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

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.

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.

When the Example Isn’t One You Should Follow

Some time ago, I mentioned that when the right time arose, I would return to the Reading Words category. Friends, that time is now. Before you read any further, please take some time to carefully investigate the following: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor.

Thanks for doing that. It’s critical to understanding what you’re about to read, something that after considerable thought, I cannot remain silent about. As with many things in life, we should all learn to listen and digest fully before we respond, but equally important as knowing when to “shush up” (as we say down south) is knowing when speaking out is the reasonable thing to do. Usually it’s in moments where there’s a truth that needs to be delivered and someone won’t be ready to hear it.

With that spirit in mind, I must confess that I am more than a little disappointed with The New Yorker and Paul Elie. And yes, I am disappointed with both, separately. That matters here, for folks who are newly entering these sorts of conversations (welcome, by the way!).

First, the undercurrent notion that we are ALL just now taken with the central idea they share suggests that for many, many, many years, many, many, many people have not been. Or at least presupposes it, which is almost worse. Perhaps in some areas, by some folks, this is true. Perhaps for Elie. Perhaps in New York or D.C. (Elie’s haunts). But if that is the case, why not just say so? Meanwhile, to oversimplify or otherwise obfuscate who racism is relevant to, EVEN AND ESPECIALLY using academic language, is to miss a point so large that the author might’ve been better off remaining silent.

Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Second, the article makes plainly clear another troubling but longstanding trend: Northeastern Bastion of Liberalism Giants telling the “uneducated masses” (many of whom already live and Do The Work in their daily lives) how it is that they should think, speak, and feel on the issues these Giants are only more recently starting to care (speak/act) about in any real, concrete, constructive way. Read that again, slowly. I know it’s a lot to digest. But it must be digested.

Sure, there’s been a lot of very public attempts to “understand” this issue, but like so many other troubling “studies,” rarely if ever are the voices of those who live this reality given an equal platform, compared to those who seek to distantly finger-wag whilst they hide every mirror in their homes from themselves.

Curious behavior? You bet.

And third, Elie’s limitations in his understanding of whiteness and critical race theory are so loud that they scream off the page. He doesn’t even have to say that much for the critically-aware reader to see it. Contrary to what Elie would have you believe, understanding the effects of racism on white culture (and vice versa) is absolutely, without a doubt, CENTRAL to dismantling racism. And understanding history and southern culture, whether or not Elie likes it, also matters a great deal.

The especially troubling takeaway here is Elie’s hubris. Not just in his refusal to award any merit to the previous points, but in his belief that attacking others’ attempts to address them somehow “counts” as him doing the work he needs to do. Writing about the work is not the work, Mr. Elie, Sir. Especially when you’re determined to take a deliberately half-informed view.

Is that an uncomfortable realization? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely. As a white man of considerable northeastern privilege, and as someone who has devoted his professional life (with much acclaim, I might add) to the study and publishing of Great American Literature, Elie is the last person who should be taking the easy way out, wagging his Ivory-Towered Finger at others’ attempts, as messy and complex as they are or aren’t.

Perhaps most damningly, the work he presented is just backstory to the work he should have written, that The New Yorker should have published, that we should have had the privilege of reading from someone whose voice is well-regarded and the holder of considerable power. But Ryan, I hear some of you asking, what should the work have been? Simple. A courageous look inward.

How Racist IS Paul Elie? How Racist IS The New Yorker? Hiding behind the article that got written is academically sloppy, personally lazy, and culturally tone-deaf beyond belief. I expect better. You should too. Instead, for now, we must settle for another pandering excuse of the one they’re willfully hiding behind. Ain’t it a damn shame … again.

P.S. Want a better example? See here.

TIME got it closer to right.

A long time ago at that.

April 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Times like those we are currently living through make us stop and consider what really matters. I’d like to think it’s the idea of love. We need love now more than ever.

For many, this is a time of terrible loss. Loved ones, livelihoods, social groups, entire ways of life just … gone. At least gone for now, at least gone from the way they were.

It is important to acknowledge and reflect upon these realities and the feelings they inspire. Doing so helps them have less power over us, in that we are able to use them as fuel to power us forward, rather than holding us back or turning us ever-dangerously inward.

I’d like to do my small part to pull us back from the brink. Let’s spend this month reading about a woman — and a nation — on the precipice of some other incredible changes. That way, when we emerge once more into the sun, together we can find the strength and the grace to fight for what we hold dear.

NB: My copy was re-released by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. in May 2011. Find whatever version you can access — especially this month — and we can make it work.

And, as will always be the case, if you have ideas for companion reads, share them! I mean it when I say this should be a collaborative project. It will work better if you are reflected at all stages.

Until the last week of April.