Who Am I? (Part 3: Loyalty)

Loyalty should be simple, and that’s exactly why it isn’t. To me, loyalty means standing by someone to the end. There’s three pieces of that statement which have to be dissected.
Let’s go out of order.

“To the end” can mean a lot of things. In movies or stories, it means to the death, or beyond. It means “I, the hero of heroism and good battle hair, will follow you into the jaws of unspeakable torment and maybe bad breath until the sun explodes and the whole thing becomes moot.” Not exactly a common occurrence in my life; if it is in yours, I want to hear about it.

Anyway.

For me, standing by someone “to the end” is a little bit based on context. I will stand by my CONvergence team to the end, which means they can call me at 4am needing me to back them up and I will come. It also means they can call me for help in the off season, and, by dint of being my team, I will still come. But when people leave that team, if we aren’t friends independent of that, I might not be as willing to jump up at 4am to help someone’s wayward cat or to haul a broken stove (though, if they were desperate, I’d probably go anyway).

On the other hand, “to the end” with those who are my family, not of blood, but forged in bonds of friendship and shared experience and trust — them, I would happily follow into hell armed only with a lopsided snowball. And for those who are so close to my heart, to the end really means to the end. To my dying breath, I will be on their side. I will be their family, their backup, their support. Those who call me family will have a place in my house even if my house is a one room apartment with no heat. “To the end” is a vow I give not necessarily out loud or to someone’s face, but once my heart is entangled with theirs? Yeah, “to the end” is until the end of measurable time and whatever comes after if anything does.

But that “to the end” has a lot to do with the “who” of the loyalty. And that “who,” the “someone” who I am standing by, is the most important piece of loyalty.

Am I loyal to my alma mater, or my hometown? Uh…eh? I mean, kinda. More the former than the latter. I take pride in my WNY heritage, but I’m loyal to the Buffalo Sabres. I love Carleton College, but I’m not going to get in a pissing match with somebody from St Olaf just because of reasons (some of my favorite people in the world went to Olaf). Am I loyal to the country of my birth? Yeah…but that doesn’t mean I wear flags on my shirt every day and sing “America the Beautiful” as a lullaby. Because it’s less that I’m loyal to the institutions and more that I’m loyal to what they represent.

(Except the Sabres. That surpasses all things rational and goes to the blood. Can’t help it.)

I am NOT loyal to a president who attacks his own people, no matter what color their skin or their religion or where they came from to get here. I am NOT loyal to a government predicated on removing the voice and votes of some people to artificially raise up their own demographic. I am NOT loyal to a concept of freedom which only applies to some people, some of the time. I AM, however, loyal to the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I AM, however, loyal to the Bill of Rights. I AM, however, loyal to the people who sacrifice so much to serve the rest of us.

Really, whether you’re talking people or abstract concepts, my sense of loyalty is directly related to my feelings of respect. Loyalty can also be bred in affection and closeness and love, but it cannot exist without respect.

So I am loyal to my friends and my family, to the members of my CONvergence team and the Twin Cities Women’s Choir. I am loyal to people who make choices to advocate for, or care for, or support, or show kindness to those I love. I am loyal to those who are loyal to me.

But loyalty doesn’t mean I won’t challenge.

Because “standing by” someone doesn’t mean silently approving bad or cruel decisions. It doesn’t mean lending my support to a wrong thing just because a person to whom I am loyal says so.

“Standing by” means I’m going to publically back you for as long as my loyalty doesn’t infringe upon my honor or my other values. It means taking your side in a struggle, and having your back in a tough place. But it also means that, if your decision is a poor one, I’m going to tell you about it. It means supporting you against others, but challenging you in private to be certain you are making the best choices.

Loyalty cannot be blind or unquestioning — that makes it obedience.

I am obedient to no one.

But if I respect you and you make a request of me (or are of a position in which you can give me an order and reasonably expect me to follow it), then I will do ask asked. Loyalty means slotting myself in beside you where I belong and putting my efforts to your side — but it means making sure that I voice any doubts I may have. Loyalty means I’ll help you out of a jam, but if that jam is a problem of your own making, I’m going to make sure you know that. I will stand up with you against any crowd, but when we are alone I will tell you if I think you’re being a doofus.

Loyalty means I will come when you need me, but I won’t hide bodies for you. It means I’ll tell you why you need to turn yourself in — at length — even as I promise to go with you and keep you company for as long as I can.

Because those people or ideals to which I have loyalty also have my respect — and I cannot respect anyone with whom I cannot be honest. Not cruelly, not without purpose. But if I am loyal to you, then I respect you enough to hear me when I tell you that you are in the wrong, and I will be at your side to help you make it right.

Where Honor demands the best of me, all that I can safely give, Loyalty demands that I seek the best in others, and I do whatever I can and whatever is necessary to support and encourage and defend them while they do so. I may make a promise on my Honor and keep it always, but Loyalty means I don’t need a promise — one is implicit in the exchange of respect.

Because once my Loyalty is given, I rarely take it back.

