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 — Kindness.

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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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