I spent a good portion of last week writing in a hotel lobby in northern Minnesota. My family was upstairs asleep, quite accustomed to my compulsion to be up early and writing. We were there for my mother-in-law’s funeral. She passed away early last week and between all the planning and rushing about, there was little time to reflect. Now that I’m back home, back to our everyday life, I feel a heavy blanket of depression and am desperate to be alone. Exhaustion has flattened my senses, as has the constant requirement to be around people.
Writing saved my sanity marginally (as is always the case). I wrote her obituary and a eulogy, the few personal touches in a sea of motions and formalities surrounding a person’s death. I thought a lot about narrative and how, after a person dies, they simply become a collection of stories and pictures, all determined by who is doing the telling and the picking. At times I felt angry about misrepresentations – cloying sentimentality and overt religiosity, in which my mother-in-law had little interest when she was alive. Every time I felt a prickle of anger, I had to remind myself that the rituals were for the living, not the dead.
I just finished reading an essay by Rebecca Solnit titled “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers”, where she writes about voting and how the people who vote define the narrative for our country. Those who are routinely discouraged through voter suppression tactics or whose votes are rendered pointless through guerrilla gerrymandering do not get to shape the narrative. And then I think about Sinclair Broadcasting which now requires its local stations to release propaganda as part of their local news reporting. They are shaping the narrative.
The narrative is power. It drives people’s recollections and opinions and decisions. It writes history and bends the people’s will. I came back to my everyday life unable to get back to writing projects, feeling the listlessness and temporary powerlessness brought on by loss. It’s more extreme and immediate than the occasional malaise that has hit me over the last few years, but the question is the same. Why does anything I write matter?
The answer is also the same. We must tell our stories or they will be told for us, whether it be after we pass or used to shaped the political world in which we live. We must tell our stories or they will be stolen from us, revised, and rewritten. We must tell our stories or we will be indoctrinated by someone else’s teachings, our memories overwritten by someone else’s telling.
There is also the personal reason. My life is made more tolerable when I write. My senses are easily overwhelmed by emotion and chaos. I numb myself, shield myself in a dull shroud. But writing frees me, allows me to cry in private, to express intense emotion, to re-order the chaos. It allows me to tell my story in my own time, manner, and place of choosing.
So it matters.
At the moment, writing elicits long sighs and some tears, but it is by feeling my grief in words and finding comfort in silence that I will find my way back. I have more stories to tell. In the mean time, I will read yours.
It’s been a rough month and likely to get worse. Sometimes being human is just a bumpy ride and at other times, it’s talking yourself through the next minute without collapsing on the floor in a heap. I need to be in a heap for a bit.
Administrative Note: There has been an uptick of abusive comments on this blog. The IP address arrives with the comment and will be reported, as well as added to the comment blacklist. All comments are held in moderation.
Something’s been brewing all month. I’ve been experiencing chronic insomnia and was struggling with National Novel Writing Month. I was burnt out on politics and the work associated with getting out the vote. And now, as we keep vigil over a family member in hospice, I’ve realized that I am just flat out exhausted. The daylight savings shift and sudden appearance of winter were the final kickers.
So I do what a lot of writers do, I write about my anxieties, in the hopes that they have just a little bit less of a hold over me. Putting order to chaos and words to the silence.
Being a member of the sandwich generation for the last 15 years, means that one is constantly needed. Parents to care for on one side and a child to raise on the other. But there comes a point when you realize in only a few years, you’ll be needed by no one and you discover how much of your identity was invested in caregiving.
I’m watching as my child becomes a young adult and goes out into the world and as parents shrink and leave the world. It also gives one a bird’s eye view of a human timeline. And how very short it all is.
On a more superficial note, I realize that I have to let go of the idea that I’m a brunette. I inherited the family gift of premature graying in my early 20s. Between dye jobs, I can see that my hair is almost completely white now. Over the next year, I’m going to go with lighter and lighter hair colors until my hair is its natural color – white. It means seeing someone else in the mirror, changing all my profile pictures, and being referred to as my daughter’s grandmother at awkward moments.
The positive side is that I’ll get the power of invisibility. I’ve experienced it off and on throughout my life, but the white hair will clinch it. I remember watching the members of my League of Women Voters chapter boldly approach strangers for voting registration and thinking how benignly people view older women. No one wants to tell grandma “no”. I have a feeling that it’s an advantage.
On the other hand, it might sack my writing career before I can even get this lead balloon off the ground. But that’s immaterial at this point.
It’s been six years since I first did National Novel Writing Month and it was apparently long enough me for to forget why I never wanted to do it again. I signed up this year, found some writing buddies to join up as well, and began the long slog towards 50,000 words. Day 7 – deleted 8,000+ words in a temper tantrum. Day 14 – Hit 15,000+ words and quit.
I love the idea and organization related to NaNoWriMo – it encourages people to do something they thought they couldn’t, as well as encouraging young writers. What I have to come to terms with is that I am an excruciatingly slow writer for a reason. I do everything slowly, because I have to rework sentences and paragraphs. I edit as I go and get overwhelmed with the mass of drivel that I tend to put out under duress.
