Creating Life

“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”

My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.

At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.

I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.

“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.

“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?

Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”

Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?

“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”

“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”

I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.

BAM.

Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.

It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.

What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?

She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.

Shit.

“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.

Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)

Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.

As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.

I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.

In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”

“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.

The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.

I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.

“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”

I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”

It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.

In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.

What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”

Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”

Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.

But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.

As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

Taking Care of the Truth–Embedded Slander: A Meditation on the Complicity of Wikipedia,” by Alice Walker

“‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem that Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer

Feminism and Tillie Olson’s Silences by Bianca Lech (or better yet, read Silences, a work that shook me way back in the day)

Librarioholics. We’re a thing.

Hi, I’m Rita, and I’m a librarioholic.

The past few months I’ve been checking out piles of library books that languish on my nightstand past their due dates only to be joined by more books before I’ve returned them, and I’m starting to think that I love something about the idea of books more than I love actually reading them. I fantasize about spending a whole Saturday curled up on the couch with a book, but I never turn that fantasy into reality. Perhaps what I love even more than reading a book is the search for it, the anticipation of it, the possibility within it, the comfort of it. Some thing a book represents, more than the thing it is.

I blame this book habit–and my impressive fine history–on my childhood. Which means, of course, on my mother, the one who introduced me to books and libraries.

She has told me that she began taking me to libraries before I can even remember. She dropped me off for a weekly “creative drama” class when I was just a toddler. “I always wondered what they had you do there,” she’s said. She doesn’t know, having raised children before the advent of helicopter parenting and outsized fears about child safety.

I have no idea what we did, but I’m guessing I liked it. I’m guessing I felt safe and happy, the way I’ve always felt in a library.

Later, when I was trapped in the bog of misery that was my 6th grade year, she’d take me there every Saturday. I’d drop off the stack I’d checked out the previous week and leave with a new one, each volume a friend to get me through the long weekend ahead–because those weekends in which I needed distance from my parents but lacked proximity to my peers were so, so long.

Back then, I did lose whole days to the pages of books. I wasn’t discriminating because you don’t have to be when time feels unlimited. I read trash. I read weird things. I read things I’d read 20 times already. I read some classics, too. Compared to now, there was very little like YA then, and I struggled with being both too old for the children’s section and too young for the adult section. The closest things to books that felt written for someone my age were some corny series from the ’50s (Beany Malone was my favorite) and Beverly Cleary’s really dippy Fifteen and Jean and Johnny. (These did not equip me well for the late 70s teen social scene I was entering.) I did eventually discover the entire Judy Blume oeuvre and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, the title of which alarmed my father enough that he initiated a Serious Talk, a conversation I did not enjoy, and, of course, Go Ask Alice, which kept me away from drugs for a very long time because Alice was a pretty sweet, innocent kid (like me) and look what happened to her when she used drugs just once, and she didn’t even mean to! And it was a true story! (Except, it wasn’t. But we didn’t know that then. And by “we,” I might mean only myself and the writer I just linked to, possibly the two most naive teenagers of our era. I bet she read 1950s YA, too.)

All of which is to say that, for me, books were entertainment and companionship and guides for living, and the portal to them was the library. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton’s all the way out at the mall, and I didn’t have anything like enough money to buy all the books I needed even if they’d had a large stock of them, which they didn’t. My habit only deepened when I got my first job, which was (of course) at our local public library, where my favorite task was sorting the books for shelving. That’s how I discovered all kinds of books I’d never previously encountered, including a guide to teen-age sexuality that I snuck out of the building and never returned, and which was the source of my mortification when, as a college student, I realized that my mother must certainly have found it when she cleaned out the closet in which I’d hidden it.

I’m such a library addict that I purposely hooked my kids on it, too. When they were preschoolers I’d take them to the library, and right after that we’d go to McDonald’s, where they would play in the Lord of the Flies-esque play area and I would eat french fries and read a few pages in peace (or what passed for peace in those years). It was a total win-win. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I did it on purpose. I wanted them to love the library like I did, and I knew that associating it with McDonald’s–because we almost never went there at any other time–was a sure-fire way to get them hooked create that love.

(Remember, it’s all my mother’s fault. She started it.)

