Posted in Being human, books

Compassion For Cities

My friends say that one of my best personality traits is compassion: I really care about other people. Everyone has some personality trait that’s good. I don’t like when people stereotype you based on labels (both official and unofficial) so that you can’t have a certain trait. As a person with developmental disabilities, I get a lot of autism stereotypes and a lot of intellectual disability stereotypes thrown my way. That means some people expect me to be a heartless mind and other people expect me to be a mindless heart. And they actually believe those expectations to be honoring my strengths. But that’s not necessarily how it works. There are autistic people with huge strengths or interests in social areas. There are people with intellectual disabilities whose main strengths or interests are intellectual. We don’t have to have a stereotypical set of strengths.

Arguably the most famous — in terms of sheer name recognition — person with autism in the world is Susan Boyle. Yet you never see her on lists of famous autistic people. Even though practically everyone everywhere knows who she is. She’s world-famous. And I always wonder if she doesn’t make the lists because her strengths stem from social skills. The way she sings, she has to identify somehow with the song. She has to form a personal identification with the character she’s potraying. If she can’t do that, she can’t sing well. If she can do it, she sings spectacularly. Her entire strength that makes her famous is based on social and emotional skills and empathy. And I suspect that makes her not so well-received even though she’s officially diagnosed with autism and everything. And she doesn’t make a big deal about her labels, so she doesn’t push the issue. But I always feel bad not seeing her on those lists2, and I always wonder how much of it is because her biggest skills are social and emotional and that doesn’t fit a stereotype of what kinds of things we can be good at.

And people will either doubt your disability or doubt whether you really have the strengths and interests you do. They’re always trying to prove that autistic people’s empathy isn’t real, that the intellectual achievements of people with intellectual disabilities isn’t real, that autistic people can’t be compassionate and people with intellectual disabilities can’t be geeky or nerdy or have cognitive talents.

And they’re always trying to say that different disabled people are allowed to have certain things and not others. Each type of disabled person is supposed to be missing one thing and have something else: Body, mind, heart, whatever. So we have bodiless minds, mindless bodies, heartless minds, mindless hearts, and whatnot, and that’s supposed to be a good way of looking at us! The truth is that however you divide it up, every person really has a mind, a heart, a body, a soul, whatever you want to call these things. I don’t personally divide people up that way, but if you’re gonna, those things are universal. Disability doesn’t mean one of them is missing.

So it’s important to me to be able to say compassion is one of my strengths without having to justify it against what type of disability labels people think of me as having. It’s moreimportant than usual because so many people say people like me can’t even have real compassion or empathy or anything like that. That we can’t have social strengths or social interests. And it’s totally fine to fit a stereotype, but it’s also totally fine not to. And it’s important to recognize that these are stereotypes, and that they’re wrong, that nobody can be confined like that.

So here goes: I really give a shit about people. I really, genuinely give a shit. It doesn’t mean I get everything right in showing it. It doesn’t mean that I’m some kind of model citizen or something. It doesn’t mean I can’t be an asshole. It just means that overall I do care about people. I am genuinely interested in knowing about people, learning about people, learning about how people’s minds and lives work who are very different from me. I like learning about people’s lives. I like learning about what people need and trying to make that happen. I like learning about people like me, people different from me, all kinds of people. I love documentaries that feature people, and biographies. I love thinking about what it’s like to be someone else.

And my extreme attachment to objects is the exact opposite of how people take it. People take that as, “You treat people like furniture.” No, it’s more like I treat furniture like people. At least, that’s a closer way of putting it than the way most people would. I automatically have always seen everything in the world as alive, having its own point of view, deserving thought and compassion. It’s not that I think rocks are little mirrors of human experience. Rocks are their own thing. Their perspective is a rock perspective, not a human or animal or “living thing” perspective. But I still see them as having one, as interacting, as feeling, in their own way. I can’t explain it in words and I’m not sure it’s possible. When I try, people get the wrong idea.

The cover of Dora Raymaker’s book, “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit,” a sci-fi detective novel I really like.

