Essay, Personal, writing

The Note I Never Wrote

I first started coming out to people when I was sixteen.

It began with a friend who, as it turns out, didn’t deserve to be told first, but who was nevertheless mostly supportive in the beginning. A few months after telling a second friend, I told my sister. And that was the limit for a little over a year, until I went to college and came out more broadly to a whole bunch of friends and family back home, all at once during the first semester of my freshman year. I used a ridiculously cheap but safe-to-me method, one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” personal surveys that were all the rage for a while back in the early-2000s.

For me, the process was mostly painless and undramatic, with the exception of a couple family members who did not take the news well. I didn’t expect it all to go very badly, but I also didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did. There are still some people who are uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, but for the most part I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and to have surrounded myself with good people, both before and after coming out, who never saw that one part of my personality as anything other than what it is, a normal aspect of who I am. I know how very lucky that makes me, which has always made this next part confusing and embarrassing to me.

After 20 years of being “out” in some form or another, I sit here during Pride month and realize that there is one coming out I have yet to achieve. It’s an even more painful one, something that I’ve hidden or avoided talking about for 15 years; only two people have known anything about it, all this time. I started to think about this while walking the mall a few days ago. I noticed so many stores have their PRIDE colors out and their love/equality merchandise on display. The commercialism of it is a double-edged sword, but for the most part I choose to look on the bright side: visibility is a good thing. To feel welcome in public spaces is a good thing.

As I walked through one store, though, I took a closer look at their Pride displays and read that they are partnering with The Trevor Project this year. With every purchase, customers can choose to “round up” to the next dollar, and all of those donations then go to help this organization prevent teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, where the issue remains severe and far too common. The juxtaposition of all those joyful, vibrant Pride colors with the reminder that, every day, there are queer kids out there contemplating suicide, was jarring to say the least, and it dragged me back to one of the most painful times in my life.

During my second year of college, I was, by all appearances, the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. As a kid who struggled his whole life with obesity and body issues, I suddenly found myself rather fit, making close friends, and doing crazy things like learning how to dance, performing on stage, going to parties, and all sorts of other activities I had only dreamed about since childhood. But, doing all of those things took a great deal of energy for me. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant to be as anxious and introverted as I am, so I ignored the pain of being in public and among people all the time, even though my mind and body were trying to tell me, again and again, that I was doing too much.

Eventually, I would listen, though, and retreat into an even unhealthier environment.

I was also dating for the first time. There’s a lot that could be said about who I chose to date and how those experiences went. It suffices to say for now that, none of those choices were healthy or right, and that I was looking for something to make me feel better, not realizing that this was just adding to the problem. It would take a long, long time to understand that what would make me feel better, feel like me, and feel like I deserved to be alright, wasn’t something I could ever find in someone or something else; not in a guy, not in a friend, and not in an activity. I realize now that I was overcompensating for the fact that I was not as happy or comfortable as I pretended to be, and that even though I was out and had been surrounded by friends who accepted me completely, I hadn’t ever accepted myself.

The combination of persistent, paralyzing body issues and lack of self-esteem plus the fact that I hadn’t yet accepted my sexuality, despite pretending confidence in both of these things, led me to long-distance online dating. There was something wonderful, I thought, about this opportunity. Here, I could be as romantic and loving as I wanted to be and fulfill any fantasies I had, emotionally and imaginatively anyway, but not have to risk being with someone physically. This meant I could “be me” in the safest way possible, and in the only way I thought would work for someone like me. Deep down, I was convinced nobody really wanted to be with me physically. I was so uncomfortable about my body, so unwilling to give myself up to another person, and so completely unsure of how I was supposed to “be” with another man, that I sacrificed the opportunity to heal those issues and learn more about myself. Instead, I would hide behind a screen and pretend to be happy in a digital relationship.

