I enjoy listening to interviews of one of my current favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates. He frequently answers I don’t know to questions. I think the nature of being a writer should be one of perpetual curiosity and not, as some would have us believe, endless fonts of wisdom. This pet theory of mine ran into a wall when Coates said Kevin Williamson can write his ass off and that he’d read him because he’s good.
If a writer like Coates is so curious and willing to read Williamson, why aren’t I? Is it my unwillingness to show deference to the mighty gods of ART? Kevin Williamson has been in the news because The Atlantic just hired him as a writer. It’s a short hop and a skip on a search engine to find this guy’s most egregious public statements, which involve transphobia, racism, and misogyny. While these tags have become nearly ubiquitous and synonymous with politics, they bear the larger mark of being cruel, arrogant, and rather incurious.
Lately I’ve been having conversations with my daughter about writers, artists, and musicians. It’s the old Wagner argument – do you listen to the music of an anti-Semite? Do you separate the art from the artist? How do you separate Salinger from his Roy Moore-like predilections for teenagers? Or Hemingway from the shit father and husband he was? Or Picasso for the way he treated women?
These are difficult, subjective questions. But when the content of your art is your opinion, how much easier does that question get? As I’ve gotten older, read more, and developed an awareness of the vast landscape of art beyond the traditional literary canons, I have begun to draw my own lines in the sand. I have choices. There are skilled writers who don’t advocate for the harm of others. There are eloquent writers who can make their points absent deliberately provocative statements.
Maybe this is my coming of age with writing. I don’t revere art the way I have in the past. I don’t see artists and writers as being above the basic expectations of civility or decency or compassion because of their art. The hyperbolic clarion call of the classics or geniuses or brilliant writers no longer beckons me nor defines my reading list. I don’t feel the pull of must-read blurbs or the anxiety that I might be missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime compilation of words.
My husband often gets annoyed with modern music because of the vocal gymnastics – those long notes that warble on forever, only because they can. I feel something similar about writing. I don’t give a damn if a writer does the verbal equivalent of two quadruple Lutz jumps. If those jumps involve rationalizing their hatred or fear or contempt of others, then they are still a purveyor of dumpster-writing, no matter how eloquent.
I’m sure part of this subjective reckoning in my reading list is due to the era. Provocateurs are a dime a dozen these days – just tarted up versions of reality shows. They might be writers or actors or politicians or that guy in the grocery store with a t-shirt that says No fat chicks. We’re a nation being led by a gold-plated, thin-skinned provocateur. Outrage is addictive. Two sides of a very easy equation. It keeps us off-balance and unfocused.
While exposing oneself to a range of ideas is admirable, the range of ideas seems to be limiting itself to one extreme or the other. It is moderation that has suffered most in this country, while the vendors of extremist one-liners and memes and impulsive Tweets are put on rotation in the media. That some writers need a sledgehammer to make a point, rather than using skilled reasoning, is a reflection of the times, not of literary merit.
I took some time to read a few of Mr. Williamson’s articles, because I am a curious person and I think it would be wrong to dismiss someone out of hand. This is where Mr. Coates and I part ways. The writing of Kevin Williamson was no better or worse than any other national columnist. That is to say, there was nothing about it that convinced me to look past this writer’s uglier sentiments, nothing that makes me want to provide material support to his career by continuing my subscription.
Perhaps it is that I hunger for the restoration of civility and dignity to the public sphere or that in those magical reading hours, I do not want the tight, angry politics of extremism. It may be that I have the unrealistic expectation that art and writing should endeavor to make the world better, not just angrier.
Update 04.05.18: The Atlantic fired Kevin Williamson when his views on hanging a large percentage of American women for abortions proved to be more than an errant Tweet. Lesson #1: Due diligence should be part of any hiring decision. Lesson #2: Don’t advocate violent shit ideas.
The Green Study will return on April 1, 2018.
I’ve made some progress over the last couple of months on both my novel and some essay writing, and I’ve reached that point where I need to do a final push to meet internal and external deadlines. I’ll leave you with some thoughts before I head into Michelle’s Writing Month (MeWriMo).
On Vulnerability and Writing
When I wrote about book reviews earlier this month, I began to think about the nature of being a writer in today’s world. If I’m deep into writing, I have no armor. I find after spending a lot of time writing, even going to the grocery store feels like an assault on the senses. I’m exposed. A hermit crab without a shell. I wince at the overhead speakers and all the beeping noises of the register. People seem too loud, the lights too bright.
