Yesterday I marched with people whose heads had just been bowed in prayer. Who said Amen to the words of an imam, and a pastor, and a rabbi. We marched peacefully for love and justice.
We own the words freedom, America, and patriot like anyone else. God, too. God is ours.
Many Americans are rising up to take back our faith in all these things in the public sphere. Privately, we have worshipped and sung and believed in all these beautiful words. But for many years, we’ve let those who act out of fear and hate to hijack these words.
God bless America that rises up to protect the people. God bless America that seeks liberty and justice for all.
What It Means to Stay Awake
As a white girl riding on a whole lot of privilege, I sometimes come late to the party of awareness. I get some curiosity, learn something, then try to join the mission. One that might not be mine and may have been a Movement long before I decided to head to Washington last Saturday.
#StayWoke has been around a while but I just happened to notice it last year. #StayWoke wasn’t my hashtag in 2008 when Erykah Badu said it first. It wasn’t mine when Black Lives Matter spread it in 2013. Nor is it part of my sarcastic repartee with others when some people use it now for mundane moments. Check out Charles’ Pulliam’s history of the term.
So I don’t think I can start using it today in 2017 and somehow be hip, be with it, join the crowd I think might find me a little bit more of a member for knowing it.
This is not political correctness but just basic respect. Who said it first? Why’d they say it? How’s it said now? Know the history.
Years ago I spent a week of my teacher summer in Jackson, Mississippi, learning about The Movement and how to teach civil rights history. I learned so much. And one of the first messages was “Um, the Movement was a round a long time before Rosa sat down and Martin stood up.”
Ask. Learn. My new habit of mind for 2017 is Fill my daily life with questions. About people’s interests, actions, days. About the issues and events around me. Read and ask. Then read some more.
Tell me more about that thing you love.
Tell me how you came to believe that.
What is the source? How do you know?
What are several other sources saying?
How can I help?
How was your day?
The other habits of mind will flow from this behavior. If you ask, and then you know, you might just act. With some wisdom about which actions might actually get results.
Just because I heard it/saw it/now you know it doesn’t mean it’s mine. Step carefully. Listen. To what others have to say. And instead of chattering, act on the sentiment. I can let the heart speak through the action.
Actions like these.
It’s not lost on me that “stay woke” sounds so much better than stay awake. Rhythm and cadence; speech that punches and stays. It’s why America adores black culture. Then borrows, co-opts, appropriates, plagiarizes, steals so much of it with an airy blitheness, blindness, and greed that can’t be denied.
Even up to the work of the First Lady. I’m waiting for the new one to steal “When they go low, we go high” for her anti-bullying campaign.
The time is gone for saying “Obama’s got this” and ignoring the hate and harm that Republicans like Mitch McConnell have perpetrated on this country with their blockades, their denials, their destruction. All the while Obama fought, I stayed quiet and restful, sleeping my days away. McConnell and Ryan and their compatriots, the You Lie Boys of Joe Wilson ilk, they’ve now been given all the keys to the kingdom, and it is white privilege at its worst.
Curiosity, research, awareness. New daily practice. For everyone I encounter. This goes for Trump supporters, too, by the way. They aren’t monolithic. Even as some of them—not all of them—but some of them treat others as subhuman, we must remember this. Because they, some of who claim to follow Christ, are not representing Christ well. Jesus listened. Jesus hung with everybody. Jesus said, Love everyone. #notalternativefacts
The new America I must awaken to help build has space for everyone, someone. Unless you belong to what Aziz Ansari calls “the lower case kkk.” That will be not be tolerated.
The walk of empathy is part of the decision to wake up white every morning to my privilege. To wake up middle class. To wake up healthy and physically able, with health care. To wake up educated. To wake up supported by a network of family and friends.
Rest when you can for the next four years. But stay awake, Lyn. Stay awake.
“Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way…or get in trouble…good trouble…necessary trouble.”
“Tell me why you are marching,” a friend said.
My heart is full of so many reasons. Crafting a poster is hard.
I have carried these reasons with me for a while.
This Saturday I will march
For integrity, eloquence, and inspiration, please see the Women’s March Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.
Because my friend’s daughter just asked, “Will boys and men think it’s okay now to assault me?”
Because one of my husband’s friends was assaulted yesterday by a man on the streets of Raleigh, who did exactly what our President Elect said he can do with impunity.
