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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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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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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The 2015 Good Things Jar

I have traditions now. Which is strange to me, because the very idea of doing the same thing over and over again used to freak me out, be it from day to day or year to year. Literally every mental health professional you talk to will emphasize the value of routines in maintaining mental health. But the idea used to make me panic. It was like I’d channeled so much energy into making myself infinitely adaptable to handle the chaos in my life that I’d never learned how to function without chaos.

I also felt rebellious about the notion of routine/tradition/orderly time management because in my imagination it felt so much like submitting to the control of another person. Why? Leftover teenage hypersensitivity, I suppose. Gradually, it dawned on me that establishing some repetition in my life, along lines I was comfortable with, was actually a way of taking things back into my own control. Seems obvious enough, but you try reasoning with my panicky hindbrain some time.

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I’m really proud of the things that I’ve managed to accomplish this year. Which is nice, because pride in myself is not something I’ve felt for a long time. I wrote about some of them in my recent Medium post, but apart from major life events like starting a freelancing career, I’m also proud that I kept a daily planner all year long, and made a 10 point to-do list nearly every day. When I close that planner for the last time tonight, I’ll be able to look back through it and see exactly what I did with my life over the last 365 days. I’ve never been able to do that before.

A lot of good things happened to me this year. I can tell, because for the last few months, I’ve been having trouble stuffing any more folded-up sticky notes in my Good Things Jar. When I first started keeping the Jar last year, I intentionally picked a tiny one. My life was a wreck, I reasoned, and my pathetically small quantities of goodness would seem less pathetic in a smaller jar.

I think I’m going to graduate to a larger jar in 2016. Maybe a Mason jar. We’ll see.

The Second Annual Reading of the Good Things Jar

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Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.

 

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I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

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Rage: A Calming Meditation

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Deep down, I know that I am a deeply angry person. But something happened this morning that ended up leading me down a twisty little thought-maze: why does my seething inner cauldron of rage rarely ever boil over onto individual human beings?

On reflection, I think it’s because I’m a big believer in managing your own expectations. I consider this a personal responsibility on par with saving for retirement.

This is how it works: any time I start an optimistic new endeavor, I set aside a certain percentage of that optimism for a rainy day. Especially when the sky is clearly cloudy. I happen to think that surprise is the root of most of my own interpersonal distress, and that anything that comes as a shock hurts me worse than identically unpleasant events that I’ve taken care to be emotionally prepared for. This isn’t always possible in a random universe, but it’s possible on more occasions than you might realize.

Say, for instance, that you’re starting a new job. Day one rolls around, and you find out the guy in the next cubicle has unsavory personal habits, like listening to aggressive drive-time talk radio shows. Later in the week you overhear him making racist comments about a co-worker. Are you going to waste your time clutching your pearls, or are you going to roll your eyes and file an anonymous complaint with HR?

I’m just saying, there’s no point getting angry with a professed Rush Limbaugh fan for saying racist shit. You might as well get mad at a dog for licking his testicles. Why does your dog still have testicles? What kind of irresponsible, non-neutering dog owner are you?

Taking steps to check someone’s bad behavior isn’t the same thing as wasting your precious personal energy in getting angry with them. You should save your anger for things that deserve it. Things like inanimate objects that fail to perform the function they were designed for.

This post was inspired by the fact that I hit my forehead on the corner of my bedroom door as I was cleaning out the cat’s litter box this morning. First, there was pain; then, there was rage beyond measure. I slammed the door harder than I’ve ever slammed a door in my life. A few seconds later, I was calm again.

Not once in my 33 years on this earth have I ever slammed a door because a human being pissed me off. But I have frequently slammed doors because the door pissed me off.

The logic at work here is impeccable. I don’t get angry with people because I take it as read that people are not to be relied upon. This is not cynicism! This is basic respect for human flexibility. People are complicated, and their lives are full of unlooked-for variables. Any intelligent person is going to change their opinion, or their course of action, based on new information and new circumstances. We’re adaptable creatures. People who remain fixed points in a changing age are blockheads. I take care not to associate with blockheads.

Inanimate objects, on the other, are meant to be relied upon. That is literally the reason they exist. A person who decides that a career in A/C repair is not for them is noble and brave for starting a new life as an interior designer. An air conditioning unit that decides not to cool your house in hot weather is scrap metal.

I maintain that there is no more worthy object of furious, blistering anger than a functional object that ceases to function. How dare it? It literally had one job. Failure to perform that job is a betrayal, and that object deserves the fate of all traitors, which is to be wiped off the face of the earth and blotted from memory.

If you’re my friend, and you call me at two in the morning in tears because your significant other is leaving you, I am going to listen with quiet sympathy. I will be thinking things like, You knew she was allergic to cats when you met her, and other justified sentiments that boil down to “what did you expect?”, but I’m not going to say any of them out loud. Because you’re a human being, and you’re complicated, and even assholes like me can have social skills.

But if I’m borrowing your car, and the car breaks down on the side of the road while I’m ten miles from home, then I’m sorry. Your car is now a rusting pile of component parts at the bottom of a ditch. That’s because I tore it apart with my bare hands. But I’m sure you won’t be angry about that, because now you’ve read this blog post, so you knew what to expect when you loaned it to me.

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Brittany’s car is currently an intact pile of rusting parts stranded at a friend’s house because she lacks the money to have it repaired by people who have more patience for non-functional inanimate objects than she does. If you enjoyed this post, please considering throwing a couple of bucks in the hat to help make it function again, as God intended.