I have to harden up a bit again, develop a wind break against the sensory onslaught. And this is only to physical sensation. What about those writers who read a review of something they’d published, something they’d poured themselves into, only to be eviscerated by a careless reviewer? The Amazon hit piece: This sucked. I want my money back.
Writers talk about not reading their reviews and I used to wonder if it was an issue of ego, but now I think it’s necessary protectionism. Reviews serve no purpose for writers. The work is done. Writing to audience specifications will not create better art.
I’ve noticed a lot of readers from countries where English is not the main language. With all the available tools we have to translate, I would encourage you to engage, practice your English here or write in your first language, and maybe we can learn a little more about your language and country. You are welcome here at The Green Study.
I just started studying Chinese, but also have some German, Spanish, French, and Russian under my belt. I spend a little time each day studying, using apps like Duolingo and Memrise. Lately, too, I’ve been using Quizlet to improve my geography knowledge. There is something about learning location and language that brings the world closer to home. And it’s excellent exercise for the brain.
At a time when our U.S. leaders seek to sow discontent, we must free our minds and open our hearts. The U.S. is shedding experienced and knowledgeable diplomats, so we must step up to the plate. We must reach out, talk to each other, make connections, learn languages, read internationally, and not allow our leaders to define our relationship with the rest of the world.
It works. It really works. Back in December, I did a post series on resolutions with the intent of doing monthly updates. I’m a little late, but I’m sure no one is losing any sleep over it. I ran into trouble when I kept picking the wrong resolutions. I kept modifying until I finally hit on a couple more that worked. The results, like the resolutions, are small, but have shifted me more towards my personal goals than not.
Writing: I have written every single day now for almost three months. As soon as I log into my computer, a blank Word doc comes up, and I am writing. My current resolution is a nightly habit of planning the next day’s writing. I don’t always follow through on the list, but I’ve given myself a map and travel with it as far as I can. As long as I’m still moving, that’s progress.
Fitness: I’ve mixed up my workouts and avoided my usual pitfall, which is to progressively add more weight and distance and time until I burn out for weeks on end or get injured. Whatever I do is fine, as long as I do something. The sun is out today and the sidewalks have finally melted off – it’s a walk for sure.
Nutrition: Forcing myself to eat only at the kitchen table has completely changed how I approach mealtimes and snacks. It is now a ritual and not a dash-and-grab. In the words of Caroline Arnold: small move, big change.
My latest microresolution is eating food that requires me to slow down. Soup or salad and fruit for lunch. Unless I slurp cold soup with a straw, it’s a slow meal. And the time it takes to peel and eat an orange is meditative. I can feel my relationship with food changing, becoming the pleasure it should be.
Lifestyle: For the last couple of months, I made the resolution to always log off my computer by 7pm. This has improved a lot of small, meaningful things for me. I have more conversations with my family, I read more, and when I’m ready to go to bed, I sleep.
What is the most significant thing about taking a long time to make small changes, is that it changes the narrative from one of failed resolutions to that of incremental victories. This has given me a sense of optimism about my ability to make change and the confidence I’d lost in the repeated failures of bigger goals.
I still get a little impatient, but after seeing how consistent I am able to be when I whittle down to the smallest resolution, I’m going to keep at it. Five new habits in three months? That’s 20 new, positive habits a year. Where will I be then? I’m kind of excited to find out.
Thank you to the many readers and commenters who have connected with me here. The blog is now six years old. It has learned to walk, wipe its own butt, and doesn’t drool quite as much – with only an occasional temper tantrum. It would have languished long ago if not for the people who read it and those who take the time to share their thoughts and perspectives. Thank you!
Have a great month of March and I look forward to reconnecting in April!
My face was hot and red. I began muttering to myself and rolling my eyes. My internal argument grew rancorous: stay or leave, ask a question or angrily scroll notes in my notebook for a pointed email later on. In my efforts to become a better citizen, I attended a political meeting about local issues. I left, bewildered by my sense of rage and ashamed that I could barely contain it. I’m not known for my patience or for suffering fools gladly, but sometimes I can be very foolish of my own accord.
