Writing for Me

So, I’m currently in the process of having my novel read by a set of beta readers who will hopefully help me pound it into shape like a lump of dough that needs to be pummeled. It’s a difficult process, and a scary one, because it’s always tough to put something you pulled out of your soul and ran through your brain into the hands of people who might think it stinks.

On the plus side, writing and posting as much fanfiction as I do, I’ve had lots and lots of practice giving my writing to people — total strangers, even — and let them hate on it. And you know what? I don’t really, really remember the hate and the flames (except for that one person who said my story was bad because it was X-character-centric and they wanted the story to be about Y instead, which, oh well). But I do remember the good things people say.

One of the most striking recently, though, was someone telling me that they were surprised I could write so much in advance.

Now, the “normal” way of doing fanfiction is to write a chapter and post it. And then write another one and post it. And so on and so forth. That’s the common way most people do their fic, it seems. And I did that when I was starting out, mainly because I didn’t have much practice, I didn’t know how much I would even want to write, and, oh, I was in college and kinda busy.

But as my experience grew, and my interest grew, I found that the write-and-post method started to irk me — mainly because it became too easy for me to leave some works unfinished when the shine came off the writing of them. There were 2 notable fics I began which languished for YEARS, one for almost a full decade, before I could force myself to finish them. And I found that I didn’t like being that kind of author who could leave stories abandoned or on hiatus. I completely understand why others do, but, for me, it weighed on me.

So somewhere in the late 2000s, I started writing in advance, and only posting the beginnings to stories when the ends were completely done. By the early 2010s (2012 for sure but it could have been earlier), I was writing an entire year of content in one year and then posting it in the next. And I’ve never looked back from it.

But the reviewer who asked me about it made the point that they gain so much inspiration and motivation from feedback, they couldn’t really imagine being able to write in its absence.

On the one hand, I don’t know that I’m necessarily without feedback, since I do get feedback on stuff that I’m posting (hello current fic with regularly 5-8 comments on every chapter which is pretty good for me). The feedback isn’t on the story against which I’m currently banging my head, but feedback and encouragement always help, regardless of the specific subject.

But the more important point is one I decided when I first got into fic:

I’m really only doing this for myself.

Everyone I know who is an artist of any kind *wants* to have their art appreciated. They want it shared, and, ideally, sold. I don’t think I could name a single person I know who does any form of art who *wouldn’t* want to make a living by what the can create and share out into the world. And I’m no different. I’m going to try to publish the current novel, and if that fails, I’ll try the next and the next. If I could support Sarah and I by writing alone, HELL YEAH I would do it.

But if I can’t, or if nothing I write ever goes to a publisher and shows up in a bookstore, that’s not going to stop me from writing. Because I’m not writing for recognition, or money, or fame, or some weird sense of entitlement. I’m not writing because I think my stuff is so good, others should totally read it.

I’m writing because if I couldn’t, I’d be screaming instead.

Writing is in my heart, my soul, my blood, and my brain. I can’t go 12 hours without thinking about a story currently in progress, one I have on my to-write-someday list, or one I might revive with a sequel or series. I can’t watch a good TV show without wanting to find new stories from it, and wanting to make my own. I can’t drive down the ever-loving street without having random set-ups for short stories or novellas pop into my head.

Singing is breath to me, and writing is thought. That’s just how it is.

And before I ever had fans on my fanfic sites, before I ever had friends who would hungrily consume anything I wrote (as long as they knew the fandom), I was still writing stories in my darkened apartment that I thought literally nobody would read, and I wrote them anyway.

If I wanted fame and a host of fans, I’d be writing exclusively Sherlock, Supernatural, and Harry Potter fic — those are the ones with ALLLLLLLL the fans. Those are the fics that get hundreds and thousands of likes and views and comments and everything. If I was writing for the sake of gaining a huge audience, that’s where I’d be.

Not so much Mighty Max and Gundam Wing and CCS and TMNT.

But it’s also not necessarily about the number of fans. Some people write just for the very small audiences, like the ones you get with Mighty Max. I think there are about 7 of us in the world these days who really care about the fandom. And those other 6 have all become my friends, because who else are we going to nerd-squee at about our favorite Cap-Bearer? With all my fandoms, no matter how small, there is always *someone* who wants to read what I wrote and has feelings about it.

But, truth be told, I don’t write for them, either.

I write for me.

(Okay, I might write a little bit for Sarah, too. Because sometimes she wants a particular story and I really can’t deny her anything and why would I want to?)

I don’t write fanfiction, or original fiction, or novels, or poems, or songs, or anything else for anybody but myself. I don’t write them to *be read.* I write them because otherwise I would choke on them. It’s kinda that simple. And I would write them with no internet to post them to or no publisher to make them into books. I would write them on cave walls if I had to.

I put this quote up more than a year ago, and it is certainly no less true now:

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be… This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” — Abraham Maslow

There are people in the world who will never feel like “real” writers or authors unless some publishing house somewhere has paid them and printed their books. And there are people in the world who will look at ME and my library of 22 novels and 2.5+ million words written and never see a “real” writer or author.

To them, I simply say: You’re wrong.

Because if you write, you’re a writer. If you author a story, no matter the length, you’re an author.

I am a writer and author.

And if not one of my stories had ever traveled farther than the My Docs folder on my harddrive, I would STILL be a writer and author.

So the reason that I find it simple to write with no feedback, the reason I can sit on chapters for a full year before posting them to my fanfic accounts, is that I don’t need the feedback to breathe. I don’t need the reviews, the hits, the kudos. They’re nice, certainly. They make days far better when I get a happy comment or an insightful message. But the response isn’t the fuel of writing. It is the side-effect.

The fuel of writing burns inside my veins and is twisted up in my existence.

And whether I get to publish this book I have out to my betas or not, nothing changes. If not this one, then maybe the next one. Or the one after that. And there will always be fic in the meantime.

But even if that all stopped? If the internet went dark and books vanished and the world stopped telling stories?

Come find me. I’ll be in a cave somewhere, writing novels on stones and leaves, singing stories to the very stars. For as long as there’s breath in my body, there will be stories to tell. Even if no one else is around to hear them.

*I’m* around to hear them. And that is more than enough.

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Worth Believing In

Let’s just preface this with — when a movie means something to me, I couldn’t give the smallest amount of rat piss whether or not it is deemed “good” by the internet or Rotten Tomatoes or the critics or anyone else.  Meaning isn’t something that gets assigned by a quorum of critics and a weighted score.  Meaning is personal.  Meaning begins and ends with the person who is the “me” at the front of it.

