Tag Archives: value

On Spending Time

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There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.


What I Am Is White

“God made me white for a reason.”

She said it as I was sipping chai, as we discussed relationships and cultures and the difficulties of listening to people’s stories instead of fixing them. She’s an old friend who works with university students on a mostly-Latino campus, a blue-eyed white girl who grew up on the Mexican border, who looks, perhaps, German, but feels most comfortable around Hispanics.

It would’ve been easier if God had made her brown instead of white, if she hadn’t been a different colour in a town where whites are the marginalised minority. It would be easier if she matched the students she loves, if her affinity for Latinos were visibly explicable at a glance.

It would’ve been easier if God had made me brown, too.

As a child, with no conception of the difficulties minorities face, with the naïve innocence of a sheltered and privileged middle-class white girl, I knew before I was old enough to read that I wished my skin were something darker.

As a white girl growing up in Panama, I desperately wished to look more like everyone else, to stop the old ladies staring on the streets, the teenagers proudly airing their English in the form of catcalls, the girls at camp pointing to my untanned stomach and expounding on how white I was.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

As a university student, discussing racial reconciliation, minority issues, and social justice, I developed yet a deeper awareness of my skin colour. The more I learned about systematic injustice, the more I longed to be free of the incriminating whiteness that put me in the “privileged” category and removed me from the struggles of those around me.

My desire to be a different colour changed from an adolescent’s wish to fit in to a young adult’s guilt over society’s wrongs.

Being white became an incurable flaw. I felt that by being white I somehow lost my right to an opinion, lost my ability to empathise, lost whatever it is that allows people to be grateful for their blessings without apologising for them.

I did not choose to be white, but I chose to regret it.

And now here sat my friend, sure that God had made her white for a reason.

And there I sat, accepting the idea, yet fighting back against the logic that said if she were white for a reason, so must I be. And the idea would not leave me. A reason—what reason?

Maybe I’m white to give a voice to the voiceless—to speak for the underprivileged in a society where my privilege lets me be heard.

Maybe I’m white to teach my soul humility—to learn to be gracious with myself and others when so much of our identity is involuntary and immutable.

Maybe I’m white to instil empathy in my heart—to help me see the perspectives of those around me and share their causes when I have nothing to gain.

Maybe…

…days later, I have a dozen potential reasons and no solid conclusions, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

There could be a hundred reasons or none, and in the end, perhaps it all boils down to this: That each of us should live a life dedicated to loving, supporting, and serving others, no matter our skin colour—that each of us is in some way privileged and in some way lacking—that we should fight injustice, right wrongs, and embrace differences—that as we face ourselves honestly, we must acknowledge what we are, but never apologise for it.

And for whatever reason, what I am is white.

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Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko


An Open Letter to a Toxic Couple (5 things not to do)

Dear Toxic Couple,

I call you that because a few nights ago, I lay in bed listening to you shouting for over an hour. My thin apartment walls let every word through, and by the time I fell asleep, you had sketched your relationship for me. From your argument, I gather you’re engaged to be married and that one of you recently disclosed information about painful past events and relationships.

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I’ve been privy to and participant in countless fights, shouting matches, and tearful discussions. But for some reason, your fight got under my skin. It wasn’t just the invasive volume; loud voices can’t explain why now, days later, someone else’s fight still troubles me. I think it’s because you gave vivid examples of abusive tactics I’ve read about but never witnessed directly.

You, sir, cared more about being right than about loving her.

I listened to you ridicule, condemn, and dismiss her pain, her convictions, her family, her choices, and her person. When she had the courage to say, “You’re being hurtful, and it’s not okay,” I listened to say, “No I’m not.” More than once, your response was, “You need to let that go.” When she tried to explain how she felt, I heard you interrupt her mid-sentence, blatantly tell her that her perceptions were wrong, and then have the audacity to say, “You need to stop interrupting and show some respect.”

I fought the urge to bang on the wall and shout, “She’s right! You’re being awful! Listen to her!” I thought better of that, and instead of barging in on someone else’s conversation, I’m writing this: an open letter to remind you of things that are never, ever okay in a relationship.

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1. Ridiculing insecurities.
She trusted you enough to share deep hurts, secrets, regrets, and convictions, and you have a responsibility as a decent human being—not to mention as the man who claims love her—to respect that trust. She gave you the gift of trust by showing you where you could hurt her most. You should now know how to protect her, not how to wound her. No matter how heated the argument, those insecurities are absolutely off limits, and you lowered yourself by attacking her vulnerable points.

2. Negating pain.
When she says, “You hurt me,” I don’t care how innocent your intentions were, you stop immediately and apologise. What’s real to her is the pain she feels, not the intentions you claim. Instead of apologising, you told her to get over it, to let it go. You told her that her hurt wasn’t real, wasn’t significant—you were insulting, cruel, and, frankly, wrong. Your reaction to her pain was a form of gaslighting, an abusive emotional manipulation tactic. I never heard you apologise. Not once.

