Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa*

So yeah, I have not written much here since December. For the most part, that is because of my distress about the outcome of the US presidential election. I had really believed that the US was moving forward to a time when we were able to protect all our citizens, put in place protections for our land and water, start to get more equitable in behavior between men and women in terms of pay, society and sexual consent, and protect workers rather than corporations… Do I need to go on?

Yeah, I was deluded. I admit it.

As a white, formerly straight, Christian, cis woman, under-descriminated (against) and over-educated, I was blind to the pain that a lot of people are in. I did not realize that white supremacy still put lives of people of color at risk systematically. I did not realize that poor whites would eat up the propaganda of fascists if it made them feel better about our capitalist economy moving their jobs to third world countries where corporations could pay the people there pennies to do work for which Americans would demand dollars. I did not realize that Americans would swallow outright lies if it meant that they didn’t have to face realities they did not want to face.

Climate change.

Wall Street executives gaming the system.

Systematic racism in our society, government, and institutions.

Systematic sexism in our… oh, wait, I’m repeating myself.

44-and-a-quarter, I thought, was clearly a celebrity has-been, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and unprepared for dignified executive power. Hillary Clinton was unarguably the most qualified presidential candidate America has ever seen.

What could possibly go wrong?

Seriously

Um, how about “everything”?

And if I had not always been a student of World War Two, and a student of the Holocaust, I might possibly not blame myself for my short-sightedness.

But I have been.

So I do.

And how can I possibly own my credibility as a writer if I am so blind as a citizen, a historian and a theologian?

(All of this kinda makes my writer’s block a little easier to understand, if I look at it that way. And we all carry this kind of baggage to our writing projects…)

I’ve spent a lot of the last ten months writing fiction, particularly fiction that prioritizes the relationships of queer people despite the prevailing social narrative that marginalizes them, people of color, and others, which the (straight, white) general public doesn’t understand. When I started writing many years ago, I wrote fantasy: reimagining the world the way I wanted it to be.

Seems like three+ decades hasn’t changed much.

Sigh.

But anyway, now that I’ve figured out what my problem has been, I can start to fix it. Or in Christian terms, do penance, from the Latin, paenitentia, regret. So I pray:

 

God of all mercy,

I confess that I have sinned against you,

opposing your will in my life.

 

I have denied your goodness in my neighbors,

in myself, and in the world you have created.

 

I repent of the evil that enslaves me,

the evil I have done,

and the evil done on my behalf.

 

Forgive, restore, and strengthen me

through our Savior Jesus Christ,

that I may abide in your love

and serve only your will.

Amen.

 

Prayer from: Enriching Our Worship. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1998. 19. (Language changed from first person plural to first person singular. Italics mine.)

Translation of Today’s Blog Title: My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.

Translation of Amen: Let it be so.

The Fall Is Here, and Winter is Coming

I know that I have not written much on my blog since December. But a few things have happened in the last few days that have changed my thinking.

First, on Saturday, I went to the protest on Boston Common, where people rallied in front of the State House to support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and reject 44-and-a-quarter’s ending of the dreams of the Dreamers, children brought to America by their immigrant parents. It is not their fault that they are undocumented. Obama’s administration knew that. The current administration does not.

I marched because I interact with international students on a daily basis at Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and, years ago, at Emerson College). I have worked at all these places with the children of immigrants. Were they legal? I have always assumed so, but the odds are that a few weren’t or aren’t. They are, as a rule, smart, motivated students who want to make the world a better place, and an American higher education will help them do that. They need us and we need them.

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So I marched and chanted with friends and strangers. I took pictures of the signs I saw, and as we marched, a lot of shoppers and tourists took pictures of us. Were we entertainment? Were we an inspiration? Were we an annoyance, cutting off the road for half an hour? I don’t know.

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Two days later I got a letter from an old friend, someone who has always, since I met her when she was a college freshman, wanted to have a positive impact on the world. She has always hoped to do it through her creative writing, as I have, and for several years she was very active in the movement for food justice. But the last ten months have been hard on her too.

She asked, “What does it mean to live a life of historical relevance?

What does it mean to live a life of political relevance?

What does it mean to consciously participate in this particular moment in history, in this particular time and to fall on the right side of history?

Who has done that? Who is doing it now?