There are those I have not seen in years, a few kind souls from the years before I found my way, before I found my people and my family and my community. They don’t even know this blog exists. They may barely remember that I do. But they did me a kind turn when I was in need, and they remained with me when all others did not. They were not as instrumental in guiding the course of my life as those who left scars, but they were always honest with me. They gave me space to be myself and support when I asked for it. They were my friends, and they made a difference. And if one of them were to call me tomorrow and beg for my help, I would give it. Not just because I owe them a debt of honor, but because I still hold loyalty to them. Because they are still deserving of loyalty, even with years between us.

There’s a poem I think about often when I think about the amazing people in my life, the people for whom I would do anything. It’s unfortunately gendered, but applies nonetheless: Rudyard Kipling’s “The Thousandth Man:”

One man in a thousand, Solomon says.
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it’s worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

‘Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for ‘ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of ’em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.

But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don’t matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.

You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine of ’em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he’s worth ’em all
Because you can show him your feelings.

His wrong’s your wrong, and his right’s your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men’s sight
With that for your only reason!

Nine hundred and ninety-nine can’t bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot – and after!

That’s Loyalty. And it is my great honor and privilege to be that Thousandth person to those who are the same to me.

Next week — Courage.

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Who Am I? (Part 2: Honor and Integrity)

I should put more disclaimers in my blog posts. Or at least I should remind myself of the completely expected and known events which may conspire to prevent me from updating. The whole last post was about getting to work, and I actually did that! I just ran out of time to write about it!

Between having a house-guest for a week (an awesome week, but not much time in it to spend writing), and a renewal of work on the current novel to prepare it to be queried (it’s almost ready!), plus the unexpected-except-we-all-saw-it-coming blow up of stuff at work, I’ve not been idle. I don’t feel like I’m in the same rut I was that needed to be broken. I’ve just been a different kind of busy.

(And, of course, there’s no forgetting or mitigating the impact of the absolute shitslide that has happened lately in the world of politics. All other things being equal, that by itself would probably have been enough to knock me and most others off their center of balance for a while.)

(Also, the number of people in government these days who would be improved if they had the scruples of a fecal fungus is astonishing. VOTING FUCKING MATTERS, FOLKS.)

Anyway.

Back to what this series is supposed to be about. That which defines who I think I am.

There’s an exchange in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time which happens quite close to the end. It’s been distilled this way (so I don’t have to type up the whole scene):

“In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet… There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter… And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet… But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants…”

“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes. You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

It’s true of our lives in the sense that we are born into human, mortal bodies, grow up, have to eat and sleep and breathe oxygen, and we eventually die. But it’s also true beyond the corporeal. Life gives a person an option — what that person chooses defines who they are. Some people live their lives not in the form of a sonnet with its rules and demands upon form, but in a free-flowing verse. And in some ways, I do that, too; we’ll come back to that when I talk about Defiance.

But the form of my sonnet is Honor. And the proof of it is in my integrity.

The difference between honor and integrity is this — honor is the precepts you choose to live by; integrity is how well you actually follow them. So you can have a sense of honor, but not act on it. You can speak about behaving with honor, but utterly fail to do so. For me, my integrity is how I prove my Honor as well as my other pillars. If I give up on Kindness but keep up with Loyalty, then my integrity is still in question.

When I call one of my pillars Honor, one of the things I mean is the certainty of my word.

If I tell you I will take you to the grocery store, I will. If there are mitigating circumstances, we might need to adjust when I take you, or how. But if I have given you my word that I will do it, then come hell or high water or the end of the world, I’ll get it done. People say “my word is my bond” — I don’t know how many really mean it, but I sure as hell do.

This gets complicated when I’ve given a promise I no longer want to keep. If I told you I would take you to the grocery store and then we had a big fight and I don’t want to see your face, it sure makes keeping that word tough. But my Honor demands that I do it anyway. It does not, however, demand that I remind you of that promise. If you decide, given our fight, that you’d rather I not be the person to take you to the store, that’s your choice which you are free to make — and it absolves me of having to keep my promise. But if you come back and say, “I hate your guts, but you said you’d do X, so I’m calling in my marker,” my only Honorable answer can be, “Okay.”

Another piece of Honor is, basically, “doing the right thing.”

But that “right thing?” That is based entirely upon my own perspective.

So, for example, keeping a promise is always a right thing — unless that promise invites something unhealthy or dangerous. Even if I made a promise in years past to maintain a relationship with someone but that relationship turned toxic and damaging, then I don’t hold that said promise is valid. Because I have to do what is best for me as well as others. Promises made are mostly about other people — I promise to look out for you, I promise to help with hauling a heavy thing, I promise to listen when you need to talk, I promise to come to your party. But if me keeping the promise to haul the heavy thing happens to coincide with me having a broken arm, I’m not doing it. I can advise you, remind you to lift with your legs, find you someone to take my place, etc, but I’m not actually going to do myself that much harm. Because I have other promises I have to keep, and I can’t let that one promise force me to break fifteen others.

