Gift Horse

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be white in America. For me, personally; your mileage may vary. I’m a suburban hetero mother of three, no religious affiliation, no particular attachment to geography. I don’t know where my family hails from. In school, I was taught about the history of people who look like me, so I assume many of my ancestors were European. I’ve lived and worked with people of many ethnicities, of course, but most of them have been white. Most of my family is white.

People talk a lot about the privilege given to people like me. That’s an important conversation and it’s long overdue. I’m here for it. I accept that I’ve been the beneficiary of this unearned privilege and haven’t done enough to fight it. That’s changing, and it needed to change. We need to see each other’s struggles and intervene to make a better world.

What we don’t talk about is the longstanding shame so many white people carry. Other communities have reasons to feel proud, to feel part of something grounding and positive, to know that their struggles have been courageous and meaningful, with an inherent dignity. My only cultural association puts me on the wrong side of everything I abhor—a brutal history where my ancestors forced my neighbors’ ancestors into slavery, perpetrated horrifying war crimes, and wiped out indigenous populations everywhere they landed. These are my ancestors. This is where I come from. We have the biggest per capita asshole ratio in the world.

Someone told me recently that white people shouldn’t feel shame, they should just do better. But shame doesn’t work like that. If you’ve ever felt it, you’ll know that shame is heavy, and just like fear or grief, you can’t simply decide to set it down. Nothing that makes me who I am provides any source of pride at all; I’m the descendant of a bloody past—a past that’s left me privileged. Would you even believe it if I said I didn’t want to be? Would you ever accept that I was born into this shit show just like everyone else, and have just as little power to change it? Privilege is like an extravagant gift you didn’t ask for and can’t give back, for which you have appear both grateful and apologetic at all times—because, to be clear, those are the correct responses.

Yes, white people need to be talking to white people about race. We need to be better allies and use our privilege constructively. We’re working on it. (Witness: Twitter, and many a Thanksgiving dinner.) But have you met some of these people? You see what we’re dealing with?

This is why I think it’s so hard for left-leaning white people to talk about race. It’s because of the shame. You want to disassociate. You’re more inclined to detach yourself from a conversation around race when you know that you and yours have been fucking it up for millennia. That’s human nature. No one wants to get it wrong. No one wants to feel like the bad guy, especially when there seems to be no possibility of redemption, and anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

This conversation around race is not about me. But I still have to locate myself in it and figure out what part I’ve played. In as much as the murder of George Floyd is about the many offenses by whites against the Black community, the crimes against him are once again being perpetrated by a racial majority that includes me. I’m ashamed of that, and while that shame is mobilizing, it’s a burden as real as any other. No, I don’t expect anyone to break out the world’s tiniest violin, but I do want to suggest that chronic shame is not a healthy state of mind (I think there’s ample evidence for this assertion) and that we should make space for white people to do the necessary work and eventually lay that burden down. This is how people heal and grow stronger, so they can help others to do the same.

Look

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This week has been rough. The world is hurting in so many ways. I’ve spent this time making the head space to take on a burden my neighbors have been carrying for far too long on their own. I’ve been trying to listen and learn while this conversation about race, police brutality, white privilege, and repeated trauma has been going on around the world. And can I tell you, I have a shit-ton of learning to do.

We all have our faults. One of mine is the tendency to turn inward, to neglect, to fail to see—sometimes deliberately. It took me days to work up the courage to watch the murder of George Floyd. I knew how painful it would be, that I’d have to carry it with me always, that I’d have to look into Derek Chauvin’s face and be confronted by his unsettling resemblance to my ex-husband, a retired highway patrolman. I thought I didn’t have to watch it, because I was already fully onboard, already mindful, that my heart was in the right place. I considered it somewhat exploitative to watch the end of a person’s life on YouTube or the six o’clock news, and I felt I could take in the reporting on the story without having to see the violence actually play out. But the option itself is an expression of privilege; in a Black home, you don’t get to opt out. You have to confront what’s expressed in that video on a daily basis and process the trauma, over and over and over again. I can’t imagine the strength and the courage it takes to deal with this shit every day.

I’m not strong. Or brave. But eventually I did manage, with some stops and starts, to watch the end of George Floyd’s life. It was what I thought it would be. It did what I thought it would do.

It made me understand that I don’t have any real sense of what it’s like to be afraid, except in the way women are always afraid, which is a different thing altogether. I don’t know what it’s like to fear for my sons and daughter in this specific way, and to have that fear crawl through my brain while I go about my daily life. There’s no mechanism to help me really wrap my head around the experience of this kind of repeated trauma, no way I can truly comprehend. But if people like me don’t find the courage to watch events like this, and think deeply and unpack the details and refuse to turn away, we are never going get to the point of real empathy, the point at which good wishes and kindness are not enough, when what’s so obviously called for is rage.

