Happy

There is a picture of me from when I was a very little girl – right around three years old. I’m wearing a white dress covered with red polka dots, hands on hips, grinning down at the camera from the top step of a porch. It’s the last visual image I have of myself as a fundamentally happy person.

Me, situationally happy to be where I as when this was taken. (In case it wasn't obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress).

In case it wasn’t obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress – that’s been lost to the sands of time, otherwise known as my mother’s house.

When I say “happy person”, I don’t mean “happy” in a situational or contextual sense. I have been happy many times in my life and I have many happy memories to go with them.

I was happy the first time I was cast in a play.  I was happy when I completed my MA. I am massively happy anytime something I write gets published. I was happy the day my husband proposed, and happier still the day we got married. I was over the moon the first time I held my daughter.

Sex makes me happy. Good food makes me happy. Wide-ranging, mind-opening conversations make me happy. Letters from faraway friends make me happy. A friend’s success makes me happy, as does a person being in love. I’ve been happy reading a book on a rainy day, and I’ve been happy dancing in the middle of a bar. All of these happy moments were honestly and genuinely happy, but the happiness I felt was contextual. I was happy because something made me happy. The happiness was the result of an external influence, not a state of being.

In fact, all of the happiness(es) I’ve experienced in the decades that followed the picture of me on the porch have been entirely situational. They boosted me up out of my naturally neutral state. It’s not that I was walking around being actively unhappy – it’s just that my resting state is / was fundamentally…not sad, per se, but grave.

I know why this is and the reasons for it are good – so good that I never tried to chip down the barrier between me and the little girl at the top of the porch, which is why I was kind of shocked to realize that, for the first time in decades, I’m happy for no reason. I’m happy because my resting state is happy. I’m happy just because.

This is, to put it bluntly, a literal fucking joy, all the more so because I am, and remain, a depressive. For the first time in my (remembered) life, I feel the light, fizzy, amazing physical effects of being happy, but in a more grounded, internal way than I have ever before. It’s the difference between drinking champagne and dipping your finger into it – when you dip your finger in, you feel the bubbles, but when you drink it, the bubbles are in you. At the moment, I’ve drunk the champagne.

That said, I know from experience that nothing is as stable as change. Just as my baseline shifted from melancholy to this random, self-sustaining joy, it could just as easily move back, and that’s okay. Emotions and emotional states are, by nature, fluid, and trying to hold onto a nebulous positive is as self-defeating as clinging to a negative. So, while I’m not attached (in the Buddhist sense) to this bizarre state of fundamental, non-circumstantial happiness, it is good to know that I’m capable of it – for years I thought I no longer was. That, in its own right, is a happy thing.

It’s lovely to feel that my life is good and complete, and it’s equally lovely to know that whatever happiness comes next might add to a happiness that pre-existed it, rather than act as a bump to an immobile and subdued resting state, which makes me thing that all of this has more to do with balance than anything else.

For a long time, my scales naturally tipped towards *sadness, or neutral at best. At the moment, my scales are level because the happiness I’m feeling creates a counterweight, and, rather than neutral, my resting state is, at the moment, sanguine and content. 

While it doesn’t eradicate the shadows (because those shadows are rooted deep), this happiness is equally internalized so, for the first time, happiness carries an equal weight. I’ve no doubt the scale tip one way and the other, but it’s no longer static, and that’s a strange and happy thing.

*Side Note: On a somewhat serious note, I should explicitly state that what I’m describing isn’t the difference between being depressed or not depressed. Depression isn’t as simple as happy vs. sad, nor is depression synonymous with sadness, as any depressed person can tell you. In fact, I am, at the moment, massively depressed. I just feel the essential happiness fizzing away beneath it, which should be cognitively disturbing but, happily, isn’t.

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Everything Happens…

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 12.23.44 PM

Earth at the Center of It All

Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.

And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.

For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.

Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.

As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”

Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”

Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.

Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.

God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.

Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.

I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”

Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.

Book Lust London

A few weeks ago, I went to London. I love London, among other things because I fucking love London. There are lots of reasons for this, some more personal than others, but high on the list is the fact that London is a book city, so much so that it makes me feel like this:

Animated GIF of Sarah's excited reaction from Sarah and Duck

-Sarah’s excited reaction. From Sarah & Duck.