Most of the collective wisdom of the internet will tell you that “Secondhand Lions” is not quite bad enough to be awful.  It’s “schmaltzy.”  It’s “molasses-drenched” (I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds very sticky).  It’s “sentimental.”

Well, fine.  I’m sentimental too.  What’s your point?

But whether or not you fall in love with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine as a pair of retired brothers sitting on a wealth of stories and experience, whether or not you snort every time Haley Joel Osment’s voice cracks at the perfect moment, and whether or not the split narrative of loneliness in Texas and adventure in Africa (complete with B-movie stylings) works for you — there’s something to be gained in this movie.

Shake your head at the rest of it if you will.

But listen when Hub McCann starts to speak.

Around the midpoint of the movie, there is made mention of a speech given by Hub McCann, the “what every boy needs to know about being a man” speech.  Which, truly, should be reframed as “what everyone needs to know about being a good person” because there is nothing that applies only to men here, and everything that applies to us all.  We only get a piece of it, but it’s more than enough:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most — that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love, never dies.  No matter if they’re true or not, a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.

This speech, like the “invincible spell” of my favorite anime magical girl, has stuck with me a long, long time.

I am a deep, old-school believer in things like courtesy and honor.  I believe in treating others gently, with full respect, and with sincere kindness — no matter how I feel about the kind of day I’m having or how I felt one moment before I looked into their face.  I believe that every time I give my word, that is an unbreakable vow and oath; if I say I will do something, even if it is difficult, even if it comes late, even if it has to be shuttled amidst all the wreckage of my life, I will get it done.  I believe in the promises that bind people, and I believe in leaving every encounter, every person, every place, every situation, better than I found it.

These are the things I choose to believe in, because, to me, they are worth the effort of that belief.

And it doesn’t matter that the person right behind me in line will be unkind to the cashier, or that I may keep a promise, but someone may not keep one to me.  It doesn’t matter that someone weaves through traffic igniting ire and frustration in their wake.  It doesn’t matter that the weight of my word given may mean little or nothing to the stranger who receives it.

I can’t control the other people in line, or the rude driver, or the person whose promise will never be kept.  I can only control myself, and give into the world that which I believe is worth giving.  So I give my best.  I give my kindest.  I give my honor.  Even if I never get them back.

So I choose to believe that the rude person in the check-out line is deeply worried about money and is stressed and not sleeping, and has no more emotional energy to show respect.  I choose to believe that the dangerous driver is racing to get to someone in need, perhaps a hospital, perhaps a child who is scared and alone.  I choose to believe that the broken promise is not broken maliciously, but at the end of someone’s rope, a choice and a sacrifice made so that something more important may be accomplished instead.

And therefore I smile at the cashier, and hope my smile will be what they remember at the end of the day.  I repeat my mantra for rude or inconsiderate driver, which is “may you get where you’re going safely and harm none on your way” because that’s the only thing that matters in the end, and I forgive the broken promise.  It’s not self-indulgence or being holier-than-thou.  It’s not me being smug that I have done the right thing and someone else has not.

I choose to believe in the best of people.  Because people are worth believing in.

For every human being who is terrible, who is selfish, who is cruel, who is callous, there are people who are gloriously kind and loving and selfless and generous and true.  And I will not let myself be counted amongst those too caught up in the world inside myself to remember the worlds inside others.  I will be the best damn human being I can, and I will treat everyone who crosses my path with that much dignity and respect and kindness, until I have no breath or blood left.  I choose to believe that people are amazing, that people are capable of fantastic good, that people all have something of value, something unique, to share and give.

Because any alternative is not worth believing in.

And you know what?

I’ve yet to be proven wrong.

When I tell my CONvergence team that I think they’re awesome, that’s not hyperbole.  That’s not false praise.  It’s because they astound me with the work they’re willing to do, with the efforts they undertake, with the kindness, dedication, focus, effort they bring to our team and our convention.  When I tell my team that they are a group of people I trust and respect and cannot wait to work with, it’s because they are, and it’s all true.

It’s been said that a person becomes what they believe themself to be.  And that’s certainly true — but it lacks the active part of choosing to believe.  We don’t just become what we think.  We become what we do.

I choose to believe in honor and courtesy and kindness and respect, and that is what I will do in this world.

But we also become what others believe about us.  And when my CONvergence team tells me that they trust me, that they respect me, then I become a better member of the team.  When they tell me that I am doing my job well and am helpful in adding my part to our collective efforts, then I am able to do even better and double down on my efforts.

I think we all become some mix of what we choose to believe, and of what others choose to believe.

But we can only choose for ourselves.

So I choose to believe in the things worth believing in, and I choose to believe in the inherent goodness and value of people.  People on the street, in the store, in their cars, in the hallways, in the world.  Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not for every single one of them on every single day of their lives.

People are always worth the effort of belief.  Always.

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More Precious, Indeed

In college, I took an entire course on the political philosophy and thought of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.  I have so many copies of speeches and letters and articles, excerpts from books and the books themselves, and, of course, the very famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963.  But to honor this man, his work, and the dream he stood for — the dream we are still chasing even today — what I would like to highlight are some passages from his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964 (as provided by the Nobel Foundation online, reproduced verbatim).

The words belong to a truly magnificent man.  The emphasis is my own.

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity. This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.

Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible – the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.

So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honor, once again, Chief Lutuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man. You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth. Most of these people will never make the headline and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvellous age in which we live – men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization – because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners – all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty – and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

For myself, I can only say that I wish with all my heart we had not lost him so soon, that I think ours would be a better world and a better society if we had been given more time with this man, with his wisdom and his integrity, and most of all his fierce courage.

And above all, I wish I could say we live now in the world he envisioned.

But I can promise to keep working towards it.

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The Wheel Turns; Darkness Into Light

Welcome to the new year!

I hope everyone had something fun or exciting or heartwarming over the holiday season — which is also the time when the Northern Hemisphere meets and endures its longest night of the year and begins to slowly spin back towards warmth and light.  For me, I had a few highlights throughout the holidays, but the best part by far was my NYE party.

We had a fluctuating number as some had to leave early and others came late, but I think all told we had 14-16 people in the house eating dessert, exchanging gifts, and playing games to bid GOODBYE WE WILL NOT MISS YOU to 2017 and SOME IMPROVEMENT WOULD BE GOOD HERE 2018.  Which we did with the use of fire.  And piñatas.