Sometimes doing the right thing is simple, though. See someone drop their wallet in the store? Give it back, untouched. Spot a turtle trying to cross a street? Pull over and help (without getting hit by traffic or bitten for my trouble). Find out your neighbor who sometimes watches your dog and mows your lawn is a bank robber? Call the police.

(That last one is fake, obviously.)

But there’s another angle of Honor which is entirely mine, caught up in how I see the world and how I see myself, and it goes like this:

When my promises are met, when I have enough for my needs and the needs of those who depend upon me — whatever is left over belongs to someone else.

That’s true of money, food, but also emotional energy and time. When we’re doing okay for money and Sarah and I are not stressed, we donate what we can where we can. When we have extra vegetables from the garden, we give them to whoever wants or needs them. And when I have the mental fortitude, the spoons, to do more than just take care of myself and Sarah and all the people in my immediate orbit who might need it, then I reach out and take care of others. That’s a huge portion of why I got involved in CONvergence Operations in the first place — I had a love of the convention and energy to spare, and I wanted to put that energy where it could do the most good for others.

I really don’t categorize this under Kindness. I categorize it under Honor. Because my sense of Honor demands that I do all I can, whenever I can, within healthy limits, to improve the world around me. Honor demands I take care of my family and friends, that I be able and willing to offer assistance or hugs or a spare room when someone is in need. It demands that I don’t just sit back and think “Ha, I got mine; good luck getting yours!” Honor demands I stand up and I lift others up with me, even if only by giving them some tomatoes.

Because the promise I must keep above all, the one I made to myself, is that I will do my best, always, to return all the luck and circumstance this world has given me with the hard work to try to give that same luck and circumstance to others.

I have been UNBELIEVABLY lucky in my life. Unlucky, too, but lucky where it counts. I was born to privilege, both in the color of my skin and in my society/financial reality. I never went hungry, never worried about if the house would have heat in winter. I never wanted for the necessities, and rarely for the luxuries. I was also gifted by no merit of my own with a brain that largely works for me in the world, a body which largely functions without accommodation, and a spark that doesn’t drown in any flood — see Defiance for that, too. I was lucky enough to find love, lasting and surpassing, that holds me up no matter how far down I fall. I have been lucky enough to be loved not just by Sarah, but by friends who are family, remarkable, phenomenal people who are a gift just to be around. I am lucky enough to live in a state with reasonable governance (not perfect, but nothing like other places), to have a job which supports Sarah and I.

I worked for a lot of these things, but people can work their whole lives and still never achieve as much as had come to me before I was 30 years old. Effort does not always lead to results, no matter what the American Dream says. There are people who work four times as hard as I do and have far less. And that is not my fault or theirs. That is the luck of my circumstances. I had nothing to do with how I was born and that those opportunities led to even more. I had nothing to do with the fact that I encountered Sarah who is my perfect match. Those things just happened to me.

My Honor demands, unequivocally, that I repay that luck with whatever excess I receive to give to others. When I have more than I need (and I define that need very, very narrowly), it’s not mine anymore. I don’t even want it.

Honor demands that I do my very, very best in this highly imperfect and unkind world, because I have it easy in a way others do not. And to not give back, to not share what I have received unearned, is a kind of selfishness that, to me, could never be “doing the right thing.”

That’s what my Honor really means to me.

If I have given you my word, I will not break it, save if it endangers other people or other promises which supersede it.

If I have the opportunity to do the honest or brave or ethical thing, or to do the easy or lazy or apathetic thing, I do the honest thing, the brave thing, the ethical thing.

If I have the ability, I lend my weight to lifting up the world as high as I can make it go.

I’m not perfect, I screw it up sometimes, I miss something that tells me I should have gone left when I went right, I run out of energy, my obligations conflict, and sometimes life just shits on the best-laid plans. I can’t help any of that. There will always be days when I’m too heartsick, too lost in the demons of my own brain chemistry to do even the easy right things, when all I can do is breathe in and out all day long and maybe put one foot in front of the other. And that’s okay. I have not failed in living up to my Honor just because today I failed at everything else.

I have learned the hard way that the very first step to Honor, to integrity, to living at all, is accepting that everything, even my best intentions, are going to run into walls sometimes. Limitations, be they mine, circumstance, whatever — they’re not failure. They’re part of the living system of being human. They say “nobody’s perfect,” and it’s true. Nobody is. And no intentions to weed the garden or finish a project can stand up against an unexpected hurricane, real or figurative.

When Honor is doing the right thing, but the right thing can’t be done, then Kindness is forgiving and letting it go.

But that’s a few weeks from now.

Next week (assuming no more weirdness time-suck stuff) — Loyalty.

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Who Am I? (Part 1: The Framework)

I’ve been doing a lot of introspection lately. I self-examine my life rather frequently, but it’s been more noticeable of late. Part of this is that, for the past week, I’ve been slowly converting one of our spare bedrooms into a proper office for me — and this is the first bit of writing I’m doing in that new office space. What a way to celebrate 100 entries on the blog!

