{if we mention ethnicity, is the whole novel about race?}

A little over a month ago, author Linda Sue Park guest-posted at the School Library Journal blog A Fuse #8 Production about default identification in book reviewing. It’s a piece which caused me to interrogate, as a writer, my often overly careful attempts to indicate the race of a character. Many people felt squeamish and uncomfortable after Kirkus Reviews’ 2016 decision to identify the racial identity of all characters in their book reviews, arguing that race should only be mentioned if it was “important” to the story. But, what’s “important” mean, in that context? One of the odder – odder to me, anyway – comments I’ve heard repeatedly about books of mine is that the Black people aren’t as easily identifiable as Black as they “should” be.

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Honestly, I’ve never known how to respond to that.

It’s a failure of imagination when one cannot ascribe characteristics of all kinds to Black and Brown people, a blind spot when one can only see people of any sort as inhabiting one narrow space in our society. The idea that there are “shoulds” attending any human being is problematic in itself, but what troubled me more was that maybe I wasn’t doing something right. Maybe the problem was… me.

In media which defaults to white as the norm for culture, behavior, and appearance, some people tend to be uneasy when race is brought up. Until recently, it wasn’t, much. Race itself, to that point of view, is obviously A Problem. If we simply don’t point out problems, everyone is happier, right? Except for the marginalized people who would, inevitably, disappear beneath the weight of the default, if we were not deliberate in making clear that they exist and they matter. So, here we are, making everyone uncomfortable, dragging in race, and making everything “too heavy-handed.”

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…What brings these musings to mind, you ask? I received editorial notes today. I’m going to be sitting with them for a long time. Of course, I have to sit with my notes every single time, every single book, because that’s part of the work, but this time the sitting is troubling. For the first time, after reading Linda’s piece, I identified the ethnicity of all of the characters in the book, not with subtle descriptions but using the words white and Black. It took effort and attention because I’ve not done it before, and because I was raised in the same default as everyone else. It felt like constantly lifting a bedskirt to expose the dust bunnies beneath the bed – something one shouldn’t do, because what lies beneath clearly isn’t quite kosher. This hesitancy, this difficulty alone convinces me that naming and claiming clearly is something I need to do.

NOBODY – least of all me – IS A RACE EXPERT (except if you have a PhD or something, and that’s your life’s work, in which case, I bow to that expertise). I don’t have expertise in having hard conversations about race with people – I tend to avoid unkind people and situations rather than confronting them. And, I know wholly that if something doesn’t come through in a text, it is almost always on the writer, not the reader, to repair and revise and communicate and do better. And yet, I wonder if merely mentioning race causes some readers to don a pair of brown-colored glasses and see everything through its lenses, and thus ruin the whole story. Certainly the misunderstandings of the characters, their motivations, and their concerns that I’ve read smacks me right between the eyes and tells me that I have a lot of work to do.

I… admit that I’m struggling, and the struggle is painful. Everyone hates to be misunderstood – so, so much, but… How much of an “explanatory comma,” as Code Switch puts it, does a writer owe their readers? How much do we explain, and how much do we let go? How often can we say, “No, that doesn’t mean…” before we’re shifting the whole story so it doesn’t make anyone unhappy?

{sensitivity, cultural portrayal, and revisions}

A morning near the end of the last gasp of my revision:

It’s been an interesting process to me with my newest work in progress to use a sensitivity reader in conjunction with a publishing company. While I have used one before – a previous manuscript included me hiring someone from The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) to check out a black character with albinism – I’ve never had one paid for by someone other than me, nor have I ever dipped into trying to portray a culture wholly other than my own. My other character was black – I can write a black person of at least similar class and education as my own. Writing someone from an Asian culture with which I thought I was familiar has been a revelation. My reader was positive – I hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but I hadn’t been more than not disappointing.

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Cultural representation is …tricky.

What we may think of as just… tchotchkes in someone’s house, for instance, might be a representation of cultural pride. What we might assume is just a stereotype of ‘everyone from this place eats this food,’ may be, in fact, another touchstone that connects a people to a place of importance to them, their parents, their grandparents, and generations back. Shoes left outside? That’s what people do. Also what I found out? What I thought was going to be a slam dunk… isn’t.

I’m grateful for my reader’s direct words. She was straightforward and helpful – but I find I’m smarting a bit that I’m not as smart about this as I thought I’d be. I’ve never served as a sensitivity reader – the potential for emotional labor and the recoil from a bad rep and a tone deaf author is REAL – but someone bravely and graciously stepped up to the plate for me, and I’m so grateful to this person I want to send them flowers. Reading for cultural representation is a difficult job.

