Hello Readers! I’ve decided I’m wrapping up Introverted Comrade to make space for bigger writing ambitions. Like most decisions, this seemed to emerge in a clear flash (in this case, moments after working out). But as is often the case, I notice upon deeper reflection that I’d simply been avoiding change as long as my conscious mind would allow.
I created this website five years ago as a platform to explore both political organizing and the human condition in the midst of rapid social change. The tagline was “Building a left community, quietly.” I was trying to find my people in socialist circles while maintaining a longstanding creative writing practice. Sometimes I wrote about political organizing from the perspective of a 40-something mom in the Democratic Socialists of America. Sometimes I wrote about TV sitcoms or classic films. Many times I wrote about coping through various bigger-than-me challenges (managing winter depression became a perennial topic). These essays, which drew heavily from my personal experiences, usually harkened back to leftist values that kept me engaged in collective struggle. Looking back, I can see that the organizational shop talk essays were a way of venting. I had much more fun writing about pop culture and my twisty-turny mental health; those are also the pieces I remember best.
I quit organizing at the start of this year – another “snap” decision that spawned multiple essays about my developing mental health. Now that I’ve processed that big change, I feel myself settling into a life determined less by guilt and obligation. Instead I’m choosing a life motivated by creativity and pleasure. I’m ready to be my real self, and that person is a writer. Sure, I’ve been writing the whole time I’ve been involved with political orgs. But for so long I believed I’d have to be some terrible, selfish person to allow myself to focus more on writing than organizing. Cue the maudlin violins of latent Catholic guilt…
Thanks to a lot of therapy, I am releasing the guilt. I’m not currently interested in political organizing. While I intend to keep writing essays on other topics, this website no longer feels like the right place to showcase that work. I find myself in a calmer, more confident place where I think I’m ready to forgo the instant gratification of self-publishing on this very small platform, and instead pitch pieces to publications that reach a larger audience. I’m also beginning to envision what a book of essays might look like. It’s a very new sensation, taking my creative work seriously without panic or shame. That alone feels pretty exciting.
Thank you so much to everyone who’s read and engaged with my Introverted Comrade essays ❤ There’s no fix quite like feeling understood, especially when sharing parts of myself I used to keep hidden. That joy has played a crucial role in improving my mental health and building my confidence.
Now I’m left to wonder, did I accomplish my goal of building a left community quietly? I certainly put a lot of loving work into my local DSA chapter and other left orgs. I’ve connected with tons of people and made many friends. Some of those relationships withered over time while others grew stronger. I’m a long way from who I was in 2018. The past year alone has seen me quit three very big habits that greatly impacted my social life (drinking, Twitter, and organizing). I experience other people differently than I used to. And that’s cool, because I’ve learned community is something that tends to grow organically more than intentionally. I also suspect that by being more myself – a writer who happens to be a socialist mom – my sense of belonging in community will flourish. I’m gonna give it a shot, anyway.
“Birds don’t make a plan to migrate… They feel a call in their bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.”
— adrienne maree brown
I received two books for Christmas — a tree guide I’d wished for, and a book about movement building I didn’t know I wanted. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown (AMB) turned out to be exactly what I needed as I mourned my sudden departure from organizing. It helped me dig into questions like: what will I do differently if I ever go back? Why did the work so often make me feel like I was banging my head against a wall? How can we build a trusting community where collective action flourishes?
I feel lucky I encountered this book right when I was stepping far enough back to release my sense of “expertise” about organizing. In hindsight I see I’d been building up to that departure. Last fall I began using AMB and Sonya Renee Taylor’s guided workbook, Journal of Radical Permission. By answering prompts like “How can I bring more love to the parts of me I find unlovable?” I learned it’s okay to have a dark side, and that I can even like and accept those parts of myself. I also learned my recovering Catholic tendency toward self-sacrifice and harsh challenges didn’t serve me or the movement well; in fact, those combined into a recipe for burnout. I learned I deserve pleasure, calm, and beauty right now, before the revolution. This idea of radical permission — coupled with EMDR therapy — gave me the confidence I needed to confront harassment in my DSA chapter. It also gave me the wherewithal to leave.
So I was already an AMB fan! Then I received Emergent Strategy, a gentle guide on immersing ourselves in collective action while also embracing change as a constant force. Quoting from the back cover blurb:
“Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen.”
This book is an absolute trip. I love how AMB draws upon properties of nature that can be applied to movement work — the image of birds flocking without a stated plan, the underground fungal threads that form the largest organism on earth, the collective labor of ants, etc. This winter I stared at many trees as I walked miles around my neighborhood, imagining the massive root structures beneath my feet that mimic the canopy far above my head. When I ponder climate devastation, I remind myself that 150 years ago there were few houses and no cars in these spaces I wander. Everything I consider “normal” is recent and temporary. And yet the future isn’t written. We know big change is on the horizon and already happening. How do we make like birds, mushrooms, and ants as we navigate that change together?
