{who are you, really?}

Kilsyth 11

Who are you really?

Do you know?

A little while ago a friend and I had a very silly email exchange about being pole-dancers — well, not me, only someone else and her, and — look, you had to have been there, it’s one of those things which simply get worse if you repeat them. Anyway, it was a joke, which is the point, and then, she got on her email and in the Google sidebar saw, this ad: “$179 Workout Dancer Pole Free Shipping. Limited Sale Price. 45 mm Chrome. No Ladder Ever Needed.”

(Whew! No ladder! The ladder would be such a drag.)

While we giggled maniacally over this – Google is the original All-Seeing Eye – we very much flinched at the same time. Yuck, that a phrase is plucked out of an email and used for marketing purposes. Just… yuck. Eeew. Advertisers are working hard to know all about you. Yay, intimate relationships with strangers and faceless corporations. Now we’re all feeling the love. Not.

Dear Advertisers: Fair and I are Just Saying No to the Zoltan School of Pole Dancing. Picking things out of our emails to interact with us is just creepy. (Pay attention, Google. The word I used is CREEPY.)

So, yeah. There was Squick there. I have a Thing about privacy and about self-knowledge, and how much of me is shared over the internet. It’s tough to maintain any kind of shield between you and the rest of the world – between oversharing and our personal exchanges being mined and manipulated for marketing content, there’s really no way to escape. (Definitely ways to protect yourself as much as possible, but no real escape.) But, I discovered a trick to avoiding all of the drama: know who you are. Know what you want.

I also discovered that is easier said than done.

We are, as a culture right now, over-exposed to each other. I’ve been thinking about the various trends – tons more kids stressed and on anti-depression drugs, more on the Autism spectrum, more coming out as part of the non-normative gender community. In part, these trends are publicized because we have access to the lives of myriad others through their social networking. We see the way others live, whereas only ten years ago, many of the sorts of things which we commonly known about each other were hidden. Everyone’s closet doors have become clear glass, and you hardly even have to open them and come out – the contents of your particular storage space are there for people to see. Because of this, it is hard to know what you want as distinct from what other people want, and who they are, and how they live. I can’t even say that this is so much harder for teens or young people – it is hard for everyone. We see a life and its trappings, and think it is what we want. We envy. We strive to get our lives to match up. And it’s a vicious cycle.

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I love Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” The question “What is it you intend to do/ with your one wild and precious life” arises from the final stanza, and I’ve heard so many people bandy it about, asking each other how they’re going to live, how they’re going to revel in this thing they’ve got. I want to mean the words of this poem for real; to live it — and to do that, I need to know who I am, and what I want.

I need to avoid living what I’ve come to call Life By Pinterest. A life has to be more than aspiring to having that “thing” like the person who has the pretty picture on their website. Ever notice that about Pinterest? Only 5% of the population creates. The rest re-pin, or gank content from other creator’s sites, and pin it up so that can be repinned. I’d rather be an creator than an admirer. I want to live life – that gorgeously creative and spontaneous and beloved ones-enriched life – for real. That takes knowing myself – knowing what I really need – to make that happen.

I want to want what I want, not be manipulated into wanting a life someone else has manufactured. I want MY life, not theirs. I want to stop looking into your closet, and begin caring more about the contents of my own. Not in any selfish, standoffish sort of way, but in a way that speaks to the truth that one has to till one’s own garden in order for anything to grow. Looking at the neighbor’s tomatoes does not give you your own.

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Serendipitously, as I’ve been thinking all of this, a woman called Helen Jane, has been thinking along these lines as well. My friend L. randomly forwarded me a blog post wherein Helen Jane advocates making lists – using that 750 words/3 pages a day Morning Pages thing from The Artist’s Way as a place to get in to yourself and be happy in your head, and find what you don’t want, and what you do. This bit of her post resonated with me with the strength of a sonic boom:

“…marketers are getting better and better at telling me what I want. And I’ve believed them.

They’re sponsoring aspirational Pinterest boards, they’re sponsoring aspirational trips, they’re giving money to those living the most marketable lives to continue to live those lives.

All that is so that we want those lives.
So we buy those lives.

But by making these lists,
by analyzing what it is I really want, REALLY, want, I’m better able to defend my longings against an onslaught of Covet.”

A “marketable” life! Is that what I need?

I protect my browser from having ads splashed all over my webpages as the machine tries to figure out the best way to lure me to a product – but I forget about the very human brains beetling away in the background, trying to create a need in me – by telling me that I am without something – I have a void. A sucking vortex – it needs new gum, new Spring clothes, new-old gorgeous antiqued wrought-iron fence, new etched hurricane lanterns, new summer meals al fresco on new thick white farmhouse pottery dishes, and soon, apparently, a new pole dancer’s pole with no ladder needed, ever.

