Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Skip the Boring Parts

My daughter just gave me some excellent advice, which she meant in reference to her chapter book bedtime stories, but which pertains just as well to writing a novel.

"Skip the boring parts, Mama." 

And so, with almost as much deletion as addition happening, I am making great progress on my novel rewrite, and the story is moving forward while remaining about 125 pages long.

It's not getting any bigger for now, just sweeter--I hope!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Getting My McStuffins Together

Storms and violence have interrupted my creative work this week. My "excuses" for not getting much done this week are good ones. There are big crises going on, life-and-death situations, real people getting hurt in real life. So I've had to remind myself of the paradoxical truth that keeping disciplined in my creative practice is more important now than ever before.

Because it's the only thing that keeps me together enough to show up and be useful in times of need.

This has been a hot summer, and I've noticed much more violence breaking out around me in my hometown than ever before. I've seen two fights between men screaming in the streets--one that woke me up at night, right outside my house, and one that blocked traffic in front of me while I was trying to drive my daughter home from her grandparents' house. And back at the grandparents' house? Some people came by with a shotgun and shot up a car across the street.

I'm seeing more aggressive driving this summer as well, and the talk at my husband's bike shop has turned to the shocking number of cyclist deaths in Michigan this year, so many of them happening in broad daylight, on routes thought to be safe, perpetrated by drivers who are drunk or just plain homicidal.

One of our cars broke down as I was on my way to work last week, forcing my husband to have to ride his bike 20 miles to work on the homicidal roads until we can fix it.

A few days ago, there was a wicked storm--right in the middle of one of these 90-degree days--with tree-felling winds and hail. A power line came down in my neighborhood and burst into flames. For the next two hours, arcs of electricity kept surging out of the line, flaring into balls of red, blue, and green fire and making a sound that shook the floors and windows in my house. My daughter and I watched out the window as the fire department and utility crews spent hours taking care of it.

Trees lay across the roads, blocking many people I know from attending the local Black Lives Matter rally, or making it hard for them to get back home afterward.

And that right there--not the street fights or the cyclist deaths or the storm--the reason why we needed to have a Black Lives Matter rally last week--has been the worst, most traumatizing and soul-crushing interruption of all this summer.

Now, I have known about institutional racism against African-American and Native American people, particularly in law enforcement and criminal justice, for a long time. For the past decade, my work has connected me with the ACLU and other groups disseminating the bald statistics and working on strategies to improve public safety (for everyone, including police officers) and racial equality (which is an essential component of the issue). And like everyone else, I've become somewhat accustomed to the reality of killing videos captured on cell phones and shared on social media. But the sheer horror of these last two--and witnessing Alton Sterling's son cry and Philando Castile with his fiancee and the baby girl saying "Mommy, don't cry" from the back seat as his blood runs out in front of her, oh my God--completely undid me.

And if seeing this did this to me, what about my friends who are black? What about my family and friends with black children and black husbands? What must this feel like for them right now?

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed showing the slaughter of black people at the hands of police over and over again, on the left side of the screen I saw many brown and black faces, expressing words of grief and outrage and need for something to be done.

And underneath those messages, little white faces posting words of emotional violence.

Defensive. Victim-blaming. Re-traumatizing. Punishing. Threatening.

"Why are you making this about race?" "#alllivesmatter" "Stop dividing us."


And underneath those callus, heartless, shameful words, I watched the faces of black and brown women popping into the comments to respond with soothing words, careful explanations, and empathy for the cherished white friends and coworkers who simply didn't get it.

I sprinkled heart emojis and supportive hashtags all over the posts of those women of color in my feeds, and then I just wanted to put my face down on the keyboard and cry. I wanted to go take my anxiety and grief and shame and drag it under the bed like an injured house cat and retreat like the hermit I kind of am. And then I saw a BBC News headline about my nation, which I had so recently celebrated on the 4th of July: "Why Don't Black and White Americans Live Together?"

Oh look, our shame is front page international news.