There are great merits to pushing yourself to get past the inner editor and for the longest time, I have viewed my inner editor as a problem – something to cure myself of, so that I could be prolific. Getting older means that the time for curing oneself, for retraining a lifetime of habits starts to seem less efficient than just going with who you are and making the most of it.
During a discussion about goals at my writing group, I blurted that I wanted to write literary fiction. Someone asked me for clarification. I said I wanted to write layered, complex fiction – the kind that no one reads, but that gets awards. It felt like naked ambition to say that out loud and likely contrary to the kind of writing I’m doing now. I felt silly afterwards, as if I’d revealed some sort of shameful, secret fantasy.
There’s a trite saying about dressing for the job you want to have. I think the same thing goes for reading. I’m always reading above my grade level, because I think that’s one of the few ways that I’ll ever get better as a writer. Sometimes it feels like I’m putting on airs, being some sort of elitist, but this language and attitude is a holdover from my childhood. I was the kid who always had her nose in a book, something that was often mocked and derided. Our current culture carries a whiff of anti-intellectualism and sometimes I internalize it, because it feels familiar.
Still, I am submersing myself in the more challenging reads and coming up for air with a lighter read or two. Currently, I’m reading William Giraldi’s American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring and Rita Dragonette’s The Fourteenth of September, an enjoyable work of fiction about another time of social and political upheaval – the 1960’s. It reminds me of being younger and ideologically self-righteous. It’s a debut novel by an older writer. Obviously, I’m finding inspiration where I need to.
How is November going for you? What are you reading?
This post was originally published on 11/16/2013
As Veteran’s Day approached, my daughter came home with a form to fill out about any veterans she knew for the school display. She wanted to fill out the form about me and attach a picture on the bottom. I tried to encourage her to do a sheet on her great grandfather, who was a handsome man in his Navy dress uniform. I, however, have never liked pictures of myself. It’s not false modesty or some sort of facial dysmorphia, it’s just that unless it includes a cat scan of my brain activity, a list of my favorite books and pictures of my family, I feel like it’s a false representation of my personal values. And plus, I can never get my hair right.
My daughter’s friends had expressed disbelief that her mother had been in the Army, so I caved, sending along my doe-eyed 19 year old self dressed in Class As. Shortly after this, teachers and staff would comment, thanking me for my service. I find this to be extraordinarily awkward. I try not to make it more awkward by saying “it paid for college, it was peacetime, I spent most of it drunk or hungover and I left the military with a chip on my shoulder for mindless bureaucracy.” Not all service is equal.
The Army of today seems entirely different from the Army I joined almost 30 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War. I served in Military Intelligence as a Russian Linguist in what was then called West Germany. Let’s just say we spent a lot of time in the field and standing around outside motor pools chain smoking. I never found us to be a particularly impressive bunch. The work was hard, dull and rarely what we’d been trained for, unless being really, really smart inventory takers and mechanics was part of our occupational specialty.
I want to be honest, because I look at the tough, shitty work the military has to do today and it simply is not equal to the passive grind of my experience. Perhaps it is because I am getting dotty in my middle age years, but I shrug when I think about getting screamed at in basic or spending hours guarding nothing. The lives that were lost in surrounding units involved someone getting skewered by a nighttime antenna and civilians who died when a tank rolled over their car. And all this was second and third hand information. IEDs were never on our mental or literal landscape.
I met a lot of people in the Army, that in today’s terms would be described as being “on the spectrum” or with borderline personality disorders. And then they were armed. Since then I’ve discovered that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as an umbrella for sociopaths and miscreants, and camouflage for untreated neurological conditions, so the military has no corner on that market. Many of them go on to be C-Level executives or servers at fast food franchises. Fortunately, most are unarmed.
It is true that I had some idealism, some sense of patriotism. It was the Reagan years, after all. But mostly, I grew up in poverty. No one talked to me about financial aid. No one in my family had graduated from college except for my grandfather. I needed a way out. The military provided me with that opportunity and for that, I will forever be grateful.
As to gratitude for service, the real ‘thank yous’ go to those service people who have been or are currently, on the ground, in the air and on the seas who have waited in restless boredom for the action that will inevitably come. You know who you are. I salute you and wish you a safe return home so that you can enjoy the awkwardness of stranger gratitude as well. You deserve it.
WAYS TO REALLY HELP VETERANS THAT DON’T INVOLVE MAGNETIC RIBBONS ON A VEHICLE:
Despite attempting to swear off political posts for the month, I’m still unhooking from political news and chatter. It’s hard to avoid and today is election day. I’ve just returned from voting. Unfortunately, numerous contests will be litigated for weeks or months on end. The upside of this is that I will not stay up for results, nor check my phone every two minutes throughout the night. I will sleep. Politics do not own me (and I will keep repeating that mantra until I get my sleep, dammit).
