{thanksful – 5: like no one is watching

“Gratitude is the music of the heart, when its chords are swept by the breeze of kindness.” – Unknown

ALA 2010 020

Party with a big hatted cat.

One of the Glasgow-iest moments of our five years in Scotland occurred one morning in the University gym. Clyde 1, a popular radio station, was playing over the loudspeakers in the weight room, as we sweated away on Nautilus machines and free weights. I don’t even remember what song it was – something by Pink, probably – but abruptly everyone in the entire weight room was belting it out at the top of their lungs. It didn’t matter if they were any good, it didn’t matter if they were perfectly on pitch or not — it was a good song, yeah? And when it’s your jam, you sing. You dance.

I wanted to hug every single sweaty person in the room. I loved them all. I was raised to be pretty… serious. Not that my parents never laughed, but I think my perfectionist personality, together being corrected a lot, led me to try harder and harder to be conscious of how I looked, how I acted. The world, I was taught, was serious, and nearly everything had Eternal Consequences. Oddly joyless way to live, which is why you can imagine this un-self-conscious joy was so inviting. That’s just one of my favorite Glasgow memories.

Today is the combined birthday celebration for the Filipino kids next door, and I can hear the karaoke band playing – and the aunties and uncles belting out 80’s ballads like there’s no tomorrow. In an hour or so, a mob of kids is going to come over with massive plates of spaghetti and hotdogs, loads of pancit, and wedges of cake. We’re going to wish them happy, as we do every year, and they’re going to giddily go reeling back for more music and sugar. I’m so grateful that in this mad and occasionally bad world, there are little pockets of joy, where people are raised believing it’s just dandy to dance and sing like the grasshopper in the fable… time enough to be serious ants tomorrow.

{thanksful – 3: odd ducks


He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

Balloch 13

Funerals have an odd way of becoming like family reunions – seeing cousins you haven’t seen in years, though you live within hours of each other; seeing tweens you remember meeting as infants. Seeing how time has – whoosh! – just whipped passed while you were head down, like an ant, toiling over and back upon your same little paths.

Today was my uncle’s funeral, one of my Dad’s younger brothers. He was the fun guy, the one who asked what we wanted for Christmas, who single-handedly kept me supplied with sweater dresses throughout the eighties (no mean feat), who was always ready with a joke and uproarious laughter, always teasing (or mocking), in contrast to my father’s sometimes stern mien. This Uncle welcomed Tech Boy to the family with the offer of a beer and a smoke. (Again, to piss off my Dad.)

My uncle was always a little bemused by me, I think — he was a league bowler, a diehard 49er fan, a Giants and Warrior season ticket-holder. He was loud and jovial and competitive. I… wasn’t really any of those things (although, I WILL throw down with you in Scrabble. Any time). I was one of those people who took forever to learn how to ride a bike! But, sporty or not, I would sit on the floor in front of his massive big-screen TV… with a book… and hang out.

We all find a place to fit in where we can.

I’m grateful today for the memory of a carelessly jolly man, and those people in our lives who allow us to be who we are… with not too much teasing.

“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” – Eric Hoffer


{thanksful- 2: road trips}

“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Charles Dickens

Iceland 2016 137

Anxiety disorders rob us of so many things, and one of the losses I resent the most is the ability to look with open-hearted enthusiasm and anticipation on an upcoming journey. Instead, before trips, I don’t sleep, convinced that disaster is looming, whether on a minor scale with forgotten items or lost luggage, or on a major scale with hostile TSA personnel, missed flights, plane explosions, an outbreak of war in the country to which we are going. (Our last trip was to Iceland, so war is far less likely than an invasion by pirates . But, tell that to my brain.) If my destination is a conference, everyone will dislike me, ignore my paper, walk out of my talk, or share disbelieving looks about my appearance. If we’re visiting friends, they all like Tech Boy better, wish I hadn’t come, ignore my contributions to conversation. Yay for being mental! It goes on and on.