What was a spare bedroom with blue walls the EXACT shade a 10-year-old cisgender boy would love has become instead my workspace. I repainted the walls a pale grey which shades to a slight lavender in certain lights. I moved my rarely-used desk in and put the bed in the other room (we call it the Chancery; it’s where Sarah does her music). I built a giant shelf to fill with bins to store the stuff that used to be haphazardly spread between these two rooms, and I purged a lot of stuff that just didn’t need to be kept anymore. There’s a bit of work left to do — the only art hanging up here right now is my diploma mainly because I wanted to get it and its finicky frame out of the way — and I’m still considering and reconsidering the exact configuration of my desk. But, for the most part, what was the spare room (called “Spare Oom” as often as not) is now my office.

This has the advantage of allowing me to work from home without being at my dining room table, which is a nice change of pace. It also gives me a place to focus for work, for writing, and for CVG stuff. I’ve only been in here 3 hours as of this entry, but the psychological difference is palpable. I’m focused in a room in a way I wasn’t in our open-floor-plan downstairs. I feel like I’m up and away from the world with a window that looks out on trees and rooftops instead of down to the driveway and every car and dog-walker going by. I’m aware of the door I can shut if I need isolation or a break from nosy cats. And this space, like only one other in the house, is truly mine — defined at every particular by me and my wants and needs, from the colors to the layout to whether or not to move the light around. I painted every inch of it myself, alone (although I had help with the liberal use of painter’s tape), and I would have built the shelf thing myself, too, except it would have been IMPOSSIBLE because Ikea doesn’t do anything simple.

Anyway.

Setting up the office required me to do some very focused thinking about myself. For example, I learned that I need to be able to stretch my legs out sometimes — so I piled a few pieces of old cardboard behind the desk to prevent me from getting footprints on my wall as well as giving me a place to rest them. I’ve always known I don’t work well jammed into a corner; I need to be able to see out, to stare at something other than a wall. So my desk faces the window. I know I need to put a giant cork board on the wall behind me where I can hang the million rotating things that all seem critical in the moment but I won’t need or want permanently displayed after some unknown period of weeks or months or years.

This also marks a re-dedication on my part to something I’ve lost over the past couple of years. Existential (political) dread and anxiety have slashed my writing amount to half or less than what it used to be. The stories come to me just as rapidly — I have, at current count, 45 good and usable ideas for everything from short oneshots to full novel series, fanfic and original — but the ability to press them into existence has been lacking. I don’t have to worry about posting next year because of the project I did manage to complete, but the word counts are still low. I’m a month and a week or so from the end of my writing year, and I know I’m looking at an uphill trek to finish something else before November. I’m going to try, of course, but it won’t come easily.

However, if it was always easy, it wouldn’t be worth the doing.

Not all people feel that way. The whole “it isn’t worth it if it isn’t difficult” thing gets rolled eyes, and I very much understand that. It’s not a mentality that is for everyone. And even for those who believe it, like me, find it deeply fatiguing sometimes. If literally everything you cherished had to come to you the hard way, would you really manage to build up the energy to cherish so much? If relationships, achievements, insights, if every one of them was earned only by sweat and blood, if nothing was a break — wouldn’t you break?

I wouldn’t dare speak for others, but for me — the answer is no.

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I hold myself to 6 pillars, 6 values that I have chosen will define me. They’re not “rules” because rules change and flow and need to be outright broken sometimes (or a lot). They’re the attributes that help me define who I want to be as a person. They’re the solid stones I set as my own foundation. I think most people have some — but for me it was helpful to codify them, to put them in words, to give them names and shapes. Because then I have a framework for myself, a standard to hold to when other things make life harder.

When life gets harder, that’s when you find out who you really are — because that is when you will make the self-defining choices.

I base my choices on these six pillars:

  • Honor
  • Loyalty
  • Courage
  • Kindness
  • Endurance
  • Defiance

(There are two unspoken ones which I don’t typically name, but there’s no denying them — joy and love. They’re not choices I make; they simply are. I have taught myself honor, have changed how I understand loyalty, and have honed my courage. But joy and love, they burst into my spirit with no urging, and I can’t take 2 steps without tripping over them.)

I’ve meant for a long time to go into them in detail on this blog since they’re such a fundamental part of who I am, and I think that will be my writing project for the next few weeks. Because setting up this office has had the effect of really making me think about how I define myself, how I want and need to be. Just as I needed to choose a color that I would find energizing, not over-stimulating, I needed to rediscover those anchor-points in my heart where there is no give. The truths without which I cease to be.

I would still be me if I decided I was bored of hockey or college football. I would still be me if I no longer watched my cartoons and anime. But I would not be me if I gave up on kindness, if I acted without honor, if I lost my glee at practicing defiance. I would be someone else — and that someone else might not like this room, this life, this self that I have built from the ground up for myself.

With this new room and my re-dedication to writing, to focusing creatively, to being the person I have chosen to be, I’m going to warm back up into the process by taking time to dive into each of these pillars of myself, one a week. I’m going to baptize this room not in water (or paint) but by the practice of defining and centering myself. I’m going to end this writing year of 2018 by using the change in my surroundings to force a change in behavior, so that 2019 is more successful and I get some more work done.

