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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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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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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What Is Invisible

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Solitude is a habit with me, a byproduct of anxiety and distrust that I haven’t really figured out how to get rid of. Since high school, I’ve used the internet as an adaptive tool to help me manage my isolation, but now that I’m in my early thirties, it isn’t as effective as it used to be. The friends who were once available on chat for hours and hours over the course of the day have differently structured lives than when they were finishing up their degrees and looking for full-time work—whereas I’m working from home, still sitting in front of the computer for eighteen hours a day, still just as available as I always was. I used to harangue myself into at least taking my laptop to coffee shops, but since my car got stolen and my damaged tendon started severely limiting the distance I can walk in a day, my already narrow world has shrunk considerably.

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Happy President’s Day, Here Is Some Knowledge About Washington and Lincoln

(George Washington & Abraham Lincoln. You were expecting someone else?)

Lately, I have been paying my rent by ghostwriting history books for a an independent Kindle publisher. I say “ghostwriting”, but, as a friend pointed out, it is technically just authorship without royalties. Once a month, I crank out 35,000 words on a topic set by the publisher, researched for its marketability: the Third Reich, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War. The publisher picks my nom de plume. It’s always a man’s name, by the way, in case you thought sexism was dead.

The publisher pays me more than he pays his other writers—$500 to their $300. This is because the skill level of the average Kindle writer-for-hire hovers somewhere just above blatant illiteracy. I would know, because most of my other gigs involve editing these books. I get paid more than the next slob because, as I pointed out to the publisher, he saves the price of a proofreader on my writing.

Look, it isn’t easy to find freelancing gigs that pay biggish lump sums of cash. The $500 I get for writing a crap history book once a month pays my rent. And it only takes me about half the month to write it, if I hustle, so I have time left over to make money for things that aren’t rent, and to write for my personal projects. I consider my writing these books partly a humanitarian project: when I accepted the offer to write the book on the Third Reich, it was because I was genuinely frightened that it would otherwise get written by a literal neo-Nazi. The direct-to-Kindle publishing world is, like most dark corners of the internet, a dank, humid breeding ground for crazies. I edit a conspiracy theory manual and at least three crank health fad books every month.

So what’s the pay-off for me, apart from being able to pay my rent without having to leave my bedroom and the company of my cat? Well, so far, it involves being able to write off history books on my taxes, and getting to know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln really well. In fact, my due date for the Lincoln book was February 12th—Lincoln’s birthday.

Anyway, since today is President’s Day (for non-Americans, a holiday normally commemorated by mattress sales) I thought I would share my new knowledge about our two most famous presidents. In no particular order, then:

1.) Washington and Lincoln were both ambitious as fuck. They knew exactly how talented they were, and they knew that their states and their countries would be better off with them in charge.

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