Category Archives: Nonfiction

A Positive Observation on the Great American Divide

With the fascination of a latent sociologist I’ve been studying the dialogue of the “Great American Divide,” a seemingly terrifying fissure that appears to have suddenly cracked open in the past couple of years, though many say this division has been present and growing for some time. Before the election, few people were discussing politics on social media. I am sure some of you are wistfully uttering, “Those were the days.” During the election we were screaming at each other on Twitter and Facebook like lunatics. But now…something else is emerging. And I think it’s good.

In response to the appearance of the fissure, I’ve been frantically amending what I thought was a more than adequate and comprehensive education in order to get up to speed on just what the heck is going on. That is, when I can find the time in the midst of, like many Americans right now, “working my fanny off just to pay the bills,” which is a sad thing as I don’t have much of a fanny to begin with since I inherited my father’s flat-as-a pancake derriere, which means I have to earn even more money to keep myself in a selection of stylish belts. But I digress…I would argue that this workaholic condition that afflicts many of us (because if we don’t adopt it, we sink) has most definitely contributed to these trying, divisive times. How can any of us take enough time to roll up our fraying pant-legs and wade through the mire in order to pluck out the truth about the latest political crisis from the swamp on any given day…and since the election, the onslaught of political crises seems relentless.

To get educated, I first reread The Constitution. Wow, it’s a lot more interesting than I remember in 8th grade when we were more focused on which one of us was shooting spitballs at the somewhat plain and boring social studies teacher in his white button down shirt and khaki pants (still, he had a pretty amazing afro for a white guy). I’ve also been reading a range of online media sources that relay wide perspectives (sometimes alarmingly wide!) on the significant issues we face, trying to bookmark the least biased sources of information (quite a tough undertaking). I’ve been listening to a range of radio news and noting (okay, I admit it, sometimes welcoming) the biases of my favorite sources, such as Democracy Now, NPR’s Morning Edition, and On Point. I regularly tune into Vermont’s WDEV’s somewhat right-leaning Open Mike and Common Sense Radio. Occasionally, I even venture into far right Christian radio land just to see what they are saying. And lo and behold, they appear to care about the same human concerns as most of us, like friends and family, helping the downtrodden, and living a compassionate life. It’s just that their narrative of how and why to live this way is different than mine. By far, my favorite program has been Indivisible and I was sorry to see it go when the current administration passed the 100-day mark. I am sure I am not alone in craving “centrist” news and discussion…if anything today, many of us are seeking dialogue between extremes.

While some friends have plain opted out of Facebook, others have gone back to posting videos of cute animal antics, and others are still ranting and raving, I have taken to “limited Facebook exposure,” like one tends to limit exposing pale bare skin to especially bright and damaging sunlight. I walk the fence between posting benign, quirky life observations and occasional political commentary. So, following the passage of the AHCA in the House this week, I bravely ventured into two different Facebook threads—one post by a solidly conservative friend and one post by a solidly liberal friend.

Both posts started out, predictably, on an emotional level. The rightwing post was the equivalent of “Yay! Goodbye Obamacare!” And the leftwing post echoed the sentiments of Henny Penny: “The sky is falling!” As a liberal I did not share the view of my conservative friend, so of course, I reacted emotionally, but as respectfully as I could—something to the effect of “women, children, and the elderly are not going to be able to afford appropriate care under the new bill, the rich are going to get richer, and how dare they put sexual and domestic assault on a list of pre-existing conditions??” Meanwhile, something akin to the liberal post had coursed on a wave of adrenaline through my veins when I heard the AHCA had passed the House by a narrow margin. What did this potentially mean for my healthcare going forward? I was having enough trouble making my insurance payments and out of pocket expenses already. Riveted to the radio on my way to teach my morning class at a local college, I had decided that it was most definitely going to get worse. Thus, I “Liked” the liberal post and was about to log off and rejoin the world of the real.

But then I was drawn further into the threads of both posts, past the ranting against government regulation and those dastardly democrats, past the pronouncements of disgust about the new administration and how we are all going to die in the streets, bereft and shoeless. And here is what happened.

