We Did It!

Friends of North by North Carolinian and/or me,

Guess what?

We did it!

After years of being too afraid of this dream — like, so afraid that I could not even attempt chasing it — in 2021 I finally put my work pants on. I submitted essays on a variety of topics to an assortment of publications … and at least one of them decided my work was fit to print.

If you’ve followed this journey in any serious capacity, you know how much this means. You should also know that your support along the journey played a huge role in making this possible. Please join me in celebrating. This is a moment for collective celebration!

And to the good folks at The Dead Mule, I could not be any prouder that a North Carolinian journal became my first publishing home. Near or far, you’ll always have my admiration and gratitude. Go make the rest of your 25th year the absolute best it can be!

Now, I still can’t believe I get to say this but …

I am pleased to provide the following link for all those interested in reading my first officially-published piece, “Double-Down Dutch:” https://deadmule.com/ryan-vale-mcgonigle-memoir-sept-2021/.

Someone pinch me.

A Writer, After Many Drafts

Episode art by Hayden Barnes.

I could tell you that I write because it was the first dream I had. That even as a child, I knew what — or rather, who — I wanted to be. That I spent all my free time in the library, reading words of others aloud to myself, in case one day I might need to read my own. I could tell you that I write because I always knew I would.

Or I could tell you the truth.

While those statements are all true, passing them off as my origin story would be taking the easy way out. The truth is that I write because, after several other ill-fitting careers, I have no other choice. I write because I must. And that is the story worth telling.

Not a Teacher

You could say that I write because I don’t teach.

Sure, I received my master’s degree from a top-tier school of education. And I even taught for a short time after graduation. But in the long run, I wasn’t a teacher.

Why?

Because I had a smart mouth. Because I was more progressive than the field or my district would have liked — and neither my kids nor I had the time to wait for stragglers. Because I realized that most of the issues that drove me to teach were, in fact, best addressed outside the classroom.

And besides, the world could do without yet another token educator — a well-schooled, well-meaning white female just asking to be burned out before she ran the risk of making any real change.

Let’s be clear: it’s not like I thought I was better than the profession. Some of the best humans and effective change agents I know are teachers. The world is much stronger for their existence. But I was a bad fit among their ranks. Like, a really bad fit, and the reasons are simple and clear.

What are they?

I get too personally invested. I obsess over little details when teaching is, in many ways, about the larger picture. I am unwilling to do something just because someone in a position of power says I have to — especially if we know that it’s the wrong thing to do. And I hate, with a capital H, administrative work. So, for as much as my strengths told me I wasn’t a teacher, so too did my weaknesses. Self-awareness, dear readers, is a powerful thing.

That’s something I learned while teaching.

Not a Program Coordinator

So maybe I was a program coordinator?

Those who’ve ever done office work just started laughing because they already know the secret I’m about to share: “coordination” and “administration” are exactly the same thing. One role just gets paid a lot more to (here’s the kicker) take credit for the work of the other.

You should know that things like this never fly long in my books. And I mean business when it comes to setting the world right. But here’s the issue: for whatever limited power I had, there was simply too much corporate structure above me to change it.

I know that’s the case in many jobs. That’s why we’re talking about it.

While we’re talking, know what else is?

The unavoidable pressure to (at least once in your career) decide whether you’ll be a self-serving ladder-climber … or someone who does the right thing. The finer details of this pressure largely depend upon your chosen field, but no matter your field, it is nearly impossible to attempt both and live to tell the tale. At least not without considerable privilege.

Luckily, I had some.

Still, even working for an amazing boss, at an organization I would have died on a hill for at the time, not-for-profit America started to rub me the very-much-wrong way. Less because of the work itself — after all, I’d been working on issues that really mattered to me — and more because of how the larger system worked.

Practically speaking, you should know that non-profit culture is driven as much by self-preservation as it is by mission. And it has to be. But as we’ve just discussed, that kind of culture can also result in some less-than-just situations — starting with which organizations and programs are allowed to survive in the first place.

