The Next Step

The great thing about Freecycle is, if you describe a thing honestly and include a few photos, and someone still comes to get it, you know they really want it. Freecycle eliminates the question, “Am I dumping stuff on Goodwill that they will just have to get rid of because no one wants it?”

I’m getting rid of things because I’m preparing for death. I don’t want to leave a horrible mess for my family. I’ve made a vow to myself that I’ll get rid of the equivalent of a roomful of stuff every five years. By the time I am 80 I will be down to one room. Maybe by then I will live in an SRO for old ladies. That is the slow plan: death by 20% increment every 5 years.

Another way of thinking is that I am preparing for life, the rest of my life. I think back to my first apartment in Somerville, where I had almost nothing. I was in graduate school, and I was busy all day every day. It didn’t matter, much, that I didn’t have pretty things, and that what I did have was second-hand and dinged-up. I was too busy to care — very much, anyway. Can I give myself that freedom again?

But! I must remember: I was also fighting off sickening anxiety attacks that would come out of nowhere and fill my mind with terror. They lasted days, not hours. If they went away for a week or two, they would always come back. I had a specific terror; I fixated on a particular disease that usually strikes young people. When terror overtook me, nothing could relieve it. God, those were awful years.

Don’t listen to blowhards whose reaction to anyone’s depression or anxiety is to insist “All you have to do is get up and do something instead of wallowing in your emotions!” Those people are ignorant. It is very slightly interesting to wonder what impels them to trumpet their disdain so loudly. Slightly interesting. Don’t invest a lot of time wondering; you have better fish to fry. But here is what I did while wallowing in terror: graduated from college, moved 200 miles from home, started living on my own, got into graduate school, studied and worked, went to church, and made friends. Also came close to jumping onto the tracks at Park Street Station.

I used to carry scraps of paper around containing verses that helped me, and maybe they had a magical aspect, too. One said

Ever since the days of my youth I have borne thy terrors with a troubled mind.

Another said

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Another said

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.

It is a terrible shame that the priest I went to for help, when the torment was unbearable, acted out toward me. Ach!

Ministers, priests, pastors: don’t do this. Find some other way to meet your need.

January 20, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Future Office Life

I don’t have a cubicle to go back to. In the fall, we were asked to go in and clear out our belongings, because most of us would no longer have a personal workspace. Only the people who have to be in every day, or almost every day, will have one. Even when the office reopens, most of us will continue to work from home and only come in from time to time. When we do, we will pick an unoccupied cubicle in a designated area. If anyone else from my group is in that day, they will be in the vicinity.

Whenever we go into the office, each one of us will have to do a deep-clean of the cubicle we’re assigned to before we can get to work. We know the virus lives for many hours. Who wants to sit all day at a desk, using a keyboard and mouse that someone else used all the previous day, without disinfecting them first? And what night-time cleaning crew on earth would have the time to thoroughly clean every item in every cubicle?

If we go back while there are still outbreaks, even if we wear masks at all times, the office will be full of invisible dangers. One infectious person who is not careful about handwashing or who rebelliously removes his mask when he’s alone or in the company of sympathetic people, and one moment of forgetfulness on our part, and we can be very unlucky. In Massachusetts, the anti-maskers are few in number, but they do exist. If we go back to the office while COVID-19 is still raging, we will have to be cautious, which is a polite evasion of the word afraid. We will have to be afraid of each other, and act defensively.

It is awful to be afraid of other people in a place where you should be able to trust them. I’m sorry. I would love to have lunch with you, take our time, and enjoy each other. But I’m afraid of your breath. I’m afraid of your laughter, even if you are hilarious. And you should be afraid of mine.

And, in any case, with our haphazard schedules, when will I even see you now, my friend?

January 17, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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What’s It Worth

I do unsexy work, with a low bar to entry, that contributes to the development of new technologies. I want to be clear about the unimpressive nature of what I do, because if I am not clear – in conversation, or at my job – if I make a claim that sounds too enthusiastic or too involved, someone will cut me down to size here in never-endingly competitive Massachusetts. Tech-status-obsessed Massachusetts. Especially in my industry, where one engineer will say of another, “Well, I wouldn’t call what he does engineering.”

So let’s be clear: my work is derivative. Secondary. A dull must-have that will never set the world on fire. Nonetheless, it has to be done for the product to arrive at completion.

