According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word dystopia originally meant “displacement of an organ.” But the word, based on our current understanding as an “imaginary bad place”, was first used in a speech by J.S. Mill in 1868.
That this word is so young surprises me a great deal, because human beings have always been rather good at imagining the worst. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a dystopia as “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” We’ve been either living such lives, or imagining them, for many centuries, it seems.
Thanks to our current pandemic, we are all definitely living fearful lives, and for those who are unable to work, life is becoming increasingly wretched. But have we become dehumanized? We have if you’re craving dried beans, toilet paper, or Purell, I suppose.
But I’m encouraged by the many ways we’ve come up with to remain connected to one another. I’m impressed that so many people are making some noise, every night, to thank health care workers. I love the number of people who are behaving responsibly by staying home and by wearing masks in public. I think, if anything, we’re more human than ever before.
I’ve always enjoyed reading dystopian novels. I like to be reminded about how good I have it, relatively speaking. It’s gratifying to see how resourceful people can be when they have to struggle to survive. I must admit, though, that I haven’t been able to appreciate this genre quite as much lately. Things are getting a little too real.
But I have to believe, for my own sanity if for nothing else, that we’re not in a dystopia yet. Our infrastructures are relatively intact. We have access to good information if we employ a bit of critical thinking. We may not always be able to eat exactly what we would like, but we definitely have access to food. Sane people haven’t felt the need to board up their windows and spend all their waking hours clutching shotguns. We still have Netflix.
We may be forever changed when we come out the other side of this, but I truly believe the majority of us will, indeed, come out the other side of this. Hopefully we’ll have learned how to better cope with the next crisis as a result.
“I’m having a really, really, really bad day,” I said to my husband. “All this quarantine stress is getting to me, and the drama at work is hard to take, and I’m so tired.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Please remember that you’ve got a 100% survival rate for previous difficult days.”
And just like that, I felt a lot better.
My husband is often really good at saying the right thing. And his words gave me a perspective that I’d never contemplated before. Yeah. I’m a survivor. So are you. We’re here, right? We have won this competition, every single solitary day, for our entire lives. Check that off the to-do list. Winning!
That standpoint makes me feel empowered. It makes me feel capable. It gives me the strength to carry on. I’ve made it through more than 20,000 days so far. This silly little day is child’s play. I’ve got this! You’ve got this, too!
I hope I never forget this lesson. Thanks, dear husband! Your positivity will see me through.
I have this recurring dream during periods of high stress in my life. I feel this painful, pressurized lump somewhere on my body, often on a shoulder, hip, or behind my ear. I try to squeeze it to no avail. Messing with it hurts, but I have to get it out of there. I pick at it. I scratch it. No luck whatsoever.
Then one day, I’m clawing away at it without much hope of success, and, pop! Suddenly it bursts through the skin. It’s still attached, still intact, but at least it’s outside my body, so the pressure is reduced. Even so, I want it gone. So I take a deep breath, brace myself, and cut it out. It detaches with a sickening, watery, ripping squelch. But it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I anticipated. What was I so worried about?
Now I’m holding it in my hand. It’s warm. It’s actually kind of pretty, now that I’m free of it. It’s a perfect sphere. The most perfect one I’ve ever seen. It’s shiny and white, like a pearl. (That is, if a pearl were the size of a golf ball.)
I’m kind of in love with this thing, because I realize that it’s all my problems, beautifully encapsulated. I can control it. I can handle it. Best of all, I can get rid of it. So I do.
I always wake up smiling after that dream. I often go to sleep wishing that I’ll have it. I take comfort from the fact that it exists somewhere deep inside me.
I was standing in a big, dirty parking lot in the industrial part of town. Think concrete and gas fumes. It would be difficult to find a less natural setting. And it was raining, causing rivulets of polluted snowmelt to criss cross the pavement as far as the eye could see.
That’s when I spotted her. A coyote, running down the sidewalk as semi trucks blasted past. She looked mangy and emaciated. I’ve never seen anything that looked so feral in my life.
I was fascinated, but also glad that she hadn’t come too close. There was something surreal about seeing her there. It was almost like she was floating in outer space. This should not be her environment.
She was focused on her mission, whatever that may have been. She didn’t acknowledge me, although I’m sure she was acutely aware of my presence. Nothing was going to get in her way, not even an 18 wheeler. And she was quiet. If I hadn’t been looking that direction, I’d have never known she was there.
I had never come face to face with a coyote before. I know they’re around. I sometimes hear them howling in the park behind our house. It always gives me a frisson. And it makes me worry for my Dachshund.
But to see one is something else again. It’s like being confronted by the raw power of nature. Even in her weakened state, I had no doubt that she was stronger than me, and much more capable of surviving.
At the same time, I felt sorry for her, living on the ugliest, dirtiest fringes of human civilization. We have done this. We have encroached. She shouldn’t have to live like this.
Isn’t nature awesome? It never ceases to amaze me. The natural world is capable of so much more than we mere humans are.
