Words for Liberation

I love words and believe they have power. Especially when you are desperately trying to understand a  situation where a person, group, or system has power over you: words can liberate. So here are some words for liberation. 

This is an ongoing post. I want to add more words and terms. I plan to write at least one blog posts for each. I’m looking for other articles that discuss and explain the words. I’m also looking for concise definitions that get to the essence and liberating significance of the word.

Please feel free to offer you definitions, thoughts, articles about the words, and more words to add to the list!

Thank you in advance.


micro aggression from the Wikipedia article: “Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions are considered to be different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.”

covert aggression – attacking people in a subtle or sneaky way that is hard to recognize and often very upsetting, confusing, and effective in getting what they want without being held accountable; often used by people in power with privilege – often confused with “passive aggression”

My blog post and an article from Dr George Simon who coined the phrase.

gaslighting – my own very broad definition: abusing someone and then trying to give the impression that abuse hasn’t happened, with the intent of avoiding accountability and/or causing the victim confusion and disempowerment; the Wikipedia definition is more common: a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. 

Excellent article by Dr. George Simon about gaslighting: here.

derailment – definition from the Geek Feminism Wiki: occurs when discussion of one issue is diverted into discussion of another issue, often by the group who were being called out about their bad behaviour in the first place.

extractive – from Google: of or involving extraction, especially the extensive extraction of natural resources without provision for their renewal. “Extractive” can also be used to refer to human beings: using their labor in a way that benefits those in power without concern for renewal or sustainability.  Therefore, those human beings will eventually burn out and be disposed of while those in power move on to other people to exploit. This is the hallmark of capitalism as we know it. It can also be found in social justice non-profits and movements.

inclusive – 

intersectional – 

straw man – type of derailment: while arguing over ideas, attacking and taking down an argument that was not made – gives an apparent win while diverting attention from the actual content of the argument

playing the victim – 

blaming the victim –

useful idiot –

cognitive dissonance – 

ad hominem argument – type of derailment: while arguing over ideas, attacking an individual’s character to avoid facing the content of the argument

astroturf – 

dog-whistle politics – 

Initiation, Mystery, and Etymology

I saw an old friend today. We talked about initiation, mystery, and how we can understand things by understanding their etymology: the origin of the words.

What is initiation? First, looking at the word we see the word “initiate”. That means to start something. Initiation is when we start anew in a profound way. In fact, we’re starting something so new that we ourselves become a new person on a fundamental level. Initiation involves deeply challenging and meaningful experiences that enable this change and growth.

The most common initiation is that of a child into adulthood. Maybe you’re thinking that you know a lot of people who did NOT really change when they grew from children into adults! On that note, here’s a quote from famous historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade: 

It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation. Of primary importance in traditional societies, in the modern Western world significant initiation is practically nonexistent.

No wonder we have a bunch of adults who act like children! (And of course, initiation is now absent from many parts of the world beyond the “modern Western world”.) They haven’t been initiated into adulthood.  Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Often, we have impromptu, unofficial initiations in our challenging, modern world. But I’ll get into that in another post.

The Mircea Eliade quote above comes from his book Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. There’s a lot in that title. Let’s first look at the etymology of the word “mystery” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

mystery (n.1) Look up mystery at Dictionary.comearly 14c., in a theological sense, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth,” from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium “secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing,” from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes“one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

Notice that mystery ultimately comes from the ancient Greek word “mystes”: “one who has been initiated”. Mystery and initiation are anciently intertwined concepts. Part of the reason is that the rites, the rituals and trials, of initiation were kept secret from anyone who was not an initiate.

My old friend Justine also pointed out that we can never really understand an initiatory experience on an intellectual level. We don’t have control over the information. During initiation we have to take steps forward, even when what we’ll find is a mystery to us. There are many steps or “leaps of faith” involved.

(Now, I want to go back to another word in that book title: “rebirth”. I imagine both “rebirth” and “leap of faith” will cause many people to think of Christianity or maybe other religions. The idea of being “born again” has been around much longer than Christianity. These are near universal ways of thinking that illuminate profound truths. I worry people will dismiss words or ideas because of negative associations they have with religious people who most commonly use certain terms in our society. Actually, Justine said she often tries to talk to people about things around initiation and has found the terms she uses are too religious for some people’s tastes. But she thinks “initiation” is a word that people will be more open to universally.)

Let’s get back to rebirth (which is what rebirth is all about). Again, rebirth is when we become a totally new person. The other thing to keep in mind is that rebirth comes after death. Actually, that’s exactly what the priest said at the only Catholic Sunday mass I’ve ever been to. My mom was raised Catholic but left the religion and didn’t raise us kids Catholic for many reasons. Still, the sermon was beautiful and profound. The priest said:

When someone is having a hard time we often tell them to “hang in there”. Actually, we should tell them, “Fall to the earth and die.” That’s what seeds do in order to grow into plants. And that’s what we need to do.

Now, the seed has to stop being a seed in order to grow into a plant. Of course, the seed has mixed feelings about this! And we have mixed feelings about true initiation, true growth, true adulthood. In order to truly grow in a profound way we have to let go of some parts of ourselves: part of us must die. That’s scary. It’s much less scary to create an image of change, rather than to truly change.

