Of Everyday Formality: A Table Teaches Me a Thing or Two about Life

Catch-all.

Writer’s desk.

Life-size vision board.

Supper-seater for eight.

I’m talking about our dining room table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When Hubs and I first got married, we moved to a tiny apartment in Queens. In that home, we built the beginnings of our life together around a drop-leaf table that once belonged to my great grandfather, then my grandfather, then my mother, and now me (us). It’s not that we’re sentimental, though this is also true. It’s more that one of us (me) is Southern, and my breed of Southern abhors throwaway culture of any and all kinds.

When Mom offered the table to us — something that must have been hard for her on many levels — doing anything else besides graciously accepting it was out of the question. And some years later, when we relocated to our suburban abode, welcoming it into our next phase of life was simply assumed. It’s now sitting pretty (and better protected) in another space. One day I hope we have the occasion to pass it down anew, making this table a five-generation veteran of life. What a treasure.

That said, relocating our treasure left us in need of what I’d then considered the bastion of all “made it” purchases: a formal table for our formal dining room. This may come as a surprise to those who know me. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more modern and minimalist. But — see above — I’m also Southern. And Good Southern Girls have dining tables, formal or not. So, the very minute we could afford to purchase one, we did. Afford of course being relative because HOLY STICKER SHOCK.

If we didn’t love the table, we mightn’t’ve bought it… but we did, so we did. Since then, it’s been the setting for large holiday gatherings, work-night dinner dates, a conversation spot, a landing zone, and a desk before I had another. Lately, its uses have only expanded. Drafting table, social-distancer, reading spot, craft area, and dog den are only a few. If anything, being routinely quarantined at home has made me appreciate the everyday formality of our space and this investment. And I’m here for it.

We’re living in (through?) an age where, I imagine, more folks will start to have realizations like this. Perhaps not about their dining rooms, but about some other thing or idea or person or place that, prior to this mess, they failed to fully embrace. For me it’s the table, but also the idea of tradition, of heritage, of ways of life that, while changed, are learning to survive forward. And is that so bad? I think not.

Then again, my great grandpa could have told me that. Also my grandpa. Also my mom. I know this because they already have. They have through sharing that drop-leaf table we’ve come to cherish, even though these days we dine on something else. Turns out furniture really does reflect more than generational design tastes (she says as someone formerly of the decorative arts museum world who should’ve known better).

For those of us willing to receive it, there’s a lesson here about how we choose to structure our lives — or, perhaps stated a little differently, what and whom we choose to build ourselves around. When we make any kind of decision, whether we like it or not, we’re communicating a lot about who we are, what we value, what we stand for, and what we hope to see in the future. And that goes for interior design of both the house and soul varieties… and then of course, everything in between.

I don’t know about you, but as for me, I hope the message I’m communicating is one that sounds like: Here, take something of me with you, so that you’ll never forget what it is to be home out in the world, and what it is to be out in the world, right here at home. It’s the lesson of the table, of my family, of our ever-changing reality. What we build should be designed to last, sure; but it should also be given ample space to grow and change. I wonder what would happen if more of us lived this way — and not just for ourselves.

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.

HOME-ISH: Rebuilding a Time-Honored Concept for the Modern Age

Some years ago, I looked into the blank-eyed stare of someone who had no idea what they were doing. I don’t just mean relative to the action they were about to take. I also mean how they were functioning in the interim, uncomfortable moments of change between what’s-now and what’s-next, which is to say, how they were adjusting to an idea they had supposedly undertaken with great confidence.

In fairness, it is quite impossible to know how your life will change when you leave home for the first time. Even after you leave, and have been away awhile, you still don’t really know. It takes a long, long, long time to understand. And even then, as anyone who has been away longer will tell you, you still haven’t got it except for maybe by a thread. And even that grip is tenuous.

