PRIDE

I’m not gone, I’m just focused on other things right now. Work has exploded (not in a bad way — I’m less bored than I’ve been in years and I’m feeling really proud about what I’m doing even when I’m working many extra hours) and the world is a tough place right now. This weekend should have been Pride in Minneapolis, and I should have been out there with my community celebrating. Instead, we’re all inside.

And yet, our people come through. We, in our history of resistance by every means necessary including fighting back against oppressive police behavior, find ways to stand up. Against hatred. Against violence. Against illness. Against indifference. We stand up and we wave our bright colors and we sing in loud voices and we refuse to be unseen.

I think, at heart, it’s because the LGBT community is fighting for the right of every single person to be precisely who they are, and no less, without fear or reprisal. It is Courage. It is Honor. It is Defiance. It is following the rallying cry from within. “I will not be anything or anyone but myself, and nothing you can do, no law you can pass, no public opinion you can spout will change who I am in the quiet of my own heart. Say what you will, do what you will. I am here and I am alive and I will never stop being myself.”

So take Pride, and every day if you can, and live with that as your own banner. No power in the universe has ever been forged greater than the light of truth in your own soul. Breathe that light brighter, sing it to the skies, and you will find yourself a star.

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Weird Sources of Wisdom 1: Labyrinth

As I was falling asleep at one point over last weekend, a line came into my head and stuck with me. It was one of those throw-away lines from a cartoon, and yet, as it crashed into whatever I’d been halfway to dreaming about, it made an odd amount of sense. Of course, I promptly forgot which line it was as soon as I fell asleep, but I remembered it happening. So I decided to start connecting the bits of wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years from odd places. These aren’t philosophers or classic writers. But you don’t have to be an ancient font of wisdom for your wisdom to be true nonetheless.

So, let’s start with Labyrinth.

If you’ve never seen it, you gotta fix that. Like now, today. Go find the movie and watch it. We can be friends again afterwards. If you just need a reminder, here you go:

There’s so much good in the movie, not just the fun and the puppets and David Bowie being the absolute king. It’s knowing who you are, where you’re going, what you really believe. Are you Hoggle, struggling to find the inner resolve to choose a path that frightens you? Are you Didymus, caught up how things should be done instead of looking to see how they can be done? Are you Ludo who just needs to be given a chance?

Labyrinth was one of the first VHS tapes I owned, and one of the first DVDs, too. It was also a soundtrack I listened to constantly my first year at college as I was on my own journey to figure out my way forward. But it goes farther back than that. Labyrinth was one of the four pillars — four shows/movies that pretty much defined how I saw myself and who I wanted to be while I was growing up. We’ll get to the other three another day.

So — the pieces of wisdom that Labyrinth embedded in my soul?

“Things are not always what they seem in this place, so you can’t take anything for granted.”

The little worm says this when Sarah is first running through the labyrinth. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it exchange, particularly afterwards when the worm makes its own assumptions (and thus doesn’t happen to mention that Sarah was face to face with a path directly to her goal). The labyrinth itself is always changing, evolving, and what was a path through turns into a dead end as soon as you quit looking at it. The only way through is to remain flexible on your feet and in your thinking. Question what you see, question what you assume, question what you think you know. And be prepared to be surprised.

“It’s not fair!”
“You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

It’s a harsh moment for Sarah, having her constant refrain called out. But Jareth is right — she DOES say it a lot. And, if you look at it, a lot of what Sarah considers “not fair” is really just “not the way she wants it to be.” “Fair” would be everything working out the way she wants regardless of anyone else’s needs or motivations. Sarah is self-centered, and doesn’t see that things that don’t seem fair to her are not therefore intentional slights or deliberate attacks — sometimes they are people trying to meet their own goals. Sure, Jareth isn’t making this easy for her, but he isn’t supposed to. Sarah is only the hero of her OWN story, not his. And when Sarah quits judging the actions and choices of others against what she wants, she loses a lot of her resentment, too. There are genuinely unfair things in the world. But there’s a huge difference between injustice and people getting in each other’s way by existing. A hero’s tale wouldn’t mean anything if everyone just got out of her path and let her win without a fight.

“The way forward is sometimes the way back.”

Okay, I like this one even though it’s trite. It comes from that “wiseman” with a talkative bird hat that Sarah and Hoggle meet after getting out of the tunnels under the labyrinth. Sarah asks for advice, and this is one of the lines he spouts while dodging quips from his hat. The hat insults him, but the point is still well intentioned. For me, I think specifically that it’s the emotional context where this works for me. Sure, I can push on, tackle the journey ahead of me without hesitating, but advancing my steps might mean unraveling me in other ways. Getting to the finish line and getting there with no spoons, fully burned out, exhausted — does it count as a win if I lost to get there? So I think it’s not just about realizing that sometimes you have to take a few steps backward to move forward, but also think about how those moves impact you on multiple levels. There is usually a way to move that won’t cut you apart.

“You have no power over me.”

The whole speech Sarah quotes at the start of the movie and then in her final confrontation with Jareth has always meant a lot to me. I used to have it up on the wall next to my dorm room in college. There’s courage in it, and defiance, and endurance. But it’s that last line that really drives itself into my heart. Jareth is all-powerful, and yet he is begging Sarah to fear him. From her obedience comes his power. And it’s so true in the world. It’s SO TRUE. So much of the world is predicated on a complicated set of social contracts. “Don’t correct an authority figure.” “Be polite even if it means allowing someone else to be rude.” “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t make a scene.” It’s garbage, all of it. Of course, I believe in being polite, and in being respectful, and in generally showing kindness. But I’m not going to let the unwritten social morays keep me from asserting my own power. Social rules say not to stick your nose in if somebody is being bullied — but the power of a bystander stepping up and saying “Enough” is greater than anyone realizes until it happens. Expectations can pile up like bounders on your shoulders, but you don’t have to play by them. No one, NO ONE has the power to make you anything but what you choose to be. And to exercise that strength is to be oneself, fully and unapologetically. And, like Jareth, those who would demand obedience and find none are themselves rendered powerless.

“It’s only forever, not long at all.”

This is my favorite line in the “Underground” song. I used to hang onto the “No one can blame you for running away” part, but that was when I was still struggling to find my way in a place I’d chosen for myself. But that “It’s only forever, not long at all” has always stuck with me, too, and far moreso after I no longer needed to run away. There’s something flippant to it, but it’s deep, too. Because forever is just the series of the next one. Telling myself I’m going to do X thing every day for the rest of my life feels daunting. But telling myself I’ll do it “next time” and then, after the day after that, “next time,” and after that, “next time” — those next times DO add up to forever. I’ve seen it used as a model for people trying to get out of habits or get in them, from changing their eating patterns to exercise to prayer or meditation. Critically, it also works on dealing with something difficult. Sure, balancing a level of stress and seeing no end to it can crush you. But taking a deep breath and saying, “I only need to do this today” is liberating. And then, when tomorrow becomes today, “I only need to do this today.” It makes the longest and heaviest of loads something quantifiable, something limited, something within the scope of endurance.

Put that way, “I’m going to write stories forever” becomes too short. Because I only have today to write stories. And then tomorrow. And someday my tomorrows will run out, but the story ideas won’t.

Forever could never be long enough, put that way.

I guess, when you consider that this was a fourth of where I began, there’s no real surprise I ended up where I did. After all, I did find my way into the Underground, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather spend my forever.

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Heroes, Misfits, and Rebels

The Rebel Girls concert went so, so well, and people were in tears at times as we talked about the women and girls who have changed and are changing the world. From Harriet Tubman to Malala, from Abigail Adams to Greta Thunberg, we sang and spoke about women’s courage, women’s choices, women’s actions, and the changes that came from them. Me, too, thinking not only of the figures of history that paved the way for me, but the people in my own life who changed my own little world.

