Origin Stories

This Week’s Bit of String: Unexpected good fortune

I had an essay accepted by a magazine yesterday. It was my second acceptance in a couple of weeks, and came with a glowing email. Just what I needed to perk up a tedious office day.

When someone is highly complimentary of your work, is that enough for you? Or do you want more people to know and heap further praise upon it? In my personal life I’m used to stretching a positive moment, trailing it after me long into the future, wearing it thin. But we have to promote ourselves as writers, so I shared my excitement on social media.

Allowing glimmers

It’s a strange time to share good news. The pandemic, upcoming American election, Brexit, and ongoing racial injustice weigh heavily and I wonder whether it’s insensitive to briefly turn from those.

Then I looked back through the essay I wrote. I don’t usually send personal writing out into the world, and this time I have. My soon-to-be-published piece reflects on some very difficult times, and the impending separation from my son as he leaves for university. There’s been enough pain and it will never be smooth sailing. Using struggles to create art that moves others is something to be proud of, for one fleeting moment.

What We Deserve

Getting published in an online magazine doesn’t bring money or renown, but it’s lovely to hear kind words about my work, and to plenty of us who haven’t had time to submit much, it feels like a big deal. ‘You deserve this,’ says a writer friend, and I don’t know that deserving comes into it.

“Create power from pain,” part of Bristol’s Rising Arts Agency poster campaign

I work hard on my pieces, and recently took the extra steps of researching submission opportunities and trying for them. I’m able to do this only because my son is much older than my friend’s kids. I’m able to do this because my current day job, while full-time, isn’t emotionally exhausting. I live in a country with free healthcare and no major threat to my safety, so I’m free to create rather than struggle to survive. Many perfectly deserving people don’t have these things.

So I accept that privilege enables my small gains. Some people are so tired of hearing the word privilege, the Trump administration has just banned any federal diversity training which references it. But many of us artists are extremely fortunate. While experiencing hard times lends poignancy to our work later on, that work will usually be created in our safer, quieter moments rather than during crisis itself.

Good, Bad, and Ugly

What about when good and bad exist simultaneously, though? Like, monumentally good and really, horrifically bad. Last weekend I tore through Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad. I’m still losing sleep over it.

We already know that millions of enslaved persons were kidnapped, tortured, overworked, abused, and in fact legislated by the American government as less than human. Whitehead’s novel simply crystallised for me how white Americans embraced racism to maintain the status quo. Although parts of Whitehead’s book are speculative, he was weaving different atrocities from many periods of American history into one era. Incidents similar to the Tuskegee experiment, the Tulsa massacre, lynchings, segregation, and of course plantation life are included.

Damien Hirst’s “Verity” in Ilfracombe: reformed images of justice

Seeing all these packed into one fast-paced novel made me fully question the current American flag and national anthem. How can we uphold symbols of liberty and justice that were created during mass enslavement and cruelty?

Researching “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I learned it was always a controversial choice, because many saw it as promoting war when Hoover made it the anthem in 1931. America was fed up with war at that time.

Its lyricist Francis Scott Key himself was against the War of 1812 although relieved it didn’t wipe his young nation out. He wrote the anthem to celebration the latter. Similarly contradictory were his views on the enslavement of African Americans. He described it as “a bed of torture” but owned slaves himself and defended others’ right to such “property.”

By upholding the victories and imagery from America’s first 80 years, I fear we’re stifling the horrific pain ongoing at that time. America’s not young, scrappy and hungry anymore, it’s just hungry, and it’s time to grow up.

Coasting on the pioneering of democracy—a flawed, limited, early model—can only get America so far. It’s like I can’t really have winning first prize in a 2017 competition headline my bio anymore. Just as I had to do to take my writing to the next level, it’s time to expose the depths of our origins, acknowledging the pain there and perhaps allow something new to be created from them that will represent us all.

Have you been lucky enough to balance good news with bad times? What approach do you take?

More on America’s compromised origins here

More on confronting racism here

More on getting personal with writing here

Undimmed By Human Tears

This Week’s Bit of String: Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts

First morning in a Bloomington, Minnesota hotel. I’d been looking forward to this five-night stay: I wouldn’t even have to make my own bed! Already I’d run 4 miles on a treadmill in the fitness centre, and I was ready for my share of American plenty.

Breakfast smelled good; coffee and fruit and syrup, and the crank of the waffle iron sounded as well as the splutter of juice and cereal dispensers. But as our family negotiated the buffet, we found only paper plates and plastic cutlery to eat it with, and no receptacle to dispose of these things but the nearly full trash bins.

Endless criss-crossing hallways of Mall of America, Minnesota
Thine alabaster cities gleam… Mall of America

With about 100 rooms in the hotel, the three bins in the dining area would fill up more than once in the course of the morning. That’s a lot going to the landfill, especially as kids sampled everything from the buffet and hastily threw out the bits they couldn’t be bothered with.

On top of this, the hotel and even the rental car company persistently offered ‘free’ bottled water. In the midst of a heatwave, air conditioning units ran full throttle and few pedestrians walked Bloomington’s wide plethora of highways and sand-coloured routes. The roads were lined with massive office buildings and hotels, many with their own fountains and escalators. And shops. Massive Targets and any other shop you can imagine—even with alternative branches of the same shops in the Mall of America a couple quick exits along the freeway.

So much stuff—who buys it, who has space for it? How quickly is it thrown out to make room for something more? This level of consumption and waste can’t be sustained. For goodness’ sake, America, what are you thinking?

Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control

I assume this lifestyle stems from corporate attempts at moneymaking, which officials across party divides seem to hold as the highest ideal.  The hotel wants to save on equipment and staff costs. Coca-Cola wants to peddle Dasani, which though scandalised and pulled from the market after just five weeks in the UK, is ubiquitous in the more accepting US. None of this should shock me.

Examining it honestly, what shocked me was how easily I convinced myself to go along with it. It’s just for a few days. My normal week consists of 11-hour stints out of the house for work every single day, writing or editing diligently on the bus, then managing laundry and food prep and cleaning the second I walk in the door at home. Surely taking a holiday could entail a mental, even a slight moral holiday as well?

White Mountain view from the summit of Mt Osceola
For purple mountains majesty…White Mountains, New Hampshire

Because waste and how we respond to materialism is a moral issue. It affects vulnerable beings and it influences larger habits. Instant gratification and material excess are staunchly defended, even encouraged, here; we invented the phrase retail therapy and were exhorted to continue with it even during the pursuit of very expensive military campaigns on two fronts in the Middle East.

America being a large nation full of juxtapositions and surprises, the allowances disappear the second a woman becomes pregnant in many states. Likewise, the constant amassing of assets is not available to impoverished persons from other nations, even those whose governments and economic stability were constantly jeopardised by the American need for cheap fruit.

A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat

Self-serving agendas go way back in this country. In 1776, American ‘Founding Fathers’ decided against ending slavery, to mollify Southern colonies and Northern businesses, keep the states unified, and kick the British out. Thereby, these heroes scrapped independence for all in favour of independence for some.

Mrs. Spokescow lobbies for voting rights in a Ben & Jerry's factory display
Above the fruited plain…Ben & Jerry’s Factory, Vermont

I understand they genuinely believed their actions benefited more [relevant] people than they harmed. They felt they had the right, a moral duty in fact, to begin a nation that would serve as a beacon to others. No other democracies existed yet, not even fledgling ones. If they hadn’t ignored slavery and banded together to fight for freedom, monarchies might have flourished forevermore.

America’s history is littered with compromise: railroads built by overworked immigrants, industrial revolution on the backs of child labour, draconian Homeland Security measures to reduce terrorism, mass production that disregards environmental and animal welfare…That’s a lot of bending from a pillar of morality; a lot of cowardice from the home of the brave.

A lot of us have done pretty damn well out of these questionable practices. Progress comes with sacrifices, but will there be a point when the sacrifices are ours rather than someone else’s?

Crown Thy Good

As I said, surprises abound here. Despite the breakfast utensils at my hotel, efforts to recycle are truly widespread (so if people in the UK are still using America’s wastefulness as an excuse not to recycle, themselves—grow up and own your own bad habits!)

In fact, recycling in the USA continues despite certain obstacles. China, a major re-manufacturer of recycled materials, is clamping down on contamination in what it receives, so recycling companies are scrambling to accommodate this. We can help by ensuring that we recycle only what’s recyclable: no crinkle cups like those red Solo ones (or Dunkin Donuts ones, I expect), and no food takeaway containers. It’s known as ‘wishcycling’ when we contaminate the actual recyclables this way, and I suspect it’s rife in the UK as well as the US. This Colorado Public Radio article reminds us how we can enable recycling companies to do their job.

Big fish made of plastic waste
From sea to shining sea… Como Zoo, Minnesota

It’s nice we want to recycle rather than waste. But what we should really do is reduce the disposables we use in the first place. The UK and Europe have made great steps to cut down on plastic straws and grocery bags. The US is catching on too; not just in ‘liberal’ coastal areas but in places thought to be conservative. Here’s an article in the Des Moines Register (from the rural midwestern state of Iowa) about cutting down on straw use in cafes. We’re in this together.

And this can only improve with innovative campaigns that bring the dangers of waste to the public’s attention. Consider the Art to Save the Sea exhibit at the Como Zoo and Botanical Gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota: every big sculpture is made of pieces of plastic waste washed up on the Pacific coast.

Till Selfish Gain No Longer Stain the Banner of the Free

Beyond consciously fighting our wastefulness, we could try fighting our stereotypes about others and accept personal responsibility for ourselves. (Er…especially when we’re not on holiday.) America just had a birthday, and this first, experimental democracy is still not very old. Back in my home region of New England, a recent theatre project put on the show 1776, which tells of compromises made while writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. With their production, they actively spurred discussion and drew attention to truths about our founding.

Memorial to Thomas E. Burnett, Jr, who gave his life on Sept 11, 2001 intercepting the hijackers on Flight 63. His last known words were, "We're going to do something."
Who more than self their country loved…Memorial at the Mall of America

At our White Mountains campsite, a truck-sized trailer of white people practised swordfighting and rode bikes. A Latino group played with each other’s hair and chatted; an Asian group threw an American football around and fished for trout and cooked rice in an enormous Instant Pot using the bathroom socket. One tiny, adorable girl broke away from their party to talk earnestly to me in a language I didn’t understand. This country continues to learn and integrate.

Let’s remember these things when some people are cross about how the national anthem is sung, some people don’t want to bake others a cake, and indeed some people are upset about cakes not being baked for them…Let’s stop and remember that we DO have it pretty good, at the cost of countless, invisible Others. Let’s consider what it’s like for people who are genuinely oppressed in parts of the world (sometimes as a result of American economic or defense policy). Then can we sacrifice from our own entitlements—perhaps not pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” but at least being thoughtful enough to calm each other down?

 

Note: Headings and captions use lyrics from “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, obtained from this page, which, in yet another example of American juxtaposition, links at the bottom to a detailed history of Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s interactions.