Death Over Dinner: Removing the Stigma from Death

I was listening to the local NPR station recently and heard about a new movement called Death Over Dinner, based in Washington state but with a national reach. The premise is this: you invite a group of people — family members, friends, coworkers, even perfect strangers — to dinner at a given location specifically to discuss death. The conversation can cover any aspect of death, from end of life plans and funeral services to fears of death, the science behind the dying process, and different cultures’ perspectives on death. The website linked above allows dinner planners to select “homework” (articles, excerpts from books, short videos and audio) for guests to complete before the dinner date so that everyone is on the same page and has relevant thoughts to contribute to the discussion, and then helps to plan the dinner around this discussion.

The Death Taboo

The founder of the movement, Michael Hebb, began this project in response to a statistic he heard in conversation with two doctors on a train: while nearly 75% of Americans express a wish to die at home, only 25% of them actually do. Hebb asserts that the primary reason for this is that the subject of death is so taboo that people often don’t discuss their wishes regarding the circumstances of their deaths and all that comes afterward — memorial services, funerals, the dispensation of their bodies, wills and the execution of their estates — to their detriment and that of their loved ones and caregivers.

“Small Deaths” by Kate Breakey

I’ve often seen this death taboo in action. One instance that immediately comes to mind is a series of comments on Pinterest regarding an image of a dead woodpecker in a series entitled “Small Deaths” by photographer Kate Breakey. Some comments were positive; one pinner, picking up on the photographer’s reverent treatment of the bird in the photo, simply replied: “All life is precious. Beautiful.” But other pinners were extremely offended by the image, with one stating:

There’s nothing ‘artistic’ about the death of an animal. People who think so, in my opinion, are ignorant little infants who know nothing of death and are pretentiously trying to appear ‘deep.’

You can sense the fear of death that pervades that statement; for that pinner, the rawness of death is not something she wants to explore, or even other people to explore. It’s a subject that should remain unexamined, buried with the dead; to examine it is somehow disrespectful to the dead. It’s as if any examination of death, regardless of tone or method, is somehow pornographic.

This confused me. I don’t shy away from examinations of death, but it’s not because I’ve never experienced it in my life and have some twisted, dilettante fascination with it. I’ve experienced the loss of family members, young acquaintances and school peers. We’ve all seen roadkill, taxidermy and hunting photos. I’m acutely aware of death, and it’s that awareness that makes me want to face it, examine it, perhaps make it less frightening because I know it’s inevitable.

To me, and I stated this in a response to the offended parties, the photograph doesn’t seek to glorify death in any way; instead, it reinforces the sense that death — all death — is worthy of being mourned and remembered. It’s not unlike the Victorian tradition of photographing the dead in memoriam. The title of the series, “Small Deaths,” is partly ironic because it’s clear, from the very meticulous way that the animals are laid and the framing of the images, that the photographer (and, by extension, the audience) does not view this death as “small,” at least not in the sense of being trivial. The aesthetic beauty of the photograph is an expression of reverence, not exploitation, in that it takes this death that we might look past in the yard or along the side of the street and forces us to see and feel that loss.

Learning to Talk About Death

Photo by Scott Macklin, via the Department of Communication, University of Washington

Of course, we all deal with death in different ways, but I think that Hebb is right that our culture’s death taboo comes at a cost. By not being willing to examine or discuss death, we are inadvertently missing out on valuable conversations that can make the last years and moments of our lives, and those of our loved ones, more comfortable and fulfilling. Not knowing how someone would have liked to be remembered and laid to rest can create a lot of uncertainty and stress in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Having that discussion gives everyone an opportunity to think about how they would like to be remembered and what messages they would like conveyed after they’ve passed.

Growing up, my family was always very frank about death, dying and how we want to be remembered. This means that I know that my dad wants “Simple Man” played at his funeral, and that my mom wants to be cremated and her ashes planted with a tree (I want the same). My sister has made it clear that she doesn’t want any chemicals pumped into her body (to avoid poisoning the earth) or to be cremated — she wants to be buried whole, naturally, in the earth. I actually have an entire Word document with my future funeral service planned out. It includes music and passages that are meaningful to me and will hopefully provide comfort to those in mourning, and instructions for how to dispose of my body. These desires of ours have been shared over and over again during long family road trips, while shopping or cleaning the house or gardening, and yes, during dinner.

I’ve carried this tradition over into my marriage. We address the topic of death and loss during long walks, long drives, and over dinner, just as my parents did. We talk about our terror of losing each other or our son, our sentimental goal of dying peacefully and naturally together at a good old age, whether (if one of us does die before the other) we want the other to remarry and how we’d like our son to be raised. We talk about how we’d like our bodies to be interred and the general structure and tone of our memorial services. As our son grows older, he’ll be part of these conversations, too.