Case in point: Grass. I recently watched my back yard get covered in 9 inches of snow, and it remained in place for a week. While it was beautiful, I couldn’t help wondering what was going on beneath it.
Imagine being covered in a thick, cold, wet, smotheringly heavy blanket. Imagine being plunged into temperatures below freezing for days on end. Imagine not being able to see the sun during that entire period.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. Stick a fork in me. I’d be done.
And yet, once the grass was exposed again in a thaw that is still making slow but steady progress even as I write this, it was as green and perky as ever. Incredible. Dare I say it? Miraculous.
Okay, yeah, I get it. There is a scientific explanation for it. I have every confidence that this phenomenon can be accounted for. But I’d much rather just gaze at my intrepidly green back yard and consider myself lucky that it is content in its beauty and comfortable in its role in the overall scheme of things. Because if it had a union, it would probably rule the world.
My whole life, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. That feeling intensifies when things are going well. Because I can’t have the nice things. I’ve never had the nice things. At least, not for long.
Sooner or later, everything seems to turn to sh**. If I’m braced for it, I can usually handle it, and come out the other side. I’m nothing if not a survivor. But if that darned shoe takes me by surprise, then that would be bad. Really, really bad.
I remind myself of Nelly, a wonderful dog, who flinches every time you reach out to pet her sweet head. She knows all about what having it bad used to be like. She learned early that flinching can soften the blow. How do I explain to her that I love her, and I’ll always love her, and I’ll never hurt her? She deserves to be petted and cuddled and adored. I want her to be able to own it.
I deserve the good stuff, too. I know it. And here lately I have been experiencing it. And I enjoy it. Mostly. But I can’t seem to get out from under that mental shoe of mine. It’s always there, stinking up the place.
I think there are a lot of people out there, walking around with a shoe in their heads. Please be patient with us. We may not show it well, but your goodness really is appreciated. Probably even more than it would be if we were one of those lucky shoeless people.
I have zero desire to be a parent. I have no idea what it’s like, and I don’t want to. But I do know that if I had become a parent, there are certain things that I would have never done.
Sometimes I look back on my childhood and wonder how I ever made it to adulthood. My mother was an amazing human being. You’d have loved her. Everybody did. I’d never be writing this post if she were still alive. But I have to say that some of the choices she made with regard to my upbringing leave me absolutely speechless now that I’m looking back at them as an adult.
I won’t even get into the whole looking-the-other-way-while-I-was-sexually-abused thing. That’s a subject for another day. I’m just too worn out to even tackle that topic.
No. Today I remembered something that makes my adult eyes widen in horror, and sorry, I need to vent. So here goes.
When I was about 8 years old, my mother, my stepfather and I went camping. We had a little trailer and we stayed in a very nice campground. So far, so good.
But after we got there, the campground manager approached us and said that a violent offender had escaped the local prison and police would be searching the area, so we should probably stay in our trailer and lock the door. No sooner had he said that when we saw a helicopter fly overhead with a spotlight. The guy was close.
So we sat in the locked trailer. I don’t know how long we were in there. I was 8, so it seemed like an eternity. My mother was content. You have never seen anyone get lost in a book the way that woman could. My stepfather, too, was content. He fell asleep sitting up, as he was wont to do. The man spent very little time conscious, which suited me right down to the ground. I, on the other hand, was bored silly.
I guess my mother finally got sick and tired of my whining, so she let me sit outside at the picnic table. She kept the door open, but locked the screen door. Safety first, I suppose. For them, at least.
It was pitch black outside. I saw police flashlights in the woods in the distance. I was fascinated by the helicopter.
Then, out of the darkness, I saw a scruffy man approaching. Suddenly I was aware of my vulnerability. I went to the screen door and whispered, “Mom…”
I didn’t want to draw his attention, in case he was the bad guy and he wasn’t heading specifically to our site. I didn’t want him to notice me. And being the respectful child that I was, I also didn’t want to insult him with my fear if it turned out he was one of the good guys. I whispered again. “Ma…”
She was lost in her book. And her parental radar, which was feeble at the best of times, was apparently switched off. My stepfather slept on.
The guy was getting closer. I was terrified. Even after all these years, I can feel my heart beating a little faster just thinking about it. “Maaaaaaaa…” I hissed.
When she finally looked up, I was clawing at the screen door and the man was looming over me.
“You should get your kid inside, Ma’am. It’s not safe out here.”
So she unlocked the screen door and let me in.
And then she yelled at me for not saying something.
It was awful then, but I didn’t grasp how outrageous the situation was, because stuff like that happened all the time to me. I still have a hard time feeling safe to this day.
But from an adult perspective… damn! Who does that? What mother does that?
During my wedding ceremony, one of the things I said to my husband-to-be was, “You’re the more cautious one.” Afterward, a friend came up to me and expressed her total shock about that. In a nice way. She’s a pure delight. But the implication was that she found it really hard to imagine that anyone could be more cautious than I am.
