure I feel okay in the morning I have to follow all these little rules about how many beverages, how late, and how do I get home? Not needing to calculate all that feels so much easier.

I do miss the flavor. I enjoy un-sweet beverages that hit my palate like a sledgehammer, and I can only drink so much coffee. I’m developing a taste for non-alcoholic spirits that are supposed to replicate the flavor of gin and whiskey. But really they just have their own weird, abrasive bite. I figure I’m going through the same process that tricks people into thinking Diet Coke and turkey burgers taste as good as the real stuff. I’ve figured out how to make a decent knock-off dirty martini. It’s fine.

And yeah, I also miss the numbing. We live in very chaotic, scary times! And it’s getting worse! Some days it’s hard to find the joy in life. Booze has this remarkable ability to instantly shift my brain to FUN mode. But the pleasant distraction doesn’t last very long unless I keep sipping.

So instead of numbing, I take long walks and meditate. I try to live in the moment, no matter how unpleasant that may be. It’s rarely as bad as worrying about the future, mourning the past, or feeling guilty because I’m hungover from three beers. It isn’t as easy for me to flip that FUN switch when I’m feeling down. But overall I feel calmer, more ready to be present for others. More than anything, I just don’t want to be a dick to anyone else. I strongly believe — both politically and spiritually — that solidarity will be our only salvation in the days to come. It’s hard to be a good comrade or loved one when you’re crabby because you numbed too much the night before. I just can’t afford that.

The Ineffable Spirit That Healed Me

COVID took my brain to a dark place. Five days after testing positive, I was sitting up in bed, bawling in a teleconference with my therapist about how I’d fallen so far behind in everything. “I feel like I’m failing miserably,” I wailed. She talked me down, saying I must tend to my health first and foremost. I agreed to post a sign next to my bed that said BARE MINIMUM in big print so I wouldn’t forget healing was more important than work. And then she told me something I desperately needed to hear. “Tara, this depression you’re feeling is a symptom of COVID. You have felt joy before, and you will feel joy again.”

I took all of her advice to heart. Whenever I felt overwhelmed over the following week, I’d look at my BARE MINIMUM sign and mind its message. When my body felt weak, I’d lie down. And on several occasions, when I needed to revisit a sense of joy from another time and place, I watched the 1987 romantic comedy Roxanne. 

Roxanne is an adaptation of the 1897 French play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Steve Martin stars as CD Barnes, chief firefighter in an idyllic mountain town called Nelson. Charming, witty, and spry, CD is beloved by neighbors, colleagues, and his best friend Dixie (Shelley Duvall). Yet romance eludes him because of his freakishly long nose. Despite his good humor, CD has little patience for anyone who mocks his face; in the opening sequence he effortlessly beats up a couple of bullying yuppie cokeheads who make fun of his schnozz. Later that same evening he meets ethereal, intellectual beauty Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), an astronomy PhD student who’s come to Nelson to study stars. CD quickly becomes smitten with her, but then she develops a big crush on his newly arrived colleague Chris. Knowing Chris fancies Roxanne too, CD helps his handsome-but-dumb friend write a passionate love letter to her. Moved by this gorgeous prose, she falls deeper for Chris, unaware that he’s just a friendly himbo. CD becomes further entrenched in this triangle, all while continuing to express his true love under another man’s name. 

During the height of my sickness, romantic comedies comforted me more than anything. Once I got through every Reese Witherspoon flick I could find, I stumbled upon Roxanne on Hulu and decided to give it another look. I watched a VHS copy of this movie repeatedly when I was a kid, but hadn’t seen it since then. I figured it was just another pop culture piece kid Tara loved that adult Tara would appreciate mainly for nostalgia’s sake. What a pleasure to discover this movie not only holds up as a classic rom com, but is much improved by the widescreen framing that so beautifully captures its picturesque scenery. (Our cropped videotape version did no justice to the cinematography.) Nelson is a real place — in Canada to be exact — and even if I’ve never been there physically, it’s become my favorite escape as I recover from the plague.

Roger Ebert’s original review of the film said it quite well — “What makes ‘Roxanne’ so wonderful is not this fairly straightforward comedy, however, but the way the movie creates a certain ineffable spirit.” It’s more than the pretty mountain vistas, the Victorian houses, Roxanne’s cascading, ringleted mane, or the agile way CD dances down the road as he sings Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”. Much of the film’s sentimental glow emanates from Steve Martin’s delightful adaptation, full of silly zingers and witty observations about love, relationships, and human flaws. What strikes me most is how truly romantic it is, in a way that reminds me of Jane Austen but from a male viewpoint. I’ve developed a crush on both CD and Steve Martin. Every time I see him immersed in writing his first love letter to Roxanne, it fills the darkest corners of my psyche with warm, honey-colored light. There’s something so pure about it.

