More to Say

Imagine how it would be
If you were discriminated against
Without a chance to show your inner self,
Without a chance to speak up.
That was my life for a long time
It hurt then.
The discrimination still goes on
It hurts now.
But I decided that I have more to say
Then you might want to listen.

Amy Sequenzia, My Voice, My Life

April has the dual honor of being both National Poetry Month and Autism Acceptance month. Overall, we will be focusing on poets this month, but I thought it would be lovely to kick it off with a spotlight on an autistic poet! Continue reading “More to Say”

Ugly

courtesy of wikimedia commons
Vase with Tulips Andries Daniels and Frans Francken the Younger

“Only he with the hobbled foot knows the beauty of running. Only he with the severed ear can appreciate what the sweetest music must sound like. Our ailments complete us. That we in our sinful souls can ever imagine charity- ‘She can’t go on for a moment. ‘We may not always be able to practice charity, but that in this world we can even imagine it at all! That act of daring requires the greatest challenge,”
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

“…perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most.”
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Do you know what it is like to be beautiful?  Continue reading “Ugly”

Anime and The Male Gaze

The Male Gaze is a term from Gaze theory that describes the tendency of works to assume a (straight) male viewpoint even when they do not have a specific narrative Point of View, and in particular the tendency of works to present female characters as subjects of implicitly male visual appreciation.

—TvTropes, Male Gaze

content warning: adult themes

Continue reading “Anime and The Male Gaze”

To Be Known

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

It is perhaps unusually appropriate that my choice for Valentine’s Day is C.S Lewis; he is, after all, my first love.

Not in a romantic sense; it would be better to say he is my first literary love–but that does not quite get at it.

He was the first writer I read that made me think, “Here; I am known, after all.”

With Lucy, I was consumed with jealousy for Susan’s beauty; with Susan, I longed to grow up and felt guilt for leaving my first love. With Edmund I shared the dark petty desires that destroyed me and felt the remorse and cleansing of forgiveness. With Peter I acknowledged my inadequacy and fear of failure.

It is in Orual, however, that I most keenly see myself. The jealousy, grief, longing, the pettiness and pretence. Her self-righteousness masked as hurt and her desire for what she thinks is justice–these are my own sins. Her selfish longing for Psyche, her self-loathing, her mask, her ugliness, within and without–I am Orual.

Now, you may be asking what all of this has to do with love. This is supposed to be a Valentine’s Day post, after all. To answer that, I will pose my own question.

Who knows your darkest secrets?

Who would you share them with?

After all, to be totally known–for the babble at the center of our souls to be revealed–that is a shameful and terrifying thing. We can never truly escape the fear that once we are truly known, those we love–and those who love us–will leave us forever. For “who could love a Beast?”

And yet–

Until we are fully known; until we have a true face, not just another mask; until are seen in our naked ugly truth, it is not we who are loved, but our mask.

Orual spends the entire book protesting her love for her sister, but learns that it was never truly her sister she loved. Orual never thinks that she can be loved, and so she hides herself behind a mask and becomes a terror and a mystery, but it is not till all of her masks are truly stripped away that Love can come to her. To be known is to be vulnerable.

But to be loved, we must be known.

A Little Self-Love

“Hi, Leslie. It’s Leslie. Hang in there. I love you. Bye.”

–Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Caught up in all the excitement or anxiety of Valentine’s Day, it can be easy to forget to love ourselves. Maybe it feels too selfish or too cheesy. Maybe we want to focus on the other lovely people in our lives. Today is about the people we love, definitely. But have you ever though that maybe one of the people you should love is yourself?

We don’t need to be Narcissus to show ourselves a little love. For those of you who watch Parks and Rec, you know that Leslie Knope is pretty much the opposite of selfishness (99.8% of the time). Her little voicemail to herself is no exception. We all need those little encouragements from time to time.

So this Valentine’s Day, go out with your significant other. Spend time with your best friends. Hug your children. Send a card to somebody you haven’t seen in a while. And on your way out to dinner, buy yourself a flower or some chocolates (or whatever else you might be craving). Write yourself a note, reminding yourself that there is light even when things look dark. Love the people around you, but don’t forget to love yourself along the way.

Protect

Scan Complete
No Threats Detected

but…
i…
Janet.
JANET Relationship at 100%
i feel different.
i feel.

Open Sorcery, a text game (Link)

Boundaries are funny things. Often, the only reason they exist is because humans decided this is one thing and this is another.

For instance, the boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes, it seems obvious. (Star Trek is scifi; The Hobbit is fantasy.) The more you delve into either world, though, the closer you come to that wide fuzzy space between them.

