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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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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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.

Genre Writer

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but not any particular kind. I wrote all sorts of different stories as a teenager, and the only goals I had were to entertain myself and to make my friends laugh and flail their arms and demand more.

My first novel, composed at age fifteen, was a magical girl story with heavy anime influences. The main character was an immortal queen whose life was tied to the life of the land she ruled. I was especially proud of the three crucifixions in the last chapter.

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(Anime was really fucked up in 1997, just saying.)

Another story followed the adventures of four young women, all thinly veiled portraits of me and my friends as adults, as they pursued successful careers in the arts in New York City. Another was a hardboiled mystery featuring a main character who was basically the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files.

The real headliner of my adolescent writing career was A Society of Like Minds. I started Society the summer of 1998, when I was 16, and I worked on it devotedly over the next two years. Society was a work of historical fiction that reflected my obsession with the English Romantic poets. My characters were all vaguely aristocratic and vaguely scandalous: one had a French opera singer for a wife, one had a mysteriously dead husband, there were rumors of infidelity between sister- and brother-in-law, etc. They all lived together in Florence and had strong feelings about society and God. I am still convinced it is some kind of masterpiece, and I occasionally pour over the old manuscripts with giggling and glee.

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(Remember that time Gabriel Byrne was Byron and Natasha Richardson was Mary Shelley and Julian Sands made out with a woman who had eyes for nipples?)

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A Little Pretender

A few years ago, my mother asked me, rather plaintively, “Don’t you have any happy memories from your childhood?”

I get the feeling that most of my friends, to say nothing of the readers of this blog, will be surprised to hear this, but I think that as a kid I was happy more often than I wasn’t. My childhood, considered as an epoch, was not a happy time, but that just meant that the full force of my infant genius was focused on finding ways to make myself feel better. Kids are more likely to succeed at that than anybody else, I think.

It’s easy to forget that I was ever happy. For a long while I’ve been a bit worried that if I acknowledged having ever been anything other than abjectly miserable prior to the age of 18, the Authenticity Police would swoop in and tear up my abuse survivor membership card. And it’s complicated by the fact that the abuse shaped me in ways that meant that the things that made me happy as a child were a little weird. We’ve already discussed how between the ages of 11 and 13 my chief thrill in life was to contemplate how Anastasia Romanov died alone in the snow. So it’s probably not too shocking that at the age of 7, I spent a lot of time pretending to be Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, scrubbing floors.

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(The only true adaption of A Little Princess is the 1986 version. Accept no substitutes!)

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Memorial

In 2002, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, my university held a memorial event on the front lawn of the university center.

In the weeks beforehand, the English department held a speechwriting contest to select a student speaker for the memorial. I intentionally didn’t enter. When it came to making remarks on 9/11, I had very little to say that I thought anyone would want to hear. I also wasn’t terribly impressed by the whole notion of our holding a memorial service in the first place. We lived in western North Carolina, an entire world removed from DC or New York; hardly any of us had even a remote personal connection to anyone who’d been injured in the attacks. I wasn’t making plans to even attend the memorial, let alone try to be part of it.

But the hour of the contest deadline arrived—actually, it had already passed—and I got a phone call from the professor who was running it. She’d heard I might be interested in writing something for them, and could I come up with a draft by tomorrow afternoon? I weakened under this direct appeal to my vanity. With effort and self-restraint, I sat down to my computer and produced a set of remarks that would neither offend anyone nor make me into a hypocrite, and slid them under the professor’s door the next morning. A few days later, I got another phone call: I’d won the contest, which made me one of the memorial keynote speakers, alongside the Chancellor and a local firefighter who’d traveled to New York the previous year to assist in the search and rescue efforts.

Twelve years on now, I don’t remember much about the memorial. I don’t remember giving my speech, though I can remember writing it. What distinguished the event from my perspective is the encounter I had afterwards with the firefighter.

I remember him as being older than me by about ten or fifteen years. He had a dark crewcut and a receding hairline and a mustache. He spoke in a thick western North Carolina accent, and he’d cried while giving his speech. When the speeches were over, he came up and introduced himself to me.

“I heard you’re going to be a teacher?” he said.