Perhaps it is that for the last two years, we’ve been exposed to the ugly underbelly of American life so relentlessly. The ignorant have bragged about their ignorance. The hateful have openly celebrated their hate. The wealthy have brazenly claimed their gluttony and disregard for the average American. The incompetent have seated themselves at the table of power. A minority of citizens got the spokesperson and president they wished for: crude, insulting, illiterate, impulsive, lacking in any insight that doesn’t benefit him or shine the light on him.
With him, came the corporate looters, the big game hunters, the vacuous, pretty women who have deluded themselves into thinking screen time means power, the braggarts who suggest education and reading are elitist, the conspiracy theorists and other-blamers, the couch potatoes who laze about watching television and Twittering themselves. American life as reality TV. It cannot help but infect even the most reasonable among us.
I used to think of myself as a reasonable person, but I just don’t know anymore. My life experiences have put me in the path of a wide range of people. The people who have made me angriest are those who talk down to me. A person could call me every name in the book, but once they impugn my intelligence, they have an enemy for life. This is not to say that my intelligence is any more significant than that of anyone else. It is that, of all the aspects of self one can choose to value, this is the one I value most – my ability to learn, to think things through, to see a broader perspective.
Back to the meeting. There were two speakers. One was a former journalist who had worked for both the metro area’s major newspapers for decades, served on various citizens’ councils and leagues, and worked as a public affairs writer. The other was a career politician who had been a state senator and was now serving as a county commissioner. They were each allowed presentation time to talk about regional and urban governance, each taking a different tack.
I won’t go into the specifics of the issues, because they’re not interesting and not the point of the post. The journalist spoke evenly, presented the information and sat down. He reminded me of an old school union guy I used to know – just laying it out there and hey, if you were on board, cool. I didn’t sense any partisanship and he later described himself as a centrist.
The politician got up and two minutes into his presentation, I began scrawling angrily in my notebook. There are a lot of phallocentric words. I think I used most of them. It was childish, but this rage came over me. He was talking to a group of mostly older people as if they were on a used car lot, needing to be pushed and prodded towards a sale.
It took a little more time than that to figure out that he was a Republican politician. The phrases started creeping in – all very benign out of context, like democracy, but I kept waiting for him to pull a flag out of his ass and start singing his own version of the national anthem, Fergie-style. I was, in today’s vernacular, triggered. I could feel this explosive rage building up inside me, this fierce anger at the emotional manipulations of politicians and being so very tired of the dumbed-down discourse.
Perhaps it is the nature of the beast when one is a politician. Everything is sound bites and bumper stickers. Like teachers who have to focus on the lowest performers, politicians speak to the least-informed among their voters. The other thing is that they talk constantly and repetitively. If there is one thing I believe about talking, it is that the more of it you do, the less time you have to be introspective and thoughtful or adaptive to the reality at hand.
Even with politicians I respect, I always wonder why they spend so much time talking and so little time listening. It seems like it would impair one’s ability to be a good representative. Part of the problem, of course, is that money puts them in constant campaign mode. They become walking bumper stickers for half of whatever term they serve.
This is all to say, that the person who gets screwed in all this is the well-informed centrist voter. If we’re not being condescended to by politicians, we’re being called elitists by those who seem to find education of any ilk an affront to their personal life choices.
I thought about the two styles of presentation. One was low-key, fact-ridden, and unemotional – leaving us the room to decide. The other was pushy, condescending, and in the end, unconvincing. Mostly because I thought he talked like a complete and utter wanker. And therein lies another issue – how to separate the message from the medium.
There’s a lingual patter that originated at the margins but has now infested everyday dialogue, language that quickly indicates liberal or conservative. Through repetition and a lack of imagination, we often parrot language that we associate with “our side”. In two words, one can tell the team you’re playing for. Snowflake or racist. Should it be that easy? Nobody wants to be reduced down by one word to a political chess piece.
It took me off guard, my reflexive, angry reaction. It wasn’t just one politician. It was the language of all politicians. It was all the impulsive Twittering, the constant outrage, and the addiction to hyperbole. It was the intent to masquerade parochialism as patriotism and discrimination as religion. It was the exploitation of fear and the careless use of damning terminology. It was hearing a country redefined by the language of political expediency – a language that should leave me cold under any other circumstances.
Where was that valued intelligence when I angrily scrawled this guy is an utter dick in my notebook? I’m only grateful that I still have the ability to feel shame at a time when shamelessness seems to be a national pastime.
What’s your take on political discourse these days?
Any advice on how not to be perpetually angry about it?
