October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

Friends,

It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.

and

2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

No More Green Lights: Or, How to Avoid the False Promise of an Idealized Future and Stand a Chance at Making Real Change

I hesitate to say Southern Women do it best, but damn…. sometimes the truth is just the truth, y’all.

I first found Stephanie Powell Watts’ work when I was homesick for North Carolina, living somewhere south of “The Eggs” that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby. At the time, I missed everything about my home and felt terribly out-of-place among the elites around me — especially those who insisted they weren’t elite at all.

My first read of Powell Watts was uncomfortable. It hit way too close to home, both in ways I anticipated and in those I did not. But aren’t the best books challenging in some way? If they don’t make you think or feel, what have they really done? For me, the answer is clear: nothing. If I haven’t walked away thinking and feeling, I can’t recommend the book, period, end of story. And I do love a good story.

The challenge I had with this particular novel wasn’t whether there was a compelling story (there was), or whether the author delivered it well (she did). No, for me, it was another sort of discomfort that arose from reading Powell Watts’ masterful debut — a certain “differently similar otherness” that I recognized, clearly and fully for the first time, as a White North Carolinian Woman living on Long Island. Whereas I had sought the book out to deliver a dose of home, what it ended up gifting me was a dose of reality about the places I live and the places I am from — physical and otherwise.

We’ve talked a lot over the past few months about loss, returns, and visioning a way forward. Given the world around us, anything else would have been irresponsible. So, I’m curious: who are we? Daisys and Avas, stalwart, hurting beauties preserved in amber for examination? Jay and JJ, undeterred by this unmovable boundary around our beloveds, to a naive and pitiable fault? Or Nicks and other unnamed narrators, brave cowards of lookers-on, perched in the enviable position of being able to walk away, no one ever knowing who we are — because what, after all, did we really have to lose by commentating while the worlds around us collapsed?

Maybe your answer is that we’re none of these things… and honestly? I hope that is true. But, what we think of ourselves is ever only half the picture. What others think of us, as both Fitzgerald and Powell Watts make so painfully clear, is the other — sometimes more devastating, more motivating — half. And in awareness of that half, what room do we have for “green lights?”

None. The answer is none. Because no one is coming to save us. That’s a burden and distinction we must bear ourselves. Whether residing in nouveau-riche island harbors or in job-deserted foothills, we are the ones we must count on to make a future that is both borne of and wisened by the past, without necessarily repeating it.

In place of guided questions, this month I’m sharing some links worth clicking.

Click them:

Washington Post’s Book Review from March 2017

NPR’s Story from April 2017

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Response to The Great Gatsby, Published in April 2017 via Literary Hub

Literary Hub’s May 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Reading Women Podcast’s October 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Writer Mag’s September 2018 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Web Site

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

September 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

I dislike some folks’ comparisons to Fitzgerald for this month’s read. Not because there aren’t parallels, not because I believe we shouldn’t let books — and people — be in conversation with each other, but because I generally take issue with assigning “debut” novelists “a great” to whom they seem to harken back, as if lending legitimacy to their work is somehow necessary. Especially given the lessons and themes of these novels. Keep reading if you’re curious as to why.

Writers are writers. Their voices are their voices. Their stories are their stories. And that should be enough. That said, if you’ve read The Great Gatsby, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on whether this literary parallel holds value. So many have made it. And if you haven’t read that American classic, I suggest you carve out time to do so. After all, September 2020’s author inscription mentions the “green light,” and in a world where we all need a beacon of hope to some degree or other, I’ll invite you to imagine what significance it might have — both now and in the future.

But first, here is your task, should you choose to accept it:

Please join me in reading one of my very favorite pieces of modern American literature, Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us, which was published in 2017 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. If you finish early, read or re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For several reasons, considering these books side-by-side may prove a worthy exercise — just not for the reasons I take issue with above.

I love each and every one of you. And I’ll see you back here the week we welcome fall.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Once More unto the Cubicle, Dear Friends: A Pseudo-Shakespearian Response to the Dying American Office

First of all, in order to understand the reference I’m making, you’ll need to have read a famous speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which I’ll link here via Poetry Foundation. Now that we’ve crossed that item off our collective to-do lists, and potentially had flashbacks to high school English exams *shudder*, we can get right to the point — which, as any “good” businessperson will tell you, is “good.”