Oddly, after I’ve convinced myself to leave my house, and, after a day or two of being somewhere new, deep in my soul, I still like to travel. I especially love riding in a rented (riding, not driving. If I’m driving, the anxiety is back with the map and the indecipherable directions from the nasty little woman in the GPS) car in a new place and just looking it over. Driving through neighborhoods. Imagining myself in a different life, with new items on the shelves in a wholly different grocery store. I don’t know why road trips speak to me in such a particular way, but today I’m grateful for that liminal space between destinations, of being able to see the world while remaining unseen, and to feel the freedom of a road not previously taken spooling out from beneath my tires.

“Now, on this road trip, my mind seemed to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had.” ― Elizabeth Berg, The Year of Pleasures

{“my life is in the falling leaf”}

Finnieston 232

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears…

I’m in that post-production process of cleaning up all the little scraps of paper littering my work table, bits and pieces that have to do with my last manuscript. And, as usual, I am profoundly depressed. Since being the editor of my school paper as a high school senior, I have known this about myself – that when I put the paper to bed, I had to go to bed myself. I’m grateful to this day that it was only a quarterly paper; the weekly rag was mostly gossip and fun, no real effort, but the one that went out to parents and board members and constituents – oy. That one took it out of me. Kinda like novels do.

I went to a wedding this weekend, which was in itself bittersweet and depressing (specific to this event, #NotAllWeddings), and my introvert soul was in rags after smiling my way through three and a half hours of reception with a sit-down dinner. I knew I’d be wrecked before I went, and planned accordingly; Tech Boy worked from home Monday to hang out with me, I scheduled a visit to the chiropractor, I literally only got out of bed on Sunday to use the bathroom. (These little crashes always work so much better if you can get someone to agree to feed you, and I ache for my sisters and brothers who don’t have that luxury. I used to drag an electric kettle next to the bed and eat a lot of things like instant oatmeal, before Tech Boy. Now I get tamales. This is a distinct improvement in Profoundly Depressed Meal Plans.)

This morning, I’m staring at the keyboard. Literally. I have had just… long stretches where I come back to find myself… staring. At nothing in particular. I feel like I’m all out of stories, all out of thoughts, all out of …anything but echoes in my head. “I have no wit, no words, no tears…” Even aside from the deeply religious/Easter themes of this poem, Christina Rossetti encapsulating her existence in the metaphor of a desiccated autumn leaf sounds about right. Even though I rather like desiccated autumn leaves, most of the time, they clearly have only one job, which is to lie still and be crunched into the tree-dust that feeds the soil so need trees can grow. I have stuff to do, though; can’t lie down and be crunched up for anyone else just yet.

It seems I’ve written my well dry – so it’s time to fill it up again – in whatever way I can. Other than being patient with the process, knowing that the current mental fog is made up at least in part of disgust for our national conversation and dismay at the constancy of stupidity, what does one do when in need of refilling mentally? Do you see a play? Go to a concert? Take a class? I’m open to suggestions. Christina Rossetti suggests throwing her broken pot into the first to start over — and while that is dramatically Victorian and surely possible, I need some realtalk options. What do you do to get your vessel-self ready to hold water again?

{the problematic language of “clean”}

Stirling 307

This morning I read Kelly Jensen’s most excellent BookRiot piece which included an interesting link to a publisher site describing “clean YA,” where “clean” is not meant to stand in opposition to unclean, but describes a kind of doughty, go-get-’em kind of hero or heroine who never says die.

Kelly’s piece goes on to debunk that idea and talk about the virtues of quitting, but I, predictably, got stuck on the word “clean.” As “Words have meaning,” as my dear friend and fellow English teacher Susan Goins used to constantly tell her junior high students, the company saying that clean “certainly isn’t meant to be the opposite of ‘dirty,’” seems inherently problematic. Use of the word clean implies that books, or reading, can be categorized into good/bad by some vagaries of categorization, that virtue can be tied to some reading choices, and shame applied to others… This is a familiar song, but a troubling one.

