Community

Catching Some Consolation

Twitter is yelling today. So is the News. Everyone has opinions on how I should be spending my attention / energy / money to help with various crises. The crises are real. People are hurting and afraid, which makes them highly reactive and less able to feel empathy for approaches which are different than theirs. These crises have been brewing for years, a fact which has some yelling “I’ve been trying to warn you, why didn’t you listen?” But the past few days have had tipping points where everything went from “brewing” to “boiling over”. Now everything is hissing, smoking, making a mess, and we have literal fires to put out. And yet for someone like me who isn’t standing in the kitchen, who is out of reach to control the pot, the ways I can help are limited. My work is mostly unchanged. I still have to do laundry today even though missiles are flying over cities. I still need to write my representatives, precisely because other states have passed bad laws. I need to spend time writing, even though it feels like words are inadequate. I must tend to people near to me, because the mundane ways that we lift each other up don’t go away just because the crises boiled over. Today I’ve just added a new task called “Do not let the shouting and anxiety consume me.” When I was picking a title for this post I started with the word “comfort” but I don’t think I should be comfortable with world events today. However I do think I can be consoled. Consolation acknowledges the grief and allows it to continue to exist even while moving forward to do what is necessary.

I gathered the following two quotes from twitter. They helped me find some consolation today. Perhaps they’ll also help you.

With the world locked into a spiral of destruction, what point is there in making art? How can a song or a story or a picture make a difference? But every act of creation is also an act of defiance. And something as small as a butterfly’s wing can sometimes summon the hurricane. –Joanne Harris From @joannechocolat on Twitter.

It can be overwhelming to witness/experience/take in all the injustices of the moment; the good news is that *they’re all connected.* So if your little corner of work involves pulling at one of the threads, you’re helping to unravel the whole damn cloth. Let’s keep working our corners. Solidarity. –Ursula Wolfe-Rocca From @LadyOfSardines on Twitter

Butterfly Wings in Interesting Times

Does every generation feel what I feel when watching history unfold all around them? Lately I feel caught up in an unstoppable flood of events, like videos I’ve seen of mudslides which scrape entire houses into the sea. The word “unprecedented” has been tossed around frequently in the past two years since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to the point where I think longingly of the boredom of predictability. Through the pandemic and the global climate shift and unresolved economic shifts I’ve gained a sense of the vastness of historical events. Events are so big and I have so little control over them that it is tempting to just try to hunker down and survive.

Yet one thing I learned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter / George Floyd protests of 2020 is that I am responsible for the power and privilege that I have. My lever to change the world may be tiny, but I am accountable for my use or non-use of that lever.

I can’t make it so that the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn’t launch yesterday. I can’t repeal the order from Governor Abbott of Texas where he classified transgender healthcare for minors as illegal abuse and commanded Child Protective Services to prosecute parents for it. I can’t change the big climate-change-driven storms across my entire country. But there are things I can be doing. The effect of them is small in the immediate realm, but I take courage from the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in one place can affect the weather six months later on the opposite side of the planet.

So I’m flapping my wings today. I’m posting information and action items about anti-transgender legislation in my state. I’m monitoring those posts to make sure that whatever conversations spring up around them are managed and shepherded by me instead of left to become toxic. The existence of these posts volunteers me for emotional labor to educate people who may have not thought much about these issues before. I’ve allocated mental resources to manage this for the next few days. Other things in my life may take a small hit.

Other tiny wing flaps that are in progress: Ongoing attention to anti-racist efforts. Today I’m focusing on anti-trans legislation, but I also have my eye on local book-banning and government over reach into teacher’s jobs. I’m thinking about installing a Little Free Library in my front yard that I would stock with diverse literature for both kids and adults. I’m also occasionally nudging city politics because we need more middle and low income housing. Currently every city in my county believes that the apartment complexes should go into neighboring cities instead of their city. And I’m slowly changing the landscaping around my house toward being desert friendly instead of water hungry because water is going to be increasingly scarce in the next decade. Then there is all the community building work to help shape my church communities, and to help the individuals in my writer communities thrive.

None of my actions can move the needle in the short term, but I’ve come to be a firm believer in the slow and steady turtle who eventually wins the race. I can’t focus on all of these things every day, but I can cycle through them as I have time or attention to spare. Small actions accumulate. And with every small action to exercise the power I have, I do a tiny bit to make the world better.

World events are giant, but I can do better than “nothing” in response.

Complicated Kindnesses

The first kindness arrives on my doorstep wearing a Christmas hat and smiling, standing a pandemically-correct six feet away from the door. She was my child’s primary teacher fifteen years ago and wants to reconnect with us now that she has moved back into the neighborhood. The person she remembers no longer exists. My child has changed their name to Lad and embraced a nonbinary gender identity, including the use of they/them pronouns. I want to give her the connection she needs, but I have to decide whether to disrupt her memory of my child, and possibly her binary worldview. The words “they go by Lad now” are easy to say, but saying the words opens a conversation far larger than a porch treat exchange.