At the time, this was still true, so I said, “Yes.”

He reached for my hand, which was a little startling, because I wasn’t expecting it. He pressed something small with sharp edges into my palm. He closed my fingers over it, as if whatever he’d given me was precious. His friendly, chatty, country-boy manner melted away, replaced by sudden focus and intensity.

I opened my hand and looked at what he’d given me. It was a very small bit of broken concrete.

“That’s a piece of the rubble from the Twin Towers,” he told me. “You show that to your students one day. Promise me you won’t ever let them forget.”

I went totally blank for about a second and a half.

At the age of twenty, I was still surprised when I perceived a significant gap between my understanding and the understanding of people older than me. So there was something quite shocking about the fact that this man was imposing upon me the burden of keeping 9/11 fresh in the memories of tomorrow’s children. As if we weren’t on the brink of invading Iraq. As if history weren’t clearly eddying around this one event.

But this was a memorial service, not a debate, and the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass this man for his obvious sincerity. He’d gone to New York at his own expense to try to help save lives. He deserved respect for that. So I kept my clever mouth shut, and said, “I promise” and “thank you.”

But I didn’t become a teacher, so I’ve never had to make a decision about what to talk to students about on 9/11. I still have the piece of rubble he gave me, though. I keep it in a small glass apothecary bottle with a stoppered glass top, trapped like a bad genie.

I was nineteen years old on September 11th, 2001. Across the country, it was my high school graduating class that flocked to join the armed forces in the year leading up to the Iraq invasion. I lost college classmates who were in the reserves as they got called up, one after another. Unlike anyone who’s younger, I came of age in the pre-9/11 world; unlike anyone who’s older, 9/11 and its repercussions have dominated the entirety of my adult life.

I am in no danger of forgetting.

But sometimes I wish we would try.

Anatomy of An Adolescent Rebellion

As my last post probably demonstrated, I was kind of an intense 11 year old. Puberty was relatively kind to me in most outward ways: I didn’t go through any awkward new growth spurts (I’d already been a foot taller than everyone in my class since kindergarten) and my complexion didn’t do anything especially revolting. No, for me, the principle change that puberty brought on was something health class did not prepare me for: it was dissatisfaction, with myself, my life, and the way I fit into the world.

Children are understood to be narcissists, and people a generation or so older than me are especially fond of talking about the entitlement of people my age and younger. It’s sort of like the baby boomer generation realized that it was kind of hurtful when their parents’ stoicism prevented them from expressing love and pride and encouragement, so they compensated by saturating their own kids with daily, hourly affirmations of worth and affection. Then, when those kids grew up and didn’t thrive for one reason or another, their parents took it as a personal insult: “But we did everything right! Unlike our parents. I guess we just loved those kids too dang much, and now they’re unprepared for the real world.”

I don’t know. It’s possible that I’m on to something, or it’s possible that I’m attributing my own fucked-up family dynamics to American parenting trends in general. I do that sometimes.

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Obsessions In Fiction

When I was eleven, my favorite books were a series of Christian historical romances by Judith Pella and Michael Phillips. Set in Russia during the late 19th century, the main character is a shy, pious peasant girl named Anna who traveled to St. Petersburg from her little country village to work as a kitchen maid in the home of a wealthy nobleman. In the first book, The Crown and the Crucible, Anna gets lost and accidentally ends up in her employer’s private gardens, where she meets Katrina, the daughter of the family, who decides that the unworldly peasant girl would make a great ladies’ maid. Anna is a familiar anachronism in historical romances, the poor girl who just loves books and reading more than anything, and is able to breach massive class barriers thanks to her literacy, moral certitude, and unassuming manner. When she meets Katrina’s brother, Sergei, an aspiring novelist, the two fall rapidly in love. The turbulent political backdrop of Russia during the reign of Alexander II serves as excellent fodder for the plot, when Sergei’s novel upsets the imperial censors, who drive his noble father out of the tsar’s favor and get Sergei exiled to Siberia. Not to worry, though: he escapes, and is reunited with Anna at her father’s peasant hovel, where they live happily for many years, raising a large family in well-educated destitution.

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