The ticks of racism: a white person addresses whites

Look, we’ve been over this. I have been over this, in this blog, which is not even my political venue of choice. This blog is supposed to be a place for my own benign commentary on writing, my own and other people’s; remember “benign commentary?” To me it’s like one of those spiders you fit into the center of a 45 record so you could play it on a 78 turntable. I don’t know how to “benign commentary” anymore. All I know is I have to find a way to be in this world so that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer won’t be ashamed of me in that cloud of witnesses that unwarrantably swells now day by day.

So. If you are white and reading this, know that what Black voices are saying right now is more important than this. I’ll put a representative sample from my milieu here. If you haven’t read it yet, do that first.

To be quite honest: I don’t fucking know why it is not self-evident to everyone that Black faces are the Image of God — i.e. fully representative of humanity at its pinnacle, as any other human would be; and possessed of the right to exist untrammeled, as any other human would be. If you feel the urge to quibble with that, to say it doesn’t apply to the hellscape we’re living in, you must not think it’s self-evident and I refer you back to the beginning of this paragraph. The rest of this writing assumes that self-evidency.

But to be even more honest: it’s not quite true. I have an idea why it’s not self-evident to a startlingly large percentage of my fellow white folks. Because here’s another truth: treating people badly makes us hate them more. We think it’s the other way around. We think that hurting or kicking or insulting or mistreating someone discharges hate and ill-will towards them, that if we can act upon that anger and ill-will then we will be rid of its corrosive effects. We will have closure if we can punish just the right amount. We will be able to think well of someone once they have accepted whatever we wish to heap upon their head.

The hardest sin to forgive another person is the sin committed by ourselves against them.

And we white people know damn good and well that we have committed a vast cataract of sins against people of color who ought to be our fellow citizens. Collectively and individually we have committed them. With mens rea and without. And just as I can’t shop for basic groceries without giving my dollars to some gross corporation, I can’t live my life without benefiting, right now, from the practical effects of that cataract of sins.

Other people are saying better than I what can and should be done about structural racism. What I have to say here is about relational racism. I don’t have jack to say to my fellow white people about what our grandfathers did or didn’t do. They did it, or they didn’t do it; who cares. I’m talking about what happens in your and my everyday life, when someone, Black or not, calls you out for something you did or said. How can you, how can I, bear what seems like an attack on our stable self-identity as a nice person who is not A Racist??

I came up with this metaphor in a less fraught hour, so it may or may not play. I think of racism as I think about ticks. Anybody can get a tick on them, anybody. In a bad tick year, you don’t even have to go into the woods; sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the house, especially if a pet or person brings them in.

Ticks are just ticks. They are just pests. But it doesn’t pay to be complacent about them, because: they also carry diseases.

So when someone says, “You have a tick on you,” do you say: “I most certainly do not! I am not the kind of person who gets ticks on them. I never even go to the woods. How dare you!” Well, do you?

Historically speaking, when I’ve been told I have a tick on me, what I do is: I whimper piteously and beg them to take it off, and dispose of it so I don’t have to look at it.

But here’s the thing. Nobody is obligated to pick off your tick. You would hardly collar some random member of the public, drop your drawers, and ask them to remove a tick from your posterior. No, you ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of this intimate task. And even they are allowed to say, “Ugh, no thanks. Ask someone else.”

A day may come when you and nobody but you is available to remove the tick. And you may feel very sorry for yourself in the process. But that’s between you and yourself. Open your private bullet journal and commemorate the occasion:

  • Today, 2 June 2020: I removed a tick by myself. It sucked, but the tick is gone. Yay!
  • Tomorrow, 3 June 2020: make appointment with doctor to make sure I’m not infected.

People who do not attend to their ticks can get so infected that they no longer think they are sick, and eventually become a public health hazard.

Apparently quite a lot of people have decided to become a public health hazard. I guess they thought the coronavirus was fucking lonely or something.

This little trip down analogy lane has been half facetious, but I’m serious about one thing. If it matters to someone you don’t even know that you put on a mask, then it matters to someone you don’t even know if you check for the ticks of racism.

Because when it comes to bad tick years, this is Annus Horribilis.

After the plague, Piers Plowman

Now that the pandemic has roused the sleeping proletariat at least so far as to slap at the snooze button and miss, I’ve been thinking about professionalism in the modern age.

As I’ve said, an agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list.

