Finding home in the time of coronavirus

Disclaimer: I’m going to say this once. Obviously, I am not happy about the coronavirus’s threat to public health or the economic toll it’s taking. I do not think the existence of this pandemic is good. Just so happens that social distancing and remote work suits me.

I am truly an introvert, and this whole coronavirus quarantine experience has allowed me to embrace that again. There’s something about everybody having to do it that gave me permission to enjoy being at home, not having to perform for strangers and acquaintances, not having to hustle every day and seek fulfillment in frantic activity and socializing, which I can only really enjoy in small doses. Coronavirus quarantine has taken away the worst parts of my day– stress about waking up on time, getting places on time, about how presentable I am, worrying I’m not prepared or didn’t do something I was supposed to, about whether I’m the right mood to deal with people, dealing with hundreds of strangers and acquaintances, feeling “off” in dealing with the people I do know, obligations that rob me of my time and peace– and hasn’t taken away anything I can’t do without for another month or two.

I like life being focused on home and family. It’s been really nice to have the primacy of my marriage affirmed by external events. (And, as a friend of mine pointed out, I’m lucky to be quarantined with a sexual partner 😉 ) I like cooking at home instead of going out. I was always this way as a kid. When given the choice, I just wanted to stay home.  Over the years, I began to feel I should have more things to do in the world, and so I started filling up my time, and eventually I became so stressed and distracted that I forgot what it felt like at my center. I’ll always be weirdly grateful to the virus for clearing me the space to rest in my own nature.

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Me, leaving the house in this brave new world.

I leave the house for max one outing a day, and that’s for a nice, socially distant walk or to go to the grocery store. (I wear a bandana now, which, by hiding my face, has shown me how draining it is for me to constantly make friendly expressions when outside to reassure everyone who walks past me.) I love how simple and quiet my life is right now. I feel more myself than I have in ages. I had been in a state of constant anxiety and agitation for years now. As a kid, I would get this way during the end of the semester and then come down over the ensuing break. Before my senior year of high school was the first time summer wasn’t long enough for me to unwind. The anxious buzzing would calm down with space and solitude, but it never fully stopped like it used to. For the last decade, I have been more and less stressed but never truly felt relaxed. It was so unrelenting that, when I spent a few nights in the hospital a couple years ago, and I remember feeling relieved and elated that I would have no responsibilities or expectations other than treatment while I was there.

Well, it might be finishing my PhD or the quarantine (or most likely both and). But whatever it is, I feel relaxed! I do not feel done with my period of unwinding, but (un)fortunately the world is colluding with me to give me the conditions I like for a while longer.

I feel a little more free with the quarantine contraints. I like feeling like I don’t have to be perfectly satisfied because my options are limited. I like feeling no pressure to make anything of the day. The constraints I hate are having to get up to an alarm and look presentable to go to a meeting. Having to perform. Having to “make the most of my opportunities.” Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what I consider “making the most of” my life and the life I actually like. Quarantine has reduced the pressure on me to perform for myself, and I’d like to quit performative busyness altogether. I want to create and embrace the conditions under which I actually thrive. Weirdly, coronavirus quarantine has given me external support in this process of self-realization. I only hope I have the courage and awareness to protect my introverted preferences once society has returned to its bustling.

Have it all: take your spouse’s name socially

When you get married, you are creating a family. One way to reinforce that is to have the same name. But whose name do you pick? Do you hyphenate? Do you not hyphenate, and never have a simple time filling out a form again (like my friends the Rabideau Childerses)? Do you make a new portmanteau of your “maiden” names (like my friends the Baker + Lee = Bakerlees)? Do you select a completely new name (like Will MacAskill nee Crouch)?

I submit a new alternative, one I think is by far the simplest– just use your spouse’s name socially and keep your legal name. Many women (and some men) go to the trouble of changing their names legally only to go by their former names socially. Why? If there are two names you wish to use in different situations, one of which is already your legal name and the set of sounds that have been used to address you your entire life, and you have to chose one to be your official name and the other to use fictively in social situations, why not simply keep your maiden name as it is and use your spouse’s name only in the social situations where that’s desirable?

It’s not as if our legal names are our one and only true names. Legal names serve an important purpose as our identifiers in a large system.  But names are rich sources of social meaning in many contexts, not just legal, and we needn’t restrict our use of socially meaningful names and titles to the identifier we give at the DMV. From birth, my legal name has been Martha Hollingsworth Elmore, but my first name is also Holly, because that’s the name my parents called me. “Martha” and “Holly” are both my name, just in different contexts. “Martha” on official communications and school rosters, “Holly” for those who know me personally. “Holly” would be my one true name, if I had just one, and it’s not my legal name.