Is Star Wars scifi? or is it fantasy? Is the Mistborn series fantasy or scifi? And what about superheroes? Where do they fall? Batman exists in the same universe as Zatanna, and Steven Strange is in the same universe as Tony Stark.

Another boundary: The line between games and literature. Is a detective novel just literature? or is it a game, where you try to deduce answers and uncover mysteries before the main character? Is an adventure video game solely about fighting, or is it also about the progression of your character and the story that he or she lives?

At the intersection of these four boundaries lives Open Sorcery, a text game that is itself about the boundary between awareness (a soul) and intelligence.

With as few spoilers as possible, you start the game as a ‘spiritual’ firewall, an entity that protects certain areas from spiritual viruses and dangers. As the game blurs the lines between AI and the magician’s familiar, you make choices about how best to protect and preserve your charges–and those choices are the difference between life and death. There is more than one happy ending and more than one sad ending–and once a decision is made, it cannot be changed.

I have long had a fondness for these sorts of text games, and in a world overflowing with options both for stories and games, it can be easy to overlook them–they are not as flashy as their video game counterparts, nor as time-tested as books. But they are worthwhile literature. By forcing the reader to interact with and affect the story, they also force the player to examine why she makes the choices she does. Did I make that decision because it was right? Or because it is what I think the game wants me to do?

Do I make my own decisions because they are right, or because they are what others want me to do?

I hope I have piqued your interest, and you decide to try out other text games for yourself. I also hope you give Open Sorcery a try, and remember that even in the fuzzy boundaries of life, there is still sharp line between right and wrong.

 

Dystopia: fear of the future

DOMIN: What do you think? From a practical standpoint, what is the best kind of worker?
HELENA: The best? Probably one who —who—who is honest—and dedicated.
DOMIN: No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs.

–Rossum’s Universal Robots, Karel Capek (prologue.92)

We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

— The Giver, Lois Lowry

Destroying things is much easier than making them.

–The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

–Animal Farm, George Orwell

This month at The UncommonPlaces, we will be exploring scary stories–from Frankenstein, to monsters, to ghosts–partly in honor of Halloween and partly in honor of the real horror story that is America right now.

In a reversal of the usual flow of time, I am starting with the dystopia–the novel set in a horrifying future.

The dystopia is horrifying precisely because of how plausible it is. Not to say that all dystopias are realistic fiction–for instance, Animal Farm is about talking animals–but that all good dystopias have a very believable flow of cause and effect. Obviously, if people could erase memories, many if not all would choose to erase the bad ones (as in The Giver). And obviously something would need to be done to make sure no-one could remind anyone of those forgotten memories. And obviously from there it follows that the best way to protect people from those memories is to send the ones who remember away…

And just like that, you have fallen into a horrific world where that-which-is-wrong is taken as part of normal life.

Dystopian fiction has several recurring tropes that are worth mentioning.

First, there is the controlling class. In Animal Farm, the pigs claim they are more equal than the other animals–an obvious contradiction, but one that serves them well.

Second, there is a tendency for people to be treated as less than human.

Third, there is a tendency to pretend that it is a utopia–a perfect world.

But there can be no perfect world without removing the imperfections–and in this post-fall world, you either must redefine perfect (and that way lies horror) or you must destroy everything (and that way lies the void).

Dystopian fiction works so well because we have all dreamed of how the world would be if we controlled it, and we need to be reminded about all the ramifications of each change we make.

Woodlawn: Race and Recociliation

I took too long to write this post.

I am white. I have always been white. I am highly unqualified to write about racism in America.

But the only thing I have watched or read recently to write about is Woodlawn.

Woodlawn is a movie about racism, football, and the power of the gospel.

What stuck out to me most, though, is the first scene of revival. The first persons to realize how wrong he was was a racist.

Ending racism is not the responsibility of black people. It should start with us. We created a nation where it is easier to be white than it is to be black, and we created a nation where we pretend that racists don’t exist. Black people do not have that luxury. We should not either.

Confront racism, in yourself and in others. Reconciliation starts with repentance.

On True Love and Suicide

“How could this man whose skin I had felt that morning under my fingers–warm, and alive–choose to just extinguish himself? How could it be that, with everyone’s consent, in four months’ time that same skin would be decaying under the ground?”

