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September 2021

September Blogging Challenge Topics

September 2021 blog alongBack in April I did a month-long blogging challenge and I enjoyed it so much. It was stimulating to write a blog post and know someone else would read it. In September, Effy Wild is doing another blog challenge so I'm going to join in.

When I did the challenge before, I blogged more but I didn't blog every day. This time I am going to attempt everyday blogging, while at the same time giving myself the grace to know I might not accomplish it, and that is OK. Especially because in September I'm also going to be working on an essay I want to contribute to a writing contest.

Some of my blog posts will be on topics I write about often:

  • book reviews
    life right now/currently

But in preparation, I thought I would create a list of blog topics to pull from when I'm not writing on those usual ones. These words came from random poems in the poetry anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart, edited by Edward Hirsch, which I'm also going to be reading in September. (If you like poetry, or if you ever thought I'd like to learn to enjoy reading poetry but I don't even know where to start, Hirsch's books are excellent. This one includes information about the poet, the time period/social setting when the poem was written, and some analysis of each poem. It's also very wide ranging, not just familiar poems from American writers.)

  • Café

Hoping I can get some writing momentum going again!

Love IS Advocacy

Last week, one of the tidbits of local news catching everyone's attention was a story about a high school chemistry teacher. She taught at the same high school where I used to teach. On the first day of school, something set her off and she went off on a rant. She talked about how much she hates trump because he is a horrible person, her opinion of her students' parents who haven't gotten them vaccinated yet (she thinks they are stupid), how students who think environmental issues are a hoax can get out of her class, as could anyone who takes offense at her willingness to defend LGBTQ students.

One of the students in her class very carefully recorded this meltdown. As I watched her pace and shout, my body responded; I have been in her same shoes, feeling like a cheetah trapped in a cage, unable to get the words out fast enough to express my anger and frustration. I never melted down quite so spectacularly as she did (and no one recorded it) but I did have a few meltdowns. So as I watched, my response was one of empathy and compassion.

Friends and family members, and some of their friends, did not respond the same.

I should've just stayed out of the discussion on Facebook. I mean, when will I learn? I believe so firmly in standing up for my opinion. But when I do, especially over the last three years, it has been met by so much staunch opposition. Strike that—it's not the opposition to my opinion that bothers me. I am OK with not everyone agreeing with me, and wouldn't, in all honesty, want a world where everyone had the same opinion.

What I am struggling with is the derision that accompanies the opposition. The suggestion (or sometimes the outright spoken) idea that I'm one of those flaming left, special snowflake libtards who don't live in the real world. Last week in that discussion, someone much younger than me tried to explain both teaching and the difference between fact and opinion to me. (Gee, thanks. They didn't teach us any of that when I got my English degree. Or my TEACHING degree for God's sake.)

Even though I didn't engage as much as I could have, I left that discussion feeling a little bit bruised.

Definitely feeling that my extended family, for the most part, neither understands me not respects the types of intelligence I have. I felt supported by my daughter but very lonely otherwise.

All of which is the reason why I am writing about this week's local news on my blog instead of my Facebook feed. I still want to share my opinion but it feels safer here because of course most of them are too busy to read my silly little blog, which is just fine with me.

One of the leaders of the LDS church, which is the dominant faith in Utah, gave a speech yesterday. A very divisive speech about LGBTQ+ support and how it contradicts all of the church's teachings. The essence of the speech is that BYU is not a place that should be promoting equality. Alumni are hurting to see their old alma mater have things like Pride parades and Departments of Equality and especially, God forbid, professors who actually discuss gender equality in any form. The higher learning institutions of the One True Church shouldn't be places where those creepy gays feel welcome, and especially not the married ones. (If they keep it hidden it's OK to overlook it though. Secret, not sacred.) This leader actually, literally said this:

"We have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy."

And then he declared that students should defend traditional marriage and heteronormativity with bullets. With a musket. (Yes, yes, backpedal, it’s all metaphorical, but I hardly think that matters. Just using a metaphor of violence is violent.)

Deep breath.

I am so, so tired.