As Ann Reed says in her song “Heroes:”

“One life can tell the tale,
That if you make the effort, you cannot fail.
By your life you tell me it can be done,
By your life’s the courage to carry on.
Heroes appear like a friend
To clear a path or light a flame.
As time goes, you find you depend
On your heroes to show you the way.”

It’s also true that we are what we pretend to be. Want to have more courage, or charisma, or to live boldly? It doesn’t happen because you wish for it — it happens because you pretend for it, and eventually it becomes truth. By the same method, the people we see as our heroes become our blueprint for ourselves. The people we revere, we respect, we cling to, they are the mold we set for ourselves.

All of my heroes are rebels.

As part of a getting-to-know-you exercise with my Operations team, one of the questions I’ve added to our list is “What fictional character(s) best represents you?”

For myself, I have to choose 4. It *just so happens* they align nicely to the elements.

Air = Leonardo of the TMNT. This is where my leadership happens, grounded in the ability to just keep going, to lift the burdens of others, to be first one in and last out, to bleed for the protection of those I call my own. This is the peace of mind I seek, the insight, the stillness of meditation and the reverence for honor. But it’s also the unexpectedness of me being silly after I’ve been staid and solid too long. It’s the ability to see through a situation and find a path home.

Fire = Li Syaoran from Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles. This is the burning intensity of my ability to dedicate myself to a course of action and follow it to the end, NO MATTER WHAT. This is my loyalty, my devotion, my love. It’s also my courage, burning with the power of a lightning strike, to fight and fight and fight and never let the darkness of doubt win. It’s my ability to accept failure and stand back up and try again. It’s also my ability to take the hardest road, knowing it will hurt, but being willing to defer my own ease for the sake of what lies at the end of the path.

Water = Lacus Clyne from Gundam SEED (Destiny). In utter contrast to the previous, this is where I am soft and warm. This is love and emotion and gentleness and patience. This is the wisdom to know when to listen. But it’s also a steely strength of its own — not to fight, but to endure and resist. To sing the song of peace against the storm. To hold up others in their own battles, providing a safe refuge for them between the fires. To heal what is broken.

Earth = Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel from the MCU. Stubbornness. Not the burning refusal to be defeated as Syaoran, but the part that chuckles at failure and says, “huh, that was cute” and tries again. The ability to grow from something damaged, something incomplete, and embrace what lies within. The confidence to be grounded, steady, with an even temperment in the face of stress and a joke in the face of danger. This is also probably where my own independence streak lives, not doing the work or facing the troubles for someone else or for any high ideal, but because I am Defiance and hear me roar.

They are all rebels and troublemakers, every one of them. Leo, who lives under the honor of his family still lives his own life by his choice, in spite of the human society and enemies that hunt him. Syaoran…well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say the dude is willing to challenge everything, even the makeup of spacetime itself, if he has to — and he cannot and will not apologize for doing what he must for the person he loves. Lacus is literally a rebel, joining a faction that takes no sides but the side of humanity and peace in the midst of a war and inciting people to follow her. Carol finds that she is on the wrong side of a war and leaps to at the chance to finally free herself from her constraints and claim a new place for herself.

They aren’t my heroes, per se, because my actual heroes are all real flesh-and-blood people who inspire me to live in this world with its rules and find ways to break them. But they are rebels who get to the heart of who I want to be. The rebel I want to be.

I came upon this quote while reading a fanfic sometime in the last couple of weeks, and I emailed it to myself so I would remember to post it at some point:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
― Rob Siltanen

Now, I know that this is a quote that came out of a marketing meeting and was used to sell Apple products. I know that. But it doesn’t make the point less relevant just because it was invented purely to sell computery things trading on the reputation of a CEO.

Truth is truth wherever you find it, from a fortune cookie to a line scrawled on the sidewalk.

And the truth is? I’m a misfit and a rebel. I have been since I was 3 years old. My earliest memory is from when I was about 4, and I crept away from the backyard into the woods, because I wasn’t supposed to go there, but it was alive and interesting and I wanted to see what the world looked like on the other side of the hill. I can remember being 6 and getting in trouble in kindergarten for not wanting to play house or dolls — I wanted to build a fort under a table and pretend to be a family of dogs taking shelter from the storm.

I’ve never been what anyone wanted of me, and I’ve never done things the way others did. And I’ve never been sorry about it, either.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to change the world per this quote above, and I’m certainly no genius. I’m not even a hero, and my name won’t ever be sung alongside the names in Ann Reed’s song.

But I’m okay with that.

Sometimes, being a rebel means living quietly in a manner which is solely yours, no one else’s. The world is full of quiet rebels, donating money to causes, marching in protests, playing the game of capitalism, and yet their spirits fight every day from their homes and cars and dreams. To be a rebel doesn’t mean one must be famous to make a difference. And any difference, no matter how small, counts towards the greater whole.

Maybe I’m not the rebel who will push the human race forward. But you better believe I’ll be right beside her starting to walk and backing her up.

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Rebel Girls are Never One Thing

This week is concert week for the TCWC. Which also means I have limited spoons this week and I need to conserve them. So I’m giving myself permission to write a short blog.

This concert’s theme is “Rebel Girls” and all the songs are about powerful women through history and today, from Abigail Adams advocating for women to have the right to vote in the Articles of Confederation to Malala and Greta Thunberg. Encore’s doing “Warrior” about finding the courage to step up and speak, and Elizabeth Alexander’s “What’s Keeping You From Singing?” which is about women helping each other find joy.

Another of the songs is “Never One Thing” by May Erlewine. The choir sings it with a lot of spirit. A lot of the women in the choir have been rebels themselves, and I love seeing them rejoice in owning that power. And I love sharing that feeling of “I will not be pinned down or pigeon-holed” because I am right there with them. There will be a lot of grinning and rocking out on this one.

And, of course, my favorite is the song inspired by the Charlotte Tall Mountain poem I posted not long ago. There isn’t a good video for it, unfortunately. That’s the one that’s going to dig into my heart and set me free.

Plus, we get to sing a version of Ann Reed’s “Heroes” which is just…if you don’t know it, go hear it. Truly. And feel that litany of names and know that every one of them helped build the world brighter for all of us.

Really, this whole concert is about women’s courage, and about Defiance. It is about changing the world, laughing, never backing down. It is about refusing to be defined by expectations and doing the thing that needs doing.

It’s going to be a good one, especially if I can keep from tearing up every other song. Either way, I’m going to be in my element.

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Don’t Look Back

My whole life has been full of music. My parents tell stories about my dad’s rock band (apparently as a toddler I tried playing his drum kit), about my propensity to sing along to anything I heard from the moment I could control the sounds I was making, about the happy hours I could spend with a single record or tape playing over and over again.

My parents were into rock music in the 70s and 80s, bands like the Doobie Brothers, Boston, the Eagles, The Guess Who, REO Speedwagon. Also Genesis and Phil Collins — dad being a drummer and all. I knew Beatles music, or Elvis, but it was the next wave of rock music that was the soundtrack to my early years. Long before I was old enough to care about the radio, even before I was drawn in by the siren song of Disney soundtracks, I was finding myself in crashing, harmonious, soaring rock music.

For most of my life, my anthem was “Music is the Doctor” or “Dangerous,” both by the Doobie Brothers. Those two songs and “China Grove” were the perfect songs to capture exactly how it felt to be alive to bitty me. Not necessarily the words, but the feel. Although, the older I got, the more music meant to me, and the more I could feel the burning recklessness in my veins that makes “Dangerous” such a fantastic song. Music taught me at an early age to shout, to dance, to dare to be loud and insistent, to feel the drum make my heart speed up to meet it.

