Color Therapy

Since about last May, I’ve been doing a whole lot of sewing. (Fortuitously, I replaced my ancient sewing machine a couple of months earlier.) Most of it has been masks. With MaskUpNM, a volunteer group, I’ve been making masks for health care workers, women’s shelters, the Navajo Nation and other New Mexico tribes, impoverished school children, and so on.

In December, the group started making scrub caps for ICU nurses at local hospitals, who have been exhausted and overwhelmed taking care of Covid patients. Many of them don’t get issued scrub caps by their employers, or only get disposable ones that are uncomfortable and wasteful of resources. After replacing my ancient serger, which seized up halfway through this project, I just finished the second round of scrub caps for this effort – 48 caps.

Continue reading “Color Therapy”

January 20, 2021

U.S. flagThe National Anthem made me cry.

Specifically, when Lady Gaga sang “that our flag was still there,” I cried, because it reminded me that our country is still here. Battered and bruised and all too aware of its many shortcomings, but still here.

We’ve got another chance to help our country develop into the place it ought to be now that it’s been rescued from the narcissistic criminal who occupied our White House for the last four years.

I’m not really a fan of the flag – the performative patriotism of flag-waving has always repelled me – nor do I usually react to the National Anthem. I know it well and always sing along when I’m in a public gathering.

It’s a matter of respect, of duty as a citizen. (I am, in fact, often appalled at how few people sing it, even at political conventions.)

But it doesn’t usually move me any more than the flag does. I’d prefer a song that wasn’t focused on bombs and war, not to mention one that recognizes all of the people in this country including those who were here long before European settlers set foot on our soil as well as those brought here in chains, not to mention all the immigrants from all the other places who have made us strong.

Still, metaphors work and last Wednesday the flag as a metaphor for our country surviving the last four years did wonders. Continue reading “January 20, 2021”

Narrative and Agenda

I just finished reading Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I recommend highly. The author of the eight Little House books, she wrote about her childhood during the push west by homesteaders and farmers. “I told the truth,” she said. “But not the whole truth.” The books are a “good parts” version of her life, but some important “truths” were omitted, because Wilder (and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was her secret beta reader, line editor, and editorial advisor) took out things that didn’t underscore her narrative. The narrative? That her family (in particular her adored father, Charles Ingalls) survived and flourished through hard work, love, and self-reliance, and that self-reliance, a core virtue of westward expansion, is a uniquely American virtue.

This is a weird time in American history to be reading this book, let me tell you.  The message Wilder was crafting seems to me to have curdled, fueling rage and insurrection. Rose would have loved it. Continue reading “Narrative and Agenda”

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Assigning Blame

It’s all your fault. You — you personally — didn’t do enough to stay safe from the pandemic.

For that matter, you didn’t do enough to prepare for retirement or for getting laid off or for getting sick or injured so you couldn’t work.

You borrowed too much money to go to school or buy a house and now it’s your fault that you don’t make enough money to pay it back.

And it goes without saying that you bought too many things, took too many trips, and didn’t recycle. You caused climate change.

I could go on, but you get the gist. It’s all about personal responsibility here. If things are wrong in our society, our world, it’s all your fault and my fault and the fault of every individual who ever had to make a decision on the fly in an over-complicated world.

Bullshit. Continue reading “Assigning Blame”

Still True: Seeking Emotional Sobriety in Troubled Times

Back in 2016, I wrote a series of essays following the presidential election, entitled “In Troubled Times.” Some of these strike me as valid now, “In Tumultuous Times” as then. This one is on “Emotional Sobriety.”

Most of us who drink alcohol have sooner or later imbibed too much of it. Setting aside the embarrassing and unhealthful effect of such overindulgence, we then got to experience nature’s own payback: a hangover. Not only do we feel wretched, we grapple with the fact that we inflicted this misery on ourselves by our own choices.

Recently I’ve noticed behaviors (other than drinking) that leave me with a feeling of emotional or spiritual malaise. Not “What was I drinking?” but “What was I thinking?”

When I take note of the symptoms of “spiritual or emotional” hangover, I become aware of the situations, topics, or even people that lead me to abandon my center. While it is undoubtedly theoretically true that no one can make me feel or behave in ways I will regret, in practice my will power needs help.