I was already thinking about it a little bit since watching (and re-watching) a Netflix documentary about the music mogul Clive Davis — which is really quite fascinating as a rich vein of artifacts in our cultural history. The documentary follows not just Davis’s career, but several careers of artists he’s worked with over the years; but to me the most interesting on a personal level was the career of Barry Manilow.

Now, people snicker behind their hands about Barry Manilow, and I admit I’m not a fan. But here’s the story: Manilow put out a record on a small label and it didn’t sell. Davis recruited him for Arista Records and put together a songwriter shop to compose him some hit singles. Then Manilow streaked to the top of the charts! But as his career progressed, he pushed back on singing songs he didn’t write himself, and worked out a compromise with Davis about the makeup of his albums.

It seems to me that there are some parallels between the music business and the book business. As Davis points out, you need a “continuity of hits” to remind people that you’re there and get them to take interest in the rest of your work. A similar pressure seems to be weighing on authors to be massively prolific so they can continue to meet their publisher’s ROI goals. And content outlets like Kindle Unlimited have turned books into a commodity that can be sold in bulk — and who knows how much of that money the author sees. I’m guessing it’s not much.

I didn’t know these things about the publishing industry when I was making my decisions what to do with Ryswyck. I plunged into the world of aspiring authors on Twitter and in writers’ and agents’ lists and forums; entered a few contests; wrote a few pitches. There was a pervading atmosphere of assembly-line marketing, and a tacit assumption that the apex goal of a writer’s schematic was to be accepted by an agent and publishing house and thus accorded the status of Professional Author.

I still feel the pull of that forlorn attraction. But even so, this seemed (and still seems) to me to be entirely backwards. As I saw it, the entire point of being a published author was to get the book I wrote into the world. I didn’t write a book as a means to obtain Pro Author status. I wasn’t interested in producing an upmarket, high-concept, trendsetting property of 110k words or less. I wanted to sell Ryswyck, which is (if I understand those buzzwords correctly) none of those things.

The disappointment was brief and acute. But I got up and dusted myself off, and shook out my Project Manager hat, and started making spreadsheets for all the things an independent author needs to do. And, as it turns out, really the signal difference between an independent author and a traditionally-published one is indeed that marker of status. My trad-pub author friends either have day jobs or families to support them; they do a great deal of their own marketing; their advances are designed to clear overhead and little more than that. Only the highest-grossing authors really make a living doing this; everybody else makes their living by doing “this” and some other stuff, including busting their hump to make appearances at cons and land speaking gigs.

So what makes a professional? In the modern age, we tend to judge it by the Olympic definition: a professional gets paid to compete, and an amateur pays for the privilege. But not all Olympic events are equal, and the more artistic ones suffer by this definition. Michael Jordan can play on the Dream Team and then go back to his highly-visible salaried position on a professional baskeball team; figure skaters, once they turn pro, are hardly heard from again unless they become commentators or you find yourself with tickets to an ice show. If I asked a 20-year-old who Kristi Yamaguchi is, would they know?

Our remaining tickets at the Symphony were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, enough philanthropists have underwritten the losses that the professional musicians did not immediately lose their jobs. But: they’re still professionals…even if…they’re not getting paid. The performing arts are heavily subsidized by philanthropists; the publishing industry is heavily subsidized by the day jobs of their authors. And I doubt they buy their authors group health insurance either, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

What makes a professional? Besides the Olympic definition, there’s the class theory definition: a professional is someone who completed an education or training course and has been certificated by the profession’s constituent authority. A tradesperson…sells goods or labor for their income. But very often they also have to get certified — I mean, you’re not going to hire an uncertified electrician for your house remodel. When I worked as a library paraprofessional — that is, a person with two degrees neither of which was a Library Science degree — I often thought that the market had become overprofessionalized. But now I think it’s the opposite: no one is a professional anymore; we are all in a trade. We all sell our labor and our goods for our living, only some (many) of us need some kind of certification to do so.

I don’t have the chops to go into how this is both levelling and massively difficult if not impossible in late-stage capitalism. Suffice it to say that while the publishing industry makes a good (if ruthless) business model, it makes a very poor guild.

If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, I don’t yet know what it is. Except that I think it’s high time we artists set about to rethink the definition of our professionalism and stop overlooking how much we subsidize our own careers. If these chin-stroking plutocrats admire feudalism so much, wait till they have a real guild to deal with.

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]