I stand in the doorway between her and the inhabitants of my house, including Lad, now adult, but still living at home. I’ve held space for Lad before. Teenagers seek identity, to discover who they are. This important developmental task becomes exponentially harder when your body does not match your internal experience of yourself. It was years before any of us, including Lad, understood how gender dysphoria was complicating Lad’s ability to live, miring them in suicidal thoughts and depression. When Lad opted out of church, it was almost a relief that none of the youth leaders came to ask why. At the time I didn’t even know what the explanation was, just that my child needed space. So I defended their space. I sorted the people in Lad’s life into allies or obstacles; people who understood and adjusted to needs we couldn’t always define, or people incapable of comprehending gender or mental health issues no matter how much explanation I poured into their ears. Not knowing which the woman on my doorstep would be, I decide I am too tired to be an educator today. I thank her for the treat and remembrance. She waves a cheerful goodbye and leaves.

The next kindness comes in small packages left on our doorstep, holiday gifts from church leadership. I stand there looking at a card with the wrong name on it, printed from a database by a person who does not know our story. This gift is meant to make us feel part of the community. For me, that community is a refuge. For Lad… it is an alienation rather than a connection. Alienation was not always Lad’s experience with church. There were loving adults and friends, moments of joy. But once a person turns twelve, church participation becomes binary gendered. Lad traveled the expected track with an increasing sense that this was not their place, that the binary did not fit. Their choice was to press themselves into a false shape in order to stay, or to leave.  Even after leaving, it took Lad years to find their name, their voice, themself and to be ready for that name to be known. When they finally were ready to tell people, we were in the middle of the first year of pandemic. Opportunities for sharing the name change were few. It is not the fault of church leaders that they do not know about Lad’s name switch. I quietly re-gift the offering, waiting for a less mass-produced opportunity to let people know Lad as they are.

The third kindness is my friend who texts me a passage in the updated handbook saying transgender members can update their membership record to their preferred name. This friend knows about Lad’s name switch and since her husband is ward clerk, he can update the record. In moments Lad’s name is in LDS Tools. The gender options are still binary, and we have to squeeze “they them pronouns” into a suffix field, but it is a start. With this small change my ward and neighborhood can begin to engage with the person Lad is now. The old name served well, but it is done. Becoming who we’re meant to be by acquiring a new name should be understandable for church members, a pathway to comprehension. Most of my neighbors only need an instructive map for how to welcome people who don’t fit their expectations. The updated handbook begins to teach how to be more welcoming, how to change expectations to have room for more people. Listing Lad’s name lets people come to me and ask for information when they are ready to know. At the very least it means the next automatically generated label for a gift will have the right name on it.

Lad is not likely to come back to church. Not unless church culture and doctrine changes more dramatically than is usual for a single person’s lifetime. I sometimes grieve that my cultural home was not a place my child could stay, but I must find peace with things as they are rather than holding happiness in wait for changes that may never come. God has told me that He loves Lad exactly as they are, because of who they are, and they will be welcomed in eternity. I don’t try to match the edges of this knowledge to doctrinal structures, instead I exercise faith in the goodness and fairness of God. Lad has other paths to connect with the divine and I am to stay with my people and my church. This is where I serve. This space in between. Sometimes that service is standing in the doorway to protect Lad from people who will judge and not understand. Other times I am a bridge, extending love and explanation to beloved community members who want to connect but don’t have the information to do so.

 Kindness is sometimes packaged clumsily, but the intent is love, and love is the construction material of connection. With that love I work teach my people how to make room, so that some future child has a space where they can both be themselves and stay.  This is the kindness I can offer in return for all the kindnesses that have been extended to me.

Note: The first reader for this essay was Lad, they gave edit notes and had veto power over the entire essay.

In the Wake of SIWC

I remember water skiing and how much attention I paid to the wake of the boat that was pulling me along. That churned up portion of water that was so full of energy and potential for me to lose my balance. I felt so brave the first time I dared to cross the wake, riding the waves instead of fearing them. I spent all last week giving every spare ounce of energy to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. I taught three presentations and was a panelist. I reconnected with friends and met new people. I spent so much time on Zoom that my back and shoulders ache with exciting new tension knots. But just like those long ago skiing days, I’m discovering that while being in the wake requires every ounce of my attention, as I exit the wake, I get a boost of momentum imparted by the water-carried energy of the boat. I want to make good use of this energy, my first use of it is writing this retrospective post.

