I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem.
I am a white, straight, cisgender, educated, agnostic, middle-aged, middle-class woman from the South–recipient of more privilege than I have earned. And this year, while I raised my summer butterflies, I watched America’s Presidential campaign with growing dismay.
Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny are not new to America or American politics, but overt displays on the campaign trail are rare in my memory. How and why Donald Trump’s campaign thrived while exploiting the language of white supremacy has been widely discussed since the election, but the answer seems simple to me: far too few listeners objected.
Some, undoubtedly, agreed with him. Some didn’t recognize the language of white supremacy, never having spoken it. Others, like me, knew. I knew, and yet I remained silent.
My particular silence was one of guilt and shame, complicated by the oft-repeated advice that beginning writers should avoid talking about politics and religion, lest they alienate half of their potential audience. But in this matter I am not a beginning writer. I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem. And, in this matter, I will no longer keep silent.
“Will Rogers said it a long time ago: Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Thomas L. Friedman in The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (1)
As a child, teen, and young adult, I heard the language of bigotry at school and in the community. My parents and siblings didn’t speak the language, nor did most of my friends. But I heard the words anyway. I learned them and I used them. And I slogged into college in a miasma of willful ignorance, dangerously unfit for adulthood.
In college, my instructors and classmates recoiled in horror when my ignorance leaked into the open. (Some, I suspect, were more frustrated with my inability to hide my ignorance than with the actual fact of it.) Despite the shame I feel when recalling those years, they mark an important change in my life–I began an ongoing effort to pry open my closed mind.
At every point along my journey, I have found guides. Most were women with gentle and luminous souls. Some answered my calls for help, others appeared unbidden–standing in the mist with hands extended, patiently waiting for me. They answered my endless questions as if they had nothing better to do than help an ignorant young woman expand her horizons.
(I know that this, too, is a hallmark of privilege. Such help was easier to find because I was white, straight, cis, middle-class, and educated. I will have more to say about privilege in future posts.)
As I worked through various stages of educating myself, I began trying to escape the stigma of hate by claiming that I had never embraced the malice of bigotry, only the language. I didn’t hate anyone.
Except, the language of bigotry is hate. It is not possible to learn the words without absorbing the hate. This has been my hardest lesson and is my most painful admission. I once spoke the language of bigotry, which by definition means I practiced hate. Years ago, when I finally accepted this fact, I retreated into silence on the subject.
But silence solves nothing. In dreading discovery too much and valuing discussion too little, I remained part of the problem.
“We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.” Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2)
Unlike the Monarch Butterflies that emerged in the yard this summer, I cannot flutter off to a mountaintop in Mexico and sleep through the long, cold winter ahead. (The irony is intended to be painful. I detest our President-elect’s disparaging comments and damaging “promises” regarding immigrants and immigration.) But I can use my privilege for something besides sharing my own writing and my love of nature. I can use my voice and this blog to promote the words and wisdom of other writers.
I’ve already asked for help from my friends, but I’m also asking for help from my readers. Hold me accountable. Fact check me. Fact check my sources. Correct me when my ongoing ignorance shows. Correct me when I’m wrong, which I will, inevitably, be.
For starters, please read my new comments policy. It’s not perfect, and I could use your help with it.
Then read some of these poems, articles, and posts:
- “What to Do About Trump? The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930’s Vienna.” by Liel Leibovitz (at Tablet Magazine)
- “Really, You’re Blaming Transgender People for Trump?” by Jennifer Finney Boylan (at The New York Times)
- “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” at The Southern Poverty Law Center
- “We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump.” by Sarah Kendzior (at The Correspondent)
As a final note, it takes me a long time to compose a post like this one. Most of my posts will continue to focus on nature and writing, with occasional publication notes, as in the past. (i.e. My poem Duality recently appeared at vox poetica.) But I plan to add a section of links to each post, highlighting authors, articles, and books that have enlarged my world. Please share your own recommendations in the comments.
(1) Friedman, Thomas L.. The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007. Print.
(2) Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised Edition. New York: The New Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.
On first glance, I thought the butterfly shown above was a late-flying Eastern Black Swallowtail.
After a closer look, I decided the unknown visitor might be a Pipevine Swallowtail. (I don’t have any photos of Pipevine Swallowtails because I’ve never seen one in person. Here’s a link with photos.) But how could it be any kind of swallowtail, without the characteristic “tails” on its hind wings?
As always, I turned to the internet for answers. Searching for “butterflies that look like Eastern Black Swallowtails” led me to the Swallowtail Butterfly Comparison page on a site called Butterflies at Home. There I discovered that my unknown butterfly is a Red-spotted Purple, which explains why it doesn’t have tails on its hind wings. It isn’t a swallowtail at all. Instead it belongs to the family of brush-footed butterflies. (As an aside, I’m now fascinated with name “brush-footed”.)
