The Power of Art to Stay Awake.

I’ve been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu with equal parts fascination, fear and fury.

For those who don’t know the premise, it is based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. The former United States is now The Republic of Gilead. After extreme environmental devastation has left many women barren and men sterile, the new order steps in, sorting women into categories: young fertile women become Handmaids, some become Martha’s or maids, some are Aunts who are in charge of grooming the Handmaids for their new duties, while the rest are sent to work in the toxic camps where death is imminent. Cheery, so far, yes?

Handmaids are placed with a commander and his barren wife. Most of the commanders are sterile but that fact is no longer allowed in this society. (Dismissing of facts, sound familiar?) Only women are blamed for not being able to procreate. Their duty is to produce a child for the couple through The Ceremony which I find myself cringing through as I watch it.

One of the most disturbing aspects are the flashbacks which also greatly disturbed my 23-year-old daughter. In our current climate, setting the flashbacks in our time just makes the scenario seem not only possible but, at times, chillingly inevitable. Through the flashbacks we learn how women’s right were methodically stripped: firing them for their jobs, freezing their bank accounts so that only a husband or father could manage their money.

These are extreme actions that may, on the surface, feel completely unrealistic. We like to tell ourselves that would never happen here. But it already is. It comes down to how we value women and as a society we aren’t valued as much as men. We literally make less money for the same job just because are women. We are at the crux of a constant fight for control over our own bodies. We may be heading back to a time where our gender is considered a pre-existing condition and be charged more for our health insurance.

Beyond the issues of gender, another chilling scene was a brief flashback where men dressed in black with guns were throwing books and art into a fire. Why go after art? It is straight out of the dictator’s handbook. Go after the artists who use their voices to speak truth to power. Artists hold up a mirror to society—the good, the bad and the ugly. Once we see ourselves, we can’t unseen it. Therefore, it behooves a regime to not allow it to be seen or heard in the first place.

I’ve been watching as many artists struggle to find their voice in this new era of government where rights are threatened on an almost daily basis. Before the election, writer Julianna Baggott started a site inviting people to dedicate their no-Trump vote, sharing their stories about why they were not voting for him.

More than 600 American writers, including Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and Cheryl Strayed, penned an open letter against Trump.

Michael Moore reveals that he has been on a “creative tear” since last summer when he saw the inevitable train wreck coming at us. He encourages the use of satire and humor because it has been shown to get under the President’s extremely thin skin. What is a weakness in him becomes a strength for the resistance.

Many visual artists are turning to their work in this era of Trump to motivate action and educate the public on issues they are passionate about. As always, art is in the eyes of the beholder and there are consequences of expressing your views in such a public forum. For example, Ilma Gore’s painting of a nude Trump sporting a micropenis is currently on display at the Maddox gallery in London. She has been threatened not only by his lawyers but has received thousands of death and rape threats after posting the image online where it was shared over 260,000 times.

I find myself turning more to my writing than ever before. It soothes my anxiety, it helps me make sense of the chaos and it helps me discern what I think and how I feel within the chaos. Working on my novel five days week is often the one time of the day when I can block out the news and lose myself in another world. But I also find myself writing more political content in my journal, on social media and on my blog. I considered whether that would offend potential readers of my work and chose to use my voice. It is a gift I have and to not use it seems wrong. My audience is not huge but I have had people tell me over and over again how much they appreciate my words so I will keep sending them out into the world.

Ultimately, this election has been about waking up. Waking up to reality, to political action, to making myself heard whether through marches, town halls, calling and faxing my representatives or writing. Artists are awake to reality and they wake the rest of us up which is critical in these times.

I will leave you with the most chilling words from “The Handmaid’s Tale” so far:

Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Consitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

~ Offred

Let’s stay awake.

 

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Books read July – December.

July - Dec. books

“The Residence- Inside the Private World of The White House” by Kate Andersen Brower

As a long-time fan of “The West Wing” as well as being intrigued by behind-the-scenes peeks at life, I found this book fascinating.

Covering administrations from the Kennedy’s to the Obama’s, we are given a glimpse into the people who make the White House run so efficiently. They try to blend into the background, but are often on the frontlines of major events in our history from assassinations to 9/11.

We learn which first families were a little stand-offish to who was more relaxed and joked with the staff. We learn how the staff felt about being a part of the White House and what it meant to them and their families.

It is just a fascinating report on a part of our politics and history that is often overlooked.

“another day” a YA novel by David Levithan

I watch his car as it pulls into the parking lot.

Levithan mesmerized me with his first novel about “A” who wakes up in the body of different young adult every day. This novel picks up from there but with a twist. In the first novel “every day,” A inhabits the body of Justin. In doing so, A spends a beautiful day with Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon. For the first time, A can’t leave one of his lives behind him.

“Another Day” picks up with the story of Rhiannon, who had this beautiful day with her boyfriend that was totally out of character for them. He was attentive and sensitive and made her feel truly seen and heard for the first time. The next day, their relationship is back to its usual status of her trying to anticipate his moods and not annoy him in any way.

Then a stranger shows up and tells her that the Justin she spent the day with wasn’t Justin at all.

This is a beautiful story of love and seeing beyond the way we look to deep within to who we actually are.

Sentences I love: “My life changes all the time, but books don’t change. My reading of them changes—I can bring new things to them each time. But the words are familiar words. The world is a place you’ve been before, and it welcomes you back.”