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Because what is cultural representation, really, but a collection of… little details that are nearly imperceptible to outsiders? It’s hard to put a finger on, hard to define, hard to say “THIS” is cultural rep done right, and “THIS” is not… because everyone’s personal culture, expectations, educational levels, class and aspirational class is wildly variant. For instance: I grew up in a home with the Ten Commandments on the wall – and a framed copy of “Amazing Grace,” while other black Americans grew up with photographs on the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr., “black Jesus,” the Lord’s Prayer, and during the holidays, “black Santa.” We were vegetarian in the 80’s when few people were, and my parents were vegan off and on in our lives – so while I’ve never had fried chicken, have no particular opinions on potato salad, baked mac and cheese and dislike bbq sauce, I’ve had tofu and vegetarian gumbo my whole life. We were discouraged from using slang or swearing, but had a family… shorthand dialect of things probably only we said. I have some family members who can fall into African American Vernacular English with ease, and some who have no intuitive understanding of its rules.

Balboa Park 17

I know that some people – and I’ve seen sweeping statements like this routinely on social media – don’t believe that a black character can be correctly portrayed if they do not eat the “right” foods, use AAVE, and have none of the “right” pictures. And yet… not only were those images not in my house, they were absent in the home of my maternal grandmother as well. (My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had… hundreds of porcelain roosters, a prayer card Jesus looking kind of emaciated, and sad clowns on velvet in the bathroom… her cultural aesthetic being another blog post ENTIRELY.)

Writing a cultural representation which would feel “normal” to me would have walls crammed with bad family photos and a couple of religious touchstones, but nothing representative of “black America,” exactly, except… a washboard. My great-grandmother’s washboard, which she still used well into the time when people had washers, hangs as a reminder of the extreme poverty of the past, but the assurance that one can manage. At least, that’s what I take it to be – a reminder that Miss Emily made do with her own two hands. Is that properly “black?” Is that Americana? Cultural representation is personal – and specific. And honestly? There is no way to get it right for everyone. NONE. There is nothing that will protect the writer from criticism and disappointing someone.

That is quite a thing to sit with, friends.

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So, we sit with it.

And then, we take the word of the lived experiences of others and spoon in generous helpings of their good sense, and … leap alone into the ether from there.

Now all of my own nitpicky little revisions have been laid to rest, and today I embark on the most difficult ones of all… And yet? Looking more closely and trying to see through a cultural lens just provides opportunity to lean in… and open my eyes wider. I am grateful to my reader for another chance to get it (closer to, in the neighborhood of, adjacent to) right.

{the miraculous is relative}

“The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

{clean plate club}

Wee’uns are often too distracted to eat, and so canny adults through time have incentivized finishing one’s serving – for a prize of applause (Our full family chorus of “Yaaay! Good for YOU!” for my sister Jessica) (which, let’s be real, we STILL say to her sometimes, just to annoy her), dessert, or an imaginary club first started in 1917 by a United States Congress deeply concerned with food waste during wartime.

The problem for many of us is that, while we are in a state of War Without End as Americans, the issues of food waste aren’t the same anymore. A 2014 study by Cornell Food & Brand Lab revealed that the average adult eats around 92 percent of the food that is served to them on a plate, meaning most people are members of the Clean Plate Club. If it’s on the plate, most adults will eat it. Kids, meanwhile, will only finish about 59% of what’s on their plates… until and unless they’re chivvied by adults.

(And no, smaller plates don’t actually help. And, incidentally, the “children in Africa” aren’t all starving, and 99.9999% of them [there’s always one, right?] do not want your manky leftovers. [Preventing food waste CAN save lives, though – but that’s another story in a country that would be happy SENDING food to developing nations. That’s not this country during this administration, however.])

Been thinking about this whole clean plate thing, because Predator has begun occasionally making it difficult to eat. I’ve struggled on, er, woman-fully, through stomach cramping, nausea and disinterest without taking much time to ask myself… why? In the face of all of that, why even worry about finishing my food?

