Love in a time of declining democracy (or how do you promote a book?)

Last semester was hectic. I was teaching two new classes (both on love!), so there was tons of reading to do, and daily prep work. Between bouts of marking papers, I was finishing the final rounds (rounds, plural–so many rounds!) of edits for my book. As I got dressed in the mornings, I listened to the news with a mix of hope and dread.

I spent some days feeling like a total boss who was doing cool things in a perfectly capable way and then finding myself overcome by the sudden onset of rage and despair. This despair typically emerged from listening to one of those news segments where journalists interviewed “real voters” on “the issues they care about” and I wondered–again and again–at the media’s willingness to let people make racist or xenophobic comments on air as if these were sensible concerns that deserved the same airtime as other voters’ fears about losing their healthcare.

I kept thinking, January will be better. In January the news cycle would die down. I’d be fully prepared for all my classes. The edits would be complete. In January I would sleep in more often. I’d get back to Wednesday nights at the climbing gym and the brewery. I’d read all the books that were stacking up on my kitchen table! 2017 was a beautiful utopic time when I’d write tons of blog posts!

You see where this is going.

But, as I wrote on Instagram, the end of 2016 had the useful effect of putting some things into perspective. Continue reading

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A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

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See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

Some thoughts on the eve of submitting a book proposal

When I was in grad school, I got a small stipend to put together the alumni newsletter. There was a guy who (twice) sent in an update about his life as a real estate agent, noting that, though his career had veered away from writing, he still used his MFA-acquired-skills to edit the community wine newsletter.

As a judgmental and ambitious twenty-four-year old, this distressed me. I was spending thousands of dollars on my degree. I had made what felt like significant sacrifices to join this program and I shuddered to imagine that a day might come where I would be content to use that expensive and coveted degree to edit a wine newsletter. For years the fear of becoming wine-newsletter-guy motivated me to put aside time to start a book, even when there were more immediately-pleasurable ways to spend my days.

As a much more pragmatic thirty-four-year old, I now understand that this guy was on to something. He surely has a nicer home than me–and earns more money. And if he’s still interested in writing, he might have the resources to take a significant chunk of time off work, or even to retire early. And there’s the obvious truth that deciding not to be a writer isn’t such a bad thing. It’s probably good! My non-writer friends report watching high-quality television shows in the evening, with no overwhelming sense of guilt about how much unpaid work they did or did not complete that day. That kind of evening sounds nice.

An eerie post-apocalyptic haze has settled over Vancouver these past few days. Forest fires north of us have turned the sky an unnatural yellow, and when the evening breeze finally stirs the air, I taste campfire on my tongue. Roscoe and I hunker down in the living room, swatting at flies and trying to determine the least unpleasant hour for a walk. At night, I wake up before dawn scratching at large red welts, tuning my ears to the mosquito’s distinct whine, wondering if it’s worth turning on all the lights and hunting the bastard down. In case you are wondering about the life of a writer hoping to sell her first book, this is what it’s like.

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I guess it’s fitting that these days of waiting have the mythical qualities of purgatory. I started this book proposal in April. I thought I’d be done by the end of May. But in fact—after many revisions, false starts, one total do-over, and sixty-seven pages—I finished in the morning on Friday, July 3. And then I sat around wondering what to do. Continue reading

Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”

While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.

She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.

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I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.

I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. Continue reading

I’m willing to lie about how we met

A few weeks ago I was having a beer with a guy named Scott. It was a date—a first date—with a photographer I’d met online. I like to think I’ve gotten good at this online dating thing*, or at least proficient, but Scott was a pro.

Shortly after we sat down on a charming–if potentially rat-infested (the folks at the dive bar insisted on calling them mice)–patio, another couple walked out. The guy looked at Scott, paused, looked back and said, “Hey, I know you.”

Scott gave me an awkward smile.

“Aren’t you the guy who ran after me the other day when I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk?”

Scott looked embarrassed and shrugged.

“Yes. It’s totally you,” the guy said. He looked at me. “Can you believe this guy? Who does that? Returns a fifty-freaking-dollar bill.”

“Pretty amazing,” I said.

“Hey man, let me buy you a drink,” the guy said. Scott laughed politely and said no thanks and the other guy made his way to his seat.

Scott smiled at me for a moment, then said, “That’s my buddy. I ran into him outside before you got here. I wanted him to do a bit about me saving a kitten but he thought you might not buy that one.”

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We had a long talk that night. When he heard I was writing about love stories, he had a lot of questions. Mostly, he wanted to understand the function of love stories. He agreed that they probably don’t make us better at loving each other, and, while they might transmit certain values, they don’t, as some researchers have suggested, seem to make us better people.