What I first thought to be the answer, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of my life. The relationship I entered was an abusive one. I didn’t realize it at first, and even after coming to a slow and steady awareness about the kind of person I was dealing with, I couldn’t get myself to leave. Yes, it was a long-distance, digital relationship. Yes, eventually, I realized I was being manipulated by a sociopathic narcissist. But because my self-esteem was so low and because I had convinced myself that this kind of romance was the kind that I deserved, I stayed. I endured endless cruelties and started to doubt myself even more, even the things I actually was confident about. I started to question my own sanity and intelligence, and to berate myself for knowing the truth of the situation I was in but not being “smart” enough to get out of it. I started to blame myself and to hurt myself because I had convinced myself that if this person could make me accept these abuses, then some part of me must deserve the punishment and the pain.

After far too long, that relationship came to an end. It was, as can probably be imagined, not a pleasant parting of ways. But when it ended, I was left empty and devastated, and less in control of myself or my emotions than I had been before it all began. I know now that anytime a relationship ends, there is some pain and grief, some regret, even if things are amicable. But there should also be some growth, some path forward. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, because I had been avoiding so many truths about myself in the first place and because I had been ground down by months and months of the worst kind of toxicity, I was left completely unprepared for the fallout and incapable of handling the loneliness and despair that followed. And because I hadn’t been honest with anyone about what I’d been going through, none of my friends even knew that I had been in this relationship in the first place. I felt quite literally all alone.

The night of the fallout, I was by myself in my dormitory room. A few months earlier, I had had my wisdom teeth pulled and there was a full bottle of pain killers left over in my closet. Never before that moment and never since have I ever had a desire to die. But that night, after 20 years of pretending to be happy, pretending to be normal, pretending to be that “ideal gay” who has his shit together and could do anything and be accepted by everyone, my inner pain spilled out, and I broke. I shattered completely and deeply, and in a way that I never knew a human being could break.

The tears started falling before I took the first pill and before I stepped out of my dorm room and started walking aimlessly in circles around campus. I remember the black and red hoodie I was wearing, because I kept the pill bottle in the front pocket, for easy reach. I walked around at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… popping another pill every few minutes and swallowing it with a sip of water from the bottle I’d remembered to bring with me. I passed the same group of students from my dorm three or four times. They were hanging out in the “smoker’s spot” near one of the back entryways, shielding themselves from the cold midwestern winds, and eventually one of them realized there must be something wrong with me, because he called out to ask if I was alright. Invited me to join them.

I waved him off.

Finally, I reached the bottom of that pill bottle. I don’t remember how many I had taken, but I do know it was mostly full to start. And nothing was happening. I thought the pills would have had an immediate effect. I thought I would be passed out in a field somewhere, or laying face-down on the sidewalk. But, mostly, I was just utterly exhausted and I couldn’t keep going. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented, and I was tired from all the walking. But I was still awake and still alive. Why? Another failure.

With the bottle empty and nothing happening, I went back to my dorm and sat down on a couch in the common room. A few minutes later, the guy who had called out to me wandered in and sat next to me. He started to talk to me, but I have no recollection of what he said. All I remember is the way it felt to have my hand wrapped tightly around that empty pill bottle, inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I can still feel the heat returning to my hand and making my fingertips tingle. I can feel the sweat making that small plastic bottle slippery as I debated taking it out of my pocket and showing it to this guy, which is what I finally did. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was desperately confused, terribly embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of what I’d done. I was stunned.

He saw the bottle and immediately ran the few steps to the director’s apartment, pounding on it until she awoke. An ambulance was called, and I remember most of that ride, the questions they asked and the looks they gave me. I remember my boss riding with me, being supportive and asking me what happened, was it about a boy? And I remember the sidelong glances from the paramedics, the looks that I took to be disgust, and the way they spit out, “Ma’am, please stop talking.” I remember how humiliated I was when they inserted the catheter, how they took my blood, and when they asked me who they should call. And I remember my mom and my sister showing up. I remember their faces, most of all, though the face of the hospital psychologist completely escapes me.

All these things I will remember, but most of all, I remember how alone and confused I felt. Not just that night but, in retrospect, all the time.