Of my three presentations I had timing issues with two of them. I’d like to think I’m a more practiced presenter than that, but my presentation on Worldbuilding Communities was entirely new and the time slot was three hours which is a less familiar length for me. I had to rush the end of the presentation. I planned to be better for my Networking and Social Anxiety class, but the timer I set was on my phone. When I rejected a phone call mid presentation it stopped my timer and I didn’t realize the timer had stopped until suddenly I had two pages of material left, 7 questions in the queue, and only 20 minutes to get through it all. I had to skip an entire section and promise to put it up in written format for people to download from the SIWC website. I still feel like I delivered good content in both cases. I made myself available in during the social spaces for people to ask questions. I have some solid ideas for improving the flow of information in both of these presentations to help them better fit their time slots. I’m exceedingly pleased with the work I did to punch up the beginnings and endings of all my presentations. One bit of momentum I’m carrying away from the conference is a renewed excitement for teaching. I’ll fix up these presentations and run them as classes in Jan, Feb, March of next year.

In two of my presentations I reference Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I couldn’t help but notice the esteem level of the pyramid and recognize how very filling teaching at SIWC is for me. I was gifted a presenter role, which meant people showed up to listen to me and treat me like an expert. That happened in social spaces as well as the class times. That level of visibility is very validating, but over time it can also become exhausting. Higher profile increases my ability to accidentally do harm and I was very conscious of that as I moved through the conference. I loved the gatherings where I got to talk a lot and be an expert. Then I loved the gatherings where I got to step down a level on that pyramid and just belong to the group, a writer among other writers. It was a delight to be part of silly conversations about the poetic qualities of refrigerator contents, two sentence spooky stories, and the way that humans pack bond with inanimate objects. It was an honor to be in conversations where people spoke about their challenges and heartaches. All of it combines to impart some momentum to me as I exit the wake of the conference.

My anxiety would like to rob me of that momentum if it could. I’m hopeful that my success at anxiety management over the past week is indicative of personal growth and the stability of the coping strategies I’ve put into place. So that when anxiety reminds me that I taught an entire class on networking, but then failed to invite anyone to join my Patreon or my monthly Creative Check-In events, I can answer it with the fact (from my presentation) that networking is about personal connections rather than marketing opportunities. I made correct decisions to prioritize paying forward instead of paying bills. When my anxiety throws a social moment into the front of my attention along with a jolt of adrenaline to tell me that I was foolish/overbearing/hurtful/an embarrassment, I answer with “maybe I was, but that moment is over and not worth spending energy on.” It is, in a strange way, very cathartic to teach a presentation on social anxiety because it allows me to be very open about the ways anxiety has sabotaged my life in the past and the things I do on a daily basis to stop it from continuing to sabotage my future.

In preparing for my presentations I did piles of research, reading, watching videos, collecting resources for the people who want to learn more about my chosen topic. Right now I am looking at a row of tabs in my browser which are articles, videos, threads, and posts that people suggested to me during the conference. I’m excited by those tabs. I love learning new things. Yet they are homework. Each one will require mental and emotional processing. Since I’m mentally and emotionally spent from the past week, I’m not certain I should use today’s little push of momentum on them. I might be better served by turning the momentum toward creation rather than more information processing. On the other hand, information processing is where the ideas for creation come from. I have a similar problem in that I have thirty days to watch recordings of presentations from the conference. There are so many good ones, but I have to balance learning new things and taking time to do the creative work that I’m newly excited about. I’ll need to space out the tabs and the videos from conference. If I’m careful perhaps I can extend the wake, the momentum push from the conference, all the way through the end of the year. I would like that. Borrowed momentum is a huge gift.

This was the second year of SIWC being online only. The pandemic which drove us all into Zoom connections was a frequent topic of discussion. It was also a frequent topic to speculate what will happen next year. Not even the conference organizers can answer that question yet. Not fully. The world is still in flux and the pandemic continues to impact all the decisions. I know I want to see online conferences continue because I see huge benefits in accessibility and connection. I also really want to attend some in person writer events because some things are lost when the conference is online only. I’m starting to look forward to 2022 and think about how I will venture forth, what I will participate in, what I might like to host, and how to make sure that the people who were suddenly included with the move online don’t get excluded again as we move forward.

I have further thoughts about the conferences and my experiences inside it, but I’ve been sitting here looking at the blinking cursor for several minutes without being able to catch any of them. That means it is time to hit post on this set of thoughts and pay attention to non-conference things. I have a business and a house that have been neglected for the past week. As much as I’d like to just pay attention to post-conference writer momentum, my life will fall apart if I don’t tend to the other portions of my world.