Much of this book is about reimagining collective action and eschewing the mindset that capitalism has pounded into our heads. I absolutely love this quote:
“We have lived through a good half century of individualistic linear organizing (led by charismatic individuals or budget-building institutions), which intends to reform or revolutionize society, but falls back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing. Some of those tendencies are seeking to assert one right way or one right strategy. Many align with the capitalistic belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change, even if they don’t use that language.”
Y’all. I really, really tried subscribing to that vision of an ever-growing working class movement and THAT felt like banging my head against a wall. Because right now, in this midsize southern city, it feels almost wholly conceptual. For a brief, magic moment, I witnessed that model in action during the Bernie 2020 campaign. That was the one time I saw exponential growth in everyday people showing up to fight for a common cause. It was electric. When Bernie lost, some volunteers became very disillusioned because it was their first taste of mass organizing AND their first loss. Yet some of us would love to recreate the momentum of that campaign. For a short time, it felt like we had the power to change everything.
The most comforting concept I absorbed from Emergent Strategy is the nonlinear nature of change. As AMB says, “Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way… it happens in cycles, convergences, explosions. If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves — how do I learn from this?” This reminds me of the Medicare for All group I helped establish. We taught dozens of volunteers how to canvass. Obviously we didn’t win M4A, but we fed many experienced canvassers into the Bernie campaign. In turn, Bernie 2020 fostered a slew of dedicated organizers. Many have sworn off electoralism, and that’s fine, because they work in other directions. We all learned and adapted throughout these phases. I can honestly say none of our efforts were a waste. But if you think of change as linear progression, it can all appear pointless.
And we know how much leftists love to debate tactics and criticize each other. That misapplied haterade always brought me down, and I’m glad to be away from it (quitting Twitter also helped A LOT). As I recover from movement burnout, the AMB wisdom most useful to me is a section called Liberated Relationships. In a series of tips on dealing with others authentically, this bit stuck out:
“Relinquish Frankenstein. You are not creating people to be with, or work with, some idealized individuals made of perfect parts of personality that you discovered on your life journey. You are meeting individuals with their own full lives behind and ahead of them. Stop trying to make and fix others, and instead be curious what they have made of themselves.”
I breathe deeply every time I read that. I’ve known this strong urge to “Frankenstein.” In my experience it quickly leads to the conclusion that others must become better, more evolved versions of themselves before we can work together and win. People need to wake up, pay attention, get mad, stop being so lazy, learn to CARE, quit flaking out, etc. Can you feel the resentment radiating off these assumptions? It’s toxic.
Curiosity is the cure. What does that person care about, and why? Are they lazy or are they tired? What exhausts them? What excites them? I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with a loved one, asking them honest questions works better than jumping to judgment. Curiosity matters in all relationships, because you can’t really connect with a person until you try to understand them.
After reading Emergent Strategy, I’m more certain than ever that movement building is all about relationships. And that’s why I’m on hiatus! Lately I’m enjoying hermitude, being a good friend to myself while I figure out what relationships I do want. The community I experienced as an organizer definitely had its bright spots, but I feel like we made a lot of mistakes without knowing it. There are reasons why so much work ends up falling on a small group of people, and it isn’t that others don’t “care.” AMB’s section on meeting facilitation — something I thought I was good at — felt like a gut punch. It turns out I have much to learn about collective brainstorming and decision-making.
I thought I knew so many things! If you’re a reasonably smart, capable person who keeps showing up, the very tired organizers who came before you might say you’re a natural. And with little mentorship or direction, it’s easy to believe you have all the answers. Or that you should, because so much depends on YOU. Again, recipe for burnout.
I take comfort knowing AMB experienced similar misconceptions. Near the start of the book she states:
“Once upon a time I was a burnt out executive director, tied to my technology and my sense of my own importance. When I was with friends, family, lovers, I was still working. I thought I was awesome at multitasking. I would say urgency, obligation, and specialness were the driving forces in my life.”
I’ve felt those forces, too. And in all honesty, I’d much rather function as a bird, a mushroom, or an ant.
This essay is the first in my new series Self Care Media, in which I’ll explore various pop culture works that have assisted me as I transition from “burnt out organizer” into “who knows what?” In the next installment, I’ll discuss the Adult Swim television program Joe Pera Talks with You.
Invisibility has always been my shield and my curse. I can recall just a few images from my very early childhood — the shape of the living room in our Buffalo home, the black Labrador puppy we fostered for a year, the bunk bed I shared with my oldest sister. What I remember most were my feelings, especially a general sense of wariness about other people. I decided early on that most of them were not to be trusted. I figured out at a very young age that if I kept myself as quiet and unnoticeable as possible, I was way less likely to earn a beatdown from our alcoholic dad. And if that was how I needed to behave inside my home, it only made sense to me that I must be even more careful outside my home in a world full of strangers.