Now, I find myself in a season of life with much more opportunity to read, but I’m still not the kind of reader I was in 6th grade. While I’m no longer responsible for the feeding and physical survival of young humans, I do still have a life of my own I need to keep going in a reasonably healthy manner, and there are no such things as whole days spent on the couch with a book. When I do let myself indulge in a couch/book treat, I pretty much always fall asleep after just a few pages. Most of my reading is done in snippets–before bed, in the bathroom, while I’m waiting for water to boil or sauces to simmer, when I’m eating. Sadly, there are far, far more books that I want to read than can be read in the snippets available to me.

So, if I know I can’t read all the books I check out, what is my library habit really about? I’m not sure, but it’s a real thing, my librarioholism. It means I visit regularly, always leaving with a large haul that I fully intend to read, even as I know that I will not have (make?) enough time to read it all. Oh, I suppose I could, if I just wouldn’t let myself return for more until the books I already have are finished. But after about a week away, I get twitchy to go back, and I’ve come to accept that I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.

Maybe I’m hooked on the endorphins I get from anticipating a book, more than on anything I get from reading the book itself. (If I were Dinky Hocker and she actually shot smack, looking for books would be my smack.) Maybe what I’m really hooked on is the fix of the new and all its possibilities, all the different versions of myself that they promise I might be–a graceful homemaker, a fiber artist, a serious writer, a person who understands what the hell is happening in the world, to the world–and, by extension, to myself and those I love. Many of the books I check out are more aspirational than anything else. They are books I want to want to read more than I want to actually read, and I rarely get past the first pages of them, if I even pick them up at all. But still, I take them home. They teach me something about what some part of me–maybe a part I’m not even conscious of yet–wants or needs.

Hmmm… maybe it’s even deeper than that, and my habit is really some sort of hedge against death, against potential or probable annihilation of various kinds. See? my stack of books say to me. There is still time to be all of the things you might be and to live in the kind of world you want to inhabit. There are still people writing books about how to put on a nice dinner party, so maybe that’s something that might still matter and that you can still learn how to do. I have long joked that if the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, I will not join the hordes looting the grocery stores; no, I will be looting the library, a space I’ve long claimed as my church, a sacred place to go for answers and community and comfort. Although I’ve been tongue-in-cheeking the addiction metaphor, maybe my habit truly is not so different from the addict’s drug or the believer’s religion, just another way of coping with fear.

Ah, look at me. I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, and a dark one at that. And it’s Sunday morning and I’ve promised myself that I will post here once a week, ready or not. What’s the way out? I don’t know, any more than I know how to neatly tie up this package of words, but I’m guessing that if an answer can be found, it’s probably at the library. Better figure out how to fit a trip there into my plan for the day.

******

This post was prompted by a book I’ve been loving, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. When I read about it, I thought it might be a little boring. It isn’t.

If you, too, are a librarioholic, you might enjoy these reads about our happiest place on earth:

This article was everywhere a few weeks back–or maybe it just seemed that way to me because so many people sent it to me and/or so many library friends shared it.

But more important than that previous article is this take on it from one of my favorite librarians.

I would go visit these gorgeous libraries, glorious as any cathedral.

It would be the coolest meta thing if this picture book about librarian Pure Belpre had actually won a Pure Belpre Award in the recent ALA Youth Media Awards event, but it was an Honor Book which means it’s still cool. Just not as cool as it could have been.

And, currently on my Likely to Be Overdue List Because I’m Actually Reading Them:

The Inviting Life by Laura Calder (648). I want to live this kind of life. I’m getting there.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove (811.5) Don’t read this because it’s Black History Month. Read it because it’s good poetry.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (303.4833)–This one was recommended by my friend Marian, and now I’m recommending it to you. More on this later.

Daily Rituals Women at Work by Mason Currey (704.042). These are short, fascinating reads about the daily habits of women across various creative fields and eras. The chapters are like Lay’s potato chips: Small, savory, and you can’t eat just one.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch (Fic). I avoided this when it was published. I’m ready for it now. I’ve only just started it, but…Wow.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield (808.02). Many things about Pressfield annoy me. I’m reading this book because Anne Lamott can’t be my only writing teacher. We should rub up against what annoys us from time to time.

The Things that Matter by Nate Berkus (747.092) Not your typical interiors-porn coffee table book. Though it is a coffee table book with gorgeous interiors. I’m reading it for the stories, not the pictures. Really! OK, for both I guess.

