What’s so funny about peace, love, and academic theories?

While I should know better than to be surprised by anything anymore, I admit to being befuddled by the attacks on critical race theory. Wait, before you explain to me about white supremacy or people who stand for nothing making things up to fight over, yes, I get that.

It’s just that from a social science perspective, critical race theory is a complex theoretical viewpoint, a lens with which to analyze a problem. The metaphor of a lens is often used for this kind of research, and it’s an apt one. If I take a photo with a wide view lens and another with a close-up lens, I will get different results even though I am aiming my camera in the same direction at what appears to be the same subject. So if I study a topic using critical race theory, I’m applying this lens because it will bring to light specific issues worthy of investigation. And, um, it doesn’t exactly seem radical to suggest that discrimination and injustice based on race are worthy of investigation.

I am not well-read in the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, though I suspect I would benefit greatly from it (my dissertation research question fit best with activity theory, in case you’re wondering, and I feel confident you weren’t). I could say the same about postmodern theory, and there are threads of that theory which I also find inviting, from zombies (neither dead nor alive) to unraveling tapestries (of meaning). What I most recall about these theoretical lenses is that they are complex. Which is why, though I am definitely mad about the white supremacy and power grabs that fuel these attacks, I find myself trying not to laugh when I hear legislatures want to outlaw critical race theory. It makes me think, will they outlaw postmodern theory next? I remember being a middle school teacher and what we would have thought if someone told us we were forbidden to teach postmodern theory. It would just be like, “Um, will I know if I was teaching that?” And there would be eye rolls.

In my experience, theoretical perspectives are full of subtlety and nuance. You rarely claim anything to be absolutely true, so even if you had some enterprising public school teacher determined to inculcate our youth in postmodern theory, well, actually, postmodern theory suggests that sentence could never occur, so let me try again. Theory is subtle, flexible, evolving, with ample room for dissent. To outlaw a theory is to outlaw, well, something as insubstantial as a summer breeze. There’s something there, but what is it? And it will be gone before we can even try to take hold.

I know, I know. It never makes sense. These tinpot dictators in our state legislatures don’t want to make sense, just trouble. And waste time, energy, and resources just when we need them the most.

Here’s a thought—maybe I will call my Senators to urge they pass the For the People Act (S.1) every time I see any misguided references to critical race theory.

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

Image of mountains

Life Inside/Outside

I set goals, almost daily. Since I teach time management tips to college students, you might say I set goals professionally. One of my goals was to read a poem or two every day, and right now I’m finding them on the poets.org website. Another goal was to blog on whatever stands out in my readings now and then, so I thought I’d comment on today’s poem by Hanae Jonas called “Pastoral.” I immediately connected with it. It reminded me of how I feel about growing up in the mountains of NC and spending time first in cities then back home again. I never quite feel as if I can call either city or country my own, nor do I feel as if anyone outside of this place quite gets it: “Cool/Said the flatlanders/Whose ranks I’d effectively joined.” After I read the poem, I read her remarks that she was trying to figure out how to write about Vermont—the inside and the outside, which feels right to me.

The next line hit home too: “While those I left drifted closer to one another/Or God, to the sources/Of life itself: children and dirt.” I note the irony in the final words: this poem explores what is imagined or constructed as much as what is real. Still, this glimpse of a community left to itself spoke to me. And perhaps the irony for me is that I am one of the ones who stayed, who prefers less in terms of the pace of life, and more in terms of family and nature, in ways that I’m pretty sure my friends who have left can’t fully understand.

And still people rarely see me as “from here,” and perhaps I never will be.

When do we get to rest on our laurels?

I admit, I tend to be cranky about the phrase “don’t rest on your laurels,” because it invariably accompanies praise for some accomplishment. That is, instead of allowing anyone to feel good about what they have accomplished, there is this sense that effective leaders should nag people to never relax, never stop pushing, never pause to take a breath because if you slow down even a moment, you must be an abject failure.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the ongoing pursuit of excellence—the joy of identifying and pursuing difficult goals. And I get that organizations must find ways to thrive that typically involve movement, not stasis. But ffs (pardon my initials) when do we get to rest on our laurels? Can’t there be any moment to say, hey, that was great, I don’t suck?

No, I think the answer is no.

At least, no matter what we accomplish, no matter in what ways we prove ourselves, we can never expect a respite. We will be prodded and challenged no matter what we are doing, whether we strive to do more or take a brief pause. So, IMHO go ahead and rest on your laurels whenever you choose, including the most modest wins. Sure, eventually start over, get back on the horse, etcetera etcetera. But sometimes, just say, hey, whatever. I’m taking a moment.