We don’t enjoy talking or thinking about these things, but we know it’s important. The one thing I fear more than death is being taken off-guard by it. Of course, we can never be truly, completely prepared, but it helps to have a framework so that, when the time comes, there’s a little less mystery, fear and frustration to confront. During these conversations, death feels less like a door ready to be slammed in my face than a transition, and our last rites serve as a method of easing both the dead and the living into the next phase in ways that are comforting and deeply meaningful. Knowing how someone wants to be remembered through the funerary process is a way to ensure that the ties we feel with them remain strong, even after they leave us.

Why During Dinner?

A structured dinner conversation about death can be a great way to breach the subject for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of discussing death. As Hebb explains:

The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.

What are your views on death? Would you consider having a dinner conversation about it with your loved ones?

A Five-Minute Game of Jungian Analysis

My husband Eric found this article on a friend’s Facebook page, and loving self-psychoanalysis as much as we do, we had to play it. Our answers were pretty compelling and spot-on, so I thought I’d share mine here. (If you want to play the game, too, click the link before reading below; if you try to play afterwards, you’ll know too much and won’t be able to!)

The promise

(Photo by Henrik Johansson)

My answers:

  • The cube is about 2-3 square feet in size with a blue-black gunmetal surface and sits directly on the floor of the desert.
  • The ladder is a 12-foot aluminum lean-to type that rests against the cube at an estimated 75-degree angle.
  • The horse stands to the right of the cube, and it’s a strong, sturdy Clydesdale breed. Its coat is dapple gray, and it has a white mane and tail and black eyes.
  • There are four or five flowering plants, all of them dahlias in creamy-bright shades of hot pink, peach, and pale yellow. They’re close to the ground with about two to three blooms on each plant, and they surround the cube, horse and ladder.
  • The storm is far-off, hanging over a ridge of great, gray-blue mountains in the distance. It’s a big, swirling storm, but with no lightning.

The interpretation:

  • As my ego, the cube is fairly small but not tiny. I’m a little insecure and unsure of myself, but not completely lacking self-confidence. I’m a grounded person, and the dark, shiny surface suggests that I’m reflective and engage with my environment, but not transparent — perhaps not easy to get to know, keeping parts of myself hidden.
  • The ladder, representing my friends, is lightweight but sturdy — perhaps suggesting that I view my friends as capable people without a lot of baggage to carry around. Even so, I feel that they lean on me for support and remain close to me.
  • The horse, representing my husband, is sturdy, emotionally and financially supportive, and dependable. He’s my right-hand man and a reliable, equal partner and companion — he isn’t bearing the cube like a weight, nor is he bearing down on it. He stands beside me. The dapple gray coloring is (to me) elegant, almost otherworldly, and suggests a kind of contemplative reticence, which makes sense because my husband is introverted, reserved in public, and intellectual in nature. We have great conversations.
  • As a representation of children, I imagine having a small number (definitely not as many as four or five!), and I view them as grounding (being close to the ground), warm and enlivening (dahlias represent warmth, vitality, and happiness to me, and the colors reflect this, too). There aren’t not too many of them, and they surround me and my husband (with their love!). I didn’t mention this above, but they’re also very healthy-looking — I guess I’m pretty confident that we can bring up our son and his future sibling to be healthy, happy, confident people. I really do view my son as this little ray of warm, vital sunshine — he has so much energy, and he’s such a happy, good-natured baby. Playing with and taking care of him keeps me in the present, which is good for me. I’m sure that my subconscious was expressing my perception of him when I thought of the flowers.
  • The storm, representing threat and risk, suggests that I’m aware of risk, but it’s far off in the distance and hedged by barriers (the mountains) that catch the brunt of the storm so that it’ll dissipate before reaching the scene. I feel secure in my life because we’ve taken good measures to hedge risk, and I don’t worry too much.

All in all, a pretty good summation of my perceptions of myself, those around me, and my environment.

Share your answers in your comments below! I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Magical Poetry: Publication News

The Magic Circle. John William Waterhouse. 1886.

Just in time for the magical Hallowe’en season (oh yes, it’s a full-on season at my house), I am happy to announce that one of my poems, “A Spiral Upward,” will appear in the upcoming fall/winter issue of Witches & Pagans Magazine. I don’t yet know what the release date is, but I’ll announce when it’s available for purchase online and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

“A Spiral Upward” contemplates the central figure in the John William Waterhouse painting The Magic Circle (shown above). That painting has long fascinated and inspired me; it resonates with the part of me that is wild and ritualistic and magical. It evokes the earthy mystique of fairy tales and the strong, mysterious female figure that is the Witch in our collective unconscious. I connect with that, or want to. It’s that felt connection, as well as a moment of enlightenment, that serves as the subject of the poem.

