Jane Roper

Writer. Blogger. Hater of Olives.

Grieving, committing, hoping

When Clio was diagnosed with cancer, my body felt it : Dread and fear that clutched my stomach and weighted my limbs and hampered my breath on the way up out of my lungs. Grief that forced tears up through the hollows of my face and cave of my throat and made my heart feel like something bloated and raw.

A narcissistic, possibly unhinged man winning a presidential election, a sense that our nation is divided and broken beyond repair, a feeling that everything I believe in and value has just been brushed aside — these are not nearly as personally traumatic as having my child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. No.

But my body is feeling it all in much the same way. Last Wednesday and Thursday were hell. Friday and Saturday, a little better. Same with Sunday. Worse again Monday and today, following the news that Trump will be appointing (alt-)right-wing media mogul Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.  Meanwhile, the news that Trump and his team, um, didn’t realize they had to replace the entire West Wing administrative staff is less than reassuring.

I wake up in the morning feeling sick when I remembered what has happened. The implications, the potential repercussions feel almost too big to bear.

I suspect that any Trump supporters who are reading this won’t understand, or will think I’m being silly or a sore loser. Probably some of my Trump-loathing friends will find it strange, too. (What can I say? I’m a sensitive gal.)

But to me, and to millions of angry, heartbroken others, this is not just about our candidate not winning. Or about a (so-called) Republican winning. This is about something much more elemental and close to the bone.

This is about someone taking the highest office in the land, arguably the world, who embodies basically the opposite of everything I value and hold dear, or would want for our country. It’s not only the racist, xenophobic stuff Trump has spewed, or his attitudes and actions towared women that dismay me. It’s his bullying. His lack of thoughtfulness, self-awareness and intellect. His dishonesty.  His unstable, possibly sociopathic personality. His lack of preparedness for the job. His hair. (Just kidding.)

I am scared of the impact Trump and his cronies could have — and already have had — on international events and our country’s standing in the world. I am afraid of the civil and reproductive rights that may get rolled back under his presidency.  I’m afraid that environmental protections will backslide when what they need desperately to do is advance. And I am worried that our economy is going to suffer, and the divide between rich and poor will continue to grow. The fact that Trump campaigned on the idea of helping rebuild the middle class and root out corruption in Washington is all well and good — I’m all for it — but as far as I can tell  the way he wants to go about it will be completely counterproductive.

I certainly don’t think that everything would have been sunshine and rainbows under Clinton (a flawed candidate, to be sure, as capable and qualified as she is.) There still would be — there always is — much, much work to be done, for job growth, for equality, for education, for poverty, for the environment.

I’ve always tried to aid these causes through where I put my dollars and my time; phone calls and letters to my reps; the personal choices I make in my day-to-day life. But now it’s time to step up and do more.

It’s inspiring to see so many people taking action and fighting back. I hope the momentum lasts.

It has to.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about when I’ve thought about the way forward for me — in a sort of disjointed and not-quite-fully-baked fashion.

You may not agree with these things. That’s cool; if you want to tell me, that’s cool, too. But please go easy. We all need to be gentle with each other.

— First and foremost: I think all of us, and especially white people (and especially especially Trump supporters) need to stand up for and help anyone who feels threatened or unsafe in the wake of Trump’s win, and his future presidency:  Muslims, people of color, immigrants, gay and transgender people, people with disabilities, women and in particular women who have been victims of assault and harassment.  We need to listen to what they’re  feeling, what they want, and take action accordingly.  We need to do our homework. People in these groups have suffered discrimination and hatred for years, but the need for all of us  to come together and stand up for justice and call people out on discriminatory words and behaviors has never been more urgent.

— I am going to donate more money to organizations that fight for the things I believe in, and that I think will need extra support in the years ahead, including the The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, The Southern Povery Law Center and The Sierra Club.

— We need to keep after our representatives in government. Hold Trump’s feet to the fire. I’ve called my reps frequently over the years, but yesterday I put my senators and congressional rep on speed dial. It’s tempting to just tune out. But it’s not an option.

