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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

10 Books to Help You Cope with Cultural Agony—The Healing Power of Fiction

Maybe the right stories can help heal us in a void.

Yesterday my book club discussed Jason Mott's National Book Award-winning hilarious, heart-breaking novel Hell of a Book, a story of an unnamed Black man's life in a world where he is never seen as who he knows himself to be. What was most meaningful for me was that by the end of our discussion, this white not-particularly-contemplative group of older women settled into a profoundly personal conversation about self-acceptance.

 

All fiction, when done well, forces you to walk in another person's shoes … or into deeper levels of the shoes you are already wearing. And because of this, fiction can take the reader on an emotional journey to healing or coping with pain that may seem intractable.

 

 

What the following ten stories have in common is accepting realities that are personal as well as historical. Racism, genocide, spousal abuse, and more. How do you accept these things? These books leave little alternative. And by dealing with what's true, there is a form of healing, or at least a path to coping. The human journey is just that—no matter what your race, gender, or status—accepting truth on all levels.

 

But what is truth in these days of divided definitions?

 

When I say "truth," I am referring to what Ernest Hemingway meant when he advised writers to ". . . write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." To me this means truth that comes from one's core. One's Essence—however you define that. It isn't about politics or disinformation vs. fact.

 

When a writer's Essence births a true story, it is told through true characters, and no matter how fantastical or removed from your life they may be, almost everybody can identify in some way and have a personal experience. That personal experience can sometimes be love or a refusal to love, which can manifest as an emotional aversion. If we hate, rather than blame the story, we can follow the aversion down to its root and perhaps learn something about ourselves—learn what we are refusing to accept. And if we can love the truth about ourselves, loving all the other stuff gets easier. Read More 

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Compassionate Death

It's 8:12 a.m. As I type, my body clock is confused but slowly readjusting to not lurching out of bed at 5:30 a.m. with my almost-16-year-old dog who would need to pee because she was getting daily IV saline drips for old-age kidney disease, to not timing everything from 5:30 a.m. on to her meds and pee and sun-downing blind frenzy that began each day around 5:00 p.m., to not really sleeping for the 15 months of her hospice care.

 

I do not regret one second of this exhausting schedule. It was an honor and what I wanted to do. The pandemic actually made my life easier—more acceptable. It was just Maya and me for the last year+ and I cherished every minute of it.

 

But Monday night, she let it be known she was done, and Tuesday morning Wendy McCulloch, DVM (Pet Requiem, LLC) came to the apartment, listened to my explanation about Maya's condition, and was an invisible angel, barely rousing Maya, who had uncharacteristically chosen to go back to bed after our early-morning ablutions, and sent my girl on her way. It was as peaceful and smooth a transition as I could imagine.

 

I'm being similarly gentle with my own transition to a solo life but I found myself twice yesterday declaring to people that I want the same treatment that I and Dr. McCulloch gave to Maya. And suddenly it seems very necessary to declare it in a public forum.

 

I am about to turn 71 years old and am in great shape due to daily exercise, a vegan diet, and my four flights of stairs; I can carry 30 pounds of groceries up them without panting. I am vaccinated and boosted because to me that seems like a no brainer, but since a debacle in 2012 that I will explain in a minute, I stopped going to doctors and have opted out of the regular preventive checkups relentlessly pushed by my ever-phoning health carrier, and since I think my medical care is my own business, I have refused to get into a conversation to explain myself to them.

 

I will now explain myself: Read More 

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The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters and How He Helped me Re-meet My Father

WHAT I READ MATTERS

 

I mean this title sentence every which way you can read it.

 

I'm guessing most people will receive it with a glib, "Of course, what you read matters; it influences what you believe."

 

But I mean this sentence much more expansively: What I read, the physical form of it, really matters. As does reading it (as opposed to listening to somebody else read a text). I care who may have owned or touched the book before me, and any history I may know attached to the book affects my reading experience.