Because my gay friend wept this week, wondering if she and those she loves will be safe.
Because my colleague just said, “I’m getting myself ready to be referred to as one of ‘The Blacks’ for four years.”
Because her friend in Asheville was just followed by a man at the Wal-Mart demanding to know who she voted for, and when she said, “Not Trump,” he followed her to her car.
Because I am finally understanding with my own fears a small part of the fear and trepidation that one of my black friends describes as daily life for her and her son profiled by the police. Now I get a police state in a whole new way.
Because of my former students who are black and brown and Asian and gay and Muslim and beautiful; because of all the girls and women and boys and men I know who are survivors of sexual assault. Because of two students who I just learned committed suicide because they were not welcome in this world.
Because I just finished a YA novel about a girl afraid to come out, whose friend gets assaulted at a party and then slut shamed by the school community, and who wonders if as a teen journalist she should go the TMZ or NYT route.
Because I’m working on a new novel about extreme narcissism and how its reach is wide and lethal.
Because. Because. Because.
Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.
This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.
There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)
I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).
I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.
Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.
His Purple Highness, the Prince we all loved, rocked a color that is neither red nor blue. It’s more than a royal shade; it’s the perfect blend that holds all things. Masculine and feminine; hot and cool. Two distinct identities in a loving embrace.
I had my own purple moment these last few days as I wended my way through the health care system.
Last week I saw a doctor who ordered a CT scan. Before she did, I told her what my acupuncturist noted when she treated me. “I may have gall bladder issues,” I said to the doctor. “I have these sore points on my legs.” I indicated where they were.
My doctor nodded and said with wonderful diplomacy, “I think it’s great you seek alternative therapies. Myself, I need visuals and data. So I’d like to run some tests to rule out some things.” Seeing her acceptance of East while she did West, well–it was a violet moment for me.
Today I saw my acupuncturist, CT results in hand. Those results didn’t give an “impression” as the radiologist says, of gall bladder issues, but some other possibilities, maybe colitis. She gave the data careful consideration, then placed needles accordingly across my body. I could feel, from the moment the fine, wavering needles touched my skin, instant tingling and energy swirling. I soon slipped into a restful, half-aware state, as only acupuncture can do for me. I’ve tried regular massage, but I never zone out. Only the needles can work mauve magic. I left the session without a rod of stone-like muscle frozen in my back. I left looser, calmer, happier. Mauve, you might say.
This week I hear from my doctor about next steps, Western style, based on the result of the CT. I will probably see a specialist and work in concert with that person and my acupuncturist. I’ve already begun seeking answers to the most lavender of all questions–what’s a good diet while I learn more about what’s wrong? Because we must live in the in between, right?
If you’re not one to flex with the overreaching metaphor, let me make it plain: Prince, medicine, politics, and so many things, are best handled with lots of purple.
As I write the next draft of Minerva’s story, under the wonderful eye of my agent, Amy Tipton, I am listening to the voice of a teen who declares herself “beyond labels.” Is she gay or is she straight, or is she something kind of periwinkle? Or does she really, truly, have to declare a color?
“Plum,” my mother-in-law would say, as they say in Mount Airy (AKA Mayberry). “Plum pretty.”
In these next weeks of writing, in these next weeks of political conventions, in these tearful and lamenting weeks of violent conflict in our streets, I pray we all bow to the most royal of colors and see the compromise, empathy, humanity, dare I say, mixed blood in all our souls.
I’ll turn back to Prince to set us all on the lovely purple path.
Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain
It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.
To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).
Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.
And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.
Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).
The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.
In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.
It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.
“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)
Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.
On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.
To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.
To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.
Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.
Us writers, we have wa-a-a-a-a-y too much to say. Just like teachers, just like teens. All of whom I’ll find a way to mention in this post.
One time when I was teaching English, I took a group of 10th graders on a walk. We were reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, who risked his life in the wilderness of Alaska instead of embracing a mainstream lifestyle. We took a meditative walk on a trail through the woods in a local park and preserve. “15 minutes of quiet,” I told my class. “That’s all you have to do. Walk. Breathe. Think.”
“Jeremy!” I called as gently as I could. “Please, be quiet!”
“Okay, Ms. Fairchild.” And yet he kept talking.
“Jeremy!” I raised my voice. “I mean it!”
We had quiet for a brief respite. Then: more chatter.