Being Called Back to My Writer Self

I keep a notebook where I write down my tasks sorted by days. I don’t write down every single thing. For house tasks like laundry or dishes, I rely on physical reminders to prompt me to do the thing (laundry basket is full, sink is full) so I don’t write those down. But appointments, phone calls I need to make, emails I need to send; these all end up on my lists. Life has been feeling a lot busier since about mid-May. I wondered if that was actually true, or if all the thinking involved with shipping just made my brain tireder. I pulled out a notebook from six months ago, back then my lists were 3-5 tasks per day. Now I’m averaging 8-10. Demands on my time and attention have definitely increased, and the increase seems unlikely to subside on its own. The pandemic gifted me with uninterrupted hours and very few expectations. Now I’ve returned to a world where I must defend the space in my schedule.

This week I was visiting with a writer friend during a weekly Zoom date to get writing done. She asked after my creative projects. All the things I’d been working on were business or shipping related. She nodded and understood the urgency of my tasks, understood that over the next six months tasks directly linked to earning money were going to absorb much of my time and attention because my family needs income. She was kind and accepting, but the mere asking of the question was a tether which tugged me into remembering that, for my own long term emotional health, I can’t always prioritize the endless list of tasks. Sometimes I need to stake out a space for the work which will help me grow, or which will make the world better, or which just brings me joy. I have to defend that space from all the excuses I have to use that time for something “more productive.” I have to defend it from the impulse to just knock a few more tasks off the list. On Wednesday mornings, for two hours, I need to be a writer first.

Also this week I hosted one of my monthly online Creative Check-Ins with a small group of fellow creative people where we talk about our projects, how they progressed in the past month (or didn’t.) It is really helpful for each of us to talk about how our projects interact with our lives. Life affecting projects, projects affecting life. We’d almost reached the end of our time when one of my friends reminded me that in all the discussion, I hadn’t talked about my projects. Again I talked about shipping, and tasks, and business. I talked about why I allow these things to overrun my creative spaces, shoving to the edges anything that doesn’t bring income. Again I received nods and acceptance. Again, saying the things out loud prompted me to reach behind all the logic of how I arrange my days. To reach past the ways that the endless tide of tasks is important to support my long term life goals. I was surprised to find myself talking about a minor creative rejection which had a larger emotional footprint in my creative life than I’d realized. Because my friends were there, I was able to process that emotion in ways that help me clear the way for me to create again. Once per month for two hours I have a window of time to commiserate and rejoice with others about the creative projects in our lives.

A third thing which happened this week was an email from a writer friend with whom I’ve begun swapping critiques. She had a new manuscript for me to look at and re-iterated that she’d love to look at something I have ready. I have nothing ready. I meant to, but I got swept up in the tide of shipping, barely able to keep my head above water. That tide has ebbed, but it is so easy for me to dive into more tasks. To become accustomed to living by lists. In many ways lists are easier. They are far less emotionally risky that putting my heart into a creative work which might be rejected or ignored. Tasks are also satisfying. I check them off and they’re done. Each tiny completion has endorphins, which means that even while I complain about feeling busy, there is an attraction to accomplishing things and being productive. There is also the illusion that if I can complete this weeks set of lists, that will somehow reduce the number of tasks for next week. As if most of my life tasks weren’t repetitive and cyclical. Yet now there is this email, like a thin line cutting through the water, tugging me back to a place where I can get my feet under me and remember the writing work I want to be doing. For this critique I will read a book, and engage my writer brain. Periodically an email will nudge me toward the projects I want to send to my friend because I am reminded how much I want to hear what she has to say about the stories I’ve written.

Three times this week I’ve been gently tugged back to my writer self. Each time I was pulled by a connection I have to a writer community. Those connections are ones I have carefully acquired and maintained in during the past several years. For me the key has been finding people who ask how I’m doing and give me the space to ramble past the surface response into the deeper concerns. It was also in learning to trust that people actually wanted to hear my answer rather than them just being nice to me because they are nice people. I have a tendency to hide in plain sight, to turn conversations away from myself. I am far more comfortable talking about the concerns of others rather than my own. So this week is evidence of personal growth. At this point in my life, I’ve managed to build community connections that truly support me and call me back to myself when I get a little lost. This is a joy to discover in my life. It is a joy I want to share with others so they can have it too. Fortunately, that is exactly how mutually-supportive community connections work.

Now I need to heed the calls and get back to the writing I’m meant to be doing. Conveniently, this blog post is part of that work. 🙂

Use of Privilege

With my prior post being about personal accountability, I’ve been thinking about a couple of specific accountability things I can be putting into place in my life. I want to call them out and name them because I think the more people who decide to hold themselves accountable in these (or similar) ways the better our world will be.

I need to be paying attention to who is missing in my social circles.

