The vicarious synapse

Despite the fact that, if such a thing were possible, I am even less capable of sustained coherence than I was a month ago, I figured I had better post some proof of life. I mean, Facebook people are already getting cat pictures from the home office and reposted memes and the like, so I’m not terribly concerned that no one knows I’m alive if I don’t post here; but still.

Today in my Lenten meditation booklet (“Lent: It’s Not Rocket Science,” courtesy of Forward Movement a couple years back), Bishop McKnisely reflects on the hidden reality that atoms are largely composed of empty space, and concludes that he is very thankful for our sense of being jumbled up and close together, so that we can feel connected despite being so insignificant in the universe. Ha ha. Today makes three weeks since I have gone into pandemic seclusion, and never have I felt more atomic. I’m one of the lucky ones: I can work from home, I have plenty of toilet paper, and I have little need to go outdoors. Most of my relationships were already conducted in pixels, the only human touch I was likely to share week to week was passing the peace at church, and I already had a home office routine for days when I didn’t commute in. Nothing’s changed, right?

Wrong. It’s fuckin’ weird, is what it is. The space between me, the atom’s nucleus, and the electrons by which I contact the world is uncannily apparent: like when you have an inflamed organ in the gut — it doesn’t hurt exactly, but you’re not supposed to know it’s there. The whole is dispelled; everything is reduced to the sum of its parts.

More than once over a Zoom meetup, someone has remarked that it’s a balm to at least see everybody even if it’s just over a screen. But although I’m very glad of the chance to talk to people, I don’t know that it makes me feel more connected — or less, for that matter. For one thing, it’s even easier for my voice to get lost in the shuffle than it is in person; a couple of times I’ve just given up trying to say something and just let the interruptions roll on like a tide. Worse, I’ve had the dreadful experience of actually getting the virtual floor and then feeling my brain lock up in a full-on fit of aphasia. All in all…I’m not really a fan.

Nevertheless, I’m toying with the idea of conducting a Tenebrae service over Zoom (or whatever) next week; if there were any liturgy designed for this #MOOD, Tenebrae is it. The only real question in my mind is how public I should try to make it.

Meanwhile, on the writing front, I have achieved some edits on Household Lights, commissioned cover art, and hope to have it up for preorder soon. Household Lights, I find on my reread, is full of the kind of things we can’t have right now: cross-country train trips, in-person meetings, co-sleeping with friends, bonfire dances, maternal care in moments of pain and need, and Ryswyck’s daily morning silence with three hundred people all breathing together in the arena. I wasn’t expecting to market this book as an immediate and expedient salve of vicarious comforts, but here we are.

At the moment, though, it’s not vicarious comforts that are getting me through this time of awareness that every person I love in the whole world is someone I have to worry about. It’s more the little, funny things that address this absurd situation head-on that comfort me. So I leave you with one of them: Here is John Finnemore with a series of short videos as Arthur Shappey, his character from Cabin Pressure — “Cabin Fever.” This one is “Episode 1: Fitton”; closely followed by “Episode 2: Fitton,” “Episode 3: Fitton,” and so on. I think it’s probably still hilarious even if you don’t get all the Cabin Pressure references, but if you haven’t listened to the Cabin Pressure radio plays, well, you’re not going to get a better opportunity, are you?

Fait accompli

More than a decade ago (ugh), the city I lived in was hit by what they called “a 100-year ice event,” the kind of thing we seem to be seeing all the time now. The ice came down like a fury, and all over the city you could see the flashes of transformers blowing as tree limbs came down. The next day the whole landscape looked like WWI, and in the wake of the ice came a frigid cold that lasted for days. Stuck without electricity, half the city holed up in Barnes & Noble to charge their phones, and fled to the homes of friends who either were lucky enough to have power or who had gas stoves in their kitchens. I can’t bear the smell of cheap candle wax to this day.

But it was about that time that I became able to articulate a state of mind that is almost too elusive to describe. I call it “the sense of fait accompli.” It’s when you understand clear through that the time for panic is in the rearview, when you suddenly find it acceptable to calmly term the situation a disaster, a horror, or a fustercluck of massive proportions. It’s not just an event in the amygdala, when the terror of reality has burned out your circuits for feeling it: it’s a decision to embrace reality that steals upon you until you grasp it.

