Book Fever and Other Autumn Ruminations

If I saw the Hoarders tv show and one of their clients had nothing but books, I’d think: What’s wrong with that? Like the trundling out of sweaters and warmer socks, autumn sets my brain on fire with the compulsion to accrue books. My husband and daughter just roll their eyes at me and make jokes about my inability to leave the library or bookstores without a stack of acquisitions. I am happily surrounded by books and read incessantly. This is my childhood dream come true.

Unintentionally, I had prepared for a huge book bender. I updated my reading glasses, whittled down my schedule, and started to acquire books at an alarming rate. I’m looking forward to a winter of Oscar Wilde, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Helen Oyeyemi, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, and any other writer who trips my fancy.

31522415The warmup to heavier tomes has been a lot of pithy reading. I read Austin Kleon’s trio of books (Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, Keep Going), Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, and story story collections. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky was full of thoughtful, if not disturbing, storytelling.

Blood CreekI also read another book sent to me by JKS Communications, Blood Creek by Kimberly Collins, an ambitious novel that wasn’t quite my taste, but will resonate with the historical romance crowd – those who like their vixens fiery and their men stoic and often criminal. It reminded me of the books I used to sneak out of my mother’s collection when I was 13 – like Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love, where the main character is selfish, but too waif-like with a cavernous decolletage to not get her own way, at the expense of everyone around her.

Writing is ramping up as well. I just finished the online Masterclass with Joyce Carol Oates. While her story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read, her prolific career is an inspiration and her low-key but dedicated approach to writing resonates with me. 2019 has been a year of nearly constant rejection, from publications and even a mentor program. One would think I’d want to call it a day. But Ms. Oates has some wise words for rejection which I’ll paraphrase here: it’s likely a blessing when one’s work is rejected. It’s not your best work and you don’t want it out there. It forces you back to revisions again and again and again, until what you have left really is good.

*****

So I soldier on. And at the mention of soldiers, I just want to leave this public service note: Flag-worshipping does not make you a hero or a saint. As a vet who served for a wide variety of reasons, including an adolescent sense of loyalty to my country, I’m finding that performative patriotism in this country has gone off the rails – in the old sense, like nutter-level.

canstockphoto6552217I was on a treadmill at the Y the other day. In front of me, an older man was wearing a t-shirt with an American flag that said If this flag offends you, I’ll help you pack. I know it’s not good to wish heart attacks on people peddling on stationary bikes, but it briefly crossed my mind. If you’re a flag worshipper, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t flail about screaming that everyone else is being disrespectful to the flag and then wear it as a crackled, worn decal on your sweaty carcass. I mean you can, but the paramedics are going to have to cut it away to attach the defibrillator pads. I’m sure they’ll be respectful, though.

*****

37941609Fall is often a season that brings about feelings of bittersweet melancholy, much like being in your fifties and still trying to get published. It is a season, though, that begs for poetry. I consider myself a blogger, novelist, and short story writer, but on occasion I hail back to my adolescence and write a poem. Now they are less about being ignored by the boy I liked or morbid poems about dying and more about just fading away. I’m reading Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poems, Asymmetry and they are the kind of poems that make you ache just a little.

*****

It’s been such a tough year, for me, for we humans out in the world. Some of us manage to remain unscathed. We keep our eyes forward, don’t get distracted, know what we’re about on the planet. Some of us have been buffeted by the winds of chance – medical emergencies, financial crises, devastating diagnoses of our health, our portfolios, our relationships. Some of us have internalized the existential dread of what the future holds – dictators, natural disasters, scarcity, randomized violence. We’re taking the news intravenously and it eats away at our sense of wellbeing.

I need hope and so do some of you. Where do we find it? Where is the solace, the palliative, the hospice for the walking wounded? I find it written by authors who apply poultices through words, in the faces of people who love me, in telling stories, in walking with the crunch of leaves beneath my feet. We fashion our own life preservers and hope that it’s enough.

Zombie Patriotism

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.

canstockphoto22986497The 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?

canstockphoto20174584While 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.

canstockphoto50558112I 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.

canstockphoto146639What 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.

canstockphoto48358399But 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.

Fearless Friday: Tested Integrity

Adding a weekly feature to this blog a month ago was like assigning myself homework. I was never a great student, usually saved by my test-taking skills and overcompensation on writing assignments (imagine that). So here is my caveat – I’ll do it when I can and sometimes it will look strangely like me working out some issues.

canstockphoto7663084This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and integrity. I’ve always been a pretty intense person, but the last couple of years have tapped into a social/cultural and political anger that has magnified because of the sheer crudity of the discourse. And I’m tired. Sometimes it’s exhausting to sustain the belief that I, as an individual, have power or can make any difference at all on the larger landscape.