And maybe, if I set my mind on it correctly, if I can focus my energy less into fear and more into action, I can do more than just write. Maybe I can query and publish a book. Maybe I can find a better balance in myself of work, social life, CVG, choir, writing, sleep…all the things that, right now, feel like they’re out of balance. I cannot change the causes of existential dread in the world, but I can change myself. I can give myself more room to be the person I choose to be, to create the art that feeds my soul. I can give myself every advantage so that when the world comes and calls who I think I am into question again, I am better situated to answer.

There’s nothing easy about looking into the void and coming up with something other than despair. There’s nothing easy about standing up when it’s sure to get you knocked down again. There’s nothing easy about creating when the well seems to run dry. There’s nothing easy about any of it.

But it’s all worth doing. And if I am the person I pretend to be, the person I want to be, the person I choose to be, then I will find a way. Endurance is right there in the six pillars. Sometimes Endurance means getting by, staying afloat, managing the unmanageable no matter how graceless.

This time? I’m leaning less on Endurance and more on that sixth pillar. Defiance.

Because in the end, even the void can’t stamp out my will. It doesn’t matter if I shout back into the void, or spit in it, or shine a light, or laugh into it, or swear curses about weasel shits into it. As long as I do SOMETHING. As long as I pull or push in obstinate, sometimes gleeful, opposition.

I hit a downswing, not just in terms of depression, but in everything. I got out of balance. I lost focus. I failed to write. Why and how aren’t what matters. Blame and fault are actively not useful. This is where I am at. This is the reality I have in front of me.

Maybe that’s why now was the time to make this office, why it burned in me for the last week. Because now is the time I can look at that reality head on and choose another way. Now is when I can lean back on my pillars, decided and innate, and push off again.

I have painted the walls. I have hauled the furniture. I have chosen how to adorn the space. I have set it up for work, for focus, to bring out the best in me.

It’s time to get to work.

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For Good

(Fair warning — this song always makes me cry. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by the time I quit writing about it.)

Someday I’m going to write about “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, but not today. Today I want to talk about one of the songs that gets a little overlooked compared to everything else that happens in that particular musical. “Defying Gravity” is a masterpiece of raw spirit and courage and unrestrained freedom. And it earths into a home in my heart because defiance is a huge part of who I am.

But I still want to talk about “For Good.”

You don’t have to know anything about Wicked or where this song fits in the show. It’s enough just to hear it.

I had some alone time this weekend, which, as being alone usually does, led to some introspection. Also noisy singing. But mainly the former.

I looked around and started tracking all the tiny things that led me to where I am today. All the choices, big and small. Certainly attending Carleton College did a lot to push me here — without that, I probably wouldn’t be in Minnesota, probably wouldn’t know any of the people who fill my life up today. But I got to Carleton by a hundred thousand choices that came first, everything from what I thought I was going choose as a major to emerging from high school as something as a loner and being ready to walk away from everything and start over. I can look and see specific decisions that had leading consequences, but I can also see the small buildup of personality that forged a path just as well.

For me, I think the choice to be myself, unapologetically, unremittingly, has been the most decisive and defining choice of my life.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t chosen wrongly at as many junctures as I’ve chosen well. I’ve made more mistakes than I dare count. I’ve thought I was following my heart when really I was giving in to fear. I’ve thought I was picking the noble path when really it was the lazy way of least effort. It’s all well and good to want to live a life of integrity and courage, and it’s something else entirely to do it.

There’s a line from Jayne Eyre that I often think rings quite true:

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

They say that you become what you pretend to be. I think it’s more complicated than that; you can pretend to be a hero, but still choose cowardice if you’re not careful. Principles, as Jane says, are for the most difficult times — that is when you prove if your principles are set in stone or not. It’s easy to want to be brave, or generous, or selfless — it’s much harder to do that when literally everything inside you would rather not.

I’ve definitely failed at least as many times as the next person — but the times I have succeeded, the times when I’ve lived the life of integrity I want for myself, are some of my greatest triumphs.

But for as much as those choices came from me, they also came from so many, many people around me. And without them, without the presence of so many in my heart and my past and my present, I wouldn’t be looking at the world from the same place anymore.

As the song says, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

The base inside myself changes for lots of reasons, from learning, from experience, from pain, from success — and from what I have gained from a hundred people passing through. Some came and left, some tore their way in and left a gaping hole on the way out, and some would not remember me or their impact upon me (but it happened to me regardless).

My whole life has been rewritten by the people who came and cast stones and songs into my spirit.

Without being bullied as a child, would I have spent so much time reading? So much time dreaming? So much time understanding the quiet voice inside myself? Without the friends that I had in and out through the years, would I have learned to be a friend when it really mattered? Without the random encounters, the unexpected moments of kindness or pain, would I have understood compassion without agenda?