I bought a pair of piñatas, a 1 and a 7.  Throughout the party, people wrote things on slips of paper and notecards and whatever else they chose — things they wanted to banish, things they wanted to release, things they wished to leave behind — and stuffed them in the piñatas.  People wrote lists, or the same grievance over and over, and I think at least one person fed an angry word in letter by letter.  We even took “orders” from our cousin party being held by some friends a few states away.

And at midnight, we took the piñatas outside in the -15 degree weather or whatever it was, and burned them to ashes.

It’s very therapeutic.  To take the frustrations and fears of the year that was and to let them go, to watch them be unmade and cast into the midnight sky.  To set down the burdens of one year and feel them melt from the shoulders — only to make room to carry new weight in the days and weeks to come, probably.  But it’s nice.  It’s not spectacular, and it’s not super dramatic, but it feels good to watch those feelings and experiences and shadows burn.

Maybe next year, if it isn’t -15 degrees, we’ll do a bigger fire and toast marshmallows.  That seems fair, right?

Personally, I’m still lobbying for a green or purple fire, too, but that’s tougher.  Luckily we have a designated friend-as-fire-marshal, and he handles that complicated stuff.  I just provide the piñatas and the backyard.

The thing about our NYE party is that it has evolved over the years.  A decade ago, it would be just Sarah and I and a friend some years, watching movies all night.  Then we started to gather with greater numbers of people, to make it more of an event.  In the last few, it’s become an all-out party which doubles as the friends gift-giving celebration for those who attend.  For the last 2 years, I’ve added an element of Christmas stockings.

Which is to say, for every person who comes to the party (or who is connected to this friends-family in some way), I make them a stocking.  A few people have real ones we hang on the mantle — those are the people who look to me and my house as their alternate home.  But for everyone there is a bag of candy and an orange and some nuts (the latter 2 from German tradition) and something else.  This year, I gave people CDs.

Half the friends-family got funny CDs of, well, this.

The other half got a CD mix I made.

I know, I know, that’s so 2003.  Whatever.  It seems silly to buy flash drives to hand out 17 songs as a playlist, and I just don’t do streaming music yet.  If anybody has a better idea, I’ll gladly hear it out.  Until then, CDs.

The mix I made for them is one I really like, and it has a lot in it that carried me through last year and will continue to carry me into 2018.  I called it “Light in the World” because, at heart, it’s a mix of songs either about the light that is already in the world — love, kindness, courage, honor — or songs about hanging onto and nurturing the light within when such light is needed against a colder world.

In the end, we’re all only what we give to the people in our lives, to the world beyond our immediate circle, and to the future yet to come.  And I, as I have said before, intend to give light.  And love.  And hope.

So here is the mix I made:

The World As I See It by Jason Mraz
Bridge Over Troubled Water by Gregorian
I’ll Be The Light by Colton Dixon
So Alive by The Goo Goo Dolls
Fearless by Kat Perkins
Kinder by Copper Wimmin
Courage (Come Out To Play) by Justin Hines
Say Geronimo by Sheppard
Shatter Me (feat. Lzzy Hale) by Lindsey Stirling
I Am the Fire by Halestorm
The Light by Disturbed
Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself by Jess Glynne
Over and Over by The Goo Goo Dolls
Life is Wonderful by Jason Mraz
Weightless by Courtney Jones
Fly to Paradise by the Eric Whitacre Singers
O Fortuna by Gregorian

You might wonder at that last track.  “O Fortuna” is not a song about light, or courage, or standing up against the dark.  The Wikipedia translation of it is:

O Fortune,
like the moon you are changeable,
ever waxing or waning;
hateful life first oppresses
and then soothes as fancy takes it;
poverty and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,
shadowed and veiled you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back to your villainy.

Fate is against me
in health and virtue,
driven on and weighted down, always enslaved.
So at this hour, without delay,
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate strikes down the strong one,
everyone weep with me!

Not light, right?  It’s a lament, a cry for others to see the cruelty that Fate has dealt and sympathize.  A testament of injustice and unfairness.

Uplifting?  Well, the song itself it, but not in the context of its meaning.

But for me, that’s WHY this song is important in this mix.  Because you can have all the courage you want, can be armed with kindness and honor, can breathe light and sing hope through your veins, but eventually random chance and events beyond your control *will* take their toll.  You can skip through life on the road of ideals, head full of dreams and optimism, but someday the rocks of reality are going to come down on your head.

What matters is what you do next.

If — and when — Fate strikes down the strong person, what does the strong person do?

What choice do you make?

Do you weep and cry that Fate is unfair?  Do you curl up and surrender?  Do you blame the unkindness of Fate and petulantly refuse to accept the truth?

Because dark and light cannot exist without one another.  Hope doesn’t have power unless it has been born by overcoming despair.  Courage cannot be strong unless it is forged in fear.  Kindness has no meaning if it is insincere.

“O Fortuna” is the last track on the CD because it leaves the unanswered question for the listener:

In the face of callousness, of despair, of cruelty, will you stand up and be counted amongst the kind, the loving, and the brave?

What will you choose for 2018?

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TCWC Concert and the Fight Against the Season

On Saturday, I sang 2 concerts with the TCWC; it was our usual “Illuminations” concert we do in lieu of a more traditional holiday concert. The music this time was STUNNING.

We opened with different settings of the words attributed to Chief Seattle (though not really said by him; thanks Snopes!):

This we know.
The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.
This we know.
All things are connected like the blood that unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
This we know.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
This we know.

We sang songs about the earth, about stars, about the moon, and about the rise of the sun. The words from one of them, “Cycle Four,” made me cry EVERY DAMN TIME I sang them:

The earth itself is a spaceship; the crew rides on the outside in everlasting orbit around the sun.
Seen from the moon, it is so tiny and fragile.
I wish leaders from every nation could see the world from here.
Those precious borders are invisible.
The brilliant globe is surrounded by blackness and turns serenely in the sunlight.
Viewing our planet from the moon, I cry.
The pristine blue and whiteness I see is an illusion.
Hiding beneath it I know there is an ever more senseless ugliness.

And we did the Randall Thompson version of “Choose Something Like A Star” whose words by Robert Frost are, I think, truly inspirational:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud;
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

I’m not going to link to this song, but I’m sure you can go find a version of it on YouTube if you wish, and I highly recommend it; it’s truly beautiful.