Long before the age of COVID-19, but long after the age of King Henry V, and later, Ferris’ setting of the dot-com bust, the American workplace began a-changin’. A catalyst? The “open office.” Contrary to its name, this structured work environment has in fact led to very expensive closures. Closures of minds, of jobs, of work in general. Here’s why: it’s a carefully orchestrated mirage, an unhealthy illusion of progress that takes time, energy, and resources away from making meaningful change where it actually matters, which is to say, in the workplace itself.

If you’ve worked in an “open office” for any length of time, you already know. Capital K, know. You know that removing walls doesn’t encourage collaboration. It takes people to do that. You know that removing cubicles doesn’t suddenly un-silo entire business lines. It takes people to do that. You know that creating shared work/play spaces doesn’t lead to greater inclusion, better job performance, or even bolstered company morale, because yep, you guessed it, it takes people to do that. And more often than not, if the places you work for struggle with these issues, it’s people who are the problem, not walls or rooms or any other architectural or design element. Hiding behind expensive space or hierarchy retrofits is like sooooo two decades ago. Now it’s twenty-freaking-twenty and “the office,” however closed or open, has never been a more fluid concept. It’s high time we spoke clearly about what we’ve seen clearly for a long, long time.

BUT WHOA THERE, WAIT A MINUTE!

I see your passion, it’s just that we’ve got to get ready before we rally the troops! And a significant part of those preparations is being able to honestly evaluate ourselves FULLY, FIRST. Why? Because as any real leader will tell you, NO ONE WHO REFUSES TO DO THEMSELVES WHAT THEY ASK OTHERS TO DO AS WELL IS WORTHY OF LEADING, EVER, ANYWHERE. If someone around you in a “leadership position” isn’t a leader, then welcome to the American workplace. And also, you can still show them how it’s done, but that brings me back to my earlier point. We’ve got work to do first.

STILL WITH ME? Good. But hold on real tight because this partnership’s gonna get much worse MORE VULNERABLE before it gets any better CLOSER TO COMFORTABLE. And we’re gonna start by answering some questions. Both of us, believe me.

With the lens of your own experience and after reading Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End:

  1. How would you describe your pre-COVID role in the American workplace? I don’t mean your job title or accomplishments. When I say “role,” I mean your over-arching contribution to the culture of work in America. Great if you come up with a few positive “marks,” but you’re doing it wrong if you can’t also come up with at least one devastating moment of oppression. That’s step one. Step two is to make both things right. Relative to the successes you claimed, turn around and directly thank the person or people who helped you achieve them. Meaningfully. And relative to your lapses in judgment, carry out an appropriate atonement, recognizing that the person/people/places you’ve hurt owe you exactly nothing, and may actually prefer that you make amends by doing work on yourself to avoid becoming or remaining a repeat oppressor.
  2. How would you describe your during-COVID role in the American workplace? Same parameters as above, but pay attention to where your answer shifted and/or stayed the same in this new time and set of social norms.
  3. What do you desire for your post-COVID role in the American workplace? Understand, of course, that if we weren’t in control of our destinies before this year, we are even less so now, which is why I asked about your desires instead of your expectations.
  4. Spend some additional time unpacking your reaction to that last statement, however you might have reacted to it. No, seriously. Spend some time thinking about the fact that you are most definitely not in complete control. How does that change the nature of what you expect to happen for/to/around you?
  5. Relatedly, what are you prepared to lose, and what are you unwilling to accept losing, in the future of the American workplace? How have your changing (or unchanging) roles affected or inspired those things? Would anything be different if your roles were?
  6. And finally, having now owned more of your personal impact on the past, present, and future of others around you, what would you like to see change in the American workplace moving forward? Dream as big as you can, for as long as you can. That’s YOUR list and that’s great. Here’s the deal though. You’re just one person. There are LOTS of other people out there with lists of mountains they’d like to see moved. Choose one person, choose an area of need that they’ve shared with you, and bless them by fulfilling that need where/when you are able. Don’t presume you know these needs or solutions, and don’t solicit them, either. Just listen. Close your mouth, open your mind and heart, and listen. That’s where the true work starts, no matter what the office of tomorrow looks like.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

August 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends of The LibraRYAN,

Welcome back! I hope whatever efforts you undertook to examine your homes and your roles within them were productive. I also hope you’ve come to appreciate why a guided response from me at the end of July might have interrupted or overly influenced that important work. Either way, thank you for showing back up to continue this journey with me.

