Why I Cried at Beauty And The Beast

emma belleMy son had turned one when Disney released its original Beauty And The Beast in 1991. I was enthralled with the fact that Belle – the main character in a mainstream animated movie – was intelligent. In fact, it was her primary characteristic! It gave me hope that my son would grow up in a different world than mine. in my world, my first boyfriend dumped me because my grades were higher than his, the biggest hope my parents had for their head-in-the-clouds daughter was to marry someone to take care of me, and bonuses and raises I earned through hard work and being smart in my former legal career were allocated to my male counterparts. In the world I had lived in, being intelligent, as a woman, had no value.

Andrew is now twenty-six and, unfortunately, incidents like those and a thousand others still frequently occur. Yet, it isn’t the same world as the one I birthed him into. In that world, we remained silent to avoid being driven out of our careers, marriages, and social connections. It was a man’s world and women were to be grateful for mere existence. That has changed. Now, women and men can speak of the unfairness, the injustice, and the counterproductiveness of treating women as lesser than men. And for those who remain voiceless, others have stepped up to speak for them – people like Emma Watson and her HeforShe campaign advancing gender equality.

So why did I cry as I watched Ms. Watson reprise the role of Belle? Because this Belle wasn’t simply an echo of the animation. Both by script and Ms. Watson’s portrayal, Belle has more depth: she is fearless and in control. Her father respects who she is and does not suggest she marry Gaston as did the animated Maurice. The story, of course, remains a romance, but this Belle’s adventures do not end with finding her prince. This Belle will seek out challenges in the “great wide somewhere” and now has an ally to cheer her on. Thank you, Disney, for the updated Belle.

Yet modern Belle, alone, didn’t bring me to tears. It’s just fiction, after all. It isn’t real. Yet I sat in a theater and watched this character brought to life by someone who has fearlessly used her intelligence and leveraged her status to speak for those who are not heard and advance the causes of social justice. That moved me more than my tear ducts could handle. Animated Belle revealed a potential for the world to be different, more accepting, less petty. Now fearless Belle and the actor who played her say nothing can stop that world from becoming a reality. Thank you, Ms. Watson.

And so I cried as I watched the new Beauty and the Beast. Of course, I loved the movie, just as I loved its animated precursor. Then again, “I want so much more than they’ve got planned” has been the refrain for my life. But that’s another story …

Make a Difference

We enter this season of thankfulness for all that we have, in the midst of cries of “Not in my back yard.” No matter where you stand on accepting Syrian refugees into your area, they desperately need your help. This is a link to a list of vetted charities assisting Syrians in need. Some organizations provide resources for families to stay in Syria. Others provide assistance in the places where they flee, having nothing left behind them.

Words of concern and outrage are cheap. It is time to put your money where your mouth is. This holiday season, I will be making donations on behalf of my children to the organizations of their choosing. I ask that you consider doing the same.

We CAN make a difference.

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http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1523#.Vk5LXfmrTIV

The Talent Myth in Creative Writing

When I was practicing law, no law student said to me, “I’m going to get listed in Best Lawyers of America.” It takes seven years of higher education to become a lawyer, months of intensive studying to pass the bar exam, then more years of unrelenting work to build the kind of reputation and satisfied client base that gets you noticed. Most non-lawyers are impressed when they hear I’m listed in Best Lawyers.

On the other hand, when a group of people finds out I’m a published author, someone usually pipes up, “I’m going to write a novel. I’ll be joining you on those bestseller lists.”

Although lawyers are not held in the highest esteem in this country, there is a profound respect for the time and effort it takes to become one. For authors, it is exactly the opposite. We adore authors. We follow them on Facebook, we show up at conventions to get signed copies of their books, and we sit in rapt attention listening to them read. But at the same time, there is little appreciation for the time, effort, sacrifice, and sometimes brute force it takes to write a novel. As a society, we believe that writing is a matter of talent and if you have it, the words flow out all at once, with little practice or preparation, and in perfect form and order.

For far too long, I believed this talent myth, and given how much effort I put into my novels, I thought the bucket I’d dipped from the talent pool was drier than the Sahara Desert. But talent is mostly a myth. Sure, you need an innate sense of when your words flow together and a touch of imagination but, otherwise, writing – like any other skill or expertise – is about long, time-consuming, hard work. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve complete mastery in any field.

I didn’t make it into Best Lawyers in America until well after I had 10,000 hours of practice under my belt. Writing fiction set that clock back to zero, but I’m nearing 10,000 hour mark of studying writing and actually writing. I’m more comfortable with my skills and understanding of what works and what doesn’t than I was when I started. The talent myth doesn’t play games with my head anymore. I’m too busy writing to let it.