To make it very plain, non-profits rely on the generosity of donations — both to finance getting their work off the ground, and also to sustain it beyond a single tax or giving year. Many struggle to make it even that far, which is a shame.

Beyond the obvious, the problem then becomes that committing to any level of community engagement requires keeping financial backers — whether of the individual, institutional, or governmental varieties — happy. And that means doing your work to their liking, even if your goals are not fully aligned, or else risk not being able to do it at all.

Enter my real problems.

Without a personal background in fundraising, or a team that could help me do this well, my job very often became convincing others — including key internal stakeholders — that the program I coordinated should continue to exist at the capacity to which I’d been asked to help it grow. In case anyone is curious, that was exhausting, unsustainable work. And I was just blindly committed enough to stick it out anyway.

Not a Fundraiser

Then a series of fortuitous changes happened in my life. First, my then-fiance took a job in another state, hundreds of miles away. Second, I married that man, which made my relocation — job and otherwise — imperative. And third, when it came time to actually find a new job, I couldn’t have asked for an easier landing.

My process went something like this: I wasn’t a teacher because I needed to do community-based work. So then I was a program coordinator. But I wasn’t that either, because I became too bothered by the prevalence of good work being put at-risk by dwindling funds. So where did that leave me?

If you’ve been keeping track, you might have deciphered that the next logical step was to become a fundraiser. And not two minutes later, that’s exactly what I did.

While you’re probably not surprised to see that I’m no longer fundraising either, I’ll bet the reason why will command some attention. See, it turns out that fundraising isn’t that dissimilar to being a teacher or program coordinator. And at least for me, that was not a good thing.

Ask any honest member of this community and they’ll tell you: being a fundraiser means you wear many hats, and while that is sometimes sold in interviews as “the ability to immerse yourself in cross-functional work,” or other sexy-sounding “opportunities for growth,” most fundraisers will also tell you that this actually means you’re going to be held accountable for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t be, and appreciated for very little of what you should.

Put another way, what I expected and what I got from working in this field were two very different things. While I’d hoped to build an understanding of how programmatic sustainability gets built, what I ended up with instead was a firm grasp of the reality that, more often than not, sustainability was the furthest thing from a fundraiser’s purview.

Please hear me: this is not the result of some gross professional failing. Most fundraisers are simply too busy saving the immediate day — every day — to earn the privilege of concerning themselves with anything future-minded. Once I understood this limited framework, it was only a matter of time before I started to doubt my happiness within it. Spoiler alert: that didn’t take long.

Not Sure, No Way |or| A Woman Remembers a Conference

See, what I was starting to realize — very uncomfortably at that — was that I was meant for other things. Trying to squeeze myself into a traditional career path had not only done me no favors, it was also entirely useless. Like jamming square pegs into round holes, it would never work. I’d just exhaust myself trying.

And so it was that I became very depressed.

Thankfully, I took a cold-water slap to the face soon thereafter, in the form of a complete and total stranger.

To this day, I wish I’d gotten her name.

Dear Stranger, on the very much off-chance you’re reading this essay, then thank you for changing my life — professional and otherwise.

Now, for the rest of you, the climax of today’s story goes like this:

One weekend, less than a year into my Terrible Mistake, I managed to rouse myself enough to attend a cross-industry conference for people who communicate for a living. The hope was that I’d eventually be able to talk my way into another career. And at that point, I knew I needed one.

What I didn’t know was just how right I’d be.

As the conference came to an end, a woman approached me with a look on her face that told me — before her words ever could — that she intended to set me straight. Ordinarily, I might have stopped her. But depression is a mysterious force that causes people to do all sorts of unlikely things, and so I entertained her sermon.

“Look,” she said, “I don’t know you. But I know you’ve got a story to tell, and when you’re ready to share, the world better listen.”

I was floored. Terrified. Speechless.