Flowers for graduation

My eldest finished high school this week, including the traditional march across the stage, and I’ve got all the feels. When you have a baby, they warn you of sleepless nights and dirty diapers. But they don’t mention that there comes a moment when you have to applaud the fact that your baby is no longer your baby.

We don’t follow many traditions in our home, and I can’t recall buying flowers, well, ever, but to mark this occasion, I grabbed some tulips and mini-carnations when I was in the store. I found one of my mother’s pottery pieces and, as you do, began to estimate where I should cut the stems before placing them in the tiny pitchers. I hesitated about cutting them, knowing that it would shorten how long the flowers might last. I reminded myself that these are cut flowers, meant to fill a space with light and joy for the moment, not forever.

Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

photo of path

Write a lot, write a little

I want to reflect on what helps me write a lot, or even just a little. I wrote about trying to dabble in a variety of writing activities to boost my writing practice. Which, as I said, I love doing, but I have a habit of focusing on one top priority (usually my novel) at a time—mostly because that seems to work. Yet I know I typically have the opportunity to work on more than just that one top priority.

I also benefit from stops and starts. I mean, if I get on a roll, then I stick with it until I lose steam. But otherwise, I tend to come up with a few paragraphs or pages, then something clicks and I need to switch gears.

One genre of writing that I find easy to do at any time is journaling. I have often used journaling as a way to foster my work, by journaling about what I might write, discussing questions with myself that then turn into tasks to add to my to-do list, or sometimes drafting new work.

Since I have reached a moment between larger projects, I want to see if I can broaden my reach. I’d like to write more, both in terms of quantity and genres.

So my idea is this—I will aim to journal throughout the day. Not a lot. Maybe a phrase here and there, between various commitments. And the journaling can be my springboard—I can then jump into a longer piece, or I can jot down ideas or questions to pursue later.

And if I find I can’t write anything, I could take a short walk. Not to steal Brenda Ueland’s thunder (and I think Anne Lamott mentioned this too when she recommended carrying index cards at all times), but walks really can help me write more. Of course, it helps if I get back to the writing as soon as I’m done with the walk!

Reading also helps me write more, especially if I could read a little, then write a little. Sometimes I just dig in and keep reading to finish the book, but if I do that, I often forget some of the insights or ideas that flickered in the background as I read. I think it could be very helpful if I would try a bite-sized approach to reading—read a little, then jot down any ideas or impressions as soon as I can.

I also think that this could help ease some of my anxiety as a writer, because there would be more energy and change going on. I don’t quite have to know everything I’m going to write before I write it. I just open myself up to what comes, and move on from there.

It occurs to me that this strategy will require some intentionality on my part, the commitment to turn it into a habit. That is, this strategy will totally work, but only if I actually do it. Hmm. That feels like a good epitaph for my writing goals in general—it could totally work if I actually do it. Sigh.

Still, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.

Variety and consistency are key

I’ve been more successful this year in cultivating an exercise habit. Avoiding human contact has meant I haven’t caught colds or non-headline-grabbing viruses, and so far (knock on all things wooden) I haven’t pulled a muscle or injured myself in some way that would cause me to lose all momentum. The biggest break in the routine was the week after I received the second dose of the moderna vaccine. I was wiped out on day two, and just a little lower energy and babying myself the rest of the week, trying to encourage my immune system to put on its superhero cape.

In a workout video, a trainer stated that “variety and consistency are key,” and this year I’ve definitely added more variety to my workouts, including more time and more intensity. I’ve also discovered that I do better if I take one day off each week and switch each day between high intensity and lower intensity workouts.

But this advice made me wonder if I should aim for the same in my writing. I admit that I make more progress if I identify one main project as my top priority, either for the day or for the foreseeable future. Consistency tends to help. If I work each day or every other day on a novel, for example, even if just for a half an hour, the story simmers on a back burner in my brain the rest of the time, and ideas come to me at random moments. I’ve even gotten better about writing those stray ideas down. So consistency and habits of some sort work for me. Variety, now that’s an interesting idea, even if it sounds almost antithetical to consistency. For example, compare a consistent diet of one type of food versus a diet full of variety. But I guess the distinction is that one should be consistent in making some kind of effort, or starting over after essential breaks, but also aim for some variety in the actual activity. I realize that I have also found it helpful to designate one or two days a week as “pressure-free.” That is, if I want to write, great. If I don’t, that’s cool too.

