Beautiful and Useful: a post-election update

We’re coming up on a month since the election, a month of frenzied Facebook linking and withdrawn silence, of resistance and resignation, of fear and anger and clutching embraces.

And that’s just me. So, even though I usually write about writing here, rather than about my personal life, I thought it was about time for me to say something about what’s next. Besides, this is an issues-focused book I’m working on now, and there will be writing tidbits at the end of this post.

As I said in my pre-election post, I didn’t express much in a political vein during the campaign period—partly because it was all so sickening, partly because I feared getting jumped on, partly because I knew it wouldn’t make much difference and I still had hope that the side I favored would win. (And not just in the popular vote.) There is a constant tension in my mind between the ideas “I am not political” and “Everything is political.” I do think everything I write (the fiction, at least; maybe the garden blog posts) is political, but indirect writing tends to be how I filter my opinions. That, and lots of quiet grumbling to people I know agree with me! I am not an essay writer or a journalist; I am not someone who speaks out.

I think, as I have always thought, that perhaps I need to change, just like I need to exercise (which I am! More!). Some of the best exercises are those that throw us off balance a little, because they force us to use core muscles to stay upright, and stronger core muscles keep us from bodily damage and pain. If we’re off balance enough to fall on our butts, that’s not so good: finding the center is all. The best way to do this is to focus on a point in the middle of your visual field, and keep staring at it. Which works great while exercising alone. When you’re in a class of people all trying to balance, some of them are going to fall over (because they’re trying to do everything too fast, because they’re having a bad day, because they have a physical disability beyond just lack of muscle strength—it doesn’t matter why), and watching them waver and tumble out of the corner of your eye tends to make you fall too. So I use my focus and strength to stay upright as best I can and not distract others, I remember what it’s like to have poor balance and refuse to laugh at or resent those who wobble, and I try to forgive myself if my own foot goes to the floor when it shouldn’t. I could also let people know that there’s a wall they can use for support, or that they don’t have to raise a leg up high to get the workout. That they don’t have to look like the instructor, but that getting a bit more in shape is a worthy goal for the future and not an impossible one either.

Well, that was quite a metaphor. Parsed in non-writerly language: we all need to be all right for any of us to be all right, and though it’s important to be stable oneself, that’s not enough; we need to care for others too. And actually my core muscles need a lot of work, and I’m never obnoxious enough to give fellow sufferers advice in the middle of class, though I might drift over to a wall when I don’t absolutely need to just to demonstrate the possibility.

artichoke_wallpaper_morris_and_co_j_h_dearle_no_borders

Thinking about responses to the old-and-newly-rediscovered America of Trump, I keep coming back to a quote from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” While as interior decorating advice this leads to a lot of “oh my god so much stuff where did it all come from” head-clutching, I think it’s worth considering as one of a pared-down library of life philosophies. (And I would love to have the house, too, with lots of William Morris textiles, but I’d constantly be wondering where that thing was I used to have that comes in handy once a year. It’s a hard habit to break.) I’ve been trying to think of next steps in these terms: asking before every action if it counts as useful or beautiful. Exercise is part of this! It makes me more energized and more able to act. (And maybe more beautiful, though that’s questionable.) Therefore, on my personal list of what to do, let’s start with:

Self-care. If I’m going to do anything to help others, I need to be okay myself. I am an introvert and alone time is necessary after dealing with people, so I need to keep factoring that in. I get migraines, so that’s a consideration as well. Otherwise I am in great shape and ready to go out and tackle things, but I need to understand that other people may need more healing and self-care time than I do before even leaving home to venture into a frightening world. On the other hand, settling into the “one more bubble bath because Trump” mindset is not useful. Bubble baths on their own are quite beautiful, but excuses are not.

Outreach. I need to be honest with myself about whom I usually speak with and how I speak to everyone. Just because I live in a semi-urban, semi-rural, multicultural, multiracial, multi-socioeconomic area doesn’t mean I often truly talk to people who don’t look and think like me. So there’s that. Also I can’t resist using “whom” where it’s appropriate, see above, which might put some people off, but the hell with that; I make no excuses for grammar, though I don’t point out mistakes from others. Mostly. (I should do a post sometime on writing dialogue and making word choices appropriate to character, but now is not that time.) It helps a lot to have something to talk about that’s not politics, and since discussing gardening is one thing I do a lot already, it’s my primary means of connecting in a nonpartisan way. But there are plenty of others.

One thing I’m going to focus on is listening to what people actually say and then zeroing in on words and phrases that we might be construing differently. In other words, not assuming I know what someone means and then arguing from that point, but starting again from scratch (and calling them out in the process, if necessary). So: “Can you define that?” “Can you give me a specific example of that?” “Can you help me understand what X means to you, and why it might be different than what it means to me, though I will not assume it is?” Not necessarily going so far as Trevor Noah’s lovely talking-to-toddlers piece  but changing the angle of discourse in the same fashion. And a little “you didn’t really just say that, did you?” head-tilt could be quite beautiful as well.

Leaning heavily on facts in this post-truth world is important, too: check the source; double-check the information; do the research. Don’t accept something you read just because it reinforces your own worldview. Don’t believe everything you think. And it helps to be able to define one’s own terms before someone challenges them: be ready.

Also, enough with the embarrassed grin-and-withdrawal at racist, sexist etc. jokes, statements or behavior. The acceptance of party-pooperhood is going to be a big part of fighting back. I haven’t decided about the safety pin yet, but I do like the idea of engaging the victim rather than the attacker should I encounter bullying. Because that’s the person I should be identifying with, even if I look more like the bully. And the bully may try to get me on his side, while the victim may push me away: I’ll try to just close one ear and open the other, if that’s possible, and help as I can, and (this is most important) not make it all about me.