I am exhausted by all of the things in society (both specifically to Utah and in the world at large) that are cruel. Overwhelmed by how many issues there are to discuss and to fight for. Salary disparity. Poverty and homelessness. The stupid gondola some rich bastard wants Utah taxpayers to pay for in the canyon where his ski resort is. The fact that a news reporter yesterday said "Afghanistan is about to undergo a femicide." The fact that she is right. Global warming. Anti-vaxxers. The threats to Roe v. Wade. Housing and tuition prices. Racism. Women’s rights. Wildfires. Garbage patches in the ocean. (Just some of the issues I pay attention to, worry over, and contact my senator about.)

And over and over and over again, the church I used to think I loved reminds me that it is not a safe space. It isn't a place—the building nor the institution—where I can turn for refuge, comfort, acceptance, or love, but more tension, stress, and disappointment.

Let’s be clear: I’m not gay. In theory, what the church says about LGBTQ+ people doesn’t affect me personally.

But, then. My daughter is bisexual.

And I have many LGBTQ+ friends.

And even if I didn’t. I’m also not a bear in the woods but I still care how they are treated.

The implicit violence and disgust, the explicit lack of understanding. The way that talk makes the church the victim.

It is wrong.

Even if it doesn’t hurt me personally, it is wrong.

The church isn’t the victim. The irony is, the church created the victims by the way they treated—continue to treat—people who aren’t cisgender. They have excluded, derided, cast into outer darkness. And then they have the gall to say that members are hurting because of what professors are teaching about equality at BYU?

I’m sorry, but are you fucking kidding me?

Not many people have asked me. Even though I was an active church member for more than 25 years in the same congregation, when I stopped going to church only one very close friend in my neighborhood has discussed why with me. For the rest of them, I just disappeared. Which, really: that’s fine. I’m just acknowledging that I understand very few people might care to read what I’m going to write next.

But this: I could write an entire book about it (and have considered it, in fact), but when it all boils down to one specific point, this is why I stopped being able to go to church.

In the LDS church, there is one way to be good. You follow all the nintybillion rules they’ve made, for starters. And then you have to be “normal,” which is: white, preferably male, wealthy, and heterosexual. You must have children and then raise them to be the same way.

If you deviate from that normal, there is the appearance of acceptance, but deep down? At the root of it?

You aren’t really good. You can achieve good-ish, maybe, if you work really hard and are willing to accept that label, but you’ll never be really, truly, actually good.

I stopped going to church because I accepted two things: I am not their version of “good” and the vast majority of people I love deeply aren’t either. For the most part, the only marker I have for Mormon goodness is the color of my skin and my sexuality. I couldn’t pretend their version of goodness resonated with my version. Not for a second longer.

Once I began to understand and see that, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Even from the outside, it is glaring.

The church’s very narrow definition of what makes a good person does not work for me anymore. I am finding my own definition of goodness, and if I boil that down, here is how I see it:

Good people love each other. Good people try to treat each other kindly, take care of each other, and try to see people as individuals. They also try to take care of the earth, to see the world in realistic ways and understand their place within it—we all have so much to learn, improvements to make, and answers to seek out (no one knows them all. No one.)

So, for me, loving people who are LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean I love them despite that part of them. But because it is a part of who they are.

Love can’t be advocacy?

I believe advocacy is a part of loving people. We advocate for what we care about. And what I care about is people having access to the same freedoms—love, marriage, families, happiness, success, no matter their color, race, gender, religion or any other label.

And while I am tired, while I am right now finding it hard to advocate in large ways, I will continue holding on to knowing what I know. (Can an opinion be a fact too? I think it can.)

People deserve to be loved for who they are. My job is never to “fix” anyone, but to love them, and often loving them does look like advocating for them. If the LDS church doesn’t understand that, they don’t get to have me in attendance, and if that doesn’t bother them, that is OK.

One of my favorite thoughts comes from Rachel Carson:

We must be able to separate the trivia of today from the enduring realities of the long tomorrow. Having recognized and defined our values, we must defend them without fear and without apology.

For far too long, the trivia of today has been to invalidate people outside the norm. I hope I can somehow find the strength to contribute something more meaningful than that to the long tomorrow. Her words—and those of so many other writers, thinkers, creative types, artists, philosophers, and everyday people—have given me so much more courage to choose the right than those of the leaders of the church. I grieve for that still—I grieve to know I will never find peace or acceptance there, partly because I don’t fit but largely because so many others don’t fit either.