I’m still reading Donna Cameron’s book A Year of Living Kindly. Normally, I’m a fast reader, but some books require breaks – time to absorb meaning and think about how it applies to one’s own life. It’s a gentle read for caustic times. In a world full of shouting and knee-jerk reactions, I’m determined to take myself down a different path. Which is why much of my reading lately has focused on ethics and integrity. This morning, though, I read Chapter 30: Choosing to be For or Against. I put the book aside, leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes.
I learned long ago that living in resistance to something is still a negative choice. If I wanted to break out of particular family cycles, I’d never truly be free if I only focused on who I didn’t want to be. I had to know who I wanted to be. I had to know the kind of family life I wanted, what kind of person I wanted to share my life with, what kind of parent I wanted to be. Sometimes those things did not seem clear to me until after making many, many mistakes, but when I realized what my values were, I began to make decisions on their behalf. This is a much harder path to follow than simply not being the other.
Winning or losing, picking a side, this is the least interesting dynamic of any human interaction. But it is the easiest way to sort and categorize people. It’s the easiest way to reduce complex, nuanced thought to a grunt. It’s the easiest way to give up your humanity, your individuality, your sense of right and wrong and to take away that of others.
There is life beyond the power-grab-swap-meets every few years. All politics aside, we still have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask “Am I a decent human being?” After tuning into social media and seeing the mindless droning of insults and labels, I realized very quickly that I need to check myself, away from the din of politics. I know that I have a moral center and personal integrity, but it’s become so fuzzy of late. What do I stand for? What am I willing to fight for, believe in, support? Notably this is not a “who” question, because principles and values are not fungible depending on who is in charge.
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.
Being for something means that my values are not dependent on what the other side is doing. Being for something means that I have a course set before me that is positive. The point of propaganda is that most phrases have very little specific meaning. They’re reductive and easily come to represent the worst of any group. It’s too easy to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility. This is why group dynamics freak me out – when people become essentially nothing more than a bumper sticker, engaging in polemics they wouldn’t repeat on their own.
Perhaps it seems the height of luxury (and of privilege) to insist on one’s own trajectory, to put aside all politics for the moment and say Who do I want to be? Who am I capable of being? Am I being that person now? Much of politics is illusory and is a poor basis for defining one’s humanity. Part of the game is to keep us at each other’s throats, so that we don’t mind our pockets getting picked and lives being diminished. Those in the arena just want to fill the seats – they don’t care how.
The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.
Abigail Van Buren
Today is a good time to step back. Do your civic duty and vote – then let it all go for a moment. Think about what is important to you as an individual. Get off social media, shake off the sloganeering of whomever you’ve aligned yourself with this political season. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you being a good parent, spouse, neighbor, friend? Are you kind and generous of spirit?
Whatever the results are tomorrow, none of us are winning if we serve as mouthpieces for scripted politics. What we represent first and foremost is ourselves. Who is that going to be?
The last couple of months have found me desperately trying to keep my introverted self from going off the deep end. I made my local cable TV debut. I talked to a zillion people about voting rights, attended candidate forums, and wrote a lot of semi-political posts. But November is here and with it, some changes to help me regain my center.
Writing to My Heart’s Content
After convincing quite a few other people to do it, I felt compelled to join in with the NaNoWriMo crew and knock out 50K words this month. I’m writing a second novel – this time I’m going all in on a sociopolitical novel about immigrants in the Midwest.
The joy of this is that I’m trying some things I haven’t tried. I was inspired after reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (thanks Ross for the recommendation) as well as Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing to think about the use of magical realism. Fiction is one of these amazingly bendy things that can have the most fantastical elements while still retaining the elements and core of truth. I feel compelled to experiment, to dispel the myth in my head that I can only write straightforward, rather plain narrative. You know – actual creativity. But also because I just need to have some fun.
I was fortunate to attend lectures by writers Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow) and Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) last month. The critical things I learned are the things I always learn. That good writing takes time, there is guarantee of rejection and not of success, and that you do something because you love it, no matter what the outcome. Very few writers are overnight sensations. Behind all the interviews and awards, there are always years of work and persistence.
So I persist in writing, because there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
Leaving Politics to the Pundits
With midterm elections less than a week away, I have decided, that whatever the outcome, to take a break. Let the pundits and chowderheads of cable television and Twitter begin prognosticating about 2020 two seconds after the results are in for the midterms. I’ll leave them to their graphs and charts and post-election quarterbacking.
Politics have, over the last year, infected practically every venue of discourse. I’ve engaged in local activism over the last couple of years and I’ll vote next Tuesday. The next couple of years are going to be worse. It’s going to require more work, more attention to the details of government and more effort to stop human and civil rights abuses. It will require the ability to research news stories and suss out the truth. It will require more tests of character and personal integrity. There are no laurels, regardless of the midterm outcomes, to rest on.
And so, I will take a brief reprieve. The month ahead is for reading, writing, and a lot of walking so that I can get characters and plot points sorted out in my head. Politics will still be chugging along without me, in all its vainglorious ineptitude.