It’s not that we don’t love books in the States. I was a bookseller for ten years before I became a librarian and I can tell you right now that there are lots and lots of Americans who love their books. We fundraise for libraries and champion literacy like champs. I can’t even walk down the street wearing my Reading Rainbow tee-shirt without someone asking me where I got it. (Here, in case you were wondering). But that’s not quite what I mean.

Picture of a pile of books bought on my most recent trip to London, for Book Lust London post by Malin James

Most of my recent haul.

It’s the difference between a lot of wonderful, book-loving individuals scattered across more 2,600 miles of geography and a country that televises the Man Booker Prize because there are betting pools and it’s serious. It’s the difference between book clubs discussing a summer release and two guys throwing down in a pub over whether you’re a “pretentious, fucking twat” for having read Ulysses or an “ignorant fuck” if you haven’t. (I overheard that debate, and it was awesome – super critical in the most un-bullshit way I’ve ever seen).

But even that can be found in the States (though probably not in a bar). For me, what makes London a book city is that fact that there are bookstores everywhere, from chains to tiny independents, and they are full of books – not sidelines, CD’s, toys, games and books. Just books. I like that you can ask booksellers what they’d recommend and trust that they have an informed opinion. I like that bookshops in London range from hodge-podge collections in stores smaller than my grandmother’s house to polished, muti-floor giants you could spend the whole day in.

Here’s the thing. I come from a city that is famous for its literary heritage thanks to Steinbeck and Burroughs and Kerouac. But bookselling and publishing have changed so much in the States that even a city like San Francisco can’t support more than a handful of scrappy, often struggling independents. And yes, I can order almost anything I want on Amazon and I can download everything else onto my Kindle (though my brain refuses to fully engage digital text). It’s not that I can’t get anything I want because I can. I just can get it in a way that feels real.

I can’t walk a mile and hit a couple of bookshops on my way to somewhere else. I can’t spend ages meandering sections and pulling (way too many) books off the shelves before handing a nice person money so I can take them home with me now. That sort of experience is a luxury like clotted cream and sleeping past 8am. And I’m not sure I’d want to that to change.

I say not sure because if someone told me that I could live in London I’d move. Like, yesterday. But no one is going to give me their flat anytime soon so I like enjoying the specialness of it. Because it is special to me. Books are tactile things – the massively cliched but totally distinct scent of paper and ink is a thing, and so is touching the object you’re going to buy. The real value of brick and mortar bookshops is that they foster a tactile relationship between the book and the person who buys it. And, because I’m a romantic, I want to enjoy that relationship, even if I only get to taste it now and then – especially if only now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish the book business in the States was more boom than bust, that there were more prizes and more interest in shortlists. I wish there were more independents staffed by people who hand-sell titles because they fucking love that book. I wish I could stroll down the street and come home with something random that I can’t wait to read. But I can’t, at least, not living in a suburb of a lovely city that is struggling to hold onto the few bookshops it has left.

That’s one of the reasons I love London so much. I will never get to all of the city’s bookstores let alone all of the shops in the rest of the country, but I love that they’re there, all dreamy and wonderful to think about. Books in London are a treat and I like it that way, even when it means dragging luggage that weighs 9,000 pounds through the tube, and waiting longer than I’d like to be there again.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

Return of the Prodigal Writer Person

Color photograph of Malin James scowling happily in concentration for Return of the Prodigal Writer Person post

Happy Thinking Face

I set this blog aside more than 2 years ago when I decided to focus on other areas of writing. As much as I missed it, I’m glad I did because the time I spent honing in on erotica and sex writing resulted in a ton of growth, both as a person and as a writer. While my fiction is starting to skirt the edges of different genres, sex and sexuality have become the central thrust (ha!) of my creative and professional life. In fact, the past two years have helped me realize that sex is the lens through which I naturally see the world. But more about that on my other site.

Cleverboots is, and always has been, a kind of miscellany, as opposed to the dedicated focus of People. Sex. Culture. That dedicated focus is a really good thing, but it leaves some of my personal passions dangling, most especially reading. I slowly stopped reading for pleasure and only read for work (before you say “poor, baby”, figure it’s like a barista not wanting coffee at home).

