Monday, January 10, 2011

Doubt, love, and the Tucson tragedy

One of my plans for this year was to make my blog more spontaneous and chatty, because it was becoming nothing but contests and interviews and news items. The thought of putting up a good old-fashioned essay-type blog post, loaded with links and graphics and photos and eye candy just made me want to give up the blog entirely. Or better yet, take that creative energy and put it into a novel!

So today I wanted to talk about Saturday's shootings from my personal perspective, as a writer and as a former wanna-be public servant. This might not be well-structured or pull-quote worthy, and it might have some thoughts that wander off a cliff. But it will be honest. And unlike most of my posts over the last year, it probably won't contain one single "Yay!" Because I'm not feeling very "Yay!" today.

As noted in my bio, I got a graduate degree in environmental policy from University of Maryland (go Terps/fear the turtle/etc.). I had the highest GPA in my class, which is pretty amazing, considering I barely managed a B average in high school and undergrad. I was super driven to do my best because I really cared about public policy. I wanted to make the world a better place, as hokey as that sounds.

Later I got into an exclusive, fast-track employment program with the state government that could've led to a promising career (although with all the recession-era budget cuts I'd probably be out of that job by now, but anyway...). I was on my way, ready to do what was important to me.

But I couldn't handle the boredom and frustration. I'd worked office jobs for years before going back to grad school, but after enjoying the relative freedom and lack of structure that full-time classes gave me? I just couldn't do it anymore--the meetings, the memos, the something else that probably starts with 'm' but I've wasted five minutes trying to finish this sentence and it's time to move on.

Anyway...where was I? So yeah, I got bored and threw it all away to do this. I worked meaningless jobs to pay the bills while I worked toward getting published. (Note: I would NOT advise anyone else to quit a promising career and martyr your bank account on the altar of authordom. But for me, it was becoming a mental health issue.)

The gist of the matter is, I admire, on a deep personal level, people like Congresswoman Giffords and her staffers and the late Judge Roll and even the citizen supporters and constituents who came out for Congress on the Corner Saturday morning. They were out there doing their jobs and participating in a peaceful democratic gathering, despite all the death threats against them. Even the little girl who died wanted to go into public service one day.

So regardless of the motive, these people were killed because of who they were, because they cared enough about our country and their community to get involved and do something. It's easy for people outside the Beltway to forget, but government workers--yes, including politicians and their staff--are human beings. They're too often villainized or caricatured, not only in the news, but also in fiction. I'm guilty of this myself--the DMP, anyone?--even though I know better. I know that people who work for governments at all levels have to put up with a lot of shit for much less pay than they would make in the private sector for the same work. And last Saturday, as in 1995 in Oklahoma City, they had to put up with violence, even death.

We forget that firefighters, cops, librarians, and teachers are government workers. Those brilliant doctors who saved Giffords' lives? They work for the state university hospital. That makes them public servants, too. They're paid by our tax dollars, which are collected to be used for the common good, to meet needs that the free market can't.

That used to be me. But it hasn't been for a long time. It's been years since I even volunteered with Tails of Hope, the animal rescue organization we used to foster dogs for. There just hasn't been the time. Books have become everything. Writing them, rewriting them, blogging about them, traveling to promote them. There's barely room in my life anymore for my immediate family, much less the larger world I once actively cared so much about. I still get the newspaper, but it's a rare day when I read more than the sports page to see Mike Preston's latest rant about the Ravens' imperfections.

So a couple hours ago I tweeted/Facebooked, "Anyone else can't focus since Sat shootings? I feel like I felt after 9/11 & Katrina: like something in the world shattered." And then, "And when real-world events are so horrible, what happens in make-believe worlds just doesn't seem to matter much anymore." Because I was once again, as I was after those events, having an existential crisis, wondering if what I do now isn't just a self-indulgent exercise in making myself happy, rather than helping others.