I fumed well into the night after attending an open book club at my local library. At first, I was hopeful. There were discussion worksheets with great analytical questions about the book laid out on the tables. Except they didn’t use the worksheet. Many people hadn’t even finished reading the book.
After an hour of people sharing personal anecdotes about trips to Italy and saying inane things like the book should have been shorter with no supporting reasons, I quietly closed my notebook. A notebook with ten pages of earnest notes about the novel – turns of phrase that really struck me, questions about this character or that, paraphrased ideas that I thought were interesting. I tried at a couple of turns, to bring the conversation back to the actual book, with little success. Defeated, I felt a familiar shroud of isolation and alienation descend over me.
Was it me again? Were my expectations too high? Was I too intellectual, too much the four-eyed pedant that I’ve felt like much of my life? Was it the ugly side of my introversion taking over? It would not be the first time that I felt abnormal or out-of-step. Sometimes people will console themselves with a sense of superiority. For me, it’s more like what the hell is wrong with me?
Growing up an intense reader can put one with odds with the outside world. Especially if that world, as mine was, is a place of drunken brawls and cars on blocks in the front yard (that stereotype really holds up). Mocked for always having one’s nose in a book or being too smart for their own good is a surefire way to make a kid feel like they are not quite right.
It took me a moment or ten, but I shook off my automatic response of feeling like the ugly duckling and realized that I’m a writer now. I read differently. I wonder about things like themes and story arcs and symbolism. I think about points of view and a writer’s choice to jump characters or time periods. A book is no longer just a story to talk about – it’s a work of art to be dissected and discussed and learned from. I can’t walk into a random book club and expect people to be discussing foreshadowing and metaphor.
Although I did expect them to talk about the actual book. Guess that depends on the club. I tried to readjust my thinking. Just listen. Listen to them as readers. As readers, they were a disappointing lot. One woman even piped up I am not going to finish the book, looking around as if to dare someone to challenge her. I scrabbled about my brain until I came up with a productive way to to turn it around. At what point did you decide not to finish and why? Too late. Someone else was already off on a tangent.
It’s become clear to me that I’m hungry to connect with others about books. Flirting with Goodreads, exchanges here on the blog when I write about books – these tentative attempts are happening more frequently. But I have to come to terms with the fact that I’ve become much more analytical in my reading than I’ve been in the past and that the level of discourse I need goes beyond that of an audience entertained by a storyteller. I am a storyteller who wants to be a better one.
I’m throwing this post up in the hopes of getting some ideas.
Is a book club for writers a thing? Have you started or joined one? What are your positive or negative experiences with a book club?
Update 04/18/18: I’ve started an online book club for writers! It’s slow going so far, but check it out if you have an interest. We’re reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward for discussion 5/15-5/30/18. Next month is a poetry collection, Afterland by Mai Der Vang.
I recently rejoined Goodreads after a long absence and am pondering whether or not to write book reviews. I haven’t done so in the past, as a rule, for a number of reasons.
The first reason is that I have a lot of writer friends, many of whom have written books. Some of those books get an ‘A’ for effort, but not for execution. Sometimes they ask for reviews. I want to keep my integrity. And my friends.
Another reason for not writing reviews is that I feel squeamish as a writer who is trying to finish a novel. Anyone who completes and publishes work has my respect. Even work badly done is the achievement of a goal I’ve yet to attain. Perhaps when I’ve done one of my own, I’ll feel less beholden, but until then, it impacts my ability to critically write about the work of someone else. I would be ineffective as a reviewer, because I’d only say nice things.
And lastly, we live in a culture that has elevated everyone’s opinions to something more than they are. We’re constantly being asked to review products, vacation spots, experiences, to like things, to star things…I find it all unsettling. Most people would argue that they’re being helpful and maybe it is. Maybe it forces business entities to improve, but books? They’re a done deal.
I suspect that sometimes it’s good to have our own shitty experiences, to not have everything be perfect – to be inconvenienced or ripped off or to stay in a room next to the air conditioner that rattles all night long or to read a badly-written book. That’s where we get our stories from and without those experiences, life would be dull and predictable.
We made the mistake a couple of years ago of staying in a hotel on the Pacific coast that allowed pets. We don’t have a pet, but it was reasonably priced. We do, however, have a preference for rooms without carpet stains and an underlying smell of dog piss. Still, we laughed it off, didn’t throw a tantrum at management, didn’t wig out on Trip Advisor. It was only one night and we were right on the shore. From the balcony, using binoculars, we were delighted and surprised to see a pod of whales swimming northward. We were able to spot them well into the evening and the next morning as well. Had we read the reviews, paused to think what pet hotel meant, we would have missed something people pay quite a lot to see.
