How Not to Suck at Writing

  •   Try Grammarly‘s plagiarism checker free of charge because your teacher definitely will.
  •  Think about what you are writing before you write it.  This seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But all the time I see students coming in for help with papers who have just sat down and started writing and then been mad that the ideas didn’t come.  Ideas are kind of like beautiful women- rare is the writer that can get one in bed without putting some thought into courting it.
  • Try something different.  Okay, I get it: writers can be superstitious.  You wrote an amazing poem in that red shirt, but today you have that red shirt on and it’s not working.  Try something different.  It isn’t that hard.  Sometimes ideas get stuck on things, and you have to tease them loose.  Take a walk, eat some chocolate, do jumping jacks, kiss someone, do a headstand, talk it out with a friend, take a shower… do something.  The longer you sit in frustration at the keyboard, the more reluctant your ideas will be to show their face.
  • Ask why.  Is it something you’re writing for personal reasons?  Ask why you’re writing it, that will motivate you to work through your frustration.  Is it something you’re writing for an assignment?  Ask why it was assigned, it will help you understand what is expected of you.  Without the “why”, any work of writing can end up seeming directionless and confused.  Don’t do that to your work.
  • Write anyway.  Write the worst, most pointless, most meaningless and painful drivel you can.  Write through the wall and then look at it and ask, “what can I do to make this better?”  No matter how bad it is, it’s better than nothing.  You will have gotten a start.
  • Use art.  Writing an essay about sharks?  Draw the outline as pictures of sharks.  Use a graphic organizer, like an idea cloud or a Venn diagram.  Find some way to visualize the ideas you want on the paper, and you’ll find the shape of the written work starting to form in your head.  For some people who are more visual than verbal, writing can feel like surgery without anesthesia.  Finding a way to bring the visual into the writing process can ease the way.
  • Tell yourself what you are doing.  “I’m sitting down at the computer.”  “I’m going to write a paragraph now.”  By verbalizing your goals you cement them in your head, and make it a little easier to follow through.
  • Set short, manageable goals and reward yourself.  A Fun-Size Snickers for each bullet point?  Awesome.  I’ll go ahead and make more bullet points.  (Yes, this really does work.)
  • Treat it like a game.  We get the idea from the Hemingways of the world that writing is a tragic thing full of pain and best managed drunk.  It doesn’t have to be so dire, it can be fun.  Find ways to play with what you’re writing.  Hide a little joke in there.  Don’t take it so seriously.  Even if it is a paper for a grade, your teacher can sense if you hated it, and that will color their opinion.  I know I can tell the difference between a paper where the writer was engaged and happy and one where the writer hated it ever having been assigned:  one is far more likely to garner an A than the other.
  • Realize it is a moment in time, and will pass.  You aren’t going to spend the rest of your life in front of the computer screen.  Do what you must to get through it, and then go out and realize the sun still shines and the birds still sing.  The longer you spend at the keyboard resenting your writing, the longer you remove yourself from the things that make you happy.
  • Just type.  Nonsense if you have to.  Get your fingers moving, and get it done.

(this blog post is totally sponsored.)

Duck Dynasty, Exposure, and Godliness.

So, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame apparently couldn’t stop talking about how sinful being gay is while giving a reporter from GQ a tour of his home.  His subsequent suspension from appearances on A&E created a dual dust-up:  Gay people that are offended that yet another high-profile Christian has made them into a whipping boy, and Christians who scream “free speech” in response to his censure at the hands of the production company.

I had a handful of kneejerk responses to seeing the news.  The first was that I checked on all of my gay friends on Facebook, because if any of them had posted an angry, sad, or bitter retort I wanted to express my condolences for any pain they felt.  The second was to check on all my Christian friends, just in case I felt the need to offer some perspective.  The third was to hunt down the original article in question and read it carefully.  After that, I had to do some thinking.

My feelings on this issue are complex, as my feelings inevitably seem to be.

First, I am tired to my very bones of Christians feeling the need to pick at the sins of society as a whole.  We can’t ever fully understand God or his motivations, but we can look to the Bible and see what examples he gives us.  In the old Testament we see God ordering one of his prophets to marry a prostitute, as this is a metaphor for his love for his people.  The metaphor?  The man loves his wife but she leaves him to pursue her own interests time and time again, only coming back when she is beaten and bruised.  Hm.  Another example I find illuminating is, of course, Christ.  He did talk about sin, but he lived a life that was not focused on it.  His life was focused on compassion.  Then there are the letters of the apostles which of course are filled with admonitions- but they were talking to fellow Christians, and we really honestly cannot use their language as a model for how to speak with unbelievers, so what are we left with?

