The Jury

I don’t recall exactly the first time I heard the phrase “the jury is no longer out” in the figurative sense but I’m pretty sure it was in Ms. Kurtz’s AP Lang class junior year of high school.

I think of three questions to ask about books–particularly when reading ‘literature’: Did you enjoy it? Do you appreciate what it has to say or how it says it? Can you understand its broader importance?

You can enjoy a book, or not, solely based on your own tastes and understanding. You can appreciate a well-crafted book, even if it’s not really your cup of tea. And you can acknowledge a book’s importance in a cultural and historical sense even if you didn’t enjoy it and don’t think it’s all that well done.

But the point is this: you can’t really say that a work of a major literary canon isn’t good just because you didn’t like it. The jury is no longer out. People have spent decades, even centuries, by and large in agreement that certain books have got it, whatever that may be. Some may fall in and out of favor with English teaching or academic regard but I doubt the consensus will ever say, “Charles Dickens and all his works are unmitigated trash.” Even if people no longer support it, they’ve got to admit that his writing had a huge literary and cultural impact for a long time.

And so I have been making an effort to train myself to present my opinions as they are, that is, as opinions only, without particular weight in any area, lacking any personal authority. I try not to say “it is bad” about a book or movie or whatever that I don’t like and instead say “I don’t love it” because it may well have weight beyond my enjoyment of it and I don’t need to yuck your yum all the time. By the same token, I’m also wishing that some people could be more able to acknowledge things as well-done or important even if they personally didn’t enjoy it.

The thing is, this mindset is transferring to other areas as well.

Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz around the US about postal voting. People are having arguments about it. As though it’s a new thing. And it is not. The jury is no longer out on voting by mail. We’ve been there, done that, it’s fine. Haven’t received a million complaints, haven’t had our elections thrown out. There is literally no defense for people trying to limit voting by mail.

I truly do not understand it. Multiple states have held entirely mail-in ballots for years. Not a word was spoken against it. No one has claimed that all of Washington’s elections for the past several cycles have been illegitimate, massively tampered with, or somehow undemocratic. I didn’t vote in person until I lived in Michigan and I honestly thought the whole experience was a waste of time.

And let’s be clear, it’s not some liberal plot, either. You can find basic information here. The five states that currently do postal voting for everything all the time are Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah. Let’s hear your argument about how the Utah State Legislature is part of the deep state conspiracy about… literally anything. It’s Utah. Further, there are three states that permit counties to decide to conduct all elections by mail (this is how Washington arrived at its current mode) and they are California, Nebraska, and North Dakota. The list of places that sometimes allow postal votes for some things in some places is actually pretty long.

I’m reasonably confident that I’m preaching to the choir here. I imagine that most of my readers don’t mind postal voting, and may even have been doing it for years. I just needed to have this little moment here because I see on Facebook plenty of people–who I would generally consider left-leaning–doubting the security of voting by mail. As if we don’t have any data about it. As if it’s an unknown quantity, an untested method. It drives me nuts.

We don’t need to eliminate in-person voting, though I think it’s a huge expense without many advantages. But the possible shortcomings of postal voting could be addressed on a local level within a context where postal voting is default and then circumstances for individuals or communities could be addressed by special dispensation. Unlike now, where postal ballots are special dispensation and the standard is waiting in line on a non-national holiday and all that.

Bah. There’s a lot to it. To make us feel better, here is a calming nature cat.

Generously

This week, I restarted my gratitude journal. It had fallen by the wayside this summer while travelling and I just hadn’t cared to resume it this fall or winter. Or spring. Until this week. It’s only been a few days so it’s not like I’ve been transformed by it–I also don’t think I was really transformed by it when I kept it regularly. But I think it’s a positive and healthy thing nonetheless.

To remind you, or tell you for the first time, this is how I structure my gratitude journal entries, pretty much verbatim:

Today, I’m grateful for [something that I’m grateful for]. I’m praying for [something about my own life] and [something outside of myself]. I enjoyed [something that I enjoyed that day].

That’s it. I write in the evenings so I can try to account for the whole day when thinking about something I enjoyed, but other than that, it doesn’t really make much difference. The whole reason this blog happens is because I’m a trash journaller so it has to be short, simple, and routine for me to make it happen. But resuming it this week has me thinking about another thing, which I’ve kind of structured in my mind in a similar way.