But why do all of these butterflies look so similar? What is so special about a combination of blue highlights and reddish spots? Obviously the pattern carries some sort of selective advantage, something deeper than aesthetic appeal for camera-wielding writers.
It seems that the story starts with Pipevine Swallowtails, which lay their eggs on the poisonous pipevine plant (also known as Dutchman’s Pipe.) As the caterpillars feed and grow, they ingest and store a toxin called aristolochic acid, which lingers in their bodies as the caterpillars mature into adults. So the butterflies, as well as all stages of the caterpillars, are poisonous. Even their eggs are poisonous.
All in all, it’s an elegant and effective defense against predators. So effective, in fact, that it conveys a measure of protection for any butterfly with black wings, blue highlights, and reddish spots. Selective advantage, indeed.
Now, if only I could find a Pipevine Swallowtail to photograph…
For more information, check out a few of these articles:
- “Spicebush Swallowtails and Pipevine Swallowtails” (side-by-side photos of a Spicebush Swallowtail and a Pipevine Swallowtail)
- “Don’t Eat ‘Em; They’re Poisonous” (article about Pipevine Swallowtails and caterpillars)
- Battus philenor at Art Shapiro’s Butterfly Site (where we get a hint at how biologists know that the mimics arose after the Pipevine Swallowtail, not the other way around)
- “Butterfly gardeners beware of toxic pipevine species” (in which we learn that some species of South American pipevine are too toxic for North American Pipevine Swallowtails)
In June of 2015, I noticed that one of the yard’s House Wrens had begun feeding a family of Northern Cardinal nestlings. (Read my initial blog post here.)
The adult cardinals, especially the male, were also feeding the nestlings.
In that early blog post I wrote, “I wonder if this kind of behavior is common. Have the yard’s birds been feeding each other all along?”
In searching for answers to my question, I ran across the Tough Little Birds blog, run by biologist Katie LaBarbera. I contacted her through the blog, and she replied that the behavior was unusual enough to be of interest to other biologists. Before too long we had a short article ready to submit for publication. After peer review and a few revisions, the article was accepted by The Wilson Journal of Ornithology and can be found in the current (September 2016) issue: House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) provisions nestlings of Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).
And now, as Paul Harvey might have said, it’s time to post the rest of the story…
Back in June of 2015, while I was searching for answers online, the wrens’ brood hatched. For a few days the male wren stayed busy feeding both nests, dividing his time somewhat unequally in favor of the young cardinals. But something changed as the cardinals neared fledging. The last time I saw the cardinal nestlings accept food from the wren was on June 5th, and the last time I saw him approach their nest was on June 6th. (They greeted his visits on the 6th with silence.) On June 7th, the young cardinals left their nest.
The yard stayed in a turmoil on the 7th, loud with the cries of hungry cardinal fledglings and nervous cardinal parents. (The male cardinal was particularly aggressive with larger birds that day, much to the dismay of a hungry brown thrasher.)
The wren, formerly so devoted to the cardinal nestlings, never approached the cardinals after they fledged. Instead he spent the 7th, and the following days, feeding his own nestlings. The young wrens stayed in their nest box until June 16th and 17th, eating spiders and praying mantises and a variety of other insects brought by their parents.
The nestlings grew bigger and bolder each day.
And their parents worked harder and harder to keep them fed.
By June 16th they showed signs of leaving.
And on June 17th …
They were out of the nest box, but they were still hungry!
When they left the yard that evening, I felt bereft. As I always do when the yard’s children move on.
I wished, as I always do, to follow the fledglings. Or at least to know their futures. Did any of them survive? Have they, perhaps, visited the yard again in the weeks and months since?
Let me know if you see them.
I quit writing this summer.
Each time I opened a document, new or old, my inner critic won. Sometimes I closed documents without saving them.
I avoided my notebooks, partial manuscripts, and poems.
Something inside me whispered that my unpublished words were worthless. That no matter how much time I spent arranging them on the page, they would always be worthless.
But then I went to the 2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference.
Where I remembered why I started writing in the first place.
I remembered how stories haunt my dreams and daydreams. How the convection of my imagination brings characters and scenes to the surface over and over again, how writing these characters and scenes frees my imagination to create more characters and scenes.
I remembered the shiver of recognition when lines and phrases turn to music in a poem. It doesn’t happen in every poem I write, or even in every tenth poem, but when it does happen it’s magic.
I remembered how satisfying a difficult revision can be, both during and after the process. Like solving a puzzle or riddle. Pieces falling into place, sometimes falling into unexpected places. Creating order out of the chaos of previous drafts.
This insight was alchemy, the combined effect of a series of excellent presentations and workshops.