I don’t have any insight or solution to contribute. I’m only doing the obvious things, the short-term actions that might make a short-term difference. I’m listening more deeply, trying to come to terms with the shame of being the recipient of undeserved privilege, and having those words make themselves at home inside me. I’m trying to learn and find ways to help on a long-term basis.

There are so many lessons I still have to learn, but this one is finally clear: The end of George Floyd’s life will be with me until the end of mine. And that’s a good thing.

Forecast

Henry and Oliver. Henry’s ear is inside-out again. I’ve told him it looks ridiculous, but he said it’s important that he remain vigilant for the crinkle of a treat bag.

No rain today, according to forecasts. The trails are open again and the buddies are ready to go. They know all the signs: Mom’s opening the sock drawer. She’s getting the right pair of shoes, and the earbuds, and the keys. Is she, is she? She IS! She’s going for the leashes! This is the best thing that has EVER HAPPENED!

They’re hilarious together: one with itty Dachshundesque legs, the other like Bambi on ice. Though I adore purebreds and can binge on Crufts all day, I prefer dogs of spurious origin, the ones that got lost and found their way to me. It feels more like a story that way.

Oliver would have a doozy to tell, I’m sure of it. He had no idea how to walk on a leash when we got him at three years old, and it’s pretty clear he’d never seen a bike or a skateboard. God knows what happened in somebody’s kitchen. But he’s incredibly gentle and kind, and spends most of his time under my bed, emerging like a benevolent hobgoblin when someone’s offering a walk or some dinner, or maybe a scratch behind the ear. Both these guys trot along like soldiers now when we hit the trail, and it feels wonderful to have their company on a cool and cloudy day. How did I ever get along without them.

Any buddies at your place?

Pros

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What to do, what to do. The book is with my agent and a few beta readers, and in the meantime I’m trying to figure out how or whether to publish it. I’ve been wading through the pros and cons of traditionally publishing versus self-publishing versus reaching out to a small indie press. This is a new genre for me and I’ve never written a series, so it’s hard to know.

If I had a bigger budget, it would be a no-brainer. There are wonderful cover designers and freelance editors available to indie authors now, and you can buy ads and build up mailing lists for marketing. It’s a ton of extra work beyond the actual writing, but all that time and investment would buy me creative control of the story and the covers, which is huge. And I don’t mind the work. I love to learn and try new things. But I’m also unemployed and need to be careful of the family funds.

I’ve thought about doing a silent launch for the first book. I’d invest in a really beautiful cover and put it up free on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited with an inexpensive paperback option. I’ve seen other authors do this. The idea is to get some feedback and reviews on the first book, more on the down-low, then build the series as it goes along. If the first book makes a few bucks on KU, that would help with the publication of the next book, and when the series is finished I could take it wide on IngramSpark or some other platform. Of course the Amazon algorithms would sink that first book almost immediately, but each subsequent novel in the series gives you something new to sell and build upon, so it’s a long-game strategy rather than a quick-release sort of thing.

I did love working with my editor at MIRA, though. And traditional publishing would mean money (though probably not much) coming in rather than going out. The cover expenses and editing are paid for by the publishing house, so there’d be no initial outlay for me beyond whatever I choose to do in the way of marketing. All of that is assuming someone wants to buy it, and even if they do, it would mean a very long wait. The publisher can also drop you mid-series, before the story is complete, which would obviously suck. You can’t release the books as they’re ready, and they can get jammed up in the publishing cogs and never come out at all. So it’s a risk.

Even with a small press you’re giving up control. That’s the hard part for me. I think this story world has potential and would lend itself to spin-offs and short pieces of fiction to use as giveaways, and I have very specific ideas about cover design and the arc of the series. These books are not lit-ra-choor, but they’re fun and I think they fit their genre, and because the characters can travel through infinite alternate realities, there might even be a choose-your-own-adventure aspect to get readers engaged.

It’s hard to know what’s best. Part of me is tired of trying to Do Something and would really just like to tell stories around the campfire to the dozen or so people who want to hear them. So maybe the thing to do is take aspiration out of the equation and write my stories the way I want and stop trying to be so goddamn precious and pseudo-professional about it. It’s okay to do that with other forms of art, so why are writers so squeamish? Are we afraid of being laughed at? Are we afraid other people will say we can’t Do Something better with our work? A musician can simply make music. A painter can paint. No one asks if they’ve sold their work and for how much. They just do their thing.

I think I know what I want. But I don’t know if I know what I want, and that’s the kicker.

What do you want?