I participate in many communities both online and off. I have church, neighborhood, writer, and friend communities to name a few off of the top of my head. I’m glad to see people and connect. However I need to take responsibility not just to connect with the people who show up for a community event, but also to notice who does NOT show up. If my neighborhood is 5% Latino, but the neighborhood potluck is all white, that is an indicator of something amiss. Did my Latino neighbors not get invited? Did they decide not to come because they’ve felt awkward and out of place at prior events?  I’ve used a neighborhood potluck example, but the principle applies to the demographics of all communities. If no black people are in your online knitters forum, it isn’t because black people don’t like knitting. Something is keeping them out or pushing them out.

 In order to help my communities be more inclusive I need to first notice who is missing, try to identify why they are missing, then address the problems that the answers to those “why” questions reveal. More attention might need to be paid to barriers to entry: extending invitations, giving people rides, offering to cover expenses, changing entry requirements that accidentally (or intentionally) filter for race/disability/poverty. The other thing answers to “why” reveal is the ways that people decide to opt out of a community rather than participate. My responsibility is to help people feel welcome when they do show up. This requires education of existing community in how not to make people feel “othered”  I have a responsibility to correct my friends when they commit microaggressions against marginalized people. (Like asking “where are you REALLY from?” to a non-white person who was born an American citizen. The intention is to engage with the other person’s heritage and have a conversation, but the person ends up feeling like their right to be present was questioned and invalidated.) The work is on me to figure out how to open my communities to include more people.

A step I’ve taken to address the “who is missing” problem in my life is via social media. I realized that my friend and follow lists had a demographic skew that matched me. I decided to expand my lists. I followed/friended some new people. My goal wasn’t to get them to notice me or give me approval. Instead my job was to observe their lived reality. See how their life differs from mine. I found it  particularly helpful when I found someone who is willing to speak out loud the ways that being disabled/lgbtq/autistic/white/female/trans/black/single/childless affects their life. It was uncomfortable at times. Sometimes they say things that make me feel defensive. I’ve practiced sitting with that discomfort for a bit to figure out why I feel defensive. Often I discover that ingrained prejudice is the reason I’m uncomfortable, which means I have learning and adjusting to do. Other times I decide that my discomfort is based in cultural differences. Sometimes the person is wrong and I’m responding to that. In all cases I’m learning to understand modes of being that are different than mine.

Being mindful of my use of privilege

Privilege and disadvantage are not mutually exclusive. Lives are complex. People are complex. Most of us are simultaneously privileged along one axis of our lives and disadvantaged along another axis. This is often why people get upset when you try to explain privilege to them, because the things which have made their lives difficult are very obvious to them, but the things which made their lives easier are invisible.

Knowing that I have both privilege and disadvantage, I am responsible for my use of privilege in overcoming my disadvantages. I had multiple kids with special needs and I had to advocate for them in the school to get them resources and additional help. Every time I did so, I was leveraging my privileges of being a white, college-educated, articulate, middle class, blonde woman. I was listened to, and my kids usually got either the help I requested or some other equivalent help. With every interaction I met administrators who listened to me and actively engaged with finding solutions for my kids. I know from talking with other parents of kids at the same schools, not everyone got that same treatment.

There is no fault in my use of privilege to help my kids. The fault comes if I use my privilege to claim a scarce resource that my kid only sort-of needs but that would be vital to someone else. That is opportunity hoarding. The best use of privilege is when I use mine to make something easier to access for everyone who follows, not just for my kids. If I apply “my kid needs this, lets make sure everyone can have it.” Unfortunately, the school system is often set up in ways that encourage competition thinking rather than cooperative community. Parents hoard resources and bend rules to help their kids get ahead. This same behavior is observable other communities, workplaces, areas of our lives that are not school based. We can use our privilege in ways that advantage “our” people without self-examining that “our.”

So I’m going to pay attention to any time I ask for individualized attention or for a guideline to be bent in my favor. Does my action simply advantage me in a way that is harmless to others? Does it give me an advantage which is then not available for someone else? Does it make life more difficult for someone who comes after me? Or does my action make the path easier for those who follow?

In my small actions I can make the world a little bit better. I have to try.

Gratitude and Grieving

Tis the season for gratitude, or so I am informed by over forty years of personal tradition, a bazillion internet memes, and the leaders of my church. In many ways, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it sidesteps so much commercialism and focuses our attention on being thankful for what we have and on connecting with those we love. And food, lots of delicious food. Yes, sometimes the food part gets complicated and can feel like a burden. Traditions do that because they are constructs. Someone has to put in the work to make the holiday happen. In a good year that person is working from a place of abundance, glad to share it. Other years, not so much. This year…. This year is weird. It has been weird since March. Pandemic required a seismic shift in the way my life is lived. Like an earthquake it changed everything and nothing at all. My house, people, and things are all here, but now I know that the ground under my feet, which always felt completely solid, can move and knock me down. If the ground can move, what else that feels certain isn’t as certain as I thought? So here I am in November after months of shifted life patterns, after canceled events, after unexpected gifts, after things I gave up and things I gained. I’m in the middle of the season for gratitude and I don’t know how to feel about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is supposed to be joy and gathering, instead it may cause sorrow and permanent parting because people gathered when they shouldn’t have.  I both desperately want it and wish it would go away.