“Ladies” used to be taught to leave a little on a plate, as a sign of gentility, whereas people with more robust appetites were judged to be lower class and coarse. Then, as eating out became more common, finishing every last scrap and taking home a few packets of jam became the norm — after all, you paid for it, and isn’t finishing only getting your money’s worth? The Cornell study examined the words people used about finishing the “last” of anything on a serving platter – “Who’s going to take the last meatball? Can’t leave the one alone…” weirdly, guilting each other into eating… by anthropomorphizing food! We have such baggage with our consumption, such difficulties with our perceived selves. Unexamined traditions have convinced us to ignore our body’s signals and overlay external constructs on what should be an wholly organic internal process.

Ignoring our bodies not only causes us to overeat, it causes most of us some fairly dark moods. We struggle to eat that last bite – and feel guilty when we feel so crappy afterwards. The opposite of mindful eating is mindless eating – and doing anything mindlessly isn’t fulfilling or helpful or living one’s best life, really.

Learning to listen to one’s body is work – but it’s work worth doing. Your brain and your body have a lot to tell you, more than you could know.

{“children are pure” & other egregiousness}

Sonoma County 218

Things inevitably need maintenance when you need them, thus the oil light went on the day before our last day of packing. We made time to pop over to our usual car shop, where Tech Boy spent so much time before our last car finally blew up and left this mortal coil. They know him well at Honda, so when a lady came out from behind the counter and enveloped me into a fierce, bony hug, I knew it was for his sake, and not my own.

As often happens after the initial greeting of, “I’ve heard so much about you!” the questions begin, as the person tries to measure the real me against what my husband has told them. He, meanwhile, abandoned me to see if he could make the car make that one clunk sound for the technician, and so the lady behind the desk started the inquisition. She asked, predictably, about how Tech Boy and I met, and what my parents thought (they didn’t blink); she shared she’s gay, and her father is homophobic. I talked about being the youngest, and then the middle sibling, about taking care of babies as a tween and teen. We talked about working various jobs. She asked if I had new books to suggest for her nieces, and wanted to know if I had sold anything new. I shared a bit of how my latest project is making the rounds, explaining that the industry is changing and becoming more inclusive. I shared how in some ways I feel that creates a new hesitancy on the part of editors and some writers, but that we’re all finding our feet in this larger world of new voices.

“It’s Obama’s fault,” she said.

Enter feather, knocking me over.

I made my best, “Mmm?” noise, because I just did not see that one coming.

“All this inclusive, political correctness. It’s his fault,” she repeated. “People started talking about race, and felt like they had to pick sides. And it’s not fair to the kids, you know? It’s not fair that it’s affecting you, your business. Children are pure. They don’t know anything about race, and they don’t care about getting stories from blacks or whites or anything.”

“Mmm!” I replied brightly.

Perhaps it was cowardly, but I decided that a dealership shop wasn’t the place to go into my theories of …well, anything, really, and with a woman whose name I hadn’t even caught, whose personal contradictions I couldn’t even begin to plumb? Nix, nein, nope, and thank you. But, I’ve thought of this woman’s egregious assumption often in the days since.

A lot of us assume that children are pure – mentally, I mean. Unsullied by the nastiness and selfishness of the human condition. I don’t know how we manage to forget that they are born professional narcissists and by year one display their amoral characters at will. They will clock you upside the head or attempt to kick/scratch/gum/bite you, should you come between them and their desired keys/toy/cell phone/Cheerio. They scream “MINE!” at the slightest provocation, even claiming ownership over things they’re nowhere near, not to mention don’t actually possess; they can be spiteful little beasts, between bouts of looking adorable and sleeping sweetly and enslaving us with their toothless smiles. They are generally dreadful until taught better, because they, like we all, are wee mammals and nothing more. Animals, until they learn humanity, in a way.

Pure. HAH.

What Honda Lady was trying to convey, I believe, is the common belief that children are free from the bias and tribalism that taints adult interactions due to our having been raised within the constructs of institutionalized racism. But, she’s wrong there, too. Tricia’s recent blog recap of the conference on race she attended at the NMAAHC reminded me of this study conducted by CNN.

With 146 participants, I don’t think it was a big enough study, by any means, but it’s underscoring what other research on early childhood education centers have shown, that adult bias against children of color begins as early as preschool. Little wonder that children’s natural bias and tribalism comes through so young – monkeys see, monkeys do. Human beings begin to make judgments and gravitate toward those who are like us as early as six months…

They’re adorable, squeezable, and perfectly drool-y. They’re plotting, if not world domination, attention domination, and the ability to put everything into their mouths that they’d like, at any time. They’re clueless, but pure? Nope. Children are just… human animals, same as we adults. And, there’s no way you can spin that being the former president’s fault, either.