But then I looked out the window of my home and saw a different perspective. Black and white Americans do live together. Yes, segregation in many areas is very real. I went to college in Kalamazoo, one of the most racially segregated cities in America. I've seen it.

Everything I've been seeing in the news is, sadly, true.

But also, what I don't see in the news is equally true: That we can and do live together. That most of us want desperately to get along better. That we love each other.

We live together in my diverse neighborhood. We live together inside the homes of my friends. I know lots of people in interracial marriages, some with children.

Lansing is not Kalamazoo. Lansing is one of the best cities for racial minorities in the nation, and it is one of the least segregated, racially and economically. It has its problems, to be sure, but let me remind myself that those problems must not distract me from attending to all the good people and love around me.

So I contacted a friend, one of those friends with lovely brown skin and an afro that often has rainbow colors and glitter in it, one of those friends who loves a lot of white people with an endless supply of patience and forgiveness in her heart. And I came at her all "THE WORLD IS HORRIBLE RIGHT NOW WAAAAAHHH!!!" And she responded to me by offering comfort. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked kindly.


I took myself by the hysterical face, and I said to myself, GIRL.

Get. Your. McStuffins. Together.

I sat still and took a breath. I reminded myself that just because I have not lived a life of training in How to Talk Down Hysterical White People (including myself), that did not give me the right to allow a person of color to be spending energy comforting me at this time.

"No," I said. "I just want to bring you a cookie and a hug."

So that is what I did, and it is the one thing that made me feel better.

[Update: This friend, who is of course Christina, turned out to be not happy with me for making the assumption that she did not want to have a talk about it with me. But she's still my friend anyway, so... thanks, Christina.]

After that, I gave myself permission--or rather, marching orders--to shut off the computer and radio, avoid television, leave the house, and take my socially awkward, hermetic self outside to be with living, loving people all weekend.

On Saturday, I took my daughter to a beautiful, joyful picnic hosted by our neighbors' church. It was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny with a cool breeze coming off a lake. The people at the picnic were predominantly African-American, some immigrants. My daughter and I weren't the only white people. There were people of all ages and various colors and national origins, sharing food and laughing and playing with children. It was incredibly restorative.

On Sunday, I went to work at my church, which is predominantly white. It's also flamboyantly love-peace-joy and celebratory of diversity. This is our current sign out front:

These are the kinds of words I print in the bulletin, and people take photos of them and put them up on Instagram (squee!):

At service, I looked around at the crowd--white families, interracial families, people who are Latin@ and Native American and African-American and Chinese-American and Hawaiian and Indian-American and British-American and who even knows what kind of American, Christian and Baha'i and Buddhist and Jewish and agnostic and atheist (it is a non-creedal church), shaking hands and hugging and laughing together. Taking solace and strength from this life-saving community even as we manage not to take ourselves too seriously. (A church member lit a candle of sorrow during worship because Garrison Keillor will no longer be making fun of us on A Prairie Home Companion.)

During the service, a young black mother stood up to comfort her fussy baby and then started to head for the door when the baby did not quiet down. A young white father jumped up and carried his own fidgety baby over to play with the crying baby, and both children quieted as they entertained each other. It was a sweet moment that took place against a rousing and hopeful sermon about looking around ourselves and attending to the strengths and gifts sitting quietly inside of the people all around us.

When I got home, I felt like writing.

And when I get done writing, I feel like living. Creativity heals trauma and gives us emotional strength to show up for the people who need us.

So sometimes I need to remind myself that taking care of myself by doing silly things like working on a fantasy novel--it's not so silly. Because it's important that I take care of my mental health so that I do not become a burden to those around me who are hurting. So I can show up with cookies and hugs and hands ready to work.

And so I never forget that the future is created by the wonders of the human imagination. When we create, we heal, we grow, and we open ourselves to possibilities that are better than the world we came from and the world we live in today.

I think we'd all be a little bit better if we focused more on creating--even if it's just a silly fantasy novel or a batch of peanut butter cookies--and less on tearing each other down.