An Atheist Goes to a Prayer Breakfast
My daughter’s chamber orchestra group played at a city prayer breakfast and as a dutiful parent, I bought tickets. I focused on keeping an open mind, to hear any messages worth pondering, and to be respectful. The prayer breakfast included speakers from numerous religions: a Rabbi, Father, Imam, Pastor, and some preachers from churches with innocuous names.
My husband, a Lutheran and better-than-average human did not once chide me, so I’m assuming I kept my whispered asides and eye rolls to a minimum, even as I began to twitch inside with all the mentioning of the Wondrous Him in every religious tongue. Despite my fundamentalist upbringing, this has always been a sticking point with me – that in practically every religion, the deity is Big Daddy. Only humans would assume that a spiritual being would be a reflection of sociopolitical and cultural power. We do tend to have limited, narcissistic imaginations at times.
Still, the first surprise to me was how many people I knew at that breakfast. Despite my antisocial inclinations, I’m also a huge believer in community and civic duty, so I knew a lot of people from various volunteer gigs I’d done over the last twenty years. In these contexts, many people assume I’m a person of faith. It’s only in the last few years I’ve been more upfront about being a nonbeliever of religious dogma. People are sometimes taken aback, but part of me hopes that it broadens their perspective. Religion does not confer inherent goodness and eschewing religion doesn’t mean that one is without a moral compass.
The second much-needed surprise were the topics by the speakers. Kindness, compassion, unity, diversity, connection, community. You see, I’ve been on Twitter for about a month now and going by the conversation and profiles there, it would be easy to assume that self-identifying religious followers were complete and utter assholes. The same goes for Libertarians, Crypto currency fans, Constitutionalists, Bernie followers, and loving mothers of six who hate other people’s children, but apparently adore emoticons. The sheer numbers of people who willingly out themselves as unkind, uninformed, paranoid, and unpleasant humans can really twist one’s perspective.
That’s not to say that people can’t mouth one thing in person and then turn around to sound like unhinged bigots online, but in the interest of this cluttered, chaotic mess we call humanity, it’s good to seek out examples of our better selves. What I liked most was how much work people were actually doing in the community. To me, this is putting your faith in action. Forget all the piety, the genuflecting, the calls to prayer – none of it means anything if you are not generous of spirit and compassionately engaged with other humans.
Perhaps it was a reminder to someone like me who is constantly in critical thinking mode. I can easily suss out problems with the intent of finding solutions. But it’s important to teach the brain to see the good as well, to acknowledge that we humans are capable of great love and kindness and that we need to pay attention more to those who model decency, rather than to those who don’t, regardless of political or religious beliefs.
The Month in Blogging
Despite feverishly typing away on the next novel, I will still write here as well. My hope is to bring a little more focus to the topics of writing, kindness, and general well-being. It’s not to say that there aren’t big problems in the world and that I don’t recognize the privilege of being able to retreat from them, but the reservoir needs to be refilled before jumping back into the fray.
To my fellow NaNoWriMos, happy writing! To those of you who choose to remain coherent, showered, and not compulsively checking word counters, I hope you find a respite of your own design.
When a sitting president declares that he is a nationalist and thousands of people cheer him, this is the outcome of zombie patriotism. American exceptionalism has always carried this downside. If we believe that our country is unassailable in its virtue and honor, we put blinders on to the very dangers that will contribute to our downfall.
The president is taking a third of the population down this road – a road that has a future of unmitigated violence against those who do not embrace this single-celled version of our country. Of the remaining two-thirds, we see complicit behaviors out of either fear or a slobbering thirst for power through association (hello Congress). We hear the people whose mouths protest but whose actions belie something else entirely (Senators Sasse, Collins, Flake, et. al.).
Many people, myself included, have protested, organized, and gone through all the civic venues to push back against this kind of authoritarianism. I will be the first to admit, I’m still having trouble accepting that it is getting this bad. My immediate circumstances have not changed and my life is still relatively decent, a function of white, middle class, heterosexual privilege. It is this mindset that has made me think about the Good Germans. How bad does it have to get before I think it’s bad, before I realize it’s too late?
While people protest that this period in history is not like 1930s Germany, they’ve ignored the fact that at some point, there will be a recession, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster that will be the tipping point. This president and his lackey mouthpieces (FOX included) have set the stage for blame and viciousness and violence. They have set the pot to simmering, so that with a little more heat, it will boil over.
That the president is a stupid, awful human is irrelevant. He is stupid and awful in the way that all bad humans are stupid and awful. How can I get what I want, regardless of the consequences to anyone else? I have never understood the appeal of this braying donkey. I don’t understand fandom of any ilk. Why should one human worship another? And so many of these people claim to be of a religion that condemns false idols.
There are people who are curious and people who are not. Incurious people repeat what they’ve been told and like someone else to create their talking points and memes. These people can be found in every political party or leaning.