And in traditional societies they knew their surroundings, they knew the people of the community, and there was support for the type of change needed. For the last few thousand and couple hundred years things have been changing exponentially. The support isn’t there, partially because no one has a clue what we’re facing.

So let’s have some compassion for ourselves as we struggle and try to run away from our struggles. This is all very new, for us as individuals, as communities, as a species! And let’s reach out to others we see struggling and try to have compassion and support each other.



The Confederate Flag is Covert Aggression and Bree Newsome is a Hero

I’ve been finding psychological concepts helpful in understanding societal issues including racism. The Confederate Flag is a perfect example of covert aggression. And Bree Newsome‘s act of civil disobedience is a heroic act confronting it.

Covert aggression is an aggressive act done in away to cover up the aggression (which I wrote about in my last post).

The Confederate Flag is used to intimidate, disempower, and put off balance African Americans and others (to a lesser extent). That’s why it’s aggressive. It’s covert aggressive because many try to cover that up by claiming it’s about Southern or rural pride.

As far as the argument that it’s not actually racist I thought this short article did a great job of addressing that, point by point. To summarize: the meaning of the flag was racist, still is racist, and it doesn’t matter if people claim it’s not their intention. And Mia McKenzie wrote a post A Few Words on ‘Accidental’ Racism and Forgetting on her excellent blog Black Girl Dangerous  on why being “accidentally racist” is the same as being racist.

It’s amazing to see people in Europe are not so covert about it. They openly use the American Confederate Flag as a substitute for the banned swastika:

This is the type of thing that people will do on a much smaller scale in daily life. Covert aggressive personalities will bully and intimidate their target but do it in a way that is very sneaky. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint that you are being attacked. Here’s a good example from a blog post on covert aggression by Dr. George Simon:

A good example might be the case in which a wife confronts her husband about not spending as much time as she would like him to with the family. He might retort that he constantly feels as if unreasonable demands are being placed on him by her (casting himself as the “victim”), that he works hard to provide for his family but no one seems to appreciate it (casting himself as the suffering, under-valued servant), and that she never has anything good to say about him and is always complaining (using the techniques of shaming and guilt-tripping). Within moments, the woman’s good intention to correct a problem in family relationships is now framed as a heartless attack on an unappreciated devoted husband and father.

See the parallels with the Confederate Flag? If you confront people about it they claim it’s about pride and tradition: why would you take that away from them (guilt tripping)? They may even refer to the American Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression” (casting themselves as the victim).

How do you deal with covert aggression? A big part of it is first being able to spot it and be honest with ourselves about it. People are often scared to think that a person or group is deliberately trying to attack someone. We like to think it’s all a big misunderstanding where everyone has good intentions. Sometimes that’s the case. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. And we’re not helping by pretending otherwise. When confronted with covert aggression we need to move past the excuses and hold people accountable.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a courageously and powerfully holding people accountable for both covert and overt aggression. And Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag in Charlotte is a very powerful and concrete response. She and those who organized with her looked past the rhetoric, decided this aggression will no longer fly, and they acted. As their statement read:

We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.

Bree Newsome is a hero as Rebecca Cohen aka @GynoStar so powerfully illustrated:


Passive Aggressive vs Covert Aggressive

Have you heard of the term covert aggressive? Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably experienced it! Often times people say someone is being “passive aggressive” when they really mean covert aggressive. I’ve found the distinction to be very helpful.

I learned the term covert aggression from the book In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by Dr. George Simon. I highly recommend reading it. Here are some thoughts mostly from it, plus some of my own:

Passive Aggression

Starting with the more familiar term: when someone is being passive aggressive it’s important to stress that they are being passive. For example they:

  • Avoid finishing a project
  • Don’t show up for an appointment
  • “Forget” to pick something up

They are avoiding acting in order to passively (usually) express anger. It often involves not talking and not doing.

Covert Aggression

On the other hand, covert aggression usually involves very active talking and doing and then covering it up. For example:

  • Talk behind someone’s back to gain an advantage, while smiling to their face
  • Give compliments to someone in a way that enables them to be manipulated
  • Step on someone’s foot and then pretend it was an accident, especially if the goal is to intimidate or throw someone off balance (literally or figuratively)

Simply put, covert aggression is being aggressive and trying to pretend they are not being aggressive.

What’s Behind It

Passive aggressive people are sometimes described as “cowardly”. In this blog post Dr Simon describes passive aggressive people as “ambivalent, negativistic, and often self-defeating.” While covert aggressive people are “deceptive, conniving, and manipulative.” Instead of being cowardly, they are bold and ambitious.

Here are some of my own thoughts: people act passive aggressive because they don’t have the courage to own their own feelings and express them openly. Covert aggression is about not wanting to be held accountable for their intention. Their intention is to aggressively get what what they want. And they don’t want to get in trouble or be held accountable for that fact. So they hide their aggression.

