20 November 2013

The Eroding Common Ground

Sam Harris' recent blog post, The High Cost of Tiny Lies, set me thinking. As you may have noticed, Honesty and Lying are big issues for me and sit near the top of my list of "most visited sites."  Harris says
We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions...and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust.
and I agree. You may recall Adrienne Rich's eloquent essay "Women and Honor:  Some Notes on Lying," posted here in its entirety six years + one day ago (... perhaps my "thing" about lies and honesty has a cyclical momentum?) in which she says
To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, ...leads one to feel a little crazy.
Leaving for now a precise defining of "personal relationship," consider this:

You and I spend five minutes together, during which time we enact the ritual rhetorical "How are you?/I'm fine and you?" (though, in fact, you are heartsick about your husband's gambling addiction and I am desperately lonely), you say "So good to see you. You look great!" (though, in fact, you are reading pain and distress in my face and posture) and I say "Thanks! We ought to get together more often..." (though, in fact, I have assiduously avoided contacting you, illogically fearing that your family's misfortunes might contaminate my life.)

I don't deny the possible individual comfort we may each derive merely from sharing space for a few minutes. My question is:  how is the spiritual solvency, the honor and integrity of our relationship served by this interaction? Do we know each other better? Is the friendship deepened? Have we added a brick to the foundation on which our "friendship" rests? We tenderly exchanged some pretty....little...lies. We could say no one was hurt in the exchange; and yet, I see this as an example of that "corrosive" effect Harris mentions. I walk away from such an interaction trusting people and myself a little less.

The webs we weave with our pretty little lies can be viewed as trap or protective cocoon or safety net. It's been argued that without pretty little lies, society would fall apart (whatever that means...). But the liar who seeks to conceal her vulnerability from the world, to be perceived as Strong and Happy and Normal, is trapped by her lies on the afternoon when a personal disaster (the legendary "rain" that must fall in every life) and she needs a shoulder to cry on. And what comfort or protection is a security blanket woven from the mendacious assertion that the U.S is "the greatest nation on Earth....everybody wants to be us" in the face of "their" protests, escalating in volume and violence, that "No You Aren't & No We Don't"?

The Harris piece was also noteworthy for taking on the Santa Claus question, something that came up annually for me when I was raising my son.

I never indulged the Santa Claus myth with him, i.e., gifts didn't come from Santa, they came from me and Nana and other people who loved him. Santa was like Little Bear and The Transformers and other entertaining imaginary entities vividly evoked in literature and popular culture. They exist -- just not in the corporeal realm (although you will run into real people in costume -- just part of the fun.)

I heard more than once that by choosing to be "honest" about Santa I was inflicting psychological wounds that would never heal. (Note: I admit the jury is still out on that one. There is an unmistakable "rage against ______" energy in evidence in my adult son. Maybe that's my fault?)

Rich says that while the liar may claim she is lying to protect her friend's feelings, she is actually thinking of herself. She is trying to control how she is perceived by her friend and others. But I was actually thinking of myself when I told my son the truth about Santa:  I just didn't feel up to the work of maintaining the deception. (My mother held it up as further proof of my "laziness" and there's some "truth" in that.)

All of which relates, for me, in some way to the follow-up correspondence and interactions between the founder of the Oxford writing group (discussed here recently in The Lonely Writer) and me. I've received two or three additional email messages from her and she also attended a presentation I gave a few weeks ago at a local UU church and approached me afterwards. In writing and in person, without making a forthright accusation, she has referenced a distinction she makes between "aggressive honesty" and "assertive honesty". As she sees it, the well-adjusted person seeks " to be assertive - expressing what I need or feel in a way that is honest yet not threatening to the hearer."

It's a lovely goal. For me, however, the challenge of taking responsibility for someone else's feelings, making sure they are never threatened by anything I say or do, is daunting. I'm up for the work of scrupulously monitoring my own intentions (admitting I fall short sometimes), keeping tabs on the motivations underlying my words and actions and apologizing when I inadvertently step on toes. To be honest...I don't believe my telepathic, intuitive and psychic abilities are adequate to the "higher math" assignment of calculating in advance how anyone -- close friends or casual acquaintances -- will interpret or respond to my words, actions, choice of attire, etc.