If you can’t tell, I’m thrilled about this news. W&P is a well known, well distributed magazine with a great community of readers and contributors. I’ve been interested in sharing my work with the pagan community for a long time because I think my work — nature-oriented and fairly mystical — would find a wider audience of willing readers there, and I’m glad to be given the opportunity to do so. Hopefully, this isn’t the last you’ll see of me on W&P.

Broken Bowl, Repaired

A few months ago, I was killing time by meandering through the Columbia Museum of Art one Sunday (free admission day!), babywearing Espen while he napped (the quiet and dimness of the museum was so soothing to him), while Eric was in a meeting with a client. I make a point to drop into the Asian art rooms every time I go because the pieces there — pottery, statues of horses and gods and buddhas, jade tablets etched with gold — are so satisfying and soothing. It’s the understatement that resonates with me, the simplicity of monochromatic hues and lines belying complex processes, techniques, and symbolism.

It must have been there a while, but it was the first time I noticed it — a simple celadon-hued ceramic bowl with seemingly haphazard golden veins streaking the surface. Struck by its idiosyncratic beauty, I read the card beside it to learn more. It was a kintsugi bowl — a regular bowl that had broken and was repaired using lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold. I’d never come across anything like it before, and the meaning behind the technique hit me hard — the bowl, average in wholeness, when broken became singularly exquisite. The lines created an interesting pattern in an otherwise run-of-the-mill object, the gold complemented by the muted hue around it. Rather than covering the cracks up, the repairer celebrated them, honored them.

As notable writer on Japanese ceramics Christy Bartlett explains:

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.

This is a lesson for everyone, about everything. It hits home for me personally because I often struggle with feelings of inadequacy because I’m not (nor can I be) perfect. I have made mistakes — some big, some small — and, even beyond mistakes, I am extremely quirky. I’m also fairly vain because I tend to be insecure. Throughout high school especially, I tried so hard to project normalcy; I publicly distanced myself from anything geeky or weird for much of my adolescence. I wanted to be accepted in the mainstream, to embody that wholesome lifestyle that our culture projects and applauds in various ways.

But, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, I am so unusual. And I’ve been learning, a little at a time, that that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to make mistakes. It’s okay for me to not try so hard to be the ideal others want me to be that I walk on eggshells around people out of fear of offending them. Of course, that’s not to say that I (or anyone else) has carte blanche to be cruel or rude or bigoted or prejudicial. It just means that it’s okay for me to accept that some people will always be prone to criticism and maljudgement, and that it’s not my job to kowtow to the rest of the world in a solitary effort to keep the peace. I will always strive to be kind and to become a better person than I’ve been, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s a process and that I am the sole person who gets to define what “better” means for me.

I have been broken. I am fusing myself back together. And I’m using gold to do it so that people can see the cracks that have been made. Because the cracks are the experiences that allow me to become better than I was — more interesting, kinder, and wiser. So that the repaired bowl is more beautiful than the original.

I don’t want to glorify brokenness per se. A bowl in pieces is useless — it serves no one and nothing, least of all itself. It’s when it’s put back together that it becomes stronger and more beautiful. It’s also important to note that a broken object repaired with mortar is less appealing, and a bowl repaired with Scotch tape is less durable, than one repaired with lacquer and gold. Not all repair mediums are created equal — the beauty and strength of the repair depends on these. I’ve had help — various people and ideas have gone into the repair work — but the main two have been Taoism and a supportive partner. With these as support, I fought against the things that drove the pieces of me apart, and I’ve replaced them with the wisdom that (and this is just an example list):

– everything has an equal-but-opposite counterpart that depends necessarily on its other in a cycle to exist
– beauty is not only relative but also not all that important
– relaxing and accepting things as they are — people, world events, change — is to my benefit (and I still struggle daily with this)
– I don’t have to wave a banner for every single issue (or for any issue in particular) to be valuable
– perfection does not exist, and I should not expect myself (or anyone else) to be perfect

No, I am not perfect; I am not the ideal anything, nor will I ever be. I am, however, mostly repaired. I’m still getting some of the pieces fitted back into their places — and some of the pieces have been lost and need(ed) to be replaced, or the spaces they’ve created may just be left open to let the air pass through — but I’m not the shattered person I once was. I am better, more whole. I am more understanding of weakness and flaws in others because of my understanding of my own, and I will be able to teach my son things that are good for him to know because of where I’ve been. To go even further, I am good and deserving of goodness, at least as much as anyone else is.

