I love books. I love writing and reading. I feel that books have helped me immensely throughout my life, and I think it’s okay not to read. It’s okay to not feel any particular attachment to books. It’s okay to like reading, but to prefer digital formats to physical books. It is not just okay, but probably wise, to donate or throw away books that don’t make you happy. Your space doesn’t need to look like a library unless that makes you feel good. If it does, that’s also fine.
It’s kinda not fine, though, to pitch a fit over the idea of anyone else not valuing books the way you do. For some people, they’re just objects. That’s fine. They are just objects. The value of any object is personal and subjective, and it may change over time.
The anger over Marie Kondo’s (misquoted and out of context) suggestion that people keep less than thirty books in their homes is worrying for a lot of reasons.
First of all, it’s untrue. She says you should keep whatever makes you happy. If books make you happy, she’d encourage you to proudly display and enjoy them, not convince you to throw them away. Stop bitching at this nice woman who just wants to help people tidy their houses. It’s her thing, just like books are your thing. She isn’t coming to take anything from you, and she doesn’t want to.
It also shows that a lot of avid readers and writers haven’t considered that there are plenty of totally valid reasons why people might not feel the same way they do about books. A number of disabilities, including dyslexia and ADHD, can make it extremely difficult to read, or to sit still long enough to enjoy a book. Some people literally cannot form images in their heads as they read, so pages full of text hold little appeal for them. Some never had access to books growing up and didn’t develop that love. Other people just have dominant interests that don’t lend themselves well to sitting quietly and reading. Not everything is best absorbed in that format, and not everyone learns easily from the written word.
Finally, the actual force of it is driven by classism and ableism, among other things. Yes, a lot of people only share those posts because it’s kinda funny to imagine themselves cutting down on something that obviously means so much to them, but a lot of other people have shown genuine disgust and anger at the idea of not having a library’s worth of knowledge in their living rooms. There’s this deep belief, often instilled when we’re kids, that reading a lot and having as many books as possible makes us smarter, and therefor better, than our peers. This can become part of our identities as readers. It’s been a part of mine, and I didn’t realize how much that was driven by certain social biases until fairly recently. I’m still learning to untangle it.
Sure, it’s fine to sleep on a pile of books every night like a dragon, but that really does not mean you’re better than anyone else. It doesn’t mean you’re smarter than anyone else. More than anything else, it probably means that you may have some common interests with other avid readers. Which is a great thing, but it’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be.
I’ve started watching the Tidying Up show with Marie Kondo, not because I’m actually planning to follow her method at the moment, but just because she’s such a delight to watch and listen to. I also loved her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and would highly recommend it as a very relaxing read. It’s an excellent bedtime book.
In spite of all the totally legitimate criticism of the minimalist movement, Marie is really nonjudgemental and seems to be purely motivated by a desire to help people make their own environments comfortable for themselves, not to make them fit into any particular image. If that box of Star Wars memorabilia makes you happy, she wants to help you display it, not guilt you into throwing it away. She really strikes me, above all else, as a person who has completely leaned into who she is, her own unique view of the world, and what matters to her. I think that’s pretty special.
I have a slowly growing little list of shows that are both positive and relaxing, and Tidying Up is going on it. The Great British Baking show and Queer Eye are also pretty high up there. I never realized how starved I was for just seeing basic kindness on TV until I first found myself watching a baking competition where the contestants would often stop work just to help each other. Even the comedians on GBBS give out hugs and encouragement in equal measure with their kindhearted teasing and jokes.
Queer Eye offers something even more rare, which is a group of men doing emotional labor for other men. Many straight men rely almost entirely on their female partners for that kind of emotional processing and support, and it can be terribly isolating. The men of Queer Eye are gentle and encouraging, and they provide a great image of non-toxic masculinity. Plus, the show offers a lot of body positivity for men, another rarity.
Side note: There was a great discussion I saw a while ago about how this heavy reliance on their female partners can encourage men to believe in the mythical Friend Zone. Men tend to view any kind of emotional labor as something you only exchange with a romantic partner, whereas women usually also give and receive that kind of support from friends. Thus, basic supportive friendship for a woman looks, to a straight man, like a relationship. This is not a good thing. It wears women out, trying to keep up with the needs of a person who isn’t getting emotional support from anyone else in their life, and is part of why older men tend to die soon after losing their partners. They have no emotional support networks to take up the strain, unlike most older women. Plus, it encourages men to ruin perfectly good friendships by putting their female friends in The Girlfriend Zone. Knock this off, dudes. Being friends isn’t a consolation prize, y’all just need to learn how to do it right.