Radio Silence

My father doesn’t understand how I can keep up on current events, as I don’t watch television news and I don’t get a print newspaper at my home.

“How do you know anything that’s going on?” he asks.

I used to tell him that I got much of my news listening to NPR in the car, but that’s not true any more. I stopped sometime last winter. I’m more prone than I like to admit to feeling a little ragey behind the wheel (OK, a lot ragey), and listening to the news–even NPR news, which feels less inflammatory than any other–only exacerbated that.

I tried listening to music stations, but the inane patter of the DJs also made me ragey. And driving is boring. Or it forces me into my head in a way I’ve had a hard time tolerating in recent years. Or the internet has rewired my brain such that I can no longer peacefully endure a lack of mental stimulation. Or I have ADHD that’s getting worse. (Seriously. I just took a self-quiz. Yikes.)

For whatever reason, my old ways of being in the car just weren’t working, so I started listening to audiobooks when driving. My friend Kate recently asked me to recommend some, and over-thinker that I am I soon realized that I couldn’t do so without some tips, caveats, and explanations:

1. The narrator is everything.
If you don’t like the narrator, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. The narrator will ruin it for you. Xe Sands was one of the narrators of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, and I almost returned it before I’d hardly started because her inflection drove me crazy. I finally accepted it as part of the character she was reading–it did fit her–but I sampled another book she narrated and her way of reading was exactly the same and it kept me from buying it. The other reader of the Wendig book, Dominic Hoffman, was one that I mostly liked, but he’s also now on my (Probably) Do Not Listen list. I recently finished The Starless Sea, and although there is much I love about his voice, I’ve realized from that one that I can’t stand the way he reads women. They all have a slightly British accent, and they all sound simpering and breathless, whether they are badass scientists (Wanderers) or badass otherworldly beings (Starless Sea). Which brings me to my second caveat:

2. Complex structures aren’t great for an audiobook format. The Starless Sea is comprised of 6 different recurring books with characters and plots that intersect over places and times, and time is a construct the author is playing with so the multiple narratives aren’t linear. I now want to get the print version of the book and read it; I know I missed big chunks of it because I was consuming it in bits and pieces and I couldn’t re-read. Multiple times I told myself to give up on it and return it because I was just sort of lost in it, and I got tired of so many things smelling or tasting like honey and various twee old things and things that don’t really have a scent/taste but that sound kinda literarily hip when you are told that they do, but I wasn’t sure if my irritation was really with the writing or just the challenge of taking the story in through my ears rather than my eyes. I did finish it, though. Tommy Orange’s There, There is another example of a book that might not be the best candidate for audio. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book and the audio version has fabulous readers, but it has many narrators and characters, and they re-appear throughout the story. Multiple times I wanted to be able to flip back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of something that came before. I suppose you might be able to do that, sort of, with an audiobook, but it feels too cumbersome, even if I wasn’t driving while listening.

3. The longer the book, the better. I tried getting audiobooks from the library, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that work well for me and I’m not very motivated to because I have a Gold Monthly subscription to Audible. I pay $14.95 each month for one credit. Most books cost more than $14.95, so I get a bit of a discount by having the membership, and there are often sales and free books, as well. But, I only get the one credit a month and I’m on a self-imposed austerity plan, so I do pay attention to the length of the book. I recently finished Stephen King’s The Institute, which clocked in at just about 19 hours. That was a good, long listen, which took just about a month for me to consume. Every time a student used to choose a book based on the number of pages, it felt like a tiny piece of my soul died, but I guess I’m now that kid.

4. Fluff books and audio go together like cheap wine and cheddar cheese. Which is to say: Kinda wonderfully, especially if you’re thirsty or hungry and too tired to cook and aren’t looking for a nutritious meal. As a person who spent her formative years immersed in the worlds of Pine Valley, Port Charles, and Llanview, I am not averse to high drama, shallow characters, quick action, and a little suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like a soapy, fast-paced, easy-to-follow story where all I really want to know is what happens next, especially when I’m listening while merging onto the freeway during rush hour. Some recent favorites in this category: Ruth Ware’s Death of Mrs. Westaway, Kate Morton’s The Lake House, Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over, Taylor Jenkins Ried’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and any of Liane Moriarty’s books read by Caroline Lee. There are a few historical novels I’d also put in this category: Lilac Girls and The Alice Network are two recent ones I liked well enough.