For the last couple of years, I’ve slowly talked myself into doing all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve joined a political party, become a member of a voting rights organization, and forced myself to be more engaged with others than I want to be. I’m an introvert, but with a fierce belief that if I do nothing, I have to keep my trap shut. And that’s not happening.

canstockphoto39922182The thing is, I’m still working within systems within systems. And these are the very systems that have made the wealth-pillagers our political leaders. I’m also working from a very comfortable place – I am white, have a home and health insurance and enough money to buy chocolate when I want it. The system supports this life for me.

Over the years, I’ve gotten on my high horse about voting. I still believe it is an important right, but the elections of 2000 and 2016 showed me that many of our votes don’t matter, due to an antiquated system that gives undue weight to land mass over people. The system itself is flawed. Is my participation in it akin to collusion? I don’t know.

I’ve begun to think about what it really looks like to stand for one’s beliefs, to be assertive about integrity, and what dissent means.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Meaningful Patriotism

Wcanstockphoto55158483hen thinking about the courage it takes to dissent from prevalent culture or politics, we don’t have to look any further afield than Colin Kaepernick,  whose small gesture created a cultural firestorm. LitHub ran an excerpt of Howard Bryant’s The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. Mr. Kaepernick sacrificed his athletic career and monetary gain for his belief that he could not stand for injustice.

It is likely that he had no idea what that small gesture would entail, but even as the cost became apparent, he was steadfast. As a veteran, I am grateful for someone who stood against knee-jerk patriotism – all that “thank you for your service” nothingness and magnetic bumper ribbons. If the flag and anthem mean something, make them really mean something today – like justice and equality in our society, and judicious use of military lives abroad.

Radical Rudeness

canstockphoto19013767Stella Nyanzi is a Ugandan dissident. We have a lot of issues in America, but when it comes to courage, we often work within parameters. There are countries that make it a crime to criticize their leaders or government. Ms. Nyanzi’s favorite insult is calling someone “a pair of buttocks“, which has landed her in all sorts of trouble. The for-profit prisons in our country would fall over themselves for laws like that here, because most of us would be in prison.

I think about her choices – to be quiet in the face of injustice or to be loud and defiant and have the full weight of the government come down on her. What choice would you make?

The Fearless Fourth Estate

The most tiresome phrase used by the president et al is “fake news”. That people are so willing to throw multiple babies out with the bath water is laziness personified. Lately I’ve been listening to a New York Times series called Caliphate. Listening to Rukmini Callimachi as she interviews former ISIS fighters and goes to dangerous places in more ways than one, makes me tremendously grateful.

Despite the national derision and specifically the canstockphoto51852868mortal danger, journalists and photographers risk their lives to tell us the stories we would never know otherwise. It matters and it is important. Shrieking “fake news” all the time is just dumbed-down cynicism – an indicator that critical thinking has stepped out for a smoke. And really, critical thinking is all you need to figure out what is likely factual news.

Leaving Hypotheses Behind

I keep thinking about the fact that I need to do something that is not easy or convenient for me. I go to a lot of meetings these days with a notebook. I hate meetings. I have volunteered to chair committees and research initiatives, also a rather loathsome task. So there’s that. But I keep asking myself the question: how far would I go for my beliefs? These are the days we live in – where the possibility that my answer may be tested.

 

TGS Writers’ Book Club Reminder: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is the May Reading Selection. Discussion forum opens on May 15th. The June Selection is a collection of poetry, Afterland by Mai Der Vang. Follow the blog for updated selections, writer-reader guidelines, and discussions.

American Hostage: A Foothold Situation

This post will be moderated per The Green Study comment policy.

canstockphoto32473828There is a moment in each day now when I imagine the decimation of my country. I grew up with the idea that America represented ethics and values that I could get behind. I didn’t always agree with politicians or administrations, but I respected that it was an honorable thing to serve this country. My eyes watered hearing The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I put my hand on my heart and believed that there was something of which we could be proud.

When I was in high school, I went to state speech contest with a fiery “The Loss of American Patriotism: Where Are the Voters?” I spent hours listening to the comedian, Rich Little, do presidential impressions. I loved learning about government and American history, reading the biographies of the men and women who shaped this country.