—  I feel like it’s OK to be angry at Trump supporters right now. I certainly am. I really, really struggle to understand how people’s desire for change (which is understandable) outweighed Trump’s words and actions. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to understand or accept it.  But if I write all Trump supporters off as irredeemably racist or sexist or hateful or ignorant or whatever else, and refuse to engage, listen, and try to create dialogue and progress, I’m being lazy. I’m not doing the much more difficult work of trying to affect change on a human to human level. I’m not letting love rule. (Sing it, Lenny.)

— This is not about giving a free pass to attitudes I may find unacceptable or ignorant. This is about acknowledging that people are complicated and flawed and, in many cases, in denial about their own blind spots.  This is also about trying to understand and accept that there are hundreds of different  realities being lived within this one country of ours. Right or wrong, different geographical and socioeconomic realities lead to different assumptions and conclusions. (Here’s an excellent piece on this that I appreciated reading.)

—  The book I’m writing is largely about people trying to understand and bridge class differences. I feel like this more relevant than ever. Maybe, in some small way,  even helpful.

— Anyone who says they have no prejudices, about class or race or gender or anything else,  is full of shit. We all do. We’ve all got progress to make. When I think about how far I’ve come since when I was a kid, growing up in a white, Connecticut suburb, absorbing the prejudices of those around me, not being exposed to  or getting to know people who were different from me, I know it’s possible for people to change and grow. I’m still growing. I’m trying, anyway.

— That said, I’m not particularly interested in trying to connect or reason with truly hateful and broken people: white supremacists, virulent anti-semites, misogynists, anti-gay crusaders, etc.  There are plenty of stories of even those folks having a change of heart, but I’m going to leave that work to stronger souls than me. I think the best I can do — most people can do — is reach out to people who are receptive to growth, until sheer force of numbers crushes the extremists back into their hidey holes. (Unfortunately, though, the internet has given these people too loud a voice and poisonous a presence; I don’t really know how we get past that.)

— I’m feeling very anti-social media / internet right now. In the abstract, anyway. I’ve been spending plenty of time there of late (too much time, probably) because it’s comforting, and galvanizing in terms of how to take action. But the flip side is that social media keeps us siloed, in our own echo-chambers. Also: Fake news and rumors. All commentary, too little fact. It’s killing us. But I don’t know how to fight it.

— On the other hand, there is some room for actual exchange of ideas on Facebook and Twitter. But it’s urgent that we figure out ways to connect IN REAL LIFE with people who are not like us. Look them in the eyes. I’m not sure what the best way is to make this happen. Not everybody is open to this kind of thing.

— Maybe we need high school exchange programs that bring urban kids to rural areas and vice versa. Bible Belters stay with Northeast Liberals.  Northeast Liberals stay with deep south African American families. Cats stay with dogs, dogs stay with cats, mass hysteria.

— Maybe I’ll drop a note off with one of my neighbors with Trump signs in their yard. See if they’d be up for a cup of coffee or a walk. It could go horribly. But maybe  it won’t. And even if we don’t get anywhere, maybe at least I won’t feel a shudder of revulsion every time I go past their house. I don’t want to feel that for the next four, eight, twenty years. I don’t want to feel angry at half the country.

— But I’m not ready to do it this week. Not yet.

Please forgive the rambling. Still processing, still fumbling my way forward.

Love and hope to all of you.

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Help me write, Sol LeWitt

lewittsquaresI just got back from an incredibly productive week out in Western Massachusetts at Wellspring House, working on the first (well, first and a half) major revision of my novel. I like rewriting and revising infinitely more than first-drafting, which I find akin to squeezing blood from a stone.

I mean, in the first draft you have to make stuff up. Out of thin air! It’s ridiculous. There are far too many choices to be made, far too much freedom. I know that some writers find the first draft phase exhilarating, but I find it intimidating. Exhausting. Emotionally taxing.

When I’m revising, on the other hand, at least I have something to work with. Even if I end up totally rejecting and reworking everything I’ve done up to that point (which is pretty close to how things have been going) at least I don’t feel like I’m groping around in the dark.