I personally always thought I would take my husband’s last name (legally) when I got married. I would be sad to see mine go, I thought, but (1) I wanted the family unity, (2) not every ancestor can be memorialized anyway, and (3) I agree with the patrilineal system for naming children. (It gives men a little pride in household and family as well as some assurance of paternity. Why not throw them a bone? There’s no doubt who the mother is.) But then I got married at 21, and I just wasn’t ready to change the very words by which I refer to myself. So I stayed Holly Elmore.

But I still want my children to share my name, and our family unit to have a short and distinct designation. Changing my legal name at this point is really not appealing. I wouldn’t have the momentum of a wedding behind the change, I have publications (including this blog) under Elmore, I have networks that know me as Holly Elmore, and I simply like my name as it is. If I legally changed my last name to Todd, I’d have to figure out what to do about my middle name, “Hollingsworth,” from which my parents derived “Holly.” I wouldn’t want to lose that link between my social and legal names or things could get confusing. I would have to go through all the legal rigmarole of changing my last name to Todd, possibly having to change Martha or Hollingsworth in the process, only to use Elmore socially, like, more than half the time. And, frankly, to have to erase Elmore to be able to adopt Todd would feel like an erasure of my identity. Why does becoming part of something bigger, a marriage, have to supersede my individual identity?

So it hit me. Why not simply use “Todd” socially in family and children situations? Todd doesn’t have to replace Elmore– they can both be in my repertoire. All I really want is a sense of family unity. I don’t want a wholesale replacement of my identity in every context, and it’s just not necessary. Changing your name to your husband’s family name was most sensible when you moved upon marriage to live with his family. You were now of that House. Why not treat marriage the same way today, as gaining a new title instead of erasing your base name? I am Holly, Martha, Dr. Elmore, Lady Todd, Mrs. Todd to my future children’s friends… I can be all these things! And, should Hudson ever want to use my name socially, he is free to do so as well. (“Hudson [Elmore] Todd” could solve the “Todd Hudson” error he has faced every day of his life.) Why is this not already the most popular option?

Changing your legal name to reflect a social change, marriage, also frustrates the whole purpose of legally documented names– to identify the same individual over space and time. Filing name change paperwork and updating every legal form of identification is a hassle for us, and it still doesn’t do that good of a job linking up documents with different names. Chalk this up to my time building a database, but I don’t think the identifier should change every time an alias is added.

I believe I will also give my kids the name “Elmore” socially, without creating legal headaches. “First name” “Middle name” [Elmore] Todd. Possessing my name legally isn’t really what matters to me– what I want is the sense of bequeathing them my legacy as an individual and not just a member of team Todd. I’ll do that regardless, but the name I’ve answered to most of my life is a particularly potent symbol. I’m not having kids yet, so who knows how I’ll feel then, but for now the idea of giving my children my name extralegally meets my needs. Let their legal name and the name they pass down to their children be Todd, but, hell, if my grandchildren want to use Elmore socially, I say why not? As long as they consistently put down their legal name on forms and don’t try to mislead people about their identity, why shouldn’t my descendants use as many of their ancestor’s names as they like?

If we allow legal names to serve their functions– clearly identifying the same individual over time– and social names to serve their functions– honoring ancestors, reflecting relationships and group membership, reflecting our preferences– then the messy issue of changing and assigning names in the making of a family suddenly gets a lot easier. If we don’t limit ourselves to one name to serve every function, I think we can have it all.

Being smart

Being smart is rad. As a tool, it mostly lives up to the hype. But it can never define the real you. Or fill the hole in your heart… The more I’ve given to being smart the emptier it feels. I thought being smart would allow me to be secure in myself, finally sure that I wasn’t making a mistake by loving myself.

I remember the day that being smart became central to my identity. I was 8 years old, sitting in my fourth grade classroom, and I remember the lights were low. We were doing some kind of interactive activity with the TV. If I recall correctly, the TV asked a question that was a bit advanced for fourth graders. Nobody spoke but all the heads I could see turned toward me. In my memory their faces were all full of the same sort of innocent admiration. I don’t remember if I had the answer or not. I just remember realizing “they all think I’m smart.”

It’s not that I hadn’t been told I was smart before that. Since I could talk, adults would fawn over my vocabulary. Standardized testing that threatened to send my classmates to repeat a grade was always a breeze for me, even kind of fun. I was already the star writer in that same class.  But that incident was different, because I realized it was common knowledge that I was smart. I might have been the smartest kid in that class. It was a real opportunity to be special.

You see, though I had always aspired to be special, I hadn’t always aspired to be smart. The earliest aspiration I remember was to be beautiful and have a great romance with a great man that would prove what a beautiful, good girl I was. What can I say? I watched princess movies and I was (am) drawn to beauty. I wanted what they had. I wanted to know I was good and important.