{real. hard.}

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Sooo, as it turns out, what with one thing and another, my parents aren’t rich. Who knew, right? Other than me, on Year Twentysomething of paying off student loans.

We were ridiculously poor when I was growing up… though I didn’t always see that clearly. I had hints, from seeing one of my mother’s pay stubs back when I was in the fourth grade; she made a whopping four-thirty-six an hour. I looked back at that in horror when I was at my first post-college job, making just over nine dollars an hour. That was ludicrous, right? But it still didn’t seem right that I made more than my mother.

Of course, by then, they had raised her rate of pay, one would imagine. But, I have no idea. That sort of thing was Grown Folks’ Conversation, and little old me would have had no business knowing. What I didn’t know haunted me. I couldn’t be like a normal kid and think, “Oh, well, money. Mom, I want a Cabbage Patch, when you get around to it.” Nope. Knew there were some things I didn’t ask for, couldn’t have, so didn’t bother. I got second-hand Barbies and a lot of knock-off books from libraries and schools thinning their stock (thus supporting my parents’ dream of us reading only nonfiction forever, bless them). I got hand-me-down clothing from two older sisters plus a whole church full of people. That was my life, until I left home at sixteen, got my own work, made my own way, and married. But, I still didn’t feel like my family was brutally poor until about two weeks ago, when my mother said she was going back to work.

At sixty-eight.

I nodded quietly, all the while in my head I heard, Mayday! Mayday! Mission in Jeopardy! Klaxons sounding! Kidfail! Kidfail! Kidfail!

Oh, yes. I had a full Chianina, instead of the usual generic cow. I had to have a quiet lie down and weep a bit. Of course this feels like personal failure. Aren’t you supposed to, like, take care of your parents? Especially if you have no kids. Especially if your family unit is doing okay. And… we do the regular family things, like sharing Costco hauls and CSA boxes when they’re too big (or you really don’t think you can eat another eggplant and your vegan parents lap that stuff up with a spoon). But, it wasn’t enough. My Dad had to retire due to health reasons years ago (though he’s exploring driving for Lyft, I just discovered), and my mother had only stopped working at sixty-three, because she had a series of surgeries (and a really repugnantly ignorant boss). Now that she’s healthy – and broke – she’s going back to work.

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I just…

It’s not that she wasn’t the director of the school where she’s returning to teach. It’s not like she has to be in charge, or is even working there full-time. It’s not like she doesn’t know everyone there, and see many of those selfsame kids every weekend at church where she does a program for the two-year-olds as she’s done for the last thirty-five years. It’s not like she’s going to not be greeted as a returning hero who knows the ropes and can mentor the others. It’s just… it’s just…

This sort of thing is apparently commonplace all over. The poor British officially have had their pension age raised, and it may rise all the way to 70. I don’t imagine people in less developed nations ever officially “retire;” no, they do what needs to be done, until they can’t. As everyone does.

I was comforted in knowing that a friend’s mother – who is older than mine – works happily at Costco as one of the food ladies who offers samples of this and that – and since she’s a vegetarian, they don’t have her handle samples which involve cooking meat. I know that older people retire and get bored of dandling the erstwhile grandchildren – or realize their Social Security is hardly enough to carry a teaspoon of water, and often go back to work part-time like my mother is, and it’s not the end of the flippin’ world. Hello, Harrison Old-Hoary Ford is in yet another movie, and he’s at least Noah’s age by now. (Okay, seventy-five. Whatever.) It just… feels like I got confused, looking at MY life against the backdrop of the largely white-collar, professional community in which I grew up. I got confused looking at MY world against the backdrop of what I consume in media, where I am given an idea of the life I’m “supposed” to have as I grow older. I grew confused as to what reality was vs. MY reality.

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So. Mom’s going back to work. I was going to make it a fun thing where I made her a new craft smock and got her a new water bottle and a visor, because she’s going to be doing playground duty – which I didn’t love when I was teaching – but Tech Boy finally got a new post, and so we’re scrambling for the world’s fastest move, so all that – and all my private tears – will have to wait. Mom’s first day back at school in August is not going to have the fanfare I’d planned. But, maybe that’s just as well. This is just a part of life for hundreds of millions of people, not A Tragedy.

I still hate it with the heat of four thousand suns, though. It’s not right. I’m supposed to have won the lottery by now, so she could have a mansion and a golf cart (why? Why would anyone want one; top speed is something like… eight miles an hour), and never have to work another day.

