What an Average White Person Like Me Can Do About Racism

This post has been a long time coming. I began thinking about writing it back in August, when Michael Brown’s killing in Feguson first hit the news, well before yesterday’s announcement that Eric Garner’s killer would not be charged with any crime.

This post is about me, an average middle-aged white woman who grew up in the mid-western, Great Lakes city where less than two weeks ago Tamir Rice was tragically killed; me, an average middle-aged white woman who lived for a decade in the Deep South—during that time witnessing  how it remains haunted by the legacy of slavery—and who now resides in the state where Trayvon Martin was unnecessarily killed.

This post is not only about me. It is also about every other average, American white person just like me.

I grew up in a family in which overt racism was tolerated. My adoptive father often made crude, bigoted remarks at home, in front of me, from as early as I can remember. I have strong memories also of extended family members making loud, racist comments and jokes, which were met either with outright laughter in acceptance, or nervous smiles, or plain old silence. Continue reading “What an Average White Person Like Me Can Do About Racism”

Thoughts on Worry and Purpose

As 2013 was winding down, I found myself more and more contemplating the state of worry I seem to usually find myself in. If I strung together all the minutes I spent worrying, how many days have I lost? I suspect the answer is in weeks, if not months. And what has this time spent on worry done for me? Yes, I realize the answer.

I don’t know exactly why I’m such a worrier, but I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. Years ago, a good friend recommended the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff. He recognized the amount of energy I was wasting getting caught up in stressing over things that either didn’t matter or might never happen.

In just the past few weeks, I’ve begun repeating a mantra to myself to counter all the worry: You have a place to live. You have food to eat. You have family to love. Everything is OK. I’m finding that repeating these things to myself helps calm me during those times when I feel my belly begin to burn and my heart begin to pound. Remembering that I’m secure in the things that truly matter helps me let go of the rest. Every little thing really will be alright. Continue reading “Thoughts on Worry and Purpose”

How Facebook Has Helped Me Become A Better Writer

Facebook logoYes, you read that correctly. Facebook–that insidious thief of creative energy–has made me a better writer. I kid you not.

I was invited to join Facebook back in 2009 by a good friend who lives in another state. Cool, I thought, this will help us keep in touch. For a long time, that was the only useful purpose I saw for the site. It gave me a way to share photos with family and friends hundreds of miles a way and a means to update them all at once without having to make numerous phone calls or compose multiple emails.

Then neighbors wanted to friend me. And classmates, once I started grad school. When I began writing and editing, I attracted friend requests from people I only knew online.

I wanted to run and hide under my covers.

See, I’ve always been a very private person. Even when I began writing publicly about personal experiences, I wanted to protect myself from being too well seen via social media. I wanted to erect a barrier between the public me and the private me. And I still think it’s good to have boundaries, only now I recognize that my initial reticence had more to do with fear than privacy.

Deep down I was afraid of allowing so many people to peek inside my life, because what if they saw something they didn’t like? Would I offend or disappoint? How could I control the sides of myself I revealed to each of the people in my life if they all saw the same status updates from me? Of course, I couldn’t, and furthermore, the dilemma eventually opened my eyes to the fact that I was doing a major juggling act with the different facets of my persona.

But, what does this have to do with writing, you might ask? Everything, because in order to write well, one must be vulnerable. Good writers allow themselves to be seen naked on the page. They hold nothing back. They don’t try to construct a persona; they let it all hang out and allow the reader to come to his own understanding without being led there. My desperate desire to hide myself on Facebook was reflected not only in my real life but in my writing as well. I was holding back.

In The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes say, “The farther writing strays from its deepest sources, the more sterile it becomes . . . Subliminally the reader senses that the writer isn’t saying what he most wants to say.” A reader will not respond to this writer who is playing it safe.