One of the things I found myself considering in July was what — if anything — of the pre-pandemic, pre-uprising past we might be returning to in the months and years ahead. As our nation and the world begins to grapple more closely with the idea of these “returns,” I imagine that more things will be reinvented than simply reinstated, and that includes the American workplace.

For those of you who’d like one last return to the water cooler as we knew it, I offer our August 2020 Reading Group pick: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which was published in 2007 by Hachette Book Group USA of Little, Brown and Company.

Good luck out there, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

July 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

It’s good to see you here again.

Thank you for honoring our break for the month of June 2020. I hope you were able to use it in ways that support a world that is truly just. And, in the process, I hope you haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking your efforts must be the same as someone/everyone else’s.

On the contrary! Use your gifts and talents in the unique ways they were intended, but in order to do this, you must first learn yourself (get to know yourself on an uncomfortably real level). In support, I’d like to suggest some reads for the month of July 2020. Permit me a brief introduction?

More than a decade ago, I found myself in New Orleans for the summer (TL/DR, see here). Long story short, not unlike my choice to attend school in the Bronx, I went under the impression that I’d be able to do my best, most meaningful work somewhere other than where I was from. And even longer story short, I was proven wrong. So wrong it’s embarrassing.

The overwhelming lesson I took from my time in NOLA was that, actually, the most any of us can hope to do is affect good, decent change closest to where we are from, our homes. That lesson changed my life. I’m still learning how best to apply it, but a substantial amount of my resultant growth comes from accepting with grace that the work is never over. By this I mean that there is no “ok, we’re good now” moment, and as such, there can be no real “best way.” We’re all just doing our best on the way to something better. Or at least, I hope we are.

Maybe you read that and thought, “duh, Ryan.” But folks, how many of you have sought to do the work in YOUR homes, the places YOU’RE closest to, the places where there’s so much at stake that it hurts YOUR heart, the places where maybe YOU don’t even realize how much is at stake until YOU get going? And if you’ve started this work, how many of you have allowed YOURSELF the grace to stumble, fall down, make terrible and horrible mistakes, to acknowledge that you can’t solve this on your own, to be human after all?

Yeah, I know. But guess what? I’m standing here, broken and failing, right alongside you. Here’s what we can do to be better, though. Every time we let fear start to lead us down a path we mightn’t ought take, let’s try to remember something:

It’s so. very. easy. to finger-point at other people getting it wrong in other places. It’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and acknowledge your own culpability in your own home(s), which is why so few people do it (at all, let alone consistently). Admittedly, I’ve fallen into that trap on more than one occasion, so again, join the club.

It’s also shockingly easy to understand this all intellectually but then struggle to understand how to put it into practice (yep, been there), or to know how to put it into practice, but to hide behind the relative security of a brand that “does the work” (quotes absolutely intentional) because you’re too scared to do what you really need to do, personally speaking (done that).

That’s all okay, or at least it’s an okay place to start or restart from. The point is that it’s possible to “know” something or “learn” something, and have no idea how the actual heck to go about doing something else about it. Just don’t let that uncertainty and fear stop you from trying (she says as a recovering fear junkie).

For me, anyway, it’s often the strongest pulls, the truest truths, that feel weightiest (more here). And if you’ve had experience with those kinds of things, you’ll know that that kind of weight generally demands two things in order to be moved: (1) tremendous strength, and (2) recognition (humility!) that this strength does not have to come solely from you.

In fact, the most weighty, painful, heart-breaking, soul-wrenching, ultimately meaningful work is often done TOGETHER and not APART, even though it must be done PERSONALLY by/for everyone involved.

To put it a little more plainly, that people, home, and community are inextricably tied is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence when their inextricable bonds get challenged. We should stop behaving as if they’re just by happenstance connected, or connected only in the “-ologies” of life (stuff we’ve “distilled” through academic work).