Instead of anything elegant, the only response I could muster was a surface-level statement of appreciation. She’d literally scared all the other words right out of me. Without much else to say, we promptly said our goodbyes and I let her walk ahead of me towards her next destination. Then I walked as fast as I could in the direction of home — and whatever absurd future she’d been moved enough to foretell.

A Writer

Do you want to know the best part about deciding to make your own way? Once you reach that place, action becomes much, much easier. There is simply no room for complacency, fear, or defeat.

While those emotions may occasionally surface — especially if you’re working in a field that aims to support justice — what eventually drives you forward is the realization that change isn’t possible if you give up in the first place. And from that place, action tends to be what follows.

So, fear of my own voice? Gone.

Fear of speaking truth? Gone.

Fear of success? Gone.

And replacing those fears? A deep and abiding sense of peace, knowing that I’d no longer be working to support others’ missions … while doing everything possible to ignore my own.

This isn’t to say that my journey on this new path has been easy or even entirely clear. My lord! It took two more years beyond that life-changing conversation for me to save up enough funds, gain some much-needed practice, and liberate myself from the realm of the American workforce — just as a start.

But that start? That was three years, two blogs, and a manuscript ago. And just like that — damn — the library-loving little girl was right.

Mine is the story of a writer.

The Time is Always Now: Reflections on Reading Women-centered Works in an Unseasonably Different Women’s History Month

We are simply too hard on each other. That’s the principal take-away I got from reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Molly Millwood, PhD’s To Have and to Hold. But before we get deeper into what I hope will be a true discussion – not just me opining into the abyss – I’d like to pause on that idea for a minute. 

As humans, we are much, much too critical, bitter, defensive, aggressive, closed off, oppositional, and generally hard on each other. I’d like us to spend some time thinking about this idea – not tacitly agreeing with it, not writing it off and walking away, but really, truly, thinking about it. What examples come to mind? What memories? What opportunities for growth? Think of yourself, sure, but don’t be afraid to think bigger, either. I’ll leave you to it. When you’re ready, I’ll be here, and we can continue.

Welcome back. Thank you for permitting that brief exercise. It makes the upcoming discussion a lot easier to have. Looking back, these were heavy reads, huh? And the world around us sure wasn’t any lighter. I don’t know about you, but in aggregate, I found this all very overwhelming. Multiple times, I had to put the books down, turn off the news, and just breathe, or cry, or breathe while crying. You get the point.

Eventually, I realized that I’d been burying my feelings in order to get by — a dangerous practice that could not be allowed to continue. Thank God for Millwood and Taddeo, who delivered what is perhaps the timeliest help I’ve received in a while. This of all months, when I might’ve otherwise been inclined to look away (tender-hearted folks, raise your hands!), instead, they called me to confront all sorts of painful, uncomfortable, and scary realities head-on. As brutal as the stories contained within their masterful works were, so too is this world, and in this time of global duress, their words were exactly what I needed.

Can we actually take another minute here? We need to honor what we’ve weathered together in the month of March alone. It’s a lot, in case you’ve not been keeping track. So far (with still a week and change left!), we’ve had contentious U.S. presidential primaries, a global health crisis, the cancelation or dramatic reduction in several faiths’ practices, the cancelation of all sports (giving an entirely new meaning to March Madness), the cancelation of in-person schooling at all levels of the educational system, the cancelation of social gatherings (all sizes!), shortages in key medical supplies and groceries, an economy on tilt, and the least festive St. Patrick’s Day I ever hope to see again (important, as celebrations provide key moments of relief). This is before we take into account the long-term effects of all this mess — which may take years if not longer to undo. That we are all stressed and depressed is no surprise.

