In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:
In her essay in Pacific Standard, Rahawa Haile writes about identity, the anxiety of origins, and the search for a grounded life in unstable, isolating locales. Born to Eritrean parents, Haile grew up in Miami, Florida, speaking English and Tigrinya in a low land of built of hurricane deposits that felt doomed to rising sea levels. As America and Europe argue about how to treat refugees from war-torn nations, Haile struggles to reconcile the two parts of herself, and wonders what will happen to Eritrea, and to all the people who flee their homes in Africa and the Middle East.
When politicians campaign on platforms of keeping Africans out of their country. When the anti-blackness in the surrounding MENA region goes largely unreported. When the refugee camps in the country you gained independence from are overflowing with your people. When the journey to South Africa, a popular refuge for African migrants, is met with xenophobic attacks. When crossing the Red Sea into Yemen means entering a war zone; when Yemenis are crossing the Red Sea into the Horn you fled. When human traffickers are harvesting your organs in the Sinai. When the open ports of Libya have no despot to keep you on your side of the grave. When drowning is the best option. When the world asks wouldn’t it be convenient to stay in place? To see your doom as your salvation? Now that they have all tried their hand at exploiting your land, your people, your geography—and since autonomy can only be granted by those who have control over the physical world. After all this, how, how, how. How can we keep you there?
In 2015, I started to copy my weekly horoscopes into my journal. I didn’t do it every week, but I did it often enough that it became something like a practice. I subscribed to several astrological-themed TinyLetters, which led to three hours researching tarot, which led to…well, you get the idea. 2015 was rough, and it feels right to start off 2016 on an optimistic, mystical note.
“As skeptics have long argued, part of what makes astrology appealing (and so easily proven “true”) is that each sign of the zodiac has a cluster of traits assigned to it that may be found in nearly any person. Astrology could thus be seen as a humanizing corrective to other, worse stereotypes. To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.”
Although there are several types of exorcism, the one most commonly imagined in popular culture is the solemn or “major” exorcism, a ritual to rid a possessed person of the demon or demons that inhabit their body—not merely a prayer for spiritual healing. Solemn exorcisms can be performed only by Catholic priests, and only then with the express permission of a bishop. Exorcism is not one of the seven Catholic sacraments, but the ritual is sacramental, meaning that the rite’s success is not dependent on the formulaic approach common to Catholic sacraments, but rather the exorcist’s faith and the authorization of a bishop.
In light of the Vatican’s concerns over heightened demonic activity around the world and the apparently urgent need for more exorcist-priests, training courses have been offered to equip the next generation of exorcists with the spiritual knowledge they need to expel demons from their non-consensual hosts. More than 170 priests and laypersons alike gathered in Rome for the most recent course, which was held at the Sacerdos Institute, an organization of priests affiliated with the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, an educational institute of the Catholic Church. The course, which costs around $330, covers numerous topics, including the theological, liturgical, and canonical aspects of exorcism, as well as its anthropological history, its potential place within the criminal justice system, plus medical and neurological issues surrounding demonic possession.
As she prepares to transition out of sex work and into writing full-time, Charlotte Shane reflects on the politics of identity—specifically, her decision to call herself a prostitute:
I’ve called myself a prostitute for about as long as I’ve been one. I can’t remember exactly when I adopted the name but I know it felt like the most accurate term given the service I provide, and I like the solidarity of it, the refusal to kowtow to class-related stigma or what is sometimes called the “whorearchy” inside the sex industry…
Crowding what I do into the larger umbrella of “sex work,” without its own name, makes it seem as if I’m supposed to experience what I do as shameful. That my specific work can’t have a name; and that I’m supposed to accept the stigma that surrounds prostitution more intensely than any other form of sexual labor by using vague language to try to elide that stigma. It feels too much like an implication that there really is something bad and wrong about charging money to engage directly with someone else’s genitals, so I must never describe it as it is. I’m not OK with that. To make it verboten in public discourse puts us in agreement with those who think it’s a shameful life for shameful people.
If stopped by the police, I thought to myself, I would set my phone to record audio and put it on the passenger seat. I would send a tweet that I was being stopped and had every intention of complying with the police officer. I would turn on Periscope and livestream the stop, crowdsourcing witnesses. I would text my family and tell them that I was not feeling angry or suicidal, that I was looking forward to seeing them soon. There would not be time to do all of these things, but maybe if I prepared in advance I could pull off one or two of them. What all of these plans had in common were that none of them were meant to secure my safety, but rather to ensure that my death looked suspicious enough to question.
I was figuring out how to enter evidence into the inquiry of my own death.
Impostor syndrome has been covered extensively in recent years. Its inverse, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is at least as pervasive: our innate tendency to confidently claim expertise in topics we know very little about, sometimes to embarrassing (if not tragic) results. Writing for Pacific Standard, David Dunning, who led the first studies of this phenomenon, explores the ways in which our inflated sense of knowledge is a defining attribute of human nature.
The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance—as an absence of knowledge—leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence. Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.
In cases like this, the most enlightened approach, as proposed by Swedish researcher Nils Petter Gregersen, may be to avoid teaching such skills at all. Instead of training drivers how to negotiate icy conditions, Gregersen suggests, perhaps classes should just convey their inherent danger—they should scare inexperienced students away from driving in winter conditions in the first place, and leave it at that.