I assure you, what we actually do in our actual lives, not as statistics or records or whatever other Ivory Tower nonsense sometimes gets thrown around, is what matters. Leave other people’s examinations of themselves to them. You’ve got enough work to do on yourself, my friend.

On that note, I’d like y’all to start by reading one or both of the following anthologies. Then, instead of looking for my discussion guide at the end of the month, please do everyone a favor and do the work to study your own homes. Find the greatest area(s) of need, find the places that hurt to acknowledge, find the faults as much as the prides and joys. Then think long and hard about how you have PERSONALLY contributed to those things — and how YOU might use whatever superpowers YOU have to address them CONSTRUCTIVELY.

That, my friends, is the work that we all need to be doing. And for the record, it’s the work we’ve needed to do all along. But first, let’s learn to listen:

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World — Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (2018, Nothing but the Truth Publishing, LLC, ed. Deborah Santana).

and/or

This is the Place: Women Writing about Home (2017, Seal Press/Hachette Book Group, eds. Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters).

Welcome to the Good Fight, y’all.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

P.S. Itching for some fiction partner reads? Check out my Reading Words tab for a great place to start. You might recognize a few newly (re)popular titles in there. And if you don’t recognize the books, might I humbly suggest that you read them all the more?

P.P.S. If after reading these books you don’t get a sense for why having a female head of state would be helpful precisely in times like these, let’s talk. Because it’s time, whether or not you’re ready, and I already can’t wait for 2024. *kiss*

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Like it or Not: An Examination of Something You Probably Weren’t Expecting, in Ways You Weren’t Expecting, and I Don’t Just Mean The Book.

You’ve met an Ove before. Perhaps your Ove has not been a man. Perhaps your Ove has not been Swedish. Perhaps your Ove has not been a neighbor. Perhaps, instead, your Ove looks and sounds and behaves quite differently than the Ove we read about this month in A Man Called Ove. But you’ve met an Ove before.

The question isn’t whether you’ve met one. The question, Dear Readers, is how you’ve responded to that Ove. I mean both in your private thoughts, and in your public words and actions.

Did you figure everything out about that Ove, using information that someone shared with you or information that you so astutely learned or perceived all by yourself? Did you know exactly what you were going to do about that Ove? How you were going to, dare I say it, treat that Ove?

Or rather, did you know nothing about that Ove? Did you realize this right away or did it take time? Was it a slow awakening to the reality that perhaps, just maybe, everything you thought was true turned out to be at least halfway wrong, halfway off-base, halfway totally-and-completely-missing-the-point?

You answered at least one of those questions, didn’t you? Yeah, guess what? You’re an Ove, too. Hence, I return to my original statement. You’ve met an Ove before.

And, if as we’ve just determined, you’ve met an Ove before, mightn’t we all be a little slower with our judgments and a little more empathetic in our responses? From there, accountability becomes easier, and when that happens, love becomes a way of living rather than just a way of feeling. It ceases to be something we just preach and it transforms into something we strive towards doing with great intention. We should all be better Oves.

Let’s put that into more concrete terms. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s been judged too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. But we’ve all also been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s passed judgment too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — fallible, wrong, off-base, and desperately and painfully human.

And you know what?

Being human has a funny way of re-grading the moral high ground.

Whether we like it or not.

I know, recognizing this is hard work. Choosing to shift our gaze and revise our action plan(s) after the fact is even harder. But here’s the thing: none of us ever know someone else’s full story — hell, sometimes we don’t even know our own stories — and so, we should not allow ourselves to think or act as if we do.

Does this leave room for making judgments? Yes, of all kinds! The important thing is that we recognize when, where, how, and why we are making them. And then, we must have the humility to recognize when the ways we think and act must change.

How America responds to its systematized racism and the many injustices that creates is the chief “present” example I’m guessing many of you are thinking about, but let’s also acknowledge right now that it’s not a “new” example. It’s just newly relevant to a bunch of folks who, you guessed it, are being called upon to change alongside the rest of us.

(NB: knowing about this for a longer period of time does not necessarily make you a better person. It might in fact inspire some interesting questions in your direction, depending on what you’ve chosen to do with that knowledge. Meanwhile, as we strive to hold each other accountable through love, we must all learn to both accept and allow some grace. This is very important work and we all need all the help we can get.)