I owe so many debts to people whose names I don’t even know. The group of my peers, four or five men and women of color who sat me down and explained my privilege to me, when they didn’t have to, when I was just another clueless, well-meaning white kid with blinders. The woman who came up to me after my first solo when I was 8 years old and told me never to stop singing, no matter who listened. The first fans who left me comments on my stories before I had the courage to reply to them and turn fans into friends.

And the network expands from there — the people who changed Sarah and set her feet on a path that led to me. The people who were kind to the family I have now, the encounters and chance moments that gave strength and joy to those I love. The ripples analogy is overdone, but accurate nonetheless. There are quantum ripples, flashes of fate and randomness and human agency that redefine a life, or a moment. And every one of those ended with me sitting in this moment in this life.

It is a debt to life that nobody can repay, isn’t it? It’s an accident that we’re born at all and that we become who we are. The good things that come after that are blessings.

At this moment in time, there’s only a handful of people who read this blog, and I can name you all, I think. So this is a luxury, one I can enjoy here in my quiet corner —

Thank you. Thank you for stepping into my life and changing me for good.

Great or small, profound or simple, whatever the impact you had on me, I can never go back to who I was before you appeared. And I could never want to go back, not having seen the view from here.

I do believe I have been changed for the better because I knew you.

And to anyone out there who never finds this blog, whatever we were to each other, I still put this into the internet void for you, too, just in case. Because if you gave my life a push, the least I can do is leave you a wish of my own. I believe that we can put good into the wheel of the universe even if there’s no empirical evidence for it. That what we give to the turn of space and time and eternity and destiny comes from us, even if no one ever sees it, or knows it is there. Love and kindness and good wishes and healing energy and a tiny quantum nudge all play into what we leave behind in the balance of life.

To everyone who had a part to play in helping me find my way —

May a skybird leave you a seed that brings you joy and peace. Thank you for changing me for good.

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Serving the King

There’s a show my wife and I watch in reruns now that it’s been over a few years called “The Closer.” We loved it on its first run, as well as the spin-off “Major Crimes” that carried the story after the departure of the lead character. This weekend, they were running the second season finale, which has in it a speech made by a character who is former CIA and is now a deputy chief of police. From the first time I heard it, it rang false to me in a way I couldn’t quite identify. But this weekend, I finally was able to wrap my head around where I disagree.

Here’s the quote:

I remember once hearing a speech about what it meant to be on officer of the CIA, and the man who gave this speech talked about the struggle to control civilization and how we’re always fighting the same fight and he used the Dark Ages as an example. And he talked about how on one side you had the pragmatic king who was greedy and power hungry and basically took advantage of people whenever he could. And on the other side you had the idealistic church, forcing everyone to follow the same rules, have the same beliefs and all that. Neither the king or the church was ever completely right or wrong, both sides ended up doing terrible things to get what they wanted. Really terrible things. But the point of the story was this: that this struggle from the Dark Ages had been going on forever, and the church and the king might take on different forms and philosophies, but they would always fight each other, pragmatist and idealist, and that most times you’re better off standing on the sidelines and letting them duke it out. But every once in a while one side or the other decides it might be better to just blow up the whole world just to get its own way, and when that happens you can’t stand on the sidelines anymore. You have to pick a team. And so for tonight, anyway, we’re serving the king.

I agree that you can see a lot of Western political history as a constant struggle between government rule and religious influence. Going back a long way before the Dark Ages, that was the struggle for control, authority, and power. Far wiser people than I can distill European history into the constant cycle of politicking between church and state. And those echoes exist today, ported into the US by the exact same forces. When you’re dealing with the US, it isn’t all one religious camp and one US government camp — the argument and the conflict is fractured and, if anything, the worse for it. But it’s there.

The struggle for civilization in many ways can be summed up by the struggle for power and control, either by the beliefs which live in the minds of the people, or the laws which govern their lives.

The problem, as I see it, with this particular analogy is the idea that the king represents pragmatism while the church represents idealism. Truly, they’re two sides of the same thing. Both are authorities warring for control, and both will do what they need to do to win. In that way, they’re equally pragmatic, just fighting from different ends of the equation.

But there’s no real representation of idealism here, because both sides are operating under the same underlying assumption — that the ends justify the means.

Pragmatism and idealism are opposites, but they just can’t be neatly aligned to church and state. Not in a historical context and not in a hypothetical one. In the end, both sides of church and state are looking for the same thing — power, control, influence, and the ability to command the present and rewrite the future to their dictates. And because of that, they will both, as the character says, do “really terrible things” because that end state of power and influence is worth the sacrifices made along the way.

But are they? Are they really?

In college, I was a political science and international relations major with an unofficial minor (called a concentration) in political philosophy. I’ve always appreciated thinking about systems and people, whether it’s the set of cultural biases that inform interpersonal relationships or the broader worldviews that impact diplomatic (or lack thereof) negotiations. To the uninitiated, political science sometimes sounds and feels like reducing human action and emotion and intent to a series of predictable equations. That’s the part of it I always hated. But there’s truth to it, if you look at it in a more nuanced way. It’s not saying “You’re X, Y, and Z, so you vote ABC.” It’s tracking the minute intersections of people and where they touch the world. Like a spider in a web, it’s knowing which strand to pull that sets you free and which one gets you eaten.