 

I spent this week reading a 75-cent, paperback of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel about a 14-year-old relentlessly smart-alecky (and sometimes very funny) boy's picaresque adventures during 1849, following his pipe-dreaming gambling doctor father across the country to find gold in California.

 

If I were reading Jaimie McPheeters as an ebook, I might have abandoned it at the first mention of "darkies" because I just don't have the stomach for this in 2021. If I were reading a shiny new edition paperback, same thing. Yes, the writing is good, I might have reasoned, but why subject myself to casual racism and so many words? The book is of a bygone era and style.

 

But I'm reading the cracked brown pages turned and read by my father on his suburban commute to and from his job in New York City in 1960. I know this because I found his train ticket stub, used as a book mark, on the last page, and I know he loved this book because he once told me he did. Probably that's why I grabbed it from my mother's last house several years after my father's own pipe dreams and addictions imploded and he stuck a gun in his mouth. And it's why the book has stayed on the top shelf in my apartment since 1973.

 

I'd been eying it for months while I did my aerobic workouts. The spine drew me. I even got up on a ladder a few months ago to see what it was and when I saw, I remembered Dad's smile and joy when he said it was a really good book. I'll read that, I thought.

 

And it took until this week, months after the first beckoning, for me to pull it down and wipe off the dust bunnies.

 

When I lie on my couch and read this book, I know I'm touching something my father thought was good. I know that when he read this he was the sane, loving man who loved to read and loved the fact that I loved reading too, even though we had almost nothing else in common. Read More 

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The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal by Mary L. Trump, Ph.D.

There is something medicinal about hearing straight truth. With no affiliation to anything but the truth, clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump writes with muscular clarity, scholarship, and fury about anybody who acts in denial of the truth—from the beginnings of the practice of enslaving and torturing Black people to Obama and his justice department refusing to prosecute the architects of the Great Recession to the wanton cruelty and pathological lying of her uncle Donald to the January 6th insurrection to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stating that this is not a racist country even though there is systemic racism. Even the Supreme Court and Jimmy Carter don't get away without condemnation.

 

Mary Trump writes with the heat of a wildfire and truncates American history in a way that makes its carefully crafted hypocrisy even more shocking. There is not a lot of new material if you've been educating yourself with whole history (as opposed to filtered white history) and if you follow the news. That said, if you haven't been reading book after book on racism, antiracism, and the history of racism, this is an excellent summation and exposure of the creation of ongoing systemic racism. But whatever your level of education, you will benefit from the passion of the writing steeped in scholarship and the laser focus that makes this book vibrate.

 

It is a book about the historical creation of our national trauma. Trauma comes not simply from the brutality and torture of slavery and genocide done with impunity that form the foundation of the U.S.A., but it comes from many "good" people looking the other way because the inconvenience of addressing and redressing the wrong was/is just too damned hard. It comes from denial and lies to justify the unjustifiable. It comes because people are reluctant to give up anything—money, power, complacency, peaceful co-existence with people who would be offended if they rocked the boat, "willful blindness. (115)" And all this was there long before it manifested Donald J. Trump.

 

The introduction to The Reckoning is one of the best book intros I've read. In it Mary Trump recounts her own history of PTSD and going into a full crisis that led to a stint in a rehab treatment facility after the election of her uncle. All that along with her grounded knowledge of psychology bring something unique to the book—well served by the fact that she is such a good writer.

 

This is not a "Trump book." It is an us/U.S. book. It is a fearless demand that we Americans look at who we are, who we have been, how we birthed the current divisions and violence, and acknowledging the wrongs, atone and repair. Read More 

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PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren

I don't have kids and have never dealt with the difficulty of getting good, affordable childcare, but by the end of the first chapter of Persist, I cared so passionately about national childcare that, typing this sentence while eating a carrot, I got excited enough to swallow the wrong way and had to lurch from my desk to open my airway.