There’s a famous quote by E.L. Doctorow: “(Writing) is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s true, and I think about it — and reassure myself with it — often. But I also know that I kind of hate driving at night on really dark roads.

To use another metaphor (my own) First drafts, to me, feel like digging clay up out of a riverbank with my bare hands. The subsequent drafts are the sculpting.  And sculpting is much more interesting than digging.

I can revise for hours on end. I literally had some 11-hour writing days this past week. I could never, ever stomach that much first-drafting in a day. (Ugh. Gross. Ptooey.) I worked for so long, so continuously that my butt hurt. For real! (I have a portable standing desk thingy to prevent such work hazards, but forgot to bring it.)

I did, however, take one afternoon off. I drove up to my old college stomping grounds in the northwesternmost corner of Massachusetts to visit MASS moCA. One of the exhibits I enjoyed the most was a three-floor Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective.

I’d heard of LeWitt, and seen his work — there’s one at my alma mater’s art museum up the road from MASS moCA– but I’d never fully understood or appreciated his strange genius until I went to this exhibit and saw so many of his works all together in one place. (And: forgive me, any art afficionados out there reading this post. I suspect it’s like the equivalent of me going up to an English professor and being like Hey! I just discovered this guy Shakespeare! Have you heard of him? He’s amazing!)

So, here’s the deal with Sol LeWitt’s work in case you’re not familiar with him: In most cases, he doesn’t execute his works himself. He gives instructions to other people on how to execute them.  “So he’s not really an artist,” Elsa, our family artist in residence, responded when I explained this to her. And maybe other artists think this about LeWitt too. But he is! A conceptual artist. A really bossy conceptual artist!

Here are some instructions for one of his wall drawings:

lewittinstructions

 

And here is the result (as executed at MASS moCA):

lewittwavy1

 

Detail:

lewittwavy2

 

Obviously, every time the drawing is produced somewhere, it will look slightly different, based on the first wavy line gets drawn, and the precision / skill / quirks of each artist who adds the subsequent lines.  Some of his instructions are much more open to interpretation than this one, while others are much more precise.

I just loved thinking about his notion that art can be like a musical composition or a play, interpreted and executed in an infinite variety of ways while still remaining true to the essence of the work.

And I also found myself wondering: Could writing work this way? Certainly there are formulae (fancy plural there) and conventions for types of fiction (romance, mystery, etc.), poetic forms (sonnets, sestinas, haiku), etc.  But nothing nearly as prescriptive or exacting as the instructions for LeWitt’s drawings.

On the way home from the museum, I was making myself giggle thinking about LeWitt-esque writing exercises…

Two writers should write a five-thousand word short story set in Iceland, alternating word by word (First writer writes the first word, second writes the second, first writes the third word and so on), using blue pen, in a spiral bound notebook (College Ruled). None of the words can be adjectives except one, and it must be a synonym for “nice.” Write this word in black pen.

Write a limerick about a man from Nantucket, but DO NOT rhyme “Nantucket” with you-know-what. Or that other thing. You know what I’m talking about. Mention Martha’s Vineyard in the limerick also.

Write the word “canoe” over and over again in red ballpoint pen on the back of a business card until it stops making sense. Send it to the New Yorker fiction submissions editor.

Write a 1000-word short-short story in MS Word, double-spaced, Palatino 12 pt. font, that begins with the word “Grapes” and ends with “maybe?” In the third paragraph, include the following sentence: “Nobody understood why he’d sold the canary for so little.” Change the font size halfway through. Just to fuck with people.

Write a 200-word prose poem about your father, using a quill pen and India ink. Do not use any words that include the letter T or the “schwa” sound. When you’re done, scribble over it and hand it to a passerby.

It would be so much more fun — and so much easier — than what, as writers, we actually do — and what I’m in the midst of doing right now:

Write a book concerning [X, Y, & Z]. Make it as good as you can. Go back and make it better. Go back and make it better again. Pray that someone will want to publish it, and that people will want to read it. Try not to become derailed by crippling self doubt along the way. 