5. Non-fiction can be just as good a listen as fiction. I prefer fiction. My audiobook habit is about escaping the world more than entering it, but there have been a few non-fiction titles that have a quality of story to them I really enjoyed. Favorites include Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (which has a pretty strong soapy element to it), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which is only 3 and a half hours, but so good). My hands-down favorite in this category is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a book I resisted because it was such a thing when it was published, but it’s one of my favorites in any category. Hers is an amazing story, well-told, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it–so I’m glad she is the narrator.

6. There is a sweet spot, but it can be hard to find. Books with easy-to-follow structures, some good drama, a little (or even a lot) of literary weight, and a narrator I like take me to it. In this category, I’d put: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee, (which I almost put on the soapy list, but it’s got a bit more heft to it than the others there), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The only drawback with any of these is that sometimes I’d really like to savor the language a bit, or go back and re-read some passages.

But what about my dad’s concern–which is really a concern that I am somehow not paying enough attention to the world and am not aware of all that is wrong? Is my new audiobook habit just another manifestation of my privilege, a way of turning away (because I can) from engagement with the barrage of injustice and corruption that we’re all living with and through?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not going to connect all the possible dots for you that are informing my thinking about this question, but I can list some other questions that I think are useful to consider as we all figure out how to consume information and be OK(er) in the world. (One more caveat: I am fully aware that in many regards, the world/my country has always been as bad as it is right now for many people. I know that my relatively recent understanding of that is a sign of the protected places I’ve occupied. In my thinking/search for coping strategies, I’ve been turning to those with much longer and deeper experience of living with/through hard things than I’ve ever had.)

Questions to consider:

  • What does it mean to be informed?
  • How can we stay informed and engaged without playing into the hands of those who are using media to manipulate us and control our political systems (this is a global question, not just a US one)?
  • How do we both stay informed/engaged and stay mentally healthy?
  • How is our current media landscape changing our brains and how we process information?

Things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Contrary to what my dad fears, my turn away from broadcast media and local news outlets is not a way of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la-la while Rome burns. And it doesn’t mean I am uninformed; I still keep up on the news through trusted print resources whose aim is to adhere to standards of ethical journalism. Listening to audiobooks rather than broadcast news is simply one way of preserving my well-being so that I can stay aware and informed and engaged. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I’m simply recognizing that miring myself in muck isn’t going to do any more good to heal my country of its sins than wearing a hair shirt would.

So: If you have audiobook recommendations, please do share. I’m all ears.

Dot-to-Dot

Fuck these guys! Really. But also: Let’s all understand what they’re doing so we can stop playing into it: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/16/20991816/impeachment-trial-trump-bannon-misinformation

Evidence that both/and is more valid than either/or. You can be pissed and righteous about all that is wrong AND still be joyful. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing we can be: https://www.self.com/story/charlottesville-joy-is-resistance

This exploration/explanation of self-care blew my mind open: https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467

This is about the relevance/importance of reading poetry, but I’d extend the ideas in this to any kind of imaginative literature: https://electricliterature.com/why-all-poems-are-political/

This is not perfect, but it’s one of the best tools we’ve got: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

I’m glad to see this idea more and more: https://twitter.com/matthewjdowd/status/1217815533975941130

I really want more people to understand the differences between these things: https://guides.library.jhu.edu/evaluate/propaganda-vs-misinformation

This historian’s analysis of each day’s events has become indispensable to me. She posts daily on Facebook, but if you’re off FB (as we should all probably be), she also shares through a newsletter: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/

This is your brain on the internet: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/06/06/internet-giving-us-shorter-attention-spans-worse-memories-major/

This is old-ish, but relevant: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201206/the-psychological-effects-tv-news

Radio“Radio” by Under The Sun is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.

That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.

Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.

Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.

I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.

The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.

Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )

To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.

Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.

As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.

Summer Reading, 2019

Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.

Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.

This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.

It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.

*

Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.

I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.

*

This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)

But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.

When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.

*

We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!

In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.

As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.

Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.

Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.

But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.

*

I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.

I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.

But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.

So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.

One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”

Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:

“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”

Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.

I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.

*

My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.

Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.

She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.

After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.

“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.

I don’t, I tell her.

“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”

#funnynotfunny

*

In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:

In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.

The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.

*

Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.

In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”

But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:

And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.

We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.

It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.

7-Day Book Challenge: Dear Fahrenheit 451

A recent text from my friend Lisa:

I bought you a gift.