 

How is it possible to explain the tax code, tax deductions, and how business is constantly subsidized by all of us (aka socialized wealth distribution; what people are so afraid of is already going on, but the recipients are large corporations and billionaires!*) so clearly that the reader has an aha about the movement of money in the economy resulting in a feeling that she can articulate life itself: all life is movement and change, and Warren ties that to the economy so simply and coherently that you will never not understand this again, and hence, never not understand inequity of investment that is built into our system and an imbalance that will eventually topple us all if not corrected.

 

Simply put, Elizabeth Warren is a great teacher. I understand why Rep. Katie Porter changed her life while taking Warren's class (a wonderful anecdote). As I type this, I'm now in the middle of an explanation of a two-cent wealth tax and what that would mean and how it would work, and again, it's so exciting, I'm chewing my carrot extra carefully in order to stay at the computer.

 

One of my other favorite teachers, Bertice Berry, recently did a video about how being your authentic self brings light to all situations and people, so if another person who is not being authentic is illuminated in that light, it can expose them and make them really angry. I thought of this when Warren first talked about former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. I remembered her stunning exposure of his arrogance during the presidential debates (deliciously reported later in the book in a chapter called A Fighter). In that moment she exposed her authentic brilliance in a way that constantly flows through this well-made book.** Read More 

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Understanding the Joy of Lying

I was an actor in my twenties and was approaching a building where I was in rehearsal for a children's play. As I neared the entrance to the building, another member of the cast, a guy in his twenties, glommed onto me. "Let's go in together," he said, smiling.

 

Thinking nothing of it, I walked through the front door with him, and as we approached our director standing in the hallway, my now-escort grinned broadly and announced to our boss, "We've been rehearsing together."

 

I was too stunned to correct him. A few steps later, as we entered the theater I recovered my voice. "Why did you say that?" I gasped.

 

He smiled, shrugged, and went on his way.

 

This was my first personal encounter with a pathological liar. I've since met and had to negotiate with others. And the thing I've learned is that they lie because they can. They have no inner conscience scolding them, no allegiance to truth, absolutely no reason at all to adhere to truth. They lie for fun, for self-aggrandizement, for some twisted sense of power or for dominance. They lie because they have no sense of consequences. Because they feel no shame if they are confronted with their lies. They shrug, laugh, smile. "So what?" they'll even say, if pressed.

 

People with strong ethics cannot understand this. But people with ethics can actually have their ethical sense so eroded by the joy of lying (yes, there is joy once you assume no consequences) that they can lose all inhabitions about doing it.

 

Trump taught the Republican party leaders the joy of lying. Joy and the freedom of this exhilarating release from truth spreads to others who would normally declare that truth matters. If they believe that their freedom is in danger and the liars are the truthtellers, this is an obscenely easy conversion for pathological liars to engender.

 

This is how our current Republican leadership can one minute say there was election fraud and the next, say the opposite.

 

Pathological liars create such confusion that people stop trying to discern truth from lies.

 

So this is where we are.

 

 

Liz Cheney is one of the rare people who will not be swayed by the herd, no matter what the imagined benefits. I do not agree with her on most policies, but I respect her backbone, patriotism, and willingness to do what's uncomfortable.

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Why I Support Changes in American History Education

According to Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” enews this morning (dated May 2, 2021):

On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the "quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history." The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages "projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning."

I couldn't check out the public comments portal fast enough.

 

I am seventy years old. It was not until around twenty years ago when I found myself working for an organization that had indigenous rights projects that I realized millions of people all over the world had worldwide conferences and had been screaming (and ignored) for centuries about land theft, culture obliteration, and the destruction of their families. I met many of these people and felt as though I'd been living under a rock all my life. This led to a self-education project that escalated during the Trump era when racism became acceptable. I've read book after book (see end of this essay for references*) that horrified me at what my white school never taught. I felt embarrassed and also infuriated at the blatantly false history I'd been led to believe was true.

