Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Mixed Pleasures of Rereading with New(er) Eyes

Sometimes a book—or a series of books, or a cultural shift—comes along that causes lasting change. 


In the past five years, I’ve been part of many conversations about cultural appropriation, creativity, and Indigenous visibility. In the past four or five months, conversations around Blackness in North America have increased in frequency and intensity.


It’s come to a head, recently. I’ve spent the past month reading and working through Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad. It’s been intense. I may be able to speak about the experience coherently in the future.


For now, I want to talk about a recent re-reading experience, of a different book.




One of my favourite Book Groups (as they’re known in the US; Canadians don’t seem to mind saying “book club”) meets electronically. It’s small, just two of us. We used to be in groups together in Colorado, before we both moved.


One of our books back in the day was Walking Across Egypt, by Clyde Edgerton. Set in North Carolina, it’s the story of Mattie Rigsbee, a 78-year-old widow who might be slowing down. The aging of a fairly ordinary woman doesn’t sound like the setup for a funny novel, but wackiness ensues, all right. And plenty of baking. Even the stray dog on the porch on page 1 gets leftover biscuits.


As you might have guessed, I recently re-read this book. Amazingly, it’s survived several rounds of bookshelf culling and an international move. I kept seeing it and thinking, “Oh, that’s funny. I can’t let go of that. I should re-read that sometime.” And so during this (insert non-clich├ęd words that encompass the craptastic nature of politics and pandemic) time, when travel is of course impossible, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel by reading this book.


I can see why I kept it. I can see why I found it funny—it is still, sort of. Beguilingly, charmingly, deceptively funny. Mattie is the type of woman who forgets she’s sent chair seats to be recovered, so when she sits down in her favourite rocking chair, she falls through the frame and gets trapped for several hours. At last the dogcatcher shows up and frees her, but only after he’s washed her dishes. Because wacky.


Mattie is also the type of woman who hears of a sixteen-year-old orphan in a reform school and feels compelled to take him a piece of her pound cake and a piece of her apple pie, all because Jesus talks about doing good “unto the least of these my brethren.” And, predictably, the stuffy leaders in her church take a dim view of her consorting with folks who aren’t perfect, when isn’t that the role of the church in the world, to do good?


So, yes. Charming. But. As I continued to read, I could feel myself pulling back from fully engaging with the characters. Because of Me and White Supremacy.


For one thing, the folks around Mattie are casually racist. I don’t care that it’s authentic to the characters in that place and that time (the 1980s). They, and the author, know better. The one character who seems to understand that racism is wrong, who is also learning about misogyny and equality, is shown to be humorless and unpleasant. (Obviously, she was my favourite character—been there.)


What I found most disturbing about the book is that I know Mattie Rigsbees. I know the male versions of them, too. They are devout and sweet and the salt of the earth. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt a fly. They will press coffee and pie upon you if you happen by their house at any time of day or night and invite you to tomorrow’s dinner (the noon meal, BTW) before you get out of their kitchen. They will pick up bedding plants for you if they remember you like pansies, visit you any time they hear you’re not feeling up to par, and make sure you have holiday plans. Their pickup truck is at your disposal. And they casually discuss the racial makeup, using slurs, of a regional baseball team.


But wait. There’s more.


At one point, Mattie goes upstairs to the church sanctuary from the Sunday School rooms in the basement. She knowingly bumps into young people so they’ll say hello, the way they should.


She knew that courteousness had started on the way out with television and integration and a man on the moon. She wished somebody would put their finger exactly on the connections so something could be done about it. And she knew the weather had been affected by those people landing on the moon. No question about it. It was all mixed in with reasons for the great decline of courtesy. In some ways she was glad it was now that she was slowing down and not forty years from now, having had to live through the decline of everything good.


Wait wait wait. Integration is part of the decline of society? And something must be done about it? Ah. Yes. The Mattie Rigsbees I know—well, I know who they voted for in the last US presidential election.* They do not understand how wrong they were. They do not bear guilt or embarrassment for the craptastic consequences—lives lost, not their own; livelihoods ruined, not theirs, or if theirs, not their fault—of their wilfully ignorant cowardice.