Here are some of the shows on my kindness porn list:
This one is not a TV show, but Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has a youtube channel, Jessica Out of the Closet, that is pretty much like distilled sunshine. She’s a disability activist, vintage beauty vlogger, and she shares stories about her life with her wife and their two dogs. Sometimes she also talks about her beliefs as a quaker, and about queer and disabled historical figures. She’s one of the most positive and intentionally kind people I’ve ever seen in my life.
Big Dreams, Small Spaces is a British show about renovating small gardens so that they’re more functional and beautiful for the families who need them. They often feature disabled people, with a focus on accessibility and tailoring those spaces really well to the people who will use them.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a short one, but very fun to watch. The host, Samin Nosrat, is incredibly passionate about good food, with none of the usual quibbling about calories or creepy talk about guilty pleasures. She enjoys herself, teaches about the important basic elements of flavor, and she goes out and talks to people who make amazing food around the world. She also has a book.
If anyone has any suggestions for more shows I should add to this list, I’d love to hear them.
I don’t really love the whole resolution thing. A lot of the time, we’re encouraged to be way too all-or-nothing in our goals, and frustration naturally follows. There’s also a whole culture of guilt built up around it that kinda sucks, where we look back at the past year only to find things to fix with our new resolutions, and to feel ashamed of the ones we abandoned last January.
That said, this is still a perfectly good time to look back at the past year and do some self-reflection. I think it’d be nice, though, if we were all encouraged to be proud of the growth we did achieve, instead of looking at our failings. Everyone has probably done at least a few things in the past year that they can be proud of. They might have learned something important about themselves, built a new routine that made them more productive, changed an old pattern of behavior that didn’t work well, or started eating vegetables a little more often. I did all of those things, and I’m making a conscious effort to give myself credit for all of it. It was hard, but I grew a lot.
I also wrote a blog post every single week in 2018. It’s not a perfect record – a number of the posts came out late – but it’s still a big deal for me to be able to be that consistent about anything. I want to thank everyone who has read any of those posts, because knowing that people might notice if I didn’t put them out helped keep me on track.
I really appreciate you all, and I hope you can find things to congratulate yourselves for when you look back at 2018. I hope you can be kind to yourselves in 2019, too. Your specific resolutions may or may not be manageable, but you’re still going to grow and change this year. We all will.
I’m down in California with my family again, and generally getting ready for 2019. In about half an hour, I’ll start driving back to Washington with the dogs. Sadly, this means I don’t have much to report. Better blog posts will resume in the new year.
I’ve mostly been Christmas shopping and prepping to drive down to visit my family, so not a lot to report. On Sunday, though, I did get to go see the beautiful light display at our local zoo with my boyfriend and metamours. It was spectacular, and I managed to get a few nice pictures to share.
I’ve recently come back to meditation. It has helped me immensely in the past, but I tend to forget about it when I’m feeling good and I get more active. Over the summer, I get outside more often and the sun makes me feel better in general. In the winter, I start to get foggy, tired, and more easily depressed and anxious. I start to struggle more with repetitive and upsetting thoughts, and tend to spiral into feeling angry or depressed about things in the past. All of that hurts my overall mood and ability to be productive, and all of that is exactly the kind of stuff that meditation, even just a few minutes of meditation a day, can help to reduce.
If you enjoy the works of Sir Terry Pratchett, especially his Tiffany Aching books, then you’re already familiar with mindfulness under another name. He called it second thoughts: The thoughts you think about your first (reflexive and automatic) thoughts. Having these self-regulating thoughts is one of the signs of a witch in his stories.
Meditation in its simplest form just helps you learn to hear yourself think, and strengthens your ability to be objective about your impulses and feelings. Instead of being angry because I remembered that thing my ex did that one time, I get to think “I’m feeling angry” from a slight distance, and then have the option to watch that feeling move through my mind and body without being carried away by it. It doesn’t necessarily make it more fun to feel angry, but it means that instead of being taken over by it, I can watch it move across the clear sky of my mind like a cloud bank (or a tornado, as the case may be.) It’s darker for a while, and it might bring unpleasant things like rain and wind, but it doesn’t control me and it isn’t endless. It doesn’t always work that neatly, of course, but I’m slowly getting better at catching myself before I get swept away.
If the idea of meditation itself leaves a bad taste in your mouth for any reason, then there may be alternatives that can help you practice those same skills without stressing yourself out. The benefits of mindfulness don’t come from sitting still, or from somehow magically resisting boredom, they come from increased awareness of the moment you’re in and of the way you’re thinking.
My favorite alternative practice: Do you have a pet? Specifically, do you have any animals in your life that you like to spend time with? Animals are pretty much permanently locked in the present moment. Yes, many of them have some limited ability to plan, and they certainly have memories, both good and bad, but they’re still mostly focused on the here and now. How else would they know when it’s time to wake up from a dead sleep and shout at the evil invading raccoons? That kind of presence in the current moment is a big part of what people try to achieve with meditation, and the cool part is that we can kind of piggyback onto an animal’s peace of mind just by being with them. Do you ever just chill out and watch your cat stare out the window at birds? For that period of time, you’re grounded. Your mind will naturally wander, but every time the cat twitches her tail or chitters her teeth, you’re drawn right back to the current moment. Notice what drew you away and then admire your kitten’s finely honed killer instinct, and that’s basically all the vital bits of mindfulness meditation.