That, to me, is really fascinating.
Okay, standing beside that friend, I’m sure I come off as shy and retiring. She’s amazing. She’s colorful. She’s larger than life. Total strangers will stop her on the street to talk to her. (Which is wonderful, unless you’re with her and happen to be in a hurry.) She lights up every room that she enters. She’s got that indescribable “it” factor. Rock on, my friend!
But my being quiet, thoughtful, and ever-so-slightly slower moving does not necessarily equate with caution. Let’s review:
I’ve been to 19 countries.
I lived in Mexico, all alone, when I was 19.
I spent a summer away from home, doing construction work on an Air Force Base, when I was 16.
I used to camp deep in the forests of Appalachia, a week at a time, with only my dogs for company.
I survived a childhood of sexual abuse.
I have met several friends face to face that I had previously only known on line.
I worked graveyard shift, in total isolation, for 13 years.
I sold my house and moved three hours south, where I knew no one, to go back to college.
I started over, yet again, moving 3100 miles from Florida to Seattle, at age 49. It was a place where I had never been, and where I knew no one.
I managed not to have children despite intense societal pressure.
I got married for the first time at age 53.
Have poured my heart and soul out in this daily blog since 2012, revealing things about myself that many people wouldn’t even have told their best friends.
So many good things came from the Christine Blasey Ford hearing. She started a long overdue national discussion about abuse and, even more basically, about what it means to be a woman in this world. This genie will never be put back into the bottle, and I think our culture will be all the better for it. Being heard provides an opportunity for healing.
Believe it or not, I’m a very quiet person. Because of that, it’s assumed, I hope correctly, that I’m a good listener. Therefore, people tend to confide in me. So I have heard a lot of amazing stories of survival over the years.
These stories have left me with two lasting impressions. 1) We live in a world that is a great deal more violent and abusive than most people realize or care to admit, and 2) I will always be fascinated by people’s ability to survive and even thrive in spite of the many obstacles that are thrown in their paths.
I know a woman whose mother tried to kill her on multiple occasions. I know a woman whose parents attempted to beat the gay out of her. I know a woman who was sexually abused at an extremely young age by a never-ending series of her mother’s boyfriends. I know many people who have been beaten up for simply being who they are. I know a man who was so severely tortured by his alcoholic father that to this day he is afraid of his own shadow.
I’ve learned of knives being held to throats. Legs broken and improperly healed. Humiliations and punishments beyond your worst nightmares.
Every one of these people survived in spite of, not because of, the people around them. Those people should have been supporting them and raising them up in life, not beating them down. The fact that abusers seem to flourish in this society is an outrage.
Survivors are my heroes. They have a depth of character that people who have had the good fortune of waltzing through life unscathed will never achieve. But I’ve come to believe that depth of character wasn’t brought out by the abuse. I think it was always there, deep inside. Humans have this uncanny ability to default to incredible if given half a chance.
So, if survivors are already awesome, imagine how much more they could have been without the toxicity that was injected into their lives. What gifts has this hostile world deprived itself of? What are we missing? How much further could this society have evolved without all the harm that it inflicts upon itself? What an incredible waste.
Something to think about.
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If you’re a fish, you don’t know you’re in water unless you jump out of it. That stands to reason. We humans are much more self-aware, and yet most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that we’re in air. (Would that we did. We’d probably be less apt to pollute the atmosphere.)
When you think about it, it’s rather amazing how adaptable we are to our environment. It’s a great survival skill. Unfortunately, it means that many of us put up with emotional toxicity that is profoundly destructive to our psyche. It’s really important to pay attention to your surroundings and set high standards. If you don’t think you deserve much out of life, then what you’ll get is utter crap. Water seeks its own level.
Sometimes people tolerate abuse because they think it’s the norm. That isn’t an unreasonable conclusion to make if you were brought up with abuse. Only if you visit other households and discover that they’re not all filled with shouting and fury would it make you realize that your situation isn’t typical.
I once had a coworker who constantly told stories about the police being called to his house. I looked at another coworker and said, “Is he the norm, or am I? Because, my whole life, I’ve never had to call the police to my house. Not once.” Coworker one seemed really shocked by that. Coworker two just shook his head sadly.
In other cases, the abuse sort of sneaks up on you. I wrote about this in a post entitled “How to Become a Battered Woman.” It’s like boiling a frog. You can do that successfully if you turn up the temperature very slowly, bit by bit.
I’m thinking about these things more and more, because as my life becomes increasingly emotionally healthy, and as I surround myself with more and more people who treat me with decency and respect, people who are honest and reliable and communicate in an assertive way, I’m starting to see how much poison I used to tolerate in my world. I can’t imagine ever being back in that unhealthy place ever again.
It really is possible to swim in crystal clear water. It may take some getting used to, but it feels wonderful. The first step to take is to raise your expectations and realize that you really deserve the best. If I can do it, you can, too.