I mean, if I'm content in my profession, if it's often fun despite being very hard and often crazy-making work, then it must not be worthy, right? (Where did I get this guilt complex? Seriously, my parents always told me to do whatever made me happy in life, so it's totally self-invented.)

So I began to write this blog, weeping, because a couple of tweets/status updates weren't enough to express the depths of my admiration for the likes of Giffords and my recurring "I'm not worthy" doubt over my own life choices. (The fact that the Let It Bleed rewrite is hitting a major roadblock isn't helping.)

And in the middle of writing this blog, someone on Facebook told me that my books (among others, though they had specifically requested that mine be brought to the hospital) had kept them going when they felt suicidal. They said, "My kids still have a mom in part because of what you do."

Now I'm full-on snot crying, and have gone through half a box of tissues. (I know, you desperately wanted those details, didn't you?) And I don't really know what my point is anymore. Because I guess what writers do is important. What doctors do is important (I'm sure my Facebook friend's physicians had a lot to do with her recovery). What politicians and judges and cops and grocery store clerks and people who work to make a better coffee machine do is important.

I guess my point, if there is one, is best said by the quote Congresswoman Giffords' reportedly has on her website as her favorite, by Mother Teresa:

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”

Um, so this is the new blog format. Rambly, with fair-to-middlin' grammar, but honest. And hopefully more frequent, though my commitment-phobic self ain't makin' any promises.

What do you think? About anything.

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I really relate to what you've written here...more than I can properly express in a comment I can only offer you a 'chin up'.

Posted by: Blogger Unknown at 1/10/2011 2:59 PM

Please don't discount what you do just because it doesn't carry the official title of public servant. Your books have made me laugh and cry. They have helped me feel better on a shitty day. How many people can say that? We all feel that we don't do enough, but there is only so much one person can do. To help ease my moral alarm, last month my husband and I helped a church with door-to-door food/basic needs donation deliveries even though we aren't church-goers or even Christian. We felt like we needed to help out so we did. Sometimes, giving a little, when you can, is enough.

Posted by: Blogger AnnieAnde at 1/10/2011 3:11 PM

Thanks, Stephanie! I needed that. :-)

AnnieAnde: That means a lot to me, thank you. Your work with the donation deliveries is a good reminder to all of us--every little bit helps, and means the world to those it touches at that time.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/10/2011 3:30 PM

In some ways, I know how you feel.

To get similarly personal: I'm That Girl, with the genius-level IQ who dropped out of high school (also a mental health issue) and went on to art school/writing books. When you know whe you could've/should've/might've been, it can be really hard to find contentment or value in what seems, on the surface, like a solitary or selfish pursuit.

But you gave up that kind of work for a reason. Everyone always wants to do more, do better, but we have to look after ourselves and trust our own judgment. We do what we can, right?

Anyway. I hope you feel better soon. These things usually do take some time to work through properly.

Posted by: Blogger Corinne at 1/10/2011 3:32 PM

Here's today's "yay!"
Yay for your honesty. Yay for your willingness to speak from the heart. (Which is why I am now addicted to author Lani Diane Rich's Lucy March blog...that's all we do over there.)
And yay for your books, which give us something to turn to when the real world is simply too hurtful and overwhelming.
Writers do important jobs, too. And I'm not just saying that because I am one :-)

Have a cookie. You earned it.

Posted by: Blogger Deborah Blake at 1/10/2011 3:44 PM

I wish you didn't live all the way over THERE *waves hands*. I'd love to get together with you. You are a lovely, caring person. Don't beat yourself up.

Posted by: Blogger txvoodoo at 1/10/2011 3:45 PM

Thank you for sharing such an honest post.

You discount your profession too much. I suffer from a chroic illness which makes me too ill to work, so I spend virtually all my time at home and have done for the past 11 years (I was 11 when I got sick, so that meant a lot of missed school too). Through that time, books have kept me sane and helped distract me through depression. Disappearing to other worlds keeps me going because my reality is four walls that make my home my prison. I wouldn't cope otherwise. So thank you for writing and sharing your other worlds with us readers :) Much love, Cem.

