Camping Trip Mornings

My favorite moment of any camping trip is the first morning.

I wake up in my tent having finally made it through a spooky and often uncomfortable night–air mattresses and sleeping bags are not my thing–and feel relieved. I can hear dry leaves and twigs crunching beneath footsteps, the thud of hiking boots on dirt and gravel. Water pours from a spigot nearby as someone fills a kettle or washes their hands. There are sleepy conversations, debates about breakfast and pleas for the kids to brush their teeth. Having never been camping with anyone besides my family and their boisterous, colorful friends, I’ve only ever heard these discussions in Russian. Camping, like baking, knitting, and skiing, happens in my native language.

Outside the smoke curls lazily from campfires that finally collapsed shortly before dawn. Pale morning sunlight filters through the canopies of the trees, catches the drifting smoke, stumbles over the tops of the tents, and finally lands in my little sister’s hair, glowing golden, as she pulls me over for breakfast.

The picnic tables almost sag with the weight of the food and drink. Last night’s empty bottles line the tables, but so do this morning’s omelets, sausages, bread, cheese, hardboiled eggs, bagels, fruit, and tea. People shove food into my hands. Water from last night’s apparent rain runs off the blue tarp that hangs over the tables, and I find a dry spot to sit with my paper plate.

And as I look out from my perch at this small piece of the world, the things that seemed so treacherous in the dark just last night–the things you trip over, the things you step into, the things that cast creepy shadows in the firelight–now look boringly normal. The perilous trek to the campground toilets now reveals itself as a short and simple path. The black water of unfathomable depth that I saw at the edge of the flashlight’s beam is just a pond. Dragonflies flit over it, and a frog croaks at its edge.

In the morning, everything suddenly feels safe and familiar again.

When I feel scared, uncomfortable, and alone, I sometimes think about those camping trip mornings, and about how the exact same things can seem so much safer in the sunlight. This visualization that is also a memory calms me down. I think about the transformation that happens at sunrise that first day, of threatening to friendly, strange to familiar.

That transformation is mirrored in my own life to a frustrating degree. People I once held my tongue around and felt anxious with become my closest friends. Streets I explored cautiously, my eyes darting around as though searching for threats, become streets I walk down proudly, yet casually. Things that seemed burdensome and inconvenient to do become routines: ignorable at worst, comfortable at best.

It may not sound like something you’d describe as “frustrating,” but I do, because I can’t seem give myself permission to not be okay with everything immediately. Why couldn’t I have immediately recognized that person as the lovely friend that they are? Why didn’t I see these streets as my home? Why couldn’t I always do these things easily and automatically?

It’s just not how my brain works. I’d venture to guess it’s not how most people’s brains work.

I wish I were someone who craved novelty, who relished the unfamiliar, who reveled in uncertainty. Someone who could cherish their memories without feeling desperate to relive them. But I am not that person. I want it to feel like the camping trip morning all the time. I want to wake up and realize that I know exactly where I am, mentally and physically. I want to stumble outside, rubbing the dreams from my eyes, and see the people I love there waiting for me.

And most of all, I want to feel that these are acceptable things to want.

Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.