Not knowing how to feel about a thing is a familiar state for me. Though it is less about not knowing my feelings and more about having so many tangled up and contradictory feelings that I can’t see all of them at once or even tell what they all are. I have untangled one. It is the memory of me huddled in a church bathroom sobbing because they were handing out graduation certificates to teenagers and my teenager’s mental health issues had prevented them from getting one. Crying for my own pain, hiding because I did not want my pain to subtract from someone else’s moment of celebration. I see people posting about gratitude on social media and I am so happy for my friends and the thing they are grateful for, but sometimes the thing they are grateful for is something I will never get to have. That is hard. On a year when I’m operating from abundance, being happy for others is easy. This year I have both abundance and depletion depending on which angle I’m sitting.

Gratitude is not a single action, it is a practice. All those parental admonitions to “say Thank You” weren’t just about teaching social politeness. They were intended to teach us a way of being, to recognize and acknowledge the good in our lives out loud. It is the simplest beginner-level of leading a grateful life. Naming the things we are grateful for is a valuable and important personal practice. We can note it for ourselves in short-hand because we know when we say “I’m grateful for sunshine” we are encompassing the feeling of radiant warmth of a patch of sunlight through a window despite the winter cold outside, or the way that the sunlight catches a loved one’s hair making them seem to glow. The poetry and emotional depth of the feeling is often missing in simply phrased gratitude posts because the post is a reminder, not the gratitude itself.

I think about this when I see posts that on their surface seem like humble-brags. There is depth beneath that surface which I’m not always privy to. Which is why I am glad when a post gives me a story. With a story I get a glimpse into the inner world of my friend. I get to learn about a piece of their life and how the thing they are grateful for shaped that life. The posts I treasure are the ones which show me how grief can be transformed into gratitude. The story shows the darkness and how they found their way out. That is the road map we all need. We all need to see how a pain, like the ones we carry, can be a force for good in our lives and how we can become glad to have experienced the pain. Pain and grief redeemed. I have so many odd-angled sadnesses sticking out of me this month, I’m collecting posts that help me see how to craft those sadnesses into something beautiful. Upcycling grief via online DIY instructions.

My social media feeds are filled with gratitude posts because my entire church community has been challenged to speak their gratitude via social media for the week leading to Thanksgiving. Hundreds of posts, and I have to approach them with caution. Because some will be a delightful window into the life & heart of a person I know, but others will remind me of a personal pain. Some will help me think of the joyous things I have in my life. Others will remind me of the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is the increasing case rate and death toll of the pandemic. I’m raw and sensitive in ways that ambush me. A funny video of cosplayers in Halo costumes doing a dance at a convention leaves me sobbing because I don’t know when that form of spontaneous joy will get to exist again. This year gratitude and grief are inextricably entwined. I’m grateful for the things that have caused me grief and I’m grieving things for which I am grateful.

I am engaging in my own deliberate gratitude practice this year. I’m staying tightly focused on what is possible withing the confines of pandemic restrictions, finding joy where I am at, with what I can have right now. I’m focusing intently on small joyful actions and service. I am sieving gently through the social media posts to find those which add to my joy without disturbing my griefs. I am constantly aware that I’m like a scooter bug on water that has dark depths. I skate over the surface, held up by surface tension, creating resting places for myself as I go. This is not the year for me to search my soul. Instead I will try to breathe and live gratitude. I will make ridiculously decorative food for the Thanksgiving dinner I’m not sure how to feel about. I will put stickers on my journal entries where I write the shorthand notes about what I’m grateful for. I will keep myself moving forward on creative projects. I hope that will be enough to get me through the dark cold months. Somewhere beyond the cold and dark, things will come alive again. Perhaps then I’ll be able to figure out all the things I am feeling during this holiday season.

Wedding Shopping

On Saturday I accompanied my daughter and her fiance as they went shopping for a wedding dress. From the moment we walked in we felt the weight of expectation. We were greeted at the door and assigned an appointment with a stylist who could be with us in just a few minutes. The store was full of women prepared to pamper and flatter because surely every woman wants to feel like a princess when buying a wedding dress. We were surrounded with racks of sparkling, flowing white. And somehow they all had a sameness to them which seemed completely unappealing. After a few minutes we were convinced that we weren’t going to find anything and we were making contingency plans involving going to a vintage clothing store, ordering off the internet, or perhaps even sewing.

