Staying Technicolor

My week off from blogging served no particular purpose. While I wrote about reading more and chilling, I also had to hit the road to do a two-state tour of family members I hadn’t seen in years. We visited Iowa and Kansas, which welcomed us with open, sweaty arms and no pretense. It was 102 the day we headed home from the Sunflower State.

canstockphoto1370502We stayed in a cabin on a lake near Lawrence, Kansas for a few days to avoid a hotel, furtively dashing from car to cabin in an effort not to melt. I did a fair amount of reading and writing and got my butt kicked at cards and Scrabble, but did alright during lightning rounds of Taboo. There were ticks, spiders, and turkey vultures. Everything lovely had hidden to stay cool.

We thought traveling north would give us some relief, but we arrived home in Minnesota, disheveled and sweaty, to 100°F/37°C. So I am home, not with a refreshed perspective, but sticky and irritable.

While I avoided the news more than usual during the week, I received my New York Times updates. Byte-sized reminders of badness. I inwardly groaned, then turned back to reading the latest issue of The Paris Review. I read a long interview of László Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian writer, who talked about his work as a novelist and his experiences working under a Communist regime.

It’s no coincidence that I have a curiosity about artists working in repressive regimes. I think that we are headed for some high times with authoritarians in this country, where the pall of killjoy conservatism will hang over us for years to come.

There was an editorial by Dave Eggers in The New York Times yesterday talking about our White House being devoid of culture – empty of poetry, music, books, art. These are not valued by members of the current administration. Joy only comes in “winning”. To paraphrase one commenter: I’d feel sorry for the man if he weren’t destroying the world.

canstockphoto29686267I can’t imagine living in a world without music, words, and art to inspire, lift my spirits, and inform my humanity. Appreciating art is about empathy – letting in the words, images, and ideas of others. For people like me, who would rather pretend the world isn’t run based on who has money, art seems less grubby, like I don’t need to hide my greed for it. Unlike the current occupant in the White House, I want my world to have windows, not mirrors.

No matter how coarse, cruel, and dull our political life is, art will always matter. Even if stripped of tools, public exposure, and freedom – art has always been the lifeline to the soul of a people. That we are being overrun by soullessness is the irony of the rising power of religious, cash-heavy politics.

canstockphoto7431966.jpgThere are those who would argue that money, food, health – these are the things that matter and art is secondary. Sure, if you’re dead, you aren’t painting landscapes, writing bad poetry, or fumbling your way through a song. But what’s the point of being alive, if you are soul-impoverished?

I push myself to read and take in culture above my pay grade, while feeling a degree of squeamishness about high-minded snobbery. Growing up poor meant that, with the exception of the public library, much of what is ascribed to culture, was out of reach. It wasn’t until college that I began to branch out, see live performances, go to readings, etc. As I clambered into middle class, had more disposable income, and more access in a metro area, I have taken advantage of the opportunities to see musicals, orchestras, plays, and exhibits.

Bcanstockphoto53549768ut art is not just museums, string quartets, and Broadway. If you go into any small town, there are people creating intricate quilts, experimenting with photography, playing with other local musicians. It might just be one weird dude creating sculptures from cow dung, but art is as ubiquitous as our human imaginations.

And it can make a difference.

In Lawrence, Kansas they shot a 1983 film called “The Day After”. Until 2009 was considered the highest rated television film in TV history. It has been described as a cold-hearted, fictional depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. In President Reagan’s autobiography, he wrote that the film was effective and left him greatly depressed. But it changed his mind on nuclear policy and was reflected in the negotiations of a treaty with the Soviet Union years later.

canstockphoto5432485But what if your art isn’t going to change anything on the world stage? What if we’re all plodding along with our bottle cap art, our soggy word missives to the world, our plaintive bloggy bleats? What if the internet is suddenly no longer available to the common person? Or cultural knowledge is limited to what the state wishes us to see, hear, and read?

Do we cease to exist as creators of art? Do we stop imagining a better life, a different life? Do we stop self-entertaining, telling stories, making bee-bop-chicka-boom sounds with whatever we’re banging away at? Hell no. If anything, art becomes more necessary than ever. It becomes resistance to the dull gray repression. It is the color and sound that keeps us human, reminds us of the world beyond suited, greedy men and pious, malevolent women who pull strings to create a world in their image.

canstockphoto6658146While I have not renewed my spirits, I still have fire in the belly to write, to create, to be part of the bulwark against these flat, angry humans who seek to make the world smaller and fear-based. I think we, the poets, writers, musicians, painters, dung sculptors, are going to have to up our game. In the words of Chuck Wendig, we need to art harder. Vote, but create. Resist and protest, but imagine and design and sing and write and dance. It’s on us to keep the world from turning gray.

Imagine There’s No Politics

canstockphoto10038089Of late, I’ve really loathed my writing on this blog. Despite this, I hit that Publish button each time, a twitchy trigger finger serving my need to be read and to be heard. This need has thrown me off, as has the public discourse. I’ve been less thoughtful and about as reflective as Narcissus. I’ve been lacking in scope and imagination.