I can only head off the heartbeat of new-new-new and need-need-need if I know who I am to begin with, and what I’ve got. If I can know that, I’ll know what I want, and what I actually need. And who I will be. And where I am aiming to go. I can only want other people’s lives if that’s all I look at – but I need to look within. The one whom I must aspire most to be — is me.

Everybody’s dying to be
else(O every
dying to be some
one else
Yes everybody’s dying
to be someone else)But
i’ll live my life if
it kills

~ 8. from Etcetera: The Unpublished Poems of E E Cummings edited by George James Firmage and Richard S. Kennedy (Liverlight, 1983).

I have a friend who is so much himself that he could not be anyone else. And while it might make him sound unreasonably selfish or unfriendly (he is neither), it is his moods and whims which move him most. Unlike most of us who are bombarded with external motivations, the blandishments of the world do not change him unless he decides to change. He is like a rock in the middle of a river – and the river goes around and past him.*

And one learns to be like that? By knowing who they are.

So, I ask again – and ask myself the same: Who are you? What do you want? Where are you going? Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

It’s your chance – make it good.

*Lest I make my dear friend sound Zen-koan perfect, he is not. A lot of people hear the siren song of new-new-new from technology and gadgets. I don’t hear it, so it makes me laugh when people want the next version of something. I think, “Really? You just bought one!” Even Tech Boy enjoys a good gadget. So, we all have our weaknesses. As I said, this bombardment with the Things other people have and can afford and show off on their social media, added to plain old advertising and marketing is hard to deal with. Just plain hard.

{thanks for the scoop}

“My eyes ate up every word in this book because I’ve never been through this and it isn’t an easy thing for a teenager to deal with so I’m glad that this book was written, I’m glad that this book was published and I’m glad that even though I don’t know anyone who’s been through this or been through it myself, that I got a little peek into character’s who have gone through this because as they were being educated about all of this, I was too.” – Rowena, from The Book Scoop


(A photo of Tech Boy, before reading much of anything other than the bumps on his brother’s head.)

Today I am mindful of those who have played their role in making us who we are.

One of the things Tech Boy and I have done since we got together is read aloud to each other our favorite books. Obviously, some books don’t lend themselves to this, but most of the ones we loved as children do – which is why the Tolkien series and much Pratchett has come to stay. These books lend themselves to being taken in over and over again.

When Maurice Sendak died last week, I was sad – but also relieved that an irascible old man who often spoke frankly about anticipating his death was allowed to go so peacefully. This past month commemorating the life of Diana Wynne Jones has been different – because I felt she had more stories in her, and want to set STUPID CANCER on fire for taking her too soon. However, this week, hearing of the loss of Jean Craighead George makes me sad – but smiley. She was one of the life-shapers, for Tech Boy, and she died after a good, full life, at 92.

If you’ve never read MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, or any of Jean Craighead George’s other books, you know her work focused on independence and interdependence in the natural world. Sam Gribley is one of a family of eleven, stuffed into a too-small urban space in New York, and he hates it. His father hates it, too, and Sam is raised on stories of being at sea, and of his great-grandfather’s exploits in the Catskills. Sam thinks, “Why not me?” and with a ball of twine, some flint and steel, and a little money in his pocket, he sets off from New York City to live out a dream.

Glasgow Uni 2009 Vet Rodeo 14

It is stunning. It is terrifying. It is occasionally hilarious. Sometimes it is a flat-out disaster. But, it is life, and it is all Sam’s. No one else deserves either blame nor praise for his survival and his mistakes.

Tech Boy ran away from home after reading this book. He got down to the avocado tree at the bottom of the road, and wasn’t sure where to go next. The Catskills are a bit far from Southern California, after all. Eventually, he went home, but what stayed was the little wild spot in his heart that wanted to live outdoors. He wanted to track bats, to whittle fish hooks and have his own peregrine — and he still wants that peregrine. These books created the person who tracks down lizards at Joshua Tree and faithfully remembered to bring back rhinoceros beetles and lizard skeletons to his junior high science teacher – years later, from Mexico. Jean Craighead George gave her readers a way to enter into her books, to enter into the wild world, and find a home when the home they had might not have been working for them so well.

So: acknowledgement. Jean Craighead George, you meant a lot to so many. Thanks for everything.

{“I don’t know what you were worrying about.”}

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…I like the book; it’s a page turner. It seems very normal in an abnormal kind of way…so I don’t know what you were worrying about, although I’ve only read a few chapters so far it is good. Not an epic, but good.

I’m still proud of you.