But the next time you read a novel where the words flow effortlessly off the page and you find yourself marveling at the author’s talent, stop for a moment and appreciate the hours of sheer determination that went into it.

Gang-based societies and immigrant children

In my research for the novel, Choices, I became familiar with the horrors of gang-based societies – of the atmosphere of constant murder, rape, and torture of and by those we consider children, of parents extorted out of their meager resources so their daughters will not be taken, of mothers sacrificing one child to protect the others. While the details of the society in my novel are extrapolations of actual facts, they are, if anything, softened to suit our comfortable, safe sensibilities. The reality in some areas is far worse and spurs the flood of children illegally entering this country.

I read posts that we, as a country, should not be assisting the children who were sent to violate the law by entering the United States. I see people posting that we, as a country, should not be providing aid to any other country as long as people here in need – even if it is need for relief from taxes so they can afford to send their children to college. I can understand that position as well.

But put yourself in the place of a mother or father – being demanded to turn over a child to be raped and killed. What would you do to save your children? Would you break the law? Of course, you would. If a child came to your door, hungry, exhausted, having escaped certain rape, torture, and death, would you turn them away? Or would you handle it in a way that you, as a parent, would want your child treated? That is the question all of us face but often choose to ignore.

I know from my research that the dangers and horrors they are trying to escape are real. I cannot unsee the child on my doorstep. I cannot simply close the door. I know whatever I do as an individual won’t solve the problem but, just perhaps, it will make a difference in one person’s life.

Day 120 of Gratitude – Being Different

Many people surround themselves with those who are substantially similar in race and cultural attitudes. I have never had that option. At the moment, I can’t think of a half-Caucasian, half-Asian person I know other than four I’m related to. Nor do I know of anyone, other than my brother, raised in an amalgamation of midwest, white middle-class and Japanese-American cultures. I’ve never had the option of surrounding myself with people who look like I do, have the same notions of what is polite and what is forbidden, or share my deeply ingrained beliefs about how I, as an individual, fit into society.

I see people cling to what is familiar and say that people who don’t look, think, or act like them are abnormal, weird, or sometimes even evil. They don’t attempt to understand anything else – they have no reason to. And I am glad that was never an option available to me. I enjoy the perspectives of others – Scottish, Somalian, Chinese, Croatian, Nigerian, Italian, Vietnamese, Russian, Irish – you name it. Their family customs are rich and, more often than not, have some core values at the heart of them that reinforce my own beliefs or at least allow me to understand them better.

I’m not sure why I thought about this today, but being different – growing up around people who were not like me – has been a blessing for which I am grateful.

 

Day 100 of Gratitude – a Spring Evening

The sunshine played with the ends of my hair and the spring breeze cooled my cheeks. And I walked. I walked silently along sidewalks and cut through lumpy grass mounds the newly green lawns. The crystal blue sky above me was calming. Birds flutter past and called from distant trees. Children squealed on the school playground while others readied their bikes for a new season. Other walkers smiled generously and nodded as they went their way. My husband’s hand folded around mine as I walked, surrounding not just my hand but all of me with warmth and comfort. And we kept walking, noticing each moment and the joys of spring it held.

The Insurmountable Wall of Language

sheer rock climberTwo travelers meet in the desert in a foreign land where they must throw their fortunes together to survive. They speak different languages that share an overlapping vocabulary. For example, in Frank’s language, the word “bot” means “sleep” while in Yuri’s language it means “anger.” The word “nasfly” means “guard” to one and “kill” to the other. After some confusing and hostile exchanges, Frank and Yuri realize that the words mean different things to them, and they believe their difficulties are at an end as they resort to using gestures and pictures in the sand to communicate with each other.

Night falls and, as their meager fire wanes, they hear the grunt and howls of carnivores surrounding them. In the dark, gestures and picture are useless, so they begin barking orders to each other on how to protect themselves, each in his own language.  They hear the orders from the other and apply the meanings those words would have in their own language. In the morning, the remains of Yuri and Frank are found, and their rescuers are puzzled over why they died when they had plenty of  fuel to keep the fire going as well as defensive means to keep the animals at bay.  Who was at fault?

Obviously, the answer is that they share equal “fault” in their fate, but perhaps neither of them could avoid it. While perfectly capable of communicating through neutral methods under ideal circumstances, when under pressure, they both resorted to using their native language and hearing the other through that same native language. And had Frank and Yuri survived their night in the dessert, each would blame the other for their peril, stating that the other had refused to listen.