Every significant step I’ve ever taken has had music in its wake. Not just that songs continued to speak to me, that music helped me understand my feelings. But every time I took a leap, there was music. When I got in the car to drive to college, knowing in my heart of hearts that I would never be the same, I chose my tunes carefully and they carried me to Minnesota. When I needed to gather my courage before a daring admission, I cracked up my best songs to give me the edge I lacked. To this day, when Sarah and I set off on a road trip, the very first thing on our list is music. Even before Diet Coke.

Songs come and go; those I couldn’t live without 5 years ago are a fond memory that I find easy to skip now. New music demands to be played over and over, old music rediscovered like a lost friend.

But there are some that are permanent.

“Don’t Look Back” by Boston is one of these.

“Don’t Look Back” was on the second mixtape my dad ever made me, and quickly converted me into a full-fledged Boston fan. I’d had “Rock and Roll Band” on the first mixtape, but something in “Don’t Look Back” was ready for me when I was ready for it.

It’s a deceptively simple song. Not a lot of lyrics for something around 6 minutes long:

Don’t look back
A new day is breakin’
It’s been too long since I felt this way
I don’t mind where I get taken
The road is callin’
Today is the day

I can see
It took so long just to realize
I’m much too strong not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down
I’ll turn it around

I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind

It’s a bright horizon
And I’m awakin’ now
Oh I see myself in a brand new way
The sun is shinin’, the clouds are breakin’
Cause I can’t lose now
There’s no game to play

I can tell
There’s no more time left to criticize
I’ve seen what I could not recognize
Everything in my life was leading me on
But I can be strong

I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind

Oh the sun is shinin’ and I’m on that road

This is the song that helps me take a deep breath, close my eyes, and lift my head up. The song where I focus forward on what is coming, on what I want to create. The song that helps me let go of my fear, my doubt, my insecurity, and just take a step.

It goes quiet and soft in the middle. Everything drops but the barest guitar and drum beat. Stillness before motion, patience before determination. And then the song bursts back to life. It flies and dips and wheels like a freed bird. And it doubles down on the message once more.

The whole message is about being strong enough to keep going. Being strong enough to make changes, even fundamental ones, to keep from being trapped and pinned down and unable to fly. “Everything in my life was leading me on, but I can be strong.” I can break free. I can look at the road unwinding at my feet and walk it, even not knowing where it leads.

Next week, we begin a road trip that will last almost 2 weeks. No idea if I’ll be posting while I’m gone — kinda depends on what sort of Mondays I’m having, I guess.

And as with all adventures, there is always a chance at heartache, or struggle, or loss. There is a chance that I’ll take one step too far and lose something precious. But the trade-off is this: if I don’t take the steps, if I don’t make the attempt, then I lose myself instead. Risk versus reward isn’t just for the stock market or sports games. It’s for life.

And sometimes you have to take that step. Sometimes you have to stand up and start walking and never look back, even when everything around you wants you to hold still. Sometimes you have to trust to your own strength and let it carry you. Sometimes you have to dare leaving everything behind to find out what you really have, where you really are, and where you belong.

I’ve made so many choices in my life that were good and bad. That worked out in some ways, failed miserably in others. But I try so, so, so hard not to live with regret. You can’t go live a single second over. You can’t get back the ones that are lost. You can’t get a do-over, no matter how badly you want one. So I make the choice in the moment that I can live with, and damn the consequences. I couldn’t live with myself not taking chances, not giving my all, not fighting for that next step forward.

Everything I’ve ever gained has come because I left something else behind.

I’m sure I’ll miss my house when I’m sleeping on spare beds and in hotel rooms for 2 weeks. I’ll miss my cats, my people, my routine, my ability to relax in my own space. But it’s an adventure still, with the future unknown. And I won’t be sorry I’m going, no matter how it turns out. Because there is something to learn on the road out there. There is always something to learn.

Most of my best insights have come while behind the wheel of my car, facing an endless stretch of highway, Sarah at my side, singing at the top of our lungs.

Watch my Twitter account if you’ve a mind for it — all my one-liners get worse and Sarah dutifully transcribes them for me. If you poke me, I may or may not respond, depending on where I am and what little adventure we’ve stumbled upon this time. If we have any odd encounters (burning trucks, flooded roads, that thing with the pigs), I’ll try to remember to include them in an entry when I get back.

Every change, even a temporary one, is worth the risk. Every breath taken free and fierce and fearless is worth the cost.

Next week, I’ll be breathing free, singing loud, and finding myself on that calling road one more time.

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Who Am I? (Part 8: The Inadvertent Pillar)

I’ve talked these last few weeks about the choices I’ve made or the aspects of myself I rely upon in order to find my way. Some of them were hard-fought, learned over time and through experience. Others came to me naturally as a part of myself that merely needed to be recognized and embraced.

But then there are two things that I don’t think come from me at all. They just are.

Joy and Love.

I’m rarely bored for long, and a lot of that is my ability to find humor pretty much anywhere. Sarah and I have long joked that all we need is one another and some snark and we’re good to go. Hours in an airport with a dead phone? Whatever. We’ll make do. Car trips of 14 hours at a time? We have music, too, but we can still fill up the time laughing (and live-tweeting on the part of the non-driver).

I am easily amused, but I am also deeply amused. I don’t fight the tug of childish laughter or silliness. That doesn’t mean I get really into fart jokes — even as a child I couldn’t care less. But my sense of humor has not necessarily matured; it has just expanded. So I can laugh myself to tears at a good story or a movie or a series of terrible and excellent song parodies or the continuing adventures of scandalizing people in the grocery store by having way too much fun. I kinda figure if I’m not having fun, I should make my own fun. And I regularly do.

But joy isn’t just about not being bored, or finding things funny. It’s about looking out at a perfect, orange and pink and yellow Minnesota sunset and feeling ALIVE. It’s about watching my friends open gifts from one another and feeling profound gratitude. It’s about being able to set a table for 11 people so that we all have a home on Thanksgiving.

Joy isn’t just happiness. It isn’t just laughter. It’s relishing all the goodness of being alive.

And I don’t think I can take credit for it, because it has always been mine. The only work I had to do to live a joy-filled life was not to stifle what was already present.

Now, this is something that falters badly when I hit a downswing. It’s really, really hard to feel the wonder of life when some part of your brain kinda wants you to throw in the towel. It’s the first thing to fade when depression sets in, and the last to return. And it’s not something I can “fix” when I’m depressed, either. I can behave with Honor or Kindness no matter what I’m feeling, and Defiance is a regular way of keeping the downswing at bay. But joy comes and goes, and I have as little say over it when I’m at the bottom of the world as I do when I’m at the top.

But it defines me regardless.

I’ve been teased for my enthusiasm, always kindly, but rather frequently. It seems to shock or surprise people that I can be so ardent in my feelings. That I can say I think something is “amazing” or “awesome” as often as I do and mean it every bit as much. That’s not me watering down the language. It’s that I AM still amazed, and I AM still in awe. And I think that enthusiasm is because of my capacity for joy.

How can a person look at the universe and not feel wonder without joy? How can a person laugh delightedly with their favorite companion without joy? How can a person feel their heart stutter in wordless admiration without joy?

But I didn’t do anything for this. It just happened to me. I guess it’s another point of privilege, one that I didn’t earn, and can only appreciate and share.

Thinking about it a different way, if emotions are on a scale, and your capacity to feel is set, then I guess there should be less surprise that I can feel such profound, overwhelming joy or awe or amazement or gratitude. Because I have also felt equal measures of pain and grief and self-hate and despair. Some people’s ups and downs are more even, like a kids’ roller coaster. Mine is the biggest, meanest, fasted, wildest of rides.

And as much joy as I have, I have even more love.