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My mother gives offhand compliments in a very low-key way… She’s just that type of person, and those who know her say I take a lot after her — introverted. A little shy. Tending to Martha around on the edges of things, preferring to carry a tray of glasses into the kitchen and wash them than to be in the center of things at a party. A person who has a finely honed sense of the absurd, who dances with babies and drives too fast, who sings while working, and whose belief in the power of onions to make a meal means that it always smells like something amazing is cooking, even if it’s just onions in a saucepan.

She is not given to gushing, and when she says a thing, she means it. One of the many, many, many reasons she is my favorite woman in all the world.

Marble statues in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens; sorry I don’t know the artists. Need to go back there next weekend and write that down…

{apropos of nothning in particular. no, really.}

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A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.

~ McSweeney’s Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do

Image © someone’s Pinterest, sent to me via email

{finding April’s purpose}

Hayford Mills 351 HDR

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is no longer enough.
– from Spring, by Edna St. Vincent Millay

A week ago, the Poetry Peeps got together to do a short-term project. Short, because none of us are long on time these days, which shows in the long gaps between our projects. Since quite a few of us had been dabbling in haiku/senryu for the past month, it was a fun and easy shift to get into renku. This popular collaborative game of “linked verses” actually prefaced haiku, and was made up of alternating fourteen and seventeen syllable lines. Modern renku combines both haiku with these new lines. The beginning haiku has a theme which is carried throughout the piece, and each poem is loosely linked and shows a natural progression.

There were rules to this – unearthed by the librarian/teacher in the bunch. And there were those who were confused by the rules (Me.) And then, there were those who just… wrote (everyone else).

There are subleties to this form that I can flatly tell you that I have not yet grasped, not at all. There are terms and parts of the links and a discussion of morae, which is the weight of the syllables — I’ve got none of that firmly fixed in mind, just yet. But, I do know that this was supposed to be a game – of cleverness, of, amusingly enough, who could be the most crude yet witty, and of skill with words. It was a good challenge, and an excuse to find out yet more about this unique poetic form.

Laura started us off,
Andi provided the link,
Tricia introduced color,
Andi linked us again,
Kelly zipped by next,
Andi bridged dogwood blossoms to ink,
Sara gave us limeade,
Andi puckered the words,
Laura contributed a sleepy afternoon,
I created a cloudbank,
Then contributed my own rainy day,
Liz picked up the scritching of raindrops,
Then contributed her own inscrutable tale,
And Andi looped the last link around to autumn, and collected the entire chain and all of her links at her blog.

cloud congestion, dully pewter
petrichor from distant patters

tapped on leaden skies
rain’s persistent percussion:
arrhythmic ad lib

Renku: alternating verses of three lines, two lines (could be 17, 14 syllables) with a linked theme and a progression in theme, which creates a shift: Our renku moves from early spring to late summer, from pink to red, from a last autumn leaf clinging stubbornly to a green-freshened branch to a reddened autumn to persimmons reddening and readying for harvest. We highlighted the senses and the bookish, absentminded dreamer who moves through our verdant, golden days is the soul reveling in the seasons — the person we hope you feel you are this Spring.


x-posted at Finding Wonderland, May 1

An article which might have sneaked past you this weekend, Macmillan’s Heroes and Heartbreakers blog added a new post to their section of YA Crush, titled, Are you there God? The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, by Brittany Melson.

Melson’s piece intrigued me – it was only a few weeks ago that the National Library Week’s Most Challenged list of 2011 was published, and as usual, Lauren Myracle topped the list with ttyl and the rest of that series. But, there was the usual resignation – the second reason Myracle’s novel and other novels on the top ten list (including Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and the ever-gorgeous Sherman Alexie) were banned — for “religious viewpoint.”

Really people? That’s what you’ve got?

Isn’t religion – the freedom from and the freedom of – one of the bedrock Five Freedoms? How can we seriously be considering depictions of religious life in fiction as objectionable? Thus, when I ran across a piece decrying The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, my ears perked up.

I, too, read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as a junior high student and connected in an equally unlikely way with the tale of two post-war Jews, one the son of a Zionist, the other the son of an Hasidic rabbi. The book was all about the big theological questions as applied to life and at that point, when I was trying to clarify my own religious values in and above what I had been taught, this was a thought-provoking addition to my inquiries, if also hugely – hugely – outside of my personal experience. The issue I have with Melson’s including this book, however, as “one of only a handful of young adult novels that seriously addresses the religious life of teenagers” is that it was written in 1967 — ! Much like her post title pulls from a novel published in 1970, this novel comes from a looong over era in YA lit.

Maybe it’s all in what Melson means with the word “seriously” in that reference. With information as easily as a keystroke away, teens and young adults are not lacking definitions of religion, or religious life, with which they can address their own questions, but rather models of such a life. I’ll get back to that modeling in a moment.