Thanks to all of my work reading, gender identity, feminism, the body politic and other social concerns now flash a bright on my cultural radar. Unfortunately, a lot of my other areas of interests, like history, psychology, and non-erotic fiction, got uncomfortably dusty.

Now that things on the People. Sex. Culture. side of writing are established and slowly growing, I’m anxious to get back to basics. That’s largely reading for pleasure, but it also covers a lot of other things, like film, pop culture and current events. So, I’m rebooting Cleverboots as a personal / book blog.

So, that’s what I’m up to here. People. Sex. Culture. is still my primary site, just as the scope of my writing is naturally sex-related – nothing there is changing. More than anything, Cleverboots will function as an occasional, personal / reader’s blog. And  I can tell you right now that it’s going to be a pretty casual place.

I’m going to be pretty open with topics and write fairly off the cuff (except for reviews, which will be earnest and considered because I can’t helpt it). I’ll also end up posting the odd, occasional story that has nowhere to go. If my other site is a pair of pretty heels and a classy, black suit, Cleverboots is jeans and my favorite sweatshirt. Both are 100% me. This is just where I’m likely to rant, ramble and brood like the Super Big Book Nerd I am.

On Integrity

Woman looking into compact mirror. black and white image.

Vintage advertisement. Image courtesy favim.com

A few days ago, I was in the car listening to an interview with Tavis Smiley, an African-American social critic and all-around intellectual bad-ass. In recent years, he’s come under fire from the African-American community for holding Barack Obama publicly accountable for his failure to better address issues of poverty in America.

While knew that Smiley had become persona non grata in his own cultural community for voicing criticism of the first black President of the United States, it was only in the wake of the interview that I considered just how much intellectual integrity such a critique requires. This is a man less interested in cultural or political ideology than he is in truth. Now that is integrity. And integrity is rare.

They say that the quality you hate most in other people is the quality you hate in yourself. Conversely, I would say that the thing you admire most in others is that which you most long to have. For me, that most admired quality is integrity. Having integrity is hard. Integrity is, among other things, being willing to do the hard thing for no other reason than that it is right.

For most of my life, I had no integrity, (and no, I’m not being hard on myself). I never did the hard thing because hard things were hard – or stressful, or saddening, or difficult, or uncomfortable or, or, or…. I trafficked in excuses, both with others and myself. I was sick. I was swamped. I was stressed. I was something. Anything. Just give me an excuse, and if that excuse inspired sympathy, bonus points.

Excuses were easier than integrity. Much easier. Unfortunately, making excuses also meant that I was perpetuating a lie and creating my own mythology – a comfortable little narrative that kept me insulated from the reality of myself. And then my mythology fell apart.

Someone I know once said that if you and your self-image aren’t matching up, one of you has to change. In my case, I was nowhere near being the strong, confident, compassionate person I thought I was – a fact that became disturbingly clear after a series of painful realizations.

 

Image of Tavis Smiley

Image of Tavis Smiley, courtesy theatlantic.com. On a personal note, I love the look on Smiley’s face.

 

Once faced with an unavoidably clear picture of myself, I realized that I had three options.

1. I could accept my new, truthful self-image, disgusting warts and all.

2. I could try to delude myself back into my happy comfort zone, (no dice there, I’d already swallowed the red pill).

3. I had to change.

Now, let’s be clear. Living with the fact that I was a moody, self-absorbed stress puppy held zero appeal. I had to change, mostly because I was, (and am), too vain to settle for being less than someone I can respect.

Integrity is, for me, a hard-won import of a quality. Someone else I know is fond of saying that the danger with integrity is that you never know when you’ve lost it, and I believe this to be true. I fear the easy answer like almost nothing else. I fear my own ego and the trap of self-admiration. I fear ideologies because there is safety in belonging, even if you trade yourself in exchange. I fear spoon-fed logic because, for so long, I failed to think for myself.

Consequently, there is literally nothing more attractive to me than a person with integrity. They are what I strive to be – their own honest judge of themselves and their circumstances. That’s why I so respect Tavis Smiley, whose politics I both do and do not agree with. He is a person with towering integrity – both intellectual and personal – and that is that is the quality I most need to nurture in myself.