I’ve never been able to not love people. I’m scarcely capable of hatred; I scarcely comprehend it. I love people who are my whole life, and people who walk beside me in life, and people I lost long ago, and people who have not yet come to be, and people who hate my guts, and people I would probably be more healthy if I could let go. I love strangers and friends alike.

When I am at CONvergence and I look out over the convention at the 7,000 people clustered together in their cosplay or their fun t-shirts or whatever makes them the happiest, I can’t tell you how my heart swells. Not only because I feel humbled to be a part of this community, and welcomed in it, and grateful to have found it. But also because these are MY people. And I care about them in a way I find difficult to put into words. It’s the same way I feel at Pride when I look around and know that the LGBTQA community are my people. The same way I feel that the TCWC are my people.

I don’t love all people the same — that, probably, isn’t possible. But there are kinds of love. And even when it is no one more close to me than a cashier at the gas station or someone walking a dog down my street, I am fully aware that my recognition of their humanity, the light and soul within them that is like my own, is love.

It’s not something I had to teach myself. For good or ill, and sometimes it was REALLY QUITE A LOT of ill, I’ve always loved easily. My heart just reaches out and feels for others. Even if I’d rather it didn’t, even if I’m tired of the brush-off or blow-back or denial. But you can’t change what you feel, and I wouldn’t even if I could. Because it is marvelous to love people.

Even when they don’t love you back. Even then, it is worthy.

But it’s no great accomplishment of mine. No virtue I have honed.

And don’t confuse my ability to love people in theory or in practice with an ability or willingness to trust. I certainly don’t trust readily or easily. The fact that I feel as much as I do has absolutely NO RELATION to how willing I am to show those feelings to others, or allow others to steer me through them. I can feel the love of humanity for the person in line beside me at the store, but I won’t invite them into my thoughts or my feelings. I won’t show them my weak spots or my fears. I won’t tell them when I am hurting or how badly.

But I don’t have to trust them to feel love.

Trust, like Kindness, is a choice. Love and joy are seeds that grew inside me, planted by who knows what.

I still don’t necessarily count love or joy among my pillars, though. How one defines oneself comes not from how one was born or the gifts one received — it comes from the choices and actions one makes. Lack of action is a choice, too. If a person has all the money in the world and never shares it, shows no charity, then that defines them. If a person has the ability to endure something difficult but opts not to bother, then that is their choice and that is who they are. It doesn’t matter how good the intentions are, or what advantage a person got at the start of the game — it matters what they do with the cards they do have.

I was dealt cards of privilege in my skin color, in my economic bracket, and in my education. I was also dealt cards of privilege in my strong sense of self and my capacity for love, joy, and also introspection. That’s not what makes me who I am. That’s just my opening hand.

I have tried to take those cards and turn them into a better person. I have tried to find the truth within myself for what I think matters, for the person I want to be in the world I want to help create. I have tried to build up a platform upon which I can stand through the storm. To create pillars that form a steady support so that when all else crashes down, my ideals can remain firm. I have tried to balance my life around my deliberate priorities, not the accidental ones that happen when I forget to pay attention.

And I still screw up. Everybody does.

My screw-ups are no bigger and no worse than anyone else’s. Even when they feel like they are. I might be mortified to admit to my long ream of mistakes and errors and shames, but they’re really no worse than anyone else’s. And, if nothing else, I can say that I don’t make the same horrible mistake twice. And that is worth a lot. Would it be better not to have made the mistake at all? Maybe. But there’s value in making it and learning better, too.

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, obviously.

But if I let myself be defined by hurt, then I wouldn’t even be REMOTELY the same person.

This week is Thanksgiving, and I’ll be hosting a meal for others as usual. I’ve written before about what Thanksgiving means to me, the family and community of it, the deep gratitude I feel for all that I have been given and all that I have been able to give. So it works out that this is the week I finish thinking through my pillars, my guiding framework that helps me be who I want to be.

I am so grateful that I was blessed with a deep capacity for love and joy. I am so grateful that I have a Defiant streak that never quite seems to dim. I am so grateful that I have been able to Endure, that I have been able to find Courage in myself. I am so grateful that I have learned Kindness and Loyalty and can share them with those I love. And I’m grateful for the Honor to uphold these ideals, to stand up with this as my base.

Whatever else happens, whatever rocks my world next, good or bad, I’m grateful to have come so far, to have learned so much, and to still be learning. Whether I get my heart broken 100 times or some of my hopes make it to fruition, I have been better for the journey and I am better still for the journey to come.

I didn’t get this far in a vacuum — I got here only because of the many, many hands that held me up and guided me along and offered me support along the way. The only way I can ever repay them, any of them, is to make their gift of help and love for me into my gift of help and love for others. I can’t and won’t be anything but what I am.

And that is enough for me.

“If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day.”
–Alex Noble

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Who Am I? (Part 7: Defiance)

There are some things I’ve had to teach myself, some things I’ve had to learn — and then there are the things that have been a part of me from my very first breath. It takes time to comprehend Honor, or to build up Courage. It takes experience to practice Kindness or Loyalty.

But Defiance has defined me longer than anything else.

It was a friend in college who put words around that aspect of my personality. She gave me a CD mix waaaaaay back almost 15 years ago. And she called it “Willful Defiance of the Box.” When I asked her about it, she told me that’s how she sees what I do. It’s not just defying the box. It’s willful. It’s looking at that box and not just saying “no;” it’s saying “HELL NO.”

One of the formative books from my childhood is called Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. I was first introduced to the story when I was 10 years old, and it explained something I had always understood for myself — I learn nothing by doing what others do. I only learn, I only live, by doing things my way, in my own time, even if and when I do them alone. No one learns to fly by huddling on the ground with the flock.

You have to trust your wings, alone, strike out into the sky, prepare to fall, and dare yourself to soar.

You have to believe in “Defying Gravity,” Wicked-style:

So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Everyone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I’m defying gravity!

Defiance doesn’t mean I break rules; I’m not an anarchist. I respect the institutions of governance and follow laws because that’s part of the social contract that holds a nation together. But there are laws, and then there are the rules of society.

And the latter? Yeah, I break those.

I don’t wear makeup or high heels even though I’m a ciswoman. But I’m not butch or femme, either, even though I’m in a lesbian marriage. I challenge people in discussions rather than quietly keeping the peace when that challenge needs to be levied (yeah, I’m that person who points out when someone is being casually disrespectful or bigoted. Fucking deal with it, folks.). I talk openly about things like depression and mental health, even though apparently that’s still stigmatized? Not around me. I like cartoons even though I’m a grown woman. I write fanfic. I dance in my living room in my PJs. I run errands in sweatpants.

There are these ideas that a grown person does certain things and does not do certain things. And if there’s no good reason to abide by those ideas, well, feel the WOOOOOSH of me throwing them out the window.

Because I am myself. I won’t be less than that.

And anything asking me to step back and deny myself the truth of being myself, fully, joyfully, unapologetically, can go fuck itself with a rusty spork.

That “anything” can come from inside me, too.

When depression speaks up and tries to break me down, sometimes the only thing that shouts louder is my Defiance. When everything, everything, everything else gives way, sometimes the step back from the edge is nothing but pure obstinance on my part. If I let myself believe I can’t do something, that usually becomes the point at which I do it the hell anyway.

Defiance demands an exceptionally high level of self-accountability. Defiance isn’t just refusing to budge for no good reason — it demands the BEST reason. I don’t take random dares just to prove myself. That’s not what Defiance is about.

“Go play chicken with a train! I bet you won’t!”

Yeah, you’re right. I won’t. Even if you dare me. Even if you impugn my Honor or my sense of pride. I’m not an IDIOT. This isn’t me emulating Marty McFly and his pathological inability to stand down from a challenge per BTTF3.