Why It Matters

As Dr Simon makes clear in In Sheep’s Clothing, most of us use covert aggression occasionally. But some people have a covert aggressive or manipulative personality:

An individual’s personality can be defined by the way he or she habitually perceives, relates to and interacts with others and the world at large. It’s the distinctive interactive “style” or relatively ingrained way a person prefers to deal with a wide variety of situations and to get the things they want in life. Certain personalities can be ever so ruthless in their interpersonal conduct while concealing their aggressive character or perhaps even projecting a convincing, superficial charm.

That’s the main reason I think this is something so important to understand: covert aggressive people can be very charming! They can be very good at convincing people, including their victims, that they are acting for the benefit of everyone. It doesn’t mean they are bad people. But these people exist. And it is really helpful to understand and be realistic about certain tendencies.

Have you noticed passive or covert aggressive behavior in your life? Do you think the distinction matters? Please feel free to comment below.

(I’ve been meaning to write more for years. This is my first step. I hope to write a lot more including connecting up the idea of covert aggression with subjects I’ve written about in this blog: unschooling, climate change, and social justice organizing. How do those all connect? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: December 2012

So, I wrote my first newsletter in years in December 2012. It was about realizing I didn’t want to lead travel tours or speak on unschooling; how I felt lost and angry not knowing what to do; and why the year 2012 may have been the best year of my life (even though I didn’t do anything worth writing home about).

Not sure why I didn’t send it in December. But here it is now.

Dear Readers,
It’s been a long time! I last wrote almost three years ago and I first wrote this travel newsletter over 10 years ago. I was 18 years old writing from the Netherlands and the start of my travels. Now, I’m 29 years old sitting in my own apartment, in my hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts (while sipping herbal tea and wearing slippers).

Whether I’ll keep this newsletter going long enough so I’ll be wearing diapers while writing it: I don’t know.

But I have continued traveling. In summer 2010, I led my third Worldschool Travel Tour (again to Japan). In 2011, I traveled around Israel, Palestine, and Egypt during the start of the Arab Spring. And this Thanksgiving, 2012, I went to the exotic lands of North Carolina and Florida!

I was actually planning on traveling to China this past winter (2012). But I changed my mind at the last minute. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Actually, this year at home in Boston has been one of the best years of my life. It really has.

Why? Travel, or anything else really, is not worth much if you don’t bring your soul along. My last few trips abroad I had wonderful experiences, met some great people, and learned a ton. But I wasn’t really there.

The name of this newsletter, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” comes from the poetic translation of my last name: Gerzon/Gershom. But the literal translation in Hebrew is just “Stranger There”. But I wasn’t there. So I definitely couldn’t write this newsletter, be a Gerzon, or be an Eli even (whatever that is).

I kind of lost my way a few years ago, dear readers. This past year has been like one long, slow soul retrieval. I’ve been trying to find myself again. I’ve been retracing my steps far beyond the last few years and exploring new areas as well.

This past year I fixed the the handle on a drawer on a desk I inherited in 1997 from my uncle, dad, and grandfather. I waited 15 years to do a job that took 15 minutes! I took out art I made many years ago from inside that desk, and displayed them in my room. I finally threw away things I had held on to, and moved from house to house in unopened boxes, over years and years. I finally framed two beautiful paintings I bought in Guatemala on Lake Atitlan in 2006.

I started taking classes and volunteering for the first time in many years. I studied voice acting. I acted in a teeny tiny play. I’ve been volunteering teaching English to a man from Algeria. As people often say: I think my student has taught me more than I’ve taught him. I’m just now completing a course that’s trained me to volunteer as a spiritual caregiver for elderly people in the Boston area.

All those things may seem pretty little on the surface, compared to world travel, but they’ve had a lot of meaning to me. And that’s what travel was always about for me: finding meaningful experiences. I’m not sure why I lost that sense of meaning in my last few trips. But that’s why I’m glad I didn’t travel to China this past winter: I didn’t want to travel without that meaning again.

So what happened a few years ago that took me so off track? A few years ago I thought I had things clearly laid out: I would keep leading Worldschool Travel Tours, speak at unschooling conferences, write for my blog, and finally write a book. It was such a relief to have what seemed like a steady, long-term, monetarily viable occupation that others would appreciate and even validated all the “weird” things I did: leaving high school, skipping college, and wandering the world. But I started to have my doubts about it all.

I was very angry when I realized I might not be the right path for me after all. I felt kind of betrayed actually.

I haven’t followed any sort of conventional path in my life. Instead, I made a deal with the universe: I follow my bliss and work my butt off, and in return, the universe shows me where I’m meant to go next. It had worked so miraculously before. It wasn’t showing me this time. I thought the universe wasn’t holding up it’s end of the deal.

I felt so lost and angry, including at myself. I just couldn’t move forward. All I wanted was some meaningful way of being of service to this world. Actually, what I realized eventually is that I was holding myself ransom. On some level I decided: “Alright, universe, if you’re not going to hold up your end of the bargain, I’m not going to either. I’m not going to really try.”

It took me a long time to consciously realize that’s what I was doing. When I finally said it out loud to someone else I realized how completely ridiculous, immature, and sad that stance was.