In an interesting twist, which I pray is the last scene in this saga that has grown tiresome to me, she sent an email reflecting on the last gathering of the writers and its aftermath. The correspondence included several misstatements/lies/discrepancies and I wrote a response, attempting to correct the errors.

Turns out I was inadvertently included in the Recipient list for that email. She responded, in part:
I did not mean to cc you on the earlier email, it was a mistake. I'm sorry to have disturbed you. I wish you all the best, Alex.
I would be happy to discuss the things that concerned me during your critique of my work, but I don't think this interests you.
May God Bless you with His Very Best,
Ironically, this woman's "niceness" and "assertive honesty" feel like pretty little lies to me. She wasn't "happy" about what she calls my "critique" (which consisted of asking her if "N-word" was written that way in the original piece she read or if "nigger" was spelled out in the essay and she used "N-word" to be polite around me, the only person of color in the circle) and I don't believe she'd be happy discussing that critique with me now, two months after the interaction in question. I do feel "a little crazy" every time we interact. I have reached a point of certainty that no matter how much compassion and empathy I might summon from the depths of tenderness in me, if I continued this discussion honestly, she would see it as an act of aggression. 

And so, no hard feelings (some exasperation but no animosity) I bid her an honest and less-than-fond farewell.
John William Godward (1861-1922)
A Fond Farewell

We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions—such as the poetic license I took at the beginning of this article—and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust. - See more at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-high-cost-of-tiny-lies#sthash.dlImOONY.dpuf
We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions—such as the poetic license I took at the beginning of this article—and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust. - See more at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-high-cost-of-tiny-lies#sthash.dlImOONY.dpuf

14 November 2013

Spoiler? The Film or the Society?

It's been a week...

Sunday morning I overslept and drove 100 mph to Oxford to present on "Playtime in the Real World" at the Unitarian Universalist church.  The presentation went well. Two of the women from the writer's group were in attendance, including the one I discussed a few posts ago in The Lonely Writer. (More later, perhaps, on that encounter...)

Sunday night I met C_________'s flight in Memphis and, with only minutes to spare, we drove over to catch the 7:00 p.m. showing of "12 Years a Slave" at the Malco theater. As we approached the ticket booth, his brother was exiting the theater in the company of his date. A sweet little coincidence. Hugs and 'hellos' all around. "Did you see...," I began. "Yes!" they responded in chorus, the brother with a smile and the date with a stricken expression. "Just 'over the top'!" she gasped.

Chuckling, brother tried to shush her. "Don't ruin it for them.  Enough said..." She was beside herself and repeated, "Just...over...the...top!"

Her reaction confused me:  I'd seen one or two promo trailers for the film, many months ago, and anticipated a restrained, PBS-style docudrama based on a true story. How does a docudrama go "over the top"?

Brother added something like "It's good but it's heavy."


Four days after seeing the film, I am still struggling to find words to describe the film and my reactions to it. There is an undeniable heaviness but there's nothing "good" about this film. All I could say on Facebook the next morning was
Just saw the film 12 Years A Slave. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.....

My reaction was deeply visceral. My stomach churned. My mouth was dry. Anger. Sadness. Mortification. Disgust. I felt duped by the promos. A Google search -- surveying the culture...am I the only one who thinks the film is perverse, dangerous, and artless? --  led me first to the Rotten Tomatoes site. The use of the word "brilliant" in their review triggered a strong fear reaction and the realization that fear had been gurgling beneath all the other reactions since a few minutes into the film.

I don't mean that any of the images on the screen frightened me; I mean that the idea of living among people who could watch the same film and come away saying "brilliant" and "good" frightened me.