When I find books to read, I’m an archaeologist. I ramble through the stacks at my local library, digging up books that appeal, no matter whether or not they’re on a bestseller list or everyone is giving them 5-stars or even if they’re remotely current. I request books that were mentioned by other writers or that I heard referenced in an interview or that relate to a subject I’m interested in at the moment.
One of the most disheartening experiences I try to avoid now is the referral of books to people. There are books that have lifted me up and brought me such joy, only to have a friend say “it didn’t resonate with me” – that passive, equivocating, damning phrase. I felt different about the friendship after that. Some people have religion. I have the written word. It is fair to say, this makes me a tad irrational about the subject.
Sometimes I’ll read reviews after the fact because I’m curious how something is interpreted by others. What I’ve learned is that reading is wildly subjective. That two people reading the same book will have diametrically opposed opinions and both of them are sometimes right. Unfortunately, many people write reviews that suggest their feelings are universal or that they know they are right. And like most online forums, some people use it to demonstrate what jackwagons they are.
There is something flattering and obsequious about being asked for one’s opinion. When someone asks my opinion, my brain lights up, preparing to expound. I suspect it taps into something I don’t like about myself very much – that given the right circumstances, I’d be a horrible know-it-all who doesn’t shut up, who would run roughshod over others – someone who would never be invited back again.
Perhaps this is why humility has ended up as one of my core values. I fear what would happen should my ego escape its constraints. I’m also not fond of bloviators who suck the air out of the room and would very much like not to be one of them. Writing a review seems a step away from feeding that particular beast.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun a practice of reading as a writer. I read nothing without a notebook and pen. I take notes, copy phrases, write questions. It’s a way of forcing myself to slow down, to take notice, to not just gorge myself. I’ve always been a gluttonous, speedy reader, forgetting what I’ve read ten minutes after I’ve read it. Slowing down and really absorbing the words has changed my reading experience significantly. Perhaps it has become such a luxury, that I don’t wish to exploit it for public purposes, I don’t know.
Tonight I am going to my first book club meeting ever. I’ve read the book and there’s a community book club at the local library. I’m showing up with my uncurated reading notes and with a mantra to stay open, to stay curious and to keep my opinions on a short leash.
Do you write book reviews? Do you read book reviews? What is your take on them?
It was at a relative’s funeral over 15 years ago that I began to wonder about my ability or inability to love. The spouse of the deceased, an awkward and unlikable man, cornered me. He began to explain my relatives to me in critical terms. She doesn’t know how to love. They are such cold people. He would never understand love. Grieving requires latitude, so I stood there, numbly, and listened as he described the people I loved as terrible. And maybe they were.
I’ve written before about my upbringing and childhood. And it is only significant in the fact that it had consequences. I was a sensitive, shy kid in a household where tears and really, any emotion, were mocked or ridiculed or punished. When I laughed I was too loud, when I cried I was being too sensitive, when I was sick I was faking it, when I was angry, I was unjustified. Toughen up was the order of the day.
So I did. I took up sarcasm and cynicism as weapons and armor. I worked when I was sick. I cried in private. I muffled my laughter and subdued any excitability. I smoothed out the sheets until there was not a wrinkle in sight. I grew up, muted and self-conscious of any outward indications of emotion.
I did well in the Army. No drill sergeant could yell me into anything more than a look of stony silence. I’d stare placidly as my bunk was torn apart and an angry man got up in my face screaming about my worthlessness. It was nothing to me.
Once I started college, I couldn’t relate to the excitable undergrads and buried myself in work. The cracks were beginning to show. I began to suffer chronic depression. The emotions that I’d suppressed had begun to curl inward and were finding their way into toxic relationships and self-destructive behaviors that left me gasping for air.
But I was tough. I could survive. I could make it through anything, especially the self-generated miseries. Two decades of muted smiles and disdain for anything sentimental or emotional. I was still me, sensitive to not only the moods and whims of others, but of the environment, of sounds and smells and shifts in the wind. I just had a hard shell.
