It has been a week. Or two. This substack is called “Howie’s Optimism Club,” but dang it’s been hard to exemplify that lately. I don’t need to list all the stuff but here’s a little bit: this week we learned about a woman with a baby whose brain and skull weren’t fully formed, who didn’t get the option to terminate the pregnancy because of Texas laws, and then had to do a gofundme to pay for funeral costs. Tennessee melted down in the wake of another AR-15 aided school shooting, then Republicans expanded gun access. Weather events predicted since at least the 1950s if we didn’t reduce carbon emissions are happening. In my state we went from a record-breaking drought to a record-breaking winter, again as the prophets foretold.
It feels like a time to talk about why this substack is called what it is.
This year so far I’ve read five books by Becky Chambers, starting with the Monk and Robot series and then moving on to the Wayfarers series. Sticking with just one author is abnormal for me. My general policy is that I usually don’t barrel through a body of work like this. If I love it, I savor it.
For comparison’s sake, Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Series, which may be my favorite literature anything ever, took me 4 years to read and there are four of them. I thought of them like a king-sized Twix, the four bars of which I have parceled out to make it through a difficult work day. Each chocolate/caramel/cookie confection a treat for surviving the various puzzles and difficult conversations of the day. I knew that I would never read these books for the first time again and that was (and is) sad to think about. So I spaced them out and read many books in between.
Chambers is different than Ferrante, though. Like, in so many ways. I can’t imagine there’s another piece of writing on this entire internet where these two authors are being compared. If you haven’t read either, it would be like if I were heading onto Substack with an article titled “High Noon and Shrek: How Hollywood Exiles Dismantled Systems and Defined Generations.” I think I could actually write that.
Anyway, each part of Ferrante’s absolutely stunning epic would make me feel exhausted, emotionally wrung-out. They spun my worldview around, and I think I’m a better person having read them, but like too many Twix, they gave me a tummy ache. I don’t have the space to fully get into it, but you can read all about my reactions here and here. It’s a journey. But while it made me aware of things I’d never noticed before, it didn’t make me feel better about the world.
Becky Chambers’ writing, on the other hand, invigorates. And like many of us in these exceptionally unsure and trying times, I really needed that. Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know you needed fresh fruit, and then you’re at a function and they have one of those massive colorful platters and you just destroy it? You’re double-fisting strawberries, grapes, and pineapple and people are staring and you’re just like, “I didn’t know I needed fresh fruit until this very second.” But they can’t even understand what you’re saying because you’re pounding nutrients? That’s this.
This concludes the extended Ferrante is Twix, Chambers is fruit platter portion of this piece. It’s an introduction to a bigger metaphor that got away from me a bit because I think maybe my body really needs some fruit right now. At this point I’m wondering why I didn’t just use Neopolitan ice cream as the treat other than I don’t like it, there are three flavors and four books, and it doesn’t make sense as a work snack. Let’s not think too much about that. We’re not talking about the Twix/Ice Cream anymore. We’re talking about the watermelon. The watermelon is optimism.
I could spend a lot time describing what the Chambers series are about but it’s not important for what I wanted to talk about. I’ll just say I’ve heard her writing described as “cozy sci-fi” and “hopepunk.” That probably tells you a lot. Essentially they portray a future in which people have things figured out more than they do now. And one of the ways they figured things out just happened to coincide with my very fundamental belief system.
See, in Record of the Spaceborn Few, there’s this massive tragedy at the beginning resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. Then around the middle there’s this very small (in comparison) death. People are overwhelmed by the random and unpreventable enormous one to the point where they can hardly process it. In the midst of all that horror, one young man dies and five other people are left to figure out what it means. It focuses and changes everyone’s lives in a way that the uncomprehensible, numbing event cannot.
For some, it shakes them out of comfort zones and patterns that were unsustainable. We’ve seen this in stories before. For one of them, though, it inspires action. And those are the people who interest me the most. That character creates a small team of people to help newcomers to their society acclimate in order to avoid future tragedy. There was an injustice. There may be a way to avoid repeating it in the future. And if there is we need to try.
Last year around this time my wife and I represented the domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocate non-profit where we volunteer for a a volunteer fair. In between conversations with folks looking for volunteer opportunities, I wandered around to the other booths and was reminded that no one of us has to solve every problem. And that many of the social ills we deal with are not only related, but there’s someone already working on it.
For example: a major stumbling block for some women fleeing domestic violence is immigration status. They are in the country legally only as long as they are married to a citizen. If that citizen is abusive, it creates complications for someone to escape, and is therefore a weapon used by abusers to further control their victim. So I traded business cards with the booth down the way that paired pro-bono lawyers with people seeking immigration aid.
I worry sometimes that with social media we’re expected to have a take about every single thing we see on the news. There’s a lot of criticism if someone with a platform is silent on a big issue. None of us are educated enough to know the ins and outs of each subject, so instead we just share memes of people who summarized a complex issue into a tweet or infographic that kind of fit the way we see it. Are those people experts? Who knows!
We think we’re fixing things, but I don’t really see how. Maybe something goes viral and a policy maker sees it? I don’t know. What I do know is that tonight somewhere there will be a victim of sexual assault alone in an ER and an instagram share isn’t advocating for them, or helping them fill out the paperwork they’ll need to get free therapy. Or there’s a mom in a domestic violence shelter who needs a shower but has an energetic toddler who needs watching. Does a tweet help her, specifically, in that moment?