Back to Me and White Supremacy. As I said, intense. Because of Saad I’ve connected dots in my past. I’ve seen how I have excused the Mattie Rigsbees I know, and how those excuses have hurt innocent people, and continue to hurt them.


Reading Me and White Supremacy has made it impossible to re-read Walking Across Egypt and feel amused and satisfied with the characters or the story. It’s not the same kind of nausea as reading about theslave trade in The Cooking Gene, but it’s related.  


I’m glad the book isn’t satisfying anymore. Maybe I’m beginning to learn things. What a gift it is to have educators like Saad and others. With what generosity they have asked questions, and explained ideas and concepts, and asked readers to reflect on their lives and attitudes and comfort zones. I’ve learned and will continue to learn. And in the coming months ahead, I need to communicate clearly with the Mattie Rigsbees in my life.


This isn’t the first time I’ve found issues in an old favourite. Almost two years ago, in November of 2018, I wrote about re-reading Little Women. A week or so later, I linked to an excellent resource, American Indians inChildren’s Literature, a website written and managed by Dr. Debbie Reese


I’m keeping my copies of Little Women. I have too long a history with that book to let go of it completely—yet. But I think it’s time to pass along some of the books I’ve been hanging onto. New books come out all the time. I’m okay saying goodbye to Mattie Rigsbee. She’s taught me some perhaps unintended but valuable lessons.

Edited to add: I am not saying this to show how fabulous I am--I am in no way fabulous. I'm saying all this to show you how reading Layla Saad's incredible gift of a book can help you see your life--past, present, and future (we all hope)--with different eyes.


* I also know how the Mattie Rigsbees of the world feel about white ranchers killing Indigenous youths—because Mattie Rigsbees do not only live in the US, they live in Canada, and I know their voting habits, too. Fortunately Canada avoided having an election this autumn.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thinking and Re-Thinking

I don't really like the colour orange. As an athlete and fan, I wore orange t-shirts and accessories, mostly without thinking. They were accepted and expected parts of my life.

I don't mind coral, especially as Spring takes its own sweet time showing up and I'm tired of winter's browns, blues, and silvers. Peach, too. Back in the pre-pandemic days, coral toenail polish or a peachy scarf brightened April right up.

But I can look sallow in orange. And I have such mixed feelings about many sports (athletes and head injuries, mostly) that I've ditched all but one of my orange t-shirts. 

And then this time of year happens. Look!

Turns out, I like orange. I really do. I surprised myself!

I don't like it in all its versions. I'd still be careful about choosing to wear it. (Orange Shirt Day is September 30 this year; I'll wear mine then!)

It got me thinking: what else about myself (or the world--but let's start small) could I wonder about? I've said I don't like poetry--perhaps I could learn more about poetry so I can enjoy it more, and maybe even try writing some. 

A small example, indeed. But it's something I have control over. So much in the world now I can't affect, except through my own actions. So I wash my hands, stay physically distanced, and try to do the work in front of me to be done. And--gently--question my assumptions.

As I walk today, enjoying the oranges in the world, I'll look for other ways to challenge long-held beliefs about myself and others. Starting small. Enjoying orange.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Surprisingly Helpful: Prompts

What is it about writers, that they can be sooooo ooooooover the things that are good for them? 

Just me? Oh. 

Back in early August, I wrote about #1000wordsofsummer, which I found surprisingly helpful in getting words down for a couple of projects and thinking through problems therein. 

Today, let's talk prompts in a more general way.

Last June, at the conference for the Creative Nonfiction Collective (insert standard "back when conferences/travel/gatherings were things" poignant aside here), I took a workshop with S. Lesley Buxton.* She gave the room full of writers a couple of writing exercises to do, and I found them extremely helpful, even with the performance anxiety of "freewriting in a room with other people." I thought, "Yes, people should do these things." Then I thought, "Hey. I'm a person. I should do stuff like this more often."