–Jojo Moyes, Me Before You

TW: physician-assisted suicide (PAS); ableism

Disclaimer: I approach this week’s post with more than my usual trepidation. I realize that Me Before You was, and is, a controversial book among the disabled community. In the interest of making sure you get the perspective of actually disabled people, I’d recommend you check out posts here, here, and here, as well as the hashtags MeBeforeAbleism and MeBeforeEuthansia. Of the posts I’ve read, I think this is among the best, and it’s entirely written by a disabled man, as opposed to two of the pieces above which highlight several quotes and tweets from a variety of disabled individuals. If you only read one post about Me Before You, read that one. Seriously, even if it means you skip the one I’m writing, go read what O’Connell says.
For my own part, I had to work up a lot of energy myself just to open the book, for fear of what I would encounter inside. I fully expected to hate the book–and not just the book, but the story. That, however, is not what happened, and I would like the chance to explain why. If you haven’t had the ending spoiled yet, expect to have it spoiled by the end of this post.

Will Traynor, the man around whom this novel revolves, is a quadriplegic man who suffered a serious spinal cord injury in an accident a few years prior to the action of the novel. He is the one to whom Louisa, our narrator, refers in the above quote. She has just inadvertently discovered that Will, her employer, is planning to commit suicide at the end of a few short months. Lou’s shock at Will’s choice seems in keeping with an anti-PAS position. This seems, in and of itself, rather uncontroversial. Lou wants Will to stay alive.

In fact, the whole narrative thrust is to keep Will Traynor alive. That’s what Lou wants, what Will’s family wants, what Will’s other caregiver (Nathan) wants. The only character adamantly opposed to Will staying alive is Will himself. The story is a tragedy. It does not celebrate Will’s final choice, nor does it encourage it. The narrative leaves Will dead and everyone around him broken.

The message of the story was, I think, actually quite poignant. The portrayal of that message through the actual novel was unfortunately rather flawed. In that vein, I’d like to suggest a couple ways in which Me Before Yocould have been a book to be celebrated, rather than saddled with trigger warnings.

1) Will Traynor as the narrator

Me Before You revolves around the life of one man and his decision to end his life. Yet, his voice is the one that we never hear. Each of the other main characters gets at least one chapter of narration: Camilla Traynor, Steven Traynor, and Nathan the nurse. Louisa narrates the vast majority of the book. The novel, just like its characters, dance around the main character and main point. The closest we get to hearing Will’s story is a third-person prologue and Will’s letter in the epilogue. Will himself never gets to tell his own story.

It’s as if Moyes is scared of the implications of letting a disabled man tell his own story. How would the novel have gone if it had begun in Will’s voice? “My name is Will Traynor, and I am ready to die” or “I, Will Traynor, of sound mind and s***** body, request admittance into the Dignitas clinic.” Doesn’t change the narrative necessarily. Perhaps Will still decides on physician assisted suicide. Perhaps he still leaves everyone in his wake broken and confused. But at least we’ve had a chance to see inside his mind. After all, our narrators admit that Will can be closed off and difficult to read. Maybe under that brusqueness is a genuine desire to live combined with an inability to see how he can.

2) Focus on the inaccessibility of the world, not the burden Will makes of himself

To be fair, the novel does attempt this in some ways, and as I read, I felt the frustration building–the world doesn’t want Will in it. No wonder he wanted to die. That’s a stark truth. It’s a brutal thing to read, much less write. But imagine how much more brutal it is to live that–not because you are a burden, but because the world makes you feel like one.

I’m not sure the novel could get around Will feeling like a burden, especially if it was rewritten sensibly in Will’s own voice. But there are subtle ways to say it, to point out that society is hostile to the disabled community, and that such hostility is not the fault of the disabled.

Because when it comes down to it, at least part of the reason Will wanted to die was the pity he could sense from others. Other people thought Will’s life wasn’t worth living, so he learned to believe the same. Had Me Before You been written with a clear view of how abled people undermine the quality of life of their disabled peers, there would have been no question as to how needless Will’s death was–and yet how painfully necessary he believe it to be.

3) Actually addressing Will’s frustration with the lack of choices in his life

Will regularly complains of the loss of his ability to choose. In fact, he cites this very issue as part of his reasoning toward PAS. After two years of never deciding what he’s going to do (or even what he’s going to eat or wear), Will sees that suicide is the only option he can make for himself. He can choose to die.

The problem with Me Before You is that it misses the point. Will rants about the problem, and he sees no other solution. He’s been beaten down by the lack of freedom in his life. He’s been coddled and babied until he can’t bear it anymore. He wants to be independent. And he tells Louisa all these things. But here’s the thing: she and Will’s other caregivers could have given him other choices. Little choices, like what to eat or what to wear. Bigger choices, like if he wanted to go out and where to go. Big choices, like whether to find a career again or where to go on vacation. Instead, Will’s caregivers conspire behind his back, making all those decisions for him, deciding what his limits and abilities are.