After we moved to suburban Detroit and I began kindergarten, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I had to interact with strangers. I was too shy to know how to make friends, and most of my classmates lived in a neighborhood on the other side of Michigan Avenue — a scary, high-traffic road that pretty much dictated where you hung out and who you played with after school. So I only saw those kids in class, unless our moms scheduled a play date (which wasn’t as much of a thing back then). There was a girl in my class who lived around the corner from me and so we started walking to school together. She could either be really fun or really mean. She was also prone to highly dramatic tantrums that reminded me of bad days when Dad was home from work. In other words, it seemed perfectly natural that I would be friends with someone like her. Plus she sought me out. What other choice did I have?
As I grew up, I struggled with mixed desires to be seen and appreciated while also craving the safety of invisibility. School became an outlet for positive attention. I dutifully completed all my homework and received good grades. I eagerly anticipated quarterly report cards because that’s when I got to read nice things teachers would say about me. “Tara is a joy to have in class” was a common one. “Thoughtful,” “conscientious,” and “does great work” seemed to come up a lot, too. Constructive critique usually appeared in the form of “Tara is very quiet and I would like to hear her speak up more.” This confused me. Wasn’t my being quiet a good thing? I didn’t cause problems like other kids did. If I got all the answers right and didn’t cause problems, wasn’t that winning? This was the problem with resting all my self esteem on report cards. Those couple sentences of handwritten praise never felt like enough.
I also had to wonder if the teacher actually liked me or if they were rather swayed by an affection for one of the five older siblings who came before me. “Oh, you’re one of the McComb kids!” was something I often heard on the first day of school. We were all smart, attentive, well-behaved children, so this was usually a positive association. I would blush with pride every time a teacher said this, knowing that I was already making a good impression. I thought all of my older siblings were very cool and sophisticated, and I liked that these grown-ups might assume I was just as interesting as they were. But then I worried I might disappoint them in the end. They might wind up finding me boring and forgettable.
As much as I admired my older brothers and sisters, I felt pretty invisible to them, too. In my experience, there’s not a lot of love for the sixth of seven children. After my little brother was born, I stopped experiencing the novelty of being the baby of the family. I was just another annoying little kid who always wanted to tag along when they were trying to hang out with their friends, another person to fight for control of the TV or the good spot on the couch. But I did notice that they liked when I listened to their stories and laughed at their jokes. Everyone in my family is witty and sharp, great at telling a funny story. My big brothers and sisters — who were three to eleven years older than me — shared this lore about the old neighborhood where we’d lived before our family moved to the upper Midwest. They would tell stories about Buffalo so often that it almost seemed like I could remember the people and places they referenced. But I didn’t remember, so I couldn’t share in their reminiscing. I just had to be an audience member.
So that’s the gist of my formative years. I was a scared, shy, lonely kid with a bullying best friend. I wanted to be seen and loved, but saw too much risk in bringing attention to myself. So I kept quiet and learned to be a very engaged audience member. Now I go through so much therapy trying to undo all of that! I don’t want to be invisible anymore. And yet I am a woman over 40 with graying hair i.e. the world’s most invisible demographic. Unless you spend a lot of time and money trying to look hot (never a priority for me), you will be ignored. In recent years, I found a modest platform for my wit on Twitter. And I found a sense of community in my local DSA chapter. And because I’ve recently quit both of those things, I feel my presence fading fast.
My husband is well-known in our community. He’s a sociology professor and core member of a housing justice group. His name and face frequently appear in local media. Sometimes in my community organizing experience, I’ve met other activists and academics who were standoffish toward me until the moment they realized who my husband was. Then came the warmth and friendliness. Ick. I mean, he is an incredible guy so I kind of get it. Celebrity just brings out the crass sycophancy in people.
Though that housing justice group is part of our DSA chapter, I was never much involved with it, because we’ve found our family life flows better when we keep our organizing activities separate. And since I just recently went through a really tough harassment grievance process, my interest in local organizing has plummeted. I pay membership dues and share org content on social media. Otherwise, I prefer to be left out of it.
This weekend I met one of our comrades at the park. Our kids have become friends, so we do this periodically. I was in the midst of telling him about the harassment grievance (a sensitive subject) when a woman approached him. She was a tenant he’d assisted on behalf of the housing group. So they started talking about housing issues throughout the city. And there I sat again as an audience member, hearing all about these organizations from which I have estranged myself. At one point we noticed our kids had wandered away from the playground, so he phoned his daughter to see where they’d gone. He said, “I’m sitting here with… with… sorry, I’m blanking on your name.” He could not remember “Tara.” I have known this person for years.
I’m ready to give up on people completely. Yet I feel a need to express myself. So I’m just going to keep writing and sharing my essays, doing my therapy, and looking at trees. I’m hopeful I might find a better society in the forest. I feel more visible there.