I don’t think it’s all that unusual, but I spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about what I would do if I had money to spend. Sometimes, of course, it’s imagining how I’d dispose of lottery winnings (if ever I play, much less win). But often, I just think about normal things to spend money on. Furniture, plants, silverware, fancy spices (cardamom, always cardamom).

Some purchases are necessary and kind of exciting in that they are good things that you need, but mostly are actually not all that interesting. For example, my government virus money went to getting a new car battery (which I desperately needed) and a new phone (which wasn’t absolutely necessary but which was long overdue. Both of those purchases made me happy and improved my life but I don’t really care about them that much, as purchases or possessions. I guess that’s very materialistic of me, that I need possessions that I don’t even care about but I am what I am.

The current question about how to spend all my money is about donating. I feel pretty strongly that I want to be a regular contributor to things and I’m not sure what. At the moment, I do actually donate to Wikipedia monthly which I love (it’s like $1.75 or something so I feel it’s very in my grasp). But I’m wondering what you guys think? What are causes and organizations that you donate to? Do you do it monthly? Annually? Just on occasion?

I think there’s a lot of value to being a consistent contributor and so I’d like to have my basis of donating be something monthly. That also just makes more sense for the way I budget. Not to say that I would refrain from other, once-off things.

Thinking about this a number of times the past few years (during which I’ve never really felt able to put it into action more than sporadically), I have a bit of a system devised. I have a few categories of things I want to support and then trying to think about local and global questions. So here’s what I’ve come up with thus far and I’d love to hear your thoughts. The thing I like (about this in general, not my system here) is that it’s scalable by nature–it’s not like I have too many options because the amount I’ll be able to donate will just be evenly divided. Anyway.

I want to support the arts (something local like a community choir and something not local like the Smithsonian), the environment (something local like Harbor Wild Watch and something not local like Conservation International), justice broadly defined (something like local homeless initiatives and something not local like the Trevor Project), and the church (perhaps to the church I end up attending locally and something not local like the International Justice Mission).

I haven’t done loads of research or anything, some of those examples are just things I’m familiar with. What do you think? Any suggestions? I’d love to hear what you’re committed to yourself, if you wouldn’t mind sharing. You can just message me, I won’t make you post it to the internet, of course!

I hope that during this time, you are still generous as you are able, and willing to receive generosity as you are given it.

A Slow Flower

What a tremendous sin impatience is. It blinds us to the moment before us, and it is only when that moment has passed that we look back and see it was full of treasures.

I am bookending this post with a couple quotations from a book I finished a couple days ago. They were such great lines that I really wanted to share them, though I couldn’t bring myself to offer much commentary on them.

Both of them strike me as particularly topical, relevant, and encouraging but at the same time, I promised myself that I wouldn’t keep hounding on the same old themes that I’ve been occupied with lately. I just need something else going on, as I’m sure you all understand. So while their content is really something I think we need to hear right now, I’m going to spend more time talking about their source.

I have finally read a book! The past couple months, I have been reading essentially not at all. No motivation to read, even things that I knew I’d enjoy. No drive to find something new, no yearning to refresh something old. Just general listlessness of the worst kind. But last week, I sat down, checked out an ebook from the library (that I had actually gotten by hold a couple months ago and eventually returned, unopened) and just started reading. I don’t know what switch flipped but I’m happy that it did.

I finished it altogether too quickly but I’m grateful that I at least had a couple days back in the enjoyment of reading a good book. It was the final book of a trilogy that I have quoted on this blog before, this entry being City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett. And what a wonderful conclusion it was.

Each book of the trilogy focused on a different main character, all three united in the first and then the following only having relatively small appearances by the others. Normally, this is a format of multi-book writing that I really dislike but these books made it work.

More on that in a sec but first, cat gallery. Lots of cute moments captured this week. And I’ll reiterate to whomever of my friends do read this: please always send me cute cat pictures. I may post them here, with your permission, but I will cherish them regardless.

Gah, I love them so much.

Anyway, these books were so interesting. Such a fascinating look into the way we construct our worlds, the agency we do and do not have, the faith that drives us–whether divine or wholly personal. I enjoyed the way the fantasy world was constructed, and how it held together in view of a number of existential plot-driven crises. There was a cohesive structure to it all, even if that structure was, by nature, bound to change.

It reminds me of something I often say in defense of reading fantasy and, particularly, young adult fantasy (which this was not, but the idea still applies). Regular fiction is great, no problem, but I love having the questions raised be not only vital to a person or a family or maybe even a town. The scale of fantasy novels tends toward the dramatic: the fate of the world, the universe, time itself.