When people talk about suicide, when they ask how anyone could do that to themselves, to their friends and family, I think back to that loneliness and confusion. I think about the façade I wore day in and day out, and the way that people saw me but did not know me. I think about how easy it is for us to imagine we understand the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, whom we love, and yet I know, intimately, that we may not know anything at all.

We say “things get better” and they do. We say “things are better” now than they were 100, 50, and even 5 years ago. And in many ways, that is true. But some things haven’t changed. The strength it takes to get up every day, knowing you’re different, is exhausting. The pain of having to come out not just once, but almost every day, in every public space or whenever you meet someone new, is ever-present, because the assumption of straightness remains. And the confusion about what it means to be gay, to be a boy or a girl, to be in a relationship or not, to be a friend, to be a son or daughter… that confusion is something, I think, almost everyone is trying to work out, all the time. It’s just especially difficult for those who are also questioning who they are and living in fear about being rejected or attacked for it at any given moment.

I never wrote a suicide note, so I’d like to think of this as a note of a different kind. A note I get to write because I failed. It’s a reminder, mostly to myself, to check in on people and to pay more attention. It’s nobody’s fault, what I did. Not that horrible guy, not the friends I kept at a distance, and not even mine. When you get to a point of true misery, you’re no longer in control. You’re not even yourself anymore. You’re lost and there seems only one way out. So, you take that route. You find that exit. In that moment, it seems entirely logical.

I can’t imagine, now, having tried to commit suicide. I can’t imagine, now, ever trying it again. But what I can imagine is the many seemingly valid and justified reasons why people, and LGBTQ+ teens in particular, make that choice every single day. I can imagine their pain, their loneliness, their fear. Because I’ve felt it, too.

I’m glad I’m still here. The friends I made in the months following that suicide attempt are still my best friends to this day. I met and married the love of my life. I went further in my education than my dreams ever really allowed, and now I spend my life educating others. I try my best, now, to really look at people. To see them in a way that I felt unseen, because I know what it’s like not to be able to look at yourself or show yourself to anyone else. I don’t know if it will ever make a difference, but I can’t risk closing my eyes.

I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I could write this suicide note.


To learn more about The Trevor Project and how you can help prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, please visit: https://www.thetrevorproject.org

If you think you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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Books, Non-Fiction, writing

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a fantastic writer. I thoroughly enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea (it was the University’s common read a few years ago. I really should read more of the series!) and have always wanted to read more of her work. So, last year, I picked up a couple of her books on writing, including this one and Conversations On Writing. I haven’t read the latter, yet, but I’m looking forward to it after having finished Steering the Craft.

The title is of course a metaphor for writing. Le Guin approaches the writing process with a wonderful sense of humor and beautifully helpful analogies to life and other messes, er, situations. What I find most helpful about the book is its design. First, each chapter is a distinct topic, important to the writer (the writer of fiction, primarily.) Unlike some fiction writing guides, however, Le Guin does not focus on the big-ticket items, like character. Instead, she moves in on things like grammar, voice, and point of view. Then, within each chapter on a single topic, she breaks things down into a few components: A) thoroughly enjoyable narratives on what she means by the topic, including definitions and her own explanations plus relationships/experiences with the topic; B) helpful examples from excellent sample pieces, like Jane Eyre, that help her illustrate what she means and gives the reader-writer a better idea of how someone does “this thing” well; and C) one or more practice exercises so that the reader-writer can test out their new knowledge in a practical way, and get to doing the work of writing, which is why she should be reading the book in the first place.

So, the book is not just a guide to a writing, but it is also a prompt for writing, too.

Another helpful element is the appendix, where Le Guin gives all sorts of useful advice about how to form and run and participate in a writing group, be it in person or online. She outlines some of the most helpful guidelines and articulates some of the problems and pitfalls, too. This might not be necessary for everyone (many reading are probably solitary writers, although, as Le Guin makes clear, that’s a habit worth breaking), but even if the reader-writer is already experienced in writing groups and/or has no current interest in them, they might find helpful information for themselves, here.