Reality is freaking hard… but like a bloom on a cactus, it has its unexpected beauty. If your Mom hustled so you could do all the things she thought would make you a stellar woman, don’t limit your gratitude to a single day in May. Okay? Okay.

Photos from Petaluma Adobe State Park; if you teach the 4th grade in Northern California, please take your kids; they’re talking about putting it on the park closures list and letting it rot, and it’s amazing. They do an overnight program and everything.

{pfft, may}

*tap tap*

This thing still on?

Och, this month. This month, in my circle, brought unseasonable weather, flat tires, abrupt job losses, cancers, heart weirdness, travel, ocular migraines, suicide, allergies, a major anniversary, and a whole lot of book rejections. In the larger world, it brought such politics as to set one’s teeth on edge, a redefinition of the word “sanity” and moments to check in with each other, as incidents in the news brought us to bought nausea and tears. Definitely a month wherein one takes stock of one’s mental health.

How you doin’?

I’m reevaluating my religion/faith/denomination, re-examining my abilities to write contemporary fiction, and contemplating my potential to say anything of worth. It’s, in many ways, just another day on the farm, but each round of this kind of thinking moves me… some direction.

How about you?

We learn things, through these revelatory moments in our lives. Trees age in circles, tides push us out, and draw us in again, moment by moment, step by step, always moving somewhere both familiar and new. I feel like I am moving both closer to my real self, and further out into the sea.

I don’t practice Judaism, but follow author and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on Twitter because she is deep, and we all need a rabbi occasionally, for our mental health (I’d say a priest, except you don’t get girl priests, do you, so… *shrug*). She said something the other day, referencing counting off the days (roughly forty-nine of them, I believe, between the second day of Passover and Shavuot) before the celebration of the giving of the Law (from Moses at Sinai, just to catch everybody up) that resonated with me about Revelation – about things being revealed in due time. About our process, about waiting and being. About, as will always make me think of my buddy Robin, being here NOW.

All these days of counting–the journey from the Red Sea to Sinai–have been to help prepare us for Revelation. Insofar as we can ever be prepared. (Spoiler alert: we can’t.) All we can do is wait in anticipation and hope of being in a place where we’re capable of hearing the voice of God. Maybe that’s a still small whisper inside our intuition. Maybe it’s big and dramatic. But we have to be in a space where we can hear it. Maybe that’s a space of readiness from spiritual discipline. Maybe you’re torn open by grief and able to hear stuff that you usually don’t. Maybe you’re able to love or forgive in a new way and that accidentally opens up this other thing that is actually the same thing. That is, love and forgiveness and God or the divine or the holy or sacred or whatever? All kinda the same stuff. Imho. Ymmv.

Anyway. Tomorrow night is a time of exquisite openness. Attunement. Listening. Receiving. A time to hear what you need to do–which may be (often is–sorry) very different from what you *want*. Needs are inconvenient. The place God is calling you to might not be the fantasy script you’ve been playing out in your head. It might require sacrifice, loss, growth, and deep discomfort in the process of becoming the holiest version of yourself. (Spoiler alert: it’s always process.)

Revelation is terrifying, every single time. Ever read Exodus 19-20? Go look again. That’s some scary shizz there. Revelation is not for lightweights, y’all. You have to be brave enough to hear what God is telling you. The truth of your life. What the cost is to become the person you need to be. (Obligatory gif: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”) People tune out all the time because they don’t want to hear. Our phones are extra popular for that now, but it’s been true forever. Shavuot is the holiday of tuning in. Shutting up and listening and getting your instructions. You can figure out what to do with them later. (Once you hear them, you can’t un-hear them, tho. No amount of drink or drugs or sex or Candy Crush in the world can fix that, really.)

Are you ready? Are you scared? Are you willing? Are you open?”

I hate this treading water bit of life, this sense of standing in a boat while it’s being sloshed from stem to stern, and we’re just trying to keep our balance. And yet – it’s been a month of unpacking some things, in between bouts of flailing about and wondering if I’m doing anything right at all. I sense the answers may be just around the corner.

Until then, we wait. We listen.

Ready, though scared. Willing. Open.

{Granny Weatherwax reminds you}

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”



“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

People are not things to be moved around, denied, abused, or miseducated. This is your reminder, in case, with the noise of the world, you needed one. Resist this sin with all your soul. Thou shalt not allow people to be used as things, nor put up with that nonsense from thine government without a loud outcry.