“Jeremy!” I’d had it. “Why can’t you meditate for a minute? Close. Your. Mouth!!!”
“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”
He’s a musician now. I’m so glad I couldn’t shut him up.
I was that talkative kid, and am that kid still. Many people who become teachers are the highly verbal souls, storytellers enamored of narrative and lovers of wordplay. We love the stage, the drama, the moment when the right words fall into the right order.
Minerva Mae Christopoulos is that girl brimming with opinion, and synonym, and late-breaking tickers of news. She wants to be Christine Amanpour. She wants to expose corruption and be a journalist in a world where people are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes honest news. Her hashtag? #truthwillout.
Robin Follet found a way to bring her character to visual life in our collaboration, Minerda, and visualize the writerly kid who keeps jabbering when one no one wants to listen. Robin’s amazing illustrations do the talking, in a way my novel couldn’t. I tried a prologue. I tried weaving in back story, so people could empathize with Minerva and understand why she’s so angry at certain girls when she hits high school. The solution was a prequel in the form of a graphic novella–and it became a rewarding collaboration.
If you know my work, you know that bullying threads through all my books: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; in my forthcoming novel, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight; and in my short-story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. Wherever people indulge what Dr. King called “the drum major instinct,” dividing us up by race, religion, sexual orientation, and every other label, there’s a story to tell about the power plays. I want to explore how we can rise above the meanness.
Bullying is a case of “too much to say” in all the wrong ways. It’s viral now because the Internet lets us wag our tongues all day and night. Anonymously. And what’s the most fascinating thing to wag your tongue about? Conflict. Fear. Hate. We love drama. Our culture is obsessed with spectating pain. We’ve got Twitter wars, we’ve got trolls, and all kinds of new phrases for today’s ways of hating on one another.
As a person with so much to say, and as fallible as anyone else, I have to ask: How can I expose what’s happening? How can I help change the dialogue?
We handed our kids something with more computing power than our first rockets into space–the smartphone–and then we walked away, saying, Good luck out there, kids. Godspeed in the biggest and most unsupervised library/public park/cage fight you could ever imagine.
Art helps us stop and ask why. I write because I figure it’s a way to reach a kid who needs the hotline at the end of the book and get her asking for help. It’s a way to help the parent, teacher, or counselor ask a teen how his day was. This book is for any of us haunted by someone’s words, still rattling our bones and shaking our confidence in grown-up situations, reminding us to change the dialogue in our heads. Maybe because of art, we’re sometimes a little softer, gentler with each other, for having walked momentarily in memory or someone else’s shoes.
Art allows exposure. My books out the dark, ugly scrawl of what we text, post, and tweet, unable to see the face of the recipient but still so sure those words need to be said. All my stories are grounded in the technology of the time and show how we and our kids navigate the wilds of things such as Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm, and Snapchat. Once you see it in black and white, not so ephemeral, it might hit you in the gut and wonder if you should pass this book along to a teen. That’s some ugly stuff Lyn just printed. Then check a teen’s phone and then you might just pass this along. Because my books celebrate the youth who question this, who want the verbal violence to stop, and who will actually take some kind of action to stop it.
A side note about Snapchat, known as the sexting app: it’s now known for “stories.” One blogger recently shared how and why Snapchat is popular with the under-25 set because of the ability to a) share a tale and b) live in the now, just like physical interaction. You send your series of snaps (stories), the in-the-moment life you’re leading. No filters, no edits, no lies. No comments, no likes.
Less scrutiny means less chance for bullying.
If the epidemic of verbal violence today were a viral or bacterial outbreak, we’d take immediate and forceful action. We’d find the sources of transmission and intervene. Quarantine, clean, remove what’s necessary. We’d wash our hands of the ubiquitous technology–i.e., turn it off, monitor better, say it’s time for a break now–and rest in the moment without comments. My generation wasn’t haunted by tormentors during the ABC Afterschool Specials, because we could turn off school when we got home. We didn’t have to pick up the phone or go outside. We silenced the exchange for a time. We got a break, but kids today do not.
Let’s fill the airwaves and the wifi with whatever is pure, good, right. And whenever we can, stop, disconnect from the drama, and tell the truth.
As Minerva might say, fist in the air: #truthwillout.
There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.
The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.
No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).
I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”
Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.
Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.
Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.
Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.
Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.