So this is my message to the world:

You may have shattered at some point; or you may just get chipped now and then. Either way, we all have broken at least a little in the past. It’s inevitable. But you can be repaired; you may already have been repaired, or at least started the work. I don’t expect you to be perfect — my version or anyone else’s. Just be sure that the medium you use to repair yourself makes you feel more whole — peaceful, compassionate, satisfied, less angry and seeking confrontation, and so on. If it fuels anxiety or indignation or self-righteousness or shame, it’s not going to hold. If it makes you feel enlightened (particularly in the sense of removing weight — darkness will always be there, but the weight of it doesn’t have to be), understanding, and accepting, it’ll make you stronger and better. It’s okay to let the cracks show.

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

I’m taking the news of Robin Williams’ death kind of hard. It’s kind of embarrassing because I didn’t know him; he was a celebrity. On a personal level, we had nothing to do with each other. And still, I felt like I knew him. Part of it is shock, which always comes with sudden death, especially when it’s suicide. Maybe another part is that I’ve been kind of depressed lately, and seeing the toll of severe depression on someone else is particularly affecting now.

Another reason is that he looks so much like my dad (who is, thankfully, still living). In my family, we’ve always talked about how much they’re alike. He’s only 10 years older than my dad, and they share the same first initial and last name—R. Williams. And, like Robin Williams, my dad loves to laugh and to make people laugh. So there’s always been a part of me that equates him with my dad, as if he were my dad’s famous doppelganger. It’s weird, I know.

And then there’s another reason that’s fairly convoluted.

I grew up with his movies, with his face on the screen. When I was little, he was Mrs. Doubtfire and, on reruns from my parents’ generation, Mork the alien. He was also Garp and a grown-up Peter Pan. Later (for me, anyway), he was John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society — my favorite character in one of my all-time favorite movies (seriously, my online handle for a long time was “dead poetess society,” it was that big of a deal for me) — and flamboyant, accommodating Armand in The Bird Cage. More recently, he was a comedian-turned-president in Man of the Year and a sensitive, downtrodden writer and father in World’s Greatest Dad, in which he was dark and sad and absolutely brilliant. I love these movies — they continue to resonate with me about the importance of humor in our lives and what it means to love, to live passionately, to be sensitive, and to be honest. I love these characters and the complexity with which Williams played them. He made them live, showing incredible emotional fluency and dexterity, and I’m grateful to him for it. They’ve influenced who I am today.

But, more than anything, it was his presence. The wonderful thing about him was that, while he was often spastic and sometimes bawdy, there was always this glimmer of genuine tenderness in him that was so magnetic. He had such kind eyes. He exuded intelligent sensitivity and a desire and respect for goodness that is rare in celebrity, especially comedians, whose witticisms are often marked by cynicism. He was uniquely intimate and vulnerable on screen. It’s that intimacy and tenderness that I’ll miss. It breaks my heart that it was central to his illness, but I’m grateful that he shared it with the world. I’m glad his soul is immortalized in his films, TV appearances, and standup comedy. I’m glad that he loved to make people laugh, and that we had a chance to give him our laughter for nearly forty years.

In some ways, he was like Dumbledore for my generation — funny, engaging, enigmatic, secretly struggling but always aiming for goodness. We never really knew him, but we felt like we did. I think that’s why it’s hitting us so hard. I’ve never seen such widespread mourning over a celebrity. With the exception of Michael Jackson, I’ve never seen so many people become so protective over a celebrity against media oversharing.

So maybe it’s not so embarrassing or even surprising to be upset about his death. He was an artist—an actor and a comedian. We take artists’ lives and deaths personally because, even though they’re strangers, they’re in our homes and lives daily—in the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and so on. Their work is part of the fabric of our culture. Artists rely on us to sustain them while they do what they love, and we rely on them to provide us with meaning through their craft. And Williams was so authentic in everything he did, most of all in real life.

As John Keating said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” In many ways, Robin Williams did change the world. For the better.

The One Where I’m Pissed Off at the Entire Country

Listen to these lyrics:

It amazes me how relevant that song still is. So relevant, in fact, that every single line represents an aspect of the current state of our culture, be it the militant partisanship, gun control issues, the war between the generations, or the upswing of political activeness from all directions (without most of us actually being any better informed than in our pre-internet days, thanks to the media’s inability to report without an ulterior motive and most people’s desire to be told how to feel by their political leaders/heroes and to be “part of something” than figure it out for themselves).