*This from CARPE JUGULUM, by Terry Pratchett

{thanksful: 30 – selfishness?}

One thing I notice, around the close of my Month of Gratitude, is that I always go to my ritual of “thanksfulness” when I am feeling something. This is why it’s good ritual and practice; it becomes like the journaling I gave up long ago, except with less obsessing about bad manicures. So, today I have a feeling, and I came to write through it, to gratitude.

Unfortunately, today I’m feeling… really crappy.

Portland 137

Keep Portland… um

I respect my agent and my editor, and when I get a critique letter from either of them, I always try to look at it in the spirit it is sent — to improve my craft.

This does not always work. As a matter of fact, initially I am hit with a wave of depression when I receive a critique letter, and like my friend Sara, I have to sit with it — preferably in another room.

It’s not at all that I expect my work to be infallible; I need to know when I’m not hitting the mark within a narrative, and as I strive to write more and more honestly, scraping from the gut, I need to know if my truths are capital letter Truths. But what’s hard for me is less about the critique and more about myself. It’s finding that I’m not creating an imaginary world at all… but that I’ve recreated this world, and perpetuated the mistakes of this current world. To find that my character shares my foibles — idiosyncrasies I’ve found nearly impossible to be rid of in myself — is a thing of horror. I can’t even create an imaginary friend who isn’t my idiot double.

You see why I don’t have children.

Today, my agent pointed out that I’ve managed to create a character who flinches before the axe falls. Who organizes her life so that she can deflect criticism from her parents and relatives before they actually say anything about her actions. Before she actually ever does anything. Cringing, self-deprecating, apologetic… Yes, well, hello, real life! You found me. Again.

I talked with a young friend the other week who is very good at taking care of herself. After a childhood of waiting while her mother fulfilled her needs, now that she’s an adult, my friend’s big on Me First kind of behavior. And, yeah, it can be cringe-inducing to experience, but in some ways, I am wistful when I look at her path of rabid self-determination. I can’t think of one decision I’ve made in my life where I wasn’t presupposing the opinions of six other people, and preparing a defense against their reactions. When you lie down with judgement, you get up with self-censure. And possibly fleas. And it. is. exhausting.

Fiction isn’t meant to be real life with all the “uh-ums” written in; it’s meant to be an exaggeration of the real, a heightened, polished version of same. I am, frankly, in need of polish. And an axe.

So, today I’m grateful for …the concept of self care, in a non-Pop Psychology fashion, and the dynamically self-engaged person I’m going to create, first in fiction, then perhaps in real life. I’m grateful for self-centeredness as a concept, even though I’m not able to recognize it as a path that I can normally take. I’m grateful that every day is the possibility of a step forward.

{thanksful: 28 – irregular}

Today is my brother’s birthday. I remember when he was released from his social workers at the hospital, a mess of wires and heart monitors. I remember his pitiful wails, the birthmark that all but swamped his tiny cheek, our disbelief that the woman who gave birth to him could have left him, any more than a person could abandon a mewling kitten. As always, I remember the first IEP he had, and my mother’s blotchy, tear-swollen face when she hoarsely recounted what she’d been told; that he’d never read above a 3rd grade level. Since he’s now in junior college, still reading slowly, still not letting it define him, this is an especially poignant memory. My mother made the choice for us to stand up and move forward with his life, as if he were perfect. As if he weren’t an irregular little human being, left on the cutting room floor when they loaded up the lives of perfect people for public viewing.

This time of year, there are tons of sales and people blah-blah-blahing about steals and deals. I just got an ad insisting that they’d find me the most “flattering” holiday dress, and I had to laugh and roll my eyes. I frequently have these questions — when they talk about swimsuits and hiding “trouble” spots, but what does “flattering” really mean? To supplement what’s already there? To augment or enhance what isn’t there? Is a flattering dress one that doesn’t show all of my flaws… a dress that doesn’t show me as I really am?

Should I want that?

The idea of imperfect, irregular, stippled and nonuniform shouldn’t be so repugnant to us — there are few — actually none — of us who are that ideal of physical beauty, but we’ve been airbrushed and perfected until that’s all we seem to see. I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” and its overwhelming love for all things are blotchy, skewed, and varicolored, so many more asymmetrical, uneven, crooked, misshapen, and lopsided. I’m grateful today for the irregular, which gave me my brother — and myself.

And all of you.

Pied Beauty

~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –
      For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
          For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
        Landscape plotted and pieced –
fold, fallow, and plough;
            And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
          Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
            With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
        Praise him.