It’s possible to embrace the sense of fait accompli in one’s own personal disasters. But the One Hundred Year Ice Event of 2007 revealed to me what it’s like when a whole town does it. Sure, some folks were hoarding toilet paper (yes, it seems to be a thing whenever disaster strikes); but most folks were joking with one another and forbearing with the jostling proximity of fellow sufferers camping out in Panera.

And now, I’m fascinated with the sense of fait accompli unfolding on a global scale.

It’s particularly strange because we can’t all congregate in Panera and make jokes. We do it in group texts and cell phone videos posted to Facebook and email chains passing along links and stories and PSAs. Someone on my building’s group text offered to leave toilet paper at the door for anyone who was out and couldn’t find it at the store. Another volunteered to give the common railings and doorknobs a thorough scrubbing. The sewing adepts in my book club are making masks for local hospitals and quarantined loved ones. Art is being made; paywalls have tumbled down; the lowliest workers in our society are being recognized as the heroes they are — or they damn well better be.

And meanwhile the eye of the hurricane is passing over every hospital and clinic in the land.

I haven’t been able to write much during this time. For one thing, advocacy work is, you may imagine, pretty intense right now, and a lot of things are up in the air. I went to bed a few nights ago with a free-floating tearfulness, despite the fact that I normally love an excuse to hole up in my sanctuary. I’m deeply anxious about the vulnerable people I love. I’m angry at my back neighbors who decided a patio party was the thing to have early last week. I feel put to shame by people who have more generous instincts than I do.

Yet all those feelings, disturbing as they are, don’t disturb the foundations of our global fait accompli. So much can be brought to cohere within it: yep, the federal response is a fustercluck. Yep, some people are spectacularly showing their ass. Yep, I buy black beans regularly to make for dinner, and suddenly everybody’s a fan. (Y’all go back to your Hot Pockets, for heaven’s sake.)

I’ve taken to lighting a fresh candle in the morning for those I love and care about, for those are burdened with the tasks of triage and risk and who suffer those traumas so I don’t have to. This light is for you. It’s already lit. It’s done.

And here’s a fragment of a prayer by John Donne, who has paced this path before us:

O most mighty God, and merciful God, the God of all true sorrow, and true joy too, of all fear, and of all hope too, as thou hast given me a repentance, not to be repented of, so give me, O Lord, a fear, of which I may not be afraid. Give me tender and supple and conformable affections, that as I joy with them that joy, and mourn with them that mourn, so I may fear with them that fear.

From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

I’m planning to try to post more from seclusion; but I can’t promise to encompass it.

I can burn lights, though.

Orbis Factor

I’ve been wanting to make a post for a couple of weeks now, but my ideas were all too inchoate to put hand to keys for. My thoughts are only barely starting to coalesce, but it’s time to take a stab at posting anyway. So here they are: beads on a string, notes in a mode.

To start with, this morning’s offering from the Lent Project included a chant from Ensemble Organum, a ninefold Kyrie Eleison that made me sit right up in the predawn dark and then seek it out to listen again. I’ve said before that the chants in my ‘verse owed something to plainchant from both western and eastern Christian traditions, but didn’t have an example to put forward. Now I do. Longform chants in the Ryswyck ‘verse have plumb notes and refrains, and there is usually a lead cantor for the verses while the assembled sing the response. This piece evokes the tone better than I could have hoped.

And then there’s the actual theme, which is appropriate not just for Lent but for this particular constellation of events and decisions and griefs on earth, for this exploded diagram of a theological moment:

Maker of the world, King eternal, 
Have mercy upon us.
O immense source of pity, 
Have mercy upon us.
Drive off all our evils, 
Have mercy upon us.
Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, 
Have mercy upon us.
Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, 
Have mercy upon us.
Keeping and confirming thy believers, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou and thy Father, an equal light, 
Have mercy upon us.
We know that God is one and three, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, 
Have mercy upon us.