Looking back at the story of Hosea and the prostitute Gomer, I am continuously struck by the fact that while her sin and abandonment of her vows was an issue, the greater focus was on God’s love for his people and how Hosea’s love of her was a reflection of that.

The story of salvation may involve sin by necessity, but it isn’t the story of sin.

duck heads

Focusing on sin misses the mark, and that’s where I think that Phil Robertson’s portrayal of Christianity falls short.  You can say that his remarks about how guys ought to dig vaginas were a defense of Christian beliefs, but is that what Christianity boils down to?  Not liking anus?

Given a platform to discuss anything, or to defend the faith, what exactly needs defending?  The right to consider homosexuality a sin, or the right to demonstrate God’s love?

For me, at least, the choice is clear.

Then, when it comes to considering whether or not A&Es censure of Robertson is a condemnation of faith or simply an investment-saving move, I think the truth is equally as clear.  Robertson was given the time with the GQ reporter to further A&Es brand, which is bound up in the Robertson family’s persona.  While that persona involves their Christianity-inspired down-south values, consideration has to be given to the audience at hand.  GQs audience probably isn’t reading a spread on Duck Dynasty to hear about how being gay is bad.  It’s simply bad PR, and from A&Es point of view Robertson’s job was as a brand ambassador, not an ambassador for Christ.

He’s being censured for not doing his job.

This is the problem with mixing God and money.  If you choose God, you aren’t choosing money, and if you choose money you may have to turn on your morals.  If Robertson’s ultimate goal was furthering his version of the gospel, in the end losing his screen time should be a price he is happy to pay for having done that.  If his ultimate goal was money, well, he had the choice to keep his mouth shut.

(Although, honestly, there is a fair argument to be made that furthering God doesn’t necessitate gay-bashing.)

Now, for the issue of free speech:

If Robertson was an atheist and had said that Christianity had no place in American politics and that politicians should be censured if they admit to their personal ethics being influenced by the Bible, would the Christian community be saying his right to free speech is sacrosanct?

Food for thought.

Picture from Jamesjustin

“You work and go to school? Who takes care of your kids?”

So I’ve seen this blog post getting linked around Facebook, and I’ve mostly scrolled by it with a good-natured “harrumph”.  It’s Matt Walsh writing about how his wife is doing a bang-up job of raising his kids, what with the birthing life into being and instilling of morals and hygiene and societal values while staying at home and never having a career anymore.  Most of the people I’ve seen linking to it are stay-at-home moms, and I don’t want to disparage what they do.  But one friend of mine took exception to Walsh’s tone because it seemed really patronizing to the mothers who do work, and that made me think about a lot of things.

Let me start by saying that being a stay at home mom is hard, incredibly hard.  I did it for five years, and looking back I think it was more emotionally draining and difficult than parenting while working.  You never get to clock out of being a parent, especially when your kids are on top of you every second of the day and a good bit of the night.  It’s hard to deal with feeling unappreciated and unproductive.  It’s nice to get a pat on the back every once in a while from someone who affirms stay-at-home-mommyness as something of a sacred calling.  But being a working mother is a whole different type of hard, and while I can’t say the two are equal or unequal, what I can say is it takes a strong-ass woman to do either with any amount of grace.  Women who manage to actively raise their kids into productive members of society in today’s world deserve praise REGARDLESS of their employment status.

My family needed me to have an income, so I went to work.  Then, I went to school and work.  And it’s funny, because while my professional life post-stay-at-home-mommydom has gotten me many “god bless your heart” pouts and shoulder rubs and people with wide eyes saying, “how do you MANAGE?”; there’s a lot less of a sense of screw-everyone-else solidarity amongst working women than there was in the stay at home mom world.

I suppose there’s a feeling that we’re betraying someone, or something.

It doesn’t help when people, in feigned congratulations of my courage, say things like “so you go to school AND you work?  Who takes care of your kids?”

Um, I do.  And their dad.  We raise our children together, thanks for implying that I am somehow crippled as a mother because there are hours I am not home.  No, I can’t always pick them up from school or tuck them in to bed.  But I am present in their lives, the moon that pulls their tides, regardless of if I am available to them every second of the day (including bathroom breaks) or if I am only with them for two hours.  What matters is if the connection to them is actively nurtured.  What matters is when over dinner I ask them what the happiest and saddest moment of their day was.  What made you feel victorious?  What made you feel like you failed?  What will you work harder at tomorrow and what you do differently?  What can I do for you?  Is there anything you want to talk about?  Want to cuddle and read a book?  Need me to mend the sleeve of your dress?