Here's another example. In February, I wrote a Writer's Block column at All Lit Up, an organization supporting small Canadian publishers. In it, I described how I get out of a funk, and one of the other Surprisingly Helpful things I do: I make something art-adjacent, using prompts. 

Art-adjacent is key. I draw on an index card. I take no more than ten minutes (to guard against my superpower, over-complicating things). I use pretty markers to draw or pretty colours of paper to make a collage. 

Often, I use a prompt to help further reduce decisions. For several months, I've been using prompts supplied by Julie Paul, a Canadian writer, through her Instagram account, @dailywordprompts (read about them here). She posts on West Coast time, so I use a previous month's prompts, which work just as well.

No, this brief project isn't technically writing (except the prompt itself). And the word isn't necessarily (or often, even) connected to what I draw. It's just a word, and I think about it while I draw a pattern from a book of patterns, or I cut up bits of paper and put them together, or do something else. And then I put it into a box and celebrate FINISHING SOMETHING! And then go about the work of the day, whether that's revising a novel or scraping lichens off our siding or cleaning the schtuff off the fridge.

That sense of accomplishment follows me throughout the day, which is important when so much of regular life is temporary. Like laundry. Dishes. Meals themselves--in another few hours, people will want to eat all over again! Also, writing-wise, long projects (like novels) mean that I don't often have the chance to enjoy a sense of completion. 

These small moments--of finishing something, of using pretty-coloured markers, of thinking about a word, of using my hands to make marks on an index card--have felt even more satisfying and vital during the pandemic. It's hard to focus, and things are weird. Sitting down with markers and an index card has grounded me many days.

Bonus! I've used many of the pens that have hung around my creative space for many years. I'm finding great satisfaction in using the things I have. 

Soon, I'll take them to be recycled. Another small satisfaction, a project completed. Here's to completed projects, art-adjacency, and coloured pens.


* Lesley also interviewed me recently for the CNFC blog. It was fun. You can read it here

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

On Reverberations, Messes, and Running away to Join the Circus

An interview with me is live over at the blog for the Creative Nonfiction Collective, a Canadian organization supporting those writing creative nonfiction. 

In it, I talk about many things. For example,  

the whole enterprise of writing about Mom’s dementia felt like kind of a mess. I took manuscripts to a couple of workshops. Nobody knew what to say about the work, except that it wasn’t fun to read. It wasn’t much fun to live through, either.  

Writing. Living. Waiting. Coffee shops. The inexpressibly high value of mentors. The differences, for me, between writing fiction and nonfiction.

Many thanks to S. Lesley Buxton, an excellent writer and teacher, for her thoughtful and fun questions. And to the CNFC for supporting my growth as a writer. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Worth Doing, Worth Reading

Recently, during the probably-too-much time I spend on Instagram, I've been looking at the kinds of things people read. It's interesting. Sort of like lurking in the bookstore watching what people pick up off the shelf. 

Sometimes people post covers of books they just bought. Sometimes they're books they're just starting. Occasionally, they're books they've just read, and they Have Thoughts. Or they don't--they don't know what to make of the book.

One phrase I've seen often, not only on Instgram but on blogs and even Goodreads: "an easy read." Sometimes "a quick read." This is apparently a Good Thing. 

So I am of course going to talk about something else: the "read" that's "worth doing." 

For example, the two books below.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, by Ijeoma Oluo, and THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers. Nonfiction and fiction.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE is more immediately useful, in that it helps me, an ahem-middle-aged White woman, walk through answers to specific questions about race. I strongly recommend it--and taking the time to sit with each chapter. I found her discussion strategies quite valuable. She excels at answering the objections she imagines her readers to be having. For example--however difficult and "unfair" it may feel to refrain from using language that is offensive, it's far more unfair that people, today, are labeled with those racist terms. People of colour hear those words daily. They shouldn't have to hear them. I can't control everyone, but it's easy (plus common courtesy and basic politeness) for me and everyone I know to not use them. 