Then the stylist showed up and listened to my daughter’s concerns. To the fact that she didn’t want anything sparkly or scratchy. She knew that having dress that rustled as she moved would grate on her nerves. She needed something that she could wear comfortably for hours at a time while having to mix and mingle with crowds of well wishers. A dress that was lovely, but designed for wearing not for flashy display. The stylist listened and helped her pick three dresses to try on. We were then led to an area with dozens of mirrors, dressing rooms on a raised platform, and a ring of chairs surrounding it. It was an area designed to put the bride on display. Fortunately we’d walked in during a quiet time, so we didn’t have to deal with other brides and their entourages. It was just us and a stylist asking “So does this dress make you feel like a bride?” while my daughter stared at her in disbelief and said “I have no idea what that feels like.”

Several other stylists stopped by since they didn’t have clients at the moment. They all kept asking “do you think this is The Dress?” and you could hear the capital letters on The Dress. As if we were on a quest to find the one true dress. Which seems like a lot of emotional weight to put on some clothing. We even spotted a sign which was obviously designed for women to hold up while taking Instagram photos.

And yet despite all the interest and expectation, the stylist was very good at her job. Once she realized that my daughter was more interested in a dress she could wear while running from a zombie apocalypse should there happen to be one mid-wedding than a dress which made her feel like a princess, the stylist changed which questions she was asking. (The moment of complete bafflement on the stylists faces as we were making running-from-zombie-apocalypse jokes was sort of priceless.) We were fortunate and surprised when the second dress turned out to fit all my daughter’s needs while simultaneously being lovely. The last act of the stylist was to have my daughter ring a bell to indicate that she’d found The Dress. I think the tradition is to ring the bell loudly so that everyone in the store could cheer. Fortunately the store was pretty much empty and the bell can be rung quietly too.

We were handed off to a seamstress to talk about alterations, she was much more practically focused and she was also geeky enough to laugh at zombie apocalypse jokes. My daughter has another fitting in three weeks and we’ll pick up the completed dress a comfortable month before the wedding day. So we have another task complete and we can move on to the next one.

The Stories by which We Define Ourselves

I was at a party and a young man, to whom I’d been introduced when I arrived, was asking couples to tell the stories of how they met. The inquiry felt unusual to me and I had to pause to figure out why, because I remember when the story of Howard and I meeting was often pulled out and shared on similar occasions. I then realized that this young man was recently married. Stories of how people meet and fall in love was very much on his mind. Also it is one of the most significant shared stories that he and his wife have together. In contrast, Howard and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have so many shared stories they could fill a book. The story of how we met is no longer a defining element of our marriage. The hundreds of shared decisions, crises, joys, and adventures since are far more relevant to who we are now. Howard summed up this idea very well in a tweet:

Was at a party where @SandraTayler and I were asked about how we met. We’ve been married 26 years. How we met has very little to do with how we ARE. It’s a nice story, but a meet-cute is not a rom-com is not an actual life-long romance.

Life-long romance has far more to do with continuing to choose each other and make space for the other person in your life as you change (and they change) in all sorts of unexpected ways. When I try to imagine what story I would tell at a party to encapsulate Howard and I as a couple, I’m a bit at a loss. The story of a newly married couple is short and compact with a clear narrative arc. The story of a long-married couple is more like a series of epic fantasy novels with multiple points of view, lots of random external characters, and a plot that frequently gets lost in side tracks. The story of Howard and Sandra is not easily summarized.

On a separate occasion I met a different young man along with his father. During our conversation the father shared a story surrounding the birth of his son. I could tell that it was a family-defining story which forever changed the shape of all of their lives. As evidenced by the fact that when asked to tell about his family, this is the story the man chose to tell, even twenty-five years after it happened. When the conversation with the father was over, I had a chance to talk with the son. I could tell that he was used to this story being told, and was surprised when I suggested that perhaps at twenty-five he could claim a different story. He didn’t have to be defined by this story of his birth, but could instead bring forth stories of things he had done as an adult. That defining stories of a family could be updated and recast.

As long as we are alive, we are in a process of re-invention. Sometimes it is a massive renovation akin to knocking down walls and completely re-invisioning a room. Other times it is as subtle as putting a new cushion on a couch. Yet even subtle changes accumulate over time, and the stories we tell about who we are have to evolve along with us. The stories we tell about those we love, especially the stories told in public, especially the stories told while the loved ones can hear, those stories have power. The stories we tell make others feel stronger or weaker. They can build people up or push them down. Howard and I frequently tell funny stories on each other. We have a rhythm and a set of performance roles that we use in public for effect and the amusement of others: Howard the goofball and Sandra the responsible. Yet we always check to make sure that we aren’t trapping ourselves in the joke, forgetting that we are larger than the stories we tell at parties. Making sure we remember the other stories, the ones where Sandra is funny and Howard is the hero.