When I recall early days of nesting with a newborn baby, I remember the bad and the good. I think of the sweaty exasperation I felt, waking up every two hours in the night with engorged breasts and jumping out of bed to meet my crying, hungry infant at her crib. I recollect that sad moment when I sat down to solve a logic puzzle while the baby napped, only to realize my underslept brain couldn’t handle this hobby it once craved. Those are the moments you fully realize your pre-parenting life has perished. In hindsight, I see it was more of a wintry, cyclical death; my mental capacity bloomed again once those good sleep nights eventually returned. At the same time, it is true that motherhood marked the death of an old way. Those catastrophic (if temporary) shifts in daily rhythm hailed the transition.
Something that helped me grieve my more easygoing pre-parenting life was identifying my new sense of purpose. In many ways, nesting with an infant appealed to my introverted self. I was thrilled that I’d quit my grocery store job a few weeks before I gave birth. “I don’t need to leave the house to do anything. It’s okay I only got three hours of sleep, because I don’t have to drive anywhere and clock in this morning. My only job is to nurse this baby, change her diapers, snuggle and play with her, wash her occasionally, and put her down to sleep. That’s when I rest and eat. Rinse. Repeat.” I didn’t always enjoy this itinerary, and felt gobsmacked by how much activity revolved around my boobs. Then I got used to it. Watching this tiny human’s growth explode in response to my labor felt so satisfying. I still chase the sensation of that clear sense of purpose, though I know I’ll never experience anything quite like it again.
Yet I feel a similar vibe now, at this very strange point in my existence. For the past several years I’ve viewed myself primarily as an anti-capitalist organizer. Since quitting my local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (in short: I filed a harassment grievance / it’s been tough and sad / I needed to step back), I’m not exactly sure what “organizing” entails for me at this point; I only know that if I continue, I wish to do it very differently. Stepping back has given me lots of much-needed perspective — on how difficult this work has been during a pandemic, and how often it felt like I had to maintain a white knuckle grip on my sense of goodwill for fear of just completely losing it with my comrades. I don’t mind admitting this, because I suspect others feel the same way. In any case, I’ve found that mood unsustainable.
The funny thing is that even though I’d been unhappy with my organizing work for so long, I was terrified of quitting because I thought I’d lose my sense of purpose. After all, the world is burning! Millions are suffering! How can I feel whole unless I’m fighting every day, doing my part to win the class war? How selfish would it be for me to be “just” a mom, a writer, a person with hobbies, when there is an entire world to win? I don’t have these feelings anymore. I don’t feel desperate or guilty. Leaning into my sense of pleasure, being more present for my family, and caring for my physical and mental health have helped me embrace the fact that I always was and always will be one of millions who’ve dedicated themselves to mass movements throughout history. My contributions have mattered. And at the same time, the movement can and will move forward without me. I find that comforting.
Like a new mother, I find my daily life has shifted dramatically. Except instead of feeling inundated by a daunting sense of responsibility (literally holding another person’s fragile life in my hands), I find myself liberated — from meetings, outreach lists, 1:1 conversations, hard asks, and that gnawing sense that all this effort would never be enough. In place of that, I have time. And when I have more time and less obligation, I find I’m quite curious. When I strongly identified as an organizer, I felt like I was in an almost constant state of analysis and critique. This was also connected to my Twitter addiction (which I overcame by quitting my account at the end of last year). To be a chronically on-Twitter activist is to be constantly asking yourself whether this news/ person/ organization/ discourse is good or bad, and why or why not? That’s not a negative thing in and of itself, but for me it felt very out of balance. I felt constricted and too often in a grumpy mood. Since quitting both DSA and Twitter, I find I’m less interested in analyzing and more interested in learning.
And that’s the starting point of my new sense of purpose. It hit me one day when I sat down to meditate, just out of the blue. My big goal right now is to learn, observe, and practice. I learn about anything that naturally appeals to my sense of curiosity; currently this includes trees, Mediterranean cooking, Pilates, the cyclical aspect of nature, pagan holidays, and humorous works of fiction. I observe by taking long walks, journaling, paying attention to art, practicing mindfulness, and sometimes just pondering when I have quiet moments to myself. I practice what I absorb through meditation, fitness, writing, cooking, how I relate to others, and by tending to a small Norfolk pine tree our cousin sent us at Christmas.
Oh, that tree! Our relationship got off to a rough start. It lost some soil in transport. And then we let it shrivel from underwatering. I felt so upset at the start of the new year — being immersed in this maddening grievance process and feeling adrift without my organizing home. I coped with that pain by taking long walks around my neighborhood and learning about the various conifers that keep this region so green in January. Then it occurred to me I had my own little malnourished conifer sitting right there in the dining room. Perhaps with some internet research and a proper transplant to a bigger pot of soil, I might save it. I think the effort is working. Every day I see its little branches unfurling just a bit more. That Norfolk pine is my baby now.
