Month: May 2023

Building Context

I am reading Me (Moth) by Amber McBride which is a novel written in poetry. This is the third or fourth poem novel I’ve read recently and I’ve discovered I love the form. It strips away so much noise from the emotional content of the book. But a novel in poetry requires an accumulation of layers of meaning. I reached a few lines on page 80 that struck me:

“Steps in new directions are hard to take
& it is hard to be sure if Sani is the moon
or just a dumb light bulb”

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride, pg 80

Looking at those words, you may wonder what in them was powerful. I’ve pulled that quote out of the book and dumped it here for you to read. In doing so I have ripped it free of the context which gave those words impact for me. Through eighty pages of reading I learned how my protagonists’ name is Moth. How she is in the process of cocooning after a soul-deep injury. How she meets a boy name Sani who is as injured as she is. And now she wonders if them traveling together is a path toward healing or just endless and deadly circling of the moth and the porch light. Context gives the words their power.

I think about this when I scroll through social media and see endless thoughts and snippets ripped from their contexts for easy sharing. One descriptor for this experience is Context Collapse. The tricky part is that sometimes snippeting works. Sometimes it is incredibly useful to share a pull quote or a meme to spread an idea or to share sorrows and joys. There are twitter threads and social media graphics specifically designed to carry their context with them packed tight.

But even the best-packed meme still arrives in a head different from the one that created it and the one that shared it. The new mind and heart carry their own context built out of a lifetime of experiences, fears, and joys. A context that is built and informed not only by their own life, but also by what appears before and after the snippeted meme in the feed. The new person reacts based on the context they carry in ways that are baffling or feel very tangential to the conversation that the snippet was intended to spark. Even people who are in fundamental agreement on problems and solutions can end up arguing because we’re having multiple conversations instead of a singular one. A cloud of possible conversations sparked by the same snippeted meme, shaped by individual contexts.

We all end up shouting at contextual ghosts that we’ve made up in our own heads. If we are not careful to actually build context with the person we’re attempting to converse with, we can end up holed up in defensive bunkers, terrified of the straw men we built for ourselves.

Pausing to build context is the key. It is taking those lines I pulled from Amber McBride’s book and asking me why they mattered to me, what impact they had. Not just finding out the context that the book provides, but also what are the resonances in my own life that make them ring like a bell for me. Even after all of that, you still may not see why those lines matter, maybe they fall flat for you instead of ringing, but at least we will have had a shared conversation. And likely will know more about each other than we did before. Building shared context is how we connect, how we learn to love, how we heal.

But context building takes time and patience. It takes using social media tools against their built-in purposes. It requires us to add our own context to the things we share instead of just sharing them. It takes all of us learning to hold space for each other.

Addendum: You should definitely read some of Amber McBride’s work. It is beautiful. If you want, feel free to use my affiliate link to pick up a copy of Me (Moth).

Shifting Employments

A year ago this week I learned of a job at Writers Cubed Inc where I would be the Director of Operations helping run conferences and other events for teenage writers and support teen and child literacy. I applied and got the job. This week I am winding down the last pieces of my employment with them. It isn’t the outcome anyone wanted. They wanted to build me into their structure for years to come and I liked being a core structural element in making events happen. Unfortunately finding funding for non-profits is complex and often difficult. They’re experiencing a funding gap and they can’t afford to pay a Director of Operations for the next year or more. So I’ve been carefully closing up files, finishing off email chains, and logging out of programs. I’ve also been observing the emotions of job loss as I go through them, even while part of me is glad to have my time less constrained. My work for them went on hold more than a month ago, and I haven’t been any less busy.

This often seems to be the case. As if tasks are just waiting in the wings to flow into any available space. We got our copies of A Little Immortality delivered from the printer and that has moved us into Shipping Season with its attendant raft of tasks. Every shipping season is a little bit different. This one is the first time we’ve had books delivered from our local printer, it is the first time orders will be waiting on the arrival of coins instead of books, it is the first time my son is being trained in all the shipping tasks with an eye to him fully taking over the job the next time around. All of this occupies my time while I’m contemplating how my life will be shaped when my schedule is no longer bent around working 10-15 hours per week for someone else. While I’m also contemplating how I can fill the income gap that not having an additional paycheck will cause. I can see my way through August. Between now and then I need to figure out additional steps.

One of the things I am doing is plowing through drafting books, so that I can get feedback on books, so that I can move closer to getting more books on the table. Working an outside job on top of the work for my own business taught me stamina in a new way, I’m using that stamina and habit-of-work to make words happen. Then once I have feedback, I’ll have a better feel for whether anything I have written is viable as something that can be published. I’ll have a feel for how much more work there is to do. Perhaps when the first rush of shipping slows down I will be able to get some videos posted to Patreon. Perhaps after I’m done drafting entire books I can turn my attention back to shorter fiction. Or perhaps when I reach August it will become apparent that I need to be looking for another job.

Usually this sort of uncertainty makes me anxious. I suppose I am a little, but I’m also feeling fairly calm, like this is a good path, that I have good plans, and that between now and September further paths will become more clear to me.

Growing for the Future

My clover is growing. It is now recognizable and visible from a distance.

Of course the weeds are also growing, since the conditions which allow my clover to thrive are also beneficial for a number of weedy plants. However as the clover establishes, I should have fewer weeds to pull.

Seeing the brown patch fill in with green is very hopeful. Later this week I will pay a sprinkler company to fix several sprinkler problems and that will hopefully help me keep things green.

Fixing the sprinklers is part of a much more involved process that I’m undertaking in several areas of my life where I’m expending resources now in ways that will let me conserve my resources of time and energy better in the future. The past several months I’ve been training my 20yo to take over the tasks of warehouse management and store fulfillment. This week I’ll be training him on Kickstarter fulfillment as we start sending out the first shipments of Schlock Mercenary A Little Immortality. I can see a future where I’m no longer handling fulfillment and am able to focus my energy on making new things. I see a future where this brown patch is green.

Visiting My Bookshelves

In this quieter space with fewer appointments on my schedule and fewer admin tasks for me to track, I have been doing some organization and clearing out. This is how I ended up standing in front of my bookshelves. One of my bookshelves. I have shelves in multiple locations which serve different portions of my library collection. This time I stood in front of the shelf which is mostly full of children’s books from my own childhood and from when my kids were young. I accidentally stood there for half an hour, reading spines, occasionally pulling out a book to leaf through. I was remembering, not just the story contained in the book’s pages, but also the story of how the book came to be mine, the story of why the book mattered to me, the story of who I shared that book with. These physical objects contain so much more than what is printed on their pages.

Books have shaped so much of who I am. They continue to do so both in what I’m reading and what I’m creating. I could write my life history simply by going to my bookshelves and telling the stories of me and each of the books on the shelf. I don’t think everyone stores and processes their lives in this way. Howard does to some extent. He has shelves of his own. One of my sons definitely stores memory in objects, but his objects are more likely to be video game cartridges. My other kids, less so. Books matter to me deeply, which is why making them is a large part of my life’s work.