I mean, I may have to boil a days worth of parenting into a few hours sometimes, but there are other days I’m home all day.  There are days where I give my essay project the middle finger and decide to make cupcakes with my daughter or play Minecraft with my son.  I still actively work at being a parent.  I do not shove that responsibility off on anyone else (except their father, who actively shares it).

Being a mother is hard.  Being a parent is hard.  It’s hard whether or not you work.  All of the reasons to stay at home, or to go to work, belong to the parent and not to society.  Stay at home moms need to ask themselves if they have the patience.  Can they go for a few years without even peeing alone or reading a book uninterrupted?  This is a serious question, because child abuse happens when they cannot.  Working moms have to ask themselves can they feel connected to their child if someone else is the one seeing the first steps, hearing the first word?  Can they marvel at their children without having to know every detail?  These are serious questions.  My dad got a lot of Monkeypants’s firsts.  That was really difficult for me.  But you know what?  I get her everydays, and her everydays do not suck.  They amaze me.

Mothers shouldn’t have to stay at home to be congratulated and praised.  Fathers should be praised, too.  You know why?  Because like Matt Walsh says we bring life into the world and we rear it… regardless of whether or not we have another job.  We worry about our children and we do our best to raise them well.  We give ourselves to them, we center our efforts around them… and, yeah, sometimes we make getting or keeping or furthering careers a priority because as a parent we have a responsibility to ourselves as well.  We have a responsibility to model how to be a good member of society, and sometimes that means learning how to be a doctor or a schoolteacher or a nurse or an accountant or what have you.  And sometimes for financial or spiritual or personal reasons that means staying at home.

Sure it does.

But whatever being a parent means, we shouldn’t all have to be competing with each other to prove that we are somehow good parents regardless of how we live our lives.  We’re good parents because of who we are to our children and who they are to us.

 

For the Love of God, Be Kind.

I don’t even know where to start.  Today has been such a strange, emotional day.  Five things happened more or less simultaneously, each of them affecting me in curious ways.  I watched the latest episode of Breaking Bad with my husband, we went out shopping and had lunch (a treat we rarely indulge in), we helped a random stranger take home some furniture from the Salvation Army, I read a snarky news piece on the latest Miss America, and I felt knocked over by the news of another mass shooting.

All of these things within a few hours, and all of them heavily emotional for very different reasons.

To start out with, I love my husband.  I’ve always cared about him, and wanted him to be successful and happy for a variety of reasons,   But it’s been a while since I’ve felt like this is a guy I can spend a pleasant afternoon beside.  No, I should rephrase that, the fact that I enjoy spending time with him has been creeping up on me, and for whatever reason today it stood out.  This is someone who I enjoy spending time with.  A year ago I was uncertain I would ever say those words again, and even less certain that they would ever be thought about me in return.  The realization that we are behaving like friends is so bittersweet, because a very small and mean part of me wants to throttle my husband and remind him of all the damage between us.  Yet, that part of me is squashed under the warm fuzziness of not having to think about such rage on a daily basis.

Ironically I owe the fact that realization in part to Breaking Bad, a show which most certainly does not center around Good Old-Fashioned Family Values.  Yet watching the show together, debating it, surprising each other with well-thought out arguments and philosophical meanderings about the writer’s motivations has really helped us to remember what made us friends in the first place.  We can talk about things:  both the things that matter to us, and the things that interest us.  It’s the fighting about things that gets us into trouble, that distracts us from the talking.  If we can remember to talk to each other: not communicate about our wants and needs ad nauseum but just to TALK to each other, we might be okay.

Never downplay the importance of entertainment.  It gives us all something to talk about with joy and excitement in our hearts.  That really isn’t a bad thing.

But back to today.  We really need something to use as a stand for our daughter’s big terrarium.  It’s too big to sit on the piano, so to upgrade the Lizard’s habitat we need something that is, well, huge.  We’ll have to rearrange everything.  We went to the Salvation Army on the hope that we may find something used to re-purpose but it was to no avail.  Oh well, we contented ourselves with stacks of used books for 50 cents a pop, and I got a new pair of pants and a new pair of boots.  It was pleasant.