Every act of love--for life in general, for a friend, for ourselves--no matter how small, means everything to one heart in one moment.

So here I go, back into The Grove of Thorismud, where the ruling queen is a migrant with skin black as ebony and a white husband who adores her, where religions and cultures blend into each other and young people learn how to say "yes" to love and all the brutal, wretched violence of medieval Eurasian life cannot stop every seed of hope from sprouting.

Monday, July 4, 2016

VICELAND of the Free

Happy Interdependence Day! This week's post comes a day early because AMERICA!

"Interdependence Day" is the UU church's "holy" version of the 4th of July, which we celebrate every year by exploring all the ways in which we as Americans are interdependent upon each other, the natural world, and people of other nations.

I stopped into the office briefly on Sunday morning to finish up my revolutionary beige office decor. But could I myself show up wearing neutral colors? No, no, I could not. The crazy church lady / mommy in me cannot resist cheesily dressing up in the festive colors of a holiday. I just can't. I'm like a Serbian soccer fan on game day. (But way, way less violent.) I even dressed my whole family in red, white, and blue. YEEEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAWWWWW!!!!


The dragon collage on the lowest shelf is sort of an homage to my fantasy artist aunt, who used to paint all kinds of familiar, decorative still life and scenery pictures and stick a sneaky unicorn or dragon somewhere in there. Hee hee, surprise! It is also a reminder of where I came from on the journey to becoming a beige-decorating church lady.

After having some fair trade, organic, shade grown coffee at church, we zipped in our electric car over to my parents' house for a big gathering with all of my maternal aunts, uncles, and grandparents. (By the way, my fears of receiving public scorn for our pretentious vehicle have been unfounded; on the contrary, we have inspired one aging Republican couple in town to buy one for themselves! Being a church lady is so subversively influential...) Our darling child got the party started by dumping hand soap into Oma's fountain to make a "bubble volcano." Well played, Nux Gallica.

We brought a homeland-lovin' pie made with three pounds of Michigan blueberries and a sour cream crust made by five-year-old hands. Sing with me: "Ame-er-i-i-caaaaa!"

We gorged on traditional 4th of July cookout food, and then, like true Americans, my husband and I let our child go outside with her uncle and play with explosives while we draped ourselves across the sofa and watched our parents' giant flat screen TV. We flipped through the channels for a while, scoffing at the poor quality of broadcast television and the outrage of there being "nothing on" amidst hundreds of channels, when we stumbled upon the new VICELAND channel.

*Angels singing!*

We were enthralled by all the little mini-documentaries, infused with the unmasked emotional responses of the investigators (a different kind of honesty than supposedly "objective" journalism), on complex, confusing, ridiculous, and awe-inspiring situations such as Serbian soccer games, Palestine's fashion week, and the inside of a Ugandan prison.

We turned to each other and said the same thing that we had said after we had first seen the film Samsara and after we had just stayed with friends living in central Mexico: "I feel like I've just visited Planet Earth."

Experiencing a little glimpse into the "normal lives" of people who live in extremely different circumstances than we do is a powerful reset for the brain and heart. VICELAND is often sarcastic, hilarious, and irreverent. But in some ways, it is more respectful and honest than mainstream journalism because of its self-deprecating humor and its exposure of the investigators' own thoughts and feelings as they get to know the people they are profiling. In short, watching VICELAND makes my husband and me feel as though we've learned something, as opposed to taken a brain vacation like when we watch pretty much anything else on TV. And it makes us feel an intense awareness, love, urgency for growth, and gratitude all at the same time, regarding the particularities of being American.

And the best part about it is that you don't even have to get TV service to watch it! VICELAND has the resources to produce high quality, giant TV-appropriate content, but they still let us watch whole pieces on YouTube. Behold...

Writers, if we're gonna watch TV--ever--we may as well watch TV that opens our minds and hearts and inspires better storytelling.

Between holiday celebrations and VICELAND episodes, I have journeyed 120 pages into my novel rewrite as of today. Yeehaw! Happy Interdependence Day!

Most Cracked Nuts of the Week