I can’t praise these presenters highly enough:
- Charlotte Matthews – White Space: Your Poem’s Red Bull™
- Mary Burton – Writing Your Novel One Draft at a Time
- John Robert Mack – Eliminating the Excuses
- Robert J. Crane – Writing Literary Crack: How to Keep Your Readers Coming Back Over a Long Series
- Charlotte Matthews – Brain Dead: Writing in the Total Absence of Inspiration
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Creating a Believable Crime or Murder Scenario
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Body Talk: Lying, Loving, and the Real Language of the Body
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Police Procedures and Investigations: Insights into a Cop’s World
I’m grateful to Hampton Roads Writers for putting together such a wonderful conference.
If you write, no matter what you write or why you write, check out one of the writing conferences near you.
Especially if you’ve quit writing.
The Nostalgia Shelves started with three bins of old books and a stack of tired posters. Many were as old as I am, and the wear showed. They were, literally, loved to pieces. Torn, faded, and stained, none of the items could be saved intact. So I dug out my scissors and bought some Mod Podge.
All of my old favorites found new purpose in the Nostalgia Shelves. Their stories are alive again.
What’s more, the horses have a new home.
I don’t have a “before” photo, but the “after” is definitely lighter and brighter.
And the unhoarding continues…
Every so often, time slips sideways. One week it’s May, and the next week July scrolls into August. I have photos and bills to prove that June actually happened, but it happened in a blur of travel, home repairs, and unhoarding.
My unhoarding saga began after Mother died, when the extent of her hoarding (and mine) could no longer be overlooked.
Mother’s hoard was generational. Parts of it accreted as she raised five children, other parts were passed down from two much-loved grandmothers, a formidable mother, a pair of admired aunts, and a somewhat difficult mother-in-law. With each obituary and burial came new photos, letters, books, furniture, glassware, doilies, and quilts.
The women who raised Mother had filled their homes with small treasures, and, because each of them had very real memories of hard, empty years, they treasured everything. Everything held a story, and all of the stories were passed to Mother (who had no siblings) for safe-keeping.
Fighting her own memories of hard, empty years, Mother made room for everything, stuffing her house to the eaves with family history. She made room in her heart, too, and genuinely loved this patchwork collection of heirlooms.
She loved it, that is, until it overwhelmed her.
The hoard took over Mother’s house, just as my hoard was taking over mine. In her house, as in mine, cabinets were jammed full, drawers wouldn’t close, shelves bowed under their burdens, one entire room was given over to storage.
In the wake of Mother’s car accident and death, as I helped my siblings sort and pack five generations of Mother’s belongings, I resolved to make a change. I didn’t want to carry on this tradition, the death ritual of dividing the hoard. Treasures or not, I no longer needed or wanted most of the stuff I had been hoarding.
Resolve is one thing, doing is another. And unhoarding is ridiculously hard work. It got even harder after I scraped off the easiest layers — books I was never going to read, clothes I was never going to wear, dishes I was never going to use. Then came the emotional stuff. Tattered childhood books. Scarred toys and threadbare stuffed animals. Memory-laden trinkets and gifts that warmed my hoarder’s heart.
I spent hours and days and weeks putting off decisions, moving containers from one room to another, painting around them as I dithered. Some days I was tempted to ship them all off to thrift stores, unopened and unsorted. Other days I fought an urge to unpack everything, to binge on dusty memories.
But I don’t want to live in a box of memory. To be owned by the past. So this summer I’ve been cleaning and repairing toys and stuffed animals. Some few will stay with me, others will go to thrift stores. What can’t be salvaged will be recycled or sent to the landfill. (After being photographed, of course.) I’ve also been cutting up old books, calendars, and posters for use in current and future art projects.
Some memories I’m voluntarily discarding, others have been lost in the commotion. But the house gets lighter and brighter with each newly emptied container, with each completed project.
And it feels like an even exchange — memories for light. Time for time.
I think Mother would approve. I think all of them would approve.
Fortunately, the herons aren’t shy.
Well, most of them aren’t shy.
The rainy day suited other foragers, too.
I’m hoping to visit again soon. In the meantime, yesterday morning I met two friends at Pleasure House Point, where we enjoyed a walk that started in fog and ended in sunshine.
This was my first visit to Pleasure House Point, but it won’t be my last. As the fog lifted, I fell more and more in love with the mixed terrain.
And with the wildlife. Here again, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were the stars of the show.
There were plenty of other attractions, all equally beautiful.
We even caught a glimpse of a Clapper Rail, a new bird for me. (I sent one of the photos to our local wildlife columnist for identification, because I couldn’t convince myself that it really was a Clapper Rail.)
I’m eager to return to Pleasure House Point, and to see my friend’s heron nest again. But first on my list are unfinished projects in the house and yard. Then I have a couple of short stories to write. And poems to submit. And manuscripts to revise.
The list goes on, as lists tend to do.