November: On Xenophobia.

I moved into my house a little more than four years ago.  We’re the only white family on the block.  The neighborhood, which ranges from immaculate million-dollar homes to decrepit eyesores (I live in one of the eyesores) is overwhelmingly Latino, though my neighbor on the right is black.  He’s the sort of neighbor who waves every time we’re within waving distance, who trims his pomegranate trees when they start to drop fruit over my side of the fence.  I like him a lot.

The wealthy Latino family on my left side, though, I don’t like, particularly the man of the house.  On one level it’s justified.  He keeps three large half-feral dogs in their yard in all weather; they bark constantly.  Once, when I requested that he hold the noisy construction work on his house for an hour or two so my extremely sick daughter could nap, he told me (having never laid eyes on her) that she was probably faking her illness.  Some people are just jerks.

Also, completely separately: I am shamefully racist.

When I first moved in, my primary complaint about my Latino neighbors was not that they were jerks but that they were loud.  Not all the time, not past midnight, but yes, sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights they would throw parties and invite a (to me) ridiculous number of people.  I like for things to be quiet.  Not just usually, but 24/7.  To me that’s what “civilization” looks like: everyone being silent and not bothering each other.  Also, to me it’s okay to have strong feelings, but don’t have them loudly.  Don’t sob, don’t yell.  Laugh demurely if at all.  Keep calm and carry on.

My ancestry is largely English, if you were wondering.

Four years in a nonwhite neighborhood, though, has gradually shifted my perspective without my even noticing.  Surrounded by the noise of people being sociable in an unfamiliar cultural pattern, I began to make sense of it, to understand its rhythms as though it were a language.  It became my new normal.  I began to realize that maybe it was a little weird that I never had parties on Friday nights.  That I didn’t know enough people to make that much noise.

Don’t get me wrong; my left-hand neighbor is still a jerk.  Was a jerk to me before I even lived there. When I was nine months pregnant and checking out the unoccupied house, he peered over the fence and tried to keep me from moving in by telling me the house wasn’t built to code.

That much, I forgive.  I know why he didn’t want me to live there.  He guessed at a glance that I’d be the shrew calling the cops about the noise every time he tried to have a party.  I was that shrew, for the first year or two, when I was sleep-deprived from new motherhood and unused to living around anyone who didn’t share my exact cultural values.

I didn’t realize how much my attitude had shifted until the night I tried to follow the 2016 presidential election results.

Right around the time my stomach was starting to sink to my feet, from next door I heard the kind of abrupt, simultaneous screams you only hear from white people when their team scores a touchdown.  But these were cries of rage and anguish.  This was a group of people watching television together (instead of following the election results in a room alone on an iPhone, as I was doing) who simultaneously cried out in pain, loudly enough that I could hear them from next door.

I had just put my children to bed, and I’ll admit to a fleeting thought about their chances of peaceful sleep, but it quickly gave way to the most wrenching wave of sadness I’ve ever felt for a family we haven’t spoken to since the last time my husband went over there to tell them to keep the noise down.

This time, I thought: let them scream.  Let them wake everyone in America.  Their every bone has just been crushed with a political sledgehammer.  Maybe keeping calm isn’t always virtuous.

“My” people–white people–have the weirdest ideas about when it’s okay to raise a fuss.  We clench up and futilely, passive-aggressively fight the most harmless things: red tape, noisy neighbors, long lines.  Yet somehow we find it in ourselves to forgive, tolerate, or ignore the most virulent sorts of knee-jerk, unexamined hatred.

I know myself better than to say that from now on I’ll always fight it when I catch people I know being racist and xenophobic.  I don’t always have the “spoons” for that type of argument.  But there are enough scary things littering my own mental closet that I can keep plenty busy without poking around trying to reorganize everyone else’s.

I am already savvy enough to keep from verbalizing my racist and xenophobic thoughts, but that’s not enough.  Outward politeness isn’t enough.  I need to find out which of my most secret thoughts are poisonous and neutralize them before they eat away any further at what makes me human.

Most white people have these thoughts, because we’ve been fed white supremacist messages–sometimes very subtle and seemingly benevolent ones–since before we were old enough to think critically about them.  The main difference between open KKK supporters and educated, cosmopolitan, “civilized” whites is that most of us “civilized” whites, out of shame, sweep our racist and xenophobic thoughts under the mental rug.  We avert our eyes and tell ourselves that we’re fine as long as we don’t say it out loud.

But thoughts breed under there under that rug, in the dark.  They multiply, they spread to our children through our silences and the actions we don’t take, our children spread them to their friends by imitating us, by saying out loud the things they infer from our evasions.  White supremacist thought is like a rat infestation: you can’t just coexist peacefully with it and expect it to fade away on its own.  There are more and less confrontational ways to deal with the problem, but you do have to confront it: swiftly, thoroughly, and relentlessly.

We’ve not been doing that–we’ve been cozy in our “post-racial” dream world–and this is what happened.  The Rat King happened.  And what did we do?  We pulled him up a throne.  Oh, maybe you and I  didn’t, but we sat for decades letting the rat infestation flourish, because we didn’t think the rats would bite us.