Like the “problem novels” of the same time period, where divorce or diversity or eating disorders were the hot-button issues identified via “worst-case scenario” set ups, novels depicting religion in the past put it on a pedestal to be analyzed, and then proceeded to pass judgement. Young adult fiction overall has moved away from that interaction with subject matter. Today’s successful, mainstream novels lack a preachy, judgmental tone, and avoid coming up with conclusions FOR the readers. But, that doesn’t mean there are no novels discussing faith seriously – what Rilke described in Letter to a Young Poet as “Living the questions…along some distant day into the answers….” There are all manner of novels living the questions to varying degrees – and they cover Christianity of all stripes, Judaism, the Muslim faith, and the agnostic stance. What they do NOT provide is an answer – it’s the question that’s important, please take note.

I am still a little bewildered that Melson didn’t even mention Sara Zarr. (Once Was Lost, How to Save a Life.) As a writer of books which model Christian families living lives which include both faith and failures, her books strike a quietly, solidly realistic tone.

Okay, so Sara is always YA’s go-to girl for novels which depict a religious experience without preaching or casting judgment. We LOVE us some Zarr. But, there are more people out there writing, and they’re not writing from some time-warp in 1967. Consider Sheba Karim (Skunk Girl), Micol/David Ostow (So Punk Rock), or Melissa Walker (Small Town Sinner), or Preacher’s Boy and others, by Katherine Paterson, or even Come Sunday, by Nikki Grimes — those count. Or, for the delicious twist of fantasy, A.M. Jenkins (Repossessed), Rae Carson (Girl of Fire and Thorns) or go medieval with The Healers’ Apprentice, by Melanie Dickerson. Science fiction choices are many, but include most recently Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan.

Randa Abdel-Fatta broke ground with Does My Head Look Big In This? And, there’s Robin Brande (Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature), Matthue Roth (Never Mind the Goldbergs), Mitali Perkins (Sunita Sen), Dana Reinhardt (A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life), Emily Wing Smith’s heartfelt The Way He Lived, Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Leaving Fishers, and Pete Hautman’s Godless or Timothy Carter’s Epoch. And those are just books read by me (and people in my blogging circle) whose titles I could think of offhand.

EDITED TO ADD: HAPPY FAMILIES, by me, out in just twelve days. Eek!

While I appreciate the timeliness of Melson’s question, there is not some mysterious disappearance going on. Faith in young adult fiction has simply “suffered a sea change” from straightforward didacticism or explanations of dogma and theology to being more of a cultural background in which characters are rooted and grow.

Melson asks a few other questions in her piece which as a writer I’d like to address – “Is it possible that some parents, with their penchant for censorship, are influencing what types of books get written and published? In the end, the question becomes: do teens not want to read fiction with religion in it, do authors not want to write it, or are agents and editors afraid to represent and promote it?”

First, I’d like to offer up the idea that while writers are influenced by their environment and by their own upbringing, the parents of unknown teens are a highly unlikely shaping mechanisms to their stories. Most of us write with only the vaguest audience in mind; many of us write for our various past selves. We’re not thinking of anyone’s parents, nor do I believe that teens shy away from reading about faith — unless it’s telling them how to have it, what type they should have, or creating it as an Issue in a preachy, moralizing way. Adults don’t even want to read that, much less teens who have thousands of other options for their entertainment. Second, I’d like to suggest that perhaps agents and editors, seeing the big-picture marketing-wise, may offer guidance to their authors, but they can hardly, as a group, be characterized as afraid to represent and promote fiction containing religious content. Caution in many ways is justified, as we live in an increasingly polarized society in terms of faith – there are those who really do feel that because of theirs, and their moral stance, that they have the truth of things, and know what’s best for everyone in society. It’s obviously not always easy to maneuver through the submerged tensions on the topic of faith in fiction, but writers who write best are both reflecting their worlds, and opening a window on the world to others.

And, of course, I’m here preaching to the choir, as it were.

Melson wrote a thought-provoking piece, reminded me of an old novel I’d forgotten I’d even read, and goosed me into thinking up other writers who, like myself, grew up with religion and reflect faith in their work. If you can think of other books and writers whose modeling of faith made a difference to you, join the discussion!

Wow. ‘Tis the season for teensy rants. Check out Sarah Ockler’s – she has a lot of good to say about the Mysterious Disappearance of Race in YA. Only, it’s not so mysterious, actually.

{a fitting kick-off for the month}

It’s a bit shocking how smart my friends are. This is an excerpt from a conversation in my writing group yesterday, totally ganked with no one’s permission, and brought up for public scrutiny.

If you’d seen the rest of the exchange, you might have had to have a tiny cry. When a writer is down — nothing like others with keyboards beneath fingers, lifting them back up.

As always, click pic to embiggen