What really helped was realizing that the universe hadn’t actually betrayed me or broken its end of the bargain. I had.

The deal was I’d follow my bliss and work really hard. But at some point I started following my ego rather than my bliss. There’s a big difference between those two things. But on the surface it can be hard to tell.

I didn’t do things that were against what I believe. But I avoided writing and speaking about what I was really interested in: the things that challenged myself and others, the things that gave me bliss.

I do often feel like I wasted a few years of my life following my ego and then being angry as my main occupation. It can be very upsetting to reflect upon. But at the same time I did make a living, travel, and get a new apartment during that time. I also studied a lot of history, hung out with friends, dated a lot, read a lot of comic books, played video games, and listened to NPR and Democracy Now! constantly. Those can all be great things. And they were great for me much of the time. I guess my effort to do nothing valuable was only half-assed.

Anyway, I suppose it was something I had to go through. But I hope I’m able to let go of my anger, look at things honestly, and move forward more quickly, if I find myself in a similar situation again. And I encourage others to do the same. Life is short.

Ultimately, I do need to forgive myself for whatever time I may have “wasted.” Otherwise, I’ll just keeping getting angry about the fact that I’ve been too angry. And I am thankful that I stopped when things didn’t feel right. I could have kept going in a direction that wasn’t right for me.

Also, I definitely need to write more, I’d love to speak at more conferences, and I might even lead more tours. I just have to be clear about my goals. I have to bring my soul along and incorporate the things that really matter to me in what I do and say.

Recently, I’ve been getting involved with activism against global warming. I’ve thought for many years that global warming is the number one important meta-issue of all issues: if this planet becomes unlivable for us what does anything else matter? But besides the fact that we need to, I also now have hope that we can change the course we’re on. I’m starting to devote myself to this because I have hope and see it as a huge opportunity.

I hope everyone has a wonderful season of shining light into the darkness. May you continue to shine light into the darkness in the coming year, even when the darkness is not so clear.


Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: Spring 2013

Dear Readers,

I finally wrote another newsletter this past December 2012 but didn’t send it. Here’s a summary:

I once was lost but now I’m found. I once had no idea what I was doing with my life, but now I finally have meaning and purpose: climate activism!

 Writing and leading travel tours that would eventually inspire change was going to be my purpose in life. I was very upset when I realized it wasn’t (was upset for a few long years actually). Now I realize we need to take direct action for change. Acting now for climate survival and the changes it will create is now my purpose.

Maybe that sounds heavy and not very sexy and meaningful: “After all that profound searching and world travel, you’re going to be an activist? You’re going to shout at protest rallies, knock on doors, and write to your members of Congress?”

 Okay, let me put it in Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter terms:

We humans are pretty smart. We’re so smart we have the power to destroy our homes, aka our environment, in various ways. Usually, our solution has been to move on to another area of our wider home, aka the planet. We happen to have discovered a new way of destroying our entire planet. We have nowhere else to go.

For the first time in our modern existence the survival of human beings, as a species, is threatened. We are heading toward such high temperatures, such extreme droughts and storms, the extinction of so many plants and animals, so many refugees, so many disrupted farming seasons, so many wars over basic resources…. We, human beings, may cease to be as we are unable to do, what we so love to do: adapt.

 Still, let’s look at the bright side! I think there is one.

 This is our initiation as a species. This is when we are forced to prove whether or not we are willing to face our true selves, change, and grow. Trust me, I know one doesn’t face ones true self until forced! Maybe we would have gone on making human existence worse and worse without really changing anything if it wasn’t for the climate emergency we’re facing. Now is our chance to look at everything and change more than just how we heat our homes and power our cars and factories.

 Thank you greedy, short-sighted fossil fuel CEOs, politicians, and all of us who have enabled this to happen. The climate emergency is something we must face and it’s an opportunity to create something better.

 Actually, in Chinese the word for “crisis” is the same as the word for “over-used-cliche-that-nevertheless-has-a-lot-of truth-to-it”.

 But I must highlight this fact: this is an opportunity to prove ourselves bytaking action. It seems to me, right now, if people have great ideas, positive thoughts, have done amazing inner work, and can write and speak very well, we won’t be addressing the climate emergencyunlesswe are using our assets, strengths, and skills to take real ACTION ON CLIMATE.

 Everyone needs to follow their own journey. I respect that if only because I know I’ve taken a very strange journey myself. But all our journeys will come to an end if not enough of us address climate change, right now.

The strange thing is I’ve believed for many years that climate change is number one. I’ve started to get involved now because I now have hope inspired by the growing, well organized, passionate climate movement.

 Urgency also motivates me. Scientists estimate we have 3 or 4 years to start making significant reductions in green house gases (carbon and methane) or a positive feedback loop will take us over the edge into irreversible climate change.

Some important science:

 As the ice caps melt, less heat from the sun bounces off of them and is instead absorbed in the Earth thus heating the atmosphere more, thus melting more ice… and so on. The melting ice also releases methane hidden underneath it, into the atmosphere. Methane is more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. That’s also the reason natural gas is actually just as bad: it produces less carbon but through methane leaks in the pipes it warms the planet about as much or possibly more than coal and oil. (You can read a recent study about natural gas here.)