I freelanced for a couple of decades, so I have a long resume. When I think about the vaccines that are soon to make our lives a whole lot better, I think of the technologies I’ve worked on that have made a contribution.

Videoconferencing. Do you think the scientists and technicians involved in vaccine development, and all their related business functions, use videoconferencing? I do.

Office automation. At the dawn of time, I worked on a mainframe-based calendar system. It wasn’t much different from Microsoft Outlook. Do scientists and related personnel schedule meetings online? Yes, I think so.

Laboratory automation. Oh, yeah.

Industrial automation and control. Yeah.

The power sector. Umm, electricity? Yep.

I make a solid wage for eastern Massachusetts, but not management money; I live within my means, and I save for my retirement. I’ve known plenty of progressive Christians who are on the right side of every issue, who will chastise you for any perceived cultural shortcoming, who never mention that they live in million-dollar houses, and that they spent the first 25 years of their adult lives solidifying their financial position, before making a second career in the ministry or social action. There is no honesty about our economics. There is knee-jerk disdain for ordinary employment, especially if it is corporate, and the people who have it.

Bolz-Weber was horrified, she later told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” when suburbanites subsequently started showing up to HFASS. (She said she warmed up to it.)

I know I keep going on about this. I’m sorry if it is repetitive. I’m worrying away at this topic because I need to find some solid ground, some truthfulness about work and money.

Is it somehow innately bad that I spent decades working on those things?

January 13, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Equal Opportunity

Fifty years ago, four of us girls met at our classmate’s house to work on a history project. We gathered in her sunken living room and set out our books and papers. On his way out the door, our friend’s father gave her some instructions. “I’ve got an ad in the paper for the apartment. If anybody calls, just take down their name and number and say I’ll get back to them,” he said. “If they sound Black, tell them it’s taken.”

We glanced at each other; our friend looked uncomfortable. “Okay,” she said to her Dad.

After he left, no one said anything.

Forty years ago, I was living in Boston, doing temporary office work while I was in graduate school. At the small employment office across from Park Street Station, you could hear pretty much everything that went on, including the employees who answered the phones. And so, those of us waiting for our assignments heard one job counselor say to another, “If they sound Black, tell them it’s been taken.”

No one standing there said anything, including me. And, yes, in Boston in 1981, everyone with half a brain knew this was both wrong and illegal. By 1981, I wasn’t a teenager living at home. I was an adult who needed a job. To speak up then and there, to the low-paid young women who handled the job listings, would not have changed a thing, it seemed to me, except that my work for the day would have vanished. The idea of reporting the agency to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seemed unreal, even dangerous. Who knew what repercussions there would be. I had not been raised to involve myself in the affairs of the world. I did nothing.

Thirty years ago, I ceased to overhear such remarks. By 1990, every tech employer had developed a corporate ethics policy that shone with purity of heart and sincerity. No form of physical or mental wrongdoing would ever be tolerated by any employer, to hear them tell it.

To be fair, such policies maybe once in a while enabled a preyed-on employee to seek redress. Maybe a Black employee who was the target of some racist jerk actually got help from an HR person who cared, and who was free to act. Maybe a young woman, stuck at the receptionist’s desk, had support when some creep started visiting her every day, staring at her body, making suggestive, unfunny remarks, and of course insisting that he was only being friendly. Maybe a sympathetic HR person, who was free to act, actually forced the creep into line. Maybe the receptionist got to keep her job, instead of having to leave to get away from him.

You notice that little qualifier, though: who was free to act. Never forget that HR is the handmaiden of upper management. If the racist, if the creep, is related to a higher-up, or has a critical role or any other advantage or privilege, no HR person is going to step out of line to help the person who is being abused.

The ethics policies make this difference: if no privileged character is involved, if the abuser and the target are both nobodies in the real power structure of the company, then HR is empowered and required (for fear of lawsuits, of course) to act. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that, if your boss took an interest and told the creep to get lost, maybe that worked. If your boss told you to laugh it off, or said the problem was yours, you had no other recourse. Another thing HR did then, and does now, is back up management.

In all the years that these pure-minded corporate ethics policies have been in place, I have never heard anyone speak openly of rejecting candidates for any personal characteristic. But it’s strange, isn’t it, how after all those years, the upper management of those companies still doesn’t include anyone who sounds Black.