Compass

Apparently the President is now taking hydroxychloroquine. That’s what he says, at any rate, and when has the guy ever told a lie? The drug is not a proven prophylactic for COVID-19 and can cause deadly heart arrhythmias, so for once I’m one hundred percent onboard with his strategy. Carry on, fearless leader. Carry on.

Like many of us, I’m conducting an ongoing post-mortem during the mortem, wondering how the actual fuck we got to be so stupid in this country. Mostly I blame Fox News and the Rush Limbaughs of the world, because without the imprimatur of the media, Trump is just a fat guy with a combover, all-capping on Twitter and selling steaks and fake degrees to the kind of people who were always going to buy that shit in the first place. Fox built the bubble, that’s what I believe. They did it so well that no one inside the bubble realizes where they are. Previously rational people are convincing themselves that we can’t possibly have over 90,000 people dead in this country, and in Florida they’re actively cooking the data and firing officials who won’t go along.

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You could argue there are other causes more relevant to the state of the country. Social media, the fall of the middle class, entitlement, the myth of American exceptionalism. The original sin of racism, to which everything can be linked. Maybe it’s the whole toxic brew of social angst and the unmooring of our values. (Did we ever have those? Were they real or just convenient?)

I’m lost, truly. In the wilderness, without a compass, far from home. Lost. I’m trying to use some of our real life as fodder for the world I’m building in my series, but there’s so much I just don’t understand, starting with this:

How did we get here?

Sticky

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I’ve been watching, shall we say, a fair amount of YouTube. You can learn anything there, from post-apocalyptic building techniques to curly hair care to why the face of Venus is so obscure in that painting by Velazquez. You can learn how to keep a plant alive. How to clean your house. If you’re vegan, there are beans and cream-free sauces and waifish young people assuring you that baby steps are cool. You can listen to music and watch short films, and hear all manner of art dissected by people who don’t make art themselves but are pretty sure they can tell you how it’s done.

For my writing, it’s been wonderful. I love hearing how other people work, how they outline and get a draft down, and plan a series and so forth. I’ve always thought of writing as an ugly process, but these young people are kind of beautiful with their sweaty faces and unwashed hair, the hunted, manic look that precedes a deadline. I adore their giant glasses, their planners and kanban boards, their colored pens and highlighters and sticky notes all over the floor. I like to play along with their pomodoro live streams and awkward chats. I’ve even completed a Nano, because why not? I’ve got nowhere else to be.

In spite or because of all this YouTubing I managed to finish a book. The first draft has always been hardest for me, so I started dictating that part, in order not to see what a goddamn mess was turning up on the page. In fact, the mess is the point, because voice-to-text is bound to make one anyway so there’s no use trying to be precious about it. You dictate it, get it on the page, and give yourself something to edit. Thanks be to the gods of modern technology.

However, I’m old and wise enough to know that what unsticks me once might not do the trick next time, so I’ve been loading my pockets with all kinds of new tools: writing sprints, schedules, word counts, index cards, notebooks. The different methods are a comfort. They give me a fallback plan. As I start to work on book two of this series (it’s a sci-fi romance thing), I’ve already deployed the notebook and index cards, and I’m giving heavy thought to the post-its. Plain yellow or multicolored. These are the questions that vex me.

What have you learned lately?

Teeter

Where do I begin.

That’s a bigger question than I would have guessed. My life is one of fits and starts, periods of frenzy followed by episodes of interminable withdrawal, where my thoughts seem not to matter even to myself. As writers I think we form identities around our work, and these can be tricky to manage; the outlines aren’t always clear. It becomes a matter of what we should say versus what we want to say, who we ought to be as opposed to who we are.

I’ve been trying to be a better person. Really I have. However, the bar for entry is awfully low these days and no one’s got any class, so maybe it’s a place to get comfortable. I’ve writing again—by which I mean, writing and finishing my work and trying to get it published as opposed to filling journals and Google docs with words that serve no purpose beyond the ephemeral. So there’s that. There’s also the gigantic fucking mess we find ourselves in, where the president is urging research into the therapeutic benefits of 409, and the bodies of our elders are piling up in semi trucks or in the far reaches of nursing homes while half the country has convinced itself that the entire world is in on the hoax.

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Life is precarious now, my friends, no joke. I feel like one of the deer that wander through our suburban neighborhood, all my senses on alert yet only vaguely aware that the incongruous object in the setting is me. It’s hard to know how to exist on a flat earth. There are edges beyond which you might actually disappear.

I’m not ready to do that. That’s what it comes down to. I want to remember these years if I survive them, so when my grandkids one day ask me what I did while our country was dying, I’ll be able to say it wasn’t nothing. I’ll be able to say that at the very least, I noticed.

How do you keep on keeping on?