Finally, Le Guin is just fun. She’s brilliant and entertaining. She treats the reader-writer like a peer, not a customer or some “noob” to the scene. Reading the section on “the sound of your writing” and realizing that Le Guin has her audience in mind, just as she encourages the reader-writer to have his audience in mind, is a great way to begin, as it demonstrates her ethos in the most effective way. She tells, shows, does, and then asks the reader-writer to do the same. This is a teaching method I’ve been practicing myself for years, and it was seriously comforting to see a master writer doing the same. I’m eager to get back to her fiction, but also, especially, her Conversations On Writing.

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100 Days Journal, Journaling, Personal, writing

The First 10 Days #100DaysJournal

ScribeDelivery

Sometime in early February, I signed-up for a monthly subscription service called ScribeDelivery (only my second such service, but gosh, I might be getting addicted!) This particular subscription delivers journals and pens to my door once per month (and, I’m told, sometimes other items as well). As I was planning to begin my journaling project and to dive more fully back into writing, I thought this kind of monthly “treat” would be an awesome motivation and reward. My first package arrived yesterday, at last, and I’m pretty thrilled!

This one is, I believe, a bit larger than normal. The accompanying note explains that it’s a “first delivery” kind of package, so I think there are a few more items than usual. That said, it’s a great way to begin. As the image reflects, I received one regular size, Italian journal that has a bookmark and pocket; I set of “4 seasons” small journals, one with a cover design and color to match each season; two small “write it down” journals, and 4 pens (which are described as “Japanese pens” in the welcome letter, but some of them seem pretty typical to me. The fountain pen is a cool addition!)

Overall, it was a long-awaited and super fun package to open. I should mention that I already have a couple of concerns. The first is that the package took a long time to arrive and the reason for this wasn’t clearly articulated in the first order email. I tried messaging the company via Instagram, because that’s where I first connected with them and because the website didn’t have a clear contact area, but I got no response. I tried again with no luck a few days after, and then tried email and Facebook. It took about a week, I think, to get a response. The first reply came after my second question to them on Instagram, and it simply told me to check back on Facebook because someone would reply there. Uh, okay. So I messaged again on Facebook, and then got a canned response there and the same response to my email, on the same day. Awesome?

The second concern is that all of the items came in a simple bubble bag mailer. It’s possible the company is still new and working things out, but I was honestly expecting better packaging, not just a bunch of items slipped into a bag, free to slosh around (and, you know, there are pens — how easily could these poke through and fall out?) After checking the reviews, I noticed that comments about the packaging have been left in the past, with that very concern expressed (missing items), and that some have raised concern that their packages are pretty basic for the price. So, I’ll keep an eye on this, but I’m ready to give them another shot, partly because the first package was so cool and partly because I still love the idea of getting a monthly writer’s box!

100 Days Journal Update 1

About a week and a half ago, I mentioned that I was starting a new writing project that I’m calling “100 Days Journal.” It is just what it sounds like: 100 days of journaling. The hope is that it will accomplish a few things: 1) help me establish an effective routine; 2) help me practice and enhance my writing skills; 3) help me reveal to myself some of the things I should be writing about more in-depth.

Every 10 days, I plan to post  a little update right here on the blog, for posterity and for whoever might be interested in what I’m doing or who might want to try it for themselves (I know a few people on Twitter already are doing it.) My first 10 days went “swimmingly,” as they say. It’s the first time in a long time that I managed to write for myself every single day. I honestly can’t remember the last time I did this. I’ve always been the kind to have a good stretch of about 3 or 4 days, and then oops! I think it helps that I had already been getting up earlier than necessary for a few weeks to do other “pre-day” tasks, like reading for myself and taking a walk before work.

Although I’ve been using prompt cards and the topics have been fairly different, I’ve found some similar themes in my first 10 days: motivation, family, fears, and challenges. A lot of my writing has been reflective in the sense that, I notice what has been holding me back in various ways. I commented in yesterday’s journal that I begin to worry if this will be a place where I’m constantly putting myself down. At the moment, that comment seems a bit melodramatic, considering the kinds of criticisms I was giving myself were both true and constructive, and that in the 25 pages I wrote over these last 10 days, there is a lot of hopeful, positive, rewarding reflection, too. But I suppose many of us do often see and cling to the negative more easily than the positive, which is what makes any change or growth harder, and scarier too.