The thing about CD (and perhaps Steve Martin, too), is that he genuinely likes women as people. It’s a rare quality in real life, maybe even rarer in fiction. It sticks out when the male protagonist has a sassy best friend like Dixie, who rolls her eyes at his nerdy jokes and gives him shit for not pursuing the woman he loves. But the way CD falls for Roxanne is even more outstanding. 

When they first meet, she comes to the fire station stark naked because her robe got caught in the locked door as she was chasing a cat who’d run out of her house. She asks CD to help her get back in, he grabs a toolbox, and they have an awkward conversation as they walk to her place. He casually jokes about her nakedness — “I notice you don’t have any tattoos. I think that’s a wise choice. I don’t think Jackie Onassis would’ve gone as far if she’d had an anchor on her arm.” Roxanne clearly thinks he’s a weirdo, but then he acrobatically swings and shimmies his way up to an open attic window to access her home. Impressive! And as she gets dressed, he instantaneously prepares a lovely cheese and crudite tray to help revive her after her misadventure. So she invites him to a glass of wine. Roxanne looks otherworldly in this scene — a statuesque queen with gorgeous, golden, mermaid hair, wearing a shimmering ivory robe. Most men would either be stunned silent or making a move. But CD just casually chitchats with her like she’s one of the guys at the firehouse. 

Then he notices Roxanne’s telescope and asks if she knows about M-31. He adds, “Now, see, I like it when they give astronomical objects names, you know, like ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Saturn’ and ‘Sea of Tranquility.’ This whole numbering thing is just too boring for us civilians.” Roxanne replies, “Do you know how many objects are up there?” CD stammers, “Well, I know it’s over fifty.” Realizing she knows more about this than he does, he becomes sheepish. She playfully says, “Well we don’t know everything, do we,” then leans over his shoulder to show him the textbook definition of a quark. And when he looks at her with deep admiration, that is the moment you see he’s falling in love. Not when she’s naked, but rather when she checks his mansplaining and teaches him something new. And the chemistry just gets better from there.

As Sam Cooke said, I don’t know much about astronomy. But I am a smart woman and the idea that a man as charming and handsome as CD would love me for my intelligence and humor enchants me in the same way Mr. Darcy does. Because as weird as his nose is, the rest of CD looks and acts like peak Steve Martin, from the silver hair to his sprightly antics to his Cary Grant impersonation. There’s a lot to love, once you get past the Pinnochio thing. 

I have a habit of revisiting pop culture pieces that comfort me over and over again. I call them my “security blankets.” I’ve seen every episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” multiple times because it’s one of my go-to shows when I want to feel better about humankind. Roxanne has become my COVID comfort. And by that I mean that I’ve had COVID, I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, it took a lot out of me, and I know I can catch it again. That’s scary. So much scares me these days. But love and joy feel eternal, and the stars will last a lot longer than me. And as long as Roxanne is there to remind me about all that, I will be at least somewhat okay.

When Seinfeld Had a Mini Abortion Arc

I’ve long believed that if we want to win true reproductive freedom for all, we must attack abortion stigma. I also believe the best way to do that is to talk about abortion like it’s the most normal thing in the world (which it is). In a past life I practiced this habit by researching and writing about television episodes that tackled this once-taboo topic. I’d often compare and contrast TV abortion stories to my own experience of terminating a pregnancy, which I consider one of the best and most obvious choices I’ve ever made. But until very recently, TV almost always treated abortion as something dark and complex by its very nature. Ever since titular sitcom character Maude decided to terminate an unplanned pregnancy in 1972 (two months before Roe became the law of the land), primetime network TV has had a complicated relationship with abortion. After anti-choice groups engaged in high-profile boycotts of Maude’s sponsors, networks refused to touch the topic for nearly a decade. In the 1980s, shows like The Facts of Life, Dynasty, and 21 Jump Street would tackle storylines around abortion, but always with the gravitas of a “very special episode.” Characters rarely went through with the deed; often they’d either decide to just have a baby or have a miscarriage-of-convenience. TV shows never seemed to treat abortion as an everyday procedure or an easy decision. Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and well into the ‘00s, those rare programs that dealt with unwanted pregnancy usually treated it as a serious moral dilemma.