Posted by: Blogger Claire (Cem) at 1/10/2011 4:00 PM

>>So regardless of the motive, these people were killed because of who they were, because they cared enough about our country and their community to get involved and do something.

Respectfully, they weren't. They were killed because The guy was insane.

Posted by: Anonymous Stacy at 1/10/2011 4:06 PM

Hi Jeri -

Sometimes rambles are the best way to let your heart show through... *HUGS*

As a Mom, I watch these events and I physically hurt inside for the families. The horror of sending your child off with a friend to witness our country's freedom only to find out that "Bye honey I love you" would be your final words to them.

That "Thanks Mom" and quick kiss on the cheek could be the last time you touched them.

It's a visceral terrifying pain that tears at my heart.

I do realize life is a gamble. There are no guarantees. But you should be able to hear a public servant speak at a grocery store and feel safe.

Then my mood swing arcs from sorrow to anger.

It seems like in the age of internet stardom, these suicidal kids seek to take out as many innocents as they can. Go out in a blaze of glory.

And that pisses me off. I don't know if gun control is the answer, or making "mental health" a priority in schools. They get PE everyday, but maybe they should also get 30 minutes a week on a couch talking about their issues with a trained professional?

Then my mood ebbs back just a bit and I cling tearfully to this...

If we live in fear and hide, then evil wins.

How's that for a ramble?

This was a great blog Jeri!!! And I do believe books help make the world a better place...



Posted by: Blogger Lisa Kessler at 1/10/2011 4:17 PM

This comment has been removed by the author.

Posted by: Blogger Lisa Kessler at 1/10/2011 4:18 PM

<<>>So regardless of the motive, these people were killed because of who they were, because they cared enough about our country and their community to get involved and do something.<<

Respectfully, they weren't. They were killed because The guy was insane.

Stacy: Respectfully, I meant that those people were there at that spot on that day because they cared. And this WAS an assassination, because Giffords was a public figure with whom Loughner was obsessed (he'd had contact with her before and constantly expressed his hatred for her to his friend).

Just because he's crazy doesn't mean they didn't die because of what they were doing. Reagan was shot because he was the President. Lennon was shot because he was Lennon. This wasn't a random act of violence. Any time a public figure is assaulted, it is by definition not random.

Again, respectfully, THAT was my point.

I'll answer the other wonderful comments when I get back from the vet. My dog cut her paw and has to have stitches. Yay! (<<sarcastic Yay!)

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/10/2011 4:32 PM

We influence each other everyday in ways both great & small no matter our profession, most of the time we don't even find out about it.
I know I have mentioned books on my blog that have gone on to help people who have then emailed me to thank me. That's just a hobby for me and never my intention when I share my thoughts but it makes me happy.
I'm hoping in time we can learn to start being kind to each other instead of wasting our time trying proving we're right.
<3 to you Jeri!! You always cheer me up whether in tweet/blog or book form :-)

Posted by: Blogger Karen at 1/10/2011 5:34 PM

Reading about the Arizona tragedy really struck a chord with me because of the small (relatively) tragedies involved. Why? Maybe because the media humanized the victims so well, by sharing the 76-year-old man who shielded his wife from bullets, or the little girl who wanted to get into politics. The world sucks, but these people existed, and there are more like them, and so we have hope.

Jeri, you give us solace when the world gets t be too much. I've also ignored housework and just about everything else on the day (yes the DAY) I get one of your books in the mail. I'll be honest--I don't read very much fiction, but I read yours because of the beautiful flaws in your characters, their struggles, their hearts and souls just shine on the page. Writing can be a selfish passion, but it certainly isn't for you or for a lot of authors out there. If it weren't for you, what would we do? Watch TV?

