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Navel gazing, self-hatred, and Whole Foods: Or, Work, Bitches!

Yesterday I found myself in Carmel IN with some spare time. Living in a small city means a living with a dearth of retail options, especially in the all-important edibles category, so I decided to waste some time and cash at Whole Foods. As soon as I got within a block of the place, I realized I’d triggered my own rage response. The whole parking lot and most traffic heading in that general direction represented one my least favorite demographics: the very privileged sub/urban stay at home mom; she of the Lulumon yoga wear, the Mercedes or BMW SUV, the bleached teeth, the perfect skin, the size 2/4/6 post-baby body, the no-job.

While pushing my sleek black mini-cart around the immaculate store, I muttered to myself about the herd of wealthy, idle, indulged women shopping around me. What I actually said is both irrelevant and was quite vulgar. Suffice to say that when a blond, tan, toned thirty-ish woman in tight black spandex spent a little too long picking through the Honey Crisp apples while I waited for her to move, words rhyming with “hunt” and “twitch face” occurred to me in some fascinating variants. Around that time, a Whole Foods worker bee dropped a very large box of cava on the floor, sending glass, fizzy wine, and noise all across the floor of the store. My ranty concentration broken, I slunk over to frozen foods, and while searching out sprouted dinner rolls, the thought struck me that hating on the burbish baby mommies is probably pretty damn close to an act of self-hatred. I am all of those things, except idle (and blond, and lately, toned).

This triggered a second pass through the wine section.

I’ve always resented the idle rich, possibly due in part to my very work-heavy Scottish/Southern protestant/Calvinist upbringing. How can anyone justify their continued absorption of water and sunlight when not producing anything of value? I mean, really, work IS the whole point, right? Add some wasted youthful years listening to hardcore punk rock, and a definite pique can be raised by overt consumerism very easily.

So I came home, ate some very tasty organic produce, had a lovely glass of viognier, watched a few episodes of Orange is the New Black and went to bed, mostly recovered from my earlier rage party.

This morning, trolling around the vacuum tubes of all human knowledge, I came across a short essay by a young writer on the primal need for creative work(read it here: http://mashable.com/2015/06/09/post-hipster-yuccie/).

Apparently, while I was busy hating on yoga moms, the kids have created a new template for Work. It takes hipsterism a step further, denouncing the outer symbols of anti-establishment sentiment like tattoos and fedoras while embracing the inner hipster drive for self-propelled creative careers.This current trend and struggle is both a lot like, and completely new, compared to the generations of the recent past.

Gen X, once we got off of our collective asses and mom’s sofa, embraced a weird brew of “stick it to the man” and “I like having stuff”. The internet explosion put a good number of us to work in software start-ups, or at least, in decent-paying IT gigs that didn’t make us come home from work smelling like french fries. Looking around at my cohort from high school and college, I think most of us (who had enough social privilege to attend college and make a wide array of life-work choices) have managed to grab at least the brass monkey, if not the brass ring, financially.

What seems less clear is whether or not we’ve made any progress over our Boomer parents in creating work that makes us matter or feel fulfilled at some basic level. The Boomers, of course, struggled mightily against The Man, and then in their late 20’s or early 30’s, mostly caved in/sold out and moved into split level ranch houses to raise us. They started out rebelling against the consumerist and conservative mindset of their WWII winning parents, denounced materialism and corporations, and like us, later determined that having stuff makes life hella easier.

People who are free to choose their work may be a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the female side. Gen X is only really the first generation of women in the US raised from early life to believe that all careers are open to us. The “yuccies” then, are only the 2nd or 3rd generation of Americans with such a wide range of options on view. So, is the preference for creative and self-propelled work a natural evolution of chosen work, obviously made far easier by technology, or is there some other phenomenon at play? Will Gen X be remembered as the last generation of corporate tools in a future of micro industry? Will the wives of executives of the future still choose to be idle?