Given all the research I’ve done, I’m naturally very sensitive to even the most subtle reference to reproductive choice. I’m especially fascinated by any episode that predates the rise of risqué cable series like Sex and the City. So I have no idea how I remained unaware that Seinfeld had both subtle and frank unplanned pregnancy/abortion themes in back-to-back 1994 episodes! Granted, neither story involves a pregnant character making a choice about an unplanned pregnancy. That would be entirely too much story for this classic “show about nothing.” Nevertheless I was delighted with the way these episodes talk around abortion like it’s the most natural thing that every person with a uterus should be able to access.

The first unplanned pregnancy mention (for lack of a better term) is so subtle it’s no wonder I missed it in previous viewings. In season six, episode four “The Chinese Woman,” Kramer becomes concerned about his sperm count when Elaine says he’d be better off wearing boxers instead of briefs if he’s ever interested in having a child. This sparks the following conversation:

Kramer: What would you say if I told you I never impregnated a woman?

Jerry: Really? You never slipped one past the goalie in all these years? I’m surprised, you’ve slept with a lot of women.

Kramer: A lot of women! You think maybe I’m… depleted?

Thus begins Kramer’s bizarre, chaotic attempt to become a dad. But I’m more interested in what’s implied by that dialogue. Jerry thinks it odd that his friend has never gotten someone pregnant, given the number of people he’s had sex with. And Jerry can relate; anyone familiar with the series knows he has a new girlfriend practically every week. His disbelief almost suggests that he himself has, on at least one occasion, “slipped one past the goalie.” This in itself is so unusual. At this point in TV history, unplanned pregnancies only ever pop up for one of two reasons — to announce that a character is having a baby and/or to introduce an abortion-themed plot line. But we know Jerry isn’t a father, so my curiosity leads me to wonder — what would have happened in that situation? Perhaps what’s most interesting about this moment is that this back story isn’t fleshed out only to be explained away with a miscarriage of convenience (like they did with Jaleesa on A Different World). So it opens up the possibility that one of Jerry’s girlfriends had an abortion, which I love so much! TV shows of the 1980s and ‘90s would have us believe that abortion is always this dark, heavy finale to an unpleasant surprise. But for many of us living in reality — and perhaps also the Seinfeld universe — it is oftentimes way less emotionally complicated than either a miscarriage or carrying a pregnancy to term. It might not be a very big deal at all.

I was so happy to uncover this extremely subtle reference to unplanned pregnancy. I was in no way prepared for the way more frank and funny abortion references in season six, episode five “The Couch.” The topic first arises when Jerry and Elaine visit a restaurant called Poppie’s to try their famed duck dish. As the two friends await their meal, Jerry says that if he’d stayed home that evening he would’ve eaten Pokeno’s pizza instead. Elaine bristles, telling him he shouldn’t order from there because, “the owner contributes a lot of money to those fanatical anti-abortion groups.” So when Chef Poppie visits their table, Jerry (ever the instigator) inquires what his views are on abortion. Poppie launches into an anti-choice tirade that prompts Elaine, plus all the other women in the restaurant, and even Jerry to throw down their forks and walk out.

In a seemingly unrelated story line, Jerry orders a new couch and asks the movers to take his old one to Elaine’s apartment. Elaine flirts with handsome, friendly mover Carl and the two soon go on a date. After their passionate first kiss, we next see Elaine standing at Jerry’s door shouting, “I’m in looooove!” She waltzes in gushing about her exciting new relationship, and how it’s blessedly free of pretense or games because Carl “has too much character and integrity.” As she touches up her lipstick, Jerry responds, “Uh-huh. And what is his stand on abortion?” You can practically hear Elaine’s heart plummet as she turns to Jerry with a worried expression, smearing lipstick across her cheek. 

Elaine: Well I’m sure he’s pro-choice.

Jerry: How do you know?

Elaine: Because he… well… he’s just so good-looking.

Elaine in loooove!
vs. Elaine in distress

Once Jerry has planted this seed of concern, Elaine has to know the truth. The next time she’s with Carl, she randomly mentions a “friend” who got impregnated by her “troglodytic half-brother” and had an abortion. She eyes Carl, nervously waiting for his response. He gets this faraway look in his eye and says, “You know, someday we’re gonna get enough people in the Supreme Court to change that law.” NOOO! When Elaine bursts into tears, she cries for us all. This joke may be 27+ years old, yet somehow it is still TOO SOON.