And how do I fit my own existence into this particular time and place and make it as potent and transformative as possible?…

And how do ideals and pragmatic strategic viewpoints find equilibrium instead of tangling in conflict and negating one another?”

These are powerful question, to which I have no answers.

But, as I have often found, when the brain has no mooring space and cannot offer guidance, the body leads the way. After reading her ten-page letter through, I found myself rearranging the books on the shelves in my living room. I have over 900 books (not counting cartoon books and cookbooks), largely arranged by categories that can fit in a single bookcase:

Science (small)

Theology (three shelves)

Writing about Writing

Books about Books.

Cartoons

Poetry (two shelves)

Topics I Am Writing About

(My television and space for my cat to stare at me)

Popular Culture/TV

Architecture

Fiction (several shelves)

Intellectual History

Church History

Turn of the 19th/20th century History

History of World War II

Holocaust Studies

Mythology (Norse/Egyptian/Japanese)

More Theology

Medieval European History

Asian Martial Arts

Cats/Business/Classic books

Philosophy, Mainly Asian

There’s other stuff, but these are the subjects that get whole shelves in my small apartment. These are the subjects that have survived my annual cull and sell. These are the subjects that will guide you to the bits of my mind that are mappable.

I always have at least one shelf that contains books that will inform me on the current topic I am writing about or at least thinking about. Last year at this time, it included such titles as:

Bell, Quentin. On Human Finery.

Boyer, G. Bruce. True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear.

Mason, Philip: The English Gentlemen: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal.

On Sunday night, I pulled out the old and replaced them with titles from other shelves:

 

Dorff, Elliot, N. The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).

Gossett, Thomas F, Race: The History of an Idea.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Anatomy of Power.

 

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Open Moral Communities.

 

Meinecke, Friedrich. The German Catastrophe: The Social and Historical Influences which Led to the Rise and Ruin of Hitler and Germany.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems.

Scarry, Elaine. Thinking in an Emergency.

 

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Wallace, Max. The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

 

Bit of a change, but difficult times lead to difficult reading, especially when contemplating having to do some difficult writing. More than half of these books are new; I got them during or after my MA in Theological Studies. But one I’ve had for a long time, and it is also the oldest. Meinecke’s book was published in 1950; I bought it in 2005. I’ve always cared about World War II and the Holocaust, although in retrospect I thought that understanding how people could come to do such horrible things was an exercise in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not because I ever thought I would have to fight Nazism here on American soil. But as the white supremacy boiling under the surface of American national life has reared its ugly head lately, I find myself instead remembering that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.

And as God is my witness, we are not going there again. Not here.

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All of these books that now march across my Current Passion Shelf will inform the things I talk about here in the next few months. So, if you’re up for that, stick with me. If you don’t want to hear about it, that’s okay too. I will still talk about poetry, of course, and that is one reason why Mary Oliver is in a list with Galbraith, Lakoff, and Zimbardo. In the 1960s, during the fight for civil rights, feminism and an end to the war in Vietnam, protesters always sang and recited poetry. Art keeps us going when the road ahead is dark and dangerous.

All I know is that I am sick of feeling like Hamlet did in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, when he lays out how awful things have been happening and he dare not speak of it.

He says, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.160).

Well, fuck that.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the year I was born, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”

 

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam.” Riverside Churh, New York. 4 April 1967. Lecture. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/speeches/Beyond_Vietnam.pdf. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.

More Stuff I’ve Learned

So doing this long project of reading and writing fan fiction, I have learned a few things. First, I learned that stories have rhythms: action/inaction, noise/quiet, angst/fluff, questioning/answering, planning/executing. I feel like this is sort of like beats in a movie, but apparently there, a beat, according to Wikipedia, is an act or discovery that alters the way the main character goes about his/her purpose.

Second, people really love the word “smirk,” practically to a criminal extent.

Third, many, many people, people who consider themselves writers, are completely capable of having read fiction all their lives without actually ever learning the rules for punctuating dialogue. “This one bothers me most,” she said, smirking. I have probably left comments on this, encouraging people to look at their favorite novel to figure out the rules, maybe twenty times.

My Project, or At Least the Most Recent One

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So, to answer our pal, HeyLookAWriterFellow, who asked me what my project is, the answer is pretty much what you would expect from a writer. My project is procrastination.