Curious people dig deeper, ask questions, refuse to be told what to believe. Curious people save the world, because they don’t assume paradigms are permanent. Incurious people fear change, ambivalence, and dichotomies. Nuance is just a thing intended to confuse them and will be rejected in favor of anything binary.
I am so often baffled by the need to see the world this way. I would find an unchanging world of similar people to be claustrophobic and uninteresting. I am grateful to live in a country that has such a wide range of beliefs, religions, languages, and cultures. This is the country that I feel patriotism for – the country that shines BECAUSE it holds such variety, not IN SPITE OF it.
I hear a lot of people saying “we’re better than this”. No, we’re not. This is what we are – a nation with a bloody history of oppression and thievery. We have to work to be better. We have to understand and acknowledge our history to move beyond it and we can’t waste time on false equivalencies between those who, however ineffectively, are trying to improve things for all people and those who actively agitate and incite violence against others who are not like them.
What these nationalists, these self-declared cultists want is sameness, predictability, the bland whiteness of a culture built on stealing that of others. They want the social rules that governed their grandparents to govern their grandchildren. They want pink and blue. The devout and the godless. The easily labeled and easily condemned. They want people to look at them with reverence because they just happened to be born pasty white in a country that reveres pasty whiteness.
The luck of the draw suddenly becomes a proud, personal virtue – something they earned not through hard work, or strength of character but because their parents had a couple of beers and felt randy. How can you build an entire belief system on that?
In addition to this, there is personal resentment. They didn’t think they should have to change. They expected their generation to live as the generation before, whether it be farming or fossil fuels or anything else not already overrun and gutted by corporations. America has survived many things because it is adaptable, not because it is intransigent.
A right winger agitator said that one is not a real American, unless their family goes back four generations. What she suggested is that there is a very small core of true Americans, giving no particular truck to the indigenous populations we slaughtered upon arrival. I’m a first generation American, but I’m white so I might get a pass. Of course, that is cancelled out by the fact that I am a liberal.
But I’m like a lot of Americans. I served my country, voted regularly, paid taxes, volunteered in my community, raised my progeny to be a kind, respectable citizen. When my luck has fallen, I’ve come up with a different plan. I was raised with the idea that life is inherently unfair, but that I must do my personal best, work hard, constantly learn, and to not waste time blaming others – that blame is not an actual solution.
What these people screaming in adulation at this president fail to see is that nothing they are doing or believing will make their lives literally better. It’s wasted energy. Even if they end up in their promised land of all white heterosexual Christian people, they will still find a way to blame and separate and hurt each other. It’s not a matter of circumstance. It’s a matter of character.
I wrote this post prior to the events of last week, when individuals turned the stochastic terrorism of the president into domestic terrorism – attempted and actual murders of fellow citizens in the name of racism, anti-Semitism, and partisan politics.
Patriotism is defined by our values – a subjective term, a propaganda tool, a way to slap a label on all kinds of nefarious behavior. You can declare yourself a patriot and still be a complete shit of a human being. And in the lingual nightmare that has become our national discourse, it’s a title I’ll happily shed in pursuit of a more just nation.
Growing up poor has left me, even in confident adulthood, with echoes of envy. We’d all like to believe that whatever experiences shaped us as children, somehow evaporate in maturity. That might be the story of someone else, but I am reminded with infrequent pangs that I cannot intellectualize my way out of baser feelings. I can, however, work to lessen their power over me.
Yesterday my husband baked an acorn squash. It reminded me of the days when, as a child, we lived wholly off squash and green beans and homemade applesauce. We ate “johnny cakes” (pancakes of corn meal, water, and salt) and blocks of government cheese and butter. This was American poverty, which through international translation, is not true poverty. We had food, shelter, clothing, and school.
Our family of 6 lived in a two bedroom apartment on Main Street in a small town in Iowa. We had a parent, sometimes parents, who was concerned with our grades, our upkeep, our behavior. While our home was rife with alcoholism and domestic abuse, we were clean, fed, and polite kids.
And then there was true wealth.
If I went down the rickety back stairs to the alley and walked north half a block, I was at the public library, a square three story building with small lions on each side of the stairs. My memory is faulty. Maybe there were no lions, but I always imagined there were. I looked for pictures online, but the old building is gone, replaced by a nondescript brick building – as if to disguise its riches in mediocrity. I spent most of my childhood there, creaking across uneven, waxed wood floors for the next book and the next one and the next one.
In my own family circle, no one had nice stuff unless it was stolen or donated, but going to school opened the doors to want. Pretty dresses, new shoes, superhero lunchboxes. These always seemed to be accompanied by pretty people with sparkly personalities and friends. I watched from afar through thick glasses wearing my second or third-hand clothes, shy and envious.
This laid the groundwork for advertising vulnerability, as the inextricable bond between happiness/perfection and stuff was created. It is a mental connection that I must talk myself out of continually. My Amazon account would indicate that I’m not a particularly good at it.