Husband and I have been “joking” (if that’s a thing) that I sure picked some month to start this reading group. If I knew then what I know now, I’m not certain I would have begun until much later. But then again, maybe that’s exactly why this was a good idea. In times like these, people need opportunities to vent, to share, to discuss, to gain some semblance of a schedule and a purpose all to themselves — and to do so without having to leave their homes. That every celebrity and #bookstagram account has started one of these babies after the fact does not surprise me — and in fact, I welcome them in this space. When one day our children’s children are learning about The Great COVID Crisis, I hope they focus on all the ways in which we came together, rather than the ways in which we’re inclined to be torn apart.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve heard lots of positive stories from these ruins. Folks paying the salaries of those out of work. Folks delivering free meals to kids who are out of school. Folks helping elderly and immunocompromised neighbors safely get what they need. Folks in the medical, emergency response, national defense, food, waste management, mail, veterinary, and utilities industries going to work, putting themselves at risk, so that YOU could stay safe. ENDLESS folks sharing ENDLESS social media posts with the intent to inform, uplift, and protect those they hold dear. These are all beautiful things.

But it’s not all beautiful. If I’m being very honest, for every helpful thing I’ve seen, there’s at least one questionable or downright damaging counter-reaction out there. These include but are not limited to: finger pointing, name calling, scapegoating, hoarding, continuing to gather in large social groups (please stop!!), and the list goes on. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these things, too. Then there’s the other, less identifiable losses, like library and small business closures, and the general rush to judgment I’ve seen even the most seasoned, reasonable folks fall victim to. The point here is that, even when we mean our best (and not everyone does, which is a shame), sometimes our actions have unintended consequences, and very often those consequences result in us being entirely too hard on one another (and yes, also on ourselves).

While Millwood and Taddeo were unequivocally not writing about COVID-19 in their respective works on women and their relationships to others (all kinds), I imagine they’d join me in the belief that their work is applicable to this situation as well. In a world of so much suffering, some of which is silent, why do anything except be better to each other? What do we lose by taking a moment to withhold our judgment, if only for a minute, when we’re here for such a short time anyway? And why does it always seem to take massively disruptive events for more people to think about this??

I won’t lie. Before this mess, I’d planned a long response about the unique challenges that women face — married or not, mothers or not — but that just didn’t feel right for these books, for these times. What we faced in the month of March 2020 goes so far beyond that discussion that I have little choice but to “table it” for another day, at least as concerns Women’s History Month.

For those saying “No, Ryan! I wanted to talk about these things,” we still have two great options. First, you’re welcome to respond to this post with whatever reactions you crafted to the books we read. That was my original hope for this reading group, after all! Second, if you’re so inclined, I’ve got some resources at the end of this post that might help guide your rumination or discussion along the way, whether you’ve joined us in real-time or plan to catch up later.

In this precise moment, however, I’ll leave us with a quick reminder by way of Millwood and Taddeo: we are entirely too hard on each other, and we can all choose to do something about that, even and especially when it’s difficult. Women’s History Month, COVID-19, or any other calendrically-significant time shouldn’t be the excuse you need to get started. As a woman, I’m telling you, the time is always right now.

March 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:

  1. Millwood-specific Question: “Silence — our own and others’ — keeps us in shame. False, distorted, and censored accounts of motherhood — our own and others’ — keep us stuck in shame. Only when silence is broken and secrets are revealed can we begin to revise the shame story” (27). If you have experienced parenthood, coupled or not, have you noticed the silence/shame paradox influence your feelings or decisions? If you have not experienced parenthood, have you seen this paradox play out in other ways? If your answers were no, think about why that might be the case.
  2. Taddeo-specific Question: “Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have the greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear” (7). Consider the women in Taddeo’s book. In what ways did Taddeo’s assertion ring true? In what ways were their realities perhaps more complicated? Now imagine your own life. If you have witnessed, experienced, or exerted this type of control, what were the circumstances? Does reading Taddeo’s book affect the way you feel about these moments? How might your feelings change if you were in someone else’s shoes?
  3. COVID-19 Question: How many households have suddenly realized that one partner does most, if not all, of the “women’s work?” Laundry, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring kids around, the list goes on. How has this affected your family? What might you do to change your situation, if indeed that is something you’ve identified as a want or need?
  4. Women’s History Month Question: Prior to the announcement of March 2020’s LibraRYAN Reading Group books, had you ever heard of Lisa Taddeo or Molly Millwood? If yes, where and how? If no, why do you think that might be? In both cases, see how many other people have heard of either writer, or if they can identify additional female writers whose work might interest you.
  5. Assignment: Write a letter to yourself. Be kinder than you think you deserve. Then read that letter aloud. That is all.