Last night I showed up at fencing practice to discover that I needed to practice something new for the next tournament: refraining from the handshake at the end of a bout. I shouldn’t have been surprised; protocols for containing the spread of COVID-19 have been circulating in all the other circles, church and workplace, that I frequent. And invariably, the question gets asked: if we don’t shake hands to pass the peace, if we don’t shake hands to greet our colleagues at a conference, if we don’t shake hands to honor our opponent on the strip, what do we do instead? Elbow bumps? Hip checks? Toe touches?

My immediate instinct was to lay my open hand against my heart, as my characters do. And I reflected yesterday, both in a work meeting and at fencing club, on how hard I had had to work while writing to push aside the echo of clasps and handshakes for greetings in my own world, how (worldbuilding often works this way) I had speculated that maybe unchecked epidemics in my ‘verse during the bad times had given rise to the no-touch greetings I wanted to depict.

And lastly in my exploded diagram, I voted in my primary the other day. I don’t often address politics directly in this blog, in part because I prefer to do it elsewhere, and also in part because unlike when blogging was new and I was younger, I don’t assume that political opinions are necessarily significant just because I have them. But here again is another enharmonic between the tones of the world I didn’t make, and the one I did.

You may guess I am less than enthused about having our field of presidential candidates winnowed down to two septuagenarian white men, not when we had multiple viable alternatives on several axes of value. But that’s democracy for you. When the other party has ejected all its reasonable and/or honorable people, those reasonable and honorable people have to go somewhere, and there’s no use pining after a parliamentary system where you can put party bulkheads between the groups within a coalition. Nope, the coalition is calling from inside the house.

I particularly regret that Team Warren (i.e., me and others like me) was not able to successfully make the case for her to the African-American part of the coalition. By and large, they’ve clearly chosen their guy, and I’d rather they hadn’t, but I get it. I spent one evening five years ago in the company of some friends — all white women, all reliable Democratic voters who espoused progressive principles, all people who understand what the word intersectionality means — and someone brought up the topic of the protests in Ferguson: and the things that started coming out of people’s mouths utterly appalled me. But I doubt any Black person would be shocked. So unless you win enough time and produce enough solid, present-tense deliverables, a movement is not going to get traction with African-Americans if its prime selling point is that the White Left really really likes it, even if the policy promises are good, even if the candidate has an admirable voting record. I know, I know, people are not their demographics. But the demographics are their people. And every part of the coalition is our people. Obviously, I’ve discovered I can’t speak for the rest of the White Left, but I’m convinced that we owe the first gesture of respect for others’ insights, rather than demanding acknowledgment of ours out of the gate.

Warren’s period of silence between Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign gave me a chance to recover my own equilibrium. And the letter she sent her supporters underlined my admiration for her, rather than dissipating it. All of it was good, but this was what snared my attention:

Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.

If Barack Obama was a pastor, Elizabeth Warren is a paladin. What else would you expect of a candidate whose supporters took one of her quotes about fighting for the CFPB (“I want…” either a good agency, “or no agency at all and a lot of blood and teeth on the floor.”) and spontaneously brandished the slogan, “Blood and Teeth!

She’s got all kinds of plans for the symptoms, but her real lance is aimed at the disease: that complex of inequality, misogyny, the lust for domination, and fear that reached pandemic proportions long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. In that perspective, becoming POTUS was a modest aim.

And from my vantage, Warren’s campaign served as a laboratory for the counterpart of Ryswyckian principles of courtesy in the environment of middle-school meanness that infests our public discourse wherever it takes place. (But I was glad for the excuse to get off of Twitter again.) Would I have rather it prevailed? Of course. But the principle of “Smile. Bow. Hit them.” doesn’t promise victory. It only promises the chance to make a victory even of your deepest defeats.

We’re all still here. So I guess it worked.

So it’s back to persistence. I still want more people to read Ryswyck — it’s obviously becoming more relevant than I ever dreamed; or wanted, let’s be real — but even so, the persistence of dreaming and writing has freshly become an end in itself. I make the world, and the world makes me.

Kyrie eleison. Blood and teeth.

On (e)quality

Some years ago, I ran across a tweet thread that I cannot now find (alas), in which someone said that a certain comedy panel should have 50% women. Some dude shot back with something like, “Here’s a concept, why don’t we choose the panel based on how funny they are?”

