Sunday, October 28, 2018

What's in a Gendered Pronoun? A lot, Actually

I've been thinking a lot about gender lately. Over the last few years I've been trying to read books by women. I'm aware this is sexist. I'm also aware that for centuries, women's work was either ignored, destroyed, or passed off as men's. So all you guys who want to cry sexist at the current idea of someone excluding you, go away. Men who are secure enough to understand why women and other minorities might want to focus on our own histories, welcome and thank you for existing.

A few weeks ago, I wanted to take a bit of a break from reading anything that might distress me and read something a bit lighter, like say, a murder mystery.  I saw a copy of an Ellis Peters mystery languishing on my shelf, so I picked up One Corpse Too Many (I mean that sounds light, right?) expecting to be diverted for a few days. I didn't expect to be enthralled by the story and by the prose. I also had no idea Ellis Peters was in fact, Edith Pargeter.

Then in my quest to find a book club, I found that my new-ish local bookstore in Winston-Salem (Bookmarks) has a book club, and for October, they are reading Himself by Jess Kidd. I had never heard of either the book or the author. I almost didn't read this book, because of the title. Halfway through and loving it, I googled the author and realized she was a she, not a he, as I had assumed. To make this assumption even worse, her picture is inside the back cover of the book I am reading. (I avoid the interior of the back of books. Many plots have been spoiled by even the merest glance there.)

Just this week, when recommending the Brother Cadfael series by Edith Pargeter to a friend, I remembered the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis and recommended it too. I had also assumed this series was written by a man. My soon-to-be daughter-in-law is named Lindsey, and I still assumed these books were written by a man.  Wtf?

It seems that I, even after half a century existing as a woman who tries to be inclusive and open-minded, still automatically assume a book is by a man if the author's name is gender-neutral or male, even though I am well aware that women often assumed male names to get their books published and accepted.

So, where does this leave us? Well, it leaves me with a reinforced sense of purpose when it comes to reading works by minority voices and with the thought that if your response to this is to tell me to stop being so sexist, you might not like the answer you get. It will be gender-neutral, but it won't be rated G. Read on, friends, and be sure to include minority voices in your journey.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Church Picnics at Doughton Park: The Persistence of Memory

 When I was young, my church went to Doughton Park for a picnic every October. I had no idea where we were once we got there. I never drove, so in my memory, it has always been this nebulous, unreachable place. I wasn't even aware it was on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I think I’ve been afraid to look for it. Maybe I felt like I no longer deserved to find it. I’ve spent decades puzzling over where this place might be when it was so close, if I had just been brave enough to look.

Today I found the spot of those church picnics:  all those hours of food, communion, peace, love, and acceptance. Was that not real? How did we lose all of that? Was it a ruse based on the facade of conformity the whole time?  Looking over the empty tables, haunted for me by so many ghosts, I had to make myself stop searching for and grieving all those people who once meant so much to me and who are now lost to me.

So I parked there and walked through the fields I used to run through as only a child can, over cow patties (that at least hasn't changed), to the rocks that awed me both then and now, and as I walked, I thought, if I wanted to reconvene these people who once meant so much to me, how would I do that? And I knew that the only answer was that I would have to die, and then some of those left living might come to my funeral, if they didn’t have some other more pressing engagement that day.

And I realized again what I’ve known now for a long time: We don’t do living right.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Why Read?

"I was gradually getting used to feeling the range of available human emotions, their intensity, the rapidity with which they could change. Until now, anytime that emotions, feelings, had threatened to unsettle me, I'd drink them down fast, drown them. That had allowed me to exist, but I was starting to understand that I needed, wanted something more than that now."
 ~Eleanor Oliphant

