What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.

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At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

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Advent meditation for 6 December 2016

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Annunciation, by James Tissot. I love it when the angels are weird.

I’m a fairly patient person; waiting isn’t painful to me as long as I know what it is I’m waiting for. When I don’t know what’s coming—when all I know is that it’s something big, something with the potential to shake up my life, something that might go easier if I were able to prepare for it but I can’t prepare for it because I don’t know what it isthat’s when I get anxious.

Most of the time, Advent is, to me, precisely what it’s “supposed” to be—a season of joyful anticipation. This year is a little different. I don’t know where I’m going to be living come Christmas. I don’t know what kind of world I’m going to be living in come January. There are no Christmas decorations up in my house this year. I spent the entire month of November in another state, and I feel like I abruptly skipped from All Hallow’s to Advent without any breathing space between. I usually think of “waiting” as something you want to be over as soon as possible. But the dread you experience when something is barreling down the pipeline towards you at far too fast a clip, that’s part of waiting too.

This year, for a number of reasons, the waiting of Advent is, to me, the kind of waiting that doesn’t last long enough. Like, if Christmas could get here in two months instead of three weeks, that would suit me just fine. If time in general could slow and stretch, I would be into that. I always feel like things are happening a little too fast. I react to all change like it’s a change for the worse. A daily dose of dread is a normal part of my life.

The way practically everyone tells the annunciation story, Mary’s complete submission to “God’s will” gets emphasized over everything else. But even if humble obedience really was her chief reaction to being told by an angel that a divine fetus was about to be magically implanted in her body, I’m sure that wasn’t the whole of it. I know that if I were in Mary’s shoes, I would definitely be wondering about the nature of the holy infant I was carrying. Like, how does “divinity” express itself in a baby? Is this kid going to be speaking in complete sentences with the authority of God the Father straight out of the birth canal? Is he gonna have wings? You’d have to pause, considering the possibilities.

I don’t think the Bible indicates whether Mary’s pregnancy lasted the full term of a normal human pregnancy, but let’s assume it did. For eight months, Mary could treat all those questions as theoretical, but around the beginning of month nine, I bet she felt the glare of metaphorical approaching headlights. No doubt she was full of tender maternal joy, just like all the stories say, but if there wasn’t a little dread mixed in there too, I would be very surprised.

I find all of that sort of comforting. When December 1st rolled around last week and I didn’t feel like dragging out my mini-tree, I felt like I was ruining the holiday season. But I feel less that way now. The darkness that wraps around the northern hemisphere in December makes dread practically a biological imperative. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s fine that I sometimes look at the birth of Christ and see an event rivaling the Second Coming in its fear and uncertainty. The word has turned upside down many, many times. The here-and-now has always been someone’s apocalypse. Advent is the prelude, not just to the miracle of the incarnation, but to the ministry of the man who gave us fair warning that he came to bring not peace but a sword. The dread is probably a gift of some kind. I just have to figure out what to do with it.

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Annunciation, by Rose M Barron. I love everything about this, but especially the skeptical look on Mary’s face.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

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(My grandmother holding the first quilt I made for her, Christmas 2008.)

My grandmother, Hester Ferguson Preston, passed away on October 27th. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was asked to write and deliver her eulogy, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Eulogy for Hester Preston

31 October 2016

When my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday a few years ago, my mother and my aunt asked everyone who attended her party to write something for her to put in a keepsake book. I write for a living, so I thought, “This will be a piece of cake!” I wanted my contribution to be perfect—I was going to impress Granny with my writing skills and tell her all kinds of things about me and about the example she’d set for me as I was growing up. I was raised in North Carolina, so I mostly saw Granny at Christmas, and we were usually too busy to sit down and have long conversations. Most of the stories I heard about her from when she was younger were told to me by other people. She didn’t really talk about herself to me all that much. So I wanted to make sure she knew that those stories had had an impact on me, and I was going to use that birthday letter to tell her, because I wasn’t sure if she knew or not.

