Leave the Gun AND the Cannoli – Grab a Book

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We are all so very angry today.

If you’re not for us, you’re a-gin’ us.

We are all so righteous and we are angry that the “other” cannot concede our obviously correct point of view that we spew vitriol on social media and to our friends.

Stupid President (either the current or the past, depending on where you stand). Stupid Congress. Stupid Bigot, Stupid Racist, Stupid Sexist, and Stupid Snowflake Liberal.

The truth is, we are as unable to see others’ truth, as they are to see ours.

This kind of anger and frustration leads some to pick up a pen, others to pick up a gun.

The solution might be to read a good book.

A 2006 study cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article says that psychologists in Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and being more sensitive to others.

For people who read fiction (and it seems that it had to be fiction) that transported them – the kind of transport that jolts you when the book ends and you find yourself back in your room – there was an increased ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Another study three years later reproduced the study but stripped away variables like age, gender, stress or loneliness, and English fluency. They found that fiction readers had higher levels of empathy (and, interestingly, better social networks in real life).

A later study in 2013 refined the findings down to genre – literary fiction that requires the reader to figure out characters’ motivations using more subtle cues had the most empathy. It seems that trying to figure out what the flawed protagonist is going to do next is good practice for trying to read our fellow humans.

A much-loved quote from the movie, “The Godfather,” is to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” While I love pastries, we might all be better off if we “Leave the gun AND the cannoli. Pick up a book.”

 

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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Rape

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This is a blog about rape. One that is in the news. And mine.

Two different rapes.

If you are following the story of Nate Parker, the African American man directing the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” you will know two things: there is a buzz about the black-themed movie making a mark in overly-white Hollywood; and there is a hum about the details of a rape case in his past for which he was acquitted.

This is not about the movie, which I plan to see, by the way, and which I hope is wildly successful. This is about the rape – or maybe the alleged rape.

The details are that Parker was accused in 2001 of raping a young woman when they were students together at Penn State. Parker was acquitted. The woman killed herself in 2012.

To this day, Parker maintains his innocence, but in a statement, he says he should have had more empathy for the young woman as he tried to clear his name. Empathy is always in short supply when women, alcohol, and rape mix. Even in the recent Stanford rape, which had witnesses pulling the rapist off the victim, the judge somehow was more worried about the damage to the rapist’s reputation than to the victim.

But rape does damage. Lasting damage.

The accuser in Parker’s case killed herself. Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, issued a statement, printed in Variety Magazine, saying, “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore…These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”

Blaming the victim is not new. When I was in college, most rapists never saw themselves that way.

Best-selling author Laura Lippman discussed the issue on her Facebook page today, saying, Last year, among a close group of friends, we were discussing with some bafflement why men we knew, guys we considered to be very evolved, were so vociferous in their defense of Bill Cosby. One participant in this conversation…said he had belonged to a fraternity at a large state university in the early 1980s and, by the standards of today, a large number of his fraternity brothers had committed rape, having sex with incapacitated women who could not provide consent. I was in college at the same time and, yes, I’m afraid that’s true. Pass out at a frat party? Unless you were a virgin wearing a chastity belt, whatever happened next was considered a presumptive risk on your part.”

I remember those days. I was raped in those days.

I worked in a music venue during college and it was common to befriend the members of the bands. One happened to live in my neighborhood and, after the post-concert party with coworkers, he offered to drive me home. Sounded good to me. And, giggly with alcohol, I helped him unload his instruments at his apartment before he was going to bring me to my place. And, sure, a goodnight kiss wasn’t out of the question.

Was the rape that followed my fault? I thought it was. I know I said no with force – I was on a break from the Pill and pregnancy was the worst consequence I could imagine – but how forceful was I, with alcohol making my limbs noodle-loose? Couldn’t he have mistaken my panic for being coy?

No. In hindsight, no.

But, then? I just didn’t know, and I knew my mother had raised me to never give ambiguous signals because boys would be boys: beasts who couldn’t control their libidos. As a female, I was supposed to be in charge of the morality. So, no rape report.

I had a strong family. I had friends. The bruises and tears healed. I had the resilience to eventually trust again, to get over the shame.

It was rape. I marvel now that I ever questioned that.

And my daughter? I raised her to be strong, to be unafraid to ask for what gives her pleasure, and to be equally unafraid to fight like hell to put the brakes on what does not give her pleasure.

As for Nate Parker, he says, “All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will.”

I believe him, and I will see the movie. But I hope he goes beyond regret to teaching other young men about the lifelong implications of “boys being boys.”

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Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone

 

Summertime and Time

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This first appeared as a blog in Skirt Magazine)

When I was a child, the first day of summer was a day of extraordinary luxury for me. My mom would take me to the library right after the last school bell and I could get out as many books as I wanted.

The deliberations could last all afternoon. What to get? Mysteries featuring Nancy Drew? Adventures featuring nurse Cherry Ames? Or the Judy Blume books with the angst of the teenager I hoped to become?

The best part was the official first day of summer. I was allowed to stay in bed as long as I wanted. No miser counted gold with more avidity than I paged through my library books, reading the synopses and the first pages to decide which book I’d start with. The slick plastic-covered books, the slightly musty smell, the stamped library card that became my de facto bookmark…library books were a sensory door to summer.

Eventually, the smell of bacon would tempt me from my lair. But after a quick breakfast, I’d slip on shorts and an old t-shirt, tucking my bare feet under the covers to keep them warm in the air-conditioned room, and immerse myself again in whatever faraway world the chosen book was creating.

I was allowed to bring the book to the lunch table on that first magical day of summer. And I would keep reading until I needed to flip on my bedside table lamp.

I owned time.

My dad died on the last day of June this year. It was not an anticipated death: he was healthy, and longevity ran in his family. Suddenly, there was no more time for the planned visit this fall, the Christmas together, the smoothing out of recent relationship bumps. Would my dad have lived differently if he had known he had so little time left? I doubt it. After my mom died three years ago, he became the most carpe diem of carpe diem dads. He had seen mortality and it made him a dessert-first kinda guy.

His death – and the scorching day it took place in New Orleans — made me think about summer. About the fact that true luxury isn’t a tottering stack of library books or a stuffed closet or even a burgeoning bank account. Luxury is the feeling that there is so much time that you can waste it, can consume it in great careless gulps without worrying about saving little sips for later.

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