I can’t fix everything, and can barely fix anything, but I can do a little bit and have confidence that someone else is doing their little bit, too. And between all of us we start to fill in the cracks in our society. I like to think that we’re all working in a big garden and all the threats to a garden are there, but also all the nice little parts are there, too. The pests and the ladybugs both.
But good work doesn’t get done unless we all settle in and tend our little plot consistently. If I’ve spent years just honing my skills with tomatoes, I’m more helpful working there day in and out than I would be if I was scrambling around with other wannabe gardeners who all think they have to cover the whole thing all at once. In that case we are not much help, and could be getting in someone else’s way.
Let’s say you don’t know how to do any of it very well, but want to help. You could just find a space and start digging, not knowing who may already be working there, and learn it from scratch and repeating the trial and error thousands have learned from before. Or you could find someone already doing the thing and ask “What do you need?” Maybe they need you to run compost back and forth. It’s not glamorous or skilled labor, and it may be hard to post a selfie online while doing it. But it makes a difference. Maybe they don’t even have a spot for you yet, they just need you to buy seeds.
Last year when Roe V. Wade was overturned, there was a lot of talk about the “Auntie Network,” or some pretty tone-deaf calls for a new Underground Railroad (let’s please not call it that). I saw a lot of social media posts from well-meaning people offering to drive people to abortion appointments or offering help and lodging. This is a nice sentiment, but it forgets the part that for decades, a post-Roe world was already a reality for many Americans. In 2017, when few thought Roe would be overturned, there were already 27 cities of more than 100,000 population that were over 100 miles from a legal abortion. In light of these circumstances, abortion funds have been helping people for decades. It’s all they do. They’re so good at it. They understand the legal framework and, most importantly, don’t depend on predominately very young and very vulnerable women going to stranger’s houses and getting into stranger’s cars. Especially in an environment where there are people pretending to help who actually don’t want to help at all.
Because I talk about it a lot on social media, I sometimes have people reach out and ask how they can help a friend or family member flee domestic violence, or how to be a support for a loved one who has been sexually assaulted. My advice is always to involve professionals. Bringing someone in your house seems like the very obvious Right Thing To Do, but it can create problems. DV often has many layers, and expert case workers can help untangle those and find resources to help. They also have boundaries and best management practices based on the cumulative knowledge they get from networks and conferences. Being a support for someone dealing with trauma is hard work, and there are lots of ways we can unintentionally cause damage. Most of us aren’t therapists, and I’ve never heard of a therapist who would take on a close friend or family member as a client. There are good reasons for that.
The easiest way to make a difference is with money, but some of us (a lot of us) don’t have that, so we give time. Non-profits can always use volunteers, but they probably aren’t going to put you on the front line doing hero duty right away. There’s state-mandated training and background checks. And even then you may start out sorting donations or making copies or filing. Maybe one day you just clean. Or weed a literal garden. It helps! When you free up time and energy for experts who have dedicated their lives to learning how to best be a support to the people who need it, your community benefits. Over time when you’ve learned some things and earned some trust, you may take on tasks that bring more personal satisfaction in addition to being an active force for good.
It sounds dopey maybe but really think that’s how we save the world. It’s a combination of people using their skills and resources to get really good at one thing, and then doing just that thing. It can be professional, if you’re in a job where what you do is trying to fix this stuff. Maybe you have professional skills that make you a good volunteer, or you’ve made enough money to be a benefactor to an organization that can multiply your donations via grants. Or maybe you’re just some dude who found out in his late 30s/early 40s that he’s a calming presence in an emergency room during someone’s worst night of their life. There’s a spot for all of us in the garden if we’re willing to try.
A lot of fiction looks at the worst of humanity and assumes that it’s inevitable that someday those traits will win and everything will go all Mad Max. What if that’s self-fulfilling? If we have no vision of how lovely our future will be, we give up. Cautionary tales are only helpful when compared to something truly great. And if we want to see what that looks like, I’ve got a volunteer event for you to attend.
I almost don't know what to reply to first, so I will start with thank you. I like your garden metaphor very much. I will say, that for those who can't find options of volunteerism in their corners of the earth, digging in the small plot of garden they find is still better than doing nothing. So many of the needs out there are based on human kindness, and any act that acknowledges basic humanity and the rights and needs that go with it in daily acts of kindness help to build hope, which I can attest to being life-changing. But I agree that re-inventing the wheel is such a waste of good intentions. And yes, kudos to those who support the people who are trained in areas that one cannot just step into blindly, we may all like eating that watermelon, but it wouldn't exist without the vine, soil, water, sun, pollinators, and seed. Your idea of the garden speaks to me most loudly because of your involvement of so many,- like a community garden. Because one can be a kind human because "that is who I am". or one can be a kind human because "I believe my act of kindness can be transformative for another".And ultimately, hope is necessary for us to face and improve our chances in the future.
If people want to help teachers (besides by voting for education advocates), volunteering at schools can help! Being willing to do WHATEVER is asked of you is super important though, since it’s frustrating to have people who only want to do certain tasks - if school employees don’t have work of that type at that moment, the volunteering effort is useless. Anyway, I love the idea of tending one part of society in the best way you know how ❤️