(Also, it goes HIGH. I mean, I’m a high first soprano and it can be exhausting after a while. This whole concert was that way, though. My poor vocal cords were DONE on Saturday night. Anyway.)

The thing about music at this time of year is that, while I am tired tired TIRED of Christmas carols, pretty much all of them, I love the music that fits the season without being about it. I love the music about the darkness that gives way to light, about people making their everyday lives about joy, about hope and rebirth and kindness and generosity.

The winter tests people when it comes; the cold and dark and early sunset push against the shadows in our minds. I am typing this now at 4:01pm Central Time, and already the sun is gone from the sky. Night will fall in a matter of minutes. It was dark when I left the house for work and it will be dark before I get home. The shortest day of the year up here in the north is truly short.

Sometimes I think we fill it up with a false cheerfulness from the holidays, the blaring bouncy songs on the radio and in stores, the aggressively green and red decorations, the screaming lights. Sometimes I think this whole Christmastime bustle is one big fight against the darkness that closes in on all sides and heralds the cold and ice and snow to come.

And you know what?

While I am SO TIRED of the overplayed music, and I roll my eyes at the commercialization, and I get irritated by the false cheer and kindness that melts away on December 26th when it should be a way of living year-round — in spite of all of that, I find it deeply appealing to live in an entire culture basically telling the dark and cold and gloom and despair to go choke on a Christmas tree.

“Yeah, yeah, dark and cold and blah. I’ll show you! I’m going to put up the most OBNOXIOUS lights I can, deck my house and my store and everything with as much gold and red and green and silver as I can lay hands on! You think the wind and snow will keep me quiet? How loudly do you want to hear my music? You think you can make me stay home and sulk? IT IS SHOPPING TIME.”

I don’t really think it’s intentional, but I do think that’s what happens. I think the year closing to the winter solstice is one big drain, and the way we fight it is with light and laughter and parties and singing and flowers and bows and good food and sappy movies. I think it’s an entire people using the same tricks I use against depression to hold back the season.

And it does work.

Even if I’m rolling my eyes while it goes.

But then, I usually appreciate a good show of defiance. As soon as you tell me that I need to bow down and let shadows fall, I usually start thinking about ways to light a candle. As soon as you tell me that being cold is an inevitability, I promise you I have figured out how to keep warm.

The thing we need to work on overall, as a society, is to quit thinking that giving and cheer and kindness and smiling at strangers is only really a ‘thing’ in December. Charities need money and supplies every day of the year. People need music and lights and that uplifting display all the time. Smiling at people on the street or in the store should be the default, not the exception.

Kindness and generosity should be everyday miracles, not Christmas miracles.

I actually get weird looks sometimes when I do that sort of thing. I got glared at in the grocery store last week because I was making eye-contact and smiling at people, or gave a sincere, pause-rather-than-rushing-off-with-my-stuff thank you to the person at the register. More than one person gave me a look that should have been withering. Should have made me back off letting my own light shine.

But. Um.

That’s not…really how I roll.

Uh, at all.

Ever.

If I have light, when I have light, I share it. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m FOR.

And you know what? For every variation on a glare, I got a smile in response. Tired smiles, surprised smiles, grateful smiles. I don’t expect any cashier to remember me, but I do see them breathe a little easier when I greet them cheerfully rather than with a dour or gruff look.

But maybe that’s the advantage, if there is such a thing, to living in a world of competing opposites. Of living day to day not knowing when the happiness and light are going to bleed from my soul and the cruelty inside my own head will start whispering again. When the energy I have to offer is poisoned and stripped until it is me who is needy with nothing left to give.

When you know the meaning of permanent, waiting-to-strike sorrow, maybe you know how precious it is to share joy when you have it.

When the mob in my head is swayed, I choose the star of kindness and defiance to set MY mind on, and I am staid.

For all the ugliness in the world, there is beauty, too. We have to look for it sometimes; we have to seek it out and draw it forth and wave it like a sword in the face of the advancing armies of darkness — but it is there.

And this is something I know.

Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves. Whatever I can put into the world will happen to others, those around me and those I’ve never so much as seen. When I vibrate the strands that connect us with a smile, with light, with laughter, I have to trust that my offering is reaching others. And know that theirs will come back to me.

We are all connected shouting against the winter dark in anticipation of the light. We are all one voice singing, sometimes aggravatingly, about joy and cheer. And we can’t stop the dark from falling, any more than we can — or should — stop the world from spinning.

But we can stop it from falling on each other and let it stay up in the sky where it belongs.

And that is a real miracle.

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Indigenous Peoples Day

For this, I would like to refer to far wiser words than my own, written by someone with the genuine authority to say them.

From the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, by Jeremy FiveCrows:

Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives us the opportunity to honor the millions of citizens with indigenous ancestry, to celebrate their culture, and to reflect on the evils, sacrifices, and struggles their ancestors were forced to endure. It also gives us the opportunity to educate the citizens about what can be gained by a greater understanding of indigenous history. By learning about the native cultures of this place and what the first residents knew about living here, the country is enriched with a greater understanding of its shared history, understanding of the ecology, and the philosophy of stewardship that could help heal the nation’s environmental woes.

The land upon which this nation is built molded the cultures of the tribes who called it home, just as it continues to mold the culture of the United States today. The tribes believe that we are of this land; this is true for everyone on earth. For all of us, this land is both the source of our strength and our greatest responsibility. This might be the most important teaching that the modern world could learn from indigenous peoples’ cultures and experiences. Of all changes the message of Indigenous Peoples Day could bring, perhaps the most important would be the realization that the native people’s story is part of the nation’s collective story. We are all connected to one another and to this place we call home.

 

Today, please make room for these stories told by those who were here long before the rest of us, and whose voices we should respect and honor every day.

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Myers-Briggs and Me

A friend asked me this weekend about my personality type as defined by the Myers-Briggs framework.  I retook the test, but then I also looked back at my results from the same test about 6 months ago.  Somehow, I’m not surprised I got pretty different results.

When I took the Myers-Briggs 6 months or so ago, I was an ENFJ.  This weekend, I scored ESTJ.

I took the test here if you’re curious.