Some part of me wonders if Will wouldn’t have chosen to kill himself if he’d been allowed to make his own decisions, if he hadn’t been relegated to the annex to be dressed and fed by people paid to make all his decisions for him. What if Louisa had bothered to ask Will if he liked horse races? What if, after the fact, she had realized her mistake? What if she’d asked where he’d be interested in going on vacation, or even just what he’d like to do that day? What if the people taking care of Will had valued his choices–and not just nominally and in the last six months of his life?

So, is Me Before You a slap in the face for many members of the disabled community? I think the numerous blog posts by quadriplegics and other disabled individuals have made that clear. But I wonder if the story of Will Traynor is inherently tied to its iteration in Louisa’s voice. Perhaps his story could have been something so much better.

What it could have been is not, of course, what we have. But, for me, Will was a compelling  and complicated character. He opened my eyes to new ways in which society fails to value all people and treat them with dignity in life. Maybe Will thought his only option was an attempt to dignity in death, but if that’s the case, the blame lies with society, not with his condition. I hope someday to read Will’s story in his own words, as unlikely as that dream is. Will might have taught us a few things about the way society treats the disabled. That would be a book worth reading.

So, to sum up, because this post has been long and perhaps a bit convoluted: Me Before You is a book (and now, of course, film) that glorified PAS and implied, however unintentionally, that the disabled life is not a life worth living. Will Traynor, with all his grumpiness and anger and every one of his flaws, is actually an interesting person. He’s problematic, no doubt, but problematic characters aren’t the end of the world. Sometimes they’re quite human and, as such, compelling. What would have made Will’s story worth hearing, though, is to leave the reader angry–angry that the world pushes disabled people to believe their lives aren’t worth living. A story like that might cause us to look at our own lives, to look in the mirror and ask how we’re contributing to the tragic deaths of people as wonderfully human as Will Traynor. But maybe we’re just too scared to read that type of story.

“Phenomenal Woman”

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size…
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

–Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”

“Does my sexiness upset you?”

–Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

Tonight, I’m looking forward to honoring a poet from my hometown. St. Louis has been home to several poets, most notably Angelou and T.S. Eliot, and two US Poet Laureates. I’m a pretty big fan of Eliot myself, but there’s something about Angelou that resonates in a very different way.

After a several year period of silence in her childhood, triggered by serious trauma, Angelou opened her mouth and didn’t bother to shut it again. She got loud, though not in volume. She became strong and firm and unwilling to have her voice silenced. She spoke up for civil rights, for women, for people and causes that weren’t necessarily popular.

So who is Maya Angelou to me? What makes her rise through the ranks to come out among the handful of American authors we’re talking about this month?

Quite simply, Angelou’s brazenness inspires me. Her self-confidence defies those who would denounce her. She’s not in this game to impress you. She’s here to show you beauty and strength and wit, all wrapped in a woman’s curves.

Angelou is the confidence that the chubby girl in your gym class needs. She’s the femininity that raises up the girl with a Frida Kahlo unibrow. She’s the one telling us that girls don’t have to be skinny to be sexy. She’s a woman, and don’t you challenge her femininity.

There is a trend that, whether we consciously recognize it or not, is fueling feminine insecurity. There is something that tells us that to be a woman is to always comment on a friend’s weight loss (even if it’s half an ounce) or to mention that new diet fad. There is something that says, “To be a woman is to be small, quiet, unnoticed except for in the slenderness of your being.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with short girls. Or with introverted or otherwise quiet girls. Or with slender girls. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be the center of attention.

But what Angelou does is offer the woman–be she seven or seventy–the opportunity to defy those standards. Angelou gives us permission to be tall or wide or loud. Or all three. She is one of those women who looks at society’s standards and says firmly, “Does my sexiness upset you?” She gives permission to the supposedly unpretty girls, those of us who won’t ever be in a fashion magazine. We can be sexy. We can be beautiful and opinionated and strong. And none of those characteristics make us unfeminine.

Maya Angelou opens the door for us to challenge a world that doesn’t want us. She shows us how to make a world of our own. She doesn’t change the world by her words. She disregards its standards and asks if it cares to join her in a different paradigm. If not, let the world burn. But Angelou will just keep on being her strong, beautiful self, lifting up the women climbing behind her. May her legacy continue to strengthen the insecure and give us hope. She was, quite truly, a phenomenal woman.