When I was a little older, alongside beauty, I started to value wisdom. Again, there were always wise sages in these princess movies, and they usually had magical powers through their wisdom. I wanted secret knowledge that gave me the ability to heal and predict the future. (I was sad that I wasn’t part of an indigenous culture that had a direct line to nature’s wisdom, as my movies had taught me indigenous people have. Also felt ashamed of being from the boring styrofoam white conquering race, but that’s a whole other post.) And beautiful women have to have some kind of retirement plan.

I always had other things going on. I had creative things like choir singing and having a visual arts major in middle and high school. Runner-up for defining my identity was moral superiority, what with my precocious vegetarianism and ramrod follow-the-rules rectitude. (Interestingly, this one took the foreground once I was at Harvard.) But being smart just always ended up being my comparative advantage. It was the worthiness hustle that presented itself.

It’s true that I am pretty smart. But I worry that seeing myself as my intellect has directed my life choices too much. Taking a bunch of advanced classes and reading mindblowing books was genuinely what I most wanted to do in high school. I love being spoonfed knowledge at a rapid pace, and I also love to be tested on that knowledge. But pursuing a PhD, and especially pushing myself into more and more quantitative subjects, was unduly influenced by the need to excel at the role of smart person. (To be fair, those decisions also owed to an illusion I had that being a scientist would give me this special deep insight into the nature of things. Fwiw, I’ve gotten more of that from reading textbooks than actually being a scientist.)

More damaging are the everyday choices that my smart ego leads me to make, like always needing to know everything and have a well-informed and original take. Like not having the patience and self-esteem to easily endure a real intellectual challenge. Like, tragically, taking what used to be my favorite things, learning and knowledge, and turning them into just an opportunity to affirm my smart identity.

The more I’ve given to being smart the emptier it feels. I thought being smart would allow me to be secure in myself, finally sure that I wasn’t making a mistake by loving myself. I’m gradually returning to a time before my fourth grade classmates turned their adoring faces expectantly towards my superior intellect. A time before I was smart and smart was me. It’s no coincidence that I’m coming back to finish this post two days before I defend my PhD dissertation, my defense slides visible in the other window in Powerpoint. Completing this degree symbolizes many things for me (most of all a triumph over major adversity and intense psychological struggle), and among them is closing the book on the Holly that strives to be smart rather than be herself. I’m getting a PhD from Harvard. I’m getting the proof of my intelligence that I always wanted, and I know now for a fact that being smart will not give me what I really want. To feel good and important is to believe that my worthiness is innate, not conditional, and not the product of working on myself.

Being smart is rad. As a tool, it mostly lives up to the hype. But it can never define the real you. Or fill the hole in your heart.

Watering the plant

My old approach to depression and anxiety was to take a wilted plant (me) and try to engineer exactly how to force it to stand up straight again. “Reinforce the stem!” “Correct droop 30 degrees!” “Leaves, uncrinkle!” And then I went about implementing those changes, essentially by rigging up a traction apparatus to hold the cracked, desiccated plant in the correct shape and flattening the crumbling leaves with my palms.

Of course what the plant really needs is simple: water, sunshine, perhaps some fertilizer. It does not need to be micromanaged, and no amount of rigging and instructions can take the place of water. Most of the desired aims achieve themselves when the plant is hydrated– the plant stands straight and the stem is turgid. But some of the aims were mistaken– perhaps it was time for the dried leaves to be shed.

When you’re in pain or you sense something is deeply wrong, what you need is probably not to be corrected. You need nurturing to grow back to health. Of course there are times when a plant needs to be pruned or splinted, but when it comes to emotional issues, top-down corrections are probably missing the point. What the plant really needs is life itself.

Volunteer to receive personalized conceptual art?

Update (9:50 pm, 2-11-20): Wow, what an amazing response! I think I have all the volunteers I need. Thanks so much everyone for your interest!

Hello readers and friends! I am developing a conceptual art series which I eventually plan to sell. Each piece is customized for the recipient. I have already made many for myself and some for family. But I need some volunteers to recieve FREE pieces! I need help to figure out how much consultation is typically needed, how long it takes me to make a piece based on a consultation, what price you would be willing to pay, what sales platform you find easiest to use, what and how much explanatory material I should provide, etc.

If you’re down, the consultation would be by Skype and take either 30 minutes or an hour (I’m testing both lengths), you may spend up to half an hour reading things like instructions for the consultation and the artist’s statement. After the official consultation, I’d like to spend half an hour talking about your client experience, and after you’ve used the piece, I’d like to talk again about how it went. So predicted time spent is max 2.5 hours. But I promise this will be fun. Commissioning the piece is basically just talking about yourself. And the piece itself is a piece of practical, custom-designed conceptual art made especially for you.

Sorry to be so vague about the art itself! I’m not ready to put the idea out there until I’m in business. If you want to know more about the series, and especially if you want to volunteer, just email me with the form below. (You won’t be on the hook to volunteer just for asking for more information.) And please share this post with anyone you think may be interested 🙂