I’m settling in and finding satisfaction in this very different new life. I’m benefiting from plenty of healthy inspiration — from EMDR to music to time spent hanging out with my beloved little family. And since I’m forever obsessed with pop culture, I’ve found particular inspiration in three different media sources that have really helped guide me in my quest to learn, observe, and practice. The first is an online fitness program I’ve subscribed to since last fall, Jessica Valant Pilates. The second is a book by activist and author adrienne maree brown called Emergent Strategy. And the third is a short form Adult Swim sitcom, Joe Pera Talks With You. This odd media combo just happens to be my perfect self-help cocktail as I get grounded in my new existence. I will write about all three, and other forms of inspiration in the coming weeks, so please stay tuned! I look forward to sharing more of this odd journey with you.
Five months ago I began a therapeutic method called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I went into this EMDR journey hoping I might finally forgive myself for bad past decisions so I can enjoy present peace of mind. My therapist had me begin by identifying some of my neurotic fears (everyone is mad at me, I am an absolute fuck-up, etc.). Then I listed a bunch of traumatic memories associated with these fears. In my sessions I revisit those experiences, recalling each one as I follow the hypnotic rhythm of my therapist’s fingers moving side to side across my visual spectrum. And then I notice whatever thoughts or feelings arise in my brain and body. Doing this helps me connect the dots between those awful experiences and harsh lies I’ve been telling myself for years. It’s tough emotional work. The rewards are absolutely worth the discomfort. I come out of every session finding those upsetting recollections to be way less triggering than they were before. And my sense of self compassion, confidence, and calm has grown immensely.
The processing doesn’t stop at my therapist’s office door. One night following an EMDR session, I dreamt about the student co-op where I lived for two years during college. That house has been a common venue for nightmares in which I’ve somehow gone broke and must go back to living in the co-op, with its low-lit hallways and grimy bathrooms. But this dream was different. I was merely visiting the co-op with a group of alumni who’d called it home during its 75+ year existence. The current young residents were hosting a reception, and most of them seemed pretty standoffish toward us old folks. I was struck by a friendly girl with long brown hair who was buzzing back and forth between the residents and alumni. She seemed to really enjoy all the different people in her presence. Dressed in bell bottom jeans and an olive green sweater, she had a chill, hippie vibe – different from her housemates but amiable with everyone. At one point she said to her friends that she was heading out to the porch for a cigarette. I thought to myself in the dream, “Well, that’s a bad habit. Maybe she’ll let me bum one.” Then I woke up, imbued with a warm, pleasant feeling. For the first time ever, I dreamt about the co-op in a way that didn’t incite a sense of personal failure. I actually felt good being there. Many hours later I realized that the girl in the dream was me.
Right before I began EMDR, I wrote an essay called “People Can Change.” In it, I discussed a triggering memory from my co-op days that spawned the emotional breakdown which led me to EMDR. I’m proud of that essay, because I found a way to share my gnawing sense of shame and self-consciousness with utter honesty. I was also able to connect that sense of embarrassment about my past with a very funny sketch from the TV series I Think You Should Leave. But when I reread that essay now, I can’t help noticing how odd the conclusion sounds to me:
“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.”
While I do think I’ve become a better person since my very confused, mentally ill, and untreated college days, I no longer think I was a bad person back then. That’s what that dream taught me. Yes, I was messy. I drank too much, chain-smoked, ignored my studies, didn’t mind my own business, and made bad choices with the small amount of money I had. I also enjoyed great conversations with housemates from all over the world, laughed a lot with my friends, assisted housemates in crisis, cooked some good dinners, and helped organize a few really fun parties. I was a kind, loyal friend. Still am. I remain imperfect. And I self-improve. I learn from mistakes. Sometimes I’ve had to repeat those mistakes over and over, maybe spiralled a bit. But eventually I got some mental healthcare, and I’ve been on a pretty good trajectory for the past 20+ years. I do not need to apologize for who I’ve been.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this whole shame and morality thing is pretty overrated. I feel reborn, especially since I recently decided to take a big step back from leftist organizing (or at least the way I’ve been organizing over the last eight years). So many people who identify as leftist, progressive, or even socialist get really caught up in moral judgment. I know. I’ve been that person. It’s probably because so many of us came to radical politics by way of liberalism. To the liberal mind, political analysis is more about good vs. bad, rather than who has power and what they’re doing with it. So that leads people to activism out of a sense of moral righteousness. Ultimately, I’m more interested in how the majority of everyday people wrest power away from an ultrarich, patriarchal, white supremacist minority, and then use that power for the benefit of all people. That has less to do with deciding whose heart is good vs. whose heart is rotten. I’m of the opinion that most hearts are decent enough to be given the time of day, and we can achieve great things together once we get over the fact that all of us are flawed and messy. I believe we can build a society where we are more responsible and caring toward one another. And that starts from a place of humility and empathy, not from a place of moral superiority.