We’re an odd couple, Lisa and me. She grew up in Miami, and I in Seattle. She is heat and wildfire and in-your-face and I am cool and rain and passive aggressive. She owns a pair of green leather pants and a bright yellow Mustang convertible. I wear a whole lot of denim and drive a tired Volkswagen Jetta. But there is no one on this planet I laugh harder with than Lisa, which is why we are friends.

The last surprise, no-obvious-reason-for-a-gift she gave me was a black belly-dancing bra covered with gold beads and sequins. Not because I belly dance (I don’t). But because I “needed it.” (I kinda did, but that’s fodder for another story, for another time.) So, I felt a little thrill of anticipation when I read her words. I never quite know what to expect from Lisa, which is one of my favorite things about her.

I think she may have clapped her hands in delight when handing me her gift:

I’m pretty sure I did when I saw it. “Oh, I want to read it right now!” I said.

“I know. I really debated when to give it to you. I thought about waiting until the end of our visit so you wouldn’t be distracted the whole time.”

I devoured about half the book in my first sitting, and now I’m doling it out to myself in little bits at a time. I love it because it is a book for those of us who love books. It’s not serious or weighty (something I sorely need these days), but some letters deliver a good, sharp punch. Really, the best word I can come up with for it is delightful–funny, poignant, witty, smart. It’s full of insider book nerd/librarian jokes, and while you might need to be a bit of the former to enjoy it, I don’t think you need to be the latter. It’s a book I wish I had thought to write (and then actually written), but I’m sure I couldn’t have written it as well as the author has.

While I love it for its own self, I know I love it even more because it was the most wonderful kind of gift: one given for no other reason than the giver saw it and knew the recipient should have it. Which means, of course, that the giver has already, in so many ways, truly seen the recipient. And what better gift is there than that–to be truly seen by someone you love?

Thanks, Lisa.

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

 

 

Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.

 

 

 

Adulting. And stuff.

My daughter’s biggest challenges in the last year have come from learning how to adult. I feel her pain.

Although I am firmly into my 6th decade of living, when it comes to adulting I feel I could be the Imposter Syndrome poster child. I look like a fully-functioning adult. I know all kinds of things about a lot of things–you don’t even want to debate me about the Oxford comma–but I am sometimes shocked by how little I know about the basics of maintaining a life. You really can wing it/kinda fake it for a lot of things. For a really long time. Or, at least, I’ve been able to so far.

This is not an adulting desk.

But it bothers me that I don’t really know how a lot of things work and feel I have very few practical life skills. If the zombie apocalypse comes or the grid collapses or the bottom of privileged, western life falls out in some other way, I’m toast. I can function pretty well in a world with big box stores and electricity and YouTube and take-out, but I will definitely not be the fittest in any kind of basic survival contest.

I’m not really worried about doomsday scenarios, but I descend from farmers and fishermen and machinists–all self-sufficient people who knew how to grow and make and do with their hands. It bothers me to have so little skill in taking care of my own needs. I’m tired of feeling mildly (or majorly) incompetent a lot of the time, especially when it comes to feeding myself and keeping house. Also, I really like it when I occasionally do something well in these arenas.

I didn’t grow any of this not-organic food, but I made this grown-up meal all by myself.

So the other day I checked this book out of the library:

At first I thought it was going to be another lifestyle porn kind of book–and it does have gorgeous pictures with rustic tile, simple linens, and lots of things in glass jars–but it’s got a lot of substance to it:  philosophy, practical strategies, and concrete tools. Most pages look like this one:

There are a few things I particularly enjoy about Erica Strauss’s philosophical approach to food and home. The biggest one? “…don’t be afraid to take it slow at first.”

This is one of the few books I’ve read that makes me think I could actually learn how to do food and home, which makes me want to jump all in. I want to do it all–grow vegetables, can, make my own household cleaners, revamp my household routines–and I want to do it all right now! But this is what my kitchen looks like right now:

And the only way it’s going to look better is if I spend a substantial amount of each day for what’s left of the summer working on it. I’ve also got family to love, and some work to do, and….  I appreciate Strauss’s stance that “this is not an all-or-nothing thing” and that the “ultimate goal of a hands-on homekeeper is to be proactive about shaping your own healthy domestic life.” In other words, she’s not an insufferable purist about the whole thing. In fact, she’s pretty damn funny (as you can see in this post from her blog).

