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

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

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

Joy and Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it defines me regardless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I still screw up. Everybody does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is enough for me.

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

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Who Am I? (Part 7: Defiance)

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

But Defiance has defined me longer than anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the latter? Yeah, I break those.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what? It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I won’t be unmade. By anything.

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

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

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

Not a song, but poetry this time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I will stand up again.

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

I will REFUSE TO BACK DOWN.

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

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

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

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

I stand in Defiance.

Hear my YAWP and tremble.

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Who Am I? (Part 6: Endurance)

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

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

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

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

Endurance is taking one more step, no matter what.

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

It’s also known as Stubbornness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I truly value that in myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, it’s nice to have a fallback.

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

And if Endurance fails?

Well.

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

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

So, next week — Defiance.

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Who Am I? (Part 5: Kindness)

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

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

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

I still have trouble practicing Kindness to myself sometimes.

But I believe in it again.

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

Leave the world better than you find it.

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

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

But it also applies to people.

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

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

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

What would it change in how you interact with them?

That’s what I mean by Kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week — Endurance.

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Who Am I? (Part 4: Courage)

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

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

But I’m doing it anyway.

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

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

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

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

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

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

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

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

Pigeons have stopped letting future pain define their current choices.

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

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

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I live in awe of Sarah’s Courage.

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

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

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

And it has never steered me wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Because fuck fear anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear is just pain in advance.

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

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

The sky is calling. Time to fly.

Next week — Kindness.

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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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