My body also did not escape this want, having struggled with weight most of my life. Hell, I’m an American woman through and through. Even when my weight is fine, I still struggle. But my body remembers hunger. My brother and I would get up in the night and “steal” food and my mother would lose her ever-loving mind to discover only half a loaf of bread was left in the morning. There was only so much to go around.
I over-buy. Our cupboards reflect that. Two of everything. I tell myself that since we’ll use it, it’s not a waste to buy two instead of one. If it were not for my compulsive organizational habits, our house would groan with the weight of my wants. Fortunately, living in small spaces all my life has been useful. My wants are constrained by my desire for space and neatness.
In the more tumultuous years we moved a lot. I learned to know exactly what I had in my possession. I know what I need to grab on the go. My stint in the Army reinforced this habit. This is where the weight of my want can entangle me, make me lose time. I have to straighten and inventory often. Everything has its place. My family doesn’t have this compulsion. I’ve stopped fighting their entropy and maintain my own spaces.
It is frustrating, at 51, to recognize the source of my behaviors and to still frequently feel at their beck and call. I can only walk myself through it, slow my actions, and try to remember that it is pointless to try and satisfy this gaping maw of want. This kind of hunger has no end, only a beginning, its imprint indelible, but not unmanageable.
Today, my daughter and I volunteer at our local food shelf. She has never known want. She will likely never stockpile, covet, or look longingly at others who have more. I’m very glad of that and in exchange, I have taught her the value of civic service – an awareness of the many people who are not so fortunate and our responsibility, as fellow humans, to ease their burdens. This is the gift of my want – empathy. It is a hopeful reminder that no matter how we started, we can decide who we become.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been moralizing a lot. I think I do this as a way of combating the anger I feel when I see and hear the many people in our society who believe in the bootstrap bullshit, even as they blame everyone else for their woes. None of us advance without the assistance of others and our society is defined by how we treat the least among us. Herein ends the sermon.
On a lighter note, I met Walt’s challenge of writing a creepy story under 899 words. Get some heebie-jeebs over at Waltbox.
It frequently strikes me how little power I have in the world beyond the interior of my brain. While others have found solace in their powerlessness by fawning over those with power, adopting their language, swearing their fealty, and deluding themselves into thinking that it will somehow rub off on them, I find solace in the fact that I do not matter. That nothing I do has much consequence or meaning in the bigger scheme. I own no banks or armies. I cannot seduce or overpower. I’m marginally intelligent, but have thus far found little advantage in a world that dances with stars and phones in an idol.
After the corrosive Supreme Court process, some people are crowing and bragging. Others are blaming and giving out unsolicited advice. Mostly, it’s just more noise. A good portion of it is online, but to paraphrase Soylent Green, it’s people. Trolls are people. Politicians are people. Republicans and Democrats, racists and snowflakes are people. They all were born and they will all die and they each get to decide what kind of person they want to be in between those milestones.
The point is that individuals don’t get to take cover in ideology to justify behaving badly. How they conduct themselves is entirely their responsibility. They don’t get to point at someone or something else and bleat they started it. They don’t get to shroud themselves in the flag or the Bible or self-righteousness, while being cruel and vicious to other humans. They cannot do this without damaging their character in the process.
I used to give politicians some leeway because it seemed like no matter how decent they were prior to going into politics, they seemed to morph into snake oil salespeople the longer they served. Would you believe that Senator Grassley didn’t always seem like a sack of donut holes and denture cream? My family used to vote for him. I once shook his hand as a Girl Scout growing up in Iowa.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964
But the day has come and gone for excusing ratty behavior in the pursuit of a win and encouraging that behavior to gain power. I’ve never had much power, except over who I decide to be. It’s a battle I have to fight everyday. I wake up, read the news, and I have to decide if I’m going to spend the day simmering with anger, or if I’m going to get on with the business of being human and using the very small, very localized power that I have to ensure that my own house is in order before I venture out to tell someone else how to take care of theirs.
Last night, I vetted audience questions for a school board candidate debate. It meant screening out snark and partisan comments, rewriting questions to have broader application, etc. It was a polite process, even when there were tough questions on the table about an upcoming levy referendum, the achievement gap, and other education-related questions. No one shouted. People didn’t storm out.
Candidates considered each question and gave their perspectives. People applauded to thank them at the end. Would it have been more useful with people hurling invectives, the moderator acting more as investigative journalist? I think less information would have been shared, fewer audience questions addressed, and anxiety levels would have been high. No doubt there were disgruntled people, but not inflamed. The whole evening was a lesson in political civility.
“Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.”
There is an argument that to wield power you have to win that power and to win that power, you have to put aside your moral compass. So from the get-go, that power is tainted. While people talk about resistance, I go a step further and define it for myself. Amoral people don’t get to turn me into them. They don’t get to take my humanity and twist it into an unrecognizable heap of venom and spitefulness. If that happens, then there is no point in “winning”.