Also forgiveness: this is an important skill to learn.

Community engagement, political action and resistance. I’ve signed up for Community Food Rescue, which is a local group in which volunteers with vehicles provide a bridge between businesses and organizations with food to donate and the food banks that want it (haven’t scored any runs yet, but I hope to soon). I’ll also try to shift some of my Master Gardener work to programs with disadvantaged groups. And I’ll be looking for more opportunities as time allows, but not so many as to get burned out or scattered in focus. This is pretty much my attitude about all of it: you can’t do everything, so do what works best for you, as long as it’s something. My senators and representative are pretty much going to vote and propose legislation as I would like them to anyway (even if for now they have no chance of winning most battles), so contacting them about every single issue is (to my mind) a waste of time; I’ll reserve that for issues that matter most to me and on which I can be articulate. For others, Every Single Issue might be the way to go, frustrating as it is. When I said I’m not political I meant it: I hate political arguments, even though I do fall into them on occasion (the Someone Is Wrong On The Internet phenomenon) and then spend days after with heartburn. And campaigns and elections and party infighting give me hives just thinking about them, so that is not going to be the direction I go, though perhaps by 2020 I’ll be able to knock on a few doors. But being out in the community helping those who need help may be something I can do more of.

And we’ll see what happens. But for now I am not planning to roll over and start speculating that Trump may be able to do this country some good. I’m not sure that #notmypresident parses out quite the way I mean—in some ways he’s our fault, all of us—but I’m not accepting that this is a normal presidency or that the country is making a normal paradigm shift, and while I try to stay away from the Nazi analogies, I’m not laughing at people who are making them. Are they beautiful? Certainly not. Are they useful? In the sense that keeping history in perspective at all times is useful, that making comparisons is useful as long as you point out both similarities and differences, then yes. (But again: don’t believe everything you think.)

To thine own self be true. Like I said above, I feel the most useful way to help is to do what already comes easy, or at least what fits with experience. Not that one should relax and be comfortable always—remember that balance exercise, being thrown a little off center, but also remember the not-falling-on-butt part. What I like best about the William Morris quote is that is says “what you know to be useful” and “what you believe to be beautiful.” He’s not trying to define use and beauty; that’s up to you and your personal needs and sense of style. You might be keeping an ugly vase because Aunt Gladys gave it to you and part of your sense of beauty includes your love for Aunt Gladys. (Or part of your sense of utility includes your fear of Aunt Gladys.) Everyone’s got a metaphorical Aunt Gladys vase or two, a few quirks that are central and important and can’t be discarded. So—don’t be obnoxious; don’t say, “But what’s so hard about getting on the phone and calling a few people?” “What’s so hard about speaking in public?” or even “What’s so hard about sitting down and listening instead of giving lectures?” (although keep those people away from me, thanks, and probably from the most disenfranchised among us as well). Let people be themselves; let them do what they feel is most useful and beautiful with the time and energy they possess, even if you disagree with the means (it’ll all come out even in the end), and do the same yourself. Not everyone will march in protest; not everyone will call congressional offices; not everyone will run for office (thank goodness); not everyone has the time to volunteer. I firmly believe that the biggest difference most of us will make in a scary world is simply being kind to others.

And they also serve who only sit and tweet. Up to a point, at least. (But it’s bad for your core muscles.)

Anyway, what I want to say about myself here is: I am not going to stop writing. Despite the little voice inside (and the voices outside, too) saying, “This is not important! No one’s going to read this! You could do so much more good with your time joining a movement to abolish the electoral college, or starting another organic garden to serve the hungry, or teaching the illiterate to read, or, or…” What I need to do instead is get better at setting aside a specific amount of time every week to write, and sticking to that schedule and not letting myself agree to stuff that violates it, not making writing the lowest priority. Because it’s what I do, dammit. And it does help that the current book is engaged with the stuff I’m worried about in real life—the benefits and dangers of studying history, viewpoints on the nature of time, the American tragedy of racism. Climate change, in both real and metaphorical senses. I hope people will get something out of it when I’m done—it may be a bit less distracting than my other books, but I’ll try to make it interesting—but if nothing else it will help me think things out.

And so, in fact, will some of the techniques I talked about above. The idea of questioning, defining and analyzing language is key to making words say what they should say and zing while they’re at it. Research is obviously important: making sure what’s factual within the fiction really is true, and what’s fictional is likely. Empathy not only helps build good characters, but stimulates plot ideas as well. When I’m stuck in a scene, burrowed in and unable to dig out any further, I often try to back off and rewrite mentally from the point of view of another character, and it always helps. (It’s also why I’m so bad at writing villains, or at least making them evil; I spend too much time looking through their eyes, and they shed the villainous cloak. I have managed to create one, at least! But I never had to rewrite a scene from his point of view.)

The “is it useful? Is it beautiful?” query is also a fantastic way to prune out extraneous bits of writing (much better than the awful “kill your darlings” advice) as well as shaping a story on the broader scale, both during initial plot-hashing and during editing (which I know I’ll have a ton of in this book). Just like with interior decorating: better not to buy the junk in the first place, but at least you can throw it out later on. Luckily paragraphs can just disappear into the ether; imagine if we had to take edited words to the dump or sell them or give them away to charity. Though we’d have a whole lot less to read during election seasons, which might be just great.

Have a beautiful and useful December, friends!

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