You do good in providing entertainment for thousands of readers. That is a great contribution to society.

Posted by: Blogger Carrie Clevenger at 1/10/2011 6:16 PM

Hi Jeri,
Your blog was honest and real and Im still blubbering. I also felt the 9-11 blow after hearing of this horrid tragedy. I think alot of us are going "back there" because of the little girls birthday and dedication to poltics because of it. 9-11 was rough for me. My hubby is a firefighter, and ex was the first on the scene at the Pentagon. The only thought going through my head that day was that I was going to have to tell my (our) son that his father had been killed. I watched the news for countless hours, I caught a glimpse of him on tv..loading bodies and again running away from the building. Finally, I got word. He was okay. He spoke with his son and went back to work. At about 8 pm that night I finally turned off the TV, and guess what I did. I read. Wally Lamb, I know this much is true. Its long, and its great and I stayed up all night and read. If I hadnt had that book I would have gone mad. That is the truth. Fast forward to today. My son is now a firefighter. He tested for arlington county on the eighth of January. If hired he will be first responder to the Pentagon in the event of an attack. I just started two new books. Thank god I have my books. Writers allow us to escape from a sometimes unbearable world. I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.

Posted by: Blogger Momzilla at 1/10/2011 6:30 PM

1. I got a bit choked up reading this post.

2. My whole life, since I started saying "hey, I'm pretty good at writing. Maybe I'll be a writer," people have been saying "Tch. You know it's only like 10% of writers who actually make any money," and similar discouraging remarks, as if to convince me that only special, golden people succeed, and I'm just not special or golden enough. Seeing your posts and interacting with you, is the antidote to the feeling I get when I start to think the nay-sayers were right. You're a real human being, who cares about things and has a family of humans and pets to care for, and you know, a life. The fact that you share all of that for those of us who are finding our way in the industry means a ton. Oddly, that makes you special and golden in a much better way.

Posted by: Blogger Heather at 1/10/2011 7:11 PM

What do I think? I think I want to hug you!

I also wonder how many people are going to be shot before US gun laws get tougher. Because some people just really shouldn't own weapons. Only the police and professional security.

Posted by: Blogger Tez Miller at 1/10/2011 8:56 PM

Corinne: You're absolutely right. It was disappointing to discover that the thing I'd prepared myself for for years wasn't what I was meant to do. I even went to a career counselor, who had me take some personality and aptitude tests, and he said, "clearly you do NOT belong in an office." I guess I needed permission from an expert before I could make that giant leap of faith. My first novel had already been published as an e-book, so I knew I didn't suck at writing, but there was no guarantee I'd ever make another sale.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/11/2011 9:32 AM

Deborah: Thanks! I'm not used to being this honest about my feelings in public. Usually I'm pretty careful to keep up the "everything is peachy!" facade, because negativity is usually a turnoff to readers. And also because in the grand scheme of things, everything *is* peachy, so I don't have a lot to complain about.

Now I'm dying to go look at the Lucy March blog. :-)

txvoodoo: Next time you come East, please let us know so we can get together! I know Chris and Cecilia would love to see you again after all these years.

Cem: Thank you so much. I'm sorry to hear of your struggles with chronic illness and the accompanying depression. That's really rough. I hope things get better for you! And I'm glad books help keep you sane. For me I think that role is fulfilled more by music and sports, because books are the thing I'm trying to escape from. ;-) But I find it really sanity-producing, when I'm in deadline mode, to read a book completely different from the one I'm working on.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/11/2011 9:38 AM

Lisa: Thanks for the hugs! I don't know how the likelihood of something like this can ever be reduced to zero, because if someone's really determined to kill somebody who doesn't have a wall of bodyguards, they can usually find a way. But most potential killers probably have a threshold of effort they're willing to overcome to do it. If it were much more challenging for Loughner to get a gun, he might've continued to sit at home writing in his dream journal and stewing in his own weirdness. Guns and mental illness are such a dangerous combination, for suicide as well as homicide.