Currently, I’m reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen about a double agent following the fall of Saigon. The author describes the final, brutal scenes of people fleeing, trying to catch the last flights out. Everything relies on chance, of getting the paperwork, of knowing the right people, of having enough money to bribe and cajole.

I read a post by Tim Miller yesterday that has me thinking about luck. It defines so much of who we are and is, for the most part out of our control. Whether our souls are born into white or brown bodies, in countries ravaged by war or in the grips of poverty. Who our parents are, what they know and what they have to give. The vicissitudes of life. For every success story, there are hundreds of tales of struggle and suffering and attaining a mediocrity that could only be enviable by virtue of deprivation.

I love John Lennon’s “Imagine”, because it speaks to ideas beyond the framework of warped politics and dominionist theory.  It calls for the very thing we, as a society, seem to lack at the moment. Imagination. Imagination is what fuels empathy and problem solving and optimism. The people in Washington seem so small and petty – lacking in both ethics and creativity. They speak the language of limitation and blame. They use mangled metaphors and hyperbolic rhetoric that says nothing, means nothing. Cowardspeak.

No matter what way I’ve been running at the news, limiting it and curating my sources, I still end up feeling depressed and powerless. It’s because I’m allowing other people to define the framework of my thinking, an involuntary conscription into the culture of hate, blame, and winning at all costs. No imagination required.

canstockphoto2888599We need people with big ideas and courage. We need people who don’t see a zero sum game in everything. We need philosophers and mathematicians and scientists and artists and poets. We need people who spend less time looking down their own pants to see whose is bigger and more time staring off into the sky thinking “what if?”

I’ve not written much about politics after my steady stream of posts following the election. I do not like our president. I think he is a mean, petty, oddly incurious person who lacks personal integrity. I think he has surrounded himself with similarly intellectually stunted, corrupt individuals. No one is for country. Every man and very few women for themselves. There is nothing to inspire imagination, only dismay. There is no voice from Washington that lifts us up, makes us believe, lets us know that there remains life in the already maggot-riddled corpse of this administration.

It is about money and power and I believe that it has corrupted absolutely. While I’ve learned not to rise to every click bait news story, I have only to read the president’s own words to know that there is something wrong. It takes on Shakespearean proportions – the madness, the twisted family relations, the jesters, and insidious narcissistic defensiveness and lying. Richard III is now occupying the Oval Office.

Tolerance. This is a word that gets thrown back and forth so much that it no longer means what it means. I keep being told that I need to respect other people’s beliefs. But I don’t. I respect their right to have them, as long as they are not impinging, legislating, or proselytizing to me. Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer, and Company can speak wherever they can afford to speak. I don’t have to respect or tolerate them. I simply won’t show up or listen, nor do I need to indulge the fools who do.

canstockphoto2358969Frameworks. How we’re taught to think and speak about things. We should be vigorously questioning these right now. All forms of media and sundry self-identifying humans are trying to limit us, limit our imaginations, tell us how to see the world, how to frame the news, and our experiences. We have to be deliberate in widening the scope of what we see, of our awareness and of our empathy. Petty humans are being extraordinarily loud right now – at a frequency designed to disorient and overwhelm.

This is where it ends for me. I’ve felt so small and tense for months now. For every news story, I feel the heat rise up into my face. I splutter. I feel contempt. I call my representatives. I make vows to join the fight. But I’m tired. I’m tired of being a pawn in a petty, destructive game. I’m tired of being emotionally manipulated by entities that could not care less for my existence.

I’m going for the big ideas. The belief that we are here to alleviate the suffering of others. That we are here to practice kindness and empathy. That we are here to learn from our mistakes. That we need not be parrots for demagogues of any ilk. That we are not letter designations and labels. That we are not markers in a political and morally bankrupt casino, where the house always wins.

Our freedom depends on us not following orders, not buying in, not nodding our heads numbly in agreement. Our freedom depends on us not allowing ourselves to be corralled and manipulated and categorized and polled. We are not stakeholders, consumers, demographics, or voting blocs. We are not collateral damage.

canstockphoto5796597We are, above all other things, human beings with potential. It is easy to forget that, easy to forget the marvelous things we are capable of and the boundless compassion we can nurture. The games of public one-upmanship do not render our lives irrelevant. I almost forgot. I almost forgot that my imagination does not end at recycled political solutions and pithy sound bites and orchestrated divisions and borders.

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

J.K. Rowling

*****

These are my current news sources, an update to the too-long list I created shortly after the election. While I tend to favor print editions over digital, even with these, my average cost is $17 per month combined on hard and digital copies. :

In:

NPR (audio and digital, daily) – They don’t run with the latest outrage, which means when news stories hit their air waves, they’re less reactive and more balanced.

Foreign Affairs (paid print edition, 6 issues/year) – Big picture thinking needs the big picture. Great source for American foreign policy issues from people who actually think in-depth about them.

The Economist (paid print edition, weekly) – A lot of bang for the buck. Need reading glasses for the small print, but jam packed with information about technology, business, and money issues. It’s a weak area of knowledge for me, so this magazine is good for familiarizing myself with the terminology and current thinking.