[I purposefully did not include a link here to the speech in question. You could google the quote I shared to find the complete text if you want to read it.]

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

“I think,” Hoa says slowly, “that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.” So many layers of strata in that statement. … Some part of you is tired, finally, of the lonely, vengeful woman narrative. Maybe Nassun isn’t the only one you need a home for. And maybe not even you should try to change the world alone.

Stone skyThere are many different threads of meaning one could explore in The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin’s third book in her The Broken Earth trilogy. The persistence throughout time and seemingly all eternity of racism in human societies. Environmental issues. The way trauma continues to influence a person’s decisions. The way the whole third novel is sort of an expansion on Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walked away from Omelas.” How science fiction reveals humanity in both its most awful and most holy forms. The writing style. The ways women cope in the world, no matter how strange said world grows, and how they don’t. What makes us human. The overwhelming difficulty but also the inevitability of figuring out who you are and how you need to be in the world as yourself.

But what stood out to me the most, though, was motherhood. Maybe because I see a small but very real connection between me and Essun. In a sense we are nothing alike, but we share the commonality of being middle-aged women trying to figure out their place in the world, and what drives Essun the most is finding and protecting her daughter Nassun.

One of the marginalia I wrote:

“The earth having consciousness: Of course it does. But why is it Father Earth instead of Mother Earth?”

In the book, the earth itself is waging a war against humanity, because of how humanity has distorted and destroyed the earth. It has a consciousness, an idea I can accept, but it is a male personality, full of vengeance, wrath, the need for retribution, a sort of coldness against its own creations. Undeniably, the earth is entitled to these negative feelings, because humanity has harmed it. Yet it comes for humanity with only rage and the impetus to destroy, with nothing propelling it to try to understand humanity anymore.

I know that isn’t necessarily “male,” know that women can also be driven by anger and vengeance. But to my mind, the absolute lack of any willingness to bend, to understand, to soften isn’t how, in general, women act. So, to answer my own question, it isn’t mother earth because the conscious part of the earth in the story is male.

What Essun brings to this millennia-old conflict is her motherhood. She is almost a foil to the “evil earth’s” anger, even though she herself is angry. In the end, what she wants is to protect her daughter, and she learns as she goes through the journey of the last book—there’s another thread, how this is a woman’s heroic journey (a story I have been looking for)—that she can also care for the other people in her life.

Is the whole story just an extended metaphor for learning that as a mother, in the end, what is needed most is for you to love your child for who they are? I wouldn’t take it that far because the story is so rich and complex and elegant and terrifying and detailed and layered and good.

But it did rip my guts out, especially my mother guts.

This is because right now I am in a season of transitions. My job is changing. I will soon be an empty-nester. I have long understood that “mom” isn’t my only role in life; in fact, I’ve never wanted motherhood to be my only role. But there is a difference between understanding this and living it. How do I draw meaning from life if I am not actively raising someone? Who am I then?

But to the very end, Essun is Nassun’s mother.

I am keeping my review fairly vague because this is a book to experience first and think about as you go, rather than knowing even an idea of what happens.

And I think I could write, oh, roughly four thousand words about how the series has impacted, changed, and bolstered me.

But what I want to remember most clearly, out of everything (even though I want to remember every bit of how it made me feel) is that it was Essun’s need to mother her child, even once she, in some ways, didn’t need her mother, is what saved the world.

It wasn’t called Mother Earth because Essun did that.

(This is book #9 of my Summer Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nielson Spielman

To me, spirituality is less about Sunday mass than it is about love. It’s that simple. When you treat others with love, consistently and fully, you honor your god or goddess. Some of the holiest people I know have never stepped foot in a church.

Star crossed sistersThe Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman, tells the story of the second-born Fontana women, who have been cursed for generations to never find love or marriage. Emilia, a second-born sister, lives contentedly in a Brooklyn suburb surrounded by her large Italian family, working at her grandmother’s bakery, helping her older sister with her kids, and living in her small apartment. She chafes some at her Nonna’s restrictions for her life, and wishes her sister would include her in her book group rather than having her bake the dessert for it, but mostly she’s happy enough.