When I am already anxious, distracted, confused, or all the other things I have been feeling since the election, I’m not at my best. My judgment can be unreliable. Ditto my self-control. If I put myself in compromising situations, I am likely to say things I will regret. The regret stems not so much from external consequences but from how I then feel about myself. No matter how I value kindness, I can behave in harsh, unkind ways when I’m in over my head. Over the years I’ve gotten very good at admitting error and making things right, to the point that I would much rather avoid acting badly to begin with.

Many of us have remarked how social media is both addictive and inflammatory. In a fit of irritation or self-righteousness, we zip off a caustic comment and push ENTER. Then we keep coming back for another dose. It’s an engraved invitation to insanity. Very few of us are capable of going cold turkey, and I’m not sure that’s really a solution. When we return to social media, as most of us will, we will be in exactly the same state in which we left it. We won’t be any more skillful in detaching ourselves or of passing by the temptation to be cruel or snarky. We won’t be any closer to finding communities, people, topics, or environments that help us to feel calmer, kinder, and more hopeful. We’ll be like alcoholics who stop drinking but never address the underlying issues or the consequences.

In addition to being careful about situations that may provoke me to things I’ll regret, I can ask myself what keeps me coming back. Is it the illusion that news (including gossip) will somehow make me safe? Or popular? Or smart? What do I get from visiting those sites (maybe there is something positive)? Is there a grey area in which the positive benefits become negative, and if so, how can I better discern it?

What situations leave me with heart lifted and spirits mended? Who or what gives me hope? In what settings do I act my best? Who brings out the qualities in me that I value? How do I seek out such encounters?

Insurrection at the Capitol

I was not one of those people who said after the disastrous election in 2016, “It’s just four years. How much harm can he do?”

I was, in fact, terrified of just how much harm he could do. Looking back, the only thing I would say is that I wasn’t terrified enough.

In 2000, after the Supreme Court handed the election to another incompetent man, I was angry, but assured myself that we could survive that. A year later, I realized my mistake. Even after the election of Barack Obama, I was not optimistic that the damage caused by Junior Bush would ever be repaired.

Then we got a narcissistic criminal who wanted to be king. He never cared about policy, only about self-glorification. Others used that to get some policies they wanted, causing vast harm to our already shaky country.

The only good thing that came out of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by right-wing terrorists on Wednesday is that a number of people who had been acting for years as if things were normal have finally realized the error of their ways. Of course, they don’t have to do much about it now.

Though maybe one other good thing has come out of the last four years: Many more people are now aware of the deep flaws in our country and how rooted they are in racism. Continue reading “Insurrection at the Capitol”

What’s In Your Pocket?

When I was making the sketchbook for my brother I recalled, as I hadn’t in years, that my father always carried four or five 3 x 5 file cards in his breast pocket–unlined, often in an assortment of colors–with his fountain pen, available for quick sketches or notes. In the way of kids, I assumed that all fathers carried file cards and a fountain pen with them in case inspiration struck. I’m not even sure when I realized that this was not so.

My father also carried a Swiss Army knife. Not one of those 20-blade knuckledusters, but a plain six-blade knife that was employed all around the house and all around the Barn (my parents’ colorful converted-barn dwelling in the Berkshire hills) for a variety of uses–tightening screws, opening bottles, widening belt holes. But most particularly for slicing apples. The front “yard” at the Barn was an orchard of old apple trees (okay, with two Bosc pears and a two peach-tree-come-latelys which were annually nibbled by the deer before they could produce fruit). Continue reading “What’s In Your Pocket?”

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

I’m in the middle of summer and, no matter how much work I do, some escapes me. This is not such a bad thing as long as I don’t miss my deadlines. Summer is a time for meandering, however, so I’m guilty of detours.

Deadlines can be horrid things, but this week they all include cool stuff. One set of deadlines includes its own intrinsic meander. The book I need to finish re-reading today, for example, is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. It’s an early (1984) foray into French cultural history. Darnton is one of my favourite cultural historians and French history is very much part of my historical background. He talks about sermon literature as sources and how there was a wildly huge collection of French peasant fairy tales for about 50 years in the 18th to 19th centuries.