See, I grew up believing this – or at least with this idea of virtuous cleanliness floating through the ether, based on the scripture about “set your minds on these things” – which specified things true, pure, right, lovely, etc. Fiction didn’t come into that list. Fiction wasn’t openly allowable as reading at my house, and reading wasn’t truly encouraged unless it was a.) approved post-church-you-have-nothing-else-you-should-be-doing reading, or reading, b.) in association with homework or c.) reading awarded as a sneaky indulgence after many chores had been done, and there wasn’t anything someone could think up to discourage me, and I was hiding behind a couch or on the roof of the shed in the backyard. Yes, I smuggled reading time like some kids smuggle… whatever contraband. I was restricted from the things which I could check out from the library, because my parents were the deciders on what was appropriate. It was like being seated at the immense smorgasbord of the world, and being told I could have my choice of half of all the dishes without salt. Unfortunately, that went on well into high school, where I should have been trusted to fall back on what I had learned, on what my parents had taught. But, when you start making choices for someone, it’s hard sometimes to find a good reason to, you know, stop.

As an adult, I strove to write “positive” (UGH. That word! Ditto “wholesome” or “sweet.” No one sets out to write those opposites!) books because I felt vaguely that I had been raised to standards of …virtue(?) and should want to inspire this in others… A not-so-bad idea in itself, but those boundaries and that “virtue” are simply too variant for too many people. Life is, of itself, messy. Emotions are messy, dissent is messy, pushing back against institutional systems and ideologies is messy, messy, messy. Labeling something as “clean” seems to imply so much more than mere restraint in terms of profanity and vulgarity, more than a closed door on a sex scene. And yet, I still struggle with this, because I want to write books for the girl who wasn’t allowed to read all she wanted, I think it’s important to be seen as “safe” to more conservative parents. However, at the same time writing real stories with fully present, believable, and dimensional characters while applying those narrative brakes is tricky – and I don’t think I always succeed. Additionally, I believe that applying those brakes is not always a worthwhile exercise.

According to this list, “clean” is about language, about physical boundaries in sexuality, drinking or smoking or drugs, and finally, about “too much” violence. This leaves a lot of loopholes, and a lot of questions. If you were part of the GLBTQ community, can you still be considered virtuous and “clean,” or is your crossing of heterosexual or cis boundaries too far? Can your writing be “authentic” as the site suggests, following someone else’s notions of virtuous and “clean?” What if your character’s behavior doesn’t meet publication standards, never mind meeting the standards of, to use Jane Yolen’s words, “telling the true?”

(Note that I’m not suggesting I have an answer to this, by the way. This is something I think about quite a lot, and will continue to ponder…)

A few months ago I was “listening” in on a conversation on Twitter, where author Shannon Hale was talking about the “in-between” books for teens who skew younger in terms of interests and aren’t quite MG anymore. Most of my books fall into that territory, but I like that Shannon looked at them as something other than “clean.” She instead discussed them as “books for younger YA.” And, I liked that definition, because by that she meant kids who were a.) not ready for more than a vague crush (which was me well past the time other kids were already into the drama of hookups and breakups), b.) not really pushing back against adult intervention as much yet (which, tragically, was also me, well past I should have realized they weren’t infallible), and c.) raised in more sheltered, monitored environment, and possibly not yet as physically mature, either. You know, younger. The thing that naturally occurs before you are older.

I am an advocate of saying what you mean. Describing the natural phenomenon of “emotionally younger and somewhat less intuitive about the adult world” as “clean” carries with it a highly toxic, moralistic tone. Better words to use? Maybe “non-explicit.” Maybe “conservative.” But, certainly not “clean.”

Say it with me: Words. Have. Meaning.

{is it in you?}

L and A Wedding 11

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

Of course, the title reminds me of that Gatorade commercial years ago. Stubbled athletes, swilling neon sugar water gasp, Is it in you? Welp, not the ability to run a four minute mile, no. As for the rest of might be lurking, well, who can tell? What else constitutes the “it” that’s supposedly in you? “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” Or… you know, doesn’t. Like as not, the Shadow can’t tell who you are, either.

See, and, that’s the thing.