This is what we’re told as children – grow up, toughen up, be like an adult. A generous interpretation is that we fear for these little, soft beings going out in the world. So often, though, we’re re-enacting our own childhood pains and fears, wishing on our children a kind of protection we never had.
It would be easy for me to say that being in a happy marriage and having a healthy child was what changed me. It did. How could it not? But the change began happening before he came along and she was born.
It started with decisions. A decision to leave a dead-end job that made me feel stupid. A decision to leave a relationship that would have gone nowhere, a relationship that made me feel inferior and worthless. A decision to leave a town where I’d worked through a lot of permutations and none of them fit.
Then there was therapy. Talking about things I’d never talked about, to a person who didn’t have a horse in the race. Crying a lot. Often feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life. The cracks became canyons and I feared I would never get out. But every gaslight was extinguished when the therapist leaned in, with a quizzical look on her face and said “You do understand that they were trying to hurt you, right?” The elemental difference between feeling worthless and not.
I’ve softened over the years. It’s uncomfortable to me still. Sometimes I’ll hear myself laugh and I’ll think stop that cackling, a phrase I heard repeatedly as a child. But I split my heart wide open when I committed to a marriage. I laid all my vulnerabilities out on the table when my child smiled her first smile.
The softening of middle age isn’t just happening around the middle. I seem to be leaking tears and flashing smiles at the most inopportune moments. It feels like an odd awakening to the exquisite beauty of this fragile existence.
I will never be an effusive person or greet Valentine’s day with much more than a grimace. But my family is well-loved year round and I laugh a lot these days. I’m at a point where repairs are no longer underway, my psyche no longer under construction.
There’s a peppy little song by Cathy Heller called “Gonna Be Happy”. The lyrics are saccharine sweet, but there’s a line that has burned itself in my brain.
How can we set each other free?
I’ve been thinking about this as I go about my day. I’ve been watching people – at the grocery store, at concerts, walking their dogs, talking to their children, using their walkers, and blasting their car radios. And that line pops into my head.
It’s realizing that a smile can make a difference in a person’s day. It’s understanding that most people are not out to intentionally hurt us, that we are all on our own orbital paths and sometimes that makes us careless of other humans. It’s assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, of attributing things not to malevolence, but to inattention.
It’s love turned outward. It’s that moment when it cannot be contained and wrangled into submission – when the impulse to smile or laugh or cry is no longer embarrassing or shameful. It’s startling when it happens. My first thought is always “Who is this weirdo and what do they want?” But defensiveness obscures my vision, makes me miss the moment, the connection. Curiosity is the antidote and is, in some ways, the best gift of love we can offer each other.
February is Black History Month in the United States. It’s the month when everybody hauls out their Martin Luther King memes, goes to see “Selma”, and tells themselves, See? I’m not racist. Much like Women’s History Month, it feels like slapping a band aid on a wound that won’t stop bleeding. But if awareness is the first step to getting ourselves out of this cultural morass, of evolving as a society, there’s a whole world of written works to lead the way.
Last week I went to a book talk given by Colson Whitehead. He wrote the award-winning fiction work The Underground Railroad. The opening to the talk was an homage to Black History Month. An eleven-year-old girl sang “Glory” while historic pictures of the civil rights movement in the Twin Cities showed on a screen. It wrung me out. I had to discretely wipe away tears and do my old-lady-digging-in-her-bag-for-a-tissue bit.
Much of what we believe and who we associate with is grounded in childhood experiences. I was a white kid from a poor midwestern family, where alcoholism and domestic violence were defining characteristics. I knew three people of color from ages 0-17 and my family had a branch of the racist variety. I heard a lot of slurs and “jokes” growing up. I didn’t understand most of them. I saw the “Roots” mini-series when I was ten, which was pointlessly jarring without mature context and I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird twelve hundred times. But I had not yet entered the world.
I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
When I joined the Army and went abroad, that changed. When I went to college, that changed. And when I moved to my working class suburb in the Twin Cities where my daughter attends school as a white minority, that changed. I went from not understanding, to the academic “I’m colorblind” stage, to a recognition of the world as it is. Because I am white, I will never be privy to a complete understanding of the issues at hand. Empathy can only carry one so far. But it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.
I just finished reading A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, a collection of essays edited by Sun Yung Shin. As a writer, I can often miss the message due to the medium. It’s an uneven collection and oversold itself with a quote on the cover that suggested it would be life-changing. That would be the case only if you’d never read anything about racial injustice and didn’t watch the news for the last decade. Still, there were several solid essays that made it worth the read.