Ultimately, it goes to show that generation studies experts and my undergraduate humanities professors are right — everything happens in a cycle. The ’90s-2001 can be likened to the ’50s — a veneer of success and relative peace, when many people were financially secure, business was booming, and status and conformity were everything. Then the Twin Towers were attacked, and we woke up from the dream. We went to war, got political, the housing market (and then the rest of the economy) crashed, we got more political, and now we’re in a veritable mud fight, where everyone is screaming and throwing mud but no one is actually listening.

This is simultaneously frustrating, depressing, and reassuring. Frustrating and depressing in that, in 50 years, nothing has really changed — some of the discussion points have, but not human nature. But it’s also oddly reassuring to know that all of this has happened before and we as a nation managed to get through it (on the whole) with our hearts and lives intact.

The funny thing is, I’m very conscious as I write this post that when people listen to the song and read my commentary — whether they listen to Rush Limbaugh and read the Dredge Report, or think President Obama is a godsend, or are somewhere in between — most will nod their heads and say, “Yep, that’s exactly what’s happening,” and blame the other side for it: the radical liberals who are immoral and hell-bent on destroying our nation’s most deeply held values, promoting abortion, secularism, gay rights, and inconvenient environmental consciousness; the radical conservatives who are bigoted, greedy, selfish, and warmongering; the “Peter Pan” youths who are entitled, immature, and overly idealistic; the older generations who are out of touch, jaded, and overly conformist; and, of course, the white majority and various minority groups (I’m not even going to write what I’ve heard in terms of race from people of all races). But we’re ALL a part of it, and until we admit that we’re culpable and are willing to change our attitudes and methods of communicating, it’s only going to continue. And this culture of screaming, cotton-in-the-ears mudslinging is not one I want my son growing up in.

Unless, of course, his generation is better than all of ours because of it and human nature improves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though. Even so, I’m going to raise him as best I can so that he, at least, will have the sense not to be part of it, that he’ll rise above it and make actual change in the world with whatever gifts he has to give.

I hope he realizes that we’re all just people, regardless of who we are and what we want for ourselves and the rest of the world. As I pointed out in my previous post, we have all experienced pain that has colored our views of the world and each other. We all, ultimately, want what’s best. It’s just that we don’t always agree about what’s best, and our fears have a knack of getting in the way of us doing the right thing, whatever that is. And sometimes our greatest fear is admitting that we might be wrong — at least a little bit.

Stephen Stills is as right now as he was in 1966 — it’s time for everyone to stop and look at what’s going down. Seriously, stop. Let all of your well-digested biases and indignation pass through your intestines, colon, and rectum and fall into the toilet where they belong, and — for the love of everything that is good and kind in the world — LOOK AROUND.

A Note On Understanding


Family. Kristin Vestgard, oil on canvas, 2006.

The following is an abridged version of an editorial I wrote for American Athenaeum Magazine’s “The Understanders” issue in Winter 2012.

The summer before last, a high school friend of my husband, who was also becoming a friend of mine, asked me one night, out of the blue, “How are you so nice to people?” I was surprised by the question and didn’t really know how to answer it, but I managed to say, “Well, I think I understand people.” He responded with a laugh and said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t understand people at all.” It was such a casual, in-passing kind of conversation that I would have forgotten it, except that that was the last night I ever saw him, and it was one of the last things he ever said to me. A little more than a month later, he committed suicide.

I realize this is a macabre, intimate story to share. I don’t mean to be confessional, and I certainly don’t mean to be macabre. But I think that memory is important here because it highlights a significant but not often enough considered aspect of the theme of this issue: the fundamental value of understanding for one’s own salvation.

When we speak of compassion and understanding, we often think of it as a kind of votive offering, a sacrifice, something we give of ourselves to others. And there’s truth in that. True understanding is deconstructive. It requires us to break down those presumptions and hard beliefs that act as walls to divide us from other people– especially those people whom we consider our enemies — and to reconsider our world and the events that happen within it from a perspective beyond ourselves. Doing so requires humility in accepting that our perceptions of the world and our understanding even of ourselves is subjective; it also requires a nimble imagination to go beyond our particular experiences and modes of thinking. Understanding is challenging and too often taken for granted.

