Category Archives: Daily Special

Confessions of a Jane Austen addict

Confession #1: I love Jane Austen.

Not quite to the heights of Austenland’s heroine, but still.

In graduate school, I took a course on romantic satire that included a unit on Jane Austen, which began about a month into the semester. That first day, while the dignified middle-aged professor and our male peers looked on in shock (I assume we’d seemed reasonably intelligent and dispassionate to that point), I and a few of my female colleagues went full-on fan-girl about Jane Austen: high pitched voices, fluttering hands, the whole bit. I’m not sure I ever quite regained that lost credibility.

I own at least two copies of her major works. (My husband, in the throes of newlywedded bliss, bought me the entire Oxford Illustrated classics set and set my giddy heart reeling). I’ve even read her unfinished novel, Sanditon, and her short epistolary novel Lady Susan, and own books like The Friendly Jane Austen, Becoming Jane Austen, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. (And yet, I’ve never been to a Regency ball or joined JASNA).

Confession #2: Sometimes I’m ashamed of my addiction.

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Disclaimer Debacle

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Jenny is a mother of three kids, wife of one mathematician, and author of two manuscripts (and counting). She’s a cancer survivor and a triathlete. If you ask her kids what she wants do to most of all, they’ll say: “Go to panama and learn Spanish.” She blogs about writing at thewriteshelf.com and (less frequently) about birth and mental wellness at jennyballif.com.

It all started over a disclaimer, or lack of one.

My writer’s group was a part of my identity and community. I attended every weekly meeting, wrote a weekly newsletter, and served on the board.

When a new president was elected he deleted the disclaimer on the weekly agenda. Instead of reading: “Be considerate. Give other members notice if you plan to read anything they might consider offensive in language or sexual content.” it now said: “Be considerate. Silence your cell phone during the meeting.”

Over a period of weeks, there was a subtle shift as more people read material with sexual content, without giving any warning or disclaimer beforehand. I suggested the original disclaimer be put back on the agenda. The president disagreed. The idea of someone labeling another’s work as offensive was offensive to him. An expected disclaimer was a potential repression of freedom of speech, because members writing graphic content would feel less welcome to read. I maintained that anyone could read anything they liked, but to read with no consideration for the reader was not really reading at all. We were a critique group. An environment of consideration was essential.

After a particularly energetic discussion of the matter at a board meeting, I couldn’t sleep. I came to realize that I really didn’t care if there was a disclaimer on the agenda or not. What I cared about was whether the members who knew of my personal feelings would warn me before reading sexual material. To me, sex was sacred. The greatest physical and emotional power I had ever known, and one that I guarded carefully. My physical arousal was only for my husband, and I felt wronged to have it pulled forth by a movie, book, or a reading at my writer’s group.

If the president were reading a sex scene that was designed to invoke that feeling of longing and pleasure, would he tell me beforehand or not? The question was vital. If he would not warn me beforehand, then the group was not a safe place for me.

So I emailed him and asked.

He replied that I should be more accepting of diversity, because the best learning and growth comes in this way.

And our conversation deteriorated from there.

The rapid polarization was astonishing. As the email messages went back and forth, I could feel myself being swept up into battle, a battle that I was losing. And I could feel my emotions and opinions being pushed to an extreme that did not reflect the truth of me, but my defensiveness and hurt. I wanted to stay in the group, but over a few weeks I was pushed, squeezed, and pressed out of it. I had several dreams where I stood to read at our critique meeting, and the new president beat me over the head with the music stand while the rest of the group watched, impassive and uncaring. When I resigning from the group, I wept.

So much drama and such intense emotions, all over a disclaimer, or lack thereof.

And yet, it wasn’t about the disclaimer at all. Every few weeks, I see or read things that remind me so strongly of this conversation turned sour that ended my association with a wonderful and vibrant writing group. And in each situation I find myself wondering, how is it that basically decent and kind people are able to alienate and offend each other so quickly and thoroughly?

I think it stems from failing to recognize the sacred, and fear of losing it. The sacred is different for each person. For the president of my writer’s group it was freedom of expression and diversity. For me it was consideration and compassion. When they came into conflict over the disclaimer, there could have been increased understanding and respect. We could have agreed to disagree while remaining associates, each with greater empathy for another point of view. We could have glimpsed each other’s sacred ground and nodded in respect, finding a compromise satisfactory to both sides.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to attack, and polarization tends to sweep people and cultures up in its path.

I haven’t gone back to that writers group. By the time my feelings cooled enough to allow me to participate again, other groups and interests had taken the available time.

But the experience has stayed with me, and each time I’m reminded of it I make a silent commitment to remember and learn. The next time I find myself in a conversation where my sacred ground feels vulnerable, I’m determined to build a bridge of empathy rather than erect a fortress.

The Boggart in My Closet

Crazy Cat LadyIn the world of Harry Potter, a boggart is a shape-shifting creature that hides in enclosed spaces like closets or cabinets. When released, the boggart takes on the shape of its victim’s worst fear. At school, Harry and his friends battle boggarts that look like giant spiders, disappointed teachers, or bloody mummies; in one particularly poignant scene towards the end of the series, Molly Weasley confronts a boggart that keeps turning into each of her family members dying, in turn. I’ve got a boggart in my closet, and it seems to change shape too. Sometimes it looks like the crazy cat lady from The Simpsons, spouting gibberish and flinging cats at anyone who tries to approach her. Other days I think it might be Eponine, patron saint of lonely third-wheels perpetually stuck in the friend zone. Perhaps it’s Miss Havisham, moldering away in her wedding dress. Continue reading

Learning from Silence

Normally today I’d write of parades with children in sun bonnets, foot races down canyons rutted by wagons, fireworks and celebrations. All in remembrance of the great shared story that is ours on Pioneer Day. A story of restoration, conversion, migration, and refuge.

But I’m not in Utah this year. We’re in another mountain range. And as I type, cool mountain air rises through the screen door and over my shoulder. We’ve taken our first family trip since all five children were born. Our first vacation outside of Utah, that is.

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I had such high hopes for this adventure. But as I was packing swim trunks, favorite blankets, and running shoes, I felt a sore throat coming on. I had already lost my voice, and by the time we arrived at our destination, I was battling a lethal strep throat.

It’s been five days now and the sores in the back of my throat are just starting to disappear. I still have no voice. Nasal congestion barreled in at full throttle, holding all respiratory and sinus passages captive. And the finale? A lovely chest cough. Truth is, I’ve been miserable. Continue reading

Book Review: Letters to a Young Mormon

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Letters to a Young Mormon is a deceptively simple book. The small book isn’t much larger than an overgrown pamphlet, the thin paperback volume easily slides in to bag or perhaps an ample-sized pocket, yet this informally styled book of letters is big. I’ve been chewing on the deep and satisfying ideas in this book for months now, wishing I had could have begun years and years prior back when I was younger than I am now. But I am not old yet, and believe that with eons to go in my unfinished faith I can rightfully consider myself a young Mormon; the book spoke to me.

Each themed letter (twelve in total) was addressed ” Dear S.;” it was easy to slip my own name in the salutation. But it was discussion of our own stories, that made me feel the very personal nature of the book. In the letter themed on sin, Miller writes:

“Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things. . . As the heavens are higher than they earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.” Continue reading