While in the checkout lane we were behind a kind of hard-core grandma, who was buying a lot of stuff.  She seemed agitated.  I asked her if she was alright and she lit up and asked excitedly if we happened to have a truck.  “Why do you ask?”  She’d just bought a coffee table  but couldn’t get anyone to agree to help her home with it.  “It’s not far,” she said, “I’ll buy your things if you could help me out.”  We decided to help her out but refused her money.  It was an interesting ride.  She was so passionate about antiques and she had so much knowledge she was so eager to share, even showing us around her apartment and talking about the statues and paintings there.  She was so full of piss and vinegar and just on fire about everything, it was so fascinating.  As we were leaving, she thanked us for helping an old woman out.  I told her age happens to everyone, we’ve all got to be kind.  She laughed and said, “oh, sweetie, age ain’t gonna happen to you for a while.”

Maybe so, but it helps to remember our shared humanity.

Then, the shooting.  It seemed bizarre and surreal that with all of the news I’m exposed to on a daily basis, it took so long for that to trickle through.  People don’t even sound shocked and horrified, anymore, just resigned.  “Another shooting, only 12 dead.”

Only 12 dead.

ONLY 12.

It makes me sick to my stomach to realize the collective apathy that is beginning to set in, as if we live in a world where people are bound to be killed en masse, and any time where it doesn’t break the 20s it’s not too bad.  What is wrong with us?  Just a few days ago, a black man in the south was shot for “advancing on” police after having been in an accident and trying to get help, not all the details have emerged but initially it seems the man had done nothing wrong.  Then, there’s another shooting in NY where police injured bystanders while trying to shoot a man who appeared to have a mental illness, instead of subduing him by other means.

What a cold world it seems we live in these days.

My daughter has been up in arms about it, too.  She tells me that if we want to live in a nicer world, we have to be nicer people.  I don’t think it could possibly be easier than that.  I know in my own marriage, the key to having a nice marriage has been being willing to be nice.  No one wants to be nice to someone who is mean to them, and being mean to someone who is being mean is just asking for more of the same.  The show Breaking Bad is all about the same concept, violence breeds violence and greed breeds greed, the answer is never pushing for more- freedom only comes from letting go of vice and the secrets.  It seems at every turn that the protagonist may have his chance for the Hero’s Journey but he chooses vice instead, clings to it like a suit of armor, despite the fact that it is killing him.  You see the same thing with the people on the news.  Fingers point, the blame game is played, anger is spouted off as if it were cathartic, the right thing to do, a solution.  It doesn’t matter where you come down philosophically or politically, someone hates you for it and you hate someone else.  Real, tenable solutions are the farthest thing from everyone’s minds.  It’s as if we as a society have given up, and now we’re just looking for someone to blame for it.  It’s the gun lobby!  It’s the anti-gun lobby!  It’s law enforcement overreach!  It’s bleeding heart people!  It’s you!  No, it’s you!  Who even cares, it sure as heck isn’t me!  I’m the good guy!

Let’s talk about Miss America.  A lovely American woman of Indian heritage won this year’s pageant and the immediate news isn’t about her dedication to STEM studies (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or about her degrees or her platform of cultural competency, it is ironically about the fact that many people are lambasting her for being an “Al Qaeda Plant” or Muslim.  Perhaps people need a cultural competency class, because most Indians are Hindu and even if she were a Muslim, that doesn’t mean she has nothing to offer as a spokesperson for women’s issues or a cultural icon.

It’s interesting that every generation seems to have it’s bogey man, communists or Nazis or the Irish or the Jews or the Witches or the Catholics or the Anabaptists or the Native Americans or the, you know, whoever.  We always have to have the bad guy in the back of our minds to blame, you know, just in case.  I think it’s a reflection of the magical thinking that humans are so infamous for.  We believe that certain rituals protect us- be it incantations, or wearing our lucky socks, or knocking on wood.  We also need to be afraid, I think.  We need to work to overcome the bad things in the world because it makes us feel worthwhile.  So we LIKE pointing fingers because it means we’re moving forward.  But that’s magical thinking, at the end of the day we aren’t safer.  So why do we look for the bogey man?  Because if overcoming evil is as etched into our psyches as searching for meaning, as I believe it certainly is, if we don’t look for the bad guy out there we have to look for the bad guy inside.