I really hope this doesn't bring a halt to peaceful political gatherings such as Giffords'. That would be compounding the tragedy.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/11/2011 9:50 AM

Karen: I agree. It's definitely made me contemplate how much my own words (whether in a book or a tweet) have violent imagery or denigrate those I disagree with. I think in most cases it stays in my head and not on the "page," but living in a violent culture, it's hard not to make those semantic leaps.

Carrie: Wow, I had not heard of the 76-year-old man who shielded his wife. And there was the woman who'd already been shot who wrestled the second magazine away from the shooter, which made him struggle long enough with the gun for him to be taken down. You're right--it is some solace to know that these people existed (or continue to exist, in the case of those who are surviving).

And I am *all* in favor of you ignoring housework to read my books. Or just ignoring housework in general. ;-)

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/11/2011 9:56 AM

Billie: How harrowing a day that must have been for you! You must be so proud of your son for going on to be a firefighter. I hope he gets accepted.

You were wise to turn to a book that night. I don't think we turned off the TV for days. My husband had mono, so I was sleeping on the couch and therefore was constantly watching the coverage. Bad choice--I wish it had occurred to me to pick up a book instead.

Heather: LOL, I'm definitely a regular human being! It turns out, almost all authors are. ;-) That continues to blow my mind when I meet them. And it's definitely not something we do for the money. But as you know, that's not the point. :-)

Tez: Thanks for the long-distance hug! :-) You know, there've been so many public shootings in my lifetime, but the only time I can remember anything changing was back in 1981 (?). When Ronald Reagan was shot, his press secretary James Baker was paralyzed as a result of his wound. He and his wife started a gun-control movement which was the origin of the waiting periods and background checks, I believe. The idea being that crazy people (like Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley) shouldn't have guns. But the gun lobby is incredibly rich and powerful here, and the issue has largely disappeared from the national stage. It's political suicide to even hint that you might want to restrict gun ownership. People murmur about gun control after each shooting, but nothing ever changes. :-(

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/11/2011 10:16 AM

Jeri, you are amazing...I adore everything that comes out of your mouth, I swear. As someone who left the "normal" workforce a few months ago, I also wrestle with the "does what I'm doing matter?" thingy. All I can say is that making people laugh, cry, think, and feel good is important. As important as getting them to vote, caring for them in a hospital, and teaching them to read. People are complex bundles of physicality and magic, and I think nurturing that magic is essential.

I wish I had the meaning of life all wrapped up, but all I know right now is that it's in the seeking. So keep seeking, m'dear, and please, keep writing.

love love -- Inara

Posted by: Blogger Inara Scott at 1/11/2011 4:22 PM

"People are complex bundles of physicality and magic, and I think nurturing that magic is essential."

Wow, Inara, that's beautiful. Thank you for your kind words and brilliant insights! <3

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/12/2011 4:37 PM

I'm late jumping into this conversation, but after reading your post if I wasn't convinced that writing is the best choice for some people to make before then I am now. You had a dream of making a difference in the world, and I have to say that I believe you are still doing that...just not the way you originally thought you would. Without writing you wouldn't be in the position you are now and able to share your thoughts and opinions with all of us. Sometimes the best way to make a difference is to let others know that you share the same opinion they do, and with this post and tweets and facebook you've done that and we love you for it. :)

So don't discount what you do, your books bring people together that would have not otherwise met. And thank you for the post!

By the the new format.

Posted by: Blogger Unknown at 1/12/2011 4:39 PM

Thanks, Jen! That means a lot.

I can't remember which speaker said it at the memorial service last night, but it was something along the lines of us each doing what we do to the best of our abilities for the love of others. That's a really vague paraphrase, but it reminded me of all the kind things people have said here on this post. You guys have really made my week! :-)

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/13/2011 12:34 PM

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