“The Heart Goes Last” a novel by Margaret Atwood

Sleeping in the car is cramped.

Only Atwood could weave together an economic and social collapse, prison, Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and sex robots and come out with a captivating novel that shines a light on society today. Stan and Charmaine are living out of their car after losing their jobs and their house, leaving them vulnerable to gangs and violence. They see a commercial for a community that seems to offer everything they are lacking: financial security, physical safety, food and housing. They sign on to participate in the Positron Project which requires them to live in the prison every other month, sharing their house with their “alternates.” When their lives begin to intersect with their alternates (which is forbidden) they are flung into territory where their safety and lives are put at risk. If something seems top good to be true, there is inevitably a price to pay.

Classic Atwood. Could not put it down.

“Everything I Never Told You” a novel by Celeste Ng

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

What a fantastic first two sentences. They hooked me for sure and led me into the lives of a Chinese American family living in the suburbs of 1970’s Ohio. Lydia is the favored child, the child on which her parents have pinned their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. When Lydia’s body is found in a nearby lake, the equilibrium of the family is dismantled. This is an exquisite exploration of family and all the ways we hide pieces of ourselves from each other while still longing to understand and be understood by those closest to us.

A sentence I love: Those nights, she never fell back asleep again, and the days grew sticky and thick, like syrup.

“The State We’re In” stories by Ann Beattie

The summer school assignment, the fucking fucking summer school third paper of ten, and if you didn’t get at least a C on the first nine, you had to write eleven papers, the fucking teacher wadding up her big fat lips so they looked like a carnation, her lips that she’d use to pout at your inadequacy…

The first sentence continues from there, delving deep into the mind if its teenage protagonist, Jocelyn (around whom the stories center.) She is living with her aunt and uncle for the summer while her mother recuperates. The stories can have a certain edge to them—an edge of dark humor and vulnerability—just as the characters do. These are not stories to be skimmed. These are stories to be read slowly, savored and digested fully.

A sentence I love: On a scale of one to one hundred, she thought she loved him more than an eighty.

“Big Magic- Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Once upon a time, there was a man named Jack Gilbert, who was not related to me—unfortunately for me.

Chances are, you’ve already read this. If you are interested in writing or any kind of creativity, this is the book to read. I gobbled it up the first day it came out.

I started underlining sentences, then passages, then realized I’d pretty much end up underlining the entire book so I just sat back and savored all the juicy morsels that seemed to speak to my soul.

Gilbert has a knack for doing that—speaking directly into the hearts and minds of her readers. Or listeners on TED.

Sure, it’s a book about creativity that can be applied to writing, painting or any other artistic endeavor but it can really be applied to living. Living a life fully and beyond fear. Notice she doesn’t claim to teach you how to live without fear. In fact, Gilbert insists that fear is an essential part of the process:

“Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear—because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.”

What I love about this book (and Gilbert in general) is how honest she is. She doesn’t sugar-coat the trials and tribulations. What she does is take you by the hand, look into your eyes and tell you that she’s been there, that she is there now and this is how she deals with whatever is standing in her way and she is more than happy to show you the way.

That right there is what I love most about her—her utter generosity in sharing what she has learned about life, about creativity, persistence, trust—all of it.

A sentence I love: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.

“Year of Yes- How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes

I’m a liar.

I’m not usually drawn to celebrity memoirs but the title of this and the idea behind it me lured me in. As well as the fact that I just love Shonda Rhimes!

One Thanksgiving, after telling her sister about all the great opportunities she had no intention of accepting and experiencing her sister said, “You say no to everything.”

Those words haunted Rhimes until she finally had admit the truth behind them and decided to say yes to everything for a year.

She takes us through the year, behind the scenes of the yeses, all that she experienced—the good, bad and ugly— as well as hearing about her shows and how much of herself is reflected in the writing of them.

You don’t have to read too far to see that the fast paced dialogue and rhythm of, say a Poppa Pope monologue, comes from Rhimes herself.

I loved hearing about her writing process a bit but mostly I admired how honest she is about her struggles with her weight to social anxiety. And how her year of yes impacted all aspects of her life in ways she never imagined when she first dreamt the idea.

It makes me want to try my own year of yes.

A passage I love:

On Mothers day cards:

“The message is: mothers, you are such wonderful and good people because you make yourselves smaller, because you deny your own needs, because you toil tirelessly in the shadows and no one ever thanks or notices you…this all makes you amazing.

Yuck.

What the hell kind of message is that?

“Better Than before- Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than before tackles the question: How do we change? One answer—by using habits.

Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home” delves deeply into the psychology and science of why we are able to create habits, and why we aren’t. She helps us discover our tendencies and how they contribute to our habit-creating abilities. She reveals why some things work for others but not for us and helps us discover what exactly will help us create habits that last and enrich our lives. It recently came out in paperback. There is also a journal available to track your habits (something I discovered that I really enjoy!) It’s a great book to start off the new year!

A sentence I love: We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature.

 

 

 

Five on Friday

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1. Save yourself the time it would take to read Moby Dick and read David Ebenbach’s interview with Ishmael.

2. What happened when one writer committed herself to the 30 Day Write Yourself Alive challenge with Andrea Balt and Tyler Knott Gregson.

3. Margaret Atwood has a new book coming out this year.

4. My new favorite TV show.

5. Add to your TBR pile with these spring releases.