Some of us religious people are raised thinking we can tell. Yeah, holy writ says some basic stuff about observing how people behave and saying, a tree is known by its fruit, yeah, but some of us take things further than that, and that’s a piece of unforgivable hubris. Our hearts are open to the scrutiny of divinity, such theorizing goes, therefore we can see into … others? Um, no. We can’t. People are still stuck with the outward appearance. We can’t look at you, and see the contents of your darkness. Because, like as not, we can’t even look past our own.

Last week, my friend Ash (whom I occasionally call “The Great Brain” from those John D. Fitzgerald books I loved in middle school) and me were having one of those “we’re not quite in the writing frame, yet” conversations where we both kind of blether on about whatever is in our heads as we work through how we’re going to frame the larger issues in our various manuscripts. It’s nice having writer friends for these reasons; they don’t really try to make too much sense of what you’re saying right then, as the point is to just say it, and let your backbrain do the heavy lifting of pulling the thesis together. In Ash’s case, that she was raised in a super-conservative religious group brings up for us even more things held in common. Anyway, we were talking about “the church” (and when we say that, we mean Western/American Christianity in general, not necessarily a denomination) and its future in terms of LGBTQ people. Since I’m of a Protestant group, and Ash is not, I was giving her a little of how it’s gone in my hometown, and vice versa. By and large, we were both somewhat somewhat heartened, and somewhat resigned, all at once. There were a lot of new directions, and some not new at all, but horribly the same. Progress invariably only reminds us how far there is yet to go.

And at various points in the conversation, we circled back to this. Something, Ash was saying, will have to change. Indeed, though neither of us could have had any inkling of how deeply we’d both feel those words only two days later.

I have written before about a dear old friend, a man who I, as a child, put up on a pedestal, and discovered with maturity that my heroic statue has the feet of clay we all stand upon. He is a lovely person, deeply traditional, religious, all God-and-country, with a gun on his person at all times, he says, for “protection.” I won’t get into our myriad conversations about his arsenal, because it’s an ongoing thing, wherein he teases me, and I roll my eyes. I am fully anti-gun, he is fully 24-7 armed – always. He is frustrated by the places he can’t carry, is fully licensed to covert-carry, and he always tells me he’ll protect me. I always politely refuse his protection. So far, it’s all a joke; we keep it light, and non-threatening. But, I find myself tilting my head and scrutinizing the weird connection between religion and violence in America that simply… persists. And persists. And persists. Where does this come from? Where is it going?

Something will have to change. In churches and religious organizations, in cultural and ethnic groups, in American society. All of us will have to look within and be willing to consider destroying a piece of our hearts to dig out that which is objectionable. And, no; I am not purporting to know what’s objectionable in you. Some of us don’t imagine we even have a thing that’s objectionable. Quite certain we’re firmly on the side of right, we soldier on, gun in one hand, God in the other. And we go marching on to buy another gun, to protect ourselves in an increasingly violent world where we have to make sure to keep ourselves “safe” from “them.”

Solzhenitsyn advises that we all have a line bisecting our hearts. For those who don’t see it, I suggest we LOOK AGAIN. Go deep.

Is it in us? Maybe.

But, is it within us to change?

And the answer to that we all strain to hear, over the sound of the empty wind.


{Non, je ne regrette rien…}

mental_health_month

May is National Mental Health Month! And I totally didn’t even remember that until I was halfway through writing this post and thought, “what does all this crap about guilt have to do with anything???” At the mo, since I’ve talked a bit before about the joy of it, today I want to talk about the toll that being raised in faith takes on a person. This is also my moment of giving you fair warning: today’s post is about religion in the broadest sense, and if that’s not your gig, here’s where you can find some adorbs pics of baby capybaras. I’ll see you around.

(So, April was relatively benign acrostics, and now May is religion AND shame. How did you luck out like this???)