THE OVERSTORY is different. It's fiction and thus has a narrative arc that spans time (and plays with a multiverse or two). Also, it's a rich and complicated book about a universe (multiverse) that we all live in and recognize. The "message," although the book isn't really a "message" book, is still a call to action--trees are important, and we have no idea what we're doing when we destroy old-growth forest--but in a different way than Oluo's book.

Of course these books weren't "quick reads," and they weren't "easy reads," either. Which is not to say that they're poorly written--both are lovely, in different ways. 

Oluo has written her book as a frank discussion. It as if someone who cares about you has said, "we need to talk," and is now telling you hard things. Richard Powers (a long-time favourite writer) captures so much about characters so quickly that I grew attached to his characters quickly. I followed their lives, however difficult, with interest, and with the compassion for them that he also obviously feels.

My point is that both books are solid and substantive. They require attention and care. I'm grateful that the writers shared their extensive knowledge with me. 

And oh, the rewards. Sometimes "hard" reads are really worth the effort. I understand that not everyone has the luxury of time and attention for books like these. I do NOT denigrate at ALL the value or allure of books that ARE easy or quick to read. I have read several of those myself since the pandemic started, once I was again able to read at all. 

But some books ARE worth the effort. Reading like this--challenging, illuminating, humbling, inspiring--is worth doing. These books are worth reading. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Celebrations: Middles, Beginnings, Ends

Thirteen years ago today, Roy and I had a wedding and ate Nanaimo bars. It was a great wedding. The Nanaimo bars, too. We're happy. I enjoy celebrating our anniversary. 

Birthdays are an obvious time for celebration. Book birthdays, for example. It's fun to celebrate beginnings--the beginning of a life or a life together. 

Endings are harder to celebrate, exactly. If the thing ending was lovely and positive, it's hard to be happy to have had something when you're still mourning its loss. If the thing ending was not so lovely or positive, the temptation is to pause for a momentary "whew" and keep moving. 

At least in my experience. 

So how can we celebrate more things in the middle? Which is sort of what an anniversary is. Thirteen years, with thirteen-hundred more. Also a birthday celebration--you were born, see how far you've come!  

Another middle: it's the eleventy-millionth day of asking myself about this character in my novel, "What is Martin doing? Is his name even Martin?" So, yay?

August 26th is (according to some) National Dog Day. Also, since 1971, Women's Equality Day to celebrate the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting (White, sigh) women the right to vote. Women's equality is for sure a work in progress (equal pay, bodily autonomy, argh). 

Daily celebrations. Everyday (quotidian) celebrations. Things on gratitude lists. Celebrations of the middle, in the middle. 

Happy day-in-the-middle-of-the-thing, everyone. Have a Nanaimo bar. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Pushing and Relaxing

I'm working on a novel. Like, really, for reals. 

Know how I know? I'm throwing things away and enjoying that process.  

Also: when I sit with fingers on the keyboard, I'm excited and a little nervous. I know what will happen, what actually HAS to happen, but I don't know how it happens until my fingers start moving. 

I've been working on this novel for a long time, through many drafts. I've also carried it with me at times when I couldn't work on it because logistics, because energy, because anxiety, because perfectionism, because reasons.

It's all very Ecclesiastes: times for this, times for that; fallow and fecund; lean and large. Metaphor-for-less and metaphor-for-more. I'm trying to remember that the fallow times have helped make the fecund times possible, and be grateful for them.

Through the years, through the times and family and country and culture I grew up in, I've learned (perhaps too well) to keep pushing myself, to keep trying. To persist, if you will, regardless of opposition. Tired? Push harder. 

As I age, my body is teaching me that rest is also important. Relaxing is also the body's "work." Rest is necessary. Only with rest can I push again. (Maybe if I'd delivered a child I'd have already learned that, but I did not. I am at least learning on a book.)

Without sounding too woo-woo (after Ecclesiastes!), things happen in their own time.

On a different project--also a novel, though not my own--I had a conversation this morning. We have had this conversation in the past. I have presented my perspective several times. This morning, another opening came up to present my perspective, and the conversation took a different direction. 

The final product will be better because it has been delayed--by pandemic, by perfectionism, by energy, by reasons.

Things happen in their own time.