Defiance means I know EXACTLY what I’m doing, and I’ve chosen it as the best, the ONLY course of action which is true to myself. I’ll steal another line from “Defying Gravity:”

(Glinda)
You can still be with the wizard
What you’ve worked and waited for
You can have all you ever wanted

(Elphaba)
I know
But I don’t want it
No
I can’t want it anymore
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game

Defiance means knowing that some things are better than others. And it’s easy to say “freedom is better than slavery” but what if “freedom” means social isolation due to being different, setting oneself deliberately apart, and “slavery” means the easier path of going along with the others? Defiance is the spark of eager fire that screams from inside my soul.

BE DIFFERENT. BE FIERCE. IT WILL BE WORTH IT.

And you know what? It is.

It’s the “two roads diverged in a wood” thing. But that scenario is misleading, because there is no one watching the traveler, no one whose opinion can weigh in on the outcome of which road gets chosen. I know for certain that I have not gotten at least one job because I showed up to the interview without makeup. I wore a suit, I was capable, I spoke well, but I didn’t fit the expectation of my gender — and that’s not what they wanted.

It’s really true that when people don’t want you the way you are, you probably don’t want them, either.

The best relationships I have are those when I can be the absolute most myself. When I can be whatever I am, unfiltered, unguarded. Defiance is bringing that truth out from the safety of my closest people and wearing it like a badge of pride.

I spent most of high school alone. I was never popular. I was bullied. I had few friends. I could go a whole week with minimal interaction with my peers that was at all positive. And did the silence and the unkindness claw at me? Yes, it did. But I chose to sacrifice all that for the gain of not having to sacrifice myself. And I’ve never regretted it.

Defiance isn’t just choosing to be an outcast. It’s finding glee in being outcast, because that is the truest affirmation of self.

It’s finding wholeness in the refusal to step back. It’s understanding that victory may hurt more than surrender, but surrender is untenable. Surrender is not death — it is UNMAKING.

And I won’t be unmade. By anything.

I never met an expectation I didn’t enjoy breaking. People look at me and expect me to be soft; I turn around and show them my badass side. People think I’m quiet because I don’t choose to gather with the others; I lift my head up and laugh knowing that I’m having more fun with my own company than I could ever have with them. I’m weird and wild, unconventional and proud of it. I don’t fit in lunchroom discussions of fashion and pop culture and trash TV. I don’t fit, and I love myself better for not trying to fit.

I don’t actually know if this happens to other people. I only know me.

Do you ever look up at a moon, or stars, or a glorious sunset, or a violent storm, and feel yourself burst? Feel like what is held inside your chest making your heart pump faster and faster cannot possibly fit inside your body? That within you lives a soul that doesn’t shout or sing — it SCREAMS. It BELLOWS. And the world roars back like a salute. WE SEE YOU. YOU ARE ALIVE.

Not a song, but poetry this time:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
–Walt Whitman

Defiance is honoring the star that was born inside my heart, the fire that never goes out. Defiance is looking at a black and white world and refusing to give up on dreams of the rainbow. Defiance is spreading wings and taking to the air, even when I fly alone. Defiance is being myself because anything less is not worth the cost.

Because I would rather be myself, just the way I am, and be alone in that, then stand in a crowd. The crowd offers safety, a place to rest, acceptance, and ease.

But why do things the easy way, the safe way, the restful way, when I can do them by myself, for myself, in my own way?

Of all the decisions I’ve made, and the things I’ve done that weren’t really decisions, to be Defiant was never really a choice at all. It was a necessity. It was breathing.

Because if I can’t be myself, then who the hell am I? And what the fuck is the point of it all?

If I gave up on me, I wouldn’t BE me. I would die off, and some doppelganger would take my place with my skin and my hands and my scars, but none of my spark. We are all, every single one of us, an endangered species. There is only one of any of us in the world.

I’m not going to let the world hunt me to extinction for its convenience. I’m not going to let society silence the song inside me. I’m not going to let my inner fire be quenched. Not by well-meaning friends, and not by antagonistic opponents. Not by those I love, and not by the voices inside me.

I Defy the boxes. I Defy the rules. I Defy the darkness inside me and I burn with light against it. I Defy the assumptions of others and I Defy my own assumptions. I Defy, because I am alive.

And I am stronger for my Defiance. I am proud. I am free. I have no regrets.

So I’ll get a dozen more rejections on the novel. I’ll lose friends, or pass by opportunities. I’ll get weird looks in the grocery store. I’ll make mistakes and hate myself for them.

But I will stand up again.

I will lift up my head and I will grin at the moon.

I will REFUSE TO BACK DOWN.

It doesn’t matter how much it hurts. It doesn’t matter if I stand alone. It doesn’t matter if it tears me to nothing. It doesn’t matter what I lose.

I would rather keep what I have and gain more. Because it will be TRUE. It will be MINE.

And if I succeed at LITERALLY NOTHING in this world, then I will succeed at BEING MYSELF.

No matter what anyone has to say about it. No matter what it costs me.

I stand in Defiance.

Hear my YAWP and tremble.

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Who Am I? (Part 6: Endurance)

The timing for this particular entry is weird as hell. Not only is this the day before the election, but it’s also a day with 2 separate family medical issues which have made any amount of focus today difficult at the least. And yet…Endurance. Sometimes the world’s just like that.

I have also received my very first rejection for the novel currently being queried. And yet, after receiving that rejection, I had some feelings and then I sent out 6 more queries.

Endurance isn’t one of the values that get listed when people make their lists. Ask someone what the most important qualities in a person are and they’ll tell you things like loyalty or honesty or courage. You might get perseverance, if someone is really thinking about it. But Endurance? To me, it’s one of the most important, and yet it’s easy to miss.

Courage is choosing to act in spite of fear or pain, because to act is worth the consequences even when they’re scary.

Endurance is taking one more step, no matter what.

So it doesn’t matter how much Courage you have, if you fold after the first consequences sink in. You can gather your Courage and march into the fire because it’s the right thing to do, but if you haven’t got the ability to Endure, your Courage may not carry you to the end. Courage is a choice to act in spite of consequences. Endurance is acting in spite of consequences even when Courage is gone.

It’s also known as Stubbornness.

Courage is what lets me look at a climbing wall which scares me and start going up it. But at some point, getting to the top stops being about Courage. It stops being an act of bravery (or Defiance) and becomes only a grind, a step-by-step refusal to back down. Because I’m here, dammit, and I’m not giving up until I’ve succeeded.

Sometimes, for me, Endurance takes the form of just doing one more. One more minute of exercise. One more attempt to be heard. One more day before the depression lets up. One more try to get the song right. One more chance taken. One more step before turning back. One more breath that burns.

When Sarah has trouble with executive decisions, we’ve found that it can be because she can’t compartmentalize or break stuff down. She can’t turn “clean the house” into “first do X, then do Y, then do Z.” She needs the pieces to be smaller so she can absorb them. But the same is true for coping with depression, or anxiety, or pain. It can be difficult to say “I will break this habit forever and ever starting right now.” It can be easier to say, “I only have to break it this time.”

There’s another quote for this one by Albert Einstein:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

I demand the best of myself. I demand of myself that, if I choose a course of action, that I will follow it come hell or high water or fog or fire. It’s the Honor of a promise I have made to myself. But with that comes the slog of getting from the point of making the promise to seeing it through. And that slog can be long.

When writing is difficult, I might only be able to force 200 words out of me, instead of the 2,000 which used to be my norm. But just because it is difficult, just because it feels like lifting cement trucks with my pinkie, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. It just means I have to work harder, or longer.

Kindness lets me forgive myself when I need to; Endurance means I push to the goddamn edge before I do.