I’ve watched dozens of TV episodes that dealt with the “a-word”, and I think this little arc is far more subversive and gratifying than the more heavy-handed episodes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “The Chinese Woman” establishes that unplanned pregnancy (and implied abortion) is just a normal part of being a sexually active city dweller who’s had a lot of partners; it’s actually more surprising if that doesn’t happen at some point! And then we have “The Couch,” which frames anti-choice ideology as a flaw that cannot be overlooked. Neither of these stories engage in the tired, typical hemming and hawing about “controversy” or “respecting different points of view,” like other shows of the era that didn’t want to upset the sponsors. Rather, on the number one primetime program of the 1994-95 season, they made a big joke of how no one wants to sleep with an anti, no matter how handsome he is. Now there’s some TV abortion discourse that actually rings true to me.

And yet it’s also a crushing reminder that the Carls of the world have gotten their way! Here in 2022 there are enough people on the Supreme Court, and it’s just a matter of time before Roe goes bye-bye. I’m glad the discourse around abortion has shifted. When I stopped writing those TV reviews in 2017, I’d already seen several recent shows like Bojack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and GLOW present wonderful, hilarious abortion narratives that did not paint their protagonists as sad, broken, or ruined by their unwanted pregnancies. Team Choice has been winning hearts and minds and these popular narratives prove that. Unfortunately Team Anti has won power. Our only choice is to keep fighting for abortion access, because it is the most normal, mundane, “yada yada yada” thing every pregnant person should be able to have.

The Feelings Curse

I don’t recommend being a Highly Sensitive Person. I first heard about this personality trait from a Facebook meme, which included a checklist of questions like “Are you startled by loud noises?…Does seeing another person crying make you cry?… Do you get physically overwhelmed by confrontation?… Then you might be an HSP!” Having answered “yes” to every question, I thought, “Well this sounds fake but it definitely describes me.” And then I forgot about it. Much like social media makes too big a deal out of self-identifying as an introvert with special needs or an empath with superpowers, I figured this was just another ploy to make people obsess over themselves and seek attention on the internet. And since I do enough of that already, I discarded the notion as goofy pop psychology.

But then it turns out it’s a real thing! I learned this when talking to my last therapist, whom I did not like very much. I was trying to tell her about an annoying person I knew who bore all the traits of a borderline personality disorder but refused to seek psychological help, which got on my nerves. That’s when she asked me, “Have you ever heard the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’?”

“Oh, yeah! I’m one of those. Wait, is that a real thing?”

“Yes, and it’s a personality trait shared by as much as 30% of the population. HSP’s cannot help having strong reactions to external stimuli, that’s just part of their nervous system. But for the other 70% of the population who don’t feel that way, they often think, ‘You’re exaggerating. You’re too sensitive. You need to grow a thicker skin. There’s something wrong with you.’”

“Oh for sure. I heard that a lot when I was growing up.”

“Well there’s been some recent evidence that shows a high correlation between HSPs and people with Borderline Personalities, and the theory is that they developed that disorder because people around them constantly told them their feelings weren’t valid.” Then she stared at me through our miserable Zoom arrangement with her judgmental Karen face. And that felt like a thousand cuts on my heart, because I’m cursed with that very condition that makes some people develop personality disorders. At least I learned from an actual psychologist that HSP isn’t just some internet hokum, but I had to stop seeing that lady because her critical vibe was too much for me.

I’ve been wondering lately if being the kind of person who reacts this strongly to any sort of negative feeling from others means I should give up on the whole political organizing thing. I used to find joy in this work. That was before the pandemic, when I would usually gather with comrades in person and pick up on their body language, their unmuted reactions, their always-visible facial expressions. Now (especially since the onset of winter and Omicron) it’s a lot of Zoom, a lot of silent black boxes staring back at me. So much emptiness, not knowing how people really feel or think. It’s a lot of me filling in the blanks with my worst fears. Did I offend that person? Did I not make sense? In group settings I do lots of silly wisecracking but in the Zoom room mine is the only laughter I hear. When I hear aggravation in other people’s voices (or perhaps worse, my own), the medium seems to heighten that feeling of resentment to the point of being toxic. All told, these meetings leave me feeling very alienated and lonely.