Despite what seems to be delusions en masse, I don’t confuse civility with weakness or cruelty for strength. I don’t confuse “telling it like it is” with truth or decency. I am not led astray by those who would condemn entire swathes of people to being evil, especially by those who say they are Christians or patriots or freedom-lovers. Liars. Your behavior betrays you. Your self-identification is an empty vessel. Your representation is false.
When I listen to the president of this country tell people that they have no right to representation and governance, that they are weak, that they are paid to represent the other side, that the media is the enemy of the people, I do not need to ask that McCarthy-era question. I know that he has no decency, no moral compass, no sense of honor. But that does not mean that he gets to take the rest of us with him.
The whole country wants civility. Why don’t we have it? It doesn’t cost anything. No federal funding, no legislation is involved. One answer is the unwillingness to restrain oneself. Everybody wants other people to be polite to them, but they want the freedom of not having to be polite to others.
So I hold fast to civility. I look to leaders in the past who led through non-violence and radical compassion and iron kindness. People in power don’t get to make the rules for what kind of person I will be. In the current environment, I’m really going to have to work for it. It’s not easy and I have, at times, failed.
Fierce civility. It’s not acquiescence. It’s not complicity. It’s not silence. It’s the ability to understand that violence and unethical behavior has a temporary quality, but a permanent stain. It’s courage to be decent humans in the face of blatant rage and fear. It is our character under fire that defines us. Those fires are going to get hotter. Practice civility and courage now and often. We will be tested as individuals and a nation. It’s a test I want to pass.
It’s been a productive week at The Green Study. Every surface is covered with books, files, and random Post-It notes. The white boards have hastily-scrawled notes and lists. After weeks of struggling with insomnia, I stopped struggling and sometimes I was up at 2:30 a.m. writing. It reset my brain to be up at odd times and ideas started pouring out. This post is a reflection of that – a little bit of everything.
It’s the Spirit of Intent
I spent a lot of time doing work for the League of Women Voters this week. Things are stepping up as we get closer to the midterms. I felt a strong desire to focus on these nonpartisan issues, even as I felt the dark cloud of partisan hackery above, preparing to rain down on all our heads.
Some days it seems like too many ethically-challenged, bad people are gaining power and steam. I was lucky enough to come across the feed of writer, A.R. Moxon, who also has a blog. It was this thread that made me think about the spirit of each of the various tribes of people – what direction were they moving in? What future did they think awaited them? Who did they choose to follow? What was the intent, the outcome, the process? Who were they becoming in that process?
And what about the idea of bad people? Is it helpful? Politics is not a useful framework for defining our spirit. It is not Survivor or a team sport – there are no true winners if we cannot find common ground and serve the common good. And this is evident from all tribes – the fierceness, the words and memes meant to cut someone down to size. We are responsible for who we become as individuals. This week, I want to be like the women in my LWV chapter who have served the cause of voting rights for decades – dedicated, steadfast, deliberate, singular in purpose and thoughtful in words.
We get to choose which spirit we follow and embody.
I was contacted by JKS Communications, publicists who work with a writer I admire. They’d seen the blog and wondered if they could send me some of the books they were representing, in case I’d like to talk about them here. This never happened to me before, but let’s just say I did a giddy little dance around the house. I believe at one point I picked up a book, stared at it lovingly, and whirled about belting out “the hills are alive…with books”. When I babbled excitedly to my husband and daughter, they both glanced warily about the study, as precarious stacks of lit magazines and books were everywhere.
I told the representative that I don’t write reviews. I just write about what I read. I waited for a response. And she was perfectly lovely about it. This is all to say that I’m going to read a couple of books and likely will tell you about them, but for the sake of integrity, felt compelled to be up front about it. Plus, I’m still a little giddy.
One book that I didn’t get gratis, was by a blogger who I have been following for a couple of years. Dave Astor blogs at Dave Astor on Literature and I’ve enjoyed his wonderful posts, rambling through literary connections and themes. He has a nifty little tome called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. My only complaint was that each chapter left me wanting more. Maybe next volume, Dave.
My One Thing
There was a Billy Crystal movie in 1991 called City Slickers. In a scene between Curly, a crusty old cowboy and Crystal’s character, Mitch, he talks about the meaning of life.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
I was 24 at the time so I sort of, kind of, understood, but not really. The characters in the movie were on the cusp of being middle-aged. As I move from the middle to just straight-up aged, I’ve been struggling with a sense of purpose. It feels like it’s been this way always – likely an innate part of the human condition. The challenge is getting out of my own way, cutting through the imperfect perfectionism and procrastination. I have awkwardly begun to do what I want to do.
Dirty dishes sat on the counter, my daughter ran out of jeans, my family foraged for their own meals, and the cats scratched their own bellies. I was writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, consequences be damned. I submitted a short story to a lit mag and didn’t throw up from anxiety. I came up with a plan for November’s National Novel Writing Month. This time I’m writing a big sociopolitical novel that I’m very excited about. The world did not stop spinning on its axis because I ignored my chores. My child did not need bail money. My husband was able to find things. Nothing happened except for one thing.