I bet you anything that, even though my friend’s father has been dead for years, she still wouldn’t call him out.

January 10, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Religion Fails

My little church hasn’t met in person since last March. We’ve had no communication among ourselves about yesterday’s attempted coup. I can’t decide: is this isolation the worst that could happen, or would it be worse to go to church and hear conversation and a sermon that gently, mournfully, put the events into a manageable spiritual perspective. We might be counseled to ask ourselves what we can do to make the world a better place. We might be told that God wants us to make a difference. We might be encouraged to ask ourselves one ethically introspective question or another. And then that would be that.

I think that the rioters in Washington were, basically, reacting to the decentering of the world in which the descendants of northern European countries dominated the life of the United States. The braying about freedom is a cover.

I further think that northern European heritage, while it established the founding principles of this country — a debt we must acknowledge — also sinned unspeakably against the enslaved Africans and their descendants who powered our economy. This primal sin is horrible to contemplate. It is impossible to reduce. It fuels the craziness of white people today.

Reparations, big ones, are the right response. White Christians can struggle to improve ourselves — engaging in the circular firing squad of progressive purity culture as exemplified by mutual accusation and moral evisceration — until the end times, but not much is going to change because we are saddled with human nature. We are not going to overcome our sinfulness. It didn’t happen with my generation, even though we were the children of the Civil Rights movement, and we were supposed to be qualitatively changed forever. It’s not going to happen.

Money and the political might to push back: that is what will make things better for people of color who look at the white rioters who walked away unscathed. So I donate to reparations funds and political organizers.

That’s my prayer. That’s all the introspection I need. God already knows I’m a screw-up.

January 6, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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God Suffers with Us

So there You are, standing beside me, wringing Your hands.

This idea is supposed to comfort me. I am told this is the theology of the cross.

Fleming Rutledge says “The New Testament presents us with not two but three agencies: God, the human being, and an Enemy…It has been given to this Enemy to enslave humanity …” Advent, page 14.

In another place, she says that how evil entered the world is a great mystery, but evil is not God’s will. I like this explanation, but it doesn’t go vary far, does it. You still must have allowed evil to come into Your creation. I heard someone else say that You are fighting for us — as if You didn’t hold all the cards, as if You couldn’t prevail in a heartbeat.

I mentioned Rutledge to my priest. He smiled and said, “I wonder how much we attribute our failings to a personified evil. It was the devil that made me do it .. or was it just my own weakness?”

I want there to be a third party, not just You and us. I prefer You fighting for us. Otherwise, You created us broken and now watch us struggle and suffer — and obediently self-accuse, as my priest did. That gets us nowhere. So what if You came to join us for a while, to suffer alongside us (although without sin, which is something else we can get into).

January 3, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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New Year’s Eve, 2021

In the last year, I lost multiple contexts. I gave one up voluntarily. The rest ended because of COVID-19 restrictions, or because people moved away, retired, or left particular roles.

None of this dislocation and loss holds a candle to the losses suffered by millions of other people. In my life, change happened that was hard, but nobody died. The isolation imposed by COVID has made everything harder, the silences deeper, the depressive moods harder to escape. That’s all.

I know what changes pointlessness to purpose: the attempt to relieve someone else’s suffering. Responding to someone else’s need. This is not the solution to clinical depression, but it is the answer to the question What can I do with my life that is worth anything?

I’ve never been a first responder, and I’m not in the helping professions. I’ve always worked in tech. But I used to be regularly involved in one charitable activity or another, usually through my church. I helped out. I showed up. Then, slowly, depression claimed me; all I did was work and sleep; then my job ate me alive. Now the depression is better, but still, mostly, I work, sleep, and these days feel anxious enough to worry about having a heart attack.

I think about the things I could do once I retire. I will have time then to be more involved. But I don’t know how I will make it through two more years. There’s a story that is generally told about a man: so-and-so talked all the time about the things he’d do in retirement; when he did retire, he dropped dead soon thereafter. Well, is that me? Do I kill myself at work for two more years, have a few weeks off, and then kick the bucket? I suppose it can happen to women, too.

I wonder if I should move back to the city, where it is easy to be involved. There is always something to help with. It’s harder out here on route 117. There is so much wealth; even the people who are hurting have a long way to fall. But it would be hard to go back to urban life. Here, the woods and fields are balm. I grew up in a landscape like this, and it gives me life.