For those who don’t see the point in reading fiction, here is an example of what fiction can do for you. In the book Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, toward the end of the book, which is the beginning of Eleanor Oliphant’s healing, Eleanor finally realizes that the negative, hateful, judgemental voice in her head that she always took for her own voice is actually the voice of her mother. Quirky, bizarre, broken, naive, and vulnerable as Eleanor Oliphant’s true voice is, she reminds me of who I might become if only I were brave enough.  Her complete honesty and lack of facade are what I would like to strive for in my life.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been going back to therapy this summer, and one of the things I’ve been trying to learn is to see, recognize, and know myself. I realize this sounds elementary and like something that should have been handled decades ago, but if you grew up a woman, especially, I think, in a rural society, you will probably understand why self-knowledge and self-determination has escaped me. Like many other women I know, I have spent too much of my life worrying so much about pleasing and displeasing others that I never truly learned what I needed to make myself happy. As my therapist has pointed out on numerous occasions, this is both an impossible and an exhausting way to live.
As children most of us were taught to subject our wills and opinions to those of our parents, and sometimes we internalized the voices of our parents so much that we never developed our own voices. I’ve always been overly-sensitive to the moods of others and as a child and teenager wanted more than anything to please my parents. I learned the lesson of worrying about other people’s moods and needs so much that it became who I was without my even realizing it was happening. Even now, I am still working to understand and believe that I don’t have to be this way, that learning to recognize my own voice is not selfish. Most importantly, I am learning that the voice in my head sometimes isn’t my voice at all, and that my job now is to find my own voice and use it. Thanks to Eleanor Oliphant for helping me verbalize this realization. Read a novel once in a while. You’ll be amazed what you can learn about human nature and about yourself.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Less Sure About Less

"And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get."

I experienced a strange transition reading this novel. I didn't think I was going to like it for a while. I wasn't even sure I would finish it. It just wasn't catching my attention. I don't know why. But then, about the time Less gets to Morocco, which is toward the end of the book, I loved it. 

A lot of the book was too much hapless Less mess for me, and I got tired of it. Maybe that was my problem with it. Maybe it was just because Zohra was the only character I could personally identify with, and she doesn't show up until Morocco. Maybe it was just due to my mood.  Who knows? 

In the end, though, I enjoyed the book and am glad I read it. It was definitely laugh out loud funny in many places.

Friday, June 8, 2018

How to Save a Life, One Day at a Time

photo by Amy Brandon
"Little things heal our hurts. Sounds, scents, the spoken word, and music that may mean nothing to someone else can reach into our souls and do a work that ordinary methods cannot touch."
 ~Joyce Sequichie Hifler

In the wake of this week sad news on the mental health front, I feel like I need to say this. I'm probably going to spend tonight spinning in my head about whether I should have shared this or not, but I'm going to be brave and say it anyway. I have struggled with depression for years. I've fought my own battles. So far, I've won those battles, but not without a considerable amount of self-harm, both physical and emotional. I've been lucky. Somehow, I've been able to continue to see the love surrounding me. If you are one of those people whose go-to reaction about suicide is to jump in and pass judgement, just stop. Each of us, especially those of us who live with mental illness, fight battles every day no one else can see, and just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't real. Unfortunately, mental illness is much more common than most people realize because the old-school stigmas still persist, and we just don't feel comfortable opening up about our struggles. People who are depressed aren't making a choice; they aren't being selfish; they aren't weak. Being awake to the darkness and staying alive through any days with that knowledge requires strength beyond what most of us understand.

In December, 2016 I spent a week at Forsyth Hospital on the psychiatric floor. This was quite probably the most important week of my adult life. It was the first time I had been taught that what was happening to me was not my fault, told that I didn't have control over it, that I didn't cause it, and that I couldn't fix it myself. It was the first time I learned to take care of myself. I'm not going to be glib and say it's all been uphill from there. My life since then has, in large part, consisted of my learning to set boundaries to facilitate my own mental health. Until I started therapy in 2014, I had never even heard of the concept of setting boundaries to protect my own mental health. (Probably this goes a long way toward explaining a lot of my adult life.) I know that many memes are shared on social media about getting away from things or people who make your life harder, and I know that a lot of us, including myself until recently, click "like" and "share" without giving those truisms another thought, but what I am beginning to discover is that in order to achieve real health, we do have to remove ourselves from situations and people who cause us harm. More importantly, we also have to learn to stop causing ourselves harm. The difficult loop here is to realize that you are causing yourself harm if you stay in a situation that harms you in any way. We are good at recognizing physical harm. Emotional and mental harm is much more difficult to see. When you learn to respect yourself, when you finally figure out that achieving self-worth has to be your most important job, it becomes so much easier to remove yourself from situations and people who damage you. I am speaking here only of my own experience. I don't pretend to have any idea what other people go through.