So I’m starting with something simple:  making natural household cleaners. I’ve wanted to do this before, but I got stymied by not knowing where to find borax and castile soap in the store. (I kid you not. I still don’t know where to find them, but if I can’t figure it out this time I’m just going to break down and order them from Amazon.)

Baby steps, baby.

Once upon a time I wrote a blog in which our basic premise was that how we do home is how we do life. I still believe that. For three years, life has been an on-hold, up-in-the-air, what-the-actual-fuck, one-transition/calamity-after-another affair. Home has been slap-dash, make-do, get-through-the-day-however-we-can-and-call-it-a-victory sort of thing. Making my own household cleaners might be only the first step on a thousand mile journey, but at least I’m finally moving, and it feels like the right direction. George Eliot wrote that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I generally think that’s a crock of hooey, but when it comes to this I think she’s right.

Now this is a guy with practical life skills.

 

Because “love” is a verb

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Somehow, the events in Orlando made me mute. Maybe it’s that I was feeling so wrung out by the emotional roller-coaster I’ve been riding for the past two weeks months years, or maybe it’s that I am so weary of the ways in which we humans are so very horrible to each other, but I just felt that there was nothing meaningful for me to say.

And then I read these words from Jen Hatmaker about what it does to those who are terrorized by violence in their community when those of who are not in it say nothing:

“What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING. When their churches don’t stop and grieve. When their coworkers are silent. When their neighbors look the other way because they aren’t sure what to say, so they say nothing.”

And so, I wrote something about Orlando on Facebook. It still didn’t feel like enough, but it was something. I still felt demoralized and beat down and just so very, very sad–and as if words are not enough in the face of these incidents which I feel myself becoming numb to.

That feeling intensified when I watched this clip from Stephen Colbert, who reminds us that love is a verb.

I wanted to DO something, but I didn’t know what.

As is so often the case, I got my answer from a librarian. Librarian Arika, to be specific.  Librarian Arika reminded me of one of my bedrock beliefs–that stories have the power to save lives. That words matter.

(It is easy to lose faith in the face of horrible, bewildering events.)

Arika reminded me that when it comes to building acceptance of humankind, “literature can help.” She wondered,

“What if it was as simple as this: commit to read, promote, share, and purchase books that promote tolerance of race, gender, identity, religion, ability, and sexual orientation.”

And suddenly I knew what I could do–the thing that is my thing to do. I can join Arika’s movement (#BooksBuildTolerance). For the rest of the month, she is sharing one book a day that promotes tolerance and understanding.

Me, too.

I’m starting with a book I read last month that I adore: George by Alex Gino.

From the publisher:

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part… because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

So, that’s what it’s about. I love this book not because it’s about a girl who is a boy, but because it is a tender, true, and important story about being human–which means being vulnerable, and scared, and brave, and bold. The characters are so real, from George/Melissa’s teen-age brother to their loving-but-not-completely-accepting mom. (“I always knew you were gay,” she says, “but not that kind of gay.”)

I love this book not because it is ground-breaking (though it is that) but because it is good writing. It’s not a book I chose for our elementary libraries because we needed a transgender book; I chose it because it’s a book any child who has ever felt different in some way could relate to. (And because it’s a transgender book and we have children in our schools who are struggling with that particular issue and they need to read a story in which they see themselves. And their cisgender friends need to see them in books, too. But first because it’s just a great book.)

This is not a very compelling review because I don’t have a copy with me and I’m tired and it’s late, but I think that doesn’t much matter.

Sometimes we’ve got to just do the best we can–because love is a verb and it’s important not only to not say nothing, but also to not do nothing. If you haven’t read George, check it out.

#BooksBuildTolerance.

To kill a demigod

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird was the last book I read aloud to my children, in 2009 when they were in the 6th grade. Sensing that our beloved read-aloud ritual was ending, I chose the one book I most wanted to share with them.

I wanted them to love the book I’d loved since I first read it at the same age. Whole swaths of it flew over my head in 1976, but I revisited it about once a year for the following ten. With each reading I understood more, and the more I understood, the more I loved it. Although I knew it was considered an unsophisticated and unoriginal choice, To Kill a Mockingbird has for decades been my answer to the question, “What is your favorite book?”

It’s not any more.