I think that’s one of the things that has helped me become competent as a leader, or as a troubleshooter. Because people know when I take stuff on, it gets done. Even if it’s late, even if it costs me blood and sweat and tears, they know my word is good and I’ll push through somehow. Endurance means I can take on my burden and that of someone else, because I’m not about to set it down once I’ve begun.

Endurance also means being able to stand pain when it comes.

When I was in college, I came down with something called costochondritis. What it means, basically, is that sometimes the lining inside my ribcage will get swollen or otherwise irritated, and it will crack against my ribs. When it happens now and strikes out of nowhere but I know what it is, it feels a bit like taking a cement ice pick to the pectoral.

In college, when I was 20 years old and had no idea what was going on or how to manage it, it was TERRIFYING.

It came on strong, and it ended with me in the ER several times until the doctors finally identified why I had this extreme chest pain that had me rolling and crying in agony at random intervals. (It also ended with me on doses of codeine and ibuprofen that would make most pharmacists balk until we got it under control.) The pain would strike and I would be lost in helpless waves of screaming electricity pretending to be nerve responses. I remember a lot of crying and whimpering. It was the worst physical pain, bar none, I had ever experienced, and the worst since.

I taught myself to breathe without moving my ribcage, and I taught myself to Endure.

The episodes could last for seconds or minutes. And I found that I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t face the idea of that pain for minutes at a time, prone to happen any time I was under stress (or fighting a chest cold) for the rest of my life. But I could face it for one breath the next time it came. And after I took that breath, I could take one more.

Similarly, when I hit a downswing and my depression is trying to ruin all that I am and replace it with things I never want to be, I might not be able to fathom handling that roiling awfulness for days or weeks without end. I might look ahead and despair. But I can get through this next hour. I can get through today. I can get through the next thing on my list. And when that is passed, then I can tackle the one that comes after.

And I truly value that in myself.

The world is full of things I can’t control just like I can’t control when my brain will start playing dirty or my chest wall will decide to crackle. What I can control is what I choose to do when those things happen.

And I choose to Endure. I choose to take one more step, no matter what it costs me. Even when Courage has failed, when Honor would be satisfied, when Kindness would forgive a lapse. When all else is exhausted, Endurance remains. Endurance is my ability to hold on past any reasonable point, and sticking it out to the end.

Compared to Endurance, Courage is easy. Courage is making the right decision and being willing to accept consequences. But Endurance is actually experiencing those consequences, drowning in them, being burned in their flames, and STILL MAKING THE DAMN DECISION.

I think I conflate Endurance with perseverance in the way I think about them. Because perseverance is “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success” and Endurance is “the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.” Perseverance is about succeeding on matter the difficulty. Endurance doesn’t assume success — it just refuses failure.

Because sometimes the very best you can do is refuse to fail.

When I was a kid at summer camp, there were several high-ropes courses, and one year I got stuck on one. It was a telephone pole that you had to climb, and at the top you had to get so you could stand on top of it. Then you’d jump to a trapeze and come down. And I had no issue climbing the pole, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the transition to get on top of it without pitching off sideways. I was probably up there for 20 minutes, too afraid to shove myself upwards and fall, too stubborn to give up and come down. For 20 minutes, the best I could hope for was a draw — I hadn’t failed, but I hadn’t succeeded.

Eventually I got sick of just holding on at a standstill and I found enough Courage to push myself upwards. But that was as much because the activity was coming to an end and we had to go do other things as anything else — never confuse desperation for Courage because they are very different even if they turn out looking similarly — and I couldn’t actually remain stalemated against the stupid telephone pole forever.

But there are plenty of places where you might not be able to engineer a victory and yet can stave off defeat.

I may never get rid of the chest pain thing, or the depression. I may have to live my whole life knowing that either one could pop up at any point and decide to make today all about them.

But I can fight them every single time they come around, and at the end, it’ll be me that emerges. Not because I’m brave enough to fight back, but because I’m stubborn enough never to give in.

I might even be in too much pain to be brave, physically or emotionally, but I can still imitate the nearest piece of granite and refuse to budge or chip or wear away.

And so when I get my next rejection on the novel, I’m still going to send another query out anyway. I’m still going to get hurt, and I’m still going to be upset probably, and I’m still not going to be eager to repeat the experience. But I’ve got the Courage for that moment of hitting send on an email, and Endurance to hold me steady whatever comes of it.

I don’t think that I have more fortitude than others; that’s not what all this means. But I’m proud of my ability to Endure. I’m proud of the fact that I can lose and lose and lose again and still try to stand up one more time for one more blow. And by adding Endurance to my pillars, by calling it out as one of my central tenants, then that keeps me accountable. I have the ability to Endure — it is on me to practice it. Otherwise, what is the point of the strength I was blessed with?

Besides, it’s nice to have a fallback.

If Honor isn’t enough to get me doing the right thing at the right time, then Courage will help me do it. If Courage fails and all that’s left is unpleasantness (or worse), then Endurance will carry me forward on the path that was worth getting so far in the first place.

And if Endurance fails?

Well.

Then Defiance will spark Courage anew, and we’ll start over.

Because in the very, very end, anything that wants me beaten down that badly absolutely deserves to be disappointed.

So, next week — Defiance.

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Who Am I? (Part 5: Kindness)

There was a time I didn’t trust kindness, not from anyone and not even from myself. For a cynical, damaged period in my life, I couldn’t see human decency and compassion without an agenda. Acts of kindness could be easily traced to desires or hidden requests or power-plays. Why should someone go out of their way for me, unless they wanted something from me? Unless it was to prove their own moral superiority — there was a lot of that, too.

It’s a dark, awful world when you look around and believe that the only lights are those lit to burn you.

I included myself in that mistrust because I didn’t trust myself at all in any way then. I couldn’t hold a door for someone without wondering if I was doing it so that they would think well of me. I couldn’t extend courtesy without chiding myself for being manipulative. That’s one of the problems of being deeply introspective, at least for me — I have a gift in doubting myself or looking for the underbelly to my own actions and choices. Usually I want to find out what I’m doing for wrong reasons so I can root it out, but it’s not a confidence-booster to question your every move and constantly think the worst of yourself.

I still have trouble practicing Kindness to myself sometimes.

But I believe in it again.

I was a Girl Scout as a kid, and while I only retain a tiny, tiny bit of anything I learned from my troop, the one thing I did hold onto and internalize to a very deep level was one particular bit that was brought up in meetings maybe once or twice:

Leave the world better than you find it.

It’s not part of the Girl Scout Oath, or even the Law (which only says “make the world a better place”). It’s just one of those throwaway lines that stuck with me. “Make the world a better place” didn’t resonate with me the way it did to improve upon what is already there. It instilled in me a soul-deep desire to improve everything, every place my feet come to rest, every situation in which I take a breath.

Sometimes that means volunteering, as I do at CONvergence or with the TCWC, lending what abilities and time and energy I have to contribute to a greater whole. Sometimes it means picking up some stray garbage, or changing a roll of toilet paper, or handing a bag into Lost and Found. Sometimes it means donating money, or time, to causes which are trying to safeguard the environment, or civil liberties, or libraries, or education. There’s a lot of places I traverse even in one day at home, and I try to help them all along whenever I can.

But it also applies to people.

I believe in courtesy, always. In saying “please” and “thank you” and “have a nice day” — and genuinely meaning them as much with a cashier behind the counter as I do the people I love. In taking notice, holding doors, making way for others. In smiling at people, and meaning it, as if that one smile is everything that matters in the whole world.

It’s been said that you should live as though every day were your last. Whether or not that’s true, I made a decision long ago to treat others as though every day were THEIR last.