For now, that’s all I’ve got to say. And besides, with a book of little stories full of big lessons, what a mistake it would be to clutter up my response. Instead, I’ll open the floor to all you beautiful, bitter, broken Oves out there. Feel free to use the discussion guide after my sign-off if you want some ideas for places to join the conversation, or pick another starting point of your own.

And meanwhile, know that if you have a lot on your hearts and minds, then here I am, a mangy cat, ready and willing to be here for you, even and especially when you think you’re doing just fine on your own, thank you very much.

May 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:

  1. What do we make of the juxtaposition of seemingly insignificant details against heart-wrenching, life-altering information throughout the book?
  2. Think of a time where something truly significant happened in your life. How did it change you? How did you stay the same? Then, compare/contrast your experience against Ove’s. Why do you think your stories align or separate where, how, or when they did?
  3. How many protected groups of people can you identify in this novel? Notice how they are portrayed, both positively and negatively. Think about why that might be the case.
  4. Find somewhere you can observe the world around you for at least five minutes. More is great, but not necessary. Your space can be an indoor room, a shared outdoor space, really any place where you can notice and record details of quite literally any variety. Set a timer for your predetermined allotment, get comfortable, and get noticing. Record what you see and try not to filter your thoughts or reactions. When the timer goes off, read what you wrote, sketched, or otherwise notated. What did you observe about your observations?
  5. Can you identify a time when you misjudged a person, place, idea, or situation? If so, what influenced you to reach your initial conclusion? What might have helped you reach another? Forget for a minute the idea of whether that alternative would have been “right” or “wrong.”
  6. If someone were to write a vignette about you in the least flattering manner possible, what would they have to say? Try to shy away from knee-jerk, interview-y responses to this question. Sometimes, even the “incorrect” perceptions people have about us still point to areas in which we are meant to grow.
  7. BONUS Question for Companion Read, In Five Years: Time plays an important role in both books we read this month. Contemplate singularly or discuss with others the effects time has on the main characters. If you’re struggling with where to start, consider how time affects relationships with others they encounter. Feel free to take your answer another direction as well!

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

May 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Hard to believe that we’ve rounded the corner into our third month with this little venture. Apologies for the late post!

This month, we’ll be tackling A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012). Figured we could use a little levity after a couple of heavy months (and reads).

Additionally, it should be noted that this month is significant in two other ways:

(1) We’re — finally, some of you are saying — reading about a man; and

(2) We’ve — finally, I am saying — got a companion read recommendation! Someone in my orbit let me know that In Five Years, which you might have seen featured on my IG stories earlier this month, is indeed a great book to pick up in May!

Those who are willing/able to read one or both of these spectacular books should feel empowered to do so, and while we’re starting a little later than usual (yikes, two weeks!), I challenge all your beautiful minds to join us. I’ll be better about minding the (totally arbitrary) post deadline(s) in the future!

P.S. Has the sun finally come out where you live, too?? I hope so.

I’ll be reading outside if you need me.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

"Gone With The Wind?" Not So Fast.

First, we digress:

I have a confession to make. I, proud and also sometimes horrified daughter of the American South, read Gone with the Wind (GWTW) for the first time last year. My rite of passage — some might even say birthright — was finally complete. What followed next were grandiose plans to draft a Reading Words post about my multi-faceted experience, borne largely of increasing frustration with how the American South gets disproportionately crucified for the atrocities people everywhere still commit, centuries after Union white folk declared victory over Southern sin. If you’re trying to imagine what that post might’ve looked like, think less “Southern apologist” and more “look in the mirror, America” (see here also).

The issue is that I never quite got there. My anger at non-Southern elites was so strong that it blinded me. If we were such a backwards people, worthy of denigration after denigration after denigration, then why did folks who spun these tales also continue to buy our land and appropriate our culture, among other perplexing behaviors? The answer is that the behaviors aren’t really perplexing at all — they’re predatory, and the people who perpetrate them are monsters hiding in plain sight.

