Art, Snow, and Relief

My family and I live in Texas. We appear to have weathered last week’s storm better than many. A boil notice is in effect, but we’ll take that any day of the week over a caved-in ceiling due to burst water pipes, three days without power in single-digit temps, no water at all, or the very frightening reality that the entire state of Texas was within minutes of losing power due to the near-collapse of the entire grid.

A friend who’s still without water texted the other day, “I was about to say I feel like I’m living in a disaster area, then I remembered that I am.”

Our city officials asked everyone to conserve power, so that meant digging up as many non-screen activities as we could with our family. Puzzles, books, board games, solitaire, crafting projects – all things that I adore when I’m not actively worried about societal collapse, and even when I am worried about that, they’re pretty great.

We had a leftover project from a fall subscription to Let’s Make Art, which ships kid-friendly craft projects. They’re pretty good, turns out. They give clear instructions but leave enough room for kids to make choices of their own on how to change things up, and the supplies are pretty good quality – not just grocery-store watercolors, but decent paints and brushes, that kind of thing.

I did some of the drawing projects along with my kid.

My drawings. (My kid’s drawings aren’t posted, but trust me, they’re awesome.)

In no way do I suggest that these doodles constitute great art. I love art and galleries and museums and I know just enough about art to know that I would need a lot of study and practice to do something really great.

But the beautiful thing is how nice it is to have a creative endeavor that has no extrinsic goal. I’m not trying to sell my work. I do it to see how it turns out.

Given the ups and downs of pushing at a writing career, it’s lovely to explore an idea in this way – a castle! A dragon! A little breath of fire! What might it look like? Let’s see! And, when you have no responsibility other than to keep your family in one place and the lights off, it’s also a spot of grace to share a moment of simple creativity with loved ones.

I’d love to hear about how other people have spent the uneasy times of waiting in their lives, and what you’ve done to fill the empty minutes.

VP23 End-of-Year Roundup

If you have a minute, please check out the page I put up listing the published work of my Viable Paradise classmates.

I’m not on there because everything I’ve sold is scheduled to come out this year. I hope you’ll read some of their stories, though, especially if you’re able to vote for awards. Some of these stories were even workshopped at Viable Paradise. There’s a lovely range of styles, and it’s great fun to check out what the class of 2019 has accomplished in the last year!

2020 Short Fiction Stats

(This is not an eligibility post, because both the pieces I sold this year are set to run in 2021.)

I’ve always found it helpful to see writers’ submission stats, on account of how it offers so much insight into the actual acceptance rate of folks who are out there publishing and working. Here’s a screenshot from The Grinder to share where I’m at, after my first year of getting out there and submitting my short fiction for publication:

Lifetime Stats, courtesy of The Grinder

I’m very happy with what I could accomplish with my short fiction this year. It’s a nice beginning, and I’d be glad and grateful to maintain this acceptance rate for another year!

2020 Literary Loot

Gratuitous picture of books received:

I’ve already started Vikram Paralkar’s Night Theater (thanks to the well-considered gift of Minecraft to a younger member of my household) and am loving it.

And am astonished once again to read an excellent novel written by a practicing physician. Listen, it’s not that I don’t think doctors aren’t also human beings with outside interests, which is how our pediatrician (indignantly) interpreted my words when I said something about how hard it must be to become both physician and author. It’s that it seems like, for most people, it would take at least as many hours of study and practice to become a good author as it does to become a physician, and do none of these people ever get sucked into MMORPGs or doomscrolling habits whatever? Have they only ever spent their time in worthwhile pursuits?

Other enjoyable novels by physicians include Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I hear Daniel Mason is also quite a good writer, though I haven’t read any of his books (plural! gah!) myself.

Just curious, but are there any women physicians who have also published novels?

The Unfairness of Mercy

A few observations.

To speak of mercy amidst the mob is not a popular choice. And, sure: when the wound is fresh, you don’t go telling people to make amends.

But when can you?

Among the left, catch phrases like “prison abolition” and “restorative justice” have gained traction. It seems the act of mercy here is left to some vague other. When it comes to extending mercy and grace in our own lives, however, too often no apology is sufficient, no forgiveness is ever possible.

Nick Cave wrote eloquently about mercy earlier this year. I was disturbed to see, when searching for the link, that F0x N3ws highlighted his post, pulling a quote that’s critical of cancel culture, because of course those are buzz words that fuel the right’s unending thirst to punish and demonize the left. But Nick Cave’s post was about more than just cancel culture:

Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe — to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself.

Nick Cave

What prompts this post?

I would only say this: if someone (me) is afraid to publicly advocate mercy for someone who has made a mistake – and yes, a mistake was most definitely made in this case, and the party in question has admitted fault – for fear of career-ending retribution, then something is wrong on a profound level. It means that mercy is no longer a shared value.

The trick is that we on the left conflate mercy with fairness. Mercy, however, is fundamentally unfair. Mercy means that revenge never comes. Mercy does not satisfy. Mercy means accepting a hurt, and that sort of acceptance is, at heart, unfair to the one who has been injured. For those in power to speak of mercy to those who are marginalized is, in many cases, wholly hypocritical.