But just like in Breaking Bad, if we never go dark we never have to worry about that guy out there.  We bring the outer evil on us because of the evil inside, just like in my marriage.  Ken was never my enemy, even when he was.  Even at the worst, my greatest enemy was the things I believed about myself.  We lose a lot of beauty from our lives when we close ourselves in to our own worlds.

Like my first instinct, to tell the lady at Salvation Army that I was too damn busy for her.

But I wasn’t, that was just my perception, and once I opened myself up to the possibility of helping I realized that I was helping myself, I was making myself less alone.

If you want to live in a nice world, you need to be a nice person.

You don’t need to get rid of all guns or all Muslims or all newscasters, you need to be nice.

Just, be nice.

Everything else flows from that.

It flows from your heart.

It flows from what you choose to cultivate there.

Be kind.

Mennonites and Ladybugs and Me Learning Not to Whine.

In the last week, I’ve seen six conservative Mennonite women with their hair pinned under bonnets and long, flowing, flower dresses.  I know it was 6 times because I counted.  There was one working in the emergency room, there was another one shopping at Target, another one shopping at Safeway, one walking around the campus at my school, and two walking together downtown.  This stands out so clearly to me, because in the entire time I’ve lived in Yakima I’ve never noticed one.  People have told me that there is a conservative community out there, somewhere, as in:  “I think they live in Moxee and make cheese.”  But have I ever seen evidence of their existence?  No, I would have noticed.  (I think.)

So this past week I’ve been wondering why now?  I’ve been missing my home town desperately, so maybe it’s just my mind being tuned to the signs of what I lack.  Or perhaps in all my praying about where the future may lead, this is the universe’s way of reassuring me.  Or, who knows.

Yesterday while I was in the garden, I saw hundreds of ladybugs.  I always see ladybugs in times of great change.

I was crying.  It’s hard to verbalize why.  I was picking tomatoes and red beans furiously.  Just furiously.  I was angry because my best friend moved to the other side of the country.  I miss her, I miss having very many friends.  I feel so lonely most of the time.  It’s not because I don’t have friends in Yakima, although I pretend I don’t so I can feel sorry for myself.  I have a lot of friends but not close friends, not “let me lay my troubles on you” friends, although I have many friends that could become that if I took the time to nurture the relationship.  I suppose I was crying because I was realizing how selfish I can be, how selfish I’ve allowed the past five years to make me.  How guarded and defensive I’ve become, how unwilling I’ve become to invest in others.  How resentful I’ve become of my life.  And why?  Why am I feeling that way?

My life right now doesn’t suck.  I enjoy school, I enjoy work, I don’t fantasize about my husband getting in a car wreck and dying.  Life has made progress!

But I still feel the hangover of exhaustion from all the trauma that led me here, the constant desire for some kind of vacation that I will never get.  It’s been years since I’ve had a single night away from the children.  YEARS.  I can’t even put my finger on the last time I woke up in the morning not feeling completely exhausted.

I sit in the garden picking red beans and wondering when that chore will end.  Why?  I enjoy it.

I stare at the tomatoes and wonder if I should stop watering the garden and let them die.  Why?  I enjoy them.

I curse the fact that anything, even the things I love, even friendships, ask something of me.  Why?  Why?  Why?

When did I decide that I have nothing left to give, no more energy to invest, no more desire to make the effort to make my own life better? I’ve spent the last 30 years waiting for someone to come along and take care of me, and there is still this little part of me that constantly says, “damn it.  Why do I have to take care of myself?”

My mom’s latest favorite phrase is that we have to be ridiculously responsible for our own worlds.

Ridiculously responsible.

It’s still something I’m learning.

But somewhere in the mess of the garden ending, in the gallon of dried pods of red beans and the pile of halfhearted tomatoes, in the soil that badly needs more nutrition and the yard that is giving up on life for lack of nutrients, I heard a small voice asking me if I was willing to be taken care of.  Isn’t all of this part of the same cycle, the cycle wherein I pretend there’s nothing I can do?  As if my life is still something that happens to me, I am still a victim, instead of someone who is capable of making life what I need it to be.

I swear, I heard God laughing.  As if he can’t be my rest, my care, my friend.

As if I’ve been missing the point.

There were ladybugs everywhere, on everything, crawling on my hands.  I was wondering, have I even seen ladybugs out here before?

It’s okay.  It’s okay that I don’t know my future.  I haven’t known my future for five years now, and it’s been okay.  So I had one future wrenched away.  So what?  That future wouldn’t have been good for me.  I do have friends, I do have a life, I do have ladybugs.