 

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The Cost of Kindness

Receiving a direct deposit of my stimulus check this morning stimulated a contemplation ... about cost:


The other guy stopped the active printing of checks to have his name printed on them ($) and have them reprinted ($). Then they were sent out by mail, as not-so-subliminal promo ($).


I was glad to receive them, but wondered why, since I file taxes online, I had not received a direct deposit, costing no printing or postage or envelope.


Today's deposit cost a lot less. True compassion and kindness and concern for another's well-being cost a lot less.


Follow the dots. What would it cost if I committed to kindness and compassion as my #1 action? Absolutely zero.

 

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Old Novels as Therapy

I am a published novelist and a rabid reader, but I've been stalled in both those areas. Between the cultural tumult and my almost-15-year-old dog's terminal kidney disease, I've become a worried political activist and an exhausted canine hospice caregiver.

 

I have two novels circulating to publishers through my agent (the newest of which deals with the cultural and political turmoil we are all living through right now), but since there is no discernible response, I see no point writing more—which nicely compliments my complete lack of inspiration.

Between my dog's IV drips and endless treks up and down my four flights of stairs to walk her, I found I cannot concentrate on reading new novels, let alone meeting new characters and remembering who everybody is. So suddenly my reading habit—a great source of joy—stalled.

 

In these incredibly dark days, I've found solace talking to people I've known since childhood. And, likewise, I realized I need books with a personal foundation already in place: books that I already know are outstanding, that I know will transport me—books that I trust because of my long history with them. I have such books already on my shelves, but I also bought a couple more.

 

Complete article published in the January 4, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly.

 

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William Still's 1872 book Underground Railroad Records

book cover William Still's Underground Railroad Records

The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom

by William Still, Quincy T. Mills (Editor), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Introduction)

 

Imagine it's you: You are kidnapped from your family, stripped naked, shipped like cargo, body stacked on body, in the hold of a ship. If you survive, this transport is followed by being "owned" and worked by other people. Some of the "owners" claim you're not human; others say, "Gee, I'd like to let you go, but I'm too poor and my dead husband left me only you." Or "When you get old enough, you can be free." Or "You can buy yourself for $500." So on some level they know you're a person just like them. But it simply doesn't matter to them.

 

Imagine you are beaten, raped, have your children ripped away from you and sold like a bag of potatoes. Maybe you escape, only to have to leave babies behind. Or your wife or husband. Or one of them fights tooth and nail, escapes and then comes back to try to rescue you. And then is killed.

 

All the time, you are a feeling, thinking, intelligent, maybe brilliant, talented, agonized person, and this treatment is condoned and supported by a whole culture that lives fairly well off of your enslavement.

 

This book of firsthand accounts of escapes on the Underground Railroad, first published in 1872, makes you feel it—as if it's you. And the rage I feel is beyond expression. I got so angry I shook.

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At the Root of Our Problems

From my new favorite teacher, sociologist, writer, wisdom teacher Bertice Berry. Listen and contemplate.

 

Here's my contemplation:

 

More and more I think that at the root of our problems is a lack of imagination: if something has not happened to us or someone close to us, we at some level cannot imagine it is true, along with the full spectrum of feelings that come with that.

 

I fancy myself pretty imaginative. After all, I was an actor and am a fiction writer. But recently I realized that because of my childhood, I have never really imagined a "good family." Therefore I never wanted a family. What an aha when a sudden healing opened my heart enough to realize what I've been blind to all my life.

 

Seeing my own lack of imagination allows me to correlate it to people who are so horrified by the current violence (and please understand that I too abhor violence), but only the violence of protestors. In the horror, you're painting all protestors as horrifying--same as I unconsciously painted all families as a torturous experience. I'm guessing you think my delusion is pretty extreme. Good imagining--you're right. Now correlate that extremism to your own if you cannot understand the pain of the majority of peaceful protestors. We all do this. I am hardly alone.