But, since I don’t have a writerly Sol LeWitt providing instructions, it’s what I must do. And apparently I find it satisfying and meaningful in some deep and elemental way. Otherwise I don’t know why in God’s name I would subject myself to it.

 

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Talk Less. Smile More.

Talk_less_smile_moreIt’s what Aaron Burr says to Alexander Hamilton when they first meet in the musical Hamilton, which we are currently somewhat obsessed with in the Roper-Moock household. When Burr’s character says it, it’s meant to illustrate the contrast between him Hamilton—Burr’s M.O. is “don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for,” while Hamilton’s is to say exactly what he thinks: He’d “rather be divisive than indecisive.”

BUT, that line of Burr’s, taken out of context, keeps coming to mind of late. Example: The other day, when one of my children (who shall go unnamed) was complaining about something or other—there’s been a lot of complaining this summer, it feels like—I just stopped her and said, in my best Leslie Odom Jr.: “Talk less. Smile more.”

I wouldn’t dare advise my daughters to go through life this way—far from it. But sometimes, I swear to God, I wish they would keep their complaints to themselves. Stop sniping at each other. Stop whining. (It’s been a really nice summer in a lot of ways. But it’s definitely been more stressful than summers past. We did less day camp than usual, and man—it’s a lot of kid presence. A lot of parenting. Mostly for Alastair, but for me, too. Can I get a hell yeah?)

Likewise, when I go on Facebook and I see Donald Trump this or Hillary Clinton that or Bernie this or Harambe the Gorilla that (I know, that was like eons ago in Internet time)—one debate or editorial or heated discussion after another, A-dot-Burr’s words come to mind.

But no. Social media, and media in general, seems to foster this idea that we all need to have an opinion—a strong, decisive one—and voice it constantly and abrasively, if we choose, a la Hamilton. There’s always a place to comment. Always an opportunity to leave a review. Always an opportunity to be a complete a-hole if you’re inclined.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 11.49.56 AMFor while, Alastair and I watched the show True Blood, as a guilty pleasure. The main character, Sookie Stackhouse, has the supernatural gift of being able to hear other people’s thoughts — something which, while occasionally useful, also drives her batshit. When she’s around other people, her brain is constantly buzzing with their inner monologues. (Except when those people are vampires. So, naturally, she starts hanging out with a lot of vampires.) And seriously:  When I go online these days I totally feel like Sookie. Maybe I need to start hanging out with more vampires. Or Aaron Burr. (Anyone wanna give me some Hamilton tix?)

And I know, I know—I’m ignoring my own advice here. I’m taking a stand on not taking a stand. (And I’m not smiling, dammit!)

So I’ll close on a smiling, non-opinionated note to report this: We’re in the midst of a really, really lovely vacation right now—our annual, end-of-summer sojourn at family camp on Lake Winnipesaukee with Alastair’s parents and families we’ve known for decades who reconvene here every year on this week.

It’s the same as always (which is part of what we love about) relaxing and beautiful and all the rest, except in one notable way: The girls are completely and totally independent this year. In fact, we barely see them during the day, outside of breakfast and lunch. They’re off roaming the island, playing with other kids, doing their own thing. Talking less. Smiling more. It’s quite lovely. So to quote a more apt lyric: How lucky we are to be alive right now.  #Werk.

 

SandyDock

 

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Put ’em in a pickle jar

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

I remember people, mostly older women, I think, saying that when I was a kid: “I wish I could put you in a pickle jar!” I always pictured one of those pickled people jars (Exhibit A), which I guess were big around the time people said it, that being the mid 80s. That seemed like a weird thing to wish on a kid.

Of course, they meant they wanted to put me in a pickle jar so I couldn’t grow up. Also a weird thing to wish on a kid, but at least there was a rationale.

I actually said it to Elsa the other day.  I am now officially an old woman from the 1980s. Nice to meet you!