It isn’t all bad, being raised in faith. In so many ways, for those who have sought shared identity in ritual and words and music — there can be, in faith, something life-giving, affirming, and precious. However, there also lurks in many practices a great many lies. Willing to disbelieve the lies I encountered, I consciously avoided the negatives for a lot of my life, but I know that’s not only deliberately disingenuous, willful blindness is not particularly helpful if I’m going live my own truths, much less write anything true about young adults being raised in/with/avoiding faith. It’s a tough and weird dichotomy, is this Judeo-Christian thing; basically Christianity is meant to be about love, but the hyperfocus tends to be the tension between “You should be a super good person” and “Basically you’re a terrible person.” The Christian world I grew up with seems to have concluded, “Right, you should be a good person, but we’re none of us great, and you particularly are crap and there’s really nothing you can do about it… but pretend.” Which is a complete fallacy and un-everything we’re supposed to be doing. But, here we are.

It is a hard unlearning, learning not to pretend. It’s a full-time job.


Sooo, Tech Boy and I had one of those long meandering conversations this morning (why do they always happen on Mondays? Or else Sunday nights? Methinks there’s something within me stalling about beginning a new week) wherein his degree in Philosophy trumps my “well, I think …” statements. It’s not as easy to argue with someone who can throw down a quote from Nietzsche at need, but someone has to be blindly optimistic in this world, right? Right.

Our discussion parsed the minor – but important – variances among regret, remorse, shame, and guilt.

First, you’ll note the absence of contrition – because that one seems fairly easy from both a philosophical and psychological point of view. Contrition is being sorry for wrongdoing — sorry enough to make restitution. A healthy response to the realization of wrongdoing, yes? So while we can continue to disregard that one, I wanted to mention it, because it exists within this same close linguistic and philosophical relationship. Regret also goes with it — people talk about having “no regrets,” but that’s actually a little worrisome, to me. Psychologists describe regret as having to do with wishing one hadn’t taken a particular action — for whatever reason. It might be just be because you got caught taking the action, it might be that the result of the action blew up in your face, or because the action made someone take additional action which was unexpected or upsetting. Remorse, however, is about the emotion, not the action. It involves self-reproof, and is what prompts us to be contrite. I guess people can have no regrets – but I find it unlikely, unless they are a master planner and have every move throughout their whole lives mapped.

Brené Brown once said, “Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide, violence, and bullying.” With that in view, shame and guilt are by far the most corrosive of the negative emotions defined here. Though often used interchangeably with guilt, shame differs in that it seems to be self-referential entirely. Shame is all about the emo, and is confined solely to that arena: feelings. Guilt, by contrast, arises in response to responsibility for our actions or thoughts or feelings toward others. This being the case, people who are entirely self-absorbed are capable of feeling great amounts of shame… Guilt, however, requires empathy, which isn’t of interest to the self-absorbed. They tend to be crippled instead by shame at their imperfections, then idealize the lives of others, imagining them living a perfect existence. This in turn allows self-absorbed people to envy others, indulge in hating them, possibly behaving hatefully and spitefully toward them, all because of a perceived “better than” lifestyle which gives an uneven comparison between others and themselves. Interesting, the concept of “fat shaming” and that type of thing stems not from concern about the shamee who is carrying extra weight but from a perception of the shamer that the weight that person carries is somehow a personal affront… to them, as a less heavy person. Obviously, shame perceptions and attitudes impede personal growth. Neither guilt nor shame seems to give most people a particularly positive outcome… and yet, people feel – and attempt to wield as tools or weapons – these emotions every day. There has to be something more to it.

It’s hard for many of us to take personal responsibility for things. When we’re pointed to our faults, we get defensive. That’s a gift that a healthy application of guilt gives us. We see our crap, we get upset about it, we fix it. End of story. As far as I can see it, especially in a religious context, shame gives us …nothing. A lot of people are even confused by the concept, because it is so closely tied with the idea of “you did something wrong.” And yet, a lot of people in American Christian circles, anyway, seem to feel it’s part of the gig. Humanity, in the cold mathematics of logic, failed all the tests way back in Eden, and by rights, deserved to be voted off the island. This is a Big story, a humanity story. When it comes to a personal story, many faith practices expect individuals to experience the shame of these failures as an individual, not as part of the human collective. Then the shame becomes personal – unmoored from specific persons and events in history – and individuals are burdened with the belief that we have much for which to atone.