When I first heard news last spring of the impending publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, the novel she wrote before Mockingbird, I was first curious, then concerned. Like so many others, I wondered what the true story of this story was.

It was hard for me to believe that Lee truly didn’t know where that manuscript had been for so many years. It made no sense that after such a long silence as a writer, she’d finally consent to publication of another book–especially one that was a rejected prequel/sequel to Mockingbird. When I read conflicting reports about its circumstances, I decided I wouldn’t read Watchman. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to spoil my love of the first book (although there was that) as it was that the writer I am wanted to be loyal, somehow, to the writer I imagined Lee to be. I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t being taken advantage of.

After Watchman was published last summer and so many people lost their shit over the revelation that Atticus, our hero of demigod proportions, held views that were (whaaat???) racist, I changed my mind. That, to me, was a hugely interesting development. It suggested to me that the original book might contain complexities that I, in my so many, many readings of it, had never grasped. It suggested to me that there might be more to the story of Harper Lee than I’d ever imagined. I bought and read a copy soon after its release.

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As a work of literature, it was a disappointment. So many of the things I loved best about Mockingbird were missing in Watchman:  Lee’s masterful use of language, her deadpan humor, her fully developed characters. Watchman was uneven, didactic, and–dare I say it?–boring for long stretches. It was clearly the early, unedited work of a less-experienced writer.

As a piece of social commentary and an artifact of a writing life, though, it was fascinating. Through much of the book, the narrator, an adult Scout, excoriates Atticus and any other character who defends a way of life in which Black Americans were denied the rights and privileges given to whites. Given the time in which Lee attempted to publish the book–the 1950s of the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. The Board of Education–I understood why her original manuscript might have been rejected and Lee counseled to tell the story that became Mockingbird.

Reading Watchman, in which Atticus does, indeed, voice beliefs that most today would consider racist, my mind raced with questions I’d never before considered:

Is it possible that Lee wrote and published Mockingbird because a palatable story with a white hero was the only way in which she could publish any kind of “race novel”?

Is it possible that Lee never published another book because she felt unable to tell the story she really wanted to tell?

Is it possible she was disappointed that none of us could see the limitations of the Atticus she knew–not the heroic white champion of equality, but a man who was doing his duty more from a love of law and sense of fairness than anything else?

Was it possible that she fully knew and understood that Watchman was an inferior book, but she wanted it published as-is because she wanted us all to question our complete adoration of Atticus and Mockingbird? Is it possible she wanted all of us who’ve loved Mockingbird to lose our innocence about it so that we could grow up about race in America, just as Scout’s loss of her childlike love for her father in Watchman transforms her into an adult?

Such a loss of innocence is exactly what what I experienced while reading Watchman. How to reconcile the character I grew up so admiring in Mockingbird with the one who, in Watchman, says these words?

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?….

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?….Zeebo’d probably be the mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money?” (245-246)

How could Atticus, the man who stood up to a whole town to defend a Black man, say these words? Well, because, as I finally saw when Watchman sent me back into Mockingbird for the first time in seven years, he wasn’t standing up to defend a Black man. He was defending an innocent man who happened to be Black. He was upholding the law and our system of justice, something I can now see quite clearly. In a conversation with his brother, Jack, Atticus explains why he’s taken the Robinson case:

“You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but Judge Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.” (100)

Atticus argues the case fully not because he is hoping to change the state of race relations in Maycomb, but because it’s necessary for him to be able to live with himself:

“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience….before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.'” (120)

I just didn’t see it because, as is always the case with literature, I saw it through the lens of my own experiences and needs. Although Mockingbird is absolutely a criticism of overt racism, only now can I see that it is full of the kind of racism that is so often invisible to white people in America. It’s also full of dubious, unchallenged messages about social class, gender, and disability.

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Look, for example, at chapter 12, when Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem to her church. A Black woman, Lula, questions Calpurnia for bringing white children to her community’s church, saying, “‘–they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?” But then Zeebo, the garbage collector dismissed as unfit to rule by Atticus in Watchman, steps from the crowd and dismisses Lula and her “fancy ideas” by attaching to her the words “contentious,” “troublemaker,” and “haughty.” (And let’s not overlook attachment of the word “nigger” to her, which is the one Calpurnia, implied to be superior because of an education that seems to have come from the generosity and graciousness of the Finches, uses to address her, and which prompts a discussion between Calpurnia, Scout, and Jem about why Calpurnia doesn’t “talk right” when she’s with Black people.) Lula is swept aside by her congregation as the “solid mass” of them welcomes the children of Atticus.