When you get to talking about the underlying philosophies of rule, however, you run into the “hawk” and “dove” divide — mostly for the context of war, but it applies to other things as well. Basically, would you rather commit X in order to attempt to assure Y, or is the act of X too reprehensible to make Y worthwhile? Hawks are those who would prefer to go to war to ensure national security, or to weaken an enemy, or whatever is needed. Doves agree that national security is important, and the enemy is a problem, but argue that to go to war does more harm than it is worth. The hawk argument is a pragmatic one; the dove argument is an idealist one.

I wrote my senior thesis on the morality of espionage as a tool of nations, looking at the historical and philosophical reasons for espionage and comparing them to the real-world experiences of various retired spies, heads of the CIA, etc. (It was a lot of reading.) And what I found was an almost universal answer across my sources —

Philosophically, historically, pragmatically, the agreement was entirely on the side of espionage as not just being valuable, but being necessary in protecting the state from harmful acts or threats by other nations or organizations. But the people themselves writing about their lives, their jobs, their sacrifices — every single one of them found the practice of espionage to be morally and ethically wrong. They did it anyway, because it was necessary. But they could not say that it was “good” that they had done so. Even when the results literally saved thousands of lives or kept a nation from falling.

These people, these brave, dedicated people had sacrificed everything — their families, their wellbeing, their chances as a normal life — to serve the pragmatic king. And they were not sorry for doing so. But they still could not believe that the ends inherently justify the means.

They ended their service as pragmatists in action, and idealists at heart.

As a person, that’s a bit where I’ve ended, too. I’ve been a pure pragmatist, focused on making sure things turn out okay regardless of the cost, and you know what? It’s poisonous. For me, I have no pride in the things I did thinking that way, even if they ended up just fine. Because I can’t see the happy ending — only the careless harm I could have done along the way.

And yet I still cannot let myself be a pure idealist. The ends may not justify the means, but sometimes if you don’t fight for the ends you want, you get a result that you can’t live with, either. Sometimes to get what you need, what you can’t live without, you have to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do given any choice at all — because sometimes the world doesn’t give us choices. And then we have to live with whichever path we took.

There aren’t nearly enough examples in history of someone who found a way to get to the ends they needed without employing means that cheapened the victory. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr is the quickest example I can think of. And even that isn’t simple at all. Nonviolence as a philosophy to force change is certainly more ethically sound than violence, but the change MLK won didn’t only come through nonviolence. It also came through politicking, through the actions of others who weren’t totally nonviolent, through concessions and bartering — and there’s a strong argument to be made that it hasn’t even entirely worked. We don’t live in a post-racist society. Hell, we live in a VERY racist society.

But recent protest movements are making the point that the means DO matter, not just the ends. If we are rightly protesting police violence on people of color, committing violence not only is unethical, but inflames the violence and it cycles back tenfold on the people we are trying to protect. On the other hand, simply standing on the side of the road with a sign may be utterly unoffensive, but without giving at least a little offense, how could it create change? It’s the point made regularly about the correctly maligned “thoughts and prayers” — if thoughts and prayers could change the world, it would have been changed long ago.

Control of civilization is always up in the air, and you can divide by state versus church, but you can also divide it by autocratic powers and the decentralized populace. The autocratic powers almost always act pragmatically, even when there are doves in seats of power, because ultimately, they have a responsibility to preserve their power and continue to expand it — otherwise, they fail to exist. The people, on the other hand, have a choice. They can riot, fight back, support violent insurrection, or they can vote, protest quietly, and go home at the end of the day no matter the results. And every possible shade and nuance in between.

For me, I wish I could live in a world where anyone who wanted to be a pure idealist could. Where people could embrace true pacifism, true integrity, and never be forced to choose between making war or being obliterated. I wish I could live in a world where it was safe to choose the path of doing the right and ethical and moral thing even if it wasn’t going to work because the result wouldn’t be all that bad.

But I really don’t.

I live in this world.

So, yeah, I vote, and I protest, and I donate money to causes and organizations that champion what I believe in. But when it comes down to the ends and the means, if the ends is truly an end to human decency, to human rights, to equality, justice, liberty — then, I’ll do what I have to.

If, going back to the original analogy, one side decides to blow up the whole world, or deny the dignity of a class of people, I’ll throw idealism out the window just like the subjects of my senior thesis did. Because as much as my idealism means to me, personally, it can never be as important as the actual life and safety of another human being.

I can be an idealist — right up until the world demands I be a pragmatist in order to defend and support others. Because in one very particular way, the ends DO justify the means.

If it means creating a better world for others, then to hell with what I have to give up of my pretty philosophies. I’d rather live in the world and never be comfortable with the choices I made if the world that came out of them is better than this one.

That’s the only king I could ever find worth serving.

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Femininity and Beauty

This weekend was one of the weddings I’ll be attending this summer, as well as the opening event in the very, very busy lead-up to CONvergence.  Which means that this weekend was the first time in a couple of years I’ve worn a nice dress for any occasion.