I found some relief from my emotional pain and cognitive confusion on Monday -- not my own writing but a superb review of the film by Armond White writing for the New York Film Critics Circle.

Among the passages that say "it" better than I could:
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history...

For [director] McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features...

...showcasing various injustices...

...torture porn...

...a repugnant experience...

 ...Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
 My "share" of the review on FaceBook spurred lively discussion -- some of it off-thread in private messages. My initial fear was  aggravated to learn of Rev. Otis Moss III who rented three Chicago theaters and transported 700 of "the faithful" to see the film. This African American minister of the United Church of Christ's "study guide" to assist post-film discussion is published on the Huffington Post site. It includes questions like:
The film shows great brutality and beauty. What, in the film, showed you the power and genius of black people?
The painful scene of Patsy being whipped by Solomon puts the audience in the scene with Patsy and Solomon. Why was it important for the filmmaker to show this scene in this manner?
The film shows Northup as a caring husband and father. It is rare to witness Hollywood films portray the image of a Black man as compassionate, sensitive and strong. How does the director show Solomon as a multi-dimensional man who is loving, caring, and committed?

It is profoundly unsettling that people who wouldn't drop a dollar into the hands of a homeless person they passed on the street (for fear they might use it to 'get high') are self-righteous and eager to put 10 times that amount (or more) in the pocket of a filmmaker and industry that regularly get high from the willful manipulation of public sentiment and revision of history for financial gain and celebrity.


Yesterday I talked to a woman who saw the film with her husband and daughter last weekend. She found it disturbing but believes it is an important film that people should see because "unlike Roots, it doesn't sugar-coat the history of slavery in the U.S. It gives us the real story. People need to know the truth."

This is a woman I like. A member of the sizable community of Ph.D.'s living here in Holly Springs. I didn't know where to begin to respond to her. What can I say to a scholar who needs only a "based on a true story" caption at the start to accept a movie as "truth people need to know"?

People Are Strange by Kurmis Meditouja

I'm going back to my cave now.

03 November 2013

Marriage: The Final Frontier

As a single woman who views marriage as one of the Final Frontiers (I have a list...), I followed the link to a blog post entitled Marriage Isn't For You with a little smile on my face. The whole thing -- how and why people choose to do it, what goes on behind the nuptial doors, the ingredients required to produce the courage and confidence to pronounce before witnesses that you want to spend the rest of your life with one particular somebody, how people find each other out of the kazillion possibilities,...not to mention the rationale behind purchasing extremely expensive clothing and paraphernalia that can only be used once -- it's all mysterious to me.

Which is not to say I've never dreamed of having a life partner, as those of you who've read this blog know very well. If there's one drum I beat regularly, it's the "where is my tribe" drum. Most of the time when I've fantasized about the Perfect Commitment, it's involved me and at least two other people. It's not an easy arrangement to create. Even the most adventurous and generous of past partners were highly resistant (at best) or adamantly opposed to the idea once I found the courage to bring it up.

Anyway, the title of the post struck notes of ambiguity and irony in me and I clicked the link with playful curiosity. The blog title, "Seth Adam Smith on a LITERAL odyssey" was promising:  I perceived some resonance between "Sojourner" and "odyssey"... 

I read the opening paragraphs with respectful attention. After I hit the "punchline" -- "...marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy..." -- I was content to skim the rest of the post. "Make someone else happy"?  Well, add that to the list of Things That Mystify Me About Marriage. How in the world do you go about making someone else happy?

As expected, the Comments were not mysterious; just more grist for the People Are Truly Crazy mill. One good thing about the internet:  people are on display in all their unadulterated imperfection. Surfing the waters of cyberspace it makes perfect sense that I've never met anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

01 November 2013

The Lonely Writer

...and so it goes.

"Strike Two" in my search for a writing group in MS that fulfills my desire "to become a better writer and support other writers toward achieving the same goal."