When you raise questions with stakes like that, your answers may be a little less personally applicable but I think they’re a lot more clear. Fantasy can give an opportunity to ask big questions, provide small answers, and urge us to seek the rest in our own lives. That’s kind of what these books did.

I was particularly interested in the big questions because they’re ones I’m interested in with regard to this world. Questions about colonization, race, and governance as much as faith, sorrow, and personal agency.

This final book in particular sought out the hows and the whys along with the whats, perhaps even more so. In many ways, for example, it concerned itself largely with the question not of ‘what does a just society look like’ but ‘how can we begin a change from an unjust society toward a more equitable one?’ The status quo is a powerful thing but it is not permanent. We can always strive.

Change is a slow flower to bloom. Most of us will not see its full radiance. We plant it not for ourselves, but for future generations. But it is worth tending to. Oh, it is so terribly worth tending to.

Turtles, Rivers, Mitochondria, Figs

There are certain moments in life where it feels like a light has come on. Not sudden understanding, exactly, but sudden vision. Where before there was darkness, now there is light. You look up and realize, hey, my life can look different. I can improve my life. I can change things and those changes could totally transform me and my life for the better.

I think everyone can, and maybe does, experience this to some extent. But a really startlingly clear example would be queer people as they begin to come out. Finally opening up your heart–even just to yourself–enough to see that there could be happiness for you. That there is more than everything you thought your life had to be.

I can’t explain how powerful it is to come to a place where you can dream about falling in love when you have literally never been able to really imagine it before. It’s like being practically frozen and taking a sip of rich hot chocolate: you can feel it travel through you, track its progress across your body, feel a change instantly in a way that was hard to conceive of when all you could think about was how cold you were.

The thing queer people won’t hesitate to tell you is that coming out is not one moment, one choice. It’s a choice that, once made, must be made over and over again as you encounter new people, new situations, new realities. And therein, I think, is one of the most powerful lessons about these light-on moments.

I’ve written (to varying lengths) about our current situation several times the past several weeks. And I haven’t really known what to say but I keep repeating it over and over again, that I hope this changes things. That I hope we come out the other side of this better, different, more compassionate, more whole. But here’s finally something I can say that is, at least in some small, kind of psychological way actually actionable.

Think about your life changes like coming out. It’s something that, once you realize, you can’t imagine going back. Once you feel the freedom, you’ll do whatever you can to keep it. And as you move forward, you’ll always be on the lookout for moments when you might need to make the decision all over again.

Just as opportunities to come out come up all the time, so will opportunities that test your resolve on any change you’re trying to make. It’s not a sign of failure if you choose against your first decision. But if you’ve really seen the light, you’ll at least know what you’re striving toward, even if you don’t walk that direction every time. Once you have seen what life can be like, once you’ve granted your imagination permission to dream greater dreams, you can’t help but come out over and over again, even if imperfectly.

I guess I just want to encourage you in walking in response to whatever light-on moments you may have had in response to this pandemic. Whether related to your own life or social structures beyond your direct control. If your imaginations have been opened about what your life can look like, relish that. Exult in the joy of finally realizing whatever it is that you’ve realized. Give yourself grace in the months and years to come, knowing that change is hard and choosing over and over again is hard. But take heart.


I’m thinking about what I said last week. I know it wasn’t much but the thrust of it I think is about the most powerful change we can make. To love anyway. To forgive when we have no good reason. To be kind when we know it won’t be reciprocated. To be glad for a friend’s happiness instead of envious or melancholy that we don’t have the whatever.

These are all choices that we can make. Moment to moment, over and over again, until we die. And the best part is, they’re exactly the kind of choices that will treat us kindly when we fall short, and spur us to choose good more. The world is having a hard time right now, even more than usual, but we can choose to grow through it, choose to look different on the other side.

There’s such a beautiful natural analog to this in twisted trees and things like that. When the light changes or the wind shifts or the ground moves, they adapt. They don’t abandon where they’ve been but neither do they feel the need to continue in a course that no longer results in good growth. Their trunks and branches contort themselves so that they can flourish where they are, and every ounce of energy must again and again make the decision to support that new, different growth.

I encountered this poem from Jane Hirshfield entitled Optimism. I am thinking about what resilience means. Those parts of us which do not merely spring back but take a new shape, grow into something strange and twisted and beautiful. The sweetness of figs.


More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.