I joined the US Army near the end of the Cold War, became a Russian linguist and served four years of active duty and another four on reserve duty, retraining as a Combat Radio Operator in preparation for the first Gulf War. I love my country. I feel fortunate for having been born here. I love that there are so many opportunities to learn and that our diversity brings a richness of culture.

canstockphoto11582845My patriotism matured, though. I read about slavery and bigotry and the resistance to equal rights. I read about My Lai and the Tuskegee experiment. I read about Watergate and watched the Iran Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. I payed attention to the corruption, the sexual scandals, the misappropriation of funding, and the misjudgments that cost military men and women their lives.

Maturity required that I pay attention, that I vote, that I believe the foundations of government to be well-reasoned and guided by the rule of law. It required a degree of cynicism while maintaining the belief that no misdeed would go unpunished. It required me to support my community, follow the laws, and contribute where I could.

These days, my patriotism falters. I don’t know where we’re going to end up. I view my fellow citizens with suspicion, appalled that so many have willingly embraced incivility as the norm. Disgusted that so many have the I got mine, you can just suffer mentality. I’m astonished at the number of people who are comfortable deriding education and science. And so incredibly saddened by how quickly hate rises when beckoned by someone who has never served anyone but himself.

Common good is no longer part of the conversation. Who is our military fighting for? Defense contractors and antiquities thieves and soon, it will be minerals. Maybe it was always like that and I was too immature to see how easily people in power waste the lives of those who aren’t. Our system is awash in tainted lucre, crusty old men, and greedy shareholders.

The conservative class is polluted by religious fundamentalism, photogenic faces with acidic, twisted morals. Lying has become de rigeur and shamelessness, a casual smirk worn with defiance.  Winning at the expense of fellow Americans. Trading in an empathetic sense of right and wrong for showmanship.

Liberals are being bogged down by the attention-seeking behavior of the deliberately ignorant. Unfortunately, they’ve been thrown so far off balance and are spending so much time compensating, that the message is lost. They don’t need new bumper stickers. They need to step outside a cycle of reactivity. They need imagination and originality.

I don’t feel at home here, a country I was born in and raised to love. Now there’s this rise of white nationalism, a soupy crockpot of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, all blaming someone else for their lot in life. All the religiosity is scary and the anti-intellectualism reminds me of other regimes that went after intellectuals, scientists, journalists, readers. Me, with my secular humanism and library card – I’ll end up on a list. My inability to be attractive enough to seduce or wealthy enough to bribe anyone – unable to get in the right line, check the right boxes.

Apocalyptic views are often roundly mocked. But we’re watching bedrock canstockphoto29947844institutions having the legs knocked out from under them, while being undermined, and ridiculed by a man who is wily, but not intelligent. We’re watching our President begin to strip away the rights of our fellow citizens in order to cater to his minority of  supporters and to distract us from his other nefarious undertakings. Our leaders used to be people who recognized that the higher duty was to country and not themselves. We used to want people who were smarter, more talented, better read, better educated, and more well-rounded in their American experience than we ourselves were.

canstockphoto3897081Now we have a bully who has been pampered and flattered from cradle to grave, who has turned national discourse into a manipulated reality show dialogue. The Ugly American in all its stomach-turning glory. Meanwhile, every dictator on the planet has bellied up to the bar to have a missile measuring contest. It’s good times for them. The rogue’s gallery of murderers – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, all happy to see that America is now completely unmoored from even a pretense of moral leadership.

And what can I do? I vote, I follow the rules, I donate to causes I support, I volunteer, I call my representatives. I work to understand the issues. I try to see different perspectives. All from my little house in a midwestern working class suburb where life, at the moment, appears unchanged.

A Muslim family moved in across from our neighbors, who are religious home schoolers. Down the street, one neighbor finally took down their Trump/Pence sign. We still keep up our “We Choose Love” sign, a faint reminder of idealism in the recent past. Will this diverse neighborhood survive or will we come to blows? Will we need hidden rooms and underground railroads and forged identity papers?

There are too many dominoes coming down all at once, too many lies to keep track of, canstockphoto1973547and too many morally-destitute people with the power to be destructive at the helm. Threats from without are being matched by threats from within. We can only protest and resist our captors for so long. Without money or power, we’re just left to negotiate for bathroom breaks – after our gender is checked. This is what a small percentage of our fellow citizens wish for us and there is simply no denying the sheer malevolence of it.

This is about as pessimistic as I get about things and it’s not a place where I plan to stay. Lest you think I’m giving up, giving in, or content to sit in apathy, the events of the last weekend and the national dialogue surrounding them have given me pause. It all requires more thoughtfulness and wisdom than I am capable of at the moment.