American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things
I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and it is a reminder that sometimes fiction finds the truth more accurately than facts. It’s a dense, wonderful book that I didn’t want to put down. The story explores the issues of race through the experience of Nigerian immigrants to England and to the United States, places in which no matter where a person is from, they become “black”.
The first time the history of slavery hit me in the solar plexus was after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I finished reading it, I sat stone still for an hour, book pressed to my heart, awed and overwhelmed. Colson Whitehead, a delightful speaker as well as a gifted writer, made me laugh. He had a similar authorial thought to mine when reading Morrison’s work. I’m totally screwed. He managed to do just fine, though. The Underground Railroad was a merciless read and an artistic masterpiece.
Reading outside one’s experience often has the surprising effect of connection, not just understanding. Our basic humanity is one and the same. That a white woman could identify with the main character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is not as odd as it sounds. We all choose to see (or not see) people the way we do and ofttimes, it is not as the complex human being they are – it’s the great sin of stereotyping, so that we do not have to expend our energy being curious.
When Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story, she reminds us how easy it is to rob others of their dignity through a single narrative thread. And how important it is that we restore it. It starts with the silent turning of a page, of willing ourselves to read outside our metaphorical and literal borders.
Additional Nonfiction Reading:
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
- The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker
- Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Grey Album: Music, Shadows, Lies by Kevin Young
- The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
In the United States, a precinct caucus is the smallest unit of politics one can participate in – it’s the beginning of the beginning.
Last night, the Republican and Democrat caucuses took place in little class and conference rooms all over the state of Minnesota. I have always considered myself an independent and in the distant past, voted for whatever candidate I felt would be best. These days, moderate Republicans are like unicorns and independent parties keep putting up fringe operators at best, so last night I went blue and attended my local precinct caucus for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (Democrats in Minnesota).
In a fit of pique after the 2016 election, I had joined the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV). They focus on voting rights and community issues, which appealed to my sense of egalitarianism (wasted in the current environment, but old habits die hard). I was dipping my toes into the pool of activism. I’d always been politically informed, a nerd who read The Economist and Foreign Affairs, but joining a march or going door-to-door made me shrink away in horror. And meetings give me a shiver of revulsion.
Current events being what they are and simply being pissed off enough to overcome my personal inclinations, I typed up the voting rights resolutions (items you put forward to be added to the party platform) supported by the LWV and packed myself off to the precinct caucus.
The last time I attended any caucus was about 20+ years ago, while I was attending the University of Iowa. I was working three jobs and trying to get through college. I’d gotten out of the Army with some vestiges of Republicanism, but had given up religion and was turned off by the conservative morality police, so I attended a Democratic caucus down the street from my apartment. Like most of college, I have little recollection of the proceedings.
As an introvert, I have to prepare myself for events. I’m usually filled with nervous anxiety, don’t sleep well the night before, and find myself issuing mental commands: Breathe. Relax your shoulders. And then the reassurances: It’s only two hours. It will be fine. In the case of this precinct caucus, it wasn’t just a case of showing up and listening. I had to speak as well.
My suburb has 14,000 registered voters divided into eight precincts. Statewide, Minnesota has a slight majority of Democrats over Republicans, so statistically, my precinct caucus should represent around 800 Democrats. 15 people showed up. Low-level participation during a midterm year is common to both parties. A woman told me in 2016 that you could barely move through the hallways, it was so packed.
The 15 people ranged from 30-80 in age, all of us having the blotchy pale color of a six-month Minnesota winter. We were ensconced in puffy clothes that made us all blobbish, wearing shoes with traces of road salt on them. This is the red carpet of an involved citizenry. Due to the small number, we were all automatically delegates to the next meeting. Yay?
We followed the rules of order and an agenda, while being interrupted by politicians popping in to give their mini stump speeches. They all seemed a little breathless, as if they were attempting to go to every one of Minnesota’s 4,117 voting precincts.
The first major bit of business was doing a straw poll for gubernatorial candidates, since ours is on the ballot in the fall. I was one of two uncommitted voters in the room. It’s early in the process for me to determine who I’d support. And I simply hadn’t done the research.
When it came to resolutions, I had five. There were only two others from the rest of the room. One was from an elderly gentleman who shook slightly as he spoke – he wanted a moratorium on factory farms. I knew that there were lobbies in our surrounding states to do the same, due to the health issues and the pollution of waterways. His resolution passed.