Then she gets a letter from her great-aunt Poppy—another second sister who was banished from the family many years ago for reasons Emilia doesn’t quite understand—requesting that she travel to Italy with her. Nonna forbids it but Emilia finally finds some courage to choose to do what she wants, and decides to go to Italy even though she doesn’t know Poppy very well. Her cousin Lucy (another second daughter) also goes along.

Most of the story unfolds in Italy. We get to watch Emilia and Lucy’s transformations as they process the world away from their family. And, in flashbacks, we learn Poppy’s story of what happened to her in the 1950s before she immigrated to the United States.

I loved being in Italy via this story. Some of the places Emilia sees—Venice and Florence—are places I got to visit, too, when I went to Italy. I loved seeing Emilia grow into herself and find a way to be who she is rather than who her family wanted her to be. Seeing her grow close to Poppy while immersed in Italy was lovely.

I really, really liked this book.

But to explain why I didn’t love love LOVE it, some back story. A few weeks ago I was at work and a patron asked me for a book recommendation in a way I hadn’t ever heard. She told me that she has tons of extra stress at work right now, and the COVID and the politics and the bad air are making her anxious. She said “I want to read something that is good and entertaining, something with an emotional depth, but nothing TOO deep and nothing too complicated or hard.” She thought for a second and said, “You know. Like a book you’d buy at Target.”

I was kind of amused by her idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I think that “fiction you buy at Target” is a great description. Good story, interesting characters and plot, something that pulls you in and keeps you reading. But not really “high literature” and nothing that rips your guts out of your tear ducts. The kinds of books that focus more on characters and the story than on the writing style. You know. A book you’d buy at Target.

Both types of books have value and goodness, but *for me* I need that little extra glitter that a more literary writing style can add.

The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany is Target fiction. I enjoyed it and I think lots of other readers will love it. It just didn’t quite sparkle for me.

(This is book #8 of my Summer Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: Summer Days and Summer Nights: 12 Love Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins

I thought about what time is, how we’re being broken every second, we’re losing moments all the time leaking them away like a stuffed animal losing its stuffing, until one day they’re all gone and we lose everything. Forever. And then, at the same time, we’re gaining seconds, moment after moment. Every one is a gift, until at the end of our lives we’re sitting on a rich hoard of moments. Rich beyond imagining. Time was both those things at once.

I have a bad habit when I read short story collections: I start them often but very rarely finish them. I always finish at least one story, usually at least three, but I almost never actually read all of the stories in the book. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading short stories, I do. It’s more that I feel less compelled to keep reading because when the story ends the book itself—the words on the page, the cover and binding—feels finished. Then I get distracted by something else.

Summer daysA little while ago, some article somewhere (I read a lot of articles, essays, and reviews about books) mentioned that Lev Grossman had a fantastic short story that was published in a book called Summer Days and Summer Nights, which is a collection of short stories by young adult writers, each based in summer romances. I was happy to find that my library had already purchased it, and timed my check out of it so I could read it during the down time of my recent foot surgery.

And, I am happy to say: I read all the stories in this collection!

I didn’t love all of them, but I think that’s to be expected since not all of the writers click with my reading style. But I enjoyed all of them, and loved a couple.

Oddly enough, I think what helped me finish all of them (aside from me purposefully making this book only accessible when I was in the bathroom, and when you’re on crutches, the accessible book is the book you’ll read!) was that I started in the middle instead of the beginning. This kind of tricked my mind because physically I was halfway through the book and I nearly never don’t finish a book I get more than halfway through.

My favorite stories in the collection:

“Inertia” by Veronica Roth: set in a sci-fi future where dying patients can have a “Last Visitation” which allows their mind to connect to a loved one’s even after they no longer have a viable way of surviving their injuries or illnesses.

“Sick Pleasure” by Francesca Lia Block: because the romance reminded me a bit of some of my own high school escapades but mostly because the ending turns everything upside down in a way I didn’t expect.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” by Lev Grossman. A reworking of the “groundhog day” trope, which is actually one of my least-favorite things in stories, but this one, about a boy who is inexplicably relieving August 4, does something new I hadn’t anticipated. I’m glad the story that caused me to check out the book in the first place was as good as it was advertised.

Do you like reading short stories?

(This is book #7 of my Summer Reading Challenge.)