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Archive for the ‘Rambling’ Category

May: On Forgiveness.

A lot of the talk about Borderline has centered around the fact that it’s peculiarly forgiving of its characters.  Some see this as a strength, and some see it as a weakness.  The latter people can’t stand reading about characters who get away with bad behavior; they end up hurling the book across the room in disgust (I don’t recommend this if you’re reading on your phone).  But I, obviously, fall more into the former group.  I am a flawed person.  I’ve done bad things.  I have to believe that I can still be loved, still do something worthwhile, and so I invent stories where flawed people do bad things and still — well, maybe not get the girl in the end, but — make friends, encounter forgiveness, survive to at least partially redeem themselves.

I like people who believe this, too.

Let me tell you about my best friend, erstwhile intellectual property lawyer and speculative fiction writer Wren Wallis.  (She’ll be sliding under her desk right about now).  When I met her via the wonderful world of online gaming, I was in a very bad place, emotionally.  I was a new mother, a state that had, despite intervening years of therapy, regressed me back to the emotional instability of my twenties.  I adored her almost immediately for her wit and for her ability to stand up for me when trolls did their troll thing, but the most miraculous thing about her… well, it took me far too long to appreciate.  At first, it annoyed the hell out of me.

“Ugh, that guy,” I’d say.  “I just want to log off every time he starts mouthing off in guild chat.  He’s loathsome.”

“Tact isn’t his strong point, no,” she’d say, or something like it.  “But that’s just his persona; he’s a good guy at heart.”

“There’s no excuse for saying things like that!” I’d insist.  And the conversation would go on for a bit in that vein, with Wren calmly refusing to join me in my judgment.  It infuriated me.  I felt as though she were “taking his side,” or judging me for even having had bad thoughts about him to begin with.

Eventually I left the game we’d been playing, because of all the various people I’d been complaining to her about, and we lost touch.  But I never quite got her out of my mind.  I platonically pined for her in a way that rivaled the most angsty of romances.  I’d sometimes sneak back onto the guild message boards just to see what she was up to, to sigh wistfully over the perfection of even her most casual prose.

Why didn’t I get in touch?  Because I assumed that she’d never liked me.

Someone that saintly, that good, couldn’t possibly want to be friends with a hot mess like me.

You see the breakdown in logic here, right?  I’m shocked at how long it took me to see it, to realize that the same benefit of doubt she applied to that loathsome guy in guild chat also applied to me.  And so when I reached out again, when I found her in a new game, this time I didn’t let her get away.

People like Wren are rare.  It’s very fashionable these days to be cynical and cutting and misanthropic.  It’s actually one of the reasons Borderline has done as well as it has, because despite the forgiving authorial voice, its narrative voice is quite rigid and angry a lot of the time.  People associate cynicism with cleverness; we admire those who focus on others’ flaws, as though our noticing them in others must mean we don’t have them ourselves.  Crowds flock to those who can wield a verbal scalpel, exposing the ugliness inside anyone and everyone, because they believe them to be possessed of keener insight (which makes total sense, right?  Because if I immediately notice just the red things in a room my vision is obviously better than yours).

But as I tweeted earlier this morning:

The problem with ‘Everyone is garbage except for you’ is that without fail, in my experience, eventually it also gets applied to me.

And that’s what made Wren so ultimately irresistible to me as a friend.  Over the years, I’ve developed a growing awareness that the way someone talks about other people in front of you is the same way they’ll eventually talk about you in front of other people.

I’m not a person with “trust issues.”  I don’t make people “earn” my trust, generally, but a person can lose it very quickly by showing their disdain for others.  After decades of of social interaction, I am not naive enough to believe that I am anyone’s “one exception” to misanthropy.  I look, now, to the way people treat those who are not me, and I decide if that is the way I wish to be treated, and if not, I keep my distance.

I have done too much wrong in my life to spend emotional energy on the unforgiving.  I forgive them, of course, to avoid egregious hypocrisy, but I love these people from a safe distance, for my own sake.

If you’ve been struggling to get close to me and can’t figure out why I remain aloof, consider that it may have nothing whatsoever to do with the way you treat me.

To bring this back around to my writing: I don’t expect you to overlook, much less enjoy, my characters’ flaws.  If I write a person as having a certain unsavory characteristic (Millie’s misanthropy, for example), it doesn’t mean I condone it or support it.  All it means is that I can love her despite it just as I want to be loved despite my own flaws.  Because I don’t let my readers “just walk away” from flawed people – not if they want to find out how the story ends – my hope is that I will trick them into sticking around long enough to see that people are not defined by their flaws.  To make them realize, by page 137, that they’re developing a sort of grudging affection for that person they dismissed as garbage on page 20.

If I could do that, could work the nuanced magic of forgiveness on even a handful of readers, that alone would be reason enough for having written.

April: On Integrity.

Last week, on the first night I stayed at the Rio in Las Vegas for the RT Booklovers’ convention, I decided to invite a couple of fellow attendees to my room so we could pool our funds for room service pizza and an on-demand movie.  I’d never met either of these women before, so I was nervous and distracted.  Two-thirds dressed, practicing social niceities in my head, I stepped out into the hall to put out a bag of trash.  And of course, I let the door close behind me.