The truth is, I’m proud of myself for coming this far, and I’m only 10% of the way into this journey. Imagine how I will feel in 10 days, when I’m 20% of the way in! And imagine what else I might reveal to myself about myself, or what inspirations I might find, craft, or takeaway from these daily exercises?

The Prompts/Topics:

  1. Getting Started / Open
  2. What conversation do you need to have today?
  3. What are three major emotions that you’re carrying right now?
  4. Describe your ideal weekend.
  5. What’s the one thing you’d never do and why?
  6. What 3 people in your life do you envy professionally? Why and do you notice any patterns?
  7. How do you define success, and how will you know when you have it?
  8. If someone has hurt you in the past, write a forgiving letter to them.
  9. What aspect of your life is holding you back right now?
  10. If all jobs paid the same, what would you choose to do?

So, the first 10 days went well, and the prompts led me to interesting places. I answered each of them, but not as directly as I might have imagined. Typically, the answer revealed itself in something else I already needed to write about and which was somewhat related. It’s been a rewarding and healthy process so far. I’m excited to keep going!

 

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Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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Blog Post, Fun, writing

A Novel Journal

Every so often, I stumble across something that gets me so excited I simply must share it with the world. Or at least you all, who comprise my little world! One example of this is probably The Folio Society editions that I share every so often here on the blog.

But something new caught my eye recently while I was wandering around my local Barnes & Noble book store, as I do a few times every week. It’s a series of writing journals called “A Novel Journal,” released by Canterbury Classics.

Here’s how the publisher describes them: “Whether fueling the next great literary masterpiece, or simply adding a sense of tribute to daily journaling, these literary keepsakes bring an element of fun and culture to any writing project. Fashioned with colorful endpapers, color edges, and matching elastic bands to keep covers closed and pages intact, Novel Journals are ideal for gifting and collecting.”

So, here’s the thing. If you are a writer and a reader who, like me, often feels torn between his “loyalty” to one or the other (AM I WRITER? AM I A READER!?), these journals are literally the best of both worlds. Why? Well, not only are they beautiful, and not only do they have an excellent “finger feel,” and not only do they represent the greatest books of all time, with a well-selected quote from said books right there on the cover, but the lines of the journal are actually made up of the entire text of its representative novel, in tiny print! 

Obviously, I couldn’t resist. I was going to get one or two, but ended up leaving the store with five of them. I definitely added a whole bunch more to my wish list, and I plan to pick up at least two more very soon. (It was also fortunate for my wallet that Barnes & Noble had these on clearance!)

The other fabulous element to these journals is the artwork/design on the inside covers, as well as the front-page that explains the selected book and leaves a place for the journal owner to put their name and information. Here’s a look at the insides of the ones I purchased, and in case the image is too small to read, the text inside the font page says, for example, “This journal belongs to ____ and is shared with Edgar Allan Poe.” How delightful is that!?

Ultimately, as I said, I ended up with five (pictured below). But I hope to go back for PETER PAN and WALT WHITMAN this weekend because they were beautiful and I’ve been thinking about them all week!

Thoreau’s WALDEN and Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

 

 

 

 

Wilde’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

 

 

 

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S COLLECTED STORIES

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Blog Post, Personal, writing

Martin Luther King’s Last Vision

Today is my birthday, and I spent the early part of the morning reflecting briefly on my life: friendships, accomplishments, goals, marriage, and family. But I’ve also been thinking a lot this morning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was fifty years ago today–April 3rd, 1968–that he delivered his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

The opportunity must have seemed both ideal and disconcerting to King, who had spent so many years tirelessly marching forward in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, only to see so little progress. At this point in his life and career, the attention of major news outlets had turned away from his leadership, which must have seemed stalled, in favor of reporting on the more dramatic activities of the black power movement, which was also doing good work and heavy lifting, but in a more obvious way (and as we know, the media loves spectacle).