I’ll get some sleep eventually.

I tell myself I don’t know how much longer I can remain strong, how much work is left in me.

But don’t I want to find out?

It’s like resenting going to the gym but at the same time wanting a nice body.

When am I going to learn to be grateful for the fact that here, now, I have a chance to make my life something that nourishes me?

So I laid down in the dirt like a crazy person and laughed and cried.  The neighbor walked by and said, “garden fell apart, eh?”

I threw a tomato at him and replied, “it still makes food, ya jerk.”

We had a good laugh.

Laughing is good.

Honors Badge on a Real Diploma! (Or, how I’ve spent the last two years of my life.)

If you had told me three years ago that I would start crying real tears of joy when I got a diploma for a moderately useless two year degree from a community college, I would have probably laughed in your face.  No, really.  For one, if I ever wanted to go back to college I would have been going for a four year degree in something that could help people, like social work or psychology.  And I didn’t want to go to some community college where half of the freshman drop out after one quarter (or two weeks into the first quarter).  I wanted to go to a Proper University and get a Proper Degree.

So how did I end up locking myself in my bathroom to cry upon receiving the meager title of Associate in Arts heading to an English Major with a teaching certificate?  I mean, this isn’t my life, right guys?  This isn’t the life I moved across the country to live.

But, it’s better.  Because it is real.

Originally when I moved to the Valley it was with these grandiose dreams of getting a psychology degree.  My first job after setting foot here was working for a non-profit mental health organization.  I wanted to get my doctorate.  I wanted to run the place.  But not having many options open to me, I had to enroll in the only school that I could make work with my job and my newly minted separation from my husband (also unexpected).  I went to Yakima Valley Community College because it was inexpensive, close to home, and admitted everyone.  At the time I felt like I was just making the best of bad circumstances, but it wasn’t really what I wanted.

How silly I can sometimes be!

The instructors I dealt with were some of the smartest and most hardworking people I ever dealt with.  And the work itself was both harder and easier than I anticipated.  To be honest, I worked my butt off.  I stayed up nights late.  I did homework ALL THE TIME.  Supper is boiling on the stove?  Homework.  In the bath?  Doing the reading.  Working on an essay?  Expect me to dialogue stuff to myself while driving in an attempt to figure it out.  For the first year of my school career I worked 36 hours every weekend.  I got out of class at 11 on Friday and was at work by noon.  I worked until midnight, picked up the baby from her grandparents, went home, and tried to sleep.  I was up at six to be out of the house by seven so I could drop the baby off and be at work at 8, often working until 5 or midnight.  And the same the next day.  Looking back, I wonder when I did my homework.  (Oh, wait, always.)  And how did I stay sane?

I don’t know.  I wouldn’t accept failure from myself so I tried to do better than my best, always.  Other students would explain why they couldn’t spend more than four hours on an essay.  I told myself I wouldn’t be that person.  I would sacrifice whatever I had to in the short term as long as it wasn’t the kids.  The kids got my full attention during dinner.  I helped them with their homework and read to them for a half hour every night.

And I worked, and I worked.  Somewhere in there my husband and I reconciled, and I wish I could say that made everything easier.  It made it possible for me to only work part time, and it made the crazy reading schoolwork in the bathtub let up some.

But it didn’t make things EASY, just easiER.

If getting a degree and making something out of your life were simple, everyone would do it.  It’s not.

I feel so ridiculous.  I want to just walk around town shoving my diploma in everyone’s face and pointing at the Honor’s badge and saying, “I DID THIS.  ME.  ME WITH MY HITTING ROCK BOTTOM AND FAILING AT EVERYTHING.  THIS IS ME.”

I’m going to embrace the crazy, though.  I’m going to be as proud of that silly little bit of paper as if it were a degree from Harvard or Yale, because I had to work for it.  I suppose only I will ever know how much I went through to earn that ridiculous little gold emblem with the honor’s cap, but, hey.

I do know.

And if I’d told myself two years ago that it wasn’t worth it, I’d still be cleaning toilets for fifty cents above minimum wage, and mouthing off to anyone who would listen how one day I’d make something of myself.

Guess what, I made something of myself already.  And it may not be the fantasy, but I’ll settle for the reality.

A reality you earn with sweat and tears and sheer grit is better than a pipe dream anyway.  And did you see my diploma?  It has a shiny gold honor’s badge.  I did that!  Me!