As a younger reader, I understood this scene through the filter of my own (limited) knowledge and values. I knew it was unfair to exclude someone, especially children, from any place because of their skin color–so, of course, Lula was wrong. It was right for her to be pushed aside and for Jem and Scout to be welcomed in. I had no understanding, even as late as 2009, that for Lula the community of her church was a safe sanctuary within a larger society that the novel shows us so clearly is unsafe for her, and that allowing white people into it (even children) could destroy that for her. I didn’t understand that her need for such a space and her anger over such a breach could arguably trump my color-blind doctrine of fairness. I saw Lula’s scorn over the idea that Jem and Scout were Calpurnia’s “company” (“‘Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week'”) as evidence of some kind of impolite, trouble-making contentiousness, rather than as evidence of how unfair it was that the Finch children could enter into the Black community’s church when Calpurnia would never be allowed to enter theirs.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in all my many readings, I never saw these things; they seem so glaringly obvious now. But I didn’t, so blinded was I by the light of Atticus’s goodness and my own, relatively privileged life.

Lula

I think part of the reason I loved Mockingbird so was that it allowed me to feel OK about being white in a country where Blacks have been treated so cruelly and brutally. I could look at the town of Maycomb and think:  That’s not me or my people. That was another time (years before my birth) and another place (the South, a far more racist region than mine). I could look at Atticus and think:  We’re not all bad. I can be like he is.

I was worried that my children would first encounter this book in school, and that their experience with it there would ruin the love I hoped they’d develop for it, but I can see now that I was worried about the wrong things. Only now can I see the messages they might take from it, ones I internalized without even realizing their existence:

  • That Black people need white people to save them because they aren’t capable of saving themselves.
  • That some people are inherently better than others.
  • That white people outside of the South are superior to those in it because we aren’t racists like they are.

And look at where we are now. America’s long-simmering racism has come to full boil, and I cannot help but wonder if Lee “found” the manuscript for Watchman and had it published without any editing to soften the edges of the Atticus she first imagined because she could sense that what has been coming for years was about to erupt. I wonder if she knew we can no longer afford to blindly worship at the altar of Atticus.

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In order to finally grow up, the Scout of Watchman had to “kill” the idealized version of Atticus that lived in her head (265). So it has been with me:  In order to see painful truths about depictions of race (and class and gender) in this novel, I’ve had to let die the idealized vision I’ve held of it for so many years.

As much as I once loved Mockingbird, as important a book as it was in opening peoples’ eyes to one level of racism, I think it is time for it to be retired as our “national novel” (as Oprah once called it). We need a new national narrative about race, one that isn’t a book by, for, and about white people, with a white hero at its epicenter. While we certainly have our own stories about race, and racial matters impact us, too, ours are not the most important stories to know and tell about race. We need to listen to those who are telling stories that white people can’t tell, and we need to lose the idea that being color-blind is the best way to see each other.

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Lee’s final act as a writer–putting this lesser book into the public sphere–has forced me to grow up as both a reader and writer. All those questions I had about what really happened with this manuscript and what her possible motives for publishing it might have been? Other questions I’ve had about Lee and where she really stood on issues of race, class, and gender? I’ve realized that the answers to them don’t really matter.

We writers like to think we can control readers’ reactions to our work. We think that if we labor over our words long enough we will get them just right so that no one can misunderstand us. We cannot. We can only tell our truth and release it to the world and let others make of it what they will. What any work means is something created between the words and the reader who brings to them their own truth. That’s the terrible and wonderful thing about any creative art, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about that. Or should, even if we could.

We need to create and share for our own reasons, and let go of the outcomes. I like to think that’s exactly what Harper Lee did, and I will be forever grateful not only for the lessons both her books have taught me about reading and race, but also for what she’s taught me about how to be a writer.

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Page numbers refer to these editions of the books:
40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, published by HarperCollins, 1999
1st Edition of Go Set a Watchman, published by HarperCollins, 2015

Trump photo from Gage Skidmore (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5439997505/in/photostream/), adapted by me.

See this post for other photo attributes.

If you would like to further explore issues of race in literature (especially if you’re white), I highly recommend the blog Reading While White.