I stood paralyzed with dismay in the hallway for a good fifteen seconds, nothing on me but a T-shirt and sweatpants (not even pockets).  Then I practiced some Radical Acceptance and padded barefoot down the hall toward the elevators.  Down eight floors I went, then down a long hall into a crowded casino to find security, grateful I’d decided to get a pedicure before the convention, at least.  This is Vegas, I told myself.  They’ve seen worse.

My fun was just beginning.  Security said they’d send someone to my room, told me to meet him there.  My guests arrived first, and so we got to stand in the hallway making small talk as though it were perfectly normal to see a colleague’s toes when you meet her for the first time.  When the security guy arrived, we got to the truly complicated part: I was registered at the hotel as Mishell Baker, but that’s not what it says on my driver’s license.  I had to show a credit card with both names on it, then unlock the iPad on the desk with my thumbprint, then show him my Twitter account with both my face and the name Mishell Baker on it, before he was satisfied enough to let me have the room.

I appreciated his thoroughness, but it did set off some of my ongoing discomfort about my two names, and how they sometimes work against my growing sense of coherent identity.  This brings me to a favorite topic of mine: integrity.

For me (as for many people with BPD), integrity isn’t a moral high horse; it’s crucial to sanity.  I cannot “live two lives” without creating dangerous fault lines in my mental health.  I must be the same person in every situation, with obvious superficial adjustments (we use different slang when texting our millennial friends than we do when talking to Grandma in Texas).

I can have two names, even assign different tasks to them (the woman on my driver’s license pays bills and gets her teeth drilled while Mishell Baker makes friends, learns Russian, and goes to conventions), so long as those two names, those two sets of tasks, add up to one coherent life.  The goal of integrity, as I see it, is to live a life so true to itself that if someone were to turn it all inside out and display it to the world at large, you’d still be all right.  You might feel gut-gouging embarrassment (not everyone wants kinks or nerdy hobbies to become a matter of public record), but you would not be ruined.  You would not lose your friends, your family, or your job.

How, in a practical sense, can you know if you are living with full integrity?  I’ve given this a lot of thought, and here is the answer I came up with: if you want a fully integrated existence, do not allow people with significantly divergent values to hold load-bearing positions in your life.  That doesn’t mean you can’t befriend them, but ideally, do not take large amounts of money from them, and do not arrange your life so that their absence (if they found out the truth) would shatter you.

If integrity is your goal, not only should you avoid practical entanglements (employment, housing, other basic life needs) with people who would be horrified by the truth of you, but you should also beware of deep emotional entanglements with these people.  If your self-esteem and happiness rely on the regard of someone who would reject and revile you if they knew the truth, then this will slowly eat away at even the strongest soul.  Ask yourself if this person could accept you as you are, and if not, why  not?  Is this person misguided, or are you?  If you fully trust and respect this person, perhaps the things that horrify her are actually horrifying, and you should reconsider.  If you do not fully respect and trust this person, why are you allowing her such a strong emotional hold on you?  Would you not be better off transferring some of that social energy to people whose values make sense to you?

Integrity, as I see it, is not about adhering to any particular moral code.  There is almost nothing you can do without being seen as a “sinner” by someone, so “doing the right thing” amounts to abiding by your deepest-held personal code, even when it is difficult.  If your code varies hugely from any others you see around you, you  may wish to reexamine it, because general notions of morality do not tend to arise at random, and personal instincts can be very, very wrong.  But there are some cases in which a generally accepted idea of “wrongness” comes from fleeting trends or obsolete superstitions, so it’s wise to listen to your gut and your rational faculty at least a bit.

If you aim for integrity, keep a close watch on the number of secrets you hold.  Examine your secrets the way you’d go through your fridge to see what’s growing blue fuzz.  Keep secrets to protect others, not yourself.  There are times when you must keep your mouth shut to avoid doing harm (it’s not your call, for example, whether to “out” someone to his mother), but if you routinely find yourself keeping parts of your own life secret out of fear of consequences for yourself, this is a good sign that you are not living in line with your own values.

Arriving at complete integrity is not easy.  As a child, you don’t have much choice in who holds your life in their hands.  Sometimes even as an adult you are so deeply entangled with people who don’t share your values that it is a complex process to extricate yourself.  Sometimes you have to take work where you can find it, or starve.  But if you are not at least taking steps toward building your life’s foundation upon people who share your values, then you have deprioritized integrity.  Does that make you a bad person?  No.  But it will certainly  make your life complicated, tense, and high-maintenance.

Integrity, by its nature, is not a show you put on for others; it’s for you.

So far, Mishell and the woman on my driver’s license have a harmonious partnership and are two parts of a coherent whole.  Neither is hiding anything from the other; the secrets I keep are kept to protect others I care about, not to protect myself.  But I’ve got my eye on both those ladies, and if they ever start to disagree, we’re all going to have to sit down and have a little talk.