The website goes into depth on each of the personality types and some of what the various combinations represent.  I think, generally, I fall somewhere between the ENFJ and ESTJ types.  What I find to be particularly amusing in the entire analysis of it, though, is that both peg me as being Extroverted rather than Introverted, and both peg me as being Judging rather than Perceiving — and I’m not sure I agree with either in its entirety!

Extroversion and introversion are always an interesting tangle.  Most commonly, they get explained as “do you get energy from people, or from being on your own?”  But the problem is that I think such a distinction doesn’t work for me.  Because whether I’m action or thinking oriented, whether I look for more interaction or less, and what exhausts me more — all these things are dependent on everything else.  Sometimes I call myself an “outgoing introvert.”

For me, it all depends on the day, the people, and how my brain chemistry has decided to line up.  I spent a large portion of this past weekend in crowds of people and felt more energized than ever — but those crowds were my two most comfortable communities: the Twin Cities Women’s Choir and the convention committee for CONvergence.  Sure, I was in a room with 100 people, and I had to be social, and I needed to be on my game, alert and quick and chatty and entertaining.  But I was with people where all of that comes more easily to me than, say,  a group at a ballgame or in the store.  The TCWC women have been my sisters and aunts and cousins for 11+ years.  They know me, and it’s fine for me to be myself, just as I am, around them.  I’ve known the CVG crew for less time, but, if anything, they are even MORE welcoming of me and who I am and how that presents today.

Contrast that with my usual circumstances at work, where I can go a whole day and sometimes a week without interacting face-to-face with a single coworker, in spite of sitting in the middle of a “cube farm” as it were.  I answer emails and IMs, and the few-and-far-between phone calls, but for the most part I find those weeks without people more restful and easier to handle.  The days when I don’t have to chat with people, or stand up in front of a room to give a presentation or training session, are the days I’m the most productive, the most relaxed, and come home feeling the most refreshed.

One hour-long meeting at work might be all the social interaction I would want in a day, but I can easily spend 3-4 days with the TCWC or CVG and never feel the fatigue of introversion.  So the “E” of the Myers-Briggs only works, I think, when I’m within a group where I already feel safe.  When I’m an outsider, though, or when I’m still finding my way, then I would challenge that “E” more strongly.

I’m probably not a genuine extrovert all of the time, or even most of it, but when I have room to be myself, then I take that room and enjoy it.

Similarly, the judging/perceiving divide doesn’t QUITE work for me.  It’s not quite as neat a divide to explain, but it seems to come down to “are you more likely to organize and follow a clear plan, or let the world give you some ideas and improvise along the way?”  And, once again, in a lot of ways I find myself to be both.

I am, generally, an organized person.  If someone asks me to make a plan, or figure out how to get XYZ things done, or set up a schedule with lots of conflicting information, I can usually breeze through it, produce something straightforward and logical, and enumerate the exact sequence of events or precise steps from start to finish.  I have the capacity to orient the world in my head and snap it into order, whether I’m doing it with my spreadsheets and plot structures or the exact to-do list before a road-trip.

But, honestly, a lot of that isn’t because I need it for myself — it’s more a result of everything else.  Living with Sarah, it helps us both for me to be able to make clear and concise plans she can use.  At work, I’m a data analyst, so my brain naturally whirls through numbers and patterns to create trends and graphs and correlations and conclusions.  I don’t know that I necessarily see the world in concretes, nor that I even need to perceive it that way.  But that’s the path of least resistance because that’s how I tend to keep life moving forward.

When it’s just me, living inside my head, I don’t think I bother with so much organization and structure and order.  I don’t typically make plans unless plans are necessary by some outside force, and I know things will get done in their own time.  I don’t bother to pin down the 15 different scenarios for every outcome of every branch of what I might do — I just go on my merry way and adjust my steps when the path changes or a rock creeps up.  Also, the “P” type tends to attract the non-conformists and I am ABSOLUTELY a non-conformist.  I’m the person who wanders around in ratty sweatpants in the nicest stores in the richest suburb because I CAN and I find it funny when people blink at me, as if somehow I’m “doing it wrong” by existing without being perfectly put together.

I do tend to interact with the world on the “J” side of the divide, but I think, if there were no world and just me, I’d stick to the “P.”  But, part of that is that I don’t need the plans of a “J” for myself because I know even if I stumble, I’ll catch myself and keep on walking.  But I plan, because I’m trying to make the path easier for anybody else walking with me.

So…I’m not sure I’m a good candidate for Myers-Briggs.  And all this is before you get into the nuances of trying to do personality testing in a constantly-fluctuating brain with bipolar tendencies.  It’s like trying to thread the needle of a sewing machine while it’s running.  You might hit it at just the right moment, but for the most part, you’re going to miss.

I understand why these types are helpful, both for people who want to learn about themselves and to help others understand one another.  I just don’t think they help ME very much.

But then, it’s just one more box, one more set of expectations, one more world of nice clean lines for me to willfully and cheerfully ignore when it suits me.  One more way to defy the mores of conventional understanding.

Because it’s fun.

And anything worth doing or being is worth doing and being yourself, for yourself.

Even when that makes me personality type ???? and sometimes !!!!

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September 11th

September 11th really gets under my skin.

September 11th means a lot of things to a lot of people. But at the moment, I can’t get my head out of what it means for me.

September 11th, 2001, was my second day at college. Instead of adjusting to a new schedule and thinking about new classes and friends and everything else, I woke up at 8:30ish CT to my dad calling the room. He told me he was okay – he was supposed to have been at the World Trade Center because he had a monthly trip out there for work, but because of driving me to Minnesota, it had been rescheduled. And he told me there had been an attack. I remember thinking it didn’t seem real.

I wandered down the hall of my dorm, still unfamiliar, still scary in its own right, to the lounge. There, the TV was on with the live coverage. One tower had already collapsed. I remember feeling so numb, so lost. I was already in a new place alone and adrift, and suddenly even reality didn’t seem real. I sat on the floor just inside the door and watched the second tower fall. I remember thinking I should have been crying and I remember not knowing why I wasn’t.

A junior who lived on the floor 2 or 3 doors down from me (and I remember his face and his voice but I’ve long since lost his name) sat beside me and asked if I was okay. And then he put me together with my door and realized it said there in big letters that I was from New York. And he realized I wasn’t okay. So he put an arm around me for a while.