In the conservative thread, my friend who made the post, happy to see a step taken towards repealing Obamacare, was relaying the exact same struggles I felt: unmanageable, unaffordable insurance premiums, high deductibles, a convoluted system that was not working so well, painful out of pocket costs, and feeling broke as hell. The only difference was she saw the AHCA as a step towards a solution and I saw it as a giant step away from a solution. (Personally, I would love to see a single-payer system such as has worked well in Canada and Europe for years and be done with the whole mess.) Because I saw commonality, I started dialoguing with her and some of the strangers on her thread, and guess what? I lived! Some of the responders went into detail about their medical costs and illness woes. We were all in the same boat. People posted this and that resource—some biased sources, some not. Some people chided others for not having their facts straight, but in a respectful manner. Those who were chided appeared to research and revise their opinions. Was this a miracle?

What I observed was a shift. Where a couple of months ago, condescending, derogatory comments would have flown, name calling would have started, and the F-word would have been typed as fast as fingers could fly, instead, we were talking, listening, teaching, and learning. I read the articles they posted and followed links to even more articles. When I left the thread, I felt better informed on the AHCA, though I still disagree with many of the bill’s points. I felt like President Obama’s statement in The New Yorker following this election was right: “This is not the apocalypse.”

In the liberal thread, I noticed one lone conservative voice. The friend who had made the initial post, which was a list of pre-existing conditions for which Americans would struggle to get coverage if the AHCA becomes law, had dismissed this lone naysayer and said, “We will have to agree to disagree.” Okay, fair enough. But what if this voice of dissent had something important to share about the legislation poised to impact our lives to such a great degree? I followed her link to read about the misinformation being spread about pre-existing conditions. If it was misinformation, I wanted to know. While exhibiting a subtle condescension towards all things liberal, the information in her chosen article was actually on par with what I had managed to glean about the AHCA bill by poking around online and listening to a variety of radio news. Of course her source was right-biased and there were nuances that the article downplayed—namely that if one has a lapse in coverage, the potential is to pay much higher premiums for pre-existing conditions. However, this woman’s article showed that the post that my liberal friend had made was incorrect and misleading. There is no “list” of conditions in the bill. And the decision falls to the states as to whether to allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums if there is a lapse in coverage (a 60-day lapse, as I learned from a guy on the conservative thread). There is, apparently, no denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions as my friend’s post had intimated, and even higher premiums are not a given. “Thank god I live in Vermont,” I thought, as my representatives will not likely seek a waiver from the community rating. Still, this bill weakens pre-existing condition protections because if one is unlucky enough to live in a state that seeks a waiver, and has some bum luck that causes a lapse of coverage, a person could quickly be out-priced and out of luck on pre-existing conditions. Yes, there would be a high-risk pool, but is this funding enough?

Surprisingly, little ole liberal me then jumped in to stand with the conservative woman in the thread, because what I want is accurate information, not to be right. As I stood with her, others came to the center and the dialogue deepened.

On the subject of being right, I also discovered, thanks to her and because I did some more sleuthing after reading her article, that I was not “right” in regards to my freak out about sexual and domestic assault being on the AHCA’s list of pre-existing conditions—a point about which liberal bloggers had also been freaking out the day before—because, well, there is no list of pre-existing conditions in the bill, and second, those items are not on the lists of common pre-existing conditions identified by insurers. Here was another nuance: many conditions that assault victims may suffer from, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, and STDs, ARE on such lists. And so, by default, IF a person is assaulted, has a lapse in coverage longer than 60 days, and suffers from some of those conditions, she might have to pay higher premiums to get treatment. Whether this nuance is ethical or not will need to be saved for another debate.

So…I had to pull up my Big Girl frayed pants over my hardworking, flat fanny and go back to the conservative thread to amend my position on the sexual assault point I had made the day before, and I included a link to a solid article on Politifact that I found about how the initial freak out had been off base. No one tore me apart.

Here is the thing. What I see happening that I think is a good development in our country is that we ARE talking about politics and we are growing up past the “Green and Yellow Told Ya!” unproductive shouting phase. In social media we are now quickly identifying trolls; we are chiding anyone who name calls or swears. We are asking challenging questions and checking each other’s facts. And, best of all, we are listening and learning. And this, this is the gem of our current time. This is the heart of the Socratic method that I have seen over and over bring diverse students in my classrooms to a common discourse that deepens understanding of any text or issue on the table.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all puppies and rainbows. But it never was and never will be. Respectful discourse—like what I just experienced on both sides of the political fence while discussing a highly charged issue on a social media platform infamous for knockdown-drag outs—is what will bridge our divide and help us to find logical solutions to our complex problems. Now if it could only plump up my rump…

Need manuscript feedback?