See how quickly this type of response digresses? Needless to say, I never published my impassioned early attempts. Why? Because I’d hit a critical impasse: myself. Like it or not, I wasn’t ready to produce the response I needed to share. Owning that was my first step towards maybe one day sharing it. That was easy. The hard part was not knowing when — if ever — I’d be strong enough or clear enough to take this work back on.

What a healer time can be! Today, a year (and really thirty-some) later, I’m finally ready. Though I’m still quieting my shaky knees (this is vulnerable work, y’all!), today I’m properly ready to commence the work I intended to begin last year. Starting today, I’m stepping fully into my calling, fully into my heritage, and beginning with a reckoning by way of Margaret Mitchell and her polarizing oeuvre, Gone with the Wind. Come with?

In the presence of greatness:

It’s always a little uncomfortable to read something where the author is held up as “a great.” You’re, by the magic of reading, connected to someone else, from another place or time, and that person just happens to be whoever they are, and you’re … well, you’re you. Does anyone else ever feel this way? No? That’s okay. The good and the bad of this particular situation is that, in ways that might surprise you, Mitchell’s greatness is qualified by another uncomfortable truth. That qualification makes her more relatable for some, sure, but we’ve got to stop and consider what else we’re doing when we put conditions on greatness in the first place.

Work with me here…

Not only is Margaret Mitchell the author of one of America’s defining pieces of literature, but she’s also a woman, and a woman who won the Pulitzer in the 1930s. As momentous as this might initially seem, paradoxically, by percent, more of these awards were given to women in that era than in today’s (at least for Novels/Fiction). Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have been more than half a decade since a woman held that distinction. And that’s not okay. We cannot run from this fact.

Here’s where the nasty qualification comes in to play. When in the course of celebrating Mitchell’s achievements, we start to sound like this —

Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A woman wrote something worth the Pulitzer in the THIRTIES! That must make her EXCEPTIONALLY good!!”

— we end up creating more problems than we do good. And it doesn’t just begin and end with giving Mitchell her dues. The trouble with this line of thinking, taken to its furthest end, is that it presupposes either that (1) women have become less capable of writing things worthy of such high praise, or (2) the publishing industry has become less capable of finding women with award-winning voices. Neither alternative is palatable, or frankly, true.

That said, not unlike popular but misinformed opinions about the South, these ideas carry weight, and that weight makes it harder for women to break through, at least in the ways our sisters did before us. That this month we read a Pulitzer Prize winner is indeed something notable. That we don’t read more of them is also. This is precisely why being in the presence of greatness — and all the qualifications that come with it — is uncomfortable. Somewhere deep down, we know there’s got to be more to the story.

Things get complicated:

Then we get to the real controversy. We need to acknowledge immediately that Mitchell’s perspective is controversial. By modern standards, eulogizing a way of life that we now find repugnant feels … off-putting at best. But that’s also why, all these years later, she remains an essential read.

For some people, that discomfort means we should #cancel Margaret Mitchell, move on, and replace her voice with others who “get it right.” Listen up, folks. I need you to hear me when I say that that line of thinking is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Make no mistake, we need to make room for more voices at the table, but removal of voices like Mitchell’s from the national discourse means we create opportunities to forget what it is we find unacceptable, and why it is we find it so in the first place. That task is hard enough in the modern world. We don’t need to make it harder by removing data from our set.

In today’s world, we cannot simply remove things we deem morally base, pretending like they never existed, in service of so-called cultural purity. Or at least, we cannot do this without also creating a dangerously muddy situation for present and future generations. Here’s why: it calls our own motives into question. Who owns the “cultural eraser” matters just as much as who owns the original “pencil,” my friends. And rarely if ever do people in power have the purity of intentions that we’d hope.

Just so we’re all clear, it is very possible to have “pure” motives and also do things that aren’t quite so clearly good. Anyone who tries to assuage you, saying things like, “questionable motives don’t apply to me or my party or my country (etc.),” is quite simply unaware, or aware and untrustworthy. Period. Both situations can be rectified by you becoming and remaining a strong critical thinker. I urge you, please do this now if you haven’t already. Let’s chat if you’re not sure where to start.