At the end of the beauty aisle, passing all sorts of hand-crafted, micro-brewed, super special non-toxic organic merchandise, I had to wonder how a person with endless choices could forego all of them and choose instead to consume rather than contribute, to buy rather than to do. Certainly Calvin would condemn the idle yoga mom to hell in a chai soy latte cup. Maybe it’s the choice to matter only in reflection, in servitude to others that pisses me off so violently. The inertia, the unmet challenge of DOING, the missed opportunity to make is something like refusing to accept lottery winnings, or maybe it’s my own frustration at still be “employed”, even in a relatively creative job, that grates.

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Journey-Making

As I struggled to stay up until 9:00 last night (thanks, jet lag), I caught an episode of a new series on PBS, Sacred Journeys. This episode was about Jerusalem, highlighting the choices of several very diverse American citizens who had gone there to find…something.

One of the statements made by the narrator that struck me as fascinating was about the “physicality of place”. His general point was that, even with all of our high-tech video and audio devices, there is no substitute for being present in a location to evoke the psyche. The whole series is about the topic of pilgrimage, a concept that isn’t yet dead, or even resting. Several religious traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, require their followers to make a physical journey to sacred sites in order to fully grasp the messages they offer. Many of the people on the show were Jewish or Christian and were visiting Jerusalem in search of physical pieces of their faith traditions. However, such journeys are also popular among the un-churched masses, today’s “spiritual but not religious” group. This trend seems to point to an unmet need basic to humans not always adequately answered by Religion.

But, why in this time of easy (ish) travel and easy access to information from all over the planet, do people still find it so necessary to pack up a bag and hit the road to find their souls? Certainly, a thousand years ago, when life moved at a much slower paces and there were no video feeds from the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, it made sense for people to journey to sacred places in order to see where important events went down- even if the travel was much more dangerous and difficult than it is today. What is it about “the physicality of place” that still attracts us to the idea of leaving our sofas and stocked fridges and heading out for the unknown?

These questions led to two possible answers, one courtesy of Carl Jung, the other from my Celtic ancestors.

Carl (and Joseph Campbell) liked to make an analogy of a person’s life to the journey of a hero in myths and legends. The idea here is that each person is the hero is his or her own little mythic tale, beginning with The Call and ending with The Return, with many adventures in between. Over the years, this concept has attracted a great deal of attention in the psychotherapy community, from James Hillman and Archetypal therapy, to Michael White and Narrative therapy. Seeing yourself as the hero in your own myth can create feelings of purpose and continuity where chaos existed previously.

The second consideration is related to the image for this essay- the labyrinth. Mazes and labyrinths have been used as tools for prayer and meditation for untold time. Currently, many churches (especially the Episcopal) have prayer gardens with labyrinths on the church grounds. Walking over the four quadrants and into the center (which also is the basic layout of a mandala) is supposed to assist the walker in his or her meditations by making a physical journey to match the cognitive one.

Although many churches have labyrinths, they aren’t exclusive to Christians. The idea is most probably more ancient than that, meaning it likely has pagan roots. Apparently, taking a short, symbolic journey to sort out your thoughts is equally as old and powerful as taking a longer more literal pilgrimage  to a place of some spiritual or historical importance. There seems to be something about the act of walking, making physical contact between the liminal world of ideas and emotions and the literal world of physical sensation, that humans crave at a very basic level.

All of which brings me to my point: no matter how hard Western civilization tries to sanitize and disembody the human experience, it will always be defeated by the basic wiring of the human animal. We, as a species, are not only our thoughts. We are not only our words. When we suffer, we must have motion, physical contact with people and places and all of our senses in order to process the thing that caused the suffering and to heal. No drug can ever replace tactile experience (although some medicines are very helpful to many people). No “talk therapy” alone can fully wrap around the totality of any human experience: for that, we invented art, dance, play, and journeys. We need to use all that we have in order to heal what’s broken and strengthen what’s healed.

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Yuletide Reflection

The close of the year is a time for reflection, when long hours of darkness make doing useful work difficult, and cold weather makes staying indoors seem like the best option.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is always handy with words of guidance about how we should aim to be in the world. Wendell can come across as a bit pompous at times, but as a poet, I think he’s earned it.

My Christmas gift to you, an excerpt from Mr. Berry’s latest book, “What are People FOR?”:

“We clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”

This Yuletide season, I hope you enter many little circles of arms, and hear many fragments of the music of life.