I went through three voting rights resolutions: automatic registration with the driver’s license (an opt out system rather than the current opt in), pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-old voters (raises early voter participation), early voting using actual ballots and not absentee ballots (saves money and less confusing to voter). Then two government accountability resolutions: no more omnibus bills in the state senate and house, must follow single subject line rule (with the exception of major finance bills which have a lot of moving parts) and transparency in electioneering communications (currently if ads don’t say “Vote for” or “Defeat” in Minnesota, advertisers don’t have to identify themselves).
All my resolutions passed unanimously. A slight victory, since these resolutions will have to go through many more filters before having a shot at making it into the state’s party platform, much less any actual legislation in the very far future.
The last resolution was done on the fly by a man hastily filling in the form. He was talking about school referendums and I didn’t understand what exactly his resolution was, despite asking for clarification. Since I did not have the opportunity to do any research, I abstained from the vote. It, whatever it was, still passed. Easy crowd.
I walked into the caucus with apprehension, but I walked out as the precinct chair, a delegate, and an election judge. I am reminded of a magnet on the fridge that a friend gave me: Stop me before I volunteer again. I am an introvert, but I’m also tired of the loudmouths having all the power. Our system suffers when the extroverts and impulsive blabbers dominate.
It was a big question among my introvert friends last year. How can I make a difference without being loud? I remember a sign that showed up at marches: “So bad, even introverts are here.” The world has become so hostile and angry that people like me want to retract our limbs into our shells. But now is simply not the time. Better to counter the impulsiveness of shameless self-promoters. Just breathe, relax your shoulders, and step into the world, resolutions in hand.
I don’t watch award shows. I find the whole self-congratulatory process on top of wealth and celebrity status a tad nauseating. The State of the Union is not much different and this year, like anything Trump touches, it will be way worse. The problem with this weed of a president is that everyone keeps giving it light. Weeds like the light. They flourish and take over all the good soil, choking out anything that is newsworthy and meaningful. This year, I’m taking my light elsewhere.
Despite the fact that I’m a political junkie, I hate reality TV and the denizens that occupy it. Since our government and media have turned into The Real World: Washington D.C. Edition, I’ve learned to cultivate my news sources. Pundits and conspiracy theorists scrawl on whiteboards with bizarre connections and fallacies every time this president opens his mouth. Even respected journalists have lost their ever-loving minds reporting on every fart he emits. This is where information is not empowering. It’s enervating. It leaves us all just a little besmirched and exhausted.
The State of the Union sounds important, but it’s not. Especially when the windbag that is speaking is always talking. This guy can’t shut up. We’ve heard all his stories. We’ve heard his memes and talking points. We’ve seen his beady little eyes and flappy jowls a zillion times in the last two years. He’s a bore. He’s a bore that has, to his delight, sucked all of the air out of the room. At this point in a social event, I would have acted like I needed a smoke, gone outside, gotten in my car, and driven away with the lights off, so I wouldn’t be noticed.
Here are some things you can do with your time instead, that will be more meaningful, powerful, and useful:
- Donate to a “sh*thole” country, where real, live human beings like us are struggling to raise their families, find work, raise crops, get an education, and fight disease. Last week, the 12-year-old girl I was sponsoring in Malawi, died of malaria, an entirely preventable disease. I wrote a condolence letter to her family that will likely mean little. What means more, is that I’m sponsoring more children. Save the Children is an outstanding organization, as is Doctors without Borders.
- Here’s an easy one – read a book about immigrants and refugees, about the kind of people who come to our shores and what they experience. Here are a few:
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Albert Urrea
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
- Eat a delicious, healthy meal and get some exercise. If there’s anything I want to do more, it’s to outlive all these old bastards and watch every stupid, destructive thing they ever did be repaired.
- Read a science article. In the face of lies, false reporting, random Facebook opinions, television pundits, knowledge is power. Great sources for good science:
- Join a voting rights organization like League of Women Voters, The Brennan Center for Justice, Rock the Vote, NAACP, and Voto Latino. Voting rights are the bedrock of our representative democracy and the best defense against authoritarianism.
These are the more serious suggestions, but the fact of the matter is, I’d rather do anything else but listen to this blathering mudslinger. The crimes against syntax and semantics aside, I know that whatever he says will be untrue. Who has the time for that?