This is a lesson we are all learning now, in a time of immense cultural, political, and yes, also necessarily personal change. We must address them — all of them — and we must do so closer to us, not further away, at least not at first. There is no more room or time for work-avoiding beliefs that look, sound, and act like any of the following: “If there’s a problem, it is over there,” or “If there is a failing, it must be someone else’s,” or “If there is a grievance, surely another individual will make it right.” Each of these statements, though perhaps momentarily pacifying, are not in anyone’s long-term interest, so we shouldn’t tolerate them in the short-term.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as acknowledging shared plights or shared sins. If anything, right now we are called to acknowledge the great expanse of things long-overdue for our attention. But we cannot do this — or, we cannot do this well — if we are unwilling to acknowledge our roles in the care and keeping of that great expanse.

At first, this might make you feel alienated. The current political and cultural climate has unsettled many time-honored ideas in favor of reimagining a way forward that is more inclusive, and this is something we should celebrate. However, it is alright if, for a moment or fifty, you need to grieve what it is you had no idea you were losing until it was lost. This is especially true if you’re the type of person who usually notices the fabric of your life in distress only after overt, theatrical rips at the seams, instead of, say, small threadbare corners that become larger and larger over hours, and days, and weeks, and months and OH MY GOD HOW THE HELL DID WE GET HERE? It’s okay. Sometimes that’s me, too.

Even for seasoned folks, life can be overwhelming. We all struggle, we all fall down, we all have moments where we’re overcome with exhaustion, where we’re running on fumes. We’re all human. That is to be expected. And! We must still choose to stay committed, honoring our selves by first getting to know ourselves — yes, so that we know what we have to give, but also yes, so we know what we have to lose.

When I’ve said in The LibraRYAN Reading Group posts that you shouldn’t rely on my response to get started on your part of the assignments we’ve all been handed (many times, not just recently), I’ve meant it. Me sharing this context is in support of that statement, not in argument with it. Especially because I want to leave enough space for folks who are striving towards being better in new ways. In lots of places, I see messaging that essentially says “sink or swim,” and I don’t know about you, but that ideology is part of what got us here, no? As a result, I won’t be operating by or with it. Good, glad we cleared that up.

I am in the business of sharing things I’ve learned along my journey, in case they might be of service to anyone else. Therefore, with the seriously immense disclaimer that I am not an expert in anything, that I am a relative nobody, and that just like you, I have, do, and will get life very wrong on more than one occasion, here is one take on a starting place, from someone who gives a $#@^ about you — yes really, you the person, not you in general. That’s the entire point.

How to Plan a Stronger Home in Five Steps (and then a lot more):

(1) Accept responsibility for the fact that you, personally, are responsible for the marks you leave on yourself, on others, on your homes, on others’ homes, and on the world.

(2) After you fight me (yourself!) on that, seriously, accept responsibility for the things that happen (and have happened) on your watch, under your leadership, and in your presence or company. This is a lesson we learn in early years and then conveniently forget while in pursuit of whatever lofty goals we acquire “on our ways home.”

(3) Still struggling? It’s ok. Another way to look at this is to look back at your past (start more recently, then work backwards). See if you can find an example of something you’ve done, willfully or not, to fundamentally harm someone. If you can’t find an example, look closer and/or go back further. Then keep going. Finding more than one example certainly won’t get you a sticker, but you might learn something, and that should be enough.

(4) Ah! Now you’ve got the hang of it! It’s going to get a little harder, though. Are you ready? Once you’ve located those memories, sit with them for a minute. Think not just about how they changed the other person/s, but also how they fundamentally changed you (and they did, I promise).

(5) Now, here’s where the Big Work starts. While I regret to inform you that you cannot go back and un-do whatever nastiness you discovered, you can absolutely move forward in a new spirit of just-as-broken-as-the-rest-of-us-ness, and resolve to do better each and every “Next Time” you’re gifted (none of us ever deserve second chances, but we get them, and what we do with them matters).

Again, this is only your starting place. My hope is that you’ll start from a place that is open to the kinds of work that need to be done, and that when you make mistakes, you know you can come back to this home base and rest, re-learn, and get going again.

In the meantime, know that if it takes you longer than others to get through these steps, that’s ok. If it takes you less time and then you need to go back and re-take this course of action, that’s ok. Falling down, messing up, taking your time, these are all ok. The most important thing to remember is that we have a million moments to do the right thing, and in as many of those moments as possible, we should.

P.S. I’ve written about the concept of “home” many times, but here are a few that might resonate in new ways. I’d love to hear how your thoughts on “home” have evolved over the years, too!