I think it was after she said for the upteenth time in several weeks that she’s going to ask Santa for a Segway. I mean, this kind of statement is not going to be issued for much longer, and I absolutely relish the innocent absurdity of it. Pickle relish.

Likewise, it won’t be much longer that the girls will deign to play frisbee — or something resembling it, involving flinging a piece of plastic around, frequently onto the street or into our neighbors’ cars — with us after dinner, or pogo stick in the driveway, or ask me to draw a picture with their name in bubble letters and a family of cats underneath it, as Clio did the other night. (Long story.)

But yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve lamented the growing up of my children puh-lenty here, so I won’t belabor the point. Here’s the thing that’s magnifying the melancholy for me lately, though: We recently found out that there’s a very, very good chance that the schools in town are going to move the fifth graders up into the middle school because of elementary school overcrowding — starting with the girls’ class, in 2017.

(Release arrow, cut to me with arrow through heart, bleeding, moaning, expiring on the ground in agony.)

Which means that next year will be their last, not second-to-last, year in elementary school. And a mere year and three months from now, they will be walking the halls with big, pimply, braces-wearing, texting, French kissing middle schoolers.  PLUS, the middle school is adjacent to and shares some facilities with the high school, which means they’ll also be around…shudder…teenagers. Boys who shave and drive cars and  fight with knives. Girls who drink and get pregnant and date Marines.

Yes, that’s right, our high school is the one from Grease.

I’m sure there will be some effort to keep the fifth graders separate from those horrid beings, and maybe they’ll even still have something resembling recess. And on the upside — a pretty major upside, actually — the middle school is a ten-minute walk from our house, so we won’t have to drop off and pick them up every day.

That’s pretty much the only advantage I can think of, though. I worry in particular about Clio, who has always been a little young for her age. (Although she is definitely exhibiting some serious tween characteristics: First thing she said when I mentioned the middle school thing was: “You said we could get a phone in middle school. So does that mean we can get a phone in fifth grade?” And she keeps telling me I should get Snapchat on my phone. Why? And how does she even know about Snapchat?)

But I know, I know. They’ll be fine. And fifth graders really do seem different from the rest of elementary school kids  anyway. I remember feeling that way when I was in fifth grade. (The first boy-girl party, the first glimpses of  bras on girls, the gradual eschewing of the playground equipment….)

And most middle- and high-schoolers, especially in our Mayberry of a town,  are way more Sandy than Rizzo.  Plus, they’re actually teenagers, as opposed to people in their late twenties playing teenagers. (I swear, that movie traumatized an entire generation of kids who thought that that was what high school looked like.) They may even feel protective of the fifth graders, in some way. Right?

Still. I wish I could keep them in the pickle jar of elementary school just a wee bit longer. Things are going fast enough as it is.

 

Grease_1978_521

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Writing is fun. Sort of.

JaneWriter

The writer, pondering potential names for new city-states.

“Dear mom. I hope you had a great time in Virginia. Did you do anything exciting? Or did you just write?”

Thus began an email I received this week while away at VCCA, a writers’ and artists’ colony in Virginia.

And from a phone conversation with the girls:

“How come you get to go fun places and we can’t come with you?”

I think in the girls’ minds, I’m at some kind of summer camp for writers —  with bunk beds and swimming and arts and crafts. (Plus, probably, some “adult” stuff, like talking and drinking wine.) In a way, they’re right. To me, a residency like this is sort of like summer camp, complete with bugs. (There are stink bugs that scuttle around in the bedrooms and studios, stupid and bumbling, but harmless.) I take nature walks and eat meals with the other fellows — sometimes even at picnic tables, if it’s nice out.

But the main activities are writing and reading. And hitting one’s head against the wall, literally or figuratively, if one is having a bad writing day.

“I don’t think you’d have much fun if you came with me,” I told them. “You might like the fish pond and the frogs. And spotting baby bunnies.  But other than that, I pretty much sit around all day writing.”

“Oh.” (Baffled. Why did I have to travel hundreds of miles away to do this?) “Are you done with your book yet?”

And then I got the immense pleasure of saying: Well, I finished the first draft.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!

 

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