Her reply: “No, we do need some men.”

The simplicity of that retort has stuck with me and kept me amused in all sorts of situations, from the choosing of board members for a church to the awarding of literary prizes.

I love the whole pris-de-fer of it, like “how can we add fifty whole percent of women to a thing without adulterating the quality of it, answer me that, huh?” was such a begged question that one can’t even parry that response.

“No, we do need some men.”

Or: “No, we do need some white people.” “No, we do need some cis folks.”

The problem is and always has been that Northern European white hetero cis male voices are presumed to be wholly representative of all humanity, and all other voices are presumed to be representative of nobody but themselves. That’s a real problem; shoring up standards against the incursion of minority upstarts is the opposite of a real problem.

(For a non-literary example, take ordination in my church, the Episcopal Church. We started ordaining women in the 1970s. Then, strangely, we felt the need to institute the General Ordination Exam to make sure our candidates for priesthood were fully conversant in all areas of ministry. Up till then, of course, a dude could just go meet with the bishop and the bishop could just say, “Okay, fine, go to seminary, take a course, and I’ll ordain you at such and such a date.” Now, the ordination process is insanely byzantine and varies from diocese to diocese. How strange! Yet despite that we are getting more and better priests and bishops and, not coincidentally, vastly more diverse priests and bishops as well.)

May I just testify briefly that the rise of diverse works in my genre has been good for me personally, as a white woman in a privilege-ridden racist society. I didn’t know to go looking for other voices; and structurally speaking, it was difficult to find them by accident — which is not an excuse but certainly a fact. Then I read a space opera by Ann Leckie in which the privileged skin color is brown. Then I read a story by Nnedi Okorafor in which a young African woman represents Earth on a voyage. Then I read a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin that is a mythopoeic tour de force, whose power has everything to do with the not-white point of view, but whose scope is the farthest thing from boutique.

I liked these things. I wanted more of them. And I knew that I liked them and wanted more of them.

That’s how I’ve benefited directly from deliberate inclusiveness, as a reader. And I hope to benefit directly from it as a writer going forward, as I gain acquaintance with other people’s vantage points.

I mean, it ought to be a no-brainer. But I practice my pris-de-fer just in case.

On Thankfulness and Gratitude

I keep meaning to read Diana Butler Bass’s book on gratitude, but haven’t got round to it for much the same reason I don’t do a lot of things that I look forward to being good for me. “You’ll be happier once you’ve washed the dishes,” I say to myself, as how Bullwinkle might say, “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!”

That trick, as any ADHD person knows, never works.

So my thoughts on thankfulness and gratitude this Thanksgiving season are unguided by anything other than my own insight. (I might have said exactly this when I was 25, but I would have meant something rather less modest.)

I am thankful fairly often. It isn’t very difficult; I think of thankfulness as an undirected feeling of relief and obligation, and reasons to put oneself in that headspace are plentiful. I’m thankful for a good day, a finished task, a delicious meal, avoiding a car accident, getting a good night’s sleep. Having a continual background anxiety that some other shoe is about to drop — that makes thankfulness noticeable by contrast.

So I never particularly liked that Thanksgiving exercise of “let’s go around the table and everybody say one thing they’re thankful for” — what, like it’s hard? I’m thankful for breathing, for getting over a sprained back when some people have a lifetime’s worth of the same chronic pain, for today not being a day when something terrible happens to me… I mean, it’s great and all, but there’s not much of a so-what factor there. And every thing I just listed is something someone else isn’t getting. I think the exercise would work better on a community level, like what David Mamet is said to have said Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

Gratitude is something totally different. Gratitude is directed. It sometimes isn’t explainable because so often it’s for something you can’t do for yourself. You can’t put your own hair up when you’re sick over the toilet, like my mother did for me on one occasion. You can’t make someone apologize to you for some hurt they did. Sometimes, you can’t even explain to a person what it is they did that eased you, or revived you, or humbled you. Sometimes, when I’m grateful, I feel thankful that I’m grateful, like it’s a sign that my soul is in good working order.