This week I’m beginning a new phase of EMDR. Now that I feel pretty confident I’m not a failure (and most people aren’t mad at me), I’m going to begin exploring how I’ve wound up in so many damaging friendships with toxic people who have strong narcissistic tendencies. Fun stuff! I look forward to viewing the vast difference between what I believe about myself now vs. what I’ll understand when I get to the other side.
In my last essay I talked about quitting my Twitter account on New Year’s Eve. I spent several weeks considering that decision and planning my departure. I assumed that would be my one big change going into the new year.
Well, on January 2nd I also quit my local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Leaving DSA surprised me as much as anyone, though it feels like the obvious best choice in a period of big turmoil. This platform isn’t the right place for me to share my reasons why (not now anyway), so instead I’ll just tell you how I feel — hurt, angry, sad, relieved, and very, very salty. “Salty” in the sense that I feel quite irritated by what has happened to me, but also I feel literally salted from all the Doritos, mixed nuts, and cheese I’ve been eating in my time of grief. Doesn’t help that I’m also premenstrual at the moment. What a start to the new year!
Emotionally, I’ve been a wreck. But a very self-aware wreck. Having come from the “squash your feelings because you might get on your drunk dad’s nerves” school of family dysfunction, I’m still pretty new to this “feel it out” strategy my therapist recommends. Sometimes I struggle with drawing the line between feeling deeply and overthinking, because a big part of this emotional tumult involves processing so many personal experiences from the past few years. I guess I’m giving myself permission to ponder a lot of memories that make me scream “WHAT THE FUCK?!” internally while making lots of judgmental Bowie faces at my bedroom wall.
The trouble with all these big feelings is that they exhaust me. Before the new year, I’d been so used to distracting myself in emotionally difficult moments by doomscrolling Twitter. I mean, it’s honestly hilarious that I used to deal with deep disappointment in other people’s bad/weird behavior by… taking a deep dive into the myriad horrors of the world! “No time to consider this slow burn trauma, I’m too busy wondering whether more of us will die from plague or climate change in the next five years.” Focusing on massive, systemic injustice doesn’t necessarily make me feel good, but it can help me feel awful about something other than the ways I personally have been harmed in a bad situation.
But now my only social media vices are Facebook (ghost town) and a brand new Instagram account (confusing, boring). Sadly, neither of these offer much distraction. So instead I pay attention to all these heavy thoughts and feelings. I get mad and sad. I cry a lot. Yet I can’t stay in that mode nonstop, so I also permit myself to spend time being present for the very mundane and miraculous now.
For instance, I’ve become so aware of sunsets. These days it happens around the time I start thinking about dinner. Almost every evening, I glance out my kitchen window right when the sky is turning hazy pink. Even on cloudy days I notice the light shifting in that southwesterly direction. I’m also very aware that the sun sets about fifteen minutes later than it did a few weeks ago on the solstice. Thank goodness for daily meditation! Practicing mindfulness has brought me to a place of noticing this steady, incremental progression toward the equinox, and it feels good.
But here’s the really big news from my occasionally zen mind — I am newly taken aback by how often I’ve mistaken thuja trees for pines! This Christmas my husband gave me a field guide to trees of the Carolinas. I like to study it before bed, sometimes just to remind myself that deciduous leaves will return in a couple months. But in the absence of leafy limbs, I’ve come to appreciate our region’s abundant conifers and their reliable shades of green. I love to stop and stare at them during long neighborhood walks, the way big city tourists stop to gape at skyscrapers. Some of these trees in our neighborhood are so old and tall that I’ll never get an up-close glance at their foliage. So when I can get a close look, I find myself gawking every time. And I’ll be damned, so many of these local trees I’d lazily labeled as “pines” are actually thujas (commonly known as “arborvitae”). To think all these years I thought I was seeing sharp, pointy needles instead of soft, scaly ones… that’s the kind of detail I missed when I had more of a doomscrolling-brain.
On sunny days I make myself take long walks under the big, open January sky and pay special attention to the conifers. Upon returning from one of these recent jaunts, I found myself googling “cypress trees North Carolina.” And that’s when I learned NC is home to the eastern United States’ oldest trees — the bald cypress on the Black River near Wilmington. According to this Nature Conservancy post, “The oldest identified tree, scientifically labeled BLK69 and locally known as Methuselah, dates back to 364 AD.” I literally gasped upon reading this. I’d already been planning to take a winter beach trip to Wilmington. And now I can look forward to basking in the presence of an ancient celebrity conifer?! I feel so lucky for that.