Most of the best stories of us aren’t the kind of stories which are good to tell at a party.

Structuring a Writing Group to Promote Nurture In Addition to Critique

While I was on the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat I had the opportunity to talk to other writers about Writer’s Groups, how they can work brilliantly and how they can fail. I happened to mention the structure of a group I currently belong to, and other writers requested that I write it up in detail as a reference for others who might want to start a group that isn’t solely critique-based. This is that write up.

I am fascinated by the underlying structure of communities, the ways the stated goals and guidelines of a community shape what the community will become. Sometimes I see how a rule intended to bring a community together can unintentionally create divisiveness and competition. This is the reason I feel concerned that so many writer’s groups are formed around the core of exchanging critique. Critique is absolutely critical to writer development so we can learn to see our blind spots and develop good craft, and yet critique is inherently deconstructionist. It pulls apart the work to examine what is working and what is not. This process can be kind and careful, or actively destructive depending on how the tools of critique are wielded. This is why so many critique-based writer’s groups are carefully structured to build trust and to help their members navigate being critiqued. I’ve seen it done remarkably well and I know many writers who depend heavily on their critique-based groups to help them.

The thing that often gets missed when forming writer’s groups is that critique is not the only way that writers can help each other with their craft. I recently joined a group that is structured very differently than any group I’d heard of before. I’ve been fascinated by the ways that this group is specifically structured to nurture and build up the group members.

The group meets once per month for three hours at a time. We meet in person, but the same structures could be adapted to an online group. Portions could be dropped or added according to the needs of your group whether you meet in person or online.

Hour 1: Social Hour
We all bring food to share and we visit. It is a chance for us to catch up on each other’s lives, hear about current crises, or talk about recent experiences. Sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes we don’t. This time allows the group to bond. We learn to be friends and care about each other as people. The more outgoing group members take care to reach out and include the quieter members.

Hour 2: Education
One member of the group comes to the meeting with a presentation/lecture about a topic that they have prepared. Sometimes it is a topic they’re already expert in, other times the person had to research and learn. During the presentation members are encouraged to discuss the ideas being presented. The group has had lectures on pacing, marketing, character development, etc. This portion engages writer minds with new topics and helps us face the current problems we may be having with our work. Also by rotating who teaches, the group ends up with different perspectives. Additionally, putting in the work to present keeps members invested in the group.

Hour 3: Collaboration
The content of this hour is variable. Sometimes it is critique where a person has submitted work in advance so the members come ready to discuss it. Other times it is a brain storming session for a magic system. It could also be an encouragement session for a person who feels hopeless about where they are in their craft. The point of the time is to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the members whatever those needs happen to be. Not every member gets their work focused on each meeting, which is why if a member has an urgent collaboration need between meetings, email chains are encouraged.

Other structures around the group: There are shared google drive folders containing notes from previous lectures/presentations and also work that is submitted for critique. This allows members to catch up on anything they might have missed and smooths the way for members to share work with each other.

The group co-leaders take turns writing up a weekly email with a writing concept or word of encouragement. This keeps the group members engaged and in touch with each other during the weeks that we don’t meet.

Membership in the group is capped to keep things manageable. This is particularly important since we rotate meeting at various member’s houses and not everyone has space for a huge group. By taking turns hosting, we get to see each other’s homes and thus get a better understanding of each other. Some members don’t host because they don’t have enough space or they live too far away. Others don’t host because the thought makes them too anxious.

Membership is filtered because the group wants to make sure that new members understand that the primary goal of the group is to encourage and help each other. Ego and competition have no place in this group. We gain new members by existing members suggesting someone they think would be a good fit. The prospective member exchanges writing samples with the group leaders and then attends a meeting. If everyone agrees the fit is good, the new member is added to the google folders and email chain.

Members are dropped from the group if they can’t regularly attend or contribute to online exchanges. If someone’s life is too busy to participate, then the space goes to another writer who can. Former members can cycle back in when their life calms down and if there is a space open.

The largest criticism I’ve heard of this format is whether we’re too soft on each other, surely critiques need to be brutally honest in order to be useful. I agree that they need to be honest, but not that they need to be brutal. It is entirely possible to help a fellow writer see the flaws in what they have written while simultaneously leaving them feeling encouraged and excited to go fix those flaws. Which I believe is far better than leaving a fellow writer to go home and emotionally process a harsh critique.

Obviously, ymmv. Some writers may thrive on competition and harsh critique. I know that I don’t, and judging from the interest in the format of my group there are other writers out there looking for alternatives as well. There are as many ways to form writer’s groups as there are writers to form them.