Imagine you go to the post office. You don’t know any of the people in line or behind the counter. You don’t know which one has a spouse with a terminal illness, or is dealing with bankruptcy, or has just lost their job, or has a child being bullied. You don’t know which one will get into their car tonight and never make it home. You don’t know which one will fall asleep and never wake up again. But imagine for a moment that any one of those things could happen or be happening to those people in line and behind the counter.

What would it change in how you interact with them?

That’s what I mean by Kindness.

Real Kindness, to me, isn’t about me at all. It’s about making certain that I treat others with as much gentleness, dignity, friendliness, and compassion as I can muster. It’s a recognition that I have no idea what their life looks like from behind their eyes, and it is therefore my chosen obligation to add only something good to whatever they are carrying. If they are going through hell, I will not be another blade to cut them down. If they are dealing with impatient customers, a broken relationship, depression, illness, whatever it is — if there is nothing I can do but be one smile and one moment of human recognition and compassion, then that is what I’m going to do.

I call myself an outgoing introvert, which is a fair description. It’s not natural to me to want to be in the center of attention, to want to constantly interact with people. But I can strike up a conversation if I want to, and I know how to speak to others in public with ease. It costs me, sometimes, but I know how to do it. And when I’m in a good place and my own heart isn’t fighting me, then I make every effort I can to be the best smile a stranger gets all day. To be the friendliest customer, the most respectful person in the line.

Kindness isn’t just holding doors and donating to causes and buying the dinner in the car behind you in the drive-thru. It’s using every tool of language, spoken and unspoken, to tell someone that they are welcome. That they are wanted. That they are appreciated.

Instead of just saying “Thanks,” it’s saying, “the humanity in me recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates the humanity in you.”

There is no one who doesn’t deserve Kindness in this world. And there’s not nearly enough of it.

(Being very honest, there are some people in the world I would and do have a very hard time treating Kindly. The people who protest funerals, for example, or certain people connected to politics, or a host of others. There are people I believe would be thoroughly improved by being dropped off on an ice floe and left to watch it melt. There are people I hate, and hatred does not come easily to me. With them? Honor demands I do the best I can to live up to Kindness. Courage demands I give it a shot, because it is difficult. Kindness forgives me when I fail. Defiance absolves me of guilt because fuck those people anyway.)

Random acts of Kindness have always appealed to me, particularly when anonymous. Because that’s the real point of being Kind, isn’t it? To give something, and to get nothing in return but the knowledge of the difference it made to someone else. I’ve gotten involved in a lot of those over the years. I’ve written cards for people at summer camp to tell them that they were amazing when they felt they didn’t fit in. I’ve helped coordinate large-scale gifts to classmates or friends from choir. But usually I get found out. And then I get weird because I don’t necessarily want to be thanked for the act. I didn’t do it to be thanked, or called out, or recognized. And while it’s appreciated — deeply — it still feels like cheating.

Because Kindness isn’t about the return. It’s about the gift.

That gift can be a heartfelt smile and “thank you” or letting someone go ahead of me in line. It can be quietly standing beside someone and letting them know that I’ve got their back if things get weird (sometimes both; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve insisted “they were here first” when they were, but for whatever reason they got overlooked, and I hate that it’s sometimes about age, or race, or gender presentation; so I do what I can). The gift can be saying “it’s fine, take your time” when someone is flustered and stressed and clearly needs a moment to compose themself.

And those things? I just don’t believe that those things should be remarkable. They should be standard. They should be the default. Kindness, making room for another, acknowledging the needs of someone else, showing appreciation for a task even if someone is getting paid for it — these should be what the world is founded on.

It’s not, but it is when you ride with me.

There have been times in my life when I think I was saved by Kindness. I have vivid memories of them — like the boy in high school who saw me crying and sat down, even though he was popular and I was despised, even though he was older than me and busier and had a million better things to do, and told me that he thought I was a good person. Like the first person to come up to me when I sang a solo in the TCWC and told me she thought my voice was beautiful. Like friends who picked up food for us when money was tight. Like the Clan who came to gather around when my depression was beating at the gates and every breath tasted like harm.

I don’t have memories of all the littler ones — the people who made way for me in a store when I wasn’t in a good place, or the people who gave me that one smile in an awful day — but those saved me all the same. When we moved into our house, someone on our street bought us a bunch of flowers and gave them to us to welcome us. When Sarah was in a car accident years ago, someone helped her get home. These smaller Kindnesses didn’t shift the bedrock of my world, or stave off the worst, but they improved something that wouldn’t have been improved on its own.

For all the harshness and awfulness in the world, I have been shown some very genuine, very life-affirming Kindness along the way. And now I demand of myself that I show that same Kindness everywhere, to everyone. Because I’ll never know what a person is suffering, but I can sure as hell not add to it. I’ll never know when a person is at the end of their rope, but I can sure as hell hold them up for a moment.

They don’t tell you when you’re a kid watching cartoons that there are no heroes who can save the world with one big final boss fight. They don’t tell you that the real enemies — apathy, bigotry, prejudice — won’t fall when the bad guy goes down. They don’t tell you, but you figure it out far too soon, I think.

The only way to save the world is to save it a little bit, every single day, for every person or place or thing that provides an opportunity.

Kindness means picking up some trash, or putting some chairs to rights, or helping unload a stranger’s car. Kindness means smiling and meaning it, being friendly and patient, and easing the way for someone else even if it’s their job to ease the way for you. Kindness means picking up groceries for someone if you can afford it, or covering a meal, or accidentally buying an extra sweater and giving it away. Kindness means LISTENING to people, and finding out what they really need.

Because you can’t give someone a gift that is a burden and call that Kindness.

Kindness is adding to the world and creating space for others, not drawing lines and defining that space for them. Kindness would not be me, in my white skin, speaking for a person of color. Or me as a ciswoman speaking on behalf of transwomen. Kindness would be stepping aside and supporting the voice of someone other than myself to speak.

We need a metric fuckton more of that to save the world these days.

Kindness means meeting people where they are at, and giving them space, lifting the load, making it just a little easier for them to breathe. Even if it’s a blink-and-you-miss it nod of a head in passing, or getting out of line as fast as possible to ease the strain, or stepping back and not adding to the confusion. Kindness means putting in the effort so others need less of their own.

The world is, for the most part, a closed system. Other than some space debris and such, everything that is, is here. We’re not going to suddenly acquire more water, more natural resources, more land (unless and until we start colonizing/mining in space). What one takes, another doesn’t get. What one breaks someone else has to fix. And the work of living, of being human, is as heavy on one of us as it is on all of us.

Kindness is giving a little bit more of my share, so someone else can give a little less.

It can be exhausting. It can be draining. It can be frustrating. It can be overwhelming.

But it is never, never, never not worth doing whenever I can.

Leave the world better than you find it. Celebrate and uplift the world with whatever light you carry. Even by just one molecule. Even for one moment.

It makes all the difference. Sometimes I think it makes the only difference.

Next week — Endurance.

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Who Am I? (Part 4: Courage)

Last week I sent my first query letters to agents in the hopes of finding representation for my novel. I’ve written lots of novels — 23 to date, per the live count — but this is the first one I’ve sent out into the world, the first one I’m putting somewhere it can hurt. If people don’t like my fic stories, they might leave me a nasty comment or review, but they are usually drowned out by the positive comments and reviews I receive. One rejection against ten affirmations doesn’t dig too far into my skin.

But with this, it’s the opposite. The novel may get 30 rejections, or 50. Or 100. It may not be a novel which is ready to publish. It may be ready, but the market won’t support it. It could just hit bad luck 100 times in a row. Whatever the reason, I am bracing myself for rejections and lots of them. I expect to get my feelings hurt on this one, maybe again and again and again.

But I’m doing it anyway.