I’m not sure what makes gratitude so inescapably spontaneous, though. Like, it’s easy enough to explain when someone does something for you specifically to manufacture your gratitude for their…gratification. But sometimes, a gift is given, a favor is done…and the firefly doesn’t light. In my experience that mostly happens when I feel secretly that I ought to have done it myself, or been able to do it myself. That I needed power more than I needed the gift.

I think gratitude is reserved for the meeting of an unambiguous need.

I think we shouldn’t expect people to be grateful when we meet a need for them that was manufactured by people or by structures. But the thing is, sometimes people are grateful anyway. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s one of the most helplessly genuine reactions we humans possess: and like tears, it’s made of the thing that caused it. It’s something that is still sacredly right when lots of things are wrong.

I guess if I’m going to be thankful for anything this holiday season, it’s that.

Worldbuilding: representative sexualities

One of the questions I got from my beta readers when editing the manuscript of Ryswyck, and one which I expect to get from readers from time to time now the book is in the wild, is a theme with variations: what are the sexualities of the characters, and how are they understood in the ‘verse? Are the questionable choices of — well, Barklay in particular — a function of sexuality, or of something else? Where does Douglas land on the spectrum, if there is one? Where does Speir? Just how friendly is your worldbuilding to non-het points of view?

Since it’s Pride month, I might as well address the topic now. And comment, incidentally, on the reactionary situation that has developed since I first conceived Ryswyck about seven years ago. And if I’m going to talk about the worldbuilding of my ‘verse, I’ll want to talk about the backstory of our own. (Those of you who don’t need the history lesson, bear with me for a couple paragraphs.)

Until 150 years ago, we didn’t have any descriptive words for what it meant to have non-heterosexual desires and experiences. We had a handful of extremely ethnically specific words, and we had a host of pejoratives. Western society, for hundreds of years, had nothing but a reified concept of human sexuality that excluded all but a certain range of heterosexual points of view. Anything in reality outside that range fell short of being human: it was bent, twisted, wicked, sick, or broken.

Then in 1869 the word homosexual was coined. It was intended to be a scientific/medical description of a certain pathology. But this had consequences. The word and concept of heterosexuality then needed to be invented. With that duality it was possible to talk about sexualities on academic terms and in public forums. People who identified themselves as homosexual began to have a way to talk about themselves without mirroring a reflex of disgust. They started reclaiming the pejoratives for their own use; more and more experiences and identities came into the light and were named, so that by the end of the 20th century we had what we call alphabet soup, and more descriptive terms for sexual and gender identity are coined and put into circulation all the time.

Some people have started to scoff at this. “This is ridiculous, we have L, G, B, T, Q, A, I, WTF, BBQ — where is this going to end?” I’m glad you asked that question, Imaginary Scoffer. It seems to me that the most reasonable and moral trajectory of this process would be to re-reify the concept of “human” sexuality, this time to include the increasingly obvious multiplicity of ways to experience love and desire. People could use descriptive terms for themselves without also having to press those terms into service as polemic, to defend themselves against the backlash of the heteronormative point of view.

But what’s happening instead right now is something I think very sad and short-sighted. There are some non-het groups who can’t or won’t conceive of a reunified human sexuality, and have turned on those whose identities resist definite labels. “You Bs, you Ts, you Is, whatever you are — you aces and aros, take your queer umbrella and get out! You belong with the enemy: the straights!”

None of this was on my radar when I was worldbuilding for Ryswyck. All I wanted, as Kameron Hurley saw, was to write a story without having to say, “Well, as you know, Bob, Douglas is pansexual and homoromantic!” So I invented context for him, and for Speir, and for Barklay and Stevens and Cameron and Rose and Corda and Darnel and Orla: context in which my characters were free of the pressure to see their identities as essentially polemic. The society they live in isn’t perfect, but it has advanced in this one area in part because the communities are small and everyone needs each other; needs to be able to trust one another, whatever their identity might be. The people who get to know Douglas come to know that he might like to go to bed with a wide variety of people, but the person he falls in love with is overwhelmingly likely to be male. Nothing else is needed. Everyone gets to say who they are. Everyone gets to rest.

But our interaction with such a story is unfortunately not simple. There are some authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels for the reasons I sketch above, because they want to upgrade the whole context in which characters relate to one another. And then there are the authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels because they want plausible deniability in case straight people get…het up about “forced” representation.