But what might be less expectable is that the project I “should” be working on, the Great American Novel, has been replaced by the Great American FanFiction Magnum Opus. So I am putting off writing another two hundred pages of one project by writing almost 800 pages of another project.

People who know me well probably aren’t surprised by this. I can be remarkably constructive when the spirit hits me. Also, about 650 pages of that is based on Season Two of Supergirl, and the rest is a series of “one shots,” which are basically short stories, but linked together by a theme (in this case how all the characters got to be where they were by the time of the pilot, Season One, Episode One. Also a story about Pink Kryptonite which took way too long to get off the ground. Like twenty chapters or something.

But the beautiful thing about being a writing teacher is that as long as I am learning things from the process, it’s all good. And I have been learning a lot!

Projects as Improving Happiness

The following paragraphs appeared in the New Yorker on 7 July 2016. I just discovered them today. They conclude a piece about how scientists are trying to find the things that make happy people healthier, and it appears to have less to do with hedonic pleasure and more to do with human connection and this, having goals:

A further tantalizing clue might come from a distant corner of the academy. Since the early nineteen-seventies, the psychologist Brian R. Little has been interested in what he calls personal projects. He and his colleagues at Cambridge University, he told me, have “looked at literally tens of thousands of personal projects in thousands of participants.” Most people, Little’s work suggests, have around fifteen projects going at any time, ranging from the banal, like trying to get your wife to remember to switch off your computer once she’s used it (that’s one of mine), to the lofty, like trying to bring peace to the Middle East. Little refers to this second category as the “core” projects. One of his consistent findings is that, in order to bring us happiness, a project must have two qualities: it must be meaningful in some way, and we must have efficacy over it. (That is, there’s little use trying to be the fastest human in the world if you’re an overweight, agoraphobic retiree.) When I described Cole and Fredrickson’s research, Little noted that it was remarkably congruent with his ideas. As with eudaemonia, though, the precise definition of a core project is malleable. “Core projects can increase the possibilities for social connection, but not necessarily,” Little said. It all depends on an individual’s needs. “A Trappist monk’s core projects don’t require the same kind of connection as an everyday bloke from Birmingham.”

Indeed, this malleability is perhaps the most encouraging quality of both Little’s core project and Aristotle’s eudaemonia, because it makes finding happiness a real possibility. Even the most temperamentally introverted or miserable among us has the capacity to find a meaningful project that suits who we are. Locating it won’t just bring pleasure; it might also bring a few more years of life in which to get the project done.

Writing Lesson of the Day

A few years back I worked with a very good writer who was getting an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Business. He came in after he had defended his very interesting thesis and threw himself into the chair beside me. He said, “I have figured out the one thing I have learned at Sloan.”

“What’s that?” I asked, curious.

“If your figure isn’t working, add arrows.”

Now on the one hand, he was kind of kidding, but really he also sort of wasn’t. When you are making a figure that explains some phenomenon, the arrows are the moving parts, the dynamic part of the system. So if your figure doesn’t she the important bit, of course it’s not going to work.

So the main thing I have learned from churning out angst and fluff and action and a few other things at a superhuman (yeah, it’s a pun, deal with it) rate these last two months is this:

(fanfare)

If your scene/story/chapter isn’t working, you are probably in the wrong point of view.

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Why I’ve Been AWOL

Okay, so I have spent the last 71 days writing over 205,000 words of fan fiction for the TV show Supergirl, because the damn writers took a great show and started really fucking it up, putting the main character into a toxic and verbally abusive relationship, probably because the powers that be are trying to “balance” out the canon lesbian relationship and the show started getting very gay. And even Katie McGrath, who plays Lena Luthor, after Melissa Benoist told her about the existence of SuperCorp in fan hearts, rewatched the episodes she has played with Melissa and said, yes, it is completely reasonable. So yes. I have been AWOL here because I have been using my superpower of writing quickly and reasonably brilliantly because I have seen people on the Supergirl fan pages saying how triggered they are being by this iconic character dating a jerk.

 

But it has taught me the difficulties of sorting out POV when there are a lot of characters and action in a scene, the joys of dialogue, the ease/difficulty of capturing different characters’ voices, and a few other things. It turns out I am very good at writing yearning and very bad at writing snark, but maybe we knew that…18033287_10208755731351480_4425490238029206143_n