Dora Raymaker wrote a book called Hoshi and the Red City Circuit. I didn’t know what to expect from it. I was blown away. Because the main character has this connection with the city she lives in. With the place, and the spirit of the place. It’s not part of the main plot, or whatever you want to call it. But it’s there, throughout the whole book. On a sensory level, on a cognitive level, on a spiritual level, it’s just there. And she writes better than anyone I’ve ever seen, about what it means to have that kind of connection to something other people see as inanimate.

I have that kind of connection to places myself. There’s parts of California that feel like they’re just in my bones. The redwood forest, particularly Redwood Terrace, I have a connection that reminds me strongly of Hoshi. But also those hills, those hills full of dry yellow grass and oak trees. And the long flat expanses of the San Joaquin Valley, that most people think are just ugly. All those places are part of me and I’m part of them.

And that’s not a lack of empathy. It’s not giving human attributes to things that aren’t human. It’s extending empathy and compassion to things that most people in some cultures wouldn’t. It’s having those things more broadly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with not doing that, either.1 But there’s certainly nothing wrong with seeing the world the way I do, and I wish people wouldn’t misrepresent it as the opposite of what it is.

Go read Dora’s book though. Empathy and compassion for a city is a hard thing to pull off in words and Dora does an amazing job. I went into that book with sorta mediocre expectations and was blown away by what I actually found there. I don’t have the words to do it justice. I first was just trying to use it to keep out of delirium during a hospital stay last summer but it did a whole lot more than that. Books don’t usually hit me that hard out of nowhere and this one really did.

1Not everyone has to have the same strengths and interests. I’m only saying this because sometimes when I say I value certain traits, people think I mean that people are bad or inferior if they don’t have those traits. That’s not what I mean at all. I’m just valuing things that have been robbed of their value or recognition by people who don’t want to think of people like me as doing those things ever at all. I think it’s great that there are people who really aren’t interested in people and are more interested in abstract intellectual pursuits, who do fit certain stereotypes. That’s a perfectly fine way to be as well, and so are most of the ways people can be. I think it’s great that there’s different kinds of people with different skills and interests. I don’t think everyone has to be like me. I just )

2 Sometimes it can feel bad being on this kind of list. But what I don’t like about seeing her on those lists is what it means about how other people see her. I doubt she cares one way or the other, she might even find it slightly unpleasant. It can feel like being recognized for a diagnosis rather than being recognized for your work. And being recognized at all can be uncomfortable for some people: I always want people to see my art but I’m less thrilled about them seeing me. So when I say I feel bad about her not being on a list, it’s not that I think she’d feel better, it’s that I think people leaving her off shows something about how people see her.

Posted in Values & Ethics

Valour without renown.

Painting of Éowyn and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.

“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none may return.  Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes.  Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (p. 784). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I am taking this quote entirely out of context, because the words valour without renown have been floating around my head a lot in recent years without context, and finding their own context within the world I find myself living in.  So don’t expect literary analysis here, nor any take on these words other than my own.  Which is both larger and smaller in scope than the original context.

Valour without renown seems on the face of it to be talking about courage — possibly especially battle-courage — without outward recognition, without going down in history, possibly even without a history existing to go down in.  And that is one piece of it, one way it can happen.  In a broader sense you could talk about courage in general, without praise in general.

But there’s one thing that this keeps distilling itself down to for me, with diamond-like precision and clarity.

It’s doing what is the right thing to do without any reason or incentive other than it being the right thing to do. Not just courage, but any right thing.  Not just recognition, but any sort of outward motivation, or any expectation of reward of any kind.

This is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.  The hardest thing you can do but from some perspectives, easier than many of the alternatives.  Easy to describe in three words, and impossible to describe even if you had infinite words.  Not contradictory at all, yet good at producing sentences like these ones when you try to approach it wielding language.1

It’s also one of the most important things any of us can learn right now.

Then there will be need of valour without renown… Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (p. 784). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

It’s no secret that the world is extremely messed up at the moment.