This whole winter I volunteered full-time for 350MA a Better Future Project. Just when I was going to have to go back to landscaping, last week they hired me as their Tar Sands Organizer. I’ve never felt more satisfied and like I was using my gifts to the best of my ability as now.

I feel like after all my searching, I have found my path. You know, that whole: follow your bliss and then realize all the wanderings you did prepared you and led you perfectly to where you needed to go? I had lost faith in that for awhile. But yeah, that happened.

I was in the middle of chanting/meditating in late December and just broke down crying for 5 or 10 minutes. I cried because I was so relieved. It was a relief to realize I had found what I was looking for after all these years.

There’s much more I could write. And I will soon send out that newsletter from December chronicling what I’ve been up to the past few years. But I just want to finally send out a newsletter. It’s good to connect with you Dear Reader. And good to connect with the Stranger in a Strange Land who writes these newsletters.

Happy Season of Rebirth and New Growth everyone!



P.S. Surprisingly, I’ve never brought up “politics” in this newsletter before, let alone asked people to take action. But Dear Readers please send in comments to the State Department against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline: fast, easy, and important! It would mean so much to me personally too. And even if you’ve sent comments before, you can send more!:

You can read more about Keystone XL and the problems with it here.

And if you haven’t heard about the tar sands oil spills in Minnesota and Arkansas just last week, read about them here:

And on March 11th, 2013 I participated in my first act of civil disobedience at the office of TransCanada in Westborough, MA in a Funeral for Our Future. Read about it and see photos here.

And here’s the powerful video that I think really captures the spirit of the action:


Convention, Free Thinking, and the Reality of Dirty Socks

I highly recommend thinking for yourself. Free your mind. Don’t blindly follow convention. But sometimes, following convention is a good idea. The bottom line is to check in with reality. Here are a couple examples revolving around the stark reality of dirty socks.

Using Your Freehood and Questioning Convention

In fall 2006, I was traveling around Guatemala with an Australian guy and a Swedish woman. That’s always what happens to me when I travel: I travel alone but I end up meeting people at hostels. We share a conversation, a meal, or travel together for days or weeks.

Anyway, the three of us were traveling together for a couple weeks. Elin, the girl from Sweden, was complaining about how she only had a few pairs of socks left and so she had to pay to have her laundry done every few days. Ray and I said: “You know you can wear them for more than one day in a row?”

Elin was shocked. She certainly had the freedom to wear the same socks a couple days in a row. But she didn’t have the freehood to question that convention. “Really? Don’t you have to wash them every time?”

“It’s best. But, it’s not a big deal. Especially if they’re dark colored socks.”

She took the information to heart. A couple days later she informed us she had tried it. I still remember her beaming smile and wiggling with glee when she told us. She wore one pair of socks for an entire week straight after that.

I’m kidding. I’m not sure how much she continued the practice. But I’m glad we freed her mind: by way of her feet.

So, it is true that it is possible that you can occasionally wear socks more than one day in a row without causing any damage to your feet, your socks, or the noses of those around you.

It’s occasionally possible… but not always.


The Reality and the Consequences of Dirty Socks 

I have a confession. I’ve gotten athlete’s foot on a couple occasions. It sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s when you have a fungus growing on your feet that causes a painful burning sensation. Not fun.

I studied up on athlete’s foot and the best natural ways to treat it. Turns out soaking your feet in a mix of plain old vinegar and water will do the trick. I did that for 20 minutes, a couple times per day, for several days, and the athlete’s foot was gone. I followed other bits of advice as well.

Apparently, diligently changing your socks every day is also important. The vinegar kills it but you can reinfect yourself if you don’t put on clean socks every day.

I was talking to an American woman named Betsy. You might describe her as a hippie. She’s not one to follow convention. She has a lot of freehood.

I discovered she had had athlete’s foot for awhile. I told her about the vinegar. I also asked her if she changed her socks every day.

She said, sort of matter of factly and with a little pride, “Oh no, I wear the same socks for a whole week sometimes.” She wasn’t joking.

I explained to her that in this particular case following the mainstream convention of changing your socks every day was actually important if you wanted to heal yourself.


Question How You Question Convention

This is of course, a very small example about socks. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about how important it is to question things and have freedom, and personal freehood. But there are times when the prevailing convention happens to be the wisest thing to do. And honestly, when in doubt, it’s often best and safest to follow convention.

One of the things that bothers me the most is when people decide they are beyond the convention of being kind and considerate to others. They think they’re so much smarter or more genuine than others that they can flout silly conventions like treating everyone with respect. Maybe

The most extreme example of this comes from art: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and the movie “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock. Both stories feature people who think they are beyond being punished, or caught, for murder. Actually, most murders are committed by people following orders in armies or gangs: people who do not question enough. But again, these stories are extreme illustrations of how far you can go if you question convention too much.

On a lighter note, as the comedian/philosopher Jerry Seinfeld once said:

Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.

Other times you can start down a path that will make you very unhappy or cause great harm to others if you don’t question convention!