I say all this with love. Love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve prized finger-pointing more than selfless and brave ownership of fault, and I’m afraid that’s because we’ve lost sight of what matters in the first place. (Hint: it’s not power.) If this country is to move forward in any constructive, united way, we must un-learn the bad habits we’ve picked up over the last… oh, forever… or else risk becoming a lot closer to the world Margaret Mitchell wrote about and a lot further from the one we’re supposedly building towards. Everyone, do yourselves a favor and spend a minute thinking about that idea. Things just got a lot more complicated, didn’t they?

Suddenly, it’s hard to know how to respond:

As a Southern woman, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of potential, competing responses to this text. In one version, I lift Mitchell up as the literary great she is and always will be, despite her greatest detractors’ efforts, and get labeled an apologist. In another, I take her to task, get accused of forgetting that the mores that governed her words and actions, and the words and actions of the characters she created (further back in history, still) were necessarily different from our own, and learn that I’ve been equally problematic.

In either scenario, or any middle-ground offshoot I try to strike, something critical gets lost. We must, must, must understand, Dear Readers, that understanding an issue fully means trying to understand it from multiple perspectives. This does not mean we must agree with these perspectives, but our disagreement does not magically excuse us from trying to understand — far from it, actually.

Allowing ourselves to have a singular read on something, whether by our own choice or by letting someone else prescribe that singular read for us, is dangerous. The minute we allow that is the minute we compromise our freedom. It’s possible to give that freedom away all at once, but it’s also possible to give it away incrementally, like sand particles getting swept away from the beachfront, so slowly that hardly anyone notices, until it’s too late. No matter the rate we give this freedom away, we are in grave danger. Protect that freedom, folks. Allow for multiple reads — of books and of life.

I don’t know about you, but with that critical awareness, I’ve started to question everything about my initial reaction to GWTW, and nearly as much about my life alongside it. Did anyone else have this reaction — maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed in these overlapping ruins, those we’ve read about and those we’ve lived through? I hope so, I really do. I hope we had the strength to allow for some level of uncertainty, to sit in the unique discomfort that comes from realizing we all live in glass houses, that none of us are sinless, and that every single one of us can still do something to make this vast, ruinous world just a little bit stronger for tomorrow, today.

Love, Scarlett in Ruins:

Somewhere in the middle of reading GWTW for the second time, this time with you, it hit me: that internal struggle I thought was the reason I couldn’t respond? It might in fact be the response — or maybe the first attempt at one. All I had to do was recognize that the fear I faced was a speed bump, not a stop sign.

Perhaps I knew this already. Perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. You see, in one of the earliest drafts of last year’s intended response, I included a notable piece of marginalia. It read: “OK, Scarlett, it’s time.” While I wish I’d listened a little earlier, I also know that it’s what we do with the messages we receive that ultimately defines our lives, not how long it takes for us to receive them. That’s the bridge between last year and today, the book and this life, what mattered to me and what really matters.

The world is considerably harsher today than it was during my first read of GWTW. In this time of immense uncertainty, I’d like to encourage us to remember the lesson of the speed bump — slow down, pay attention, and safely crest into what’s next. We have a unique opportunity before us, Dear Readers, and that is to lean in to the bump, to ask ourselves some gravely important questions in whatever slower moments we can find. There are a million ways to ask, but here’s one humble starter among them: As the world rages around us, what are we willing to stand for? And, if we do not stand, what do we forfeit by extension? (Yes, forfeit — we only lose things when we’ve stood and then fallen. We forfeit when fear of falling causes us to never even try.)

When I wrote to myself one year ago, I never would’ve dreamed that in my first moment of bravery, scribbling marginalia alongside a really crappy draft, that today we’d be here, in this absurd and historic space. Never would I have dreamed we’d be talking about anything more than regionalist b.s. Never would I have dreamed that we might instead be talking about the fate of our country — or indeed, the world. Yet here we are, for the foreseeable future, on the precipice of ruin or rebirth.

The good news is that none of us live through this alone. We have each other, which is to say that we have love. In this we are made wiser, heartier, capable of facing odds the likes of which we have never seen. The world could rage around us, but through love we are made worthy warriors — warriors who take nothing for granted, warriors who wait on no tomorrows, warriors who fight for others’ Taras as much as their own, warriors who know that no matter what else gets lost, the things that matter are never truly gone. Let the winds rage.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle