The Blue Bird
The lake lay blue below the hill,
O’er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.
The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.
Mary E. Coleridge
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge was the grandniece of the famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She practically couldn’t help but be some kind of a writer, as Tennyson, Browning, Trollope and Ruskin — all the good old poets of the late 18th-early 19th century canon — were fixtures around the house as she was growing up. Unlike many Victorian women of her generation, she learned tons of languages, traveled, and wrote like a fiend… under a pseudonym, when she wrote poetry, of course — wouldn’t want to disgrace the family. She also wrote under E. Coleridge when she wrote her novels.
Meanwhile, across the waters in Dublin, another young person was raised up in his art. Charles Villier Stanford was the son of a cello-playing lawyer and a pianist mother, both of whom sang. While he was meant to be a lawyer, he also was composing little songs by the age of four — so, that law thing was not happening, and this was underscored when he won a scholarship to Cambridge. Stanford is known today for his skill with English “partsong.” Partsong is generally an a cappella arrangement in a four-part harmony of a secular song with an elevated, high-minded theme – nature, etc. It’s a very English thing, and it was super-popular in the 17th century, and then made a roaring comeback in the 19th. Modern partsong composers include famous men such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten. Holst and Vaughan Williams were Stanford’s students at Cambridge.
This lovely and haunting arrangement of Mary E. Coleridge’s poem is by John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers… I don’t suppose either one of them ever imagined I would still be singing their song years and years and years later in Scotland. Sadly, I don’t have a recording of our choir singing it, but it’s enough that, once upon a time, I did. ☺
So, you know how I’m always going on about people doing a good job writing the other? Andre gets it. Go to the whole cartoon. Click to embiggen. Read the whole cartoon? Note the recurring theme? What must you start with???? A GOOD CHARACTER. No matter, then, if you’re also making them blind, Cambexican, chair-bound, bipolar, werewolf, purple-with-pink-spots, lesbian, pregnant, marathoner, arc-welders, mitten-knitting, bus-riding, knock-kneed, tea-sipping, English-side-saddle-competitors. Once you start where you need to start, the rest falls into place. Once Upon a Time
above the gates of Story, the password
Portals beckon – Choose Your Own.
Any hand. One key.
So, you know how I’m always going on about people doing a good job writing the other? Andre gets it.
Go to the whole cartoon. Click to embiggen.
Read the whole cartoon? Note the recurring theme? What must you start with???? A GOOD CHARACTER. No matter, then, if you’re also making them blind, Cambexican, chair-bound, bipolar, werewolf, purple-with-pink-spots, lesbian, pregnant, marathoner, arc-welders, mitten-knitting, bus-riding, knock-kneed, tea-sipping, English-side-saddle-competitors. Once you start where you need to start, the rest falls into place.
Once Upon a Time
Hat tip, Medieval POC blog, for digging through the N.K. Jemisin blog archives. Nora Jemisin, far more articulate than I explained the name of my blog in 2012!:
“There is a strange emptiness to life without myths.
I am African American — by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops. As if there was nothing there.
I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves “Caucasian”, most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore.
These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.”
- Fantasy author N.K. Jemisin in “Dreaming Awake”, a essay from her blog.
When I was a child, I didn’t want the mythology that was constructed for me, out of snippets of Encyclopedia Britannica, pictures of The Middle Passage and the Ebony Magazine three volume compendium called Black History. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted what it seemed like everyone else had – family stories that spanned hundreds of years. And, I didn’t have it. I have zero idea who my great-great grandparents are on one side – even my grandfather on one side. On the other, my great-great grandparents literally walked out of the swamp and… walked back in again, and history faded. They didn’t speak English. They didn’t live in a “normal” house. And, nobody thought to write much down. Gone. That’s … all of me. Gone. One of my best friends lives in a house surrounded by her ancestor’s possessions, and sometimes, it all gets to be a little much. To feel yourself cut off – well, I’ve mentioned before the Welsh and the Portuguese have a word for that. The Welsh say hiraeth , and the Portuguese say saudade. An incoherent sadness, a profound longing for a …different self. A different past. Something that never was, so you can never have it, nor ever did. A grief over a lost history.
“Throughout my life as I’ve sought to become a published writer of speculative fiction, my strongest detractors and discouragers have been other African Americans. These were people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: black people don’t read. Black people can’t write. Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime. No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them. No one wants to write about black people, which is why you never see a black protagonist. Even if you self-publish, black people won’t support you. And if you aim for traditional publication, no one who matters — that is, white people — will buy your work.
(A corollary of all this: there is only black and white. Nothing else matters.)”
Aaaaargh. Her whole essay made me tear up; I hope you find time to read it. Putting these words in the context of myself and my experiences — and within the context of the conversation about YA lit and how having people of color on book covers creates such a deleterious effect, and how even seeing that there are stories written by and about people of color allegedly kill sales and how guys – and guys of color, especially — don’t read anyway — wow. Wow. I think I need to type this essay on my skin in all caps and remember that the myths of my own life that others try to feed me are lies; to remember that I MATTER. And my stories. And that it’s PERSONAL, and I need to give up the idiocy of trying to be kind to people who say they “don’t see color.”
I am giving up disingenuousness for Lent.
So, yeah. Fiction, instead of lies. My own chosen myths, instead of the myths of others. Man, the freedom in that – it’s a helluva thing, folks.
But if people didn’t really “see” color, why was I the only one getting asked about martial arts and told I spoke English very well? Why did I always have to play Sulu during make-believe Star Trek at recess? If people still treated me differently, maybe it was because I wasn’t acting enough like everyone else or trying hard enough not to see skin color, especially my own.
I appreciate the way writing allows me to delve more deeply into certain subjects. Once again, this is supposed to be The Weekend Word, but lately, whatever. It’s Wednesday. The Wednesday Word it is. This time, I’m thinking about Othering within the context of a few things that have happened in my life lately. Please note that I’m not teaching, here, but am writing through this in an attempt to explain the issue to myself so that I, who allegedly want to write about and embrace diversity, can write about it and embrace it both more subtly and more effectively.
Sooo, this Black History Month has been interesting – I have had three very different experiences with responses in my community. After Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, a woman of color approached me after a musical program I took part in with a Caucasian friend, and held forth on how inappropriate it was for us to talk about MLK, Jr’s favorite music, and it wasn’t my fault, because I was young, but I didn’t know anything, and how inappropriate it was for Caucasians to tell “her story.” You know how it is when someone older than you speaks, and they’re on a tear? You just listen. Nobody asked you to speak, you’re an ear, for the conversation – I know you’ve had those experiences before.
The other experience was working with a Caucasian person who referred to slavery in her talks during Black History Month. She frequently repeated the phrase, “those people,” as in, “Put yourself in the place of those people, and understand the privations they experienced! And yet, they went forth and did these things. Those people suffered. Those people died…”
The third experience was of a young Asian American teacher talking about her experiences in China among the leper colonies – a place she never intended to go, but a place she has been changed and challenged by visiting. She was talking about the lessons that she learned from the people there. She showed pictures of the people with whom she worked – it was a fairly intense and, at times, disturbing presentation. She was not soliciting funds or volunteers, but just sharing her experience with the colony, the country, and the people.
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Good grief does the “how” matter in this world. How we tell our story – and what we define as ours seems to be based in how we identify ourselves.
I must admit that I’m kind of “meh” on Black History Month; teachers of color often are. There’s an irony just waiting to be voiced – the shortest month of the year for talks on “tolerance” and forced exercises in African American appreciation. It’s… sometimes distasteful. It feels staged, boring, blah. It feels like one month a year, people are making a big fuss over something that happened two hundred years ago (slavery), and corporately and individually ignoring that time during the rest of the year, as if it’s a single episode floating untethered from history. Now, I know many, many teachers try and make it vivid and lively for our children and young adults, but obviously, you can’t embrace diversity if appreciation of differences and background happen a.)half-hardheartedly, b.) with an eye only to North America and c.) consisting of historical, non-contemporary input, and d.) only once a year.
That being said: I didn’t feel my Caucasian colleague and I did badly in talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. I apparently don’t identify strongly enough as a Civil Rights person to feel that someone getting details wrong was making a hash of “my” story – and that may largely because I am not political, nor am I old enough to have been alive or aware in the sixties and early seventies when most of the Equal Rights Amendment and Civil Rights stuff was going on. (I won’t even go into the indictment that “you’re too young” is — no.) More important, though, was the fact that this person clearly delineated to me that there was an “us” and there was a “them” and “they” were messing up “her” tale. Not only was I awkwardly caught in the middle, I was frustrated. Educated, professional people are supposed to be past all that… aren’t they? Obviously, no.
The second experience was more difficult – because it was so well meant, yet so obviously wrong. It overlaps a bit with the third experience for me. To be blunt, people of other cultures are not here to teach you things. I mean, unless they’re teachers, duh. But, they’ve not been put on earth for you to learn “lessons” of simplicity or grace or steadfastness or — really, anything. So, when my colleague talked about the African slaves, and how they suffered, and how we could take the idea of their suffering and perseverance and apply it to our own lives… She meant well. She meant so well. But, no.
French philosopher Michael Foucault defined our Word: “Othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we ‘other’ another group, we point out their perceived weakness to make ourselves look stronger or better.” From Othering 101: “…any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.” Author Arjuna Ardagh: “OTHER” |ˈəðər| verb 1. to attribute qualities onto another person, often a celebrity in the news, so as to avoid acknowledging these same qualities within oneself:
[as verb. ] hey, don’t other Clinton, most married men have done stuff like that | I went to a meeting with the Dalai Lama. It was great but people tend to other him by putting him above them.”
So, here you have three ways to look at it – staging yourself as Hero and another person as Victim, staging yourself as insignificant, and another person as Awesome, or ascribing stereotypical attributes to another group. To be honest, I don’t think my colleague was at all trying to rob people of dignity — but in repeating “these people,” as if they were somehow not people like her, she underscored the idea that she didn’t think of them as people like her. See, for me, the horror of slavery becomes that much more central when you fail to divorce yourself from either side of it. When we don’t recuse ourselves from the brutality and the mindless boredom, the depravity and the insanity, really – you cannot speak of it as if it happened to someone else, but you either speak less – which would be a good option, overall- and think more, or you speak more carefully, more thoughtfully.
Writing my last manuscript, I had an instance when an elderly woman was injured. Previously, I had her injured while her home was ransacked for prescription drugs. I mentioned this to Tech Boy, and he… paused.
I have come to know that pause.
“How often does that actually happen?” he asked.
“Uh, it happens,” I assured him. “She doesn’t live in a nice area, she lives in a trailer park, actually, and –”
“Y’know, statistically, that’s probably happened to, like, ten people in the entire United States? But it’s one of those crimes talked about as aggressions from young African American males against Caucasian seniors. It’s one of those trigger-point kinds of inflated statistics that politicians use to make older Caucasians feel vulnerable – and more likely to vote for them. It’s… um… actually, racist. And, when you write stuff like that, you’re, uh, perpetuating racism – Don’t hit me!“
No, I didn’t hit him.
Recent confirmed news stories have tons of prescription theft stories in them… but they take place between tractor trailers, pharmacies, and warehouses. They involve doctors, technicians, medical stores, and patient relatives. Not one story about little old ladies being murdered in their beds, and their heart meds stolen. Not one.
THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT IT DOES NOT HAPPEN. Seriously, lambs, don’t come at me with that. I know – it happens to people, you have specific, individual people you know personally to whom it happened. Yes. Okay. Please don’t think I’m trying to take that away from you. But! This crime happens NOT in the numbers that the pass-it-along-via-email, anti-Snopes (I ♥ Snopes! Debunks urban legend, every time) crowd would have us believe. Not in the “Oh, dangerous world!” levels that politicians might apply to make us unseat an incumbent. As always, I owe Tech Boy for his input – he’s a great behind-the-scenes reader and commenter (which is why I’m totally outing him lately), but it just pinged my conscience to imagine what other discrepancies I had passed on, because the Other is so clearly foreign to me – those drug-stealing thugs. They’re not like me – they’re monsters, preying on the poor. They’re not me, they’re y’all. I’m better than that, and I can cross the street when I see someone who might be one of Them.
I so appreciate the correction and realignment of my thoughts, but ouch.
Which dovetails nicely into my third experience. This was an Asian American woman sharing experiences from being in Asia. Surely, she wasn’t Othering anyone, right? Perhaps – but, inasmuch as I thought I wasn’t Othering potential African American drug thieves, even when it’s “your own” it’s possible to misconstrue. Though she was talking about how much she had changed, through her time in China, and how selfish she learned she was, when seeing people with so much less, I am always hesitant when a person infers that they have learned “lessons.” When people don’t treat you as a human being but as a person belonging to a certain group, and then apply their own prejudices and stereotypes about that group to you and then extrapolate what “lessons” they learn from the challenging of those prejudices and stereotypes — well, it’s like having a whole conversation about you, with you in the room, and never speaking to you. It’s like conversing, but being a single person holding up both ends of the conversation. You know how people anthropomorphize their pets, putting human concerns and human words into the mouths of cats, dogs, and wild animals? It’s like that, almost. It’s making of rational human beings a sort of Human Zoo.
I honestly don’t know where I am going with all of this, except to illustrate how easy it is for GOOD, WELL-MEANING PEOPLE – people like you and me, us, even y’all – to take for granted who we are, and who we perceive others to be, relative to our identity. It’s easy, to, even in a well-meaning way, misidentify who surrounds us, and place ourselves above or below them mentally, away and apart from them emotionally. And yet, if we’re to embrace our diversity and strengthen who we are… we’ve got to do better. Period.
This one is going to take some work.
As always, thanks for thinking with me.
Some of us on earth are natural-born saunter-ers.
I can stroll six or seven miles, just casually, without really noticing much (unless it’s hot).