Even so, understanding doesn’t have to be perfect to have its effect. Often, simply acknowledging that another person has a completely different frame of reference that we may never fully comprehend is enough to humble us, to make us reconsider (or consider for the first time) our sense of our own righteousness. What I meant when I told my friend that I think I understand people was that I understand, however imperfectly, that every person I meet has known pain and that pain is very often the cause of the hurtful, sometimes truly terrible things people do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t often feel frustrated — even enraged — by others’ actions and words, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes hurt other people. But I do carry with me that glimpse of wisdom in knowing that there is a common thread that binds us all together and that this thread is, macabre as it sounds, pain. This unifying thread reminds me to be kind as often as I can, in whatever small or great ways I find. It also reminds me to forgive and move past the pain I experience. Understanding our common humanity — our sensitivity and frailty — makes us able to use that pain to heal rather than as a weapon.

Carl Jung’s first mandala

As I’ve said, healing ourselves through understanding is inherently a part of that forward movement. This is something that my friend unfortunately never realized. To him, his pain was unique and unbearable. He didn’t understand that others had felt similar pain before, that it was something we keep mostly hidden, as he had done. When we can’t perceive the suffering of others, we are left only with ourselves and our own heavy pain. We are engulfed by it, and it makes us feel supremely, desperately lonely.

Because many of us don’t often share our pains with each other face-to-face — perhaps we’re ashamed to; maybe others discourage it, finding it uncomfortable or even frightening; or perhaps the opportunity never really comes up — it is often through art that we learn to understand and find understanding in others. James Baldwin wrote in The Price of the Ticket: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Reading opens us up to a larger community — however remote in space and time — that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone. Reading makes it possible for us to experience the pain of others, helps us begin to understand experiences that may be far removed from our own and otherwise inaccessible to us, and to find the common threads between our own and others’ stories. This connection through words is what Baldwin relished. …

It is a gift to ourselves to understand — to see the humanity in others, to see ourselves in them and, reflexively, them in ourselves. This is how enemies cease to be enemies, how strangers grow close and become part of a growing sense of a human family. It allows us not only to become kinder to others but also to ourselves. Understanding makes it possible for us to persist in spite of our struggles, in spite of our pain, because we know that others have been before where we are now.

I hope that the stories and poetry in this issue help us all to do just that: to be challenged, to be seized and opened wide, to take in alien thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to be made freshly vulnerable to pain, and therefore to be transformed, made greater and more understanding, and to be healed. Because we can be healed by understanding, in recognizing and accepting the pain that lies in others and in learning to identify and love the humanity revealed by that pain. Through that, we can be re-made universal and whole.

To purchase the issue, click here.

F is for Feeling / T is for Thinking

Los Primeros Frios. Miguel Blay Fábregas.

For the longest time, I have been absolutely, frustratingly confused about whether I’m more of a Thinking type or a Feeling type. The confusion, as usual, originates in semantics. In Myers-Briggs terminology, feeling does not equal emotions or caring, and thinking should not be confused with intelligence (which, by the way, I define as being analytical and adaptable, not knowledgeable — lots of people can know lots of things, but being able to adapt that knowledge to perform various tasks and solve various problems is true intelligence). Regarding this distinction, the page on Thinking vs. Feeling on the official MBTI site asks, “Do you like to put more weight on objective principles and impersonal facts (Thinking) or do you put more weight on personal concerns and the people involved (Feeling)?”

This seems simple, but the type descriptions for Thinking types and Feeling types tend to subvert that distinction, sketching out “feelers” as touchy-feely and “thinkers” as coldly logical. For example, INFPs are described as not liking

“to deal with hard facts and logic. Their focus on their feelings and the Human Condition makes it difficult for them to deal with impersonal judgment. They don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment, which makes them naturally rather ineffective at using it. Most INFPs will avoid impersonal analysis, although some have developed this ability and are able to be quite logical. Under stress, it’s not uncommon for INFPs to mis-use hard logic in the heat of anger, throwing out fact after (often inaccurate) fact in an emotional outburst.”

I guess that I’m one of the “some” that’s (too) briefly referred to there. For the most part, rather than misusing “hard logic in the heat of anger, throwing out fact after (often inaccurate) fact in an emotional outburst,” I keep logic and interpersonal understanding at the forefront in confrontation, or I wait to address a problem until my emotions have stabilized so that I don’t say something I don’t mean or make a problem worse. In any case, I highly respect facts and like to check my sources before making claims, no matter how riled up I am. Does that mean that I address every issue perfectly? Of course not. But I do try to remain rational and objective.

And rather than avoiding impersonal analysis, I embrace it. My favorite discussions involve friendly debates that question what I and others believe. While I have strong beliefs, I’m never so sure of them that I can’t remove myself from my emotions to test my theories against hypothetical or real situations or others’ beliefs. I am, above all, a truth-seeker, although I recognize that truth is often relative (that’s the “perceiving” part of my personality expressing itself).