In brighter, more physically social times, I think the best thing I bring to this socialist movement is enthusiasm. I get excited about things like canvassing and turning people out for rallies, and that deeply felt energy gets other people excited. Unfortunately I’m really bad at the other emotion that gets so many of my comrades pumped — aggression. This is the time for fighters, because there’s so much anger to harness and powerful people to blame. My husband Dan is a fighter. He loves arguing with bad people in power and other sorts of assholes. Last week at Costco he saw a shopper toss aside the city-mandated mask a store greeter had just handed to her. Dan asked if she was gonna wear it. She just shrugged so he hollered, “Then you need to get out of here!” This prompted an elderly bystander to shout, “You tell ‘em!” I was happy they got to share that moment of solidarity, but my chief emotion when I heard about this was, “Oh my god, I am SO GLAD I was not with you.” Doesn’t matter if it’s some random anti-masker or the mayor (whom Dan also regularly confronts). Doesn’t matter that they absolutely deserve the wrath. My reaction when I’m in close proximity to these situations is always the same. My heart races. I have to avert my glance. I want to run. I wish to be cooler and braver than this, but not running is my version of being brave!

There are some organizing scenarios in which being an HSP has some benefit. One is deep canvassing, a persuasion methodology I recently learned that’s all about nonjudgmental listening, storytelling, and empathy. I love doing persuasion work because unlike fighting, it flows from a place of positivity. I don’t want to tell people why they’re wrong (harsh vibes, heart racing, run!). Instead I want to say, “Here’s why we should work together” (upbeat vibes, radiance, warmth). My big feelings also help with mentoring work I’ve been doing with some Democratic Socialists of America chapters that are trying to build people power in challenging circumstances. I know how frustrating organizing in a midsize southern city can be, so I tend to approach that project with a lot of humility and compassion. I do my best to stay attuned to other organizers’ passions and gripes to help nudge them toward whatever next step they need to take.

I find both deep canvassing and mentoring satisfying. The connection and idealism I feel when I’m talking with people about shared values and the change we want to see in the world is HSP at its best. I can only imagine the positive jolt I’d get from it if it were in person. I’ve only done this work over the phone or via video conferencing. This pandemic has whittled away so much of that human connectivity by shoving it through a lot of cable and satellites. Meanwhile my sense of alienation grows. I don’t know how much more of this great imbalance I can take.

So I daydream about quitting all organizing and just doing creative stuff instead, which feels like a better use of HSP characteristics. I can just focus on cultivating a rich inner life and embrace solitude. Amateur writers don’t have to spend several hours a week on Zoom. I know I’d probably go back to feeling a lot of the hopelessness and isolation I felt before I got involved with a socialist organization, but at least I wouldn’t be so exposed to these distanced interactions that confuse and tire me. I don’t know how to bring enthusiasm anymore. How could I even expect anyone to match that energy? Aggression makes more sense in these times, but that’s not my bag. 

I feel bested by this pandemic and with that comes a sometimes overwhelming sense of failure. I know feeling that way isn’t fair to myself. It isn’t my fault my strengths aren’t suited to these times. I wish I could just be a different sort of person, but I know from experience my skin can only grow so thick.

Aleksey Savrasov “Winter Landscape” 1880 — c.1890

How to Enjoy the Holidays When the World Is on Fire

I was parked at my third red light on the most terrible road in town, the one named after the shopping mall it abuts. Whenever I’m stuck in traffic on this road (which is every time I drive it, but especially during the holidays), I engage in my favorite socialist fantasy, “What if we raptured all the cars?” Imagine just waving a magic wand, and poof! Every automobile disappears. Of course the first thing I envision is every driver falling on their ass in the middle of the pavement, which may be funny but not the most pleasant start to my daydream. So then I imagine what we’d have instead — light rail trains heading east and west on one side of the boulevard and a lovely green space along the other. Solar powered high rises would fill space once devoted to strip mall parking spaces. We’d still have stores with all the useful things we need like clothes, groceries, pet food, and hardware. But the way we get to those places would feel completely different. To live in the United States is to drive these terrible, traffic-clogged roads and navigate massive parking lots so we can access affordable goods at Target, Walmart, and Costco. And then we sit in traffic and fill the sky with exhaust from these tiny tanks we need to get us there. So what if we got rid of the tanks and used trains, or even just lived a walkable distance from the places with useful stuff? 