Welcome to the nightmare.  Behold the twisted mass of gnashing teeth and knotted tails.

Now might be a good time to start screaming.

September: On Connection.

If you have an extremely active mind and low boredom tolerance, a psychiatric hospital is a terrible place to be.  During one dreadful week in October 2013, I kept myself sane in such a place by inventing stacks of paperwork to do.  Mostly in crayon, or if I stumbled on a lucky find, a blunt golf pencil.

I took all the Official Worksheets provided by the hospital and dutifully filled them out.  When I ran out of those, I made my own.  I doodled.  I wrote down prayers I’d memorized long ago.  I made charts and graphs.  And of course I did what I do whenever I get upset and overwhelmed: I made lists.  Lists of what was bothering me.  Lists of what I needed to do to fix it.  Only instead of “clutter in bedroom closet” and “ask doctor about diaper rash” this time the lists held entries like, “paranoia in group social situations” and “leave house at least once per month.”

It’s this paper, though, that gets me the most.  This is the one I look at now and then to remind myself how far I’ve come.



Now, less than three* years later, I could rattle off a dozen names for that list, easily.  People I know are there for me, a veritable mini-Rolodex I can sort through when I need just a few minutes to vent or a bit of advice.

If suicidal people have one thing in common, it could very well be a sense that there is no one left to turn to.  None of us choose to end our lives as a first resort.  I would posit that the number one thing we can do to improve our mental health, all of us, is to beef up our support systems.

…She says blithely, as though the Mishell Baker of September 2013 had never had the thought, “Gee, I wish I had more friends.”

Quite the contrary.  That Mishell spent a lot of time telling anyone who’d listen (a rapidly diminishing number) how lonely she was, how misunderstood, how adrift on a sea of broken dreams.  She was really fun to hang around with; I can’t imagine where all her friends went.

I jest (cruelly), but it’s a vicious cycle.  The lonelier you get, the more depressed you get, and the more depressed you get, the more toxic you become to other people’s mental health.  Soon you forget how human interactions are supposed to work.  You watch people forming and maintaining friendships around you and marvel at it as though it were something alien and incomprehensible.  What are they doing?  Why does this work for everyone but me?


Sitting there in that hospital with my golf pencil and paper, I realized that I was going to have to relearn from square one.  It became clear to me that as an extrovert, my lack of meaningful social connection–my feeling of living in a transparent cube impenetrable by myself or others–was the single most toxic factor in my mental health, and that I had to prioritize fixing it above anything else in my life.  Yes, even above being a decent mother to my children (my reasoning: a neglectful mother was probably better than a dead one).  I had a terminal illness whose only cure was making some damned friends.

As soon as I got out of that place, I signed up for a regular volunteer gig, just to get me out of the house.  Mostly dealing with children, since that I already knew how to do, but there was an adult in charge I got to practice making small talk with twice a week.

I studied social interaction with the sort of detached open-mindedness I would use for any subject of which I was ignorant.  I looked for people who were successful at it and tried to pick apart what they did, what made them likable.  I pulled out my neglected copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Every time someone did something that charmed me, made me want to be around them, I took a mental note.  Do more stuff like that.

I re-taught myself how to be funny, by watching things that made me laugh, and analyzing them.  I re-taught myself to smile.  I asked people questions about themselves, even though I didn’t care about the answers (I was still nursing my own bitterness that no one cared about me).  Even as I resented that I was giving more than I was getting back, I kept giving.  Mechanically.  Relentlessly.  Stubbornly.

And somewhere along the way, something shifted.  Maybe I got a bit of affection back, and that put me in a better mood, and that made me find that I cared a tiny bit more, the next time, when I asked someone how they were.  And they picked up on that, and the warmth coming back became stronger, and started coming from more places.

Here I am, after three years, and I’ve become my mother, in a wonderful way.  (My mother is the kind of person who couldn’t wait for a bus without having three new friends before it came.)  I heard myself say on my way out of a shop, “You take care of yourself, now,” to the woman who works there.  Heard how much I meant it.  Heard how much I cared about the baby she was carrying, the one no one could tell existed by looking at her, but the one she’d announced to me the visit before — because I had made it so obvious every time I came in how much she mattered to me as a person, what she was doing that weekend, what her opinions were about things.  Maybe I was faking it at first, but I’m not anymore.

There’s a danger in caring about people, of course.  If something bad happens to this woman’s baby, that’s a new potential source of pain for me.  But the potential risk, especially if you care widely, is nothing compared to the immeasurable richness of an interconnected life.  Because when you do feel pain, there are people there for you to lean on, a variety of people, many of whom are feeling strong at the moment and aren’t worn out yet from hearing all the details of your last three problems.

I’m not saying we have to consider all people equal in our lives.  It’s fine to have a Best Friend Forever; I have one, too, and she’s often my first call when things go pear-shaped.  But if she’s stressed, or if I’ve already bent her ear twice this month, I’ve got other options, now.

Just making more friends didn’t fix everything that led me to that hospital, but it is what gives me the strength I need to make all the other (huge, sweeping, permanent) changes I needed to make in my life.  Because when my strength fails, there’s a net underneath me, and when I fall, I no longer have to climb all the weary jagged way back up alone.

* <3