Thinking about Methuselah helps ground me. Now there’s a living thing that’s seen some shit. Imagine all the creatures that ever came into contact with that tree. Methuselah has outlived them all and will probably outlive me, too. Pondering its longevity helps put both my doomscrolling fears and my personal woes in perspective. In the wake of a couple tough but firm new year’s decisions, I’ve changed my daily life considerably. And that doesn’t always feel good. In fact, the impact of this change feels like A LOT. But clarity brings its own rewards. Because even if it means processing a bunch of painful thoughts and memories, I also happen to notice the difference between the sharp, pointy needles and the soft, scaly ones.
Today is New Year’s Eve and I’m quitting Twitter. Almost 11 years of posting, 1500+ followers, and thousands upon thousands of tweets will soon become a past chapter. Yes, I know I can download an archive. No, I will not. I associate Twitter with ephemeral pleasures and feel no need to preserve all those words I’ve long forgotten. I admit I’ve screenshot some of my biggest hitters (like the viral tweet about an absurd floor plan that got so popular it jumped to various clickbait articles and YouTube channels). But I don’t see myself poring over those old moments of glory. My minor brushes with internet fame had their own short-lived seasons. I guess I’ll miss the occasional thrill of going viral. But way more than that, I’ll miss the patchwork communal space where I’ve shared random thoughts with an assortment of like-minded friends, many of whom I’ve never met in person.
And then there’s the much fatter list of things I won’t miss about Twitter. Like the way this platform has encouraged us to be so judgmental, resentful, and angry toward one another. It’s especially a big problem among the socialist left. My number one reason for leaving Twitter (or secretly hoping it would implode under Elon Musk’s watch) is that it’s proven to be a very toxic platform for members of the Democratic Socialists of America. While debate is a wonderful and necessary feature of any democratic organization, the DSA discourse that happens on Twitter could rarely be described as debate. It’s more like a putrid stew of projection, conflation, sanctimony, attention-seeking, bullying, passive-aggression, manipulation, and all sorts of other ego-based flaws this website elicits by constantly pushing us to share our opinions. And if you don’t have an opinion on the controversy of the day, DSA Twitter will provide a seemingly endless stream of content to encourage you to formulate an assessment.
I’m embarrassed when I consider the number of hours I’ve spent trying to figure out how I feel about whatever latest left debate was rocking DSA Twitter, but I’m learning to give myself grace around my old bad habits. And I’ve actually been pretty good at resisting the pitfalls of discourse these past couple years (as discussed in this early 2021 essay). I’ve been careful to not comment on the ugliest battles, but I’ve still witnessed plenty of carnage from the sidelines. I find all this mean-spirited sparring very discouraging and not good for recruitment! In general, I don’t care if random people waste time arguing on the internet, but I think it’s actually very bad for a fledgling socialist organization that needs to build working class power ASAP. All this time and energy we’ve spent could have gone toward building campaigns with people who’ve yet to be organized.
Ultimately, I don’t think socialist organizer opinions or ideology matter 1/10th as much as how we treat each other. We can only build together through clear, respectful communication. Twitter amplifies the meaner parts of our consciousness, which works against that goal. Social media commenting isn’t a discussion. At best, it’s a thought-provoking message board. At worst, it’s people taking turns screaming at each other.
Luckily for me, Twitter has been way more than just a DSA-centric experience. I thought for a while that maybe I could just enjoy this app as a place where I can share my writing, some Columbo jokes, or photos of terrifying staircases – you know, the kind of goof-off content that makes social media fun. And at the same time, I could use it to catch breaking news before literally any media outlet (for example: when the last Oscar broadcast froze for a few seconds, Twitter told me what Will Smith did to Chris Rock in less than one minute). When leftist discourse got extra nasty, I would temporarily mute words like “Bernie Sanders” or “DSA,” so I would stop seeing people tweet about whatever infuriating, bad faith argument was polluting the timeline. Even if this website was bad for my organization, perhaps I could prune my content so the yuckier parts of the experience wouldn’t get to me.
Then Elon Musk bought Twitter, and it all started falling apart pretty fast. Following massive employee layoffs and resignations, the app became noticeably glitchy. The algorithm seemed to shift chaotically every few days. For a while, I wasn’t seeing any DSA content (which honestly felt like a blessing). During that time, I was mainly seeing inane content aimed at 20 year olds – lots of bad dating advice for girls and “women be crazy” content for the guys. For the first time since I joined Twitter, I suddenly found it quite boring. The only consistently entertaining part of this new experience was watching Elon Musk fumble his $44 billion acquisition in real time. Sure, I like seeing one of the world’s richest men humiliate themselves publicly – to a point. Even that becomes dull after a while.
And then it occurred to me – he won’t stop humiliating himself because it brings him attention, which is the one thing a narcissist wants most of all. As the brilliant poster @maplecocaine once said, “Every day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” Elon Musk has been the main character almost every day since late October. And though that burden would break most of us after a single day, I think he actually feeds off of it, because that is the closest he’ll ever come to feeling love.