I sat in my car and wondered these things until the light changed to green, and then I made my escape. We’re a long way from seeing that massive infrastructural change we desperately need. I make these unpleasant pilgrimages to the useful places out of necessity. But in that moment I vowed to myself I would avoid those stores until after the new year. That’s a gift I’m giving myself this Christmas.

I hate capitalism and how it makes living here so hard, but I still manage to love the holiday season. I do this by being extremely intentional about savoring the good parts and shunning the bad. In fact, I tend to start with, “What nonsense will I refuse to entertain this Christmas?” Always at the top of the list — bad company. I don’t spend holidays with people I dislike. All this talk of “Oh no, how do I deal with my racist uncle’s Trump 2024 talk at Thanksgiving dinner?” I would simply not go to the dinner where that asshole is a guest. No judgment toward your mom or grandma or whichever maternal figure is doing the lion’s share of hosting the family gathering this year. (It is almost always the women doing everything. Don’t even get me started on that nonsense.) I get why families put up with their own jerks at the holidays, I just choose to not partake in that kind of social situation. Yes, this is a selfish choice and I stand by it 100%.

But that’s an old rule for me. And especially now that I have my own little family, I don’t even have to pretend to consider otherwise. We usually spend Christmas with just each other. This year I feel lucky this is our tradition and that we don’t have any plans to visit with distant family, because I see how massively stressed and disappointed so many folks are given the rise of the omicron variant. Now even the vaccinated have to worry about spreading this especially contagious strain of COVID to vulnerable loved ones. The safety calculus never seems to get easier, does it? If you are struggling with this pandemic development ruining your holiday plan to be with loved ones, my heart goes out to you. You deserve better.

On the other hand, if this presents a convenient excuse for you to avoid your racist Trump-loving uncle and other people you really don’t want to see, I say, “Run with it baby!” When the world is burning, we gotta take our breaks wherever we can find them. So for instance, when it is 70 degrees in December — as it has been, which is extremely disturbing — I’m gonna enjoy some long walks in the balmy breeze. So, so much bad is happening right now. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying any of the odd, unexpected benefits of an upside down yuletide season.

I love Christmastime, but I won’t lie. This one has been really tough for me. This fall I had a great job situation turn very sour. I’ve felt a growing sense of alienation as more of my human interaction has returned to Zoom. I feel depleted by the end of a long, exquisite autumn and the present nothingness of empty trees and anemic lawns. It’s like watching all the color drain out of a picture. I don’t write as often as I used to, because I’ve been too distracted by anxiety and sadness to feel any inspiration. Perhaps more than anything, I’m haunted by the fact that every one of my relationships has changed so much since the start of the pandemic. Some grew stronger, but many went the other way. It hurts my heart, especially in a season that is supposed to revolve around the warmth of human connection.

So I don’t pretend this is the most wonderful time of the year. In many ways, this Christmas really sucks. But I love my gaudy, fake tree with its garish, fatty bulbs more than ever before. One morning I was lying on the couch, feeling sad about the state of the world. My husband was leashing up the dog for a walk when he saw me reach for my phone. “No doom-scrolling,” he chided, and then he plugged in the tree lights. So I looked at its bright blue, green, red, and yellow glow instead of eyeballing the nonstop barrage of terrible news on Twitter. And I smiled. 

This year the holidays are less about other people and more about savoring the flavor of eggnog spiked with rum, eating the stinkiest cheeses, watching the silliest holiday romcoms, shopping at thrift stores, and giving myself a very long break from Zoom. I’m removing the things I dislike most about this season and making room to heal from stress and sadness. I’m thinking more about eliminating the nonsense, so I have the energy to weather bad circumstances I can’t control.

1971 Salvador Dalí Christmas Card

Community Is More Than a Friend Group

At the start of the year I established a daily meditation practice. I didn’t foresee it as a long-term habit, but rather a tool for surviving a lonely quarantine winter. In lieu of New Year’s resolutions, I decided to simply survive the pandemic, and to that end I fixed upon a few states of mind I longed to conjure — clarity, acceptance, and inner light. I often listened to the Beatles song “The Inner Light” and thought about a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode of the same name. Captain Picard experiences another man’s entire adult life during the course of a brief coma. I reflected on the George Harrison lyrics that inspired it — “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth.” I knew that to stay safe I needed to physically distance from others. The harsh January elements didn’t allow for much outdoor socializing, especially as I spent most of my daylight hours at home with a very unhappy child trying to get through remote learning. I accepted and embraced these limitations by turning my focus inward.