Others came in from the floor, and a few from upstairs where I think the TV wasn’t working. There was a girl on the floor from NYC who was in her room trying to call her mom crying hysterically and her roommate asked the RA to come help. The kid from Iraq and the kid from Saudi Arabia came into the lounge and were horrified, but they retreated to their room soon after and people mentioned they might be scared. Already the news was making noise about Muslim terrorists, and the kid from Pakistan wouldn’t look at any of us.

I remember going to class with a new professor and he was cold. He said he didn’t want to talk about it and didn’t want to bring it into our freshman seminar. And I understand the value of going on with the day, but that…lack of empathy. I think now it must have been a coping mechanism, but I never forgave him while I was in that class for what felt so callous.

I remember the college called an emergency convocation and we crowded into the chapel together. I remember sitting with someone…but not who; I only knew a handful of people then. I remember still feeling so cold and numb and lost and I still didn’t cry even though I tried. Fuck, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry because I wanted someone to make it okay and there was no one. I wanted someone to pull out of their feelings so they could help me with my own because I had no understanding of how to handle what I was feeling.

What’s strange is that I don’t remember much more than that from that particular day. I remember checking the news – everyone was checking the news – and finding out about Flight 93. I remember feeling instantly grateful to be so far away from New York, as though that insulated me from the reality and my reaction. And I remember the rush of gratitude and pride that, even in the days and weeks afterwards, there was no backlash on my college’s campus against people from the Middle East or people who were Muslim or people who LOOKED Muslim. The backlash that happened in other places sickened me, and I was so, so glad to be around people who did not retaliate.

For most people, it was a day of tragedy and it led to a lot of ugly politics and a war and fear and many other things, but for me, it changed everything. Because I was a political science major and had been on that path since my junior year of high school. I was an international relations student and I wanted, I desperately wanted, to save the world. I arrived at a college especially chosen for its international relations program ready to march into a chaotic world and do some good.

And September 11th changed the very world I hoped to save.

I’ve long said that I chose not to continue into government work because of Sarah and the friends I had whom I didn’t want to leave, but I think that may only be fifty percent of the answer. The other fifty happened when the United States reacted to the attacks with war and hate and despicable rhetoric. The other fifty percent happened when September 11th scared me, both for what might happen to me out in the world if I served the US government, and for what the US government might do with me.

How could I lend my will and hope and talent to a government run by a warmonger who went into the wrong goddamn country just to appease what looked like latent daddy issues? How could I serve abroad when my very name and face and job could make me a target? How could I work in Washington DC and try to “protect” this country from a threat when that threat was defined by those in power as anyone whose skin and beliefs vaguely (and sometimes not even vaguely) resembled the hijackers’?

The world I wanted to save died on September 11th. Maybe not in reality, but certainly in me, it died. And I found I didn’t want to be a part of a system that killed civilians while arresting and detaining and torturing them. I found I didn’t want to be affiliated with the lies that my advisor debunked in class within days of the US presentation to the UN of the so-called WMDs in Iraq. I found I didn’t want to carry the United States like a badge into a part of the world we had rightly pissed off just because we were too stupid or too clumsy to tell the difference.

I saw the videos. I read the news. I followed the reactions. People worldwide started to view the United States as a racist, bigoted, violent, war-hungry nation because that is how we were acting. And I decided I didn’t want to help them do it.

I love this country. I have always loved this country. And to join in such actions and decisions felt like a betrayal to everything I love about the US, everything that makes it good. Everything that makes ANY nation good. I could not be a traitor to the ideals of justice and equal treatment and peace, not when those very ideals were coming second to ideas like “security” and “prevention.”

After September 11th, it’s possible the United States needed someone like me more than it ever had, but I just wasn’t strong enough to answer that call. I wasn’t strong enough to face down those men in power. I wrote my final senior thesis on the political philosophy behind espionage because it was the closest I could get to actually studying What The Hell Is The US Doing And Here Is What It Will Do To Us All without grief.

September 11th was a national and international tragedy and the beginning of many more. It was a day of death and sorrow and pain and fear, and it kicked off far more to come. What it is to the world cannot be understated.

It’s not remote to me now. I didn’t lose a friend or loved one in the Towers like my dad did. I didn’t breathe in the carcinogenic dust like the brave men and women who did their best to save lives.

But something in me died that day, and it is a pain that never goes away. Any time I see the NYC skyline, I ache for what is no longer there. Or in movies that haven’t been edited, I ache when I see the Towers stand. I ache because when they broke and fell, they took a piece of me with them. They took my future. Me the Diplomat-to-Be died that day, too. I hurt for the people of my nation and my state and my city (because NYC is MINE as much as it is anyone’s who has ever loved it, anyone’s who has ever walked its streets and felt strangely at home) and I will never stop hurting for them.

And I have never yet stopped hurting for myself, either.

September 11th, 2001 happened to me. It happened to me and it changed me, and while my suffering is nothing, NOTHING, like those who lost loved ones at Ground Zero or the Pentagon or in a field in Pennsylvania, it is no less real. And after it happened to me and it happened to the world, then the suffering went outwards in wars and bombings and retaliation and detainments and invasions. The cycle of violence and pain was exacerbated and spread to hundreds of thousands or millions of people who were just as innocent as those on the planes.

People forget what 9/11 began when they remember 9/11, but I never can. Because I remember my Iraqi floormate whose hometown was involved in fighting before we graduated. I remember my childhood friend and companion and protector, who was called to two tours in Iraq and for whom I was scared all the time.

It happened to me and then it happened to the world. And it KEEPS ON happening because we have learned NOTHING as a people. And maybe, maybe I should have found the courage and stood up and tried to be the change that is so needed. But I don’t have that kind of power.

And maybe that’s also why September 11th gets to me so much. Not only was it traumatic and tied up in the biggest period of upheaval in my life to date, and not only was it a defining moment for my future and choices and career, and not only was it outright horrific in every particular but for the selfless, wonderful heroes who ran into fire and ruin to save lives. But because I can’t forget all the people it happened to, people whose lives were never the same, people who have to live with it in their hearts even if they were nowhere near the attacks themselves. 9/11 isn’t just about the Towers and the Pentagon and Flight 93. It’s about Afghanistan. Iraq. Guantanamo. All that suffering, all those lives, all the weight of that terror and trauma in the world, and it happened to us all.

And there was nothing I could do to stop it, not any part of it. Not the hijackers. Not the invasion of Iraq. Not the prisoners STILL FUCKING HELD without their rights. I was just a little girl, 19 years old and without having grown any true courage yet. By the time I had courage enough, it was too late. The world had been broken and there was nothing I could do to fix it.