Unfortunately, I tripped over my own good intentions—I tried so hard to come up with the perfect letter that I gave myself a classic case of writer’s block. By the time her birthday party came around, I didn’t have anything to show for myself. But just a few months ago, I had a moment where I realized that there was a chance I wouldn’t get to see Granny again before she died. So I made myself sit down then and there and write her a short letter. It didn’t live up to my ambitions for the birthday letter, but it covered all the important stuff, and I sent it off feeling like I’d told her everything I really needed her to know. Obviously, I was really grateful that I’d done that when I got the news on Thursday that she’d passed away.

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Nostalgia: On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11

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If only I had known that I was growing up in the nineties while I was doing it. I remember being afraid of war as a child; my father fought in Vietnam, and I was told often by my mother that it had “changed” him in some mysterious ways. A precocious history student, I had read books about the Holocaust and the Russian Revolution. I had a haunting sense of what life during wartime might be like; it happened in a world that was like my own, but subtly off in the unheimlich way of a bad dream.

I must have assumed that we lived in a time past war, or else in one of those golden gaps in history where nothing especially horrible happens to anyone who looks like you for entire decades at a time. Had anyone told me that we were living a small sliver of a gap between the Cold War and the age of terrorism, my teenaged dreams for the future would have shaped themselves differently, I think.

I don’t know how long it was after 9/11 before I started wondering when it would be over. I just know that the early 2000’s would have been much worse for me if I had realized that my bedrock underlying assumption, that there was a time not too far off when it would be over, was entirely mistaken.

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A List of Books That Traumatized Me As A Child, In Chronological Order

1. Title of Book: The Bible

Age I Was Traumatized: 4

I am not saying that the Bible was written by a sexual sadist. I am saying that my 1986 edition children’s Bible was, without question, illustrated by someone who regularly tied their partner to a cave wall and flogged them to ecstasy while in a Hebrew slave-Egyptian overseer roleplaying situation.

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(For a kid whose parents barely let her watch TV, some of my Sunday school lessons were intense.)

2. Title of Book: Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Age I Was Traumatized: 7

The prairie is on fire. A snake is twisting itself around your leg, having mistaken you for a source of safety. Inside the sod house, Ma is making rabbit stew with dumplings, only she has no more meat, only flour and grease. Pa tells you to bring him a drink of water from the dipper. “This is fine,” he says, staring out the window at the burning world. “Everything here is just fine.”

3. Title of Book: The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom

Age I Was Traumatized: 9

Third grade is a normal and developmentally appropriate time in a child’s life for reading vivid first-person memoirs about hiding from Nazis and surviving Ravensbrück for over a year.

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What I Want From My Rapist

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(When I’m about to go to a scary mental place, I visit the imaginary house in my head. Here’s a visual approximation, in case you need to pop in for tea while reading.)

(Trigger warning: this post describes two different sexual assaults a degree of non-graphic detail.)

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I’m not really good at coming up with hot takes on current issues. As a writer, the amount of time I need to sit with my thoughts and offer conclusions generally exceeds a story’s lifetime in the 24 hour news cycle. But the recent commentary about the Brock Turner rape case in California made me realize that there is a discussion I have wanted to initiate about justice in rape cases, and how we deal with rapists as individuals, for a long while now. I just wasn’t sure how to do it without talking about things that have happened to me; and while normally I don’t hesitate to mine the insanity of my life for reflective essay material, this is one subject where my thoughts are permanently scattered.

I’m going to try to un-scatter them here, though.

I feel sorry for Brock Turner. I feel sorry for him even though, based on the evidence available to me, he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing rape. I don’t give him a pass for being drunk, because I have been drunk often enough to know that you don’t do anything while impaired that you didn’t want to do while you were sober. I don’t give him a pass for being young, or talented, or having his whole life ahead of him, or any of that. I want him to face justice.

Even so, I feel a stirring of pity for him, and here’s why.

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The Productivity Paradox

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I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.

I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.

One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.

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