Depression says, “What does it matter.”

May 2021 give me an answer I can live with.

December 30, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Posted in Career values and work life, COVID-19, Mental health | 1 Comment

Praying in My Own Words, part 1

If I was going to pray to You off the top of my head, without the benefit of the Book of Common Prayer, I might talk about things that are too hard to mention, they are too painful, and You already know about them. Plus, in all the years I did pray about them, You were either asleep at the switch, or Your answer was “No,” an answer of great cruelty. I won’t pray to You about them any more.

I might talk about the things that I am Still Not Over. You know all about them.

I might talk about situations I can do nothing to change, that You also do nothing to change. I would end up more angry than I already am.

I might mention people by name, and their frustrating, piteous, or tragic troubles, but they are Your children, You are well aware of them.

What good is it to ramble on in prayer as if You didn’t already know! What is it for!

There is one kind of extemporaneous prayer I have no trouble with. I’m barely aware of it. It comes from somewhere that seems untouched by anger. I look out my window at the bare trees, the beauty takes my breath away, and I think — I breathe — Thank You. I think about my parents’ relatively easy deaths, and I say Thank You. And then, most of all, because I am nothing if not true to cliché, I sit in my eccentric-single-lady house, in my shredded chair, with my beloved remorseless destroyer of upholstery sprawled across my legs, radiating warmth, purring like a motor, and drooling on my knee; I gaze at that innocent little life, and I say Thank You Thank You Thank You.

That is the only freestyle prayer that comes naturally to me. That’s what You get from me. It seems so strange; it is such a contradiction; but it always comes easily.

December 27, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Why I Am Becoming More Christian

What could cause a human being, previously a worshipper of the unitary, monotheistic I AM, to write this:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)

We are so used to this passage, we have no idea how bizarre it would have been to the devout people of the time. They had zero conception that the God of Israel could have a son. The Greeks of course had plenty of gods begetting children hither and yon. But not the God of the Hebrews. This idea was cataclysmically odd, not to mention offensive.

The outpouring of theological creation that occurred after the life of that one itinerant rabbi is one of the things that convinces me that he was like no other human being.

The cosmos-rending claims of the New Testament: what did they come from – a fit of collective madness?

I don’t think so. The insights are too many, too powerful, and too complex, to be the result of poisoning or hysteria or communal demand. None of those phenomena last very long. This is different.

I was never tempted to join any other religion in my younger life, but I have gone through periods of not being involved in my own. Now as I edge into my last years, I find Christianity stranger and more compelling than I’d ever before realized. It is far more than a set of ethical demands rooted in a notion of virtuous sacrifice. That idea, which guided my life for years, was thin gruel by comparison to the sustenance I am finding now.

December 24, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Can’t Complain

I don’t have anything to say to You any more. It’s a good thing the Book of Common Prayer exists. If I only knew about extemporaneous prayer, I would never pray at all.

You know what’s going on: I live alone month after month. Now that the days are short, I don’t go for walks with my friends during the week because I work during all the daylight hours. I see no one except through Zoom. I talk to You using Cranmer’s words.

I was furloughed for a brief period during the spring, but that is the only practical problem I have had to face. My circumstances are hardly worth mentioning.

Can you mourn for something that you can’t even conjure up in your mind any more?

Three years ago my brother and I were visiting the ICU every day and hoping to see some recognition in our father’s face. There was one moment when he saw me and his eyes lit up. “Her!” he said, and smiled.

“Yes, it’s her!” the nurse said. “Your daughter!”

But then his eyes slid away, and he began to thrash. Only the restraining bands kept him from yanking out the IV and catheter. At 87, he was still six feet tall and strong as an ox. One nurse tried to hold him still, and then she and another nurse threw their bodies over his to hold him in place while a third increased the sedative until he relaxed.

That’s how he spent almost three weeks, alternating between terrified delirium and sedated stupor. He never again recognized anyone, and he never again spoke.

For all that, his death was relatively kind.

I don’t miss him. I’m grateful that he lived a long life on his own impatient, demanding terms and then died without stroke, kidney failure, cancer, or any other late-in-life medical horror. Except for three bad weeks that he mostly missed out on, he got off easy.

I don’t miss him, or my mother. Or my stepfather. Or my stepmother.

December 20, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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