3. Attacking family.
Family is like extra weight or grey hairs: if they’re yours, you can make them the butt of the joke, but if they’re not, treat them with respect and discretion. From your shouting match, I gathered you think her family did something worthy of eternal hatred, but she wants to forgive and reconcile. I don’t know her family (and according to her, neither do you). What I do know is that attacking the people she loves is petty and unlikely to either improve their relationship or encourage her to leave a toxic situation. If you think her family is coming between you, a rational conversation might be warranted, but vicious insults are not. And unless her family is actually hurting her, you trying to separate them is emotional manipulation on your part and is a warning sign she should know to look for.

4. Demanding respect without giving it.
When you ended your tirade, she tried to explain how she felt. You interrupted every other sentence to tell her she was wrong. You never listened or gave her time to talk out her perspective. And then you had the nerve to tell her she should stop interrupting and respect you. And she tried. She spoke rationally. She never attacked you personally. But you have no right to demand respect when you treat her with such harshness. As it happened, she was already showing respect whether you deserved it or not; you demanded submission, and I applaud her refusal.

5. Using “I love you” as an excuse. 
What really turned my stomach as I listened was your use of, “I love you.” You fitted it in between insult and disparagement, first telling her she should “get over it,” then telling her your harshness stemmed from love. You made it sound like she owed you something, like you did her a favour by declaring affection, and in return she should agree with you and forget the ways you ridiculed her. But love does not attack; love protects. It does not wound; it comforts. It does not demand; it gives. “I love you” is never an excuse for the type of cruelty I heard from you.

I want to believe this argument represented an anomaly in your relationship, that you were both tired, stressed, caving to human pressures and saying things usually wouldn’t and truly regret. I want to think you’ve sat down since then and had a real conversation—one in which you listened to each other, refrained from interrupting, acknowledged the awful things you said, took responsibility, forgave each other.

If not, then I hope, ma’am, that you keep the strong voice I heard through the walls when you told him how unacceptable you found his words. I hope you raise it in protest and, if it comes down to it, in finality. There is much to be said for forgiving, loving, accepting others with all their flaws. But if his “love” crushes, manipulates, and wounds you, walk away. You deserve a healthy love, one that respects, encourages, and shelters you.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth


Tainted Glory

Heads up, guys: I’m going to use some offensive language in this post. Partly because it’s about offensive language. You can be offended and walk away, or you can read the post and then decide what you think. I’d prefer the latter, but I understand the former.

“Hey, read this thing!” I say, handing my phone to a friend. “It’s hilarious. Oh–but it has some language.”

That’s a regular occurrence for me. I recently shared a funny picture to my baby brother’s Facebook wall, only to delete it seconds later because I realised it had the word “shit” in it, and probably my parents would not be thrilled with me sharing that sort of language to my impressionable teenage brother, no matter how funny the comic was.

And, guys, that bothers me.

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It was this comic, by the way, and I’m still snickering over it. If you don’t think this is hilarious, we have a serious problem.

Not the protective parent thing; my parents are basically the best thing ever. But the whole language thing in general. Permit me to wax eloquent.

A word is a funny thing. A simple combination of letters and sounds can evoke some crazy psychological responses. If I say “pink elephants,” one person might envision a pink pachyderm, and another might remember the smell of funnelcakes from the fair where a stuffed pink elephant hung over a game booth, and yet another (this is me!) might start humming the Pink Elephants On Parade song from Dumbo

But, despite all these associations, the letters and sounds themselves are just that: letters and sounds. They only have the meaning we give them.

Now let’s talk about a different word. Let’s take “bitch.” If I say “bitch,” one person might envision a dog, another might think of a crazy ex-girlfriend, and yet another might imagine a two-year-old whining about something. And some people will immediately forgo any association except shock at my language.

But still, the letters and sounds themselves are just that: letters and sounds. They only have the meaning we give them.

We’ve all seen those fun “which region is your dialect” quizzes that ask you whether you call it “pop” or “soda” or “coke.” So what’s the difference whether I call it “complaining” or “whinging” or “bitching”? The difference is, some people will be highly offended at one–maybe even to the point of not hearing my meaning, so hung up on that one particular word that they miss the rest. Words that kids today get their mouths washed with soap for saying were common usage a hundred years ago (back to our example of “bitch”–and here is a fun article about how this happens). Words that we say without compunction in one part of the world are highly offensive in others (“fanny” might be polite in the US, but please don’t say it in parts of the UK).