And then, the pretending begins in earnest. Because, seriously: who can pick that up?

More thoughts as I think them.

{fortress}

Under the ruins of a walled city
Crumbling towers and beams of yellow light
No flags of truce, no cries of pity
The siege guns have been pounding through the night
It took a day to build the city
We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the fields I’d known
I recognized the walls that I’d once made
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

It’s Old School Friday! You know you remember this song from way back when. It was on autoplay when I was about sixteen, and my friend Molly was the world’s biggest Sting fan. She found him to be So Profound (insert eye roll), thus, she had a Sting song for every occasion. Funny how much our friends’ musical choices shape ours. I know many of the words to many of his songs by heart, even though I wasn’t the superfan. Ah, well. Sting’s largely disappeared from my world, except for a the albums left on Brainradio, one of which is Island of the Blue Turtles where this song, with its imagery of war and hearts, is found.

Anyone who has grown up with challenging parents feels the war thing a bit more keenly than most. If you grew up where voices were raised, objects were thrown or swung with astonishing accuracy – or lack of said – or if you could hear yourself breathe, from holding yourself so quiet and still, and felt like your room, in a closet, was your personal foxhole, you might know how confusing it is to wonder if …the war’s over.

And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire

I used to laugh at how on Crash Course, John Green would occasionally address commentary to Me From the Past, the younger, undeniably dumber John Green who was the hapless soul who made non-logical conclusions, dork moves with girls, and in general was a git. My “Me From the Past” has never been quite so clearly identifiable a character, but she exists in my head when I think of my childhood. Especially when I think of my childhood as compared to now. Sometimes – and we all do this – we let Me From the Past be the narrator in our heads that tells Me in the Present how things are going to go down. Occasionally – frequently – my Me From the Past is just as full of dork moves and non-logical conclusions as John’s. She believes that nothing ever changes.

And, sometimes she’s right.

Negotiating a relationship with someone who consistently hurt you, consistently disappointed you, consistently told you that you weren’t good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough is tricky as hell. Now, smart money’s on people like my friend, A., who can just …not do that. She opts to have NO relationship with those family members. But, I … I have, quite frankly, guilt complexes, questions of “am I being a good person” and an inability to let go. Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone. The thought horrifies me.

(This is not, by the way, proof that I’m a good person. This is proof that I have a whisper of Machiavelli in my personality and want to retain the moral high ground at all times.)

Me From the Past stands ready, in the back of my mind, at all times. Me From the Past believes her job is to remind me of things – to supply dates and details, if necessary – so that I don’t make the same dork moves I did back then. That’s okay; I accept that she feels that’s her job. Me in the Present, however, likes to reserve the right to overrule her. And, that’s where the problem lies. How much do you overrule your past? How much do you ignore what you know as truth from situations you’ve already been in?

Then I went off to fight some battle
That I’d invented inside my head
Away so long for years and years
You probably thought or even wished that I was dead
While the armies are all sleeping
Beneath the tattered flag we’d made
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

It bothers me to be in my well-past-thirties, and still resentful about parts of my childhood. Our older relatives age; mine are nearing seventy. Some of those problematic people can show themselves to be lovely and affable now; storytellers, bakers of special treats, complimentary and, frankly, changelings that cause me tremendous guilt. Me in the Present wonders who these people are. Me From the Past reminds me that I know this version of these people, too. And that I’ve watched the rebounds happen over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Me From the Past reminds me, as always, that it is best to feed these people with a long spoon. Me in the Present feels guilty and wishes she could shorten that spoon, get back within arm’s reach. This is troubling to both versions of my self.

Part of maintaining sanity is honoring Me From the Past enough to accept that her experiences are valid enough for Me in the Present to make decisions from. Me From the Past isn’t delusional. Me From the Past is young and goofy, yeah, but she is real and didn’t make overblown statements about what was, simply on a whim. But, sometimes, it’s not about questioning Me From the Past’s judgment entirely, though. Sometimes, it’s just wondering if Me in the Present can ever make the choice that Now is safe. If Me in the Present can ever say to Me From the Past “You can come out now. It’s safe to put your full weight down on your heels, and to not be prepared to run, because the land mines have all been collected.”