Think about the kind of status updates you’re most likely to respond to on Facebook. When I feel the urge to leave a comment, or just enough impetus to click “like,” it’s when someone’s made me laugh or cry, nod in agreement or shake my head in disbelief. Most of the time, I don’t comment or click “like,” because, let’s face it, the vast majority of Facebook updates are either hum drum or talk about things only the original poster can relate to. It’s the same with anything we write. We must invoke a reaction in our readers by moving them to think or feel something, and we can only do that by allowing our own thoughts and feelings onto the page in a way others can relate to. Readers relate to our writing when they experience something of themselves in it. We must trust that these parts of us we tend to hold closest will be recognized by our readers, that they will respond to our leaving ourselves on the page–just as our friends respond to us on Facebook when we move them in some way with our status updates.

I’ve loosened up quite a bit on Facebook. Now I don’t even panic when I get a friend request from someone whose name I don’t recognize, who only knows of me via another virtual friend. I’ve learned to accept that part of the deal with being a writer is putting myself out there, both in my work and in my life. I have to say, it feels good to live out in the open.

Book a Week: Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for quite a long time. I loved Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion, and I also love her blog, Moments of Being.

Devotion chronicles a spiritual journey, but not the kind I was expecting. There’s nothing artificial about her exploration of the Judaism she grew up with or the other disciplines she turns to–including buddhism, yoga, and even psychology. This is not immersion journalism. This is one woman’s personal search for real meaning in her life, and the very personal nature of her search is ultimately what makes the book universal.

Shapiro grew up with a father who was an Orthodox Jew and a mother who described herself as an atheist. Imagine the household. In utter confusion, Shapiro turned away from religion as an adult. But then she was left feeling unmoored. How many of us feel the same way?

I love how she describes herself as being complicated with Judaism. She rarely attended services and certainly didn’t practice the elaborate prayer rituals at home that her father had during her childhood. Yet she still described herself as Jewish. Her ancestors were Jewish. She commemorated the Jewish holidays. Though I no longer describe myself as Catholic, I understand what she means by “complicated” with it. I still put up a Christmas tree and color Easter eggs with my kids. There’s an aspect of religion that is family tradition, and this is the aspect I’ve kept alive for my own children. It would be impossible for me to ever completely abandon the Catholicism I was raised with.

But like Shapiro, I’ve been searching beyond the faith of my childhood for something that makes sense in my adult life. I’m not able to simply accept the religion of my youth without question, yet I’m also not fulfilled without a sense of deeper meaning in my life besides the endless pursuit of possessions and bragging rights. Devotion inspires me to find my own center, to keep working toward true balance in my life, and to consider that a u-turn on my current road may be required.

As a writer, I’m stimulated by Shapiro’s precise narrative, so structured yet always in touch with the core of emotion in every situation. I would describe the format of this book as a series of essays, most of which are fairly brief. At times it even seemed more like one long prose poem in 102 stanzas. It’s the kind of book I’d love to one day have the skill to write myself.

Now I’m anxious to read her novels. Dani Shapiro is becoming one my favorite authors.

Solidarity

I’ve begun a new habit of reading poetry each morning before I begin to write. At the moment, I’m working through the seventh edition of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. I’m doing this to educate myself, but I’m also doing this to inspire my writing every day.

Once upon a time, I listened to music to inspire my writing. The problem though is that when music is playing I need to sing. The singing becomes a distraction from writing. Or, I write song lyrics rather than whatever else I intended to write. Not that I’m against song lyrics. Just that song lyrics aren’t all I want to write.

So now I’m trying this poetry-reading device. And it seems to be working. After all, I’m sitting here composing this post.

I’m zoning in on the styles of writing that most appeal to me. I’ve noticed I like a direct voice, unapologetic, real. I dislike obscurity, language that is so metaphorical I can’t be certain I understand exactly what an author means. I like rhythm and a husky timbre, like smooth jazz. But then, I like a hard rock kick in the ass just as well.

When I respond to a particular poet, I read the notes on that poet’s life and work in the back of the book. More often than not I discover the poet is simply an ordinary person much like myself. Maybe I’m the only one shocked by this. For me, it’s a revelation that an ordinary person like myself might potentially write something extraordinary. These people fold their laundry and mow their lawns, and they write poems examining the whys and whos and hows we all contemplate but rarely speak out loud.

It’s good to feel not so odd.