None of this is easy. I have to work hard every day to be well. Some days, I am well.  Some days, I am just ok, and some days, I'm a fucking train wreck. Wellness requires commitment and daily work. But how is committing yourself to daily mental health any different from going to the gym or getting an antibiotic for an infection? After telling myself I couldn't afford it, I went back to therapy a few months ago, and I am so much better now than I was even a month ago. Before you assume anything about me and my financial situation, I pay full price for those thearpy sessions because I have shitty health insurance, and I've had to give up some things to do that, but it is absolutely worth it. Sometimes getting help truly becomes a question of what your life is worth. Here are some of the free things that have helped me:  yoga at home (YouTube), meditation at home (free apps), reading (library books), Krista Tippett's On Being Podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression Podcast, my dogs and cats, writing in my journal, gardening, bird-watching, cooking, cleaning my house, and reaching out to talk with people who make me feel better. Spend some time making your own list of things that make you feel better, and then do at least some of them every day. If you think you don't have time, consider how much time you spend watching TV or on social media.  Think of this list as your mental health tool box and use those tools daily. A few days of self-care can make all the difference in the world. You don't need permission or an excuse. Your life is all the reason you need.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Power of The Power

Photo by Amy Brandon

For a book I almost didn’t finish and certainly didn’t love, The Power by Naomi Alderman has dominated an awful lot of my thinking lately. So many questions, so many interpretations.

Most of the reactions of the women I know who’ve read this book seem to be centered around the female on male violence. That violence is what almost made me stop reading. I find myself abandoning books very often that include male on female violence because I’m tired of dehumanizing misogyny, and because I find any kind of violence disturbing. Perhaps an uncomfortable question to ask myself is why I was able to read past the dehumanizing female on male violence. I didn’t like it, and I felt like some of it went way too far, but I do understand the point the author was making with it.

The most common response I’ve heard from other readers, all of whom are female, interestingly enough, has been that they were disappointed with the way the women in the book used the power they were given. They all believe, as I do, that women would behave better. One person said that because women know what it is to be oppressed, she believes women would not jump straight to being oppressors. Another woman mentioned that women tend to be more nurturing and loving than men so it should follow that women would be kinder leaders. From the narrow view of my own experience, I agree with both of these assessments, but I don’t know many women who have survived the kinds of experiences that Allie, Roxy, and Tatiana (three of the women in The Power) survived. I don’t know what my reaction to men would be if I had lived their lives. I do understand their bent to revenge more than the character, Margot’s, who seems to be a power-at-all-cost politician. I have no personal knowledge of or experience with a woman like this, although I assume they exist.

Another common comment other readers made was that they liked the book for the first hundred pages or so but not after that. It was shortly after those first 100 pages that I remember thinking I might not be able to finish the book. I detest violence. I can’t even watch old cartoons, never could. I don’t care about power. I don’t understand the desire to be in control of another person. I don’t understand the concept of revenge at all. I do understand that I speak out of the privilege of my own safety.

Violence, revenge, control, and well, power, is what this book is about. Now, granted the book is hyperbolic and satirical, but those two traits don’t necessarily make the violence any easier to read. The plot moves along very well, and I’m sure for people inured to CSI and Law and Order and all those other TV shows the majority of us consume, the violence will not be an issue.  Or anyway, it shouldn’t be. If you can consume male on female violence on a regular basis, then one book with a reversal should not be an issue for you. If you’re like me, and you generally eschew anything with violence, consider yourself forewarned. If you’re looking for love, peace, hope, or redemption, look elsewhere. Still, I think the warning this book provides makes it worth reading.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Motherhood: It's An Asskicker Every Time

These are the People I Love Best

Today, I realized what I've been mourning the last eight years is my motherhood. I understand that I am still a mother, but for me, the best parts of motherhood are over. I look at these younger mothers running around to little league and soccer and music, and I hate them. I hate them because I want to be them. We hate most what we don't understand, but in a crazy, only-human-way, we also hate what we want to be but can't. I know these women in a way they don't even know themselves. I know sometimes they hate what they are doing. I know some days they live for 30 minutes alone at night. I also know they have no idea what they have right now.

Often at my age, women take up "nannying" someone else's kids. While I now understand this inclination, it won't work for me. It's not kids I want. I don't even like kids. What I want is my kids back. I want my kids when their breath at night woke me up, when I was the reason their faces lit up when I walked into a room (is there anything else on earth like that?), when they would wake up and ask me what's for breakfast, and I would say, fix your own breakfast and pack your lunch while you're at it, yet still I felt safe in this world because I knew that no matter how much of a clusterfuck I was, motherhood was something I could do right every day, and I knew that here were two people who, no matter what I ever did, worshipped the ground I walked on. I know how they feel, because every day of their lives, I've felt the same way about them, even when I was mad enough to throw things (Sorry, B. I may have over-reacted. When you have your own kids, you can tell me. I love you). When I look at my kids these days, I feel content just to dial it in from here on out. Even if I never do one other good thing, I've done what I was sent here for.  I hope you've had that in your life. It's the best I can wish for us all.