Nobody forced me to write from a non-het-centric point of view; I just did. I have enough age and experience now that I don’t feel my own identity as inherently polemic. I’ve done myself the same courtesy I deeply believe in doing others: letting them say who they are. Even if I think they’re wrong, or problematic (a word that covers a host of sins), or merely tiresome.

Everything doesn’t have to be a fucking polemic.

I know, I know: the battle lines being drawn right now are not imaginary. The Nazis have crawled out from under their rocks, and brazen cruelties march across every television chiron, and it’s hotter in Alaska right now than it is in Kansas City, and I-29 opened for five minutes before going under again.

But what is speculative fiction for if not for featuring to ourselves a way of being that is recontextualized, recentered, reimagined — while still being ourselves? All this noise may cover it up from time to time. But people are always people. And courtesy is still a thing.

And it’s time our context got an upgrade.

Worldbuilding: Standing in mother’s place

In some ways, worldbuilding is like unsnarling a necklace chain found in a drawer, particularly at the beginning. It takes patience and mental energy to tease the links apart, to soften and separate the knots, to draw one loop free of a ball of metal tangles. Very often it can’t be done in one sitting; one has to put it away before ragequit takes over — take a break, take a walk, rest one’s inner and outer vision.

This is because building a world is a reversed process of how our world usually unfolds. I want my characters to be in a particular predicament; but the predicament depends on a situation that doesn’t happen in our world. So how can I get that situation to come about? Well, it could happen due to these causes. And where do those causes come from? They came from a larger situation like…this. And why is the larger situation like this?

Then: do all these causes agree with one another? If not, what would need to happen to make them agree?

And then: what invisible assumptions am I making? Are those assumptions valid in the world I’m building? What kind of parabolic light do they shed on our world? Is that the parable I wanted to sketch?

All this is by way of saying that when I invented a matrilineal society for my main characters to live in, it was a means to an end, starting from my characters and working outward. I didn’t start with the world and work inward to the characters.

A lot of times when we describe the premise of a SFF story (or urban fantasy, or anything that requires extensive worldbuilding), we describe it from the outside in. We say, what if there were Jesuits IN SPAAACE? Let’s hear a story about that. But did Mary Doria Russell say that when she started to write The Sparrow? Maybe she did. But maybe not.

I didn’t say: what if we had a matrilineal society in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Let’s hear a story about that. I said: these two characters interest me. I think I’ll call them Speir and Douglas. This half-tangled story I’m drawing about them — what’s happening to them? What’s happening around them? What are they doing about it? And why?

Only then did I say: hey, it sure would be interesting if this society was matrilineal. And if there were a long-past nuclear holocaust, that would explain why the technology is so piecemeal compared to our own. How do those two things fit together?….Well…

And so I got out my tweezers and turned on the anglepoise lamp and set about pulling free a straight chain. Because like all writers, I’m a glutton for self-punishment. It’s not enough to spend a luxurious week in free-form daydreaming, reeling out a one-show-only viewing in my mental theater. Oh no. I had to plan to tell the story to other people. I had to make it sturdy. I had to make it internally consistent. I had to develop a coherent moral imperative. Dammit.

So from a writer’s point of view — or this writer’s point of view, anyway — vicarious enjoyments are like a gumdrop trail of rewards: if you write this story, then guess what, you can read it. You want that, don’t you?

It was so simple, seven years ago, when I was inventing Ryswyck. I was just an ordinary space-cadet writer sitting at a table with a pair of tweezers and a necklace. I thought that inventing, sketching, and detailing a matrilineal society was a pretty pedestrian way to tell the story I wanted to tell.

It may have been, but it isn’t now.

In the country I invented, mothers are the undisputed custodians of their children; their surnames are the ones that children are known by; their fertility is a precious asset that they control; they live in bonds of sworn trust with the local communities they live in and participate in collective decisions as a matter of course; their relationships are governed by witnessed contracts of which they are equal and sovereign negotiators; their property and inheritance is at their own disposal and likewise can be negotiated by contract with the fathers and sponsors of their children.

What I am describing is not a matriarchy. But it is so very, sickeningly far from the world I wake up in day after day that the distinction is obscured by distance. By day I work up to my elbows in stories about how there are maternal health care deserts spreading in rural areas in what we tell ourselves is the pinnacle of civilized society. I get on my Facebook feed and between the dead dolphins and the ominous Bonhoeffer quotations are sandwiched horrific headlines about men shooting their wives point-blank in the face for not behaving abjectly enough to their inherent superiority. Laws being written denying that a female body houses a self and a soul of its own. Public citizens treated like public property. Godwin’s Law is dead and Margaret Atwood is a prophet.

The story hasn’t changed. But the parable has.

At church yesterday all the women were offered a pink carnation for Mother’s Day. I politely avoided taking one. I don’t want to be handed a fucking flower, I want to be handed a sword.

Fortunately, I’ve already got one.

So: would you like to read a story about characters in a matrilineal society set in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Would you like to read a story about two countries whose leaders recognize the choice between destroying one’s enemies and not destroying the world they live in — and who stand a chance of choosing rightly? Would you like to read a story in which a character’s slogan becomes Undefendedness is an offensive strategy — and who deploys that strategy to great effect? Would you like to read a story in which courtesy and humanity are more valuable than cynicism?

You may think that if you stretch out your hand for this story, you’ll be getting a flower.

You won’t be.

Best of Blog: The Mouths of Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and in consequence I would like to talk about a particular part of a woman’s body that gets a great deal of attention. No, not that part. Not that one either.

I’m talking about the mouth.

Seems to me that we’re always talking about the mouths of women, and particularly we talk about what’s going into a woman’s mouth, or else what’s coming out. Succinctly, then:

What’s going in.Susan Bordo pointed out some years ago the sedimented notions of gender and eating in visual advertisements. In advertisements for food, she argued (with many examples), men eat and women prepare. Women serve food to their children and their men: they don’t eat it. If they do eat, it is in controlled portions with low calories which they make for themselves at a time when nobody else can see them. A woman is caught in a closet with a pint of low-cal Haagen-Dasz; a man swans off a diving board into a three-scoop bowl of chocolate ice cream with not a calorie counter in sight. Almost twenty years later I pick up a Woman’s Day magazine, and with very few exceptions, the same narratives obtain.

We have not even got as far as the whole fat thing yet, except to talk about calories, and since we’ve now had food scientists assert that it’s indeed the calories that taste good, we don’t even have to go there to talk about those calories. The narrative is: woman putting something in her mouth that gives her pleasure = suspect. If she hasn’t fed the kids first, outright transgressive. I’d love to see a growing preponderance of visual advertisements that depict a woman consuming something with enjoyment that does not suggest guilt (even by mentioning guilt’s absence) or sin or temptation or any other hovering transgressiveness.

What a woman consumes by mouth is naturally a metaphor for other kinds of appetite: hence the deep suspicion of contraception as a means of license for women’s sexual appetites which will be uncontrolled as soon as they are freed from the “consequences” that keep them in check, and a sense that anysatisfaction of that appetite must benefit the race in order to be licit.

Indeed, even women’s intellectual appetites are a transgression, as the whole plot of Gaudy Night draws out: a woman either has bad taste in novels, films, and public discourse, or else she is wasting time that would be better spent doing something useful.

All of this is so ubiquitous that to point it out is either to belabor the obvious or to draw a defensive response from the sex not concerned, and that brings me to the other function of mouths.

What’s coming out. My father’s favorite epithet for me when I was growing up was “sharp-tongued,” and though it was effective in making me feel unlovely and inappropriate by nature, what I often thought most when I heard it was that my tongue clearly wasn’t sharp enough, or it would have cut me an escape hole by now.

What actually happens when I open my mouth as an adult is that people say: “What?” “I’m sorry, speak up, I can’t hear you.” “Say that again?” Never is this more problematic than when I am invited into the pulpit: I have to project far beyond what feels comfortable in order to be sure of being heard, to push the envelope of ineffectual yelling to make sure my words are understood. In fact, just the other day I was in a restaurant with my mother and sister and brother, and the waiter had to ask every single one of us to repeat our order over the background noise. “We’re quiet talkers,” my mother said laughingly. Well…yes. That, I think, is its own comment.