Home

Hiraeth: A Movement in Three Household Things

Sometimes I Feel Like Celia Foote

In the Middle with You

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Reading Words: Last Ride to Graceland

Reading Words: TIME’s Special Issue on the American South

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.

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.

Design in the Age of “For Now, Forever”

It’s no secret that this isn’t a buyer’s market. As a result, you might be considering staying put for awhile. We certainly are. Why? Because as much as hot seller’s markets help maximize profits, they can also put homes you were previously eyeing just out of reach. This is before you address monthly costs that will never go away, no matter the market or your personal finances. Diamonds might be forever, but so are taxes and utilities. Remember that.

Don’t get me wrong. We love our current home, so the momentary decision to stay isn’t “settling,” and it’s also not taken without deep awareness of other, favorable alternatives. Hubs and I are ultimately pragmatists who’ve learned not to get too attached to anyone or anything else around us — and with good reason. It’s simple: the most powerful levers in anyone’s life, jobs and real estate, are finicky as heck, and no one has the control they’d like to believe they have over either of them.

The good news is that even in this reality, we do have some power over what happens. By this I mean that if we make the right choices, we can protect the future kinds of decisions we’ll make, no matter what circumstances surround us.

Relative to building a life in the places we call home, this means we can decide to love things… for now. We can decide to fix things… for now. We can decide to stay… for now. And if things change, however suddenly, we can decide to leave… you guessed it, for now. The strict dichotomy of “love it” or “list it” just isn’t fair or true. Someone better tell HGTV.

Which brings us back to the current market. What’s a homeowner to do — about homes, about life — in a wildly unpredictable time like this? Well, the honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea, but here’s one possiblity: strike a delicate balance between what strikes your fancy, and what might strike the fancy of the most number of others.

Yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds. Luckily, purchasing and living through the renovations of a charming suburban fixer has prepared us well for this way of life. It’s been a humbling, but ultimately love-filled experience. We do something, we take stock, we do something else, we take stock again. Nothing is forever, but everything could be. The reality of our “for now, forever” life is that we are both tethered and free, both kept and wild, both at home and away. It’s strife and success all wrapped up in one. And we love it.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for ways to apply this strangely freeing mindset to your life or abode, here are some “current” ideas I’ve long-since loved, being someone who grew up in a place where these things are less often branded as “new and fashionable,” and more often beloved as “tried and true:”

(1) Color! More “traditional” colors, like greens (my favorite, favorite, favorite), yellows, blues, terra cottas, deep charcoals, and wispy creams are shoving “greige” out where it belongs, which is to say, in the fashion rearview. From pastels to super-saturated and more stately or refined, colors of all kinds are making a serious comeback and I! am! here! for! it!

(2) Texture! Ok, so I’d be lying if I said that my more minimalist self didn’t love part of the industrialist look that was oh-so au courant through the mid-late 2010’s. But it would never cut it as a lasting and intentional design aesthetic, at least not for me. Instead, give me all the textured carpets, textured window coverings, textured seating options! They demonstrate there’s more to life than stark urbanity, as defined by bare white walls, exposed beams and A/C ducts, and “dimensional wall art,” whatever that was…

(3) Nature! I’ve always been someone who’s wanted to bring the outdoors, in. As a child I preferred to play outside over anywhere else, and I try hard to honor the spirit of that girl as much as possible in my adult life. One of the ways I do this is by keeping little moments of nature tucked in surprising places, which is a technique that’s worked wonders everywhere from my first studio apartment to our current suburban sprawl. Give it a try!

Alright, those are my top three design picks for the age of “for now, forever.” Beyond the specificity of those choices, what makes me most excited about changing public tastes is the return to what I’ll call “natural joy.” Sure, I mean to the world of design, but I also mean to the world at-large. We’ve whitewashed, stripped, and quieted too many things in the name of “style” over the years. It’s about time more of us stepped up to fix that. And guess what, you already know how. You just have to make your home for yourselves, and keep doing that for as long as you want. After all, at least for now, it’s yours and no one else’s.

Welcome home, My Loves. For now and forever, welcome home.

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.

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*

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.

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!