Me in the Sweet Spot and Not Even Knowing It

Friday, April 27, 2018

We Are All Migrants

"The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart." from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Last year when I read the review of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West in the New York Times Book Review, I decided against reading it for two reasons:  I couldn’t imagine how a story about the refugee crisis in our world wouldn’t be depressing; and I found the idea of the magic exit doors to be a little off-putting. Sometimes I enjoy magical realism, but I was skeptical about combining it with the serious, sobering issue of the refugee crisis. When the book showed back up recently in The Morning News Tournament of Books, I decided to give it a try, and I am so glad that I did.
I can understand why this book isn’t for everyone. It is not a deep, heavy treatise on the refugee crisis, but I don’t think it’s any less serious for its lack of depth. I found it to be a quick read, but one that nonetheless made me think deeply. The use of the doors worked well to reinforce the important point of how vastly different standards of living are with just a change in geography, but also of how nearly the same people are everywhere.  People in Britain and America might have reliable access to electricity, clean water, cars, food, and safety, but they are not immune to the xenophobic herd mentality that plagues people everywhere. In fact, easy access to comfort and riches seems to make one more susceptible to isolationism. When you choose to look askance at the young men who join any kind of gang or militia, look around at how much this kind of assimilation happens everywhere (only the details are different), especially when family and society break down and leave people feeling alone and unsupported. Saeed and Nadia have fled a broken society where a militia has taken over and wreaked havoc, only to end up in London where “nativist provocateurs” threaten violence, and refugees under threat then retreat into factions of “their own kind.” Safety in numbers; comfort in sameness….this is common to us all. Whether you believe in a god or not, I think a lot of us would benefit from being more aware of the sentiment behind the phrase, “There but for the grace of god go I.”



Exit West Notes

P4 “ moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

P11 war escalates time (in this example due to the deteriorating of a bldg’s facade)

P 28 Ironic that Sadeed uses a burqa to sneak into Nadia’s apartment to date. When everything is hidden, everything is hidden…

P42: virtual world that is available to people in undeveloped nations stands in stark contrast to their own reality:  “...children who went to sleep unfed but could see on some small screen people in foreign lands preparing and consuming and even conducting food fights with feasts of such opulence that the very fact of their existence boggled the mind.”

pp46-47 description of psychodelic mushrooms on consciousness

pp87-88 I like the idea of the exit doors...desperate people searching for a way out, but the theme is embedded in a somewhat clunky, jarring manner. I liked it better when he just used the vignettes instead of explaining anything. It is an interesting concept though, that you could just step through a door anywhere and get somewhere else, especially given how difficult it is to enter and exit some countries now.  Maybe he’s making a point about the pointlessness of all the borders and patrols and “safeguards?”

P94 Nadia is more comfortable with change and progress and variations of movement in her life than Saeed, in whom “the impulse of nostalgia” was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic?  Same idea as people who have more fearing loss more

P96 parents have to let go of children in order to save them

P98 “...for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind…” so many people here for instance not being able to see their parents any more…

P106 Doors west are heavily guarded; doors east are not

P109 “ ...the militants had perhaps hoped to provoke a reaction against migrants from their own part of the world...and if that had been their hope then they had succeeded”

[Violence as a vicious cycle:  Militants kill citizens and in return “nativist provocateurs” attack anyone who looks like the militants.  What’s the difference in these two violent groups? Any violence:  physical, verbal, mental, emotional, is equally wrong.  People’s motives are easier to grasp:  revenge or maybe just sadism, but regardless of motive, violence is wrong. And I know we think smugly to ourselves that we would never, but we do.  We do every time we lash out at each other, it’s just a matter of degrees. Violence starts with ideas, moves to words, and so on, and violence always breeds violence, so it can never be an answer. I don’t have the answer.  I just know it isn’t violence.]

P138: build up to conflict, waiting:  “the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.”

P139:  “people are monkeys who have forgotten that they are monkeys, and so have lost respect for what they are born of, for the natural world around them…”

P140:  If Nadia broke her promise to keep Saeed safe, would that “mean she stood for nothing whatsoever.”