I’ve never been a girly girl.  Never ever. And my stance on makeup is unchanged from what it was when I last blogged about it.  But I have finally come to peace with why sometimes I like wearing skirts — when the rest of the time I can’t figure out why on earth I own more than one.

I’ve finally come to terms with the divide between that which is feminine and that which is beautiful.

And what I learned about myself is that I don’t give two ratshits for femininity, but I am okay with beauty.

I feel that I need to clarify that my interpretation of femininity is not one I often conflate with my perception of my own gender.  I am a cisfemale. For me, “femininity” is not a marker of gender at all, but of society. I can say that because I am cisfemale, because I live in a body and in a world that identifies me as female even in the ruggedest and manliest of attires.  This is a privilege I have because of how I was born and the world in which I live. So please do not think that I am speaking in general terms about this or that my interpretation of “femininity” is in any way meant as an insult to those who are not cisfemale.  I am truly speaking only for myself here.

To me, it is very hard for me to separate the idea of “femininity” from the societal role of women in a very traditional sense.  Femininity which is about sex appeal holds NOOOOOOO interest for me. Femininity which highlights being demure, or generally which is pitched to suggest a lesser-ness compared with someone male-presenting, is not my thing.  It’s hard for me to look at something which is inherently “feminine” and not see the ways that such “femininity” is at the cost of equality when compared to “masculinity.”

But I don’t purposefully go in for “masculinity,” either.  I just want to be me, dammit. I just want to be the way I am, and to be received on my own merits.

It’s hard.

So a lot of how I dress or how I carry myself is kind of…neutral?  I don’t show off curves, typically, or cleavage. In casual settings, I wear shorts or jeans and t-shirts, or sweatshirts.  For business casual, I rely a lot on polo shirts or on layers which somewhat obscure my shape. I don’t try for “pretty.” I try for looking like myself.

The things a person wears can say a lot about who they are or what they’re trying to go.  Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I know how to do it fairly well. What you wear, how you are perceived, these can be disguises or they can be armor.  They can be strategic or they can be overt. It’s a game, and one I can play when I have to — like in a job interview — but not one I play except when there is a need.  Being myself is both disguise and armor enough.

Also?  I hate hate hate wearing anything that would be a problem in any kind of emergency.  All the way back to high school, I chose my formal dresses and shoes based on “could I run after a purse snatcher or crawl over a car in this?”  That practicality has only gotten more ardent as I get older. Now it takes a really, really good reason for me to wear anything in which I couldn’t crawl into or out of a burning car.

Some of that is the CVG Operations in me — I’m always ready to be ‘on duty’ even in the off season.

But it also feeds my sense of self, my sense of strength.  There are women, cis and trans, who draw strength from their femininity.  I am somewhat in awe of them, because I don’t understand it for myself. I’m too aggressively neutral in my presentation.  There are so many women who feel better about themselves when they know they look sexy, that they find power and confidence in it.  I think that is awesome.

But it’s not for me.

So I just typically don’t ‘do’ femininity except under special circumstances.

However, I have learned I am okay with beauty.

The dress I wore to the wedding isn’t what I would call strictly “feminine.”  It’s not fluffy or delicate or particularly genteel. It’s also not terribly sexy, I don’t think.

I could be wrong on that, I suppose.  Sexiness is in the eye of the beholder.  It IS form-fitting, but it’s not dramatically low-cut, and it doesn’t exactly hug my curves even if you can see them.  It’s a nice dress, but I don’t think there’s anything about it that makes it bombastic or alluring in any particular way.

What I like about it particularly well is that it shows off my unusually broad shoulders and strong arms.  I like that it’s easy dance in, easy to sit in (not a given in womens’ clothing!), easy to eat food in (even less a given!).  I like that it’s made of something sturdy enough that I can crawl under a church pew or swing a godkid around in my arms and not worry.  I like that it is a strong, slightly-dramatic color that tends to be eye-catching.

It doesn’t particularly make me feel beautiful, but it’s a beautiful dress and it makes me feel like a very grown up, differently badass version of myself.  And it does NOT make me feel feminine.

The things in life that I find truly beautiful rarely have anything to do with gender.  Sunsets and sunrises, deep forests and waterfalls, starry skies and candle lights. They’re beautiful without being feminine or masculine.  Their beauty is innate, is their own, because it is inherent and it is not artifice. It is their beauty because it is their truth.

I’m never going to like the artifice of femininity for myself, I don’t think.  But I am okay with beauty — as long as it is ME. And frankly? I’d rather be ugly and be myself anyway.

My best self lives inside my heart and my brain.  What I wear on the outside can sometimes make me feel more comfortable (or less comfortable, as the case may be) in my own skin, but it cannot redefine me.  Only I can do that.

And I do not define myself by my femininity.

Frankly, I don’t define myself by my beauty, either.  ‘Cause I’m not. And I don’t care.

But, for special occasions, I don’t mind the effort to be myself in a slightly different package.

As long as I can still get shit done when shit needs doing.

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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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