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.

Books on the Shelf 1.15

This is the fifteenth 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.

Scripts, Fry through Z. Poetry.
Completed ratio: 28 of 41

So much to mine on this shelf!

Right there in the middle is an out-of-print collection of adaptations of classical texts, Divine Fire, edited by Caridad Svich. Included in it is Karen Hartman’s play Troy Women, which doesn’t so much begin as it launches with such beautiful yet heartbreaking language and proportion, it’s caught in my memory for something like 20 years now. The stage directions:

Troy. Dawn after the fall. The men are dead and the women are captives. HECUBA lies on the ground. The sea-god Poseidon surveys the ruin.

Poseidon speaks at length, in verse, about the loss of Troy, his pet city. Interspersed within his speech are three words from Hecuba, queen of Troy.

He speaks for a page, then she says,

Lift.

(he speaks again at length, and she says)

Your.

(he speaks even more, then)

Head.

The balance is exquisite. He may be a god, but her lines carry all the power.

Are there any scenes from movies or plays that stick with you as acutely?

Fireside Quarterly Sale

A couple weeks ago, I signed the contract on a story that’s scheduled to run in the January 2021 Fireside Quarterly. I’m terrifically excited to work with everyone at Fireside. All their communications to date have been clear, prompt, and professional, which doesn’t get praised enough in any field, IMO.

And that’s not even mentioning the high caliber of the work Fireside features. I’m especially enamored of this Alix E. Harrow short story, “The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly.” Read it! Nominate it, if you’re in a position to do so. It’s lovely.

Books on the Shelf 1.14

This is the next 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.

Wait, what happened to 13? Oh. Well, that shelf contains several religious texts and icons. For now, I am keeping that part of my reading life private.

Theater reference and scripts A through Friel.
Completed ratio: 14 of 21 – but some are reference works, not cover-to-cover reads.

Lotsa stuff here! We’re into my theater shelves. I highly recommend splitting your Complete Works of William Shakespeare into chunks. Otherwise, who on earth would want to read it? It’s meant to be read, marked up, dog-eared. Go ahead: go at it, give her a rip! You’ll feel better. (Yes, there’s the unripped hardback underneath. I’m unsure what to do with it.)

On top of the Shakespeare stack, however, is some genuine Fiesta dinnerware. It was a gift after my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I attended a performance of Steven Tomlinson’s lovely and touching one-man show American Fiesta (two reviews, for perspective). The teacup seems to collect more dust than tea, but I love the object and the memory of a sweet production.

That’s all. Stay healthy, stay strong.

Books on the Shelf 1.12

This is the twelfth 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.

How would you even count all these?

We bought Watchmen on our honeymoon, at the airport, on the way out. We both read it that week. Because we have never once done things at the right time.

Still. Pretty good, isn’t it?

Books on the Shelf 1.11

This is the eleventh 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.

Wallace through Woolf
Completed ratio: 6/10 (I’m not counting those reference books!)

I took all the pictures of my shelves at the beginning of the year. By now, this shelf has changed. I’m looking forward to the second round of these posts, because I switch out books quite often, and I like how my collection is growing.

Also, pandemic + mega-recession + BLM protests* have changed how we write and think about everything.

I’m left with two thoughts upon viewing this image of shelf 1.11-that-was: first, I need to go back to Age of Innocence, because it’s such a lovely exploration of complex characters. Second, Tad Williams remains my favorite of the speculative fiction writers who rose to prominence in the 1980s-90s era.

That era was without question dominated by a homogeneity of perspectives and styles. Doesn’t mean it was all bad, of course. I mean, I only know about 90s fantasy writing because I read a lot of it and enjoyed it. But it’s also true that the era was FULL of Tolkien-esque worldbuilding, from a very Anglo/male/hetero/etc perspective. Thankfully, we have more diverse voices contributing to the genre now.

I’m gonna give props to Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. Dated? Sure. It’s still on my shelf, though, unlike (nearly) all the other authors I read in high school.

I didn’t go back to read it before writing this post (it’s a pandemic and I’m not one of the bored ones without obligations). I remember, though, that Simon names his horse Homefinder. There’s lovely character growth across the books, and what resonated and still resonates with me most is that, throughout the epic, Simon is searching for home, finally coming to understand that one must cultivate a feeling of home internally.

It’s a lovely lesson at the heart of a truly enormous story.

* I write these posts in advance and schedule them. I have returned to this post in the midst of watching coverage of protests around the world, and it’s necessary to not be silent at this moment.

At the same time: I am not a person who should be claiming any part of the spotlight right now. I am not the person to offer public guidance. (Private conversations are happening.) Instead, I will simply say: as fearful as many of us remain of how the pandemic will continue to grow, I hope each of us will find a way to support efforts to move beyond racism in our lives and in our communities.

Y’all be safe, and may grace accompany us all down this hard road.

Books on the Shelf 1.10

This is the tenth 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.

Shields through Voltaire
Completed ratio: 12 of 24

Last October, on the day after I arrived at Viable Paradise, a handful of us walked into town to rent bikes. The man at the rental place asked what brought us all to Martha’s Vineyard. We told him we were all science fiction and fantasy writers (which is a bizarre and hilarious thing to say in a group, by the way).

“That’s awesome!” the guy said. He was well-proportioned and muscly, exactly the right sort of person to own and operate a bike rental shop. “I love science fiction and fantasy. Have you guys read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien?”

We all nodded, and everyone kept straight faces, we went off for a lovely ride.

I mean I wanted to say, “J. R. R… who? Mmm, no, sorry. Never heard of him.”

I didn’t, because it’s not nice to be a jerk, and, I mean, we’ve had enough snobs and assholes in sf/f. Better to be polite to people as a general rule.

It was funny, though, right?