New Year’s Resolution: Let’s Get Real

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It’s a(n arbitrarily) new year, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out—there is no astronomical significance associated with January 1st. It’s just the point when the Gregorian calendar year starts over, and in many ways, so do we.

Not because there’s one point where it’s possible to start over—that possibility is open to us at any time, though it often seems out of reach. I think that’s one of the most compelling aspects of Christianity: the invitation to start over, at any point whatsoever, and more closely approximate the person you would like to be.

Yes, I’ve mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christianity in the first two paragraphs of this post. Which leads me to what I am about here, which is starting over, as a better version of myself, or at least a more honest version of myself, in 2018.

In the introspection of the winter solstice—an event that does hold astronomical significance—and in the company of family and friends, in the break from daily life, I’ve realized some things about myself in 2017.

In many ways, I’ve been holding my breath against the news cycle. Against the loss of Escalante-Grand Staircase and the Bears Ears National Monuments. Against the knowledge that some of the last wild elephants on earth will die at the hands of trophy hunters due to the reversal of the US ivory import ban.

Against the ecocide of the planet, and the destruction of the sacred, more generally.

Need I go on? About the families being ripped apart by Trump’s immigration policies? About the young people who’ve never known any country but this one being forced to leave it? About the safety net that supports our poor and working class being cut away, every day a little more?

Even as I’ve called my elected representatives and written and posted and agitated as best I can, the truth is, I haven’t been letting myself really think about these things, much less really feel them.

Because the truth—of course!—is horrifying. The president is threatening thermonuclear war with North Korea, the FCC has delivered us unto the hands of Big Telecom, and our coastal cities, home to three-quarters of the world’s population, are sinking into the sea.

Here’s another thing I haven’t really been willing to engage with: the fact that I’m now living in a coastal city (part time, at least).

When my husband received an offer for a three-year fellowship position in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, the week after Trump was elected, the timing was not awesome. Or maybe it was—one major disruption made room for another, and off we went across the country, in our little blue Kia, with our disagreeable cat, to the capital of the old Confederacy, where we moved into what is known as a kitchen house.

This term is both literally true and euphemism for something else. Because this kitchen house was indeed where the kitchen of the fine old house in front of us was located, in the days before climate control, but it was also where the slaves who worked in that house lived.

I am what you might call a stoic person, a quality I inherited from my maternal grandmother, a Norwegian schoolteacher of unflagging optimism, in many ways this move, while necessary and important, has been difficult for me.

No doubt it’s that Scandinavian stoicism that has kept me from losing my shit over this dumpster fire of a year. But stoicism has another face, which is really no more than denial. Simply put, I’ve failed to engage with some difficult truths in the past year, for fear of despair.

I’ve kept my head down and my arse up, as my dad would say—I’ve stopped up my brain with work. I’ve kept myself busy to keep from really thinking about the news, for fear of what the news would do to my heart.

And though I haven’t hidden the circumstances of my life—that I’m splitting my time between the Northwest and the Southeast—from anyone in person, in my life online, I’ve simply pretended that I still live in Portland. Maybe because it seemed simpler that way.

Maybe because in my head that was still true.

In the dark heart of my fortieth year—and the emergence into a new one, however arbitrarily defined—it has occurred to me that I don’t want to go on living this way. Which is not the same thing as saying that I’m ashamed of the way I’ve lived.

My grandmother’s stoicism, or optimism, or denial, or combination thereof, has served me well thus far. It got me through the heartbreak of my late twenties. It got me through cancer, and losing the ability to give birth. It got me through the election of a demagogue, through the war that 45 has waged on people and places I love, and through that video of the starving polar bear that’s been going around.

But it won’t get me farther than this without making me numb, and dumb, in both senses of the word—voiceless and less intelligent. Because in order to be intelligent, you have to engage. In order to speak, you must listen. In order to keep feeling, you have to let yourself feel things you’d rather not.

I’ve always loved the New Year—for anyone addicted to optimism, there is no better time—and like others, I’ve often made resolutions I’ve failed to keep. Resolutions about how many times a month I’m going to blog, or what I’m going to blog about, about how much creative work I’m going to get done, how I’ll do more for the planet and people at this pivotal time in human history.

The idea that we get to start over is a compelling one, both a truth and a lie. A truth because people really do change—in fact, we’re changing all the time. A lie because you can’t just stop being one way and become another, at least not over Christmas break.

In the dark heart of my fortieth year, I’ve decided that the possibility of real change rests upon a reckoning with who, and how, I really am. And so I’m not going to make an announcement about how many times I’m going to post to this blog in 2018. I’m not going to say that I’m going to engage with the news cycle a particular number of times a week, or in a particular way. I’m not going to say that I’m now embarking on a yearlong exploration of the way that splitting my time between the “the most progressive city in America” and the Holy City is changing the way I look at the world.

What I am going to do is say, in a public and thus accountable way, is that I’m going to let my guard down this year. I’m going to level with you, and with myself.

And I’m going to do so not just because I must reject the alternative in order to remain whole (though that’s almost certainly true). I’m doing so because the alternative to despair is not denial. It’s engagement.