I like to dabble with various forms of creative and reflective writing. Yet I found that I am more successful if I work on whatever I’ve deemed top priority first. If I dabble first, that effort often saps most of my writing energy.

But I know that a certain playfulness helps me too, at least to enjoy life in general. I want to believe playfulness improves my writing. If nothing else, it supports my ability to keep writing.

I am on summer break from my part-time job at the local university so this is a good time for me to experiment to see if and how I can add more variety to what I write. I noted on the blog post by S.G. Browne that writing for fun can help when one hits a wall in the longer project.

So I will explore ways to add some variety while still making the top priority work, um, top priority. Stay tuned! I’ll report back later this summer on how it’s going.

snapshot of book cover

Reading Notes on Robert Gipe’s Trampoline

I’ve been finding time, or making time, to read more often, and my best friend gifted me with three books by Robert Gipe, set in a coal-mining mountain region somewhere in eastern Kentucky. By a crow’s flight, it’s likely not that far from where I live in western North Carolina. The first novel is Trampoline, narrated by fifteen-year-old Jewell, who describes herself as a “freak, soft and four-eyed, with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge” (p. 70). As I read, I kept noticing how the setting and characters felt both familiar and unknowable to me. His portrait of individuals ravaged by poverty and addiction is neither unforgiving nor forgiving. I came away with so much sympathy for people locked into roles in which they become a danger to others, themselves, and the land they love.

Reading this book makes me wonder if it is ever possible to portray the truth of any person’s life, especially one in a position of such vulnerability or powerlessness. But the glimpses of what could be true within this portrait makes me wonder about the lives of people I have sat beside in waiting rooms or passed in the grocery store, the many glimpses of people living in these mountains that I do not know, that I try to but sometimes cannot really see.

I especially savored Gipe’s many metaphors and similes. The narrator/protagonist describes the board members at a state hearing “like prizes at a carnival game, eyes wide and blank, stuffed pink monkeys, green hippopotamuses piled too close together” (p. 12). Eyes often get an extra dose of language, such as, “‘How old are you, Dawn?’ The room went quiet when Decent asked. Her eyes were two humming outboard motors pushing a boat across summer waters. I water-skied behind her outboard motor eyes, rope tight pulling me across a rough glass like under a paste-gray sky” (p. 99). Black and white sketches further add to the impact of this illustrated novel.

My favorite moment captures the feel of this book. Dawn jumps off a small cliff to “practice kill” herself, only to land on a drunken aunt. The family that pushes her to despair is also there to break her fall.

To be clear, it is a moment both sad and funny, and I had to pace myself reading this novel because I could never predict when the story would make me laugh or cry.

Holding space for emergent occasions

I’ve been itching to write posts on light topics, to immerse myself in the inconsequential, but I have a few thoughts gnawing at me, like a splinter that needs to be removed.I just need to take a breath and be present, acknowledging losses as well as the grief and trauma felt by those left behind.

Some of the losses are worldwide—more than 3.3 million people have died, according to the NY Times (and I’ve heard this is an undercount). I sometimes see photos of people in Covid19 memorials on different media outlets (PBS NewHour, for example). It hurts to see their smiling faces, caught in a better moment. It is almost puzzling, this moment where you think, “But they were fine then….”

There are also losses closer to home—one of those human landmine moments occurred here in Boone, when a tortured young man committed homicide and suicide, including two members of law enforcement sent for a welfare check. Many of us know the families affected in one way or another, including neighbors shaken by this event, reminding us that tranquility is sometimes an illusion.

A young man on a motorcycle died in a car crash a few weeks later.

Others leave us with less fanfare, from age, from illness, from some other long-simmering challenge. Or due to ancient malice, the recurring flash points of war or violence exploding around the world.

I know it’s a bit dusty, but what makes the most sense to me comes from John Donne’s devotions, which I transcribe this way: No one is an island, entire of itself; every human is a piece of the continent….Any death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

That is, whether I know the person who died or not, each death is a loss to us all. We need everyone. I may connect or feel a loss more strongly depending on how I relate to or how well I know the person, but each death matters no matter who dies, or why, or how. It feels sometimes as if people try to build some kind of distance from these deaths, maybe even pick a side, feeling sympathy for one death but not another. I understand the impulse, but I think this too diminishes us. The experience of grief can vary, but it exists nonetheless. We are part of everything that happens, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

I also find comfort in these dusty readings too:

Do not go gently into that good night by Dylan Thomas.
We may know death is inevitable, but we never have to accept it.

And Thomas’ Fern Hill, expressing joy and sorrow at the speed with which our days fly past.