One thing mercy does not preclude, however, is restoration.

“Restoration”: restorative.

Restorative justice.

Before asking of others that they forgive damage, injury, and insult, perhaps we should begin with ourselves, and ask what can we first restore.

It is not easy. It is not fair. It may not even be right.

It is, however, a path to freedom.

About Those Books on the Shelf

I thought I’d populate this blog with posts about books on my shelf to create some basic starter content. It would be a chance to bring up works by friends, interesting bits of knowledge, cool discussion points. I could schedule it in advance. I could keep my family’s life private by keeping the camera restricted to just that one wall of books.

I might still come back to the concept, but the further along I got the shelves, the less secure I felt in pursuing it as a blog series.

For starters, a bookshelf is not without controversy. Some folks take great exception to a title or an author’s presence on a shelf, and with the world the way it is in 2020, it’s easy to take offense. I mean, I have a copy of Heart of Darkness on my e-reader. I am aware of many reasons why that book’s offensive to many, many people. I’ve read essays on why it’s problematic. It is and ought to be an uncomfortable read. Why do I not delete it? Because I believe that engaging with a problematic work can still have value.

That’s not a debate that I wish to have, nor is it one for which I’m the best person to represent one side or another. In the end, it’s one title on my e-reader. But, if I discuss such a book on the internet, or put up a picture of my personal library with other debatable books in it, it becomes fodder for just such a public debate.

Also, there are some books that were gifts from a family member who is no longer living, or that I inherited from that person. Especially as I moved into my nonfiction shelves, I began to feel a soreness that’s very precious and personal to me as I considered what book I might write about. A public blog that (let’s be honest) I maintain in support of my writing career is not a place where I’m willing to write about my memories of those beloved human beings. Someday, perhaps – with an editor and an infrastructure around me. But not in a blog, on my own, without a full editorial process to cushion it.

Perhaps that means slowing down a bit, letting more time slip past between contributions. Given that everybody’s sending out newsletters these days anyway instead of blogs, I think that’s fine.

I’ll find a better way to discuss and share titles that have meant a lot to me. Thanks for reading!

Only 51 Percent Unmerciful

I’m taking a step back from my “Books on the Shelf” series for reasons worth explaining another time. I might return to it, but I think it will be in a different form.

This week, I had occasion to re-listen to an album I encountered in live performance some years ago: Athens v. Sparta (Spotify link). Some musicians partnered with a local actor/director who has one of those amazing, gravelly voices they cast for a film preview to lend the thing an ominous tone. In this album/performance, the actor, Ken Webster, reads selections from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, as the band plays a soundtrack, interspersed with the band’s lyrics.

I know. WTF. But this was something like 2007, I think? When the present Gulf Wars were still fresh, when U.S. troop casualty rates were still very high and the civilian casualty rates were nothing short of tragic. The parallels were so clear as to be heartbreaking.

There’s a line from “Mytilene Debate” (it’s the fourth track) that breaks my heart with the fresh meaning it’s taken on in the last five years. In that part of the history, Athens debates whether to completely level the entire city of Mytilene after a small group rose up in protest, or to punish only those responsible. They decide to destroy the city and send a ship to carry out the sentence. The next morning, though, they have a change of heart, and send a second ship to cancel those orders.

Men who know how to speak
know the words that work you up.
the decision you made before you went to sleep –
at least this time you woke up and felt differently

It wasn’t hard to calculate.
Who wants violence? Raise your hands.
But it’s not like we didn’t protest.
We’re only 51 percent unmerciful.

51 percent.

God help us all.

Books on the Shelf 1.16

This is the sixteenth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it. Here’s the start of our nonfiction shelves!

Alda to Hellman
completed: 12 of 31

There are two books that have changed how I view the world and try to move through it, and one of them is on this shelf: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night. The author, a psychologist who grew up in a Black South African township and who was among the leaders of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, conducted a series of jailhouse interviews with Eugene De Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” for his part in committing crimes against humanity as a part of the apartheid-era government.

Gobodo-Madikizela writes about her experience, and about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s larger work, with remarkable candor and compassion and intelligence. Forgiveness is not simple, nor should it ever be treated as such, she writes. It is, however, a choice that victims and survivors can make, one that can create a new kind of freedom for an entire nation.

I am not, as a rule, someone who does very well when it comes to letting go of bad feelings. This book changed how I think about both forgiveness and guilt. Thankfully, I have not thus far suffered anything as devastating as many of the people she quotes in her book, and I’m nowhere near as accomplished a practitioner of grace and humility and forgiveness as I ought to be. Not so long ago, when I found myself stuck on a highway that was shut down while a certain politician’s motorcade drove by, I discovered just how readily accessible my feelings of rage remain. (For the record, I stayed in my car and kept the windows up. (At least there’s that.)) However, there’s beauty and new possibility available, I believe, in the expression of grace. I will continue reaching for it.

In a season when many people are recommending powerful and thoughtful works by Black authors, I hope you’ll consider this title as well. It is remarkable.