INTPs are believed to “value knowledge above all else. Their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. They seek patterns and logical explanations for anything that interests them. They’re usually extremely bright, and able to be objectively critical in their analysis. They love new ideas, and become very excited over abstractions and theories. They love to discuss these concepts with others. They may seem ‘dreamy’ and distant to others, because they spend a lot of time inside their minds musing over theories.

…The INTP has no understanding or value for decisions made on the basis of personal subjectivity or feelings. They strive constantly to achieve logical conclusions to problems, and don’t understand the importance or relevance of applying subjective emotional considerations to decisions. For this reason, INTPs are usually not in-tune with how people are feeling, and are not naturally well-equiped to meet the emotional needs of others.”

This is more how I see myself, and I think others who know me well see me that way, too. Gaining knowledge is a crucial aspect of my personality; I’m always researching, pondering, and testing. I love patterns—I’ve said before that one of the things I love about myths, folklore, and religions are the systems of meaning. Literature is the same way—it’s all about patterns in text. I love philosophy and psychology because they examine patterns and possibilities, and promote theories about human existence that can be bantered back and forth interminably. I’m much less interested in how I feel about the truth than about the truth itself, so I’m always testing what I believe against new information and seeing if it can be reconciled or if I need to adjust my beliefs.

I do get frustrated with people who place too much emphasis on how they feel about things, or when discussions get too touchy-feely. I am not a Hallmark Channel type. When people get too gushy about things, my cynical, sarcastic side switches into gear. I’m an optimist, perhaps an idealist, but not at the cost of examining things as they truly are, warts and all. I feel healthiest when I let in a little darkness. But too much negativity grates on me, too. I seek balance, and balance comes when emotions are tempered.

I also become extremely irritated when people lose sight of solutions due to their emotions. Instead of giving in a little, some people refuse to compromise, and no one ends up winning. It’s not that I just want everyone to get along (disagreement is healthy and necessary to get to the truth); it’s that too many people don’t know how to disagree without coming into conflict, and they are often too poorly skilled at resolving that conflict. They don’t realize that, by working around an obstacle instead of (often fruitlessly) trying to break it down, they’re more easily able to get what they want.

An example: a couple of nights ago, Eric and I ate dinner with a friend who is very much a Thinking type. We’ll call him Person A. Person A appreciates bluntness and is very blunt in expressing his opinions, and he resents people who hold their emotions so closely that they don’t listen to reason. He values systematic and logical executions of ideas, and his biggest problem with someone we’ll call Person B is that Person B is so egocentric (in the way that young children are, who haven’t distinguished their individual perspectives from the perspectives of those around them and so assume that whatever they’re experiencing, that’s also the experience of everyone around them) that he won’t listen to new ideas or try new processes, even if his old ideas and processes are clearly not working and there’s a logical basis in the new ideas and processes. I get that, and so does Eric. The problem is that Person A’s approach is to be combative with Person B, insisting on his own opinion without accommodating Person B’s feelings.

Eric’s approach to the same problem with Person B is perhaps a typical Feeling-type approach—he knows how Person B is going to react to certain approaches; he knows which approaches work; and he uses those approaches to get his point across and accomplish what he wants to accomplish. It’s an intelligent approach, as it analyzes all of the factors in a problem and seeks a rational solution.

In analyzing that situation, I realized that a Feeling-type response can sometimes be the most logical and reasonable, as far as reading a situation clearly and solving a problem goes. That was a huge revelation for me, and it’s an important distinction for anyone who looks into the MBTI system. I may likely be an INFP (because, in the way in which I deal with the world, how others and I feel about a situation takes precedence over facts), but it doesn’t mean that, as Kiersey describes, I harbor a “deep commitment to the positive and the good [that] is almost boundless and selfless, inspiring them to make extraordinary sacrifices for someone or something they believe in.” By the same token, it doesn’t necessarily follow that INTPs are “ruthless pragmatists about ideas…

I do care deeply about people and things, but I’m much more interested in exploring and discussing ideas than boundless self-sacrifice for a cause at any cost. That’s where my passion lies, and I think that’s my contribution to the world. Even so, when problem-solving, I do include others’ emotions and my own desire for peace into the equation. And while I don’t always understand emotion-driven people, I understand that their emotions affect me and that it’s in my best interest to consider them. And I’m constantly trying to understand people — I analyze them so that I can know and work with them better. But it doesn’t mean that I always cave to others’ feelings for the sake of peace. I pick my battles. If I feel that it’d be better to tackle an issue head-on, I do.