They say “Never forget.” But people do. People hoist flags and make speeches or just go, “Oh, it’s nine-eleven. That was so sad.” And they go on. They forget.

But September 11th is STILL HAPPENING to people. It’s still happening to me, too. I will never be able to honestly look at my life and know in my heart that it was all okay. Because September 11th scared me off a hill where I believed I was born to stand, and that future was lost.

I love my life. I love the people in my life. I am not usually sorry for the choices I made; indeed, being in this life has given me opportunities and friends and chances I never would have found otherwise and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. But on any September 11th, two painful days after my birthday, I can feel the difference. The difference of what I could have been. Of where I could have gone. Of the other work I could have done. Of a time I put my head down when I could have stood up. Because who knows what might have changed and whose lives might have been spared if I had been there?

On September 11th, 2001, heroes shone bright against hate and evil. And I was too busy being numb and shocked and scared and lost to join them. I didn’t hug anyone else. I didn’t help. And I went on to not help. I went on to evade the hard work of making things right rather than digging in. It took me several years to analyze that day and what I did right and wrong, so I could teach myself to do better next time. So that I can be one of the helpers, and not one of those needing the help in the moment of crisis.

But I also never forget that I went on to become what I am because I had that luxury. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t have that choice. It wasn’t just my perceptions of the world that died in the aftermath of that day; it was my perceptions of myself. And all of that is completely worthless compared to the lives lost worldwide. I may have my own memories and feelings to deal with, but I will never, ever forget that my feelings are NOTHING to the true harm that came to the world that day and every day since.

 

So on any September 11th, you’ll find I lapse silent throughout the day. I get melancholy. I have trouble laughing or relaxing. I retreat and stop reaching out. I have a small downswing into depression.

It’s the day so many, many lives were ruined forever, and not just in NYC or the Pentagon or on Flight 93.

It’s the day fear spread far more quickly than a wildfire, and it was followed by pain and violence that has never since let up.

And it’s the day my dreams died and were replaced with a profound awareness that nothing I ever did with my life, no matter how spectacular or mundane, would ever make the world right again.

Forget September 11th, 2001? How could I?

Its shadow still falls all over my life, even on the brightest days. And I’m just a nobody in the Midwest who DIDN’T lose limbs or liberty or loved ones.

So when you remember 9/11? Don’t just remember the towers and the planes. Remember the people in other countries whose lives have been torn up. Remember every person who ever looked up in the sky of NYC and felt like running and hiding. Remember every person in every country who felt like they would never be safe again because of their heritage or their religion or their culture. Because 9/11 happened to us all.

Never forget that.

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St Patrick’s Day

I have a strange relationship with this particular celebration of Irish heritage and also green doughnuts.  Which, by the way, — no.  Seriously.  We have green milk, green rivers, green beer.  Not EVERYTHING needs to be green today!

Anyway.

When you’re born and raised anywhere near the East Coast of the US, you have at least some connection to St Patrick’s Day.  I remember being in elementary school and there being a regular game of pinching anyone who didn’t wear green.  I also remember one friend of mine getting out of a day full of pinching by virtue of having green eyes.  Then we had green cookies and milk at lunch and made shamrock cut-outs and, you know, all the kid stuff.  I don’t think I knew how much else went on, from dyeing the Chicago River green to the parades and general revelry, until later, though.

I do have a fair amount of Irish heritage, though nobody seems to know exactly how much because both sides of my family approach any study of genealogy like they are considering riding on some sort of horse/cougar mix — they’d just rather not.  But my grandmother can tell stories about the Irish women she heard stories about back in our bloodline somewhere.

My other connection to St Patrick’s Day comes from a religious source by way of YA fantasy.

Among the most formative books I ever read as a kid was the Time Quintet series by Madeleine L’Engle.  Particularly the first three to be published — A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet — made their marks in my mind and my soul.  The last of these is the adventure of Charles Wallace trying to rewrite history so that the world can be pulled back from the brink of nuclear disaster.

Along the way, he makes use of what the book calls “Saint Patrick’s Rune” which is really a poem derived from the more famous Lorica, or Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.  It reads:

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

This rune has been with me for the majority of my life, and I’ve always found it helpful to recite in times of stress or irrational fear, like taking off in an airplane or facing down a bad storm.  Whether it has any empirical effect, it’s always helped me center myself, reorient myself in the scope of the world, and find the inner balance to keep going.

So I owe a lot of inner peace and fortitude, especially in my younger years, to Saint Patrick of Ireland.

I’m not nor ever have been Catholic, but I feel gratitude that one person of that order penned (or, allegedly penned) the full Lorica, which is a powerful, swelling recitation that, to a person of the Christian faith, must be like sounding the ultimate anthem of courage and victory.  Even I am moved by its power and its intensity.  Get that thing going, rev it up, and you could take on the world.  For me, it’s been a light of prayer even when I didn’t pray, and I’m grateful for that.

So, between my innate, if muddled, Irish ancestry and my personal appreciation for this work of Saint Patrick, I “do” St Patrick’s Day.  I wear green, usually various pieces of different shades of green.  I will not eat the appalling green doughnut or bread or whatever awful thing someone’s stuck dye in this time, though.  There are LIMITS, you guys.

(Also, I don’t, I DO NOT, attempt a Lucky Charms-like accent or throw around the ‘faith and begorrah’ nonsense because YUCK.  Anti-Irish racism was (and still is?) a thing, you know.  So is cultural appropriation.  And that’s BEFORE you start tossing around problematic stereotypes.)

This is my perfect example, though, of my expression of St Patrick’s Day:


On the one hand, my American, commercialized version in the bow I actually do have in my hair.  My proof of being what amounts to a “Plastic Paddy,” since I truly never have been to Ireland and it would be disingenuous for me to claim to *be* Irish, but my pride in the Green all the same.  And on the other is this pendant which was given to me by my grandmother which she received from one of her own Irish relatives.  The pendant is pure nickel and is based on an Anglo-Saxon or Hiberno Norse long cross penny from a thousand years ago.  Though nobody can really figure out what it says.  The words don’t QUITE match up to the originals.  But this pendant was carried by my bloodline long enough to make it an heirloom, to make it real.  Even if it isn’t “genuine” by any technical definition.