The Cost of Silence

(This is an essay for a class, but I really, really like it.  And it’s been so long since I posted a blog…)

What happens to a society where the artists, writers, and thinkers fall silent?  What changes when necessity and fear get in the way of civil engagement?  What if all of the greatest minds of this age are working two jobs to keep food on the table, falling asleep to reruns of last year’s sitcoms, and posting memes on Facebook instead of speaking out?  Could it be that society is slowly deprogramming the electorate’s ability to create and dissent, replacing it with social pressures, mindless entertainment, exhaustion and fear?  The grinding pressure of the current economy is undeniably closing the door to art houses and niche publishers, artists are hanging up their brushes and writers are putting down their pens to pick up extra hours at more traditional jobs, causing beauty and dissent to both end up marginalized as boutique businesses.  The necessity of surviving everyday life blinds us to the real cost of the changing landscape of our economy;  If America is to remain the bastion of thinkers, a melting pot brewing some of the greatest innovation and debate of our world, we will have to raise our voices.

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy,” Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay Speaking in Tongues.  Anzaldua goes on to explain that without writing, women can lose sight of their inner self, their dark and poetic “other”, they can lose their soul.  By writing, a writer can keep the soul alive; the cost of silence is grave.  As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon Litwack said to a group of graduating students in 1987; “History teaches us that it is not the rebels or the dissidents who endanger society but rather the unthinking, the unquestioning, the obedient, the silent, and the indifferent…  The time to be alarmed about our students is not when they are exercising their freedom of expression but when they are quiet, when they despair of changing society, of even understanding it.”  These two great thinkers give two very different reasons for keeping our voices engaged:  the first reason is to feed our souls, and the second is to prevent the further decline of our society.  The stilling of our voices, from either perspective, leads to different but equally grave consequence.  In nature, there is never true stillness.  Everything in nature grows or dies, the saying goes.  What happens when the voices of a society are stilled?  As Martin Neimoeller said in his famous poem about not speaking out during Nazi rule, “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,” which culminates in the chilling final epitaph, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me.”  Silence breeds death.  Words are necessary.  If we are not content to see society fall away, we shouldn’t be content to starve our own creativity.

“There is no need for words to fester in our mouths,” Anzaldua writes.  There is no reason to hold in our words, and every reason to let them loose.  When we allow ourselves to stagnate in indifference we lose so much more than just the things we may have otherwise said.  We lose ourselves, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose and truth.  Like Neimoeller, we lose our connection to the society we may one day depend on for our own salvation.  Even more, if we accept silence from ourselves we give away our ability to dissent.  When the Nazis came for Neimoeller how could he have protested for his own sake without being immediately confronted by the fact that he had defended no one else?  This is a truth that Anzaldua unflinchingly embraces, “What we do and what we say ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our own responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength.”  If it is true for what we say it is also true in the moments we are silent.  What we don’t do and what we don’t say ultimately comes back to us, as well.  We always have a choice; we can choose to speak.

If silence comes at such a grave cost, why do so many embrace it?  The reason seems obvious:  Fear.  The fear may be of violent repercussions.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States, many citizens silenced their disquiet about the Patriot Act out of a sense of duty paired with the intense fear that without sweeping legislation even worse attacks would occur.  Geraldine Perreault references this in an article about the need for dissent, saying, “How quickly people have been willing to give up many long-standing civil liberties and the right to know what their government is doing in their name. The aftermath demonstrates the ongoing necessity for thoughtful dissent as a civic responsibility of citizens in a democratic society.”  Fear may have also played a large role in the German citizenry’s silence during the Holocaust; if they spoke out to defend the Jews, what would happen?  But sometimes the fear is far more subtle. For instance, what happens when people disagree? When they laugh? When they simply ignore one’s words? Or perhaps the silence is motivated by one of the simplest, oldest terrors that anyone knows: the fear of change.  What do we change about ourselves by speaking, and what changes in other peoples perception of us? Such change may seem welcome, even exciting; or, it may seem far more dangerous than physical violence. Change can wound a soul in ways that cannot easily heal.

Silence often seems like the safest option, if not the noblest one.  Gloria Anzaldua states that writing is one of the most daring things she’s ever done, “and the most dangerous.”  Speaking up is indeed risky. Even if one is writing about nothing any more controversial than breakfast, there is a certain vulnerability present.  As Audre Lorde writes, “The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”  But silence is also a treacherous choice; if we’re silent we stifle ourselves.  We cause the blooming tendrils of our soul to wither, wilt, and maybe even die.  We give free reign to the demons we wish to confront.  We kill the hope that we could bring more life and beauty to the world.  We strangle that part of ourselves that rails to be acknowledged.  We slowly start to die.  “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition,” Audre Lorde writes, “and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”  But is it the silence that chokes us, or our choice to put the gag in our own mouths?