One of my favorite writing gigs is to help other writers revise and strengthen their creative works. I’ve helped those who write fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by providing in-depth page by page comments. If you have a manuscript draft and would appreciate another pair of eyes and ears for your words, email me at word.artisan.vt@gmail.com and we can work out a plan that suits your needs and budget. I have an MA in Fiction Writing and an MFA in Poetry, along with years of experience with various kinds of writing and editing. I’ve also been a teacher. My writing has been published in online blogs, online magazines, books, and newspapers. Writing is a solitary act, but it can be a wonderful process to work with another writer!

What’s the Hurry?

The polar opposite of rush hour in Central VT: I am driving on a back road to my abode, when, lo and behold, I see two elementary-aged children in the middle of the road. I politely wait for the children to move to the side of the road. To the left of me is a cow pasture filled with, you guessed it, cows.

Then I notice that there is an electric fence stretched across the road, and that the two children are squabbling, and that the little boy on his bike is wearing a space helmet. Meanwhile, a woman is attempting to convince the cows in the pasture to cross the road to the equally pleasant pasture on the other side. She is hollering at the kids and yelling at the cows, and no one is paying any attention to her. Except me, where I sit waiting patiently, mildly amused.

The little girl, in a pink ruffled shirt, stands guard before me like a sentry at a military outpost. “None shall pass.” The boy states the obvious: “we are moving the cows.” Except . . . the cows are not moving. The woman begins swearing at the cows and at pretty much everything around her: “WTF!?” she wails.

After about 10 minutes, only two cows have obediently crossed the road. The little girl in front of the electric fence has not budged. The rest of the cows are either milling around in confusion or blissfully grazing. A few interlopers have hustled back to a desirable patch of mud to wallow in. I astutely reach the conclusion that I am getting nowhere fast, so I back 1/4 mile down the road to go around the other way (3-4 mile detour). When I reach the top of the hill sometime later, coming from another direction, they are still there…

‪#‎centralvermont‬ ‪#‎aintnobighurryhour‬!

Two Queens: Ruminations on Success

Now that I have my own business and am in a band for the first time in twenty years playing bluegrass music, I’ve been thinking a lot about success—what is it exactly? What does it mean to me? What are my barriers to achieving it?

I’ve also been rereading Sue Monk Kidd’s book the Dance of the Dissident Daughter, her memoir about questioning her spirituality and her role as a woman in a culture with deep patriarchal roots. This has led me to further questions, such as how has being a woman who subconsciously absorbed the patriarchal hierarchy (in this order—a male god, men, women, children and the elderly, animals, plants, minerals…) kept me from achieving “success”? How have I been carrying out and limited by feminine roles that I didn’t even choose?

Kidd illustrates how women have internalized various roles, without necessarily even being aware of them. A woman is expected to be all nurturing, at the expense of her own needs, to be “silent” or subvert her real views to conform to convention, and to strive to gain attention from and to please males. One can easily see how taking care of the needs of everyone else—pets, husbands, children, bosses—before she focuses on her own goals, coupled with trying to do this nurturing very well to get external approval and validation, while also submerging her true self and views so as not to make waves, would get in the way of success, whatever success looks like to any one woman.

Right now you may be saying, “Oh, hogwash. Another feminist crying about her spilled milk.” Or, you may be nodding in agreement. Either way, think about this: What kinds of associations come immediately to mind simply at the word “feminist?” Many women hesitate to even adopt that title, because it’s so negative. Go on admit it. Birkenstock-wearing, hairy-legged women, who dance naked in their gardens, who hate men, who pontificate constantly about what a raw deal they’ve gotten. While I personally see nothing wrong with a woman who fits that description if that’s who she wants to be, what I am wondering is, how is it possible that we go from being subservient “beautiful” daughters to that image in one word?