A person can be a lot of things.  I am American, but I am proud to have even a trace of Irish ancestry.  I wear my green in ignorance of what it really means to a person actually from/in Ireland, but I also wear the memory of my family which traces its roots to somewhere in Ireland’s history.  The affinity is real, even if the lineage is lost.  And the respect is real either way.

Happy St Patrick’s Day, everyone!  Enjoy it however you like.

…Even if you like green beer and greener doughnuts.

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One Thing

Welcome to 2017!

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  It seems to me that if you’re going to do something, DO IT.  Don’t promise it for a year.  Decide and go.

So my 2017 goal is the same as my 2016, my 2015, all the way back to the fog of…whenever I started thinking about it, I guess.

To follow, unflinchingly, my version of what a slightly-cheesy 90’s movie so aptly sums up as the One Thing.

There’s a movie I used to watch with my parents a lot, and probably before I was old enough to really be comfortable with all its subject matter (hooray for discussing issues of adultery and the male gaze at age 12!).  But it’s one of those things where 80% of the movie was about something fun and meaningful and 20% was about something even more meaningful if entirely opaque to a kid.  It’s not a *great* movie by any means, but it was important.

Because City Slickers taught me about the One Thing.

(Spoilers for the movie from here on out, just in case)

Basic synopsis for those not willing to Google: 3 friends in their late 30’s take their vacation on a cattle drive where everything goes wrong and ultimately figure out how to return to their lives and live them with enthusiasm.  Billy Crystal is the main character, backed up by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, and the three of them are challenged, threatened, terrified, and finally inspired by an old cowboy played beautifully by Jack Palance.  They get saddle sores, they rope cattle, they ride badly and then less badly, and they face down the vapidness in themselves to find something worth bringing home.

There’s a scene that takes place between Billy Crystal’s character Mitch and Jack Palance’s cowboy Curly when the two of them are out on their own before they catch up to the rest of the herd and its hapless vacationers.  Mitch is wound tight and is on the brink of despair in his life and Curly, in a moment of insight, just shakes his head at him.

Curly: You city folk worry about a lot of shit…  Y’all come up here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend about fifty weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope.  Then you think two weeks up here’ll untie ‘em for you.  None of you get it.
[pause]
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?  [points index finger skyward]  This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great but, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch]  That’s what you gotta figure out.

 

By the end of the movie, Mitch figures out that his One Thing is his family, his wife and kids, that they are what he is living for and what gives him reason to breathe.  That they make him his best self and give him back his smile.

It’s a noble place to plant your flag, but there’s a problem with that choice — he’s set his sail to a star that will fade.  He ends the movie triumphantly happy, with no note of what is to come.  But someday, just as he says rather despondently at the beginning of the film, his life won’t look like it does when he is 39.  Someday his kids will grow up, leave home, and maybe not be the people he hoped for.  Someday maybe he will be a widower, or his marriage won’t be what makes him happy.

Mitch designates his One Thing at a single point in time — and the only way that works is either if his family literally never changes from how they are right now, or  if he is willing to adjust its definition as life frays his current reality into the future.

On the other hand, that is enough for some people.  How many people want to become something, like a doctor, a grandparent, a *success* however you define it?  How many people, mainly women, unfortunately, claim that their wedding day is the best day of their life?  Or that high school, or college, or one free summer is the best time in a person’s life?

It seems to work for lots of people.  But it never worked for me.  How could it?

That mentality means that you’ve hit your peak before you’re even partway into your potential lifespan.  Does that mean you are condemned to nothing but disappointment from then on?  Like, yay, I lived everything worth living before I was 25?  I’d rather not.

Time happens.  Life happens.  And it changes.  The people we love and live for might not always be there.  The success or job we set our hopes on may change, or fade, or turn out not what we wanted after all.

It always seemed to me that if you set your One Thing on shifting sands, someday it will fall.

Ultimately, I think a safer One Thing is one that isn’t tied to circumstances but rather movement or perspective.  If a person decides to walk the path of a religion, or a philosophy, no matter who comes or goes from their life, they will have their dedication and their beliefs and ideas to lead them on.  There’s an argument to be made for ‘what if your philosophy changes?’ which I think means that you might end up with another One Thing to find and follow eventually.  But overall?  A One Thing which isn’t a *thing* and is instead a path has a better chance of staying with you while you walk through the changing, unexpected years of messy, real life.

My One Thing isn’t a goal.  It’s a trajectory.  It’s not pointing at the fence, Babe Ruth-style, and hitting the single shot I called.  It’s choosing a spot on the horizon and heading for it, unflinchingly, without stopping.  For me, my One Thing could never be a single state of being, nor a single achievement.  My One Thing had to be a journey, the arc of an arrow shot through the sky — not its landing at the end.

It’s true that there are people I love with deep and abiding affection, people I would die and live for.  There are people who are my friends and family without whom my world would become cold and ash and empty.  And I do live for them.  They are my foundation.

But they can’t and shouldn’t be my One Thing because my One Thing must sit deeper than that.  Before I can be a friend or sister or wife or aunt or anything else, I have to be myself.

So my One Thing is to become the version of myself I want the most — from that comes everything else.  If I am the self that burns inside, the self I have chosen, then I can be an artist.  I can be a wife and friend.  I can be a citizen of the world.  I can be a defender and a refuge.  I can be a home.

And the truth is that this One Thing actually did unknot my rope, as it was.  Because making that one choice, following that one star I found to be my Polaris, had consequences.  To follow it, to stay on the path forward, I had to let other things go.  I had to BECOME other things.  And every step towards my one point on the horizon brought me closer to everything I wanted — and farther from everything keeping me from it.

Everybody’s One Thing is different.  But mine, for my own reasons, has to live within me.  It’s the one thing that is utterly constant, with me at every breath.  And it means I never have to face resenting pinning my life to One Thing that turns out to be transient.  It means there is no crisis of faith to be had, because I am still alive in myself.

And if I’m not, well, I’ve got bigger problems than a loss of direction.

So my goal for 2017?  To keep following my inner star over whatever lands await me.  To live my One Thing which gives me the power and clarity to be the person I want to give to the people who matter, the art that matters, the world that matters.  To be the soul which is only mine — and to help it shine in the world alongside my 6 billion neighbors.

When I am honestly myself, bruised and proud, running between some mix of integrity and disaster, that’s when my rope unknots and everything else really don’t mean shit.

That’s when I get to be myself for everyone who needs me.

That’s when the noise of the world goes quiet and all that’s left is what I put into it.

Thanks for the advice, Curly.

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