People who have the courage to question convention are very valuable to this world. I’d just like to urge people to not question blindly. We need to inform ourselves of many viewpoints and be ready for the possibility that the conventional approach might be best in some specific instances. We’ll be that much happier, more courageous, and more valuable to the world if we do.


Global Warming vs. Climate Change vs. Climate Chaos

I was very happy about a lot of the U.S. election results on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012. But I think the single most important issue of our time was hardly discussed at all by Republicans or Democrats: global warming. People also refer to it as “climate change”. But I think “climate chaos” is the best term for the changes we are facing. And as Super Storm Sandy has shown, the changes are not in the distant, hypothetical future: they are now.

Because of that urgency, I think it’s important to choose our words carefully. Again, words have power.


Global Warming – sounds good!

To be honest, on the surface, the term “global warming” actually sounds good, or even great. I live in Boston, Massachusetts and I often wish the weather was warmer! But we live on a planet with complex, interconnected ecosystems. Raising average temperatures even slightly can cause huge changes in our climate, including creating very cold conditions. More and more people understand this in the U.S. Most people in Europe already understand and “believe in” global warming and climate change.

The problem is that even people who understand it aren’t pushing for big changes with urgency that we need.


Climate Change – sounds neutral! change can be good or bad….

Technically and accurately speaking:

As the name suggests, ‘global warming’ refers to the long-term trend of a rising average global temperature…. ‘Climate change’, again as the name suggests, refers to the changes in the global climate which result from the increasing average global temperature.

as this article states from Skeptical Science: Getting Skeptical About Global Warming Skepticism.

But the fact is, many people now use the term “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeably.

There’s one idea for why this is: according to this scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he was forced by Republican political appointees to start using the term “climate change” instead of “global warming”. Dave Miller writes in a letter to the editor:

“Climate change” is politically correct nonsense, but Republican pollster Frank Luntz and George W. Bush are to blame, not Al Gore. Luntz sold the phrase to Bush: “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” While “global warming” has catastrophic connotations attached, “climate change” suggests a more controllable challenge. Bush agreed.

Republican political appointees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where I was a biologist, forced scientists to always use “climate change” instead of the accurate and alarming “global warming.”


Maybe “global warming” does sound more alarming than “climate change”. But I think we can do a lot better:


Climate Chaos – sounds really bad and is accurately descriptive 

“Climate chaos” is the type of “climate change” that we are already experiencing: chaotic, unpredictable, and extreme. As some people have said after Hurricane Sandy: “We seem to be having hundred year storms every couple years!” Actually, just last year Hurricane Irene caused such severe flooding in Vermont that bridges that were hundreds of years old were destroyed.

In the case of Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, my home of Boston experienced strong winds and rain that caused trees around my house to fall over and some people in Massachusetts were without power for many days. In both cases we were definitely spared from the worst of the storm. But who knows when my neighborhood could be the center of the storm?

There are still “global warming deniers” but others say that Hurricane Sandy may become the new normal. I think they’re both wrong. I think it’s going to get a lot worse. Just how much worse depends on how much we change things on a society level now. I’m proud of the fact that I get by without a car. But personal efforts are not what will make enough of a difference.

I can’t recommend this article highly enough: A Convenient Excuse by Wen Stephenson in the Boston Phoenix. Wen speaks with such courage, honesty, and authority as a mainstream journalist turned climate activist. He talks about the need to talk about global warming and climate chaos, as a crisis. Even publications that acknowledge man made global warming exists, do not talk about it enough, with enough urgency. One article every few years or even every few months, or weeks doesn’t give the issue justice.

And I submit this addition to the dialogue: climate chaos.

And on more concrete terms, check out and their Do the Math Tour. They’re going around the U.S. right now. Meet up with groups like them ( also has state and regional groups) and see how you can get involved.

I’m glad Obama was reelected but he has done very little to address climate chaos. We need to put pressure on him and other political and business leaders starting now.

And support Green Party and other candidates who already understand the urgency of the threat of climate chaos. I don’t live in a swing state so I voted for Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein without hesitation.


Freedom vs. Freehood

Many years ago I was introduced to the term “freehood” and how it relates to “freedom” as we usually think of it. In short, freehood is about being free as an individual, from inside oneself. “Freedom” is about having a free environment.

The term comes from Rudolf Steiner an Austrian philosopher from the late 19th, early 20th century and founder of the Waldorf Schools (one of which I attended for 1st and 2nd grade). He wrote a book entitled Die Philosophie der Freiheit which was published in English as The Philosophy of Freedom.

But Rudolf Steiner is said to have taken issue with that translation of the title. He said that the German word “Freiheit” is not the same as the English word “freedom” (and not just the fact that the German word, like all German nouns, is capitalized). He said that “freedom” refers to ones environment or domain, as in the words “kingdom” and “serfdom”. In contrast “Freiheit”/”freehood” refers to a state of being like “childhood” and “adulthood”.

Now, I think that you could look closely at the English (and German) language and find some problems with that analysis. Still, I think the distinction is very important and I value the creation of a distinctly new word for the English language.