The only real option is to never accept silence, especially when we are at our most afraid.  “To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them.  Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink in our pens.”  We have to exorcise our demons.  There are times that it seems that our society is falling apart and losing itself.  Advertising, obesity, over-medication, falling literacy rates, wars, violence, pornography, media polarization, drugs and guns and sex; the list could go on forever.  And in all of this we still struggle with some very old woes.  Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, all of these things continue to divide people.  There is a sense of disquiet and injustice roiling beneath the surface of all national dialogue, ears still searching out the next strong voice to bring discontent to the forefront of our national consciousness and help us make sense of the pain people feel.  Who will be the next Martin Luther King Junior, Harvey Milk or Alice Paul?  We may never know, if citizens continue to accept silence from themselves.

The truth is that even if a person isn’t the next face of civil rights, they still have a story worth telling and an opinion that needs to be heard; if for no other reason than to release their own demons.  Writing and reading need to stop being seen as a hobby and start being viewed as a social necessity and obligation.  We live in a society that trades words like a commodity, where news is 24 hours and on demand, and only the most scintillating tales get real play.  Reading and writing are treated like luxuries, or as the hobbies of nerds and know-it-alls.  Even worse, only those words which people most want to hear ever seem to be spoken very loudly.  We shy away from truths we find discomfiting.  How can a society like that survive?

Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”  Today’s society hardly leaves breathing room for discussion and dissent.  Adults work forty hours a week while children spend 30 hours a week at school not counting bus rides, or walking home, or even homework.  The New York Times reports that the average American spends 2 to 3 hours an evening on television.  That’s an addition 14-21 hours a week.  When, then, once household chores, meals, weekly shopping trips and social obligations are met is there any time left over for thinking?  Ghandi said, “In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long arduous quest after Truth, and the Soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”  Yet the demands of society leave little room for restfulness, and the jam-packed pace of the average American’s day doesn’t yield much time for silence and light.  The light that colors most American evenings is the blue glow of a widescreen, and solitude is often peppered with voices from the television and radio, not silence.  The dissent that America needs to function as a democracy is isolated into 150 characters or less on Twitter, or blasted out on Facebook status updates.  

Facebook, Twitter, and the widescreen TV are not to blame for the ills of society.  They are simply a reflection of our problem, not the cause.  John Taylor Gatto, in his emblematic essay about the problem with today’s children, writes, “Think of the things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.”  Why?  Because children, who are born learning actively through play, at some point must be taught to learn passively:  Sitting at a desk and repeating what they are told.  Gatto describes this construct as “absurd.”  It is.  The next great leader cannot be made by segmenting his or her life into 45 minute periods during which thought is turned on and off by command.  The next great leader won’t be encouraged by having his or her ability to think critically graded on a smaller scale than his or her ability to repeat what a teacher wants to hear.  A leader, such as what this country desperately needs, certainly isn’t going to be born out of demanding school- and work-days that end in evenings spent with TV and Twitter, and barely any time left for reflection.  What do such things produce?  Not thinkers:  Consumers.

To produce a nation of thinkers, a nation of dissenters and debaters, priorities need to shift.  Each individual needs to make the decision to turn off the TV, if need be.  And parents, knowing that schools cannot be depended on to encourage active thought, need to take their child’s future into their own hands.  How?  Treating reading and writing like another aspect of life instead of a luxury, for a start.  Kurt Vonnegut, the renowned author, said, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.”  By fostering reading and writing skills we not only provide the solitude and silence necessary to spark thought, but also the fuel necessary to feed it.  In order to utilize space for reading and writing in our lives, we also need to give up the idea that such space doesn’t already exist.  Anzaldua confronts that idea that we need to make room for writing brashly, “Forget the room of one’s own- write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom.  Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking.  I write while sitting on the john.”  Neither can we hold our breaths until the right time to read, write, and speak presents itself.  We have to make the best of the time we have right now.  This is the right moment to stop listening to fear, to stop accepting passivity, and to do what we can to exercise our minds and right to speak.  We can inform our society rather than be victims of it, if we lift the gags from our mouths.  We must.