That was when I knew I needed to leave. I can’t tolerate the bruises to my political organization once the fun is gone. And I don’t want to feed a billionaire’s demented addiction. It’s been fun watching everyone mock him. That hater energy so often misdirected toward each other can be quite hysterical when aimed at our ruling class. I will miss bearing witness to all those slam dunks. But I have seen enough.
Mostly I will miss sharing all my assorted, silly observations! I never had that big a following for someone who tweeted as often as I did. But for a shy, quiet, forgotten child from a big dysfunctional family, all those likes, retweets, and the occasional viral fame felt like being seen. I made some friends, hobnobbed with some fancy media people, and even got followed by one of my labor movement heroes and a certified genius. If I were more outgoing, I might have more connections to show for all that. Maybe I would have gotten published more than just a few times. My purported goal for joining Twitter was to promote my writing, which was why I always tweeted under my real name. Then I became more of an organizer instead. And now I really don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t know what it will be like to be a DSA member who isn’t on Twitter. I don’t know what it is to be a writer who isn’t posting random thoughts a dozen times per day. I just know I’m ready to move on.
Months ago I accepted that for most people living in this country, COVID safety precautions no longer mattered. The virus is still here. Many of those who catch it are dying or developing long term disabilities. But we’re no longer expected to distance or mask up, so most people don’t bother. I’ve made my peace with this state of affairs, even as I’ve continued avoiding indoor crowds while keeping the KN95 industry afloat. Guess I’ve grown used to living in a pandemic under late capitalism in the richest, most socially negligent country on Earth. I do my best to keep my family safe. And I don’t judge anyone for abandoning safety measures that our government no longer mandates.
I wasn’t always so understanding, especially when safety mandates existed and so many fools just ignored them. I also think about the era before vaccines, when some people would post social media pics of their maskless, smiling faces in restaurants or brag about their pleasure travels to faraway places. They weren’t breaking rules necessarily. But it seemed as if they’d carelessly given up on their personal commitment to community protection and just gone back to normal. How could they?
Now that we’re about three years into this thing, I derive an odd comfort knowing that just because people have abandoned precaution doesn’t mean they’re “back to normal.” I barely remember what “normal” looked like before the pandemic, but I know it definitely didn’t look like this. For example, I never worked from home before this mess started. I always assumed that WFH was for professional managerial class people with advanced degrees, not college dropouts who work in customer service. Now I get paid considerably more to do odd political organizing gigs over the internet, compared to the retail job I worked three years ago. These gig hours are limited, but I don’t have to work as much to make the same amount of money. I’d have to be paid well over my current wage to even consider working retail again. This pandemic has obliterated my desire to toil on my feet all day for company bosses who sit in offices and own nice houses while I lose time with my family earning a pittance toward the rent.
Assuming you’re employed, how do you feel about work? I bet it’s pretty different from how you felt pre-2020. Do you have the same job you had then? What changed? What new boundaries have you established? What illusions have dissolved? If it’s been a rocky road, I hope you are more rooted in the understanding that most work is bullshit and most bosses maintain too much power over our lives. If you’ve reevaluated what really matters to you in your life, I hope you’ve landed on the understanding that work is mainly something we do to make money to survive under capitalism. If your work has little or no social value, and it doesn’t bring you a strong sense of personal satisfaction, I hope you are at the very least “quiet quitting.” Even better, I hope you and your coworkers are unionizing.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see unionization on the rise. Starbucks workers organizing hundreds of stores across the country would not have been “normal” in 2019. Sucks that it took a pandemic to push workers to the edge, because this union fever is long overdue. But even for someone like me, who was pretty cynical about work before this all started, it’s wild to reflect on just how little I valued my own labor in the old days. $15/hr used to feel like an impossible dream for someone working retail in a midsize Southern city. Now it feels like an insult — almost twice the minimum wage and still impossible to live on. I cannot go back to believing $10.50/hr was the worth of my labor. That was what I once called “normal.”
This new normal — wherein so many of us are salty about work — may not always be a pleasant place. Sometimes I miss the comfort of old illusions about work, just like I sometimes miss going out to eat in a crowded diner on a Saturday morning. But on the rare occasions I do dine out, I can’t help noticing how different the vibe is. Every restaurant seems perpetually understaffed. The forced cheerfulness service workers once considered part of the uniform has given way to a more brittle honesty. Their manner makes clear that new standards are in play — you’re gonna have to pull the menu up on your phone, the options are fewer, and it’s gonna take twice as long for the food to get to your table. I take this all in stride and tip even more than I did in the past. I’m no longer paying for theater. I’m just looking out for a fellow worker doing one of the hardest, most thankless and precarious jobs in these dangerous times. It all feels starkly different from how it was before 2020. But in many ways, I prefer this level of realness to that old normal.
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 greenThankgoodness 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.
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.