[The areas where the refugees have squatted become known as “Dark London” because of power cuts and also I assume due to skin color?]

Pp146-7:   Refugees under threat retreat into factions of their own kind: safety in numbers, comfort in sameness

[This story makes me grateful for everyday things like the ability to shower and wash clothes and to work and earn an income, for blankets and soap and towels…]

P158:  everyone both converging and diverging...the migration, mixing and unsettling and so, frightening...people become isolationist (see Brexti and MAGA)  
“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart.”

P 159:  “The fury of those nativist advocating wholesale much like the fury of the militants in her own city. She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and the buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”

...but then she grasps her freedom outside her homeland and grins “with a wildness.”

[Interesting that the Londoners are referred to as “Natives,” which usually connotes “uncivilized” peoples.]

Pp163-4:  “Saeed wondered aloud once again if the natives would really kill them, and Nadia said once again that the natives were so frightened that they could do anything.”

P164  “Our country was poor.  We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”

P165 “ love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you”

P197:  point of there being no natives left in the USA begs the question...then of where am I a native?

P 209  “We are all migrants through time.”

Monday, March 26, 2018

White Tears

"On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, the authority you thought it would bring...Then came the terror when the real darkness first seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there. The shame of knowing that you would do nothing, that you would allow it all to carry on."

White Tears by Hari Kunzru is a strange, challenging, compelling book. I almost returned it to the library after the first 50 pages because it seemed to be yet another book about socially-dysfunctional, weirdly-obsessive white guys. The writing and the development of the plot kept me going. That's the author's gift, I guess:  to compel me to read a book I think doesn't interest me that actually ends up interesting me. In the end, the white guys are just the vehicle, the cheval, for a story about lost blues musicians, the danger of obsession, futile white guilt, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation, and the powerlessness of being outside of the ruling oligarchy that is America.

Reading it made me feel a little crazy: obsessive and guilty and miserable about both our past and our present. I wonder if people who didn't grow up in the south surrounded by blatant racism and hyper-aware of their own ancestors' roles feel the same kind of pervasive guilt about the past that I feel when confronted with these truths. It feels horrifying and crippling, and I don't know what to do about it. Where does the guilt of the ancestors end and my own guilt begin? For I also am relieved that the walls are there for me, and I too am riding the easy waves instead of fighting the current.

This book was well-written with many deep, affecting themes woven into a short narrative, and the plot will keep you guessing until the end. Honestly, I'm still not 100% sure what actually happened and what didn't. It's definitely not a feel-good book, so if you're looking for that, look elsewhere, but in my opinion, it's worth reading, studying, absorbing. This post feels unfinished because I feel like this book is not finished with me yet.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

White Rose, Black Forest

photo by Amy Brandon

"You are privileged to read these words so many are barred from. And why are they barred? Because the Nazis know that their real enemy is the independent thinker."
 from White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

I don't read on Kindle as much as I read print, but a few weeks ago, a friend recommended White Rose, Black Forest  by Eoin Dempsey to me, and when I went looking for it, Amazon First Reads seemed liked the best way to get it.  I don't know if I'll stick with the program, but I thought I'd give it a try.  If anyone has had any experience with the service, tell me what you've thought.

White Rose, Black Forest was an entertaining read.  At first I wasn't sure I was going to stick with it, because it begins with a girl contemplating suicide, and I just wasn't sure I was up for that kind of book.  Turns out, it's pretty much the opposite of that kind of book. Here are some key elements:

  • a remote cabin in a snowy wood in the Black Forest in 1943
  • a strong female protagonist who happens to be a Nazi dissident
  • the daring rescue of an enemy spy by said protagonist
  • the enemy and the dissident snowed in alone for weeks
  • the dissident's ex-boyfriend, now a Gestapo officer
  • an escape attempt through the snowy woods with a stay in a cave (I love a cave) 

What will happen? Read it and find out. While much of the plot defies belief, it is an entertaining, escapist story, and if you're like me, a break from reality will be much welcomed. Also if you're like me, you will have to try your best to ignore how quickly and underhandedly Hitler's Fascists took over Germany in the 1930s.  Scary stuff.

What's in a Gendered Pronoun? A lot, Actually

I've been thinking a lot about gender lately. Over the last few years I've been trying to read books by women. I'm aware ...