The Atlantic (paid print edition, 10 issues/year) – Long form writing from outstanding writers. Covers everything from the political to the cultural.

The New York Times (paid digital, daily) – Fairly clean online edition. Actually still looks sort of like a newspaper and not a multimedia pile of vomit. While taunted as being a liberal paper, I find its reporting to be more evenhanded and in-depth than some of its cohorts. Comments tend to be well-informed and better expressed, regardless of partisanship.

Out:

The Washington Post – (Cancelled paid Digital) Click bait titles – more reactive and less thoughtful, comments often allowed on news articles, and distracting, ad-laden pages.

CNN – (Digital) Messy front page, reactionary, poor editing, and incomprehensible mix of infotainment and advertising. Mixed media mess. A case of getting what you pay for.

Making Life Changes: Some Imagination Required

You can’t do that. What about X, Y, Z? Remember when you tried that and how badly it turned out? Stop being so selfish. Think about your family. Why should you get to do that when everyone else is blah, blah, blahhing? What will so-and-so think? WHAT IF…?canstockphoto8669552

It’s been a year of transition for me. I am not a preternaturally happy person on the surface and the stress of making changes has made me a less-than-agreeable human to be around. But I’m having moments, glimpses of the lighthouse beacon of a nearing shore. I’m headed in the right direction.

Yesterday, I drove home from the post office after dropping off my packages for the holidays, and felt this odd sense of happiness. I’ve got the flu, I’m exhausted and truth be told, I’d rather run someone down with my car than have a conversation with them. But happy. What the hell?

Historically speaking, I’m the over-doer, the over-the-top gift-giving fool that alternately makes people loathe and love me. This year, I’m done with everything in record time. My list was shorter. I gave what I wanted and I’m spending my time more judiciously.

It was easy – why hadn’t I done it before? Well, I just hadn’t imagined it, this idea of just doing what I thought was important. The flu distilled things for me – I could only do what I deemed a priority, before collapsing into an unhappy pile of used tissue and Vicks Vapor Rub (I smell pretty!).

I’ve been thinking about change a lot lately. Change is hard. We are creatures of habit, of our own thought patterns, of our hardened paths of operation and survival. But we are also creatures of great imagination, the ability to choose, the ability to not live a rote life. It is our imagination that fuels change. If we can imagine a day in our own happiness, what would it look like?

Wcanstockphoto2148080hen I was in my 20s, my imagination was that of a world traveler. I would travel and drink native booze and cavort with the locals. It was very nonspecific. Apparently I was a gun runner, since there was no source of income in my imagination. And no STDs, because I imagined being very well-traveled. In reality, I worked in a bunch of menial jobs, halfheartedly got a college degree, dated unlikely partners and spent a lot of time running in place.

canstockphoto21767863In my 30s, my imagination seemed a murky stereotype. I got married and had a child. I lived, still live, in a suburb in a small ranch-style house that looks exactly like the other 20 houses on the street. It is a life I value and love, with a family that I’d never imagined I’d have. But occasionally, the Talking Heads will play in my mind…”how did I get here?”

canstockphoto21047372And then the 40s came, as did a constant sense that where I was at, was not where I belonged. Things started going a little sideways for me. I left a full-time job to be a stay-at-home loon. While working from home, I did all kinds of uncomfortable things – learned a martial art at 43, became an intense parent volunteer, learned yoga badly, took up painting, wrote a novel, learned some rock climbing (and panicked falling), gardened haphazardly. An all-over-the place dilettante, with a failing grade of Incomplete.

My writing impulses got stronger and more insistent. Sometimes, I’d think, well, if I don’t accomplish anything else, I guess I can say I’m a writer. I think I just heard the wail of a thousand dedicated writers. But it was a daydream to me. I’d always written, but it was mutated and unrecognizable – work emails, flyers, newsletters, personal correspondence. It was easier to imagine being a writer than, you know, actually writing like one.

canstockphoto18826089I began blogging nearly 3 years ago. The habit of writing, the interaction with other writers, the positive feedback (not always earned certainly, but encouraging) – it changed my imagination. I was writing regularly. I learned of NaNoWriMo, participated and wrote the first draft of a novel. My imagination expanded. Could I do more of this?

Vagueness, though, is hard to implement as a life choice. I could see the possibilities, but not how to get there. I began to think, “If I were a writer, what would my day be like? What are my priorities? How do I want to spend my time?”

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.                    Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)

I’m in the specifics and logistics phase now, trying to carve new habits into my time. Each new imagining of what life could be like fuels one more decision to make it today. It is, for me, a slow and sometimes grinding process. Because change requires not only imagining how you spend your day, but imagining yourself differently. You have to block out old messages and tune into your own voice.

canstockphoto6423560It’s make-believe, a trip on the little red trolley. But it will, in the end, be the thing that gets you there. I am a writer. I value my family, my health, and learning. I spend my day living my values. Rinse and repeat.

This last week, for the first time ever in my life, I stuck to a daily writing schedule. It wasn’t like anything I had imagined. I was sick, coughing and sneezing and occasionally whining out loud to no one in particular. But there were moments when I was happier than I’ve been in years. Imagine that.