Sending that first query felt like being speared in the gut by a javelin. It was a thrill of terror not unlike falling off a climbing wall or missing a step on the stairs and bracing myself to plummet. The fear wasn’t philosophical or theoretical — it was real, measurable, empirical. If I’d wanted, I could have tracked how my pulse and blood pressure changed as I sent off the second and third. I could have categorized the adrenaline in my blood, timed the tremor in my fingers. That wasn’t the existential dread of “what if?” This was real fear, visceral and immediate.

There’s a line I took from myself, from my real life philosophy, and stuck in this novel, and it’s never been so appropriate.

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

As a species, we experience fear as a warning, a part of our instincts whose sole job is to keep us alive. It tells us not to climb too high or risk a deadly fall, not to stick our hands in the firepit if we want to keep our fingers, not to turn our backs to the unknown in the dark. Fear can be debilitating, but it’s intention is healthy and useful — without it, we’d have died out long ago. Any creature that as no fear doesn’t make it in the long run.

But any creature who acts only based on fear won’t make it in the long run, either.

Think of a city pigeon. They’re interesting birds even when they are kind of the flying equivalent of rats. But they have an incredible ability to resist fear. Pigeons tend to be overweight from eating all the stuff they scrounge, to say nothing of people feeding them. And they’re not the lightest birds to start with. Pigeons need a huge amount of energy and time to take to the air — that’s why you see them resting and walking more than flying most of the time. The act of flying might burn their reserves, might use up all the calories they’ve consumed in the last day.

Watch pigeons next time you see some. Watch how close they get to people, to cars, to dogs. It’s not stupidity. It’s not that they don’t know any better, or don’t realize that they could be in mortal peril up against something a million times their size. It’s that they’ve instinctively done the math. If they flee, they’ll live, but it will cost them. So they stick it out until they cannot any longer, taking the risk of getting hurt in the hope that they’ll escape without having to use up those reserves.

It isn’t that the pigeon isn’t afraid of the barking dog or the garbage truck or the angry kid with a stick — it’s that they can’t afford to be afraid. So they face down their fear because courage is the only way they preserve what they risked everything for in the first place. And sometimes it burns them, but more often the gamble pays off and they can waddle along, conserving their energy and living to eat and fly another day.

Pigeons have stopped letting future pain define their current choices.

The world is full of platitudes about courage. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it” by Nelson Mandela. Or “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once” by Shakespeare. Or “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face” by Eleanor Roosevelt. It has been said that courage is the root of all other virtues, because you can’t have honor or justice or kindness or truth without it. It has been said that there is no trust which is not inherently brave, nor doubt which is inherently cowardly.

They all seem to agree on two things — the courage is important, and that it is a choice. No courage comes without risk, or without pain, and it is a conscious decision that must be made. No one has courage as an innate quality. It must be learned, honed, and practiced.

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

Because the first act of Courage is the decision, the judgement, of what is most important. If avoiding pain or discomfort or difficulty is the priority, then no amount of Courage will carry a person past those things. It is painful, or difficult, to challenge someone one respects, to call out bad behavior and risk censure or the loss of a friendship. Courage is doing it anyway.

Because Courage means deciding that the difficult act is more important than the risk or the consequences.

That’s why firefighters go into burning buildings to rescue people — because the life of the innocent is more important than any risk to their own. It’s why doctors stay in warzones knowing they may be at risk to be hurt or killed — because their patients need them more than they fear being hurt. It’s why people stand up and march for rights, for accountability, for protest of an immoral system — because their cause is worth more than their safety.

Acts of Courage can be great or they can be tiny. It is an act of Courage to stand against a tank armed only with a bag of groceries, and it is also an act of Courage to raise a hand and ask a question in a business meeting. It is an act of Courage to join a new club or try a new sport, and it is an act of Courage to speak out into a deafening, unsympathetic void.

The size of the act of Courage has nothing to do with its value; Courage is measured only by the person practicing it.

The most Courageous person I know is Sarah, because she is afraid all the time. Her anxiety makes it so that her entire world is one long trial of different kinds of fears, different kinds of impossible risks. What I might take for granted as nothing or simple may be a supreme act of desperate bravery for her. She lives her life shackled by terror which she cannot control or evade, and SHE LIVES IT ANYWAY.

I live in awe of Sarah’s Courage.

For myself, I have made a lot of decisions in my life which could be categorized as brave (and there’s a startling number of them which can also be categorized as pretty dumb). I have spoken up when it cost me friends and sometimes family. I have lived a life unashamed of loving another woman. I have stood up for kids being bullied and got bullied myself in return. I have waded into physical confrontations when I was the least capable person in the room. I have faced down a drunken man half-again my weight armed only with a broom (and with three terrified girls in my wake) (yes it really happened) (it was in Australia) (did we mention that weird shit happens around me sometimes?). I have heard a noise in the night and charged to meet it even knowing that the best I could hope to do would be to buy time for Sarah to call for help.

Courage is important to me because it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s easier now than it was, but I was not a brave kid to start with, I don’t think. I was scared of the dark, of spiders, of bad dreams. I was scared of movies and ghosts and rejection. I never learned to skate because I got so scared of falling down.

But at some point I figured out that if I wanted to be the kind of person I dreamed about, I was going to have to do better. I realized I could never be a hero like the ones I so looked up to if I didn’t make the choices they would make. I taught myself that being afraid was something I would have to feel, but it wasn’t something I had to choose.

And it has never steered me wrong.

I abandoned the only home I’d ever known and went 1,000 miles away for college. I stood up and sang solos in front of groups even though I was shaking inside. I dared admitting real feelings to people who could hurt me, because those truths mattered more than silence. I faced down protesters and vicious attacks online, and I stood firm.

More than a decade ago, I added to my “Fear is just pain in advance” with another one — a promise to myself to live with no regrets. I’ve regretted things, but they were almost always chances I didn’t take, leaps I didn’t dare. I’ve made mistakes, sure, but the real regrets are always those when I didn’t try one more time, or didn’t walk away sooner. The times that I let fear or indecision hold me back from what I knew was the path forward.

Of the things I’ve regretted, living by Courage has never been one of them.

When faced with a difficult decision, or an uncomfortable choice, all other things being equal, I come down to the same mental equation — is this being decided based on being afraid? Afraid of failure? Of pain? Afraid of not being able to handle whatever comes next?

And any time my answer is “Yes,” then I choose the opposite way from the fear.

Because fuck fear anyway.

(That’s some of my Defiance coming out. Defiance doesn’t exist without Courage, of course.)

I know as I begin querying this novel that I’m going to get rejected, and those rejections are going to hurt. I know that. I know that I’m probably going to get a rejection one awful day and it will make my heart feel like the sky is caving in. I know that I’m probably going to doubt myself, doubt the worth of this story.

Endurance will be me sending more letters anyway. Defiance will be me the day I get an agent (assuming I do, for this novel or the next or the next) in the face of so much failure.

Courage is me welcoming the pain, knowing it’s a choice I made willingly, eagerly — because the end is worth it.

Courage is also me knowing I’m going to learn from this experience, even when it hurts, and there’s value in that, too.

Courage is opening up my heart again, to new people, to new feelings, to new failures, no matter how many times I’d rather slam it shut.

Courage is taking a breath and deciding to step forward, even when the path is filled with rattlesnakes.

Ray Bradbury once said in an interview, “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” There’s Defiance in there, too, but the step off, the willingness to jump and trust in oneself to make wings, to endure the fall, to fly or survive the crash landing, that’s all Courage.

I build my wings better every single day, and I have never regretted it.

Fear is just pain in advance.

Fuck pain. Fuck fear. They keep me from that which matters far more than they ever could.

I’d rather live fiercely, ardently, eagerly, and fall, then never take the leap at all.

The sky is calling. Time to fly.

Next week — Kindness.

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