And for the most part I was alright. I had my family, and managed to meet up with friends for occasional walks. I didn’t really feel how much I’d lost during that quarantine winter until I began a meditation app series on relationships. In the first part you practice visualizing an ever-growing beam of light pouring out of your chest. Then you switch to seeing that beam of light shine out of a loved one’s chest. When it got to the third part of the series, I got stuck. That’s when I was supposed to see the light beam emerging from a person I only sorta know. “This is someone you feel pretty neutral about,” the teacher explained. “Maybe it’s the cashier you often see at the grocery store, or your auto repair guy.” In that moment, I could not visualize a single person other than Dylan, the lanky, mild-mannered young man from the pest control company who comes to spray our house every three months. He was literally the only non-family, non-friend acquaintance I’d seen in the flesh since before Christmas. I tried to imagine people I’d seen in virtual meetings; alas, most people on Zoom don’t have chests! In order to fully visualize someone in three dimensions, experiencing the peaceful euphoria of that expanding inner light, I could only fix upon Dylan. And that felt like too much pressure on my one neutral, in-person relationship. So I abandoned that series and went back to concentrating on my own light beam.

That experience really nailed an idea I’ve had for several years now, that community is way more than just your group of friends. It also encompasses the many people you know just in passing. Quarantine taught me that I feel more at home in my town when I’m engaging in many of these neutral relationships. As someone who is deeply introverted, I find great comfort in the idea that community includes a lot of people who will never be that close to me on an emotional level. 

I admit that until about four years ago, I’d shy away from the word “community” because I thought it meant “an obligation to hang out with a crowd of people”. The truth is, I don’t want a friend group because I don’t like being around a lot of people at the same time. That exhausts me. I enjoy an occasional party, but will probably show up early when it’s quiet and possibly pull an Irish goodbye when the crowd gets thick. I thought community meant a party every weekend, which was more than I could handle. So I assumed I was meant to be a lone wolf.

Right after we moved from Tennessee to North Carolina in 2017 — as I was struggling to reestablish myself in a totally new place — I read a very compelling installment of my friend Liza Featherstone’s advice column. In “Asking for a Friend,” Liza would answer readers’ questions about living ethically under late capitalism. In this particular edition a distraught reader explained that while they were fighting for a better world, they also worried what would happen if we don’t have a social safety net by the time they have to stop working. How would they survive at that point? (You can read the column here; TW: suicide.) Liza turned to some experts on the subject of aging, including a hospice volunteer and an anti-ageism activist. Both emphasized the importance of community for poor and working class elderly folks. As I read that I felt my hackles rise. There was that pesky c-word again, that friend group thing that had always eluded me. In that moment I began to worry what would become of hopelessly introverted me in my elder years.

And then the anti-aging activist, Ashton Applewhite, said something that’s been tattooed on my brain ever since. “I have a horror of the collective… In my ideal life, I’d live alone in a turret, entertaining a very handsome visitor now and then. But I realize I have to get over this. Community, community, community is the only way we are going to age affordably and comfortably.” And that was the moment I decided I must make an effort to connect with the people around me. Maybe we’d never be close in the way of founding an elder commune together. But surely there had to be other ways we could support and protect one another in an increasingly chaotic and self-destructive world. There was no way around it, we all need each other.

Four years and a global pandemic later, I am so grateful for the safe ways I can connect with my community and those lightweight relationships I was missing last winter. Thank goodness for vaccination. Now if I need to imagine a neutral person’s chest beam, I can think about the barista who complimented my shirt or the comrade I just met for the first time at our recent DSA outdoor meet-up. I can also experience the nosy joy of eavesdropping once more, and wonder what it meant when that young lady at the park said, “Seeing all my friends was great, but there was no wedding.” (Did someone cancel their wedding?! Who and why? Ahhh, it’s so fun to imagine even though I’ll never know!)  And while I had misgivings about my kid returning to elementary school before any of the students had been vaccinated, I get to enjoy her happier mental state and even see some of her teachers in person sometimes. I have become an ardent fan of those who usher the car lines every day.

I know most of these people will never be very close to me. But in the last four years I’ve also learned a lot about solidarity — the idea that all of us working class people share a common struggle. You can have someone’s back without being their best bud. I may not have a lot of close friends, but I’ve got comrades all over this town.

“Angel’s Paradise” Howard Finster, 1985