So, King had turned his attentions to issues of poverty and to supporting the poor and working classes in America. For this reason, I think being invited down to Memphis to speak to the Sanitation Workers in support of their strike for fairer wages and work conditions, must have been promising. But King had another relationship with the city of Memphis, and he surely knew it would not—or could not—be another Selma. Still, he went and, apparently without notes, delivered one of his most powerful, memorable, and moving sermons. The one that would be his last.

A storm raging outside, thunder and lightning crashing in the background, and rain pummeling the tin roof, set a kind of wild and natural rhythm. King stepped up to the podium and addressed a sea of people who had been calling his name: “The nation is sick,” he said. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” I can only imagine the feeling in the room right then. Here came a group of workers looking for support and leadership and encouragement from one of the world’s greatest inspirational orators, and this is how he begins?

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

But King seemed to know that all of these American problems were related. The struggle for racial equality and worker’s rights. The struggle against poverty and the struggle for peace. Vietnam continued on, and more and more young people died for reasons that were muddy at best. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful on the backs of laborers and with the help of investments in the military industrial complex. And segregation and its legacy were still pressing issues. Still, King looked at all of this and remarked that he was happy to live in this time, because “we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it.” He believed that the time was now, that it was “no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He was throwing down the gauntlet.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

I look at the world around us today, at the rise in racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic, and transphobic hate crimes, and I wonder, did Dr. King think we would have come together by now? Solved this by now? And why haven’t we? And where is our Dr. King these days? I think about how Dr. King, in that last sermon, chastised the press for only dealing with surface issues and consider what that means today, in this new age of for-profit news driven by monopolies like the Sinclair group which orders its 200 affiliates around the country to read a script about “false news” on the very news stations so many people watch, and trust, because it is their local station.

I look at the world around us today, at our declining status in the international community; at our collective disdain for facts and education; at the anti-intellectualism that folks like Stephen Hawking have been warning us about; and at the bridges, real and figurative, we have been building around our own little bubbles to insulate us, with the help of social media algorithms that keep us locked into our tunnel vision, and I wonder when, or if, we will ever be able to come together and see and think and feel as a people again.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be.

It seems to take more and more effort to be positive today. But even in his last and perhaps most painful speech, Dr. King looked up and forward:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The very next day, Dr. King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. There couldn’t be a more startling juxtaposition of hope and despair. Who could continue to march forward when the very voice of faith had been extinguished?

Except, it hasn’t been. We still remember that voice and look to that voice today. And when I ask myself, where is our Dr. King, I have to admit that I’ve been blind. I’ve been taken in by Twitter-storms and negative media reinforcement and “fake news”, and I have overlooked the people.

I look now and see the men and women marching for women’s rights.

I look now and see the teachers marching for their students’ rights.

I look now and see the students marching for their lives.

I look now and see that “in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).

So, on my birthday this year, I have just one wish. Perhaps we can all be a little bit more like Dr. King. Despite our fears and doubts and despairs, perhaps we can look to that Promised Land. Perhaps we can open our eyes and our hearts and our minds and our ears; we can listen to each other and look to each other again, not through these arbitrary lenses shaped by ideological forces outside ourselves, but with our own vision. And perhaps we can accept and applaud and champion the voice of Dr. King that still resonates through our youth, the new leaders of our day.

I see and I hear 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people to say, “I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

I see and I hear 18-year-old David Hogg when he says, “The cold grasp of corruption shackles the District of Columbia. The winter is over. Change is here. The sun shines on a new day, and the day is ours.” And I believe him.

I see and I hear Edna Chavez when she cries, “It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin go gray. Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” And I say it: Ricardo.

I see and I hear Emma Gonzalez’s silence, and I respect it.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . [w]e’ve got to see it through.

There is a future. That future is always to be determined. My wish this year is that our future will be shaped by the rejection of fear, the embracing of love, and a new determination to succeed together in this great human experiment.

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