Wright’s “Last Ride to Graceland”

“I’m proud to be a southerner, which isn’t always a fashionable thing to say.”

Cory Beth Ainsworth, p. 91

Last Ride to Graceland

I’ve been living in New York for awhile. Long enough to build a life, long enough to feel at home, long enough for a lot of good things to happen. But also long enough to forget. That’s right. I’ve been living here so long that, occasionally, I forget what it’s like to be home.

I forget what Fourth and Trade are like on Friday nights in the summer. I forget what cicadas sound like in the backyard. I forget that bluegrass isn’t just a trope, that BBQ isn’t just food we heat on the grill, and that not all the best stories are short. I’ve lived here long enough to forget what the South is like, who I am, and the places I am from. It scares the crap out of me every time.

When this happens, I cry. Usually big, ugly tears. And then I text or call Husband, who is as familiar with this travesty as my retelling of it. He is a good listener — a rare breed among New Yorkers — so he dutifully listens to me spew, careful not to interrupt or mansplain, and only once I’m all cried and storied out, he helps me remember why I can’t let myself forget.

Then I dig real deep, gather my courage, and go hunting. What for? My Southern voice, my Southern ear, my Southern roots, my Southern self. Where do I find it? Usually at bookstores, filed under “regional interest” or tossed in the discount bin.

Yeah, don’t get me started on those politics. We’d be here all day! But I do sometimes wonder, do New Yorkers feel this way in Southern stores? Not just with books, but with everything else they miss, things that aren’t as commonplace in their adoptive homes and road trip pit stops? Do they find the essence of their beings being as deeply discounted as mine? And if they do, is it also on the regular?

This stuff isn’t talked about in my circles, but I’d venture to guess that we are more alike than different, sisters and brothers from north of the line. I bet somewhere out there, a New Yorker is just as afraid of forgetting, just as aware of her/his unique way of being in the world. And that sort of thing is something we need to pay attention to. Maybe we all have a responsibility to help our neighbors. Scratch that. Not maybe. We definitely do.

Anyway, this week was one of those weeks for me. A week of lonely forgetting. A week of discounting. A week of searching everywhere for a clue that maybe, just maybe, being me was OK on this island. A clue more than people saying they were inclusive. A clue that people actually are.

These clues are hard to find, but thankfully I am resourceful and determined. I fight for the things I care about. Because of that, I found something. This week’s clue? Kim Wright’s Last Ride to Graceland. I won’t give away any spoilers, but she had me from page one. Rare. After that, I took the book home and read voraciously. I read like there wasn’t going to be another clue, another book, another home to be had. And you know what? It was the best homecoming I’ve had in awhile.

The only issue? Now I wish I really was home. If that were the case, I could tell Kim Wright how grateful I am, how necessary she is, and how much I wish other people knew this too. But for now I find joy in remembering. For one more day, I don’t forget. For one more day, the South is alive and well. For one more day, I can visit Carolina In My Mind.

And it’s glorious.

***

For more information about Elvis and Graceland, check this resource out.

For Kim Wright’s reflections on her trip, and its connection to the book, familiarize yourself with this post over at South Writ Large.

For more information about the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which Last Ride to Graceland was the 2016 recipient of, do some reading over here.

For a review of this book from the Charlotte Observer (Wright is a Charlotte resident), mozy on over to this link.

And for some other female, Carolina-based authors you might consider adding to your bookshelf, check out Authors out of Carolina over here.

P.S. Why is it that larger (read: national) newspapers don’t cover Southern literature until it’s as “well known” as The Help? Maybe someday, someone will change that.

Food for thought.