Listen In: Adrift on Purpose

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This month I had the pleasure of talking with Lis Hubert and Meghan Seawell on their podcast Adrift on Purpose.

Here’s a bit about the podcast from the hosts:

“[W]e started Adrift on Purpose because we’re both interested in what it means—and what it takes—to live a life of choice vs. a life of obligation. What does that look like, both for ourselves and for others? So, we want to interview people who have made interesting choices and crafted unique lives, to find out what challenges, decisions, and forms of guidance they’ve encountered along the way. What makes them all similar? What can we emulate?”

It’s a fairly fascinating concept for a podcast, and we had a fairly fascinating conversation–definitely not your typical author interview!

You can listen in here.

Recommended Reading: Octavia’s Daughters

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The Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, highfalutin’ literary author though he may be, has famously mourned the fact that there will be no more Octavia Butler books. The iconic Black author, who won both a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur “Genius” grant—not to mention the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus—died in 2006, leaving behind her nearly twenty of the most enduring science fiction and fantasy books of all time, which explore themes related to race, class, gender, and the environment in ways few of even her most prescient peers could imagine.

But to mourn for Butler is to overlook the fact that the Black speculative tradition in the U.S. is alive and well, and women are leading the charge. From Afrofuturism to vampire epics, Caribbean ghost stories to alternate histories, their books are equal parts escapism and engagement, shining light on the politics of the present moment even as they open doorways to other worlds.

Meet five of the reigning queens of spec fic.

Read the rest of the post over at LitReactor.

The Story Behind the Story: The Mind-Body Problem

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A few years back, I attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop as a guest. This was one of the perks associated with being a reader for the magazine, but I’ll admit, I felt like an interloper, sitting in on the craft talks and lectures among those submitting their work for review by the Authors of Great Renown–moreover, attending the workshop meant returning to the Reed College campus and sitting in the same lecture halls I had occupied, briefly, as an undergrad.

Briefly, because I only attended one semester of my freshman year before dropping out–due to a combination of factors I might summarize, today, as academic culture, climate, and depression, but which I could not, at the time, summarize at all.

I only knew that whenever I tried to talk with anyone there, I felt as if I’d lost a pint of blood–and that after a lifetime of general confidence in my own intelligence, I no longer felt sure of anything at all. I was also having trouble eating. And staying awake.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first high-achieving freshman who, when faced with Reed’s combination of secret grades (you get them, but you can’t see them), dark, dank winter weather, philosophical inquiry, and academic rigor–the introduction to which is known as The Foundations of Western Civ–suffered an affliction of this sort.

But though I’d returned to the campus a time or two since my return to Portland in my thirties, I had not yet really begun to grapple with what in the hell, exactly, happened to me there.

After one of the craft talks at Tin House, I remember, I was making my way slowly across campus, headed toward my car, in a trancelike state–overwhelmed by emotion, and by the truth of remembering, which is not the same as summarizing, and not at all the same thing as the words we use to convince ourselves that we understand our own story.

What I remembered, clearly, from that semester at Reed was the sense that I had stumbled onto some fundamental truth about Western civilization–the rot at the very heart of it, which was tied to the split between the mind and the body, the abstract and the Earth, and between men and women as well–a truth that would ultimately lead to its downfall.

Remembered too the sense that I had taken a wrong turn in my life, and if I didn’t get back to my original timeline, I would be inundated with further revelations of this sort, and might, in fact, lose my mind.

As I crossed the campus that day in 2014, lost in thought, I heard a voice from behind me–it was Jess Walter, the Author of Great Renown, whom I’d met in the course of my MFA program at Pacific. He asked me how I was doing, and I told him the truth: I felt a bit haunted.

By the ghost of who I’d been, and by the life I might have lived if I had stayed there.

But perhaps most of all, haunted by the sense of promise I’d had, on that exquisitely beautiful college campus, when I was eighteen years old, right off the train across the country from the Midwest–and how quickly that sense of promise disappeared.

Jess said, “Doesn’t everyone feel that when they return to their old college campus?” And almost immediately, I felt a sense of relief. Whatever this was I was experiencing, however weird it was, I was not alone in this.

And then he said–of course!–“You have to write about this.”

A year or so later, Gigi Little of Forest Avenue Press put out the call for stories in the tradition of Weird Tales set in Portland, and I knew the time had come. I wrote “The Mind-Body Problem” as a kind of ghost story, about a mysterious book that appears to students at Reed College when they’re in danger of dying, or when they’ve been marked.

Marked by what, exactly, I’ll leave you to say.

“The Mind-Body Problem” was published last October in Forest Avenue’s City of Weird anthology, a Powell’s bestseller–and this October, to mark the one-year anniversary of its publication, I’m releasing this story to my Patreon subscribers.

Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that provides ongoing support for artists, funding the time it takes to produce creative work. Since the spring of 2016, my patrons have funded the creation of fifteen original short stories/chapters, most of them at a level of $1/month.

Want to read “The Mind-Body Problem”? Join them, and support my voice and vision in the world. Or purchase City of Weird here.

Thanks for reading–and thanks for your support!