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And those regional dialect quizzes are definitely important, especially if you, like me, aren’t entirely sure where your vocabulary came from…

And guys, I can say “bitch” with a perfectly good attitude and “meany-face” with murder on my mind, and many people will excuse “meany-face” and judge “bitch.”

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King expresses a dichotomy of opinions: on the one hand, swearing is, “the language of the ignorant and the verbally challenged;” on the other, “It’s important to tell the truth; so much depends on it.” And as he sees it, sometimes the truth involves rude language. I’m not here to tell you that you should brush up on terms that would shock your grandmother. I am, however, suggesting that you don’t shut off a whole world of thought because one word offends you.

Offensive language doesn’t offend me. I choose not to use it out of respect for people who might be offended, desire to use more creative language, and a sort of selfish desire not to talk like everyone around me (I’m probably the only one at my university who still occasionally says, Oh my stars and garters!, and I like it that way)–but I don’t cringe when I hear it in films or read it online. And you know what? I think I’d miss a lot if I did. Some of the most impactful things I’ve ever read were posted on Tumblr, replete with sketchy punctuation, no capitalisation (except for those occasional all-caps rants), and more instances of “fuck” than I knew you could cram in one sentence. These are the kind of things I consider sharing with friends and then don’t, because I can already imagine the scene:

Friend: “That had a lot of f-words in it. Are you sure you sent me the right link?”
Me: “Right, yeah, I know, but the content. Didn’t you think that was super funny/deep/though-provoking/some other worthwhile quality?”
Friend: “…you know, I just don’t think you need to use bad language to express yourself. It shows ignorance/lack of class/bad upbringing/some other negative quality.”
Me: “But the content. Did you get the content?!”

We see a four-letter word, some sort of guilt starts tickling under our ribs, and there’s a whole world we don’t see because we choose not to look. Because it might not be pretty and clean. See, we who try not to swear, we miss out. We miss great jokes because whoever told them used words we didn’t like. We miss deep thoughts because someone expressed them with language our mothers told us not to use. We miss people’s hearts because they aren’t as tidy and conventional as we’d like.

Guys, we miss hearing people’s stories.

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Here is a thing that supposedly Oscar Wilde said but that I can’t find anywhere in the original play, and which I therefore think came solely from the movie. No matter where it came from, it’s beautiful and important.

Christians have a reputation of being judgmental, straight-laced, and hypocritical. And for some reason this surprises us.

I’m not saying we should all adopt sailor-grade colourful language, but maybe we should consider the fact that our petty war on four-letter words is preventing us from fighting for people’s hearts. And people matter more than my righteous indignation any day. If we can’t hear someone’s story beyond the language they use to tell it, the whole “judgmental, straight-laced, and hypocritical” label isn’t a misunderstanding–it’s a truth. A truth that, ironically, we can’t hear because it’s probably expressed with a few offensive terms. People don’t want your sermons or your “Jesus can fix you” platitudes. They want you to care. To hear their stories, to love them where they are, to say, “You matter, right now, right here.”

Guys, can we stop being offended long enough to listen?


Dear Third Culture Kid

This week, being finals week, my internal clock is off, and I missed Tuesday. Deepest apologies. As everything else is a little different this week, my blog post is a bit outside my norm. A meeting this week brought me face to face with a fear that I hadn’t even realised I had. This letter is my response.

Dear Third Culture Kid,

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, stretched and pulled, going in and out of style over and over again, distinctive in a subtle way that makes you look like every other pair of jeans and like none of them at the same time, a size that fits some people decently and others not at all but that fits nobody perfectly. I know you feel like you’ve seen every rack in the store. You’ve hung with other jeans, you’ve been tossed onto a stack of shirts, you’ve fallen under the shoe rack; there was that time the sales girl put you back in storage and the time they displayed you on a mannequin. You’ve been in the sales window and on the clearance rack; you’ve been tried on and taken off, selected and rejected, admired and ridiculed, purchased and then returned. I know your price tag has changed a hundred times with the fashions and the economy.

My dear Third Culture Kid, you are not a commodity.

There is a difference—a subtle but a vast and vital difference—between price and value. Value is what you’re worth; price changes with the season. Your value is intrinsic and stable, no matter how the people around you try to write your label.

I know that you’ve been told over and over about how valuable your experiences are, how grateful you should be for the life you’ve lived, how much you have to contribute. I know you’ve been set on a pedestal in your passport country and asked to share the deepest parts of you with strangers; they’ve told you it’s your responsibility to share your most vulnerable feelings with those who will never understand. I know you’ve gotten scholarships for being you and then been asked to justify the money by putting your life on display. I know the guilt of wanting to keep your secrets, the frustration of being misunderstood—again—asked stupid questions—again—and stereotyped—again. You would give anything to understand that slippery word, “home,” and you would sell your soul to never again answer the barbed questions, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you miss it?”