And how do we view women who don’t spend all their time caring for their partner, children, animals, community, and everyone else in the world, god forbid while also trying to be successful? Well, I’ve heard the word “selfish” more than once. She is self-centered and not good partner or mother material. She is “unique” (not in a good way) or, “wild and crazy.” Or what about women who speak up? Cosmopolitan published an article this winter about the language we use for strong successful women, as compared to men. Words like “bitch,” “shrew,” “harsh,” “pushy,” “outspoken.” While men garner these terms: “intelligent,” “a leader,” “decisive,” “strong.”

All that is the landscape for my road to “success.” Like it or not. I’m not crying in my beer. I’m deciding how to play the hand that I have been dealt. As I’ve been pondering all this, something has truly shocked me. I realized that it has never occurred to me, until now at 50, that I could actually aim for mastery at something, that I could excel completely, that I could be really good. Even now I have trouble writing “the best.” I have, sadly, never, until now, created a goal saying I will master this; I will rock this!

Instead I always thought, I will do a decent job. I can be good enough. And that’s what I’ve aimed for: good enough. “I will do pretty well, but I’m a girl, so don’t expect too much.” My parents demanded good grades; they supported my horse riding, skiing, music. But there has always been an undercurrent…not theirs exactly…but as if this message is in the air and the water—you can only do so well, but that’s it.

This sounds ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m admitting it! But by admitting it, I’m finally taking the chain off of the door. Because I can finally respond, “Nonsense!” In the past few years on different occasions, two different male flatpicking guitarists, both masters at their craft, (See? Males, in and of themselves, are not evil, of course…fie on you feminist stereotyping), said to me, “You can be a great flatpicking guitarist. There is nothing stopping you. You learn quick; you work hard.” This rocked my world. Really? But I’m a woman. I’m just beginning. And that was the first time I thought, “I can rock this.”

Still…now I have to be careful I don’t replace the old shackle with a new chain: I’m 50 years old. Our culture is as ageist, as it is sexist, as it is racist. Now I am not only a woman, but a middle-aged woman. Gasp! It took awhile before I could even say I’m 50. I took my birthday off of Facebook. For men or women, I’d argue the pervading belief is, “Why even bother pursuing success once you get out of your 30s?” Older people aren’t hip, they don’t have their fingers on the pulse of the new and the cool, and they’ve pretty much done all the growing and achieving they are going to do. Really, they should just don a sweatshirt with a lobster on it, put on some white sneakers and putter about in their garden, or take a guided tour with a bunch of other silver-hairs to some European country where they can do the hokey pokey over mashed potatoes and light beer.

I bought into this. When I was a teen, I declared I didn’t want to live past 40 because it would be no fun whatsoever. Out of necessity, I did change my tune.

But an older woman? “Hag,” “crone,” “dried up,” “wrinkled and grey,” in a word, “unsexy.” Or as declared by my 9th grade students, “Eew!”

Once, when I was still in my 30s (!) I was planting flowers in a window box when a group of boys from the apartment nearby strolled down the street, swearing up a whole crop of colorful words. I’ve been known to throw around the F word myself, but this was loud and excessive, and they were only about 11 or 12. It takes a village. So I said, “Hey guys, watch your language please.” And a blond, stocky kid said to me, “Shut up, you old bag!!” My face flushed red and I was prepared to march out there and ream them out good, but my ex-husband cautioned through the open window, “Kyle…just stay here.”

Do we say those things about older men? No. They get “salt and pepper,” as if they are a fine old spice, and “distinguished.” Authoritative, strong. And even handsome.

So now I’ve got two cards stacked against my psyche about success. I’m a woman. I’m 50. But those cards will be played on my terms. I’ve turned both cards over on the table. This is MY game. Instead of two’s and three’s, I see two queens—the queen of hearts who now listens carefully to the song in her heart, instead of limiting messages, who will take her writing and music passions as far as she possibly can; and the queen of spades who knows that success is tied ONLY to dedication, hard work, and a belief in yourself. And I’m doing it…no matter what careless names and terms are tossed my way. I will never be an old bag, and I will rock this.

Stay tuned for more musings about defining and achieving success for oneself…woman or man…The question will be, “are you good enough for YOU?”

The Quest for Pleasure

Have lately been thinking about the definition of true pleasure…we are so conditioned that pleasure is obtained by consuming something, or from receiving some sort of recognition from the social realm. When really, it’s so simple, and can be found in the unassuming act of dropping tiny round black Russian Kale seeds one by one into a garden row at dusk, while the wood thrush sings the sun down.