Given a choice, I will always walk, and not run.
It’s not that I’m not a decent runner – I can dash for twenty yards with the best of them. Just don’t ask me to do more than that. Running is one of those things which people like Fair and my friends A. and Vette can do. Running is something the Zen do, the ones who can take the incessant yakking from their brain about how hot it is, how much their quads/lungs/arches hurt, and how annoying that little bit of sweat tricking under their bra strap is – that’s not me. I can’t do it long enough for running to count.
Equally, I’ve never been a person who is good at reading How-to books. I can read essays on writing, but the minute you hand me something with covers — it’s over. Brenda Uueland was the last book I read on writing, and that was in college, thanks. A requirement. Some things, you’ve just gotta do, instead of reading about.
I watch other people prep with outlines and plot summaries. They organize and sticky note and write their three Daily Pages, and they’re awarded, when they’ve written, with their Kitten, but I can’t, can’t, can’t stick with any of that — or so I thought.
I’ve been sliding through the MORASS of finishing this novel, and I finally decided I needed to just FINISH for heaven’s sakes, any way I could. I said, “I’m just going to finish quick and dirty – it’s going to be a hot mess, but it’ll be done.
You may have noticed that I’m a leetle tightly strung. Slightly wound. I don’t write like that, though I always wish I could. I revise DAILY. I write two pages, and then change six words five chapters ago. And then I write two more pages, and change the first page to include a whole six paragraph section. It’s always two steps forward, three steps sideways, one step back. Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, pick, pick.
It produces what my editor calls “clean copy,” but it TAKES FOREVER, and sometimes I think I put my brain in knots, but the only way I can go forward seems to be to go …sideways. It drives me crazy.
Quick and dirty, though, works, if I work in sprints.
Working in “sprints” is a term familiar to coders and Tech Boy HATES IT and thinks it’s a completely empty buzz word for any number of reasons, and he always complains that a well planned project doesn’t need some externally enforced buzz-word to make it come in on time and on budget. Be that as it may, I took my path from a combination of the Cory Doctorow 20 Minute Doctrine and from the coding practice. I first wrote a plain sticky note of what I thought would happen next. It was very general and vague, but forced the conclusion with the use of the phrase, “And then they.” And then they went to the party, and then they went home, and then they found the Bad Guy – I made it like a four-year-old telling a story in just the broadest strokes, just to get it down on paper. Next, I set a timer for twenty minutes, and wrote – no email, nothing online, no music, no phone, no nothing. I just wrote. When my timer went off I took a break – tea, lunch, mail, Lexulous. And then, I came back.
I got a ridiculous amount of work done toward my conclusion today. Some of the narrative went places unexpected, despite the “And then they” document, but I feel like that’s so promising. I know where I’m going, but there are still cul-de-sacs and shortcuts across vacant lots to be discovered along the way. If your story isn’t even predictable to you, surely you have a good thing going.
Honestly, I can’t say how long it’ll last, but this is forcing me to turn the Titanic at long last, and I’m hopeful. I just might get this done before the 24th (also known as Iceberg)…
Email from my little sister:
They found me a kidney. Have to be at the hospital 5 a.m.
WOOT! ლ(╹◡╹ლ) WOOT!
Next thought: Eew. Surgery.
Light a candle, wouldja?
The Queen of Sheba.
Conrad Kyeser, Bellifortis. Bohemia, before 1405.
Parchment. 140 fols., 320 by 240 mm. Cod. philos. 63, fol. 122r.
Niedersächsische Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek, Göttingen, Germany.
Well, the curator of the Tumblr must have “heard” me, and re-posted the info I was seeking, and my bad-Sci-Fi bud from Maryland made sure I knew – thanks, S!
So, not an icon of Mary after all, as someone suggested – and the lack of holy penumbra (the thing around her shoulders appears to be some kind of fur) should have been a clue. A queen – an actual ruler who existed, and this is a depiction of someone’s idea of her, if a little late to be an actual image. Remember the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, and he, with his umpty million wives thought she was pretty hot? Yeah, he was kind of all marriage-addicted, but she was wearing this gown, so him wanting her, too, was kind of unavoidable.
I imagine this is totally the conversation Conrad Kyeser of Bohemia had with himself as he painted this. Totally.
Occasionally we’re allowed to be thankful for something totally frivolous, yes? (More frivolous than candied nuts and holiday food, I mean.)
I love my hats. I grew up with a woman who hates them – and tights – and so there’s no real reckoning on how those are two of my favorite things in life. Of course, no one knotted my hair through a hole in an Easter bonnet, so I guess I like hats because I can take them off (what was my grandmother thinking????) and because they let me pretend that I have some sense of style.
There’s not much in this world which allows this pretense, so for that, I am indeed thankful!