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Essays

“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

Hello Chicago Awkward People,

Tomorrow, August 1, I am telling a story about what it’s like to be an advice writer and answer questions like “How are you keeping your shit together when the world is :frantic hand gestures: like this?” when you are not necessarily keeping your shit together at a mental health-themed storytelling and comedy show. Show is at Schuba’s, 3159 N Southport Ave, it starts at 8pm, admission is free, the place serves food & drinks, the show space is up a flight of stairs with no elevator.

Thursday, August 9, 7pm, Uptown Underground Lounge, 4707 N Broadway. I am telling a different story (still working on which one) at my brilliant friend’s web series fundraiser & cabaret show. Look at his adorable cast on this poster! You can buy tickets here or at the door. FYI, getting into this venue also involves stairs.

FOMObanner

Banner for Fear Of Missing Out Web-Series and Show, with show information (also posted as text above the image) on a background with a blue sky. Across the bottom of the image are 8 adorable people variously on their cell phones or making eyes at each other. 

Maybe I will see some of your faces there?

There’s a really interesting conversation about narcissism that popped up in a comment thread yesterday that made me think harder about the “Don’t offer diagnoses for people based on letters or internet comments” rule we have here and I’d like to expand on it.

At length.

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Image: a cheerful orange blob monster is chatting to a friend using a speech bubble containing a question mark and exclamation mark. The friend is a grumpy grey blob monster who looks away expressing grumpiness. Its speech bubble contains a grey scribble.

Hello friends! It’s Elodie Under Glass here with a guest post on Low Moods.

I particularly want to thank Quisty, Kellis Amberlee and TheOtherAlice  for their kindly help in reading and editing this piece. It would not have existed without their care, support, compassion, and wonderful editorial abilities. They are truly remarkable humans! (edited: And thanks to the radiant and patient NessieMonster, who let me come to her city and follow her around, burbling insensibly about this post, for far longer than most people would have.)

So recently, I went on a Stress and Mood Management course, and I thought that you all might enjoy sharing what I’ve learned.

This post is something of a correction/update to Adulthood is a Scary Horse, a post for the Captain which I was never quite satisfied with. It really crystallized for me on this course, in our discussion of the Low Mood Cycle. It’s a concept described in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I thought it would be useful to share.

I am not a mental health professional (more caveats on that at the end). But I felt that if these resources had been usefully presented for free on the Internet – especially during times where taking a train and a bus and a taxi to get to a day-long course seemed like organizing a picnic on Venus – it could have helped me that little bit sooner. Maybe it will help others.

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My friends and former students are graduating!  Many of you are probably graduating!

Dear Sugar made a graduation speech, and ladies and gentleman, if that woman decided to start a church I would try to go to that church.

When I graduated from college, my graduation speaker was Richard Holbrooke and he patiently explained to us that sometimes you had to start wars in order to have peace and I think that after we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the last decade and we keep repeating our mistakes over and over again that that might be bullshit?  Like, a lie so big that people swallow it because they think “Well, no one would lie about something that big.”  To be honest, I kind of tuned him out.  There was a lot going on that day, with my family, who were proud of me, but the way that my family shows they’re proud of you is by reminding you of all the ways you should have done better.  They do this  by asking you questions like why did some of my friends have words like cum laude after their names and I did not?  These questions sort of sound like actual questions, and they stand there staring at you and waiting for you to say something, but once you try to open your mouth you realize that they are rhetorical.  Anything you could say would only sound like an excuse, and we don’t accept excuses in this family, so maybe you should go and think about what you did wrong and feel shitty for wasting the opportunities that we worked so hard to give you unlike these other kids who obviously understood the value of an education.

So yeah, there was my family, and saying goodbye to people, including a very sexy and unexpected new boyfriend, and moving out of my dorm into a sublet that we did not realize right away had a hydroponic marijuana farm in the basement, and the D.C. heat, and the day itself pretty much sucked.

I like Dear Sugar’s speech a lot better.  Because of this:

You have to do what you have to do. You can’t go to law school if you don’t have any interest in being a lawyer. You can’t take a class if taking a class feels like it’s going to kill you. Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon. Or just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories and poems and plays and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be….

You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.

But that’s all.