So maybe I’m an INFTP—a Feeling type with a Thinking vehicle. I am keenly aware of others’ feelings, and I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I filter that caring by seeking the most logical, helpful solution to a problem. I resonate with the description on the Kiersey website that states that INFPs

have a natural interest in scholarly activities and demonstrate, like the other Idealists, a remarkable facility with language. They have a gift for interpreting stories, as well as for creating them, and thus often write in lyric, poetic fashion.

But, while I get swept up in poetry and stories as much as any Feeling-type bibliophile, I am not incapable of or resistant to analysis (even self-analysis) or objective, impersonal judgment. The most satisfying poems to me do both—thrust out deep feeling and then follow it with deep analysis. Just feeling something doesn’t justify a poem to me — it has to communicate something larger and deeper.

So, then, maybe I’m an INTFP — a Thinking type with a Feeling vehicle. My interests begin in ideas and objective analysis and then are refined by the process of identifying how people will respond. And, in my work, I use feelings to draw people into what I feel is more important — the theory.

It seems that, after all of this time, I’m still undecided. What are your thoughts on the paradigm? Where do you sit along the axis?


This post is part of a series on my thoughts about my MBTI type. For more, read about my thoughts on introversion and intuition.

For Your Reading Pleasure

Subprimal Poetry Art, Issue 2 cover art

As promised, I’m announcing the release of my latest published poem, “Snake River 1986,” in Subprimal Poetry Art’s Origins and Destinations issue. The poem is a semi-mythical, earth-centered take on the theme of belonging/foreignness that runs through some of my work.

Growing up in an Army family has always made the answer to the question, “Where are you from?” sound a lot like a Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated. I often want to respond, “What are you really asking–where was I born? Where did I grow up? What place do I call home?” I was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho; I did most of my growing up in Augusta, Georgia, and would consider that my hometown; but, to be honest, I get just as homesick for Germany (where I lived for a total of five years as a kid) as I do for those other places. I feel deeply connected to each of those places but, at the same time, detached from them. I am from many places and from nowhere. Which I think is why the Japanese concept of ukiyo, “floating world” — the sense of impermanence and detachment from a place — strikes me so strongly. While the Tokugawa-period term refers to pleasure-seeking societies detached from the real, natural world, it’s expanded for me as I struggle to attach to places that have defined me and yet do not, in some ways at least, belong to me.

Don’t misunderstand — I don’t regret the lifestyle of my childhood, even if it has made me feel lonely for a sense of rootedness from time to time. It was a gypsy kind of life, one that gave me an opportunity to meet many kinds of people and see quite a bit more of the world than most of my peers. It has allowed me to be fearless when faced with change and the unknown, to be eager to confront Otherness and being an Other. I feel more alive when I’m in a strange place, and I get restless living in one city or town for too long. It’s made me adventurous and strong.

Still, I sometimes find myself yearning for a place where I belong, where the culture is intimate to me and embraces me, that expresses what Wallace Stevens observes in his poem “Anecdote of Men By the Thousand”: “There are men whose words / Are as natural sounds / Of their places / As the cackle of toucans / In the place of toucans.” I don’t know where my words are natural. Maybe they are in some place. Maybe not.

The theme for the issue, Origins and Destinations, addresses “places we come from or are going to… work that deals with traditions, transitions, trials, tribulations, things that are part of our all too human identity, legends of the past, visions of the future.” There’s a lot of strong work in this issue, and many of the poems (including my own) include audio of the poet reading with complementary light, ambient music. I am proud to have my work displayed there, and I hope you’ll check it out. There’s a comments section at the end of each poem — leave a note! You can also leave your thoughts here.

An Early,Vivid Memory

Photo credit: Andrew Wilkinson via Flickr

Midsummer in a town outside of Nurnberg, the sun golden and warm, so bright I squint through my eyelashes, a slight breeze tickling my skin. My friend beside me, showing me a blackberry bush, reaching in and pulling out a berry and eating it. I reach in, too, eat a berry. It’s cool from the interior shadows, and sweet.

First lesson of its kind: where lie sweet things, pain lies, too. I reach in for another berry and feel a quick, burning sting. I jerk my hand back, pull out the stinger from my already pulsing, swollen fingertip. The bee died, I think at some point, either right then or on the short walk to the small apartment my family lived in — just my mom, younger sister and me then; my dad was at war in Operation Desert Storm, and my brother wasn’t born yet.

Back at home, my mom is frantic.

“Where have you been? I called the police because I couldn’t find you.”

I don’t remember what I said or did, but I remember thinking, “I don’t think I was gone that long.”

I wonder now how long I was gone. It felt like a few minutes but may have been an hour. Time is strange in childhood, stranger in memory.