 

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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A partial journal of reading this very long book

 

7/7/20 My Facebook Post

I am very late to this classic. The first paragraph landed so hard I have to stop reading and do errands to let this process through my body. Here's what did it—from Columbus's log when he was met with an extraordinary welcome by Arawak people who inhabited the Bahamas:

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The legacy of this mindset is nauseating. The misinterpretation of love, altruism, and gifts to honor visitors, from a Western perspective of power and possessions and the arrogant belief that any culture that is different from theirs is necessarily ignorant or stupid rather than perhaps more evolved and connected to oneness? ... I do not know where to begin. I have been reading and editing Native material the last few months, and seeing and feeling the roots of the pain leaves me moaning in my own agony. I will absorb this book as fast I'm capable.  Read More 

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Educator and sociologist Robin DiAngelo is brilliantly thorough, and I am grateful beyond expression. This is unapologetically a book by a white woman written for white people who dispute our part in our historically racist system. It's for people who find the discomfort of the discussion intolerable. And it's also for white people like me who have accepted culpability and have committed themselves to being as uncomfortable as it takes in an effort to become an antiracist—and it gets pretty damned uncomfortable; my last read, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, gave a new-to-me history that I was never taught in white school and a vivid new awareness of systemic racism and how black people have coped with it that's changed my vision.

 

White Fragility is clarifying, supportive, and further strengthens my commitment, even as the clear articulation of everything made me sometimes squirm. DiAngelo's genius is the ability to break things down and deliver them as digestible facts. And with that, I'll turn it over to Professor DiAngelo:

 

What is white fragility?

 

Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven't had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. (1-2)

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Listen and Atone: A Message for White People

Even if you have never knowingly done something to hurt another person.

Even if you consider yourself "color blind."

Even if you live in an enclave of peace and harmony.

Even if you don't know any people of another race, so how could you be guilty of offending or hurting?

Even if you have lived a life of groveling in the mud and have worked for every dime you've ever had.

Even if the whole notion of "white privilege" strikes you as ignorant of your pain and suffering to merely survive.

Even then, please listen.

 

"But, but, but . . ." you protest.

 

All I'm whispering is, "Listen." What will it cost you?

 

Think of a time you were hurt—maybe as a vulnerable child—and nobody heard your screams. Or maybe they did hear, but they didn't help or they actually made you hurt more.

 

Think of a time life was unfair. You did everything right, but still you were rejected, tossed out.

 

Now think of our history: Europeans landed on an inhabited land where they were welcomed. In response, they committed brutal sustained genocide, stole land, stole children, put Natives in virtual concentration camps—

 

"But I didn't do that," you protest.

 

Please, I'm pleading with you. Listen.

 

These settlers built an economy based on free labor. Human beings were sold by African warlords because they saw white man's money and wanted it. These people were ripped from their families, shackled and packed like sardines, shipped across the ocean, raped, brutalized, tortured, murdered. Even after the slave trade was declared illegal, it continued. White people declared that other humans were not human, purveying it as a spiritual truth, because it justified what they knew in their deepest hearts was immoral. They defended it, and therefore their economy and right to a certain life style, by turning against their own government, flying their own flag, and fighting a war. Which they lost.

 

But still the abuse continued. By now it was woven into the culture. Our DNA.

 

"But I've never—"

 

Hush. I'm begging. Read More 

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Percival Everett Has a New Book!

I made this video as part of the Authors Guild's initiative, #SupportAuthors, to promote new books in the age quarantine.

 

The websites mentioned are Graywolf Press's page for Percival Everett's new book Telephone

and the wonderful new bookshop.org that supports independent bookstores--here is their page for the book: bookshop.org.

 

 

Now that I have just finished this magnificent book, my review:

 

How on earth do you review a book that is as personal, as tender, and as unnamable as your own soul? Reading Percival Everett, and this new novel in particular, is like entering the territory where all life comes from. I had such a hit of this when I first began the book that I literally passed out. In yoga there are names for this. Suffice it to say that it's when your consciousness is overwhelmed, stretched beyond its normal capacity.

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