Also, I got a great interpretation of the word from a man named Tony Ten Fingers. I took a workshop he led about mentoring young people, drawing upon his upbringing and his Oglala Lakota traditions. I told him about the word “freehood” and he liked it. He said he imagined “freehood” as a cloak with a hood you can wear personally.

(Tony Ten Fingers often talked about the importance of wearing ones “regalia”. I guess he thought a “freehood” was an good addition to that. I told him about the word over ten years ago. This year I friended Tony Ten Fingers on Facebook and I noticed him still using the term. He often gives short status updates as a form of “microblogging”. They can be inspiring, beautiful, and wise comments on balance, mentoring, ancestors, the environment, climate change, ritual, and so on. Some give glimpses into everyday life on the Lakota Reservation where he teaches at Oglala Lakota College.)

Back to the word itself: suffice to say, I like the word and the distinction it makes.

So often in our world we concentrate on what we are allowed or prevented from doing. People get angry about being told what to do and having any restrictions placed upon them. But I think often most of the restrictions we face are internal and self-imposed.

We prevent ourselves from doing many of the things we truly want to do. One of the main ways we do this is by not knowing what we truly want to do!

I’ve referred to this quote multiple times but I’m going to do it again because it illustrates so well the point I’m trying to make:

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like…. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes, and there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving. –D.H. Lawrence

(Especially since I have referred to this quote so many times I want to give credit: I found it in a book of quotes compiled by Barb Lundgren who runs the Rethinking Everything Conference.)

A lack of basic freedom in ones surroundings is of course a very real problem as well. And when we lack freedom around us that can lead to internalizing it and our lack of freedom becomes a lack of freehood. But once the struggle is over for freedom, personally, I’ve found that’s not the end. I’ve found myself with freedom in my environment, but still a struggle to be a free individual, to have freehood.

So! I was inspired to try NaBloPoMo when I found out it existed from fellow blogger and grown unschooler, Elisha Burkett. I’m a little late and I can’t promise I’ll write something every single day, but I will try. I’m just very happy to have an excuse to write. Thanks for reading.


Training to Volunteer as a Spiritual Caregiver for the Elderly in Somerville-Cambridge, MA

Last month I started a class that trains people to volunteer as spiritual caregivers for the elderly in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. My sister took the course earlier this year and absolutely loved it. I’ve been trying a lot of new things this year, but it took me some courage to sign-up. I’m really glad I did.

This program came about when Nancy Willbanks was working at the Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services and noticed while we have all sorts of programs to help elderly people with transportation, medical care, food delivery, etc. there’s nothing in place to support elderly people when they are dealing with crises and are in need of spiritual support.


What is Spiritual Caregiving?

What does “spiritual support” mean? I’m not exactly sure. I guess most people would be more comfortable using the term “emotional support”. That is part of the job I’m sure but it seems to go beyond that. One of the points made in the course was that the types of issues we’re dealing with go far beyond Freudian psychology to bigger questions and anxieties (it’s worth noting though, that we aren’t working with people who are suicidal, have serious mental illness, or facing death: that’s beyond the scope of this program).

My uncle, Robert Gerzon, wrote a book called Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety. One of his central points in the book is that there are actually three different types of anxiety: natural anxiety (fear when we hear a loud noise in the dark, anxiety right before a performance, etc.), toxic anxiety (often repetitious, always unhelpful, negative thoughts and worries, OR an unrealistically positive “pollyanna voice” that sets us up for disappointment), and sacred anxiety.

Sacred anxiety is anxiety that comes from facing life’s big questions: our purpose, God/the divine, the nature of the universe, love, meaning, life, death, etc. Sacred anxiety is about issues and questions that might not have an answer. I think that’s what spiritual caregiving is about in this program. It’s about helping elderly people with their struggle and pain around those issues.

As I said, many of these issues don’t have “answers” or anything you can “solve” or “fix”. So a lot of the course concentrates on listening. Because listening is often the only comfort one can provide when trying to help people facing these issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy!

It takes a lot to stay centered and present and hold space while someone is dealing with these profound things. My goodness, it does.


Example of Helpful Course Material: Listening When Someone Feels Guilty

One of the things I found most helpful in the class is the part about listening in a balanced way when someone is feeling guilty and wants to share. We talked about different approaches according to different characters: Harsh Harry, Libertine Larry, and Caring Cary.

So Harsh Harry comes down hard on the confessor, who then just feels worse and/or gets defensive. And Libertine Larry insists right away that the person is not really at fault and dismisses their negative feelings. Both approaches don’t give the person a chance to really share and address how they feel.

I’ve noticed myself and others take both approaches. But it seems in my life I’ve noticed the Libertine Larry approach more often: people who might think they’re trying to be nice, but actually they’re refusing to really engage with the person and how they feel. Harsh Harry isn’t really engaging either. It can be difficult to engage with emotions especially when we’re trying to avoid our own.

Then there’s Caring Cary: he listens in a balanced way. He listens and doesn’t try to force the person to feel guilty but also doesn’t allow them to dismiss or rationalize away the appropriate guilt they might feel. Cary engages and helps the person process their negative emotion so they can forgive themselves and possibly try to do better next time.