The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy www.cvltnation.com

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

Books, or My Fetish

A two story gallery of books in the old library at Trinity College Dublin for Books, My Fetish by Malin James

Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin

So, let’s play a game. When I say fetish, you say…

SEX!!!

Probably. Or possible not, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume you say, SEX!! Most people, including myself, do. After all, in Western popular culture, fetish really does = sex.

And why not? There are plenty of fabulous sexual fetishes out there – feet, hands, pain, exhibitionism, voyeurism.. hell, there’s even an eyeball-licking fetish.

But not all fetishes are strictly sexual. In fact, traditionally speaking, (and by traditional I mean dating back to the early 17th century), fetishes were spiritual in nature, and were almost always objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers. If you go by the original meaning, anything from a voodoo doll to a saint’s relic is a fetish – an object used or revered for it’s spiritual power.

This made me realize something. I have a book fetish – a serious, committed, barely-restrained book fetish.

It isn’t that I literally worship books because I think they’re literally magical. It’s more that, for me, books have an inherent value and, because of that, they are the locus of my compulsion to acquire new things. In other words, some people have shoes, other people have exes, and I have books.

Nigella Lawson's private library. Image courtesy bookmania.me

Nigella Lawson’s private library. Image courtesy bookmania.me

Since I was old enough to buy my first Nancy Drew with my very own money, I have surrounded myself with books. I buy, borrow, give, and receive books with a pure, transactional joy that should be acquisitive but isn’t. Really, I just love books. I love stacking them, collecting them, rearranging and classifying them. I love holding them and writing in their margins, and of course, I love reading them.  The book, as an object, is comforting to me. It doesn’t matter if I’ve read it five times or never heard of it, books are totems. They are, quite literally, a mental escape hatch, and in that way they are an incredibly significant part of my personal growth.

I can trace my development as a person back through my reading material, from Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books to A.S. Byatt, Dorothy Parker and Anais Nin. Each phase in my reading reflects an emotional phase in my life, and the books that I read during those phases are, in essence, relics of the person I was. My books are a map of my past, and an indicator of future interests and selves. So yes, I have a old-fashioned fetish. I attach spiritual significance to books. I will never read every book I own, and I will never own enough… That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

 

On Burning Your Boats

When I decided to move to writing full time, I did so with the caveat that if anything really promising in librarianship came up, I would do it and write part-time again, which means that my choice to write full time was always, in some way conditional – I had a sort of mental escape hatch that allowed me to do the frightening thing and write while still feeling like I had a safety net.

About two months ago, I was approached about a contract position in a library, which definitely qualified as “something exciting”. On the surface, the opportunity made a lot of sense. It was a part-time situation that would net a decent, very stable income and replace the worry and comparative instability of freelancing. Score. I would work in the library part time and write part time. The family schedule would be “interesting” (meaning INSANE), but it overall, that would be okay because everything else would be good… except for the fact that I would lose some traction on current WIP’s and projects… and that  the idea never quite settled right with me. At all.

Last week interviews and phone meetings were scheduled for the position. This week would basically be spent talking to people and deterring the terms of the contract. Should have been exciting, right? But it wasn’t. I just felt vaguely sick. I couldn’t focus on the writing I had to do – I was too preoccupied by the fact that soon I would have far less time to work.. meaning write.

So, after much debate, I just sent a series of very nice emails saying thanks but no thanks to the contract. You’d think that torching that safe little boat would be empowering or, at the very least, kind of fun. It wasn’t not. It was very gently terrifying, because it meant that now I’m doing this. No safety net. No back-up. This is it. I’m a writer – not a writer on condition – and that means I need to up my game and kick some serious ass. Seriously.

On the flip side, it feels good to have a challenge to rise to. I’ve never done the safe thing, though it’s never been from lack of trying – safe was always a siren song, even as I auditioned for play after play, all while trying to figure out how to be an actor *and* have a stable, routine life. Ha.

It was that trying to be safe that kept the risks I took from paying off. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m taking an unabashed, no-holding back risk. And I’m free – from myself and the little demon that whispered in my ear. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. 

Sometimes, safe isn’t really that safe, not if it isn’t honestly safe, and my pursuit of safety, and my inability to see a risk through was never honest. It was always based in fear. So now, my boats are finally burning and that little safety demon can go straight to hell. In declining the contract position, I finally sent it there, and that does feel good.