“Well, they probably offer us a lot of vicarious pleasure,” I offered.

“Yeah, but they must do something constructive,” he insisted.

“It’s obvious to me that we really need them—not just other people’s stories, but our own,” I said. I mentioned the common phenomenon of online dating profiles containing some iteration of the phrase “I’m willing to lie about where we met.” Continue reading

Dear Vancouver: what if love is not enough?

A couple weeks ago I was leaning over my car engine when a man walked over. “What’s happening here?” he said, eyeing my attempt to loosen a rusty bolt with the pliers on my camp kitchen Leatherman. He looked concerned, ready to be helpful. Something about the way he carried a cold can of Canadian on a Sunday afternoon, and the way his t-shirt was stuffed into his belt like a rag, his beer belly on full display, reminded me of home, of the south, of the kind of well-meaning but slightly patronizing older man who tends to appear the moment you (if you are a young woman) open the hood of your car.

“Battery’s dead,” I said. “You don’t have a wrench I could borrow, do you?”

“Hang on.” He returned with a shiny metal toolbox.

“I just need to get the battery out,” I told him. I tried to explain the power drain in my car’s electric system that has left me with dead batteries for years now, and how I knew exactly what to do, I just needed the proper tools. “The first thing is,” he interrupted, “fire your mechanic.” He opened the box and dug around for the right sized socket. “I think we can jump this thing.”

I gave up, admitting that this guy obviously knew more about car batteries, and watched as he first removed the bolt and then meticulously sanded every last battery contact. My friend and I chatted with his daughter about the bugs she’d collected in the yard. Then Paul—I finally asked his name—got the engine started with no problem.

As far as neighborly interactions go, this one was pretty standard. But it struck me as kind of exceptional for Vancouver. And it left me wondering about the relationship between friendliness and traditional/patriarchal community values. (In other words: are more liberal, more inclusive communities inherently less friendly?)

After a trip home last month, I came back to Vancouver, looked around, and for the first time in years thought, “What am I doing here?” Of course this is an easy question to answer—the things that recommend Vancouver, the reasons anyone might want to live here, are obvious:

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

Continue reading

The Next Big Thing: what I’m working on

One whole month ago—honestly, we’re probably closing in on six weeks at this point—my friend (and talented novelist and poet) Lisa Pasold tagged me in the literary-blog-chain-letter called “The Next Big Thing.” The premise is simple: a bunch of writers all answer the same questions about their most recent project. Though I don’t go in for many internet trends, I thought it might be a good exercise to take a big-picture look at this project, so I happily agreed to do it.

But I didn’t do it. I don’t know why exactly, but every time I looked over the questions, I felt myself wither under their expectant gaze. They wanted answers. I wasn’t sure I had any, especially after reading the articulate musings of my colleagues around the web. I wanted to read all of their books. But I’d spent the previous two weeks feeling slightly nauseous every time I opened my own project—how (or better yet why) would I convince someone to read something that was making my own stomach turn? So, in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, I postponed.

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A retreating glacier. Wait for it…it’s relevant.

Then last week something unexpected happened: a bunch of strangers started reading this blog. When I began blogging a year and a half ago, my only goal was to establish a small but public home for the book I’ve been working on. The surprising side-effect of keeping a blog was that my friends and colleagues began asking me about my writing. Their interest and curiosity was motivating, reminding me that the very solitary act of writing also has some community-minded goals. I write to understand something about the world, but also to connect with readers—both friends and strangers.

Until last Monday, most of my readers were friends, and, when I got an e-mail from WordPress saying they were “Fresh-Pressing” my blog post and that I should “get ready to welcome some new readers,” I didn’t take it too seriously. (When it comes to internet-ing, I tend to know only what I need to to get by.) So I was pretty shocked to discover, when I logged on a few hours later, that hundreds of people had visited my blog, and they were reading and commenting and subscribing. (!) It’s a bit strange and a lot exciting to see your audience quadruple over just a few hours. And while I’m with it enough to know that, in the wide world of blogging, these numbers are actually quite modest, I’m f-ing thrilled. I am.

The comments are thoughtful and kind. And the interest seems genuine. Isn’t the internet supposed to be more hostile and embittered than this? Reading the comments, I sometimes find I don’t always know how to respond in a way that seems genuine rather than hollow. I don’t know how to convey warmth I feel toward a stranger who is represented only by a few pixels and a few words. But I’ll say it again here. Thank you, good friends and total strangers, for making my writing world just a little bit bigger. If there was ever a time to buck up and answer a few questions, this is probably it. So here goes: Continue reading