And as I just read in another book from the course: you’re not going to instantly follow a new approach. In this case, talking about failing to be assertive: “When – not if – this happens be kind to yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back for being able to identify a nonassertive response, and take a moment to identify what you’ll do next time. And then let it go. Inconsistency is a legitimate part of the normal learning curve.You can’t develop new patterns without occasionally slipping back into old ones. Concentrate on what you’ve done well.”

The names of the two books I’ve referenced here are: Christian Caregiving – a Way of Life by Kenneth Haugk and Speaking the Truth in Love – How to be an Assertive Christian by  Ruth N. Koch and Kenneth Haugk.


Using Christian Books for an Interfaith Volunteer Program

Did I mention the course books are really Christian? And the woman who runs the program is an ordained Christian minister? And one of my fellow students who is Jewish by heritage and identifies as Buddhist, chose to leave the class because it seemed too Christian and/or theistic for him?

Actually, Nancy makes a real effort in class to “translate” much of the course material into general spiritual terms. And in the class handouts she includes writings and teachings from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and even Wicca.

When my sister told me about this course months ago she said excitedly, “When I read this Christian stuff, I can’t help seeing so many parallels to the Buddhist books I’ve been reading! It really seems to me like they’re saying the same thing.”

Generally, I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this sentiment. But my sister seemed genuine, I trust her judgement a lot, and I believe there is a lot of truth to the idea that ultimately great spiritual traditions are “all saying the same thing”.

Throughout Kenneth Haugk’s book Christian Caregiving: a Way of Life he says the book is for Christians and that Christians have a unique ability to offer the best caregiving. But all of the advice, information, and tools in the book seems very helpful for anyone. I don’t find it quite as easy as my sister but I am able to “translate” most of what he writes into terms I can appreciate, even though I don’t identify as Christian.

I think a lot of the information is very practical, honest, realistic, and beautiful for anyone. A lot of it is about balance, being present, realistic, and honest (including about your motivations for caregiving), and making sure to take care of yourself too.

I’m thankful the course exists and I’m thankful Nancy is teaching it in an interfaith way, as much as possible. I do wish there were books and courses that were from a broader perspective so people of all faiths could easily learn these skills and help others. By “all faiths” I include people who don’t have a religion. I know many people are turned off by the subject of religion, faith, spirituality, the soul, and so on, because of negative associations they have. I share many of those negative associations with religion and, honestly, Christianity specifically. This course has forced me to re-question some of my views on Christianity. Mainly, each Christian is an individual and even if I disagree on some things it doesn’t mean that person isn’t doing great things in the world and that I can’t learn from them.

(I will say, it seems like everyone in the class is very gay-friendly: not all devout Christians are homophobic, certainly not in Massachusetts.)


Wherever You Go, There’s Your Soul

And again it helps me to refer to another family member, this time my aunt Rachael Kessler who passed away a few years ago from cancer: she wrote a book called The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. The premise of the book was that even if we want to keep religion and school (church and state) separate, students/young people are still going to bring their souls to school! And they are still going to face profound challenges (”sacred anxieties”) and need support.

I really appreciate this idea and how it applies to all of us. I wish I had expressed this appreciation more when she was alive. When the book came out in the year 2000, I was pretty closed minded to any reference to “school” that didn’t have the prefix “un-” attached to it.

My point in referring to her book is: even if many people don’t like thinking about or even believe in spirituality and soul, that doesn’t mean people don’t struggle with issues of meaning, purpose, life, the universe, and everything.

When my mom heard that the spiritual caregiving program serves elderly people who are facing a crisis she said, “Doesn’t that apply to pretty much every elderly person, all the time?” I would take it a step further and say that it applies to most people of any age pretty much all the time!

Imagine if people had more spiritual support and caregiving at other times in their lives: teens, young adults searching for direction, new parents, people in a midlife crisis, grieving people of all ages, etc. What a wonderful service that would be.

Also, the whole Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services program is state funded so it puts a very valuable, real human face on a social welfare program. Those so called “entitlement programs” often have a bad reputation. But it seem like the programs they offer are very helpful for people who really need help.

At the start of this post I referred to the courage it took me to start this course. Actually, in class we often pair up and “practice” listening and caregiving. Sometimes we’re roleplaying a character but often we’re asked to share our own spiritual struggles. It’s scary to do and has highlighted just how rarely I do that even with my close friends and family. But it’s kind of liberating and comforting, both to share and to listen. Anyway, I’m glad I joined the course.


In Conclusion: There is No Conclusion

I don’t really have a point or a conclusion. These are just some things I’ve thought about and observed. I’m sure I’ll have more to say by the end of the course in December, let alone after I start providing spiritual caregiving for someone.

Anyway, writing this blog post is actually just a big excuse to avoid doing the reading for the class that’s due tomorrow. Just kidding, of course… but I better get to it now. Thanks for reading.

(Here is a link to info on the volunteer program which has a new training class starting in January, 2013: Aging and Spiritual Well-being – Spiritual Caregiver Volunteer – Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services.)