This prison has now become your home
A sentence you seem prepared to pay
It took a day to build the city
We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the lands I’d known
I recognized the fields where I’d once played
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire

The one thing Me From the Past and Me in the Present agrees on is that, so far, not even the UN has managed to collect all the landmines after wars from sixty years ago. Nobody ever collects all the landmines after a war. And, you’ll NEVER KNOW ‘TIL THEY EXPLODE.

Is it discounting Me From the Past’s experiences to want so badly to believe in change? Me in the Present is always afraid of being looked on as a cynic… but sometimes, you are what you are.

I’m pretty sure someone wrote a YA novel about this…

Stirling Castle 192

{Mills College YA Contest: the next “now”}

So, I’m one of the judges for the annual short story contest for my alma mater, Mills College, an urban liberal arts school which has a rich history (since 1852!) of educating women in the Bay Area. I’m the sole judge in the YA section, and I’m looking at graduate and undergraduate stories. Upper and underclassmen have to be judged separately, of course, and I realize I’ve been… stalling.

It’s funny – I don’t hesitate when I’m judging for the Cybils Awards, but somehow, knowing that these works are entirely unpublished, and that the writers are not just putting their words, but their hearts out on their sleeves causes me to …well, slow my roll a bit. In order to stop myself flailing, I’ve come up with the trick of reading the first paragraph of …all of them, in no particular order. And noting which ones stand out.

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I’ve never been a proponent of ALL of the writing rules – you know, “write what you know” “kill your darlings” blah, blah, blah. I’ve ignored the rules, the ones that talk about the first chapter/first lines, not writing in first person (or doing so), writing disconnected from the internet, use a thesaurus, always stop when you’re in an action scene and want to keep going — I’ve pretty well ignored other people’s maxims, and put aside their Artist’s Way, their Bird by Bird, their If You Want to Write. Not that these people don’t have a lot of good things to say – they do; they’re brilliant. But, I find that I’m generally paralyzed by good advice – because I cannot take it all. However! I am now learning that when one is creating short stories – or at least short excerpts – the rule about the first three-to-five sentences? Applies. For me as a judge, examining just those first few sentences or opening paragraphs really shortens the flailing period significantly. First sentences — first paragraphs, really — count. They arrest and engage, or allow you to look away. I don’t want to look away from something that’s grabbing me with rising stakes. Obviously, I want to know more.

However, it’s not a guarantee of a good story — not in any way. The writer still has to get through the middle and the end of the novel, after a sterling beginning. It’s a frequent argument, in my writing group, about where a story starts — and there are always people prescriptively – but lovingly – trying to suggest, “You know, I think you should start the story THERE!” as if the previous six chapters you’ve written are full of nothing much of importance (and hey – they might be) – so a first paragraph doesn’t mean I won’t get bored later, definitely not. However — it certainly ensures my interest now. And “now” is all you’ve got to hang onto. Until the next now. And then the next.

*goes back to reading about a missing sigil in a spell, and the ensuing shenanigans which will result*

{saying something}

“The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?”

– Nicole Chung, The Toast

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When I read The Toast managing editor Nicole Chung’s hoilday-dinner-racism piece What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism last week, I was especially struck by how well she articulated what seems to have been the central tenet of my childhood instructions: Be Nice, Make Nice, Don’t Rock The Boat, Ever. I concluded this past summer that these concepts were at the core of why my father was so hard on us growing up. Nicole wrote of her humiliated non-response to the situation in a way that resonated strongly with me, as she spoke about the tremendous residue this leaves, the immense pressure to keep things light, pleasant, and inoffensive for others who might be upset by our defending ourselves, or pointing out offensiveness. However, many readers were troubled by her response.