Yet it’s not untrue that I can be sharp-tongued, as any longtime reader of my rants on this blog may be able to attest. But how much is this an indictment of my very being, and how much is the equally-sedimented notion that women’s voices are heard too much, that to be a woman and to call for redress or repentance or recognition is to be a scold and a harpy, to snatch unlawful airwaves and display inherent ignorance, to rebel against the rightful judgment imposed from without? If women are saddled with an anxiety of eating, surely they are equally saddled with an anxiety of speaking.

In this context let me compare two well-known passages from the Middle Ages. First, the Clerk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ends his tale of patient Griselda with an envoie clearly intended as a smack at the Wife of Bath, whose prologue was longer than her tale. He says in part:

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee your tonge naille,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille
As of Grisildis pacient and kynde….
Folweth Ekko, that holdeth no silence,
But evere answereth at the countretaille….
Ye archewyves, stondeth at defense,
Syn ye be strong as is a greet camaille;
Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense.
And sklendre wyves, fieble as in bataille,
Beth egre as is a tygre yond in Ynde….
Ne dreed hem nat, doth hem no reverence,
For though thyn housbonde armed be in maille,
The arwes of thy crabbed eloquence
Shal perce his brest….

The words of women are clearly seen here as weapons to make men cower, and indeed are the only weapons available to them, since they are physically weaker and at a social disadvantage. “Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense” — you can practically hear the sarcasm dripping from the page — “Don’t let men get away with offending you by any means,” as if a woman ever does, amirite? Yet though a woman can beat a man down with words, he may well go down believing he was in the right all along, and aggrieved that he cannot retaliate with physical violence.

Compare the long-awaited appearance of Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she meets Dante not with gentle words but with a stern scolding:

“With inspirations, prayer-wrung for his sake,
Vainly in dreams and other ways as well
I called him home; so little did he reck.

And in the end, to such a depth he fell
That every means to save his soul came short
Except to let him see the lost in hell.

For this the gateway of the dead I sought,
And weeping, made request of him by whom
He has been raised thus far and hither brought.

It would do violence to God’s high doom
If Lethe could be passed, and ill-doers
To taste this blessed fare could straightway come

Without some forfeit of repentant tears….

O thou, yon side the sacred stream,” said she,
Turning the sharp point of her speech my way —
Though even the edge seemed sharp enough to me —

And thus continuing without delay;
“Say, say if this is true; so grave a charge
Requires thine own confession; therefore say.”

Dante’s response to this is to indeed give up the “forfeit of repentant tears,” to weep and admit his wrong before the whole company of the Earthly Paradise, and in fact to swoon at the overwhelming consciousness of this terrible truth. It is after that that Beatrice leads him up into Paradise, making him more able, the more he comprehends of Heaven, to look upon her beautiful smile.

There are two things to be said about this. One is that however problematic the doctrine of Courtly Love may be in other respects, it at least introduced the concept of a woman as a man’s liege-holder, who by his love for her “bears rule” over him and therefore has the right to so chastise him when he is in the wrong. This is a rule he offers her freely, but it is also a rule that reflects the reality of her dazzling effect on him.

Which leads me to the second thing. The figure of Beatrice is unequivocally put forward as a “God-bearer” to Dante — someone who is the image of God, or an image of God, to him who loves her. The Divine Comedy is the story of a particular man who encounters God in this particular way, but were we each to write our own Divine Comedy we should (if we are lucky) have our own God-bearing person or image to lead us home with such patience no matter how little we reck. The point is that women are, as men are, the image of God. And whether one thinks that God made us in God’s image, or we made God in ours, this truth still holds — that we, humanity, this quintessence of dust, are nevertheless a brightness we can show to one another and to bear rule over one another, and we show our Godlikeness in our gift of language.

We humans have mouths, by which we eat and drink, and from which we speak, and I am taking this time out of my day to say that half of us should bear well in mind that we are fundamentally allowed to eat and drink and speak. We are anxious because the power to eat and drink and speak is presented to us as a power we have no right to. But it’s just not true.

Because women are the image of God.

[Originally published 3/8/2012]

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!