I’m reading Darnton’s study because I need to be more grounded in the way I interpret fairy tales and also because my life needs more safe places. The re-reading began, however, as a reminder to myself that even the best scholars are capable of filling into stuff they can’t find out about with explanations that are fun but not reliable.

Right now I’m making a mental list of sources Darnton refers to and one of those he doesn’t even think of adding in. He includes collected stories by peasants and traces the relationship between French literary fairy tales and those later popular ones. He doesn’t talk enough about chapbooks and broadsides and forbidden books as sources for popular literature here, however (he does elsewhere). He also leaves the Maase Book and the whole realm of Jewish women’s literature and other equivalent narratives by Jews out of his overview.

It’s as if a society only contains one religion. I need to remember that I only really understand Jewish and Christian Europe and that I myself have to explore beyond my boundaries. Other scholars skip Jewish culture, but they also skip gendered culture. Jack Zipes is my go-to author for gender in fairy tales, however, not Darnton.

I am a person who looks at their own intellectual path and questions it. That’s why I need to finish the Darnton book. Darnton and Greg Dening and Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie and Claude Levi-Strauss started me on this journey, decades ago. Right now I’m discovering that every single scholar who questions stuff still accepts a truckload of cultural values and assumptions.

We all privilege culture. Even those of us who are working hard to break down that privilege and to understand what comes from where and why. I need to understand how I’ve been influenced.

This is not for my fiction. Or maybe not only for my fiction. It’s my research side. It’s going to affect my fiction. I can already see changes in how I think about my own writing.

I was thinking, the other day, that I need to write a novel that looks at how a person create safe spaces for themselves and uses those safe spaces to get through impossible times.

What I’m doing right now is saying, “We all create safe spaces. Even intellectually, we are more contented in safe spaces.” I can’t write this novel until I understand how my favourite scholars create the safe spaces for their ground-breaking work. Why is it safe to talk about this subject or that? Why can one talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture and skip straight to the 18th century?

All this sounds theoretical. When I write something on the academic side, it is. It has some extraordinary practical applications, however. I’m applying the theory to fairy stories and folk tales right now, for that’s what my research is in, but last time I did this same type of questioning, I applied it to my cooking. I worked out that I only use a small part of my kitchen for actual cooking. The rest of it helps reassure me I can cook, or it gives me the stories of my past cooking. Anything that doesn’t fit my kitchen is hidden or not there at all. You could understand a lot about my cultural background and my financial position and even my friendships by exploring my pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Sweet foods are rare, pork and its equivalents are non-existent. Since the bushfires were followed by the pandemic, I’m set up so that if I can’t shop for a month I will still eat healthily. All of this and more is there for anyone who cares to look.

In short, the way my kitchen is set up makes it comfortable for me to cook, now, when life is a bit difficult. The way any book is set up tells me what the writer finds comfortable and helps me understand what the limits of their research are. Understanding those limits means I can push my own scholarship in ways I never will do with my cooking. It also means I understand the choices I myself make.

My New Year’s resolution is to create more safe spaces for myself, so that I can grow despite the dangers the external world shoves in my face. This style of reading is step one in that resolution. I’m not the kind of person who walks out boldly. I’m the kind of person who lays a path and walks it with others. I begin with reading books by experts and dissecting those books.

This particular path is a very fine one to walk. If anyone wants to walk it with me, you’re welcome.

Resolution.

Happy New Year

 

I say those words with some trepidation. On the one hand, I join those who are thrilled to see the end of 2020. On the other, if the last year has taught me anything it is to be wary about what happens next.

Still, I have things to look forward to. For the Good of the Realm, the novel that I sold just before our lives got upended, will be coming out at the end of May from Aqueduct Press. And my sweetheart and I have begun to think about making some travel plans for later in the year.

It’s possible that with the vaccine and some decent leadership at the federal level in the United States the pandemic will wither away. Given what we have learned over the past few years, and especially the past ten months, about the frailties of our country, I hope we will build on this destructive period to create a better one.

I’m not holding my breath, though. The problems we must deal with are much deeper than I used to think. Continue reading “Resolution.”