And my friends and I, we’ve all been noticing patterns in how it is messed up.  Patterns that we have trouble putting into words.  My friend’s cat has cancer right now, so maybe it’s for that reason that the word malignant comes to mind so strongly.  Or malevolent, or just plain evil.  As in, things that feel more like there’s a whole pattern of nasty forms of intent behind them than, say, random forces of nature seem to have, no matter how brutal.

And most of us are at a loss as to not only how to describe such a thing, but what to do about it.

One fortunate thing about the world is how many and varied the things within it are.  People alone make up billions of variations on those things, and there’s lots of things in the world besides people.  For each one of us, at any given time, there are many good things we can do for the world, and many possible ways to go about doing those things.  Some may be better things, and better ways, than others.  But which one is the best choice varies based on timing, context, person, and every possible way the situation can vary.  Sometimes there are more choices than others, sometimes there seem to be few or no choices, sometimes all the choices have terrible consequences.

But there are always many ways to do the right thing.  And each one of us can be a part of doing that.  Sometimes it’s something seemingly tiny and insignificant.  Sometimes it’s something seemingly huge and obvious.  Sometimes it’s both, sometimes neither.  And almost always, in any situation, there are many choices.

And telling right from wrong is rarely as easy as stories make it out to be.  And very few things are all right or all wrong.  And in very few cases do we learn the full consequences of our actions, either at the time or even in hindsight.

But we still should be making the effort.  In times like these more than any.

I’ve talked about this before from time to time.  Mostly in the context of death.  Personal death, death of a culture, death of a species.  But death.  Destruction.  Even the “end of the world,” as most people see it.  Situations that seem hopeless.  Where it’s tempting to say that trying to do the right thing is pointless.

It’s at those times that doing the right thing may matter more than any other time.

If the way you treat someone right now matters, it matters just as much when you are thinking about the fact that one day both you and the other person will be long dead and nobody living remembers either of you.  It may matter even more knowing that.  So why is it that when people think of ‘hopeless’ scenarios, they think that what they do doesn’t matter in light of their own death or the extinction of their species or some other large or small catastrophe? 

To me, it matters more, it always matters more, knowing we won’t always be around.  There’s always a responsibility to other people in the now, even if history as we know it ends tomorrow.  There’s always a responsibility to the people and things that come after history as we know it ends. 

Because the world is made up of so much more than ourselves alone.  And the world functions as all of us acting on each other.  Not isolated people or cultures or species floating around as individuals with no effect on the world around us.  What we do always matters whether other human beings ever seem to notice or care.

And that’s just one tiny piece of why this ‘valour without renown’ thing matters so much.  It’s the part I’ve described the most before, the part I have the easiest time putting into words.  And that part isn’t easy to put into words.

One of the most important things we can learn is to be motivated enough that if it ever comes down to it, we can choose to do a very difficult right thing to do, utterly regardless of what reaction the world around us appears to have to it. 

Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something huge and scary.  But sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something seemingly small and insignificant when we’d rather make a grand gesture of some kind.  Sometimes it’s difficult because there are so many right things to do it’s hard to know which one to choose.  Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s hard to tell what the right thing is, or even if there’s anything you can do that’s right enough to do it.  Sometimes it’s difficult because it feels like doing nothing, even though refraining from action can be just as significant and important as acting, sometimes.  Many things can make it difficult.  But everything makes it worthwhile to try.

And trying is the most any of us can promise, I think.  We can say we’d do the right thing, but until we’re in the situation, we don’t know what obstacles we’ll be up against, from within and without.  We don’t even know if we’ll be aware we’re in that kind of situation at the time.

But we can try.

We can make the effort.

That’s all we can do.

And that’s doing a lot.

But hard times, times that people think of as hopeless, those are the times when we all need to be thinking about how to figure out a right thing we can do, and do it to the best of our ability.  Regardless of outward consequences.  A lot more depends on that than people sometimes realize.

And that’s actually a good thing.

Believe it or not.