My dear Third Culture Kid, I feel your worn-out, aching longings and the guilt that surfaces when they tell you that you should be grateful instead of anguished.

But you are not a commodity.

In a way, they’re right—your experiences are valuable. Your perspective is unique. The things you have seen, done, and lived give you maturity and ideas that other people cannot imagine. But those experiences are not a commodity. Your perspective cannot be labelled, and your life does not wear a price tag.

You are no more or less valuable than that girl on your wing who’s never left the state, whose whole life is measured in pencilled height marks on the kitchen doorframe—no more or less valuable than the elderly lady who bagged your groceries at the same store she shopped at with her children twenty years ago—no more or less valuable than your international friends whose passports match their language and who you’ve secretly envied your whole life.

Life is valuable. Experience is valuable. Perspective and understanding and secrets and feelings—these are all valuable, whether they span entire continents or a few city blocks. They are valuable beyond the limits of price.

Your perspective—the perspective they hang a price tag from and set in the display window—your perspective is a shadow they can never own, a tiny, precious glimpse into a life they cannot have, because they have different lives, different experiences. Experiences, perspectives—they cannot be collected, purchased and displayed at home in a case; they can only be lived. Everyone thinks someone else’s experience is more exciting, more meaningful, more valuable. It is not.

Yours is not.

You are valuable because you are you. Not because you can teach your roommate a few words in a language that’s foreign to her and home to you. Not because you’ve seen the inside of a national monument that your extended family has to look up in the encyclopaedia. Not because you can make ethnic food or share an unusual opinion on other countries’ foreign policies.

If you never tell your story, you are valuable.

If you never share your homesick longings and your cultural curiosities, you are valuable.

If your perspective stays hidden and your multicultural heart learns to assimilate, you are valuable.

That glass box they put you in, that means nothing. That display window you live in, that is their mistake, not your prison. The pedestals, the sales racks, the stages, the hot seats—they do not bind you and they cannot contain you.

They cannot buy you. They cannot sell you.

You are not a commodity.

My dear Third Culture Kid, if you see a price tag on your life, be sure that you don’t put it there yourself.

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, tried and rejected, stretched and discarded. I know because I, too, have hung in the display window, languished in the storeroom, and lain time and time again on the returns table. Our cuts are different, but our labels are the same.

And just like you, I am not a commodity.

Sincerely,

A Fellow TCK


Labels and Life

“Crazy how labels make us feel the need to live up to them, huh?”

I wrote this in response to a comment on my last blog post. As I wrote it, I thought, There’s probably some deep life lesson in that.

Labels are funny things, actually. I went Black Friday shopping, so I recently looked at a lot of labels. Also products, but lots of labels. Funny how a higher price tag or prettier brand label makes a product look better.

I bought boots. I tried them on, inspected the seams and soles, tested the zippers… but the “originally $99” label convinced me of their quality more than my own assessment. Like stores don’t sell cheap stuff for outrageous prices or something.

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None of the labels I saw were this pretty. The 21st century needs to step it up.

Back to the original comment: I think, There’s probably some deep life lesson in that fairly often. And then I try hard to ignore it. Because as soon as you figure out what that lesson is, you feel compelled to apply it. And applying deep life lessons is invariably uncomfortable and exhausting.

It’s also scary, though, because as soon as I decide to ignore a lesson, I remember that the people I like most are the ones who go through uncomfortable and exhausting and manage to put all those deep life lessons to work.

And I’m a people pleaser. Punishment? Straight-up cruelty? Dish it out. Disappointment? Disapproval? You might as well bury me alive; it kills me. So when I notice all the pleasing people apply those life lessons, the little people pleaser monster in me goes into a fevered mania.

We should apply life lessons? Great. Let’s apply them.

Let’s apply all of them.

Right now.

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Some good advice that I manage not to follow almost always.

But once we’ve made a list of all the things we should say and do and be in order to please people, that list is overwhelming. And hard. And scary. And you have to do all of them, because once you’ve compiled a list, everything on it looks vital. You can’t say Value everyone is more or less important than Forgive people, or that Exercise comes before or after Eat healthy food.

We’re bad at one at a time, the people pleaser monster and I.

Never mind. Psh. Who needs life lessons?

So we don’t change.

But, y’know, one at a time can be good. And I can do one change. Not to please people or calm the monster down, but because…labels are powerful. They don’t just affect what we buy in stores. They affect the way we treat people. See, we like to slap labels onto ourselves and each other, and then, like me and my on-sale boots, we expect each other to live up to the price tags.

So today, it’s time to take the labels off. Time to stop seeing labels and start seeing people. Because price tags are simple: a number, a value, bam. Done. People? People are complex. People are messy and emotional and conflicted and diverse. People are beautiful. And you can’t label beautiful.

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