I have more to write about this – I could give new grads and current students lots of practical advice about jobs vs. careers and maybe I will – but this is important.  Stories are important. Love is important.  The friendships you made are important.  The time you spent figuring out sex and your own alcohol tolerance is important. The time you figured out there was no way you could do all the work you had in front of you well, so you threw yourself into the stuff that truly interested you and halfassed the rest…that’s really important.

Congratulations, graduates.

PROMOTE! PROMOTE! PROMOTE!

I like this post about how to promote yourself without being a jerk.  I’ve been linking CaptainAwkward.com hardcore on the Book of the Face and the Twitter. This is a good reminder that you have to self-promote your work (no one else will), so don’t feel ashamed, but also don’t be such a Dalek about it.

Penelope Trunk is brilliant about “thinking outside the box”, as in, it is a phrase that generally means “I don’t like any of your ideas” and the people who are great at innovating are the ones who spend a lot of time thinking about the box itself.

Sady Doyle has a baseline of being a pretty great writer, but sometimes she even transcends herself.   I recently read a critique of feminism right now “a bunch of bloggers writing about the pop culture that’s oppressing them,” can’t remember where, except…it was posted on a blog.  Sady writes about how stories shape us and warp us and sometimes save our lives.  Here are three great recent things:

1. Running Towards Gunshots:  A Few Words About Joan of Arc:  “And I don’t know if I believe in Jesus, but I believe in Joan of Arc… I ended up finding the trial transcripts online. Because I’d never read them before, and I was over the whole religion thing, but I ended up finding out that she was a real person. This real,  live, bitchy, funny, charming, smart, obstinate/contumacious/disobedient, gender-inappropriate, charismatic, determined person, who somehow managed to happen, a really long time ago. I don’t know what I believe about the God thing. But I believe that we’re human beings, and that the range of human possibility includes Joan of Arc.”

2. Ellen Ripley Saved My Life:

At a certain point, you have to ask yourself why certain stories are so important to you. Why they become, not just entertainment, but myth: Something you use to explain yourself to yourself, or to explain the world. A thousand times, on Dr. Who, the lady Companion insists that the Doctor will save them, and every time, the people are all “BUT PERHAPS THIS TIME HE WON’T AND WE ARE SCREWED THOUGH,” and every time, the music swells and the Doctor comes and he saves as many people as he can. And you love it, every time it happens. Because that’s the story you need: There is someone out there, someone good and wise and kind, and he will always come to save you. I mean, I get it. Some people go to church for less.

But for me, it’s always been about the girls. Specifically, the Strong Woman Action Heroines: Scully and Buffy, Starbuck in the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, Ripley and Vasquez and, hell, even Tasha Yar. I love this; I need this; I eat it up. And yet, my relationship with the Strong Woman Action Heroine is… complicated? Let’s say complicated. And let me take a minute, or several, to explain how.

3. No One’s Ever On Your Side:  Betty Draper Francis Still Needs Your Love.

“We wanted Betty to read The Feminine Mystique and get her mind blown and rise above; or, we wanted her to stay a victim, so we could relate to her better, or at least keep feeling sorry for her. But sometimes, people just get damaged until they start damaging. Sometimes, people are lost. We hate Betty now because she’s not going to stay a victim, but the truth is, she’s also not going to be saved.

It was the scenes with the child psychiatrist that did it for me. Some will argue that January Jones is a terrible actress, and to them I submit: The scenes in the child psychiatrist’s office. She became an entirely different person for those few minutes of film; you could see her getting softer, and sweeter, and more human, every second. All because someone — a woman, older than her, an authority figure — talked to her gently, and quietly, and responded to her worst, yikesiest statements only with, “that must be a terrible feeling.” You know: It really must be. All of Betty’s feelings must be so, so terrible. But it was clear, even then, that this woman was scared of her, and scared for her daughter. You could see the potential for Betty to heal, in those few scenes. But that wasn’t the message of the scenes themselves. The message was that her chance was gone; she wasn’t a child any more, and she had to be judged by adult standards. She still needs love, so badly, but she just doesn’t deserve it any more, and giving it to her is just too risky. Help came too late. And how many stories is that, really?”

And finally my good friend Manboobz has been making milk come out of my nose with his descriptions (with examples!) of what happens when men who really hate women try to date them.