1The Tao Te Ching sums this kind of thing up pretty well:

The bright path seems dim;
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard;
The highest Virtue seems empty;
Great purity seems sullied;
A wealth of Virtue seems inadequate;
The strength of Virtue seems frail,
Real Virtue seems unreal;
The perfect square has no corners;
Great talents ripen late;
The highest notes are hard to hear;
The greatest form has no shape.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English
Posted in Being human, Nature, redwoods

This is the heart of everything I do and everything I am.


Elaborate crocheted wall hanging depicting the forest floor of Redwood Terrace.
Elaborate crocheted wall hanging depicting the forest floor of Redwood Terrace.

This is an excerpt from a book by Terry Pratchett. It’s called The Wee Free Men. It’s a children’s book set in the Discworld universe. Children’s books are where a lot of wisdom about the world is hidden. If it’s the right kind a children’s book.

“Oh, they’re around…somewhere,” said the Queen airily. “It’s all dreams, anyway. And dreams within dreams. You can’t rely on anything, little girl. Nothing is real. Nothing lasts. Everything goes. All you can do is learn to dream. And it’s too late for that. And I…I have had longer to learn.”

Tiffany wasn’t sure which of her thoughts was operating now. She was tired. She felt as though she was watching herself from above and a little behind. She saw herself set her boots firmly on the turf, and then…

…and then…

…and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells. She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time and stars, were turning slowly around her.

She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.

She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night.

The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.

She swung a hand. The Queen tried to stop her, but she might as well have tried to stop a wheel of years. Tiffany’s hand caught her face and knocked her off her feet.

“Now I know why I never cried for Granny,” she said. “She has never left me.”

She leaned down, and centuries bent with her.

“The secret is not to dream,” she whispered. “The secret is to wake up. Waking up is harder. I have woken up and I am real. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going. You cannot fool me anymore. Or touch me. Or anything that is mine.”

I’ll never be like this again, she thought, as she saw the terror in the Queen’s face. I’ll never again feel as tall as the sky and as old as the hills and as strong as the sea. I’ve been given something for a while, and the price of it is that I have to give it back.

And the reward is giving it back, too. No human could live like this. You could spend a day looking at a flower to see how wonderful it is, and that wouldn’t get the milking done. No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really is…no one could stand that for long.

Tiffany draws her strength and everything she is, from the land she was born on. In her case this is The Chalk, the Discworld equivalent of the Chiltern Hills chalk country that Terry Pratchett himself was from.

I also draw my strength and everything I am from the land I was born on. It’s a place called Redwood Terrace. It’s very small, and even people who live nearby have rarely heard of it.  But it means everything to me, and to the few other people I’ve heard of who were born there.

Everything described in the passage is something I have experienced with Redwood Terrace. That is why the place is sacred to me. That is why no matter where I go, I have roots that go down right into that soil. And I may live in Vermont, but a part of me is always in Redwood Terrace.  It doesn’t go away with distance.

Jar of dirt from Redwood Terrace.
Jar of dirt from Redwood Terrace.

The photograph at the beginning of this post is actually a wall hanging I made. I designed it, and I crocheted it. It is my tribute and reminder of the soil the forest floor in Redwood Terrace. I also keep a jar of that because my connection to that dirt and everything under and inside of it it is that important.  I’ve heard of someone else from Redwood Terrace who does the same.

I won’t say a lot more. Because there’s a point where you’re trying to talk about something that doesn’t really have words. And if you put too many words on it you just confuse people including yourself. But Terry Pratchett did an incredible job of writing around an experience that I have had with Redwood Terrace. And that other people I know who have that kind of strong ties to a particular place, they’ve experienced similar things as well.  The book may be children’s fantasy, but the description is something more real than you’ll get in a lot of nonfiction.  You find that in a lot of children’s books if you know where to look.

So this is really the heart of my existence. It’s not something I always talk about. But it is always there.

redwood terrace fungus 01
A tree with moss and fungus in Redwood Terrace photographed by my best friend.