Living closely with an animal comes with great health benefits for humans, benefits that already overlap a lot with the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Any animals you hang out with (or garden patch you’re weeding, or landscape you hike through, or kiddo playing with legos, or maybe even a puzzle game on your phone if you need technology involved) can help keep you grounded while you practice.
If you have ADHD, your mind already works against you when it comes to focusing on something repetitive. That’s exactly why meditation can be so helpful for us, if we can manage it. It’s like strengthening a weak limb by exercising it, but if you can’t stay engaged with the practice in the first place, then the limb never gets strong enough to make the process easier. Picking something that sparks interest but is still soothing, like stroking a dog’s fur (or in my little dog’s case, soft skin and fuzzy pajamas) can keep an ADHD brain present when counting breaths would just get annoying.
The point isn’t to never let your mind wander away from your calming activity – in fact, if your mind never wanders then you’re not really getting the benefits of meditation. Meditation benefits us when we catch our minds wandering, note the type of thought or feeling that took us away, and go back to tracking the rhythm of our breath, or the cute snoring of the animal under our hands. Even if you immediately get distracted again by worrying about their vet bills, that’s just another chance to come back to the process. It helps that they’ll inevitably stretch or yawn or purr in their sleep, which drags you back and gives you extra chances to notice that your mind has wandered and where it went.
Bonus: The idea is to notice your own thoughts in a non-critical way, so try to think of your mind the way you think about your pet’s natural behavior. Getting distracted by something flashy and wandering off to investigate is just their nature, and it’s ours as well. Our minds are designed that way, especially the minds of ADHD folks. It used to be highly advantageous to be able to plan and dream up new solutions to old problems, all while keeping watch for a lion in the brush, grinding grain or weaving with our hands, and listening for a child or a neighbor in trouble. It’s definitely not always as helpful to us now, but our minds are simply always going to wander to the past and future (when we’re not hyper-focused, anyway, which is a different ADHD strength that comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.)
The final great thing about this kind of mindfulness practice is that it can even be done when you’re being physically active. Walking your dog? Walking meditation. Playing with your cat and a string? Still counts. I adore watching my dogs eat their meals, because they’re so happy and enthusiastic about it, so I always spend that couple of minutes twice a day holding their bowls for them and just enjoying their single-minded pleasure. As long as you’re being intentional about an activity, and you can notice your own thoughts as they happen, you can get the benefits of meditation. Even just five minutes of practice every day, or just once or twice a week, is basically guaranteed to provide some good for your brain and your life. Even if you don’t notice a difference, there’s pretty much no downside to taking a few spare minutes to enjoy a simple pleasure and practice being understanding with yourself.
The Headspace app is really handy, and can be used for free. They also have a subscription system that gets you access to more features. The app lets you set reminders for meditation, it offers little tips at customizable intervals, and offers guided meditations of different lengths so you can choose exactly how long you want to commit yourself for every time you sit down to meditate. They also offer bedtime tracks to help you relax and get to sleep.
The Insight Timer app is very simple. It lets you set a timer for however long you want, and then choose from a set of pleasant little bells and chimes as your alarm. I think it has some other features, but that’s really all I use it for.
I’ve been having trouble focusing enough to write this post, and part of the problem is that I always try to juggle too many things at once. It’s hard to simplify the situation after getting bogged down in it, because clearing specific items away requires focus, and I’m usually bouncing from one thing to another. It’s not even that my day is busy, it’s that my mind is constantly busy. I don’t always think about it this way, but every single thing I know is unfinished or needs my attention is like a tiny (or sometimes not so tiny) mental drain. It’s actually more noticeable when one of those little mental weights lifts, because I’m pretty used to all of that being there.
I hadn’t realized how worried I was about my pets being prepared for winter until I made time to renovate my lizard tank with an extra lamp and climbing log, and I suddenly felt lighter. It wasn’t urgent, so I let it wait, and I thought that was the smarter thing to do so I could focus on work, but just knowing that it needed to be done had been distracting me more than I guessed. I had a similar concern about my fish tank, which has needed a filter with stronger flow for a while. Again, not an urgent tank, but I got it swapped out today and I feel a lot better.
I’ve started trying to designate at least one of those non-urgent mentally draining tasks per week, so I can cross them off and remove more distractions from my mental space. I think it’s working, and maybe I’ll post about some of them as I go along if I think they could help inspire anybody else.