In the Holly Springs Writer's Circle that I launched earlier this year, I kept repeating "I don't want to lead a group" and "I'm here to become a better writer and I want to sit with other writers who want to become better writers." I believed that coming together, submitting our work for critical review and candid feedback and revisiting (and revising) our work in the light of (hopefully) valuable review/feedback, would constitute a honing of craft that would result in producing better writing.

It took me awhile to hear what the other writers were saying:  we're here because we want someone to read what we write; I write for myself because I like to write; and, (though this was never stated explicitly) this Circle provides a pleasing social outlet. Our objectives were at variance. I stopped scheduling meetings and, so far, no one has stepped up to take on that task.

In the last days of the Holly Springs Circle, I was invited to join a trio of women writers in Oxford whose fourth member had recently left the group. I was mildly disappointed that they met only once a month; and I questioned their belief that an essential proof of "good" writing is that it stands up to being read aloud. But I decided "what the hell?" and accepted the invitation.

At the first meeting, I shook things up by inquiring of a writer whose reading had included repetitions of the phrase "the N word" whether it was a substitution for the word "nigger," employed for today's reading or appeared as such in the actual work. Visibly upset by my question, she explained she was being polite on my behalf -- the lone woman of color among three women of pallor -- and, of course, she used "the real word" in her novel.

We never recovered from this incident. It was as though I'd set our boat a-rocking into an undulating rhythm that, by the laws of physics, would ripple with diminishing intensity for a long time. The writer in question, apparently the founder of the group, sent me an email the next week with an attachment outlining guidelines for group etiquette, established at the group's beginning. "I'm not calling this a 'Christian group' exactly," she stated, "but surely we can all follow the same basic courtesies as Christian people."

In retrospect it is clear that I was, again, not listening. The "time for you to get out of here" light was on but I was still focused on the "become a better writer in the company of other writers who want the same thing" light.

After an especially rewarding revision process, I decided to submit the script for "In the Silence" (my well-received piece from last year's Santa Cruz Fringe Festival) for the second meeting. This work was written expressly to be "read" aloud so I was a little excited about the possibility of calming the social waters I'd disturbed at the first meeting by sharing a beautiful piece of writing...

alas, the piece was judged to be "too long" for reading at the next gathering.

My feedback to one of the other pieces submitted that day ran along the lines of "I felt teased by this piece -- it struck lightly at a wide range of universal topics and themes rich with the  potential to connect with a reader but never opened up and showed it's heart about any of them..."

I know. Rough language. It was received as such. The leader indirectly admonished me a few minutes later by reminding "everyone" to remember that "kindness" is the first rule when giving feedback to a work.

My mild disappointment about not being allowed to read, coupled with the pain I experienced trying to find kind, constructive feedback to offer two of the writers, and receiving the following email from the leader a few days after the second meeting --

Hi Alex,

Are you going to be in Oxford anytime in the next couple of weeks? There is no agenda, I just think spending time with one another would help us relax with each other and we would better know where the other is coming from when we are in our meetings.

I went back and read the two emails I sent you - one an attachment. I want you to know I didn't say "nice" or "sweet" even one time!  So you can rest easy on that.

I did say things like humility, sensitivity, respect, and kindness, just the way we should be with people anyway. Basic social skills.

I think you can manage that don't you? If not, perhaps we could set up some cues when one of us (probably me) needs the critique tone to be gentler. People can say the truth and be calm at the same time. This is assertiveness. Assertiveness is good. Aggressiveness is speaking and acting as if one is unconcerned about how one is coming across to the receiver. This can lead to intimidation on the part of the hearer and defenses go up and critique cannot be heard. 

If this is new to you, I think practicing this group etiquette will serve you well in your other social encounters.

Right now I think you're saying, "Is she for real?"  Well, yes I am, and I can be fun and friendly,too.

I'll treat for coffee and we can see where it goes and laugh and have fun.



Write me!!!!

prompted me to write what is for me a very kind and polite and nice note today, thanking them for the generous permission to attend two of their meetings and respectfully withdrawing from the group in light of the evident "bad fit".

And so it goes....   Perhaps third time will be charmed?