Life got easier. All the things that I’d been wrestling with, from feeling sort of useless as a human to getting enough exercise to my exhaustion from heavy social interaction. It all faded away to the background. I had finally brought the right thing into focus. My one thing. I brushed away the fleeting thought that I’d wasted a lot of time getting here. If you’re a writer, I rationalized, it’s all research and material, no matter what you’ve been doing.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month and want a writing buddy, you can find me on the site at MMJayne.
Thank you to the Writers’ Studio, a group of lovely and talented people I joined in September. Having that space to read, write, listen, and talk about writing has encouraged me to embrace my one thing.
Thanks also to Amy, who has bravely embarked on a nonfiction collaboration with me. I love that our connection has found new ways to expand and grow.
And last, but definitely not least, thank you for reading, subscribing, or commenting. As I close in on this blog’s seventh anniversary, I marvel at how much the online world has changed since I began, but that I still enjoy writing here. With so many things grabbing our attention, it becomes harder to find community and connections. Anything we do to improve that, from connecting with bloggers on the other side of the planet to giving each other an encouraging Like or Hell, Yeah in the comments – these things do make a difference.
Last weekend, I had an existential crisis. It was a turning point. We all have them, especially when we hit middle age. Do I hold on fiercely to all that I knew before, or do I adapt to current realities? Do I insist that the tea kettle with the duct tape, whistle that sounds like a bird being strangled, and scorch marks from 30 years ago is worth holding onto or do I buy a newfangled electric plug-in thingy that shuts off automatically and keeps my house from burning down? Do I continue to back up my laptop and workstation to thumb drives and external hard drives, or do I soar into the cloud?
I value pragmatism, but mine is exacerbated by an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality. I’ve restrained myself by waiting years to buy the latest gadget. You know, until all the bugs are worked out, the price drops, and everyone has stopped yammering on about it. And this is the good fortune I’ve sailed on – no catastrophic failures or unrecoverable data.
I don’t buy anything with an i in front of it, because I like to be able to change a #$ !@ battery myself without calling in a tech team. I like messing about with Android developer options and not dealing with proprietary, hamstringing restrictions. My Creative Zen MP3 player is ten years old and has been disassembled and reassembled numerous times. It still works and I use it every day. My workstation has been wonderfully stable with Windows 7 for years.
My unlocked LG smartphone was purchased on Amazon and I had to cut down the SIM card from my old phone to make it work. Over the years, I’ve learned how to hack and strip down bloatware on phones and computers. I’ve upgraded memory and added second drives. I’m not a whiz – I’m just not afraid of breaking things. And I know how to find instructions. My husband is a tech guy and is forbidden to touch my computers or phone. I like solving things myself.
So one would think that I’d not be so resistant to change. But this is where age comes in – resistance is growing. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of the last twenty years, where technology has changed so quickly that one feels like it’s constantly adapt, adapt, adapt. There is a sense that consumerism is often driving “needs” for products more than actual need. And again, if you have a stable system that meets your needs, why upgrade?
I am reminded of my grandfather, who would have celebrated his birthday this month. He loved listening to Big Band music – Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. He never cared for newer music. I think about that a lot – this idea that we get stuck in a certain time. A time when life felt simpler, when we remember being happy and carefree. Music is a strong trigger for memory. If I hear the J. Geils Band, I am reminded of summer nights, driving my Monte Carlo with the windows down. Until the tape cassette had to be turned over.
Sometimes I have that sort of nostalgia for technology. I miss my Nokia E73, a solid little phone with a physical button keyboard. It didn’t feel like plastic, didn’t require man hands to hold, and had a little notification light that blinked to let me know I had a message. I didn’t need or want internet – I just wanted my emails and phone messages.
As I’ve been stepping up my writing game, I’ve been getting in my own way. My redundancy system of syncing my laptop and workstation through USB drives and memory sticks has impeded my work mobility and makes me nervous that I’ll forget which system I need to sync to. Using Scrivener for my novels and Word for shorter pieces means I’m dealing with different file types and sometimes find myself writing novel scenes in Word, to be cut and pasted into Scrivener. This is all to say that my aging brain is prone to freaking itself out with anxiety that I’m going to delete large portions of my work.
This weekend, I upgraded my workstation to Windows 10, cursing every step of the way. The new approach to technology is to essentially take as much control out of the user’s hands as possible, forcing various forms of indentured servitude to tech companies. Some people delight in this carefree process. I do not. I have to spend the next month hunting up hacks for a zillion little things I hate. This is not to say it’s a bad system, but change itself is becoming something I don’t handle as well. And that depresses me a bit.
So now my work is in the cloud – backed up prodigiously on both laptop and computer, but automatically. My collection of USB sticks is just a pile of has-beens. And I’ll still do my weekly backup on an external drive. One would think I was safeguarding Facebook data or something. Only, of course, in a way that actually has some safeguards.
Change is difficult. Technological change, doubly so. But I know it isn’t going to end and I have to break down my natural resistance to change in order to not become as defunct and useless as a tape cassette.