This morning when NPR’s Leah Donnella mentioned Chung’s piece in a CodeSwitch report on housing segregation and the legacy of everyday racial history in the U.S., she added her own experiences:

Reading Chung’s piece reminded me of a potluck I was at in Philadelphia last summer with my then-boyfriend, who is white, and his crew of white friends. I had gotten back from the beach a few days earlier and was several shades darker than usual. Everyone was busy gossiping about their summer adventures when one guy turned to me and asked, “So, did he realize you were black when he started dating you?”

In that moment, my instinct was to say something snarky (“Did he realize you were a doofus when he became your friend?”). But like Chung, I didn’t want to ruin a good time. So I laughed, poured myself a drink, and let everyone move on.

– Leah Donnella, NPR “CodeSwitch”

Because Tech Boy is white, and I am not, we frequently have discussions about this type of thing. When I shared the CodeSwitch piece with him, he said, “You know, this business of not making people uncomfortable? White people need to pick up the baton on that one. White people need to use their privilege to smack down the idiots, they’re too busy being ashamed, in those moments, of their whiteness. They need to do something.”

I agreed, of course, until he added, “Just a casual ‘Racist much?’ ought to do it.”

Them’s are fightin’ words. Calling someone a racist in a social situation, even as the person with privilege, aims a loaded, evocative, defense-triggering word at a half-open conversational door… and slams it, locks it, and nails boards across it. At that point, the conversation is over.

I’ve seen it happen on social media, in conversations, around books and lately in kidlit publishing: the minute someone starts swinging the word “racist” is the moment the issue is obfuscated. Like a squid spewing ink so no one sees it disappear into a crack, telling a person in company that they’re a racist leaves the issue unclear. It’s like throwing up a bucket of ashes — everyone is stained, everyone is blinded, and everyone is shouting and flailing at cross-purposes for a bottle of eyewash. You might think you’re schooling someone, to coolly call them out, that you’re standing up proudly and throwing down as an ally. But if you have any hope of actually creating a teachable moment, of changing a perception or behavior and empowering change and not just counting up verbal blows – I would try another way.

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I discussed this with friends who suggested questions as a good method of creating an opening. “The reporter could have said, ‘Do you think my boyfriend’s a racist, that my ethnicity would matter to him?’ or something like that,” one suggested. I might have even asked a more personal question, that if seeing the woman darker made the asker feel uncomfortable. That’s getting kind of messy, but then, I’m all about the deal-with-your-here-and-now Gestalt therapy approach when I’m defending someone.

“You know what,” another said, “if you were to write up a script & publish it out there, that would be nice. Just, Dear White Friends, When you hear some idiot being racist, please pick up the conversation and deal with it, because you’re operating from privilege whereas we of color cannot challenge because of x, y, and z. And then give a few examples of how to respond or to engage with people who’ve swallowed their feet. I think that would be a good contribution to the conversation.”

I kind of laughed, mainly because there’s already a Dear White People thing (website? book? movie?) which purports to inform people of how to behave toward people of color, and to my mind, those sorts of things only work conceptually. In reality, I am not the arbiter of race relations. Unlike Gee Dubya, I am not “The Decider” and should not be the one to set the narrative on interracial incidents. However, Teaching Tolerance has a lot of wisdom on the topic, and when I need to, I often check in with them.

Dr. Frances E. Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race wrote a little piece called How To Be An Ally If You Are A Person With Privilege which others might find helpful.

Finally, Alternet has “11 Things White People Can Do To Be Real Anti-Racist Allies.”

The thing is, somebody needs to say something, but most of the time, none of us knows the right thing to say, and we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we sit in shame – and say nothing at all. Which, especially if we’re a person of privilege, is just not ideal. Nobody has all the answers – and certainly no one person of any underrepresented group speaks for everybody – but we each of us has the responsibility – and the honor – not to swoop in and save the day, but to speak up, in good faith, for someone when they cannot speak up and be heard for themselves. In doing so, we will each try to look at the world through the lens of our privilege and of an idealized equality, and bring about more truly the dream of a just world. WE WILL SCREW UP, probably publicly. If we are wise, we will own it, apologize, listen better, and learn. And couldn’t we all benefit from that.