Unfortunately, Frank and Yuri are no different than the rest of us. The primary medium we have for communicating with each other is words, but the nuances and sometime the outright meaning of those words vary from person to person. That is a fact that authors must live with, do their best to accommodate, and know that, at times, they will fail.  Some reader will walk away with an interpretation that is quite different from what the author intended.  Given the limitation of language to convey actual meaning, it is a wonder that we communicate at all, but in general, we manage because the approximations are close enough and we can adjust our words or our listening to the other person’s language.

Put us under enough personal stress, however, and our ability and willingness to filter the familiar words through a foreign language fails. Our capacity to hear from the other person’s perspective used ends, and arguments break out where none had been before. And after false disagreement is cleared up at the end, both parties remain resentful that they were blamed for not accommodating the other’s language, when the other person could have just as easily accommodated theirs.

I have firsthand experience with this problem – I suspect we all do – and I  don’t have a solution. But I wonder over the centuries how many friends were divided, marriages ended, and wars begun over our inability to hear past the words.  Maybe we all need to try a bit harder.

 

 

 

Getting Messy: Some Thoughts on the Good Samaritan

I am not a Biblical scholar. Not even close. In fact, I have a friend I ask when I need a Bible reference for my writing. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan and how it applies to our lives today. If you are still reading this post, I ask that you read it for what it is: not commentary or interpretation of the Bible, but simply thoughts triggered by the parable.

I imagine that everyone raised Christian remembers the parable, and those who were not probably have some familiarity with it.  To paraphrase, Luke 10: 29-37, it goes like this:

Seeking a qualification on “love our neighbors,” someone asks Jesus to define what is meant by “neighbor.” As usual, instead of giving a clearly defined rule that could be twisted for other purposes, Jesus relays a story of a traveler who was beaten, robbed, and left half dead by the side of the road. A priest, and later a Levite – a man who would have had high level religious and political duties – went to the other side of the road and walked passed the man. A Samaritan – a member of a group hated by Jesus’s audience – stopped, tended to the man, and took him to an inn where he paid the innkeeper to continue the traveler’s care.

Most of us, including me, would like to believe we would behave like the Samaritan. Many of us, including me, believe we do behave that way by donating our time and money to worthy causes that assist those in need. We even give extra when a specific group is in need due to an unexpected disaster.  These are undoubtedly positive actions and provide aid to strangers, but they merely cast us in the roles of the priest and Levite in the story – not as the Good Samaritan.

Why do I say that?  Because in doing those very good deeds, we don’t do what the Samaritan did – make a one-on-one human connection. We don’t risk getting messy by touching someone – by actually connecting with a stranger who is not like us. And by not taking that risk, we miss the point.

I have continued thinking about the experience of participating in Kate Collins’ Don’t Talk to Strangers last month (see my previous post for a description). Perhaps that is the reason I was thinking about the Good Samaritan this morning. Collins created an experience that forced us to take the risk of reaching out to someone we wouldn’t normally associate with.  We had to listen to who the other person was – that was the primary requirement of the exercise. That act of listening formed a connection that wasn’t there before.

I’ve had this experience before. One of my most valued relationships is with a person I had no business talking to. We appeared to be ideological opposites in every respect. Yet, for some reason, we didn’t just talk, we listened, and in doing so, we discovered ideas behind the disparate words we use that are far more similar than we would have guessed. We also learned to understand and respect the areas where we differ. The result didn’t just benefit the goal of our dialogue, it improved us.

Still, I fail the Good Samaritan test on a regular basis – I walk through the grocery store or down the street so absorbed in myself or my duties that I barely see the people around me. Today, I will do my best to be different. I will try to raise the spirits of others rather than my own, to help others rather than help myself, and to listen rather than talk. I’m sure I won’t do it well – after all, it’s safer to remain insular in a world where differences are shouted down and waved like flags through the isolation of social media. But still, I am going to try.

Human connections are messy. It is HARD to listen to another person. Perhaps it was easier for the Samaritan because the needs of the traveler were obvious without words getting in the way of hearing with his heart. In the end, I suppose that’s what this post is about – we all need to hear with our hearts. Where our brains see divisions, our hearts hear connections. Perhaps we should listen more often.

 

(Don’t) Talk to Strangers!

Tonight, I participated in a great event organized by Kate Collins, a Ph.D. candidate in Art Education who is teaching an undergraduate class focused on the intersection of art, community, and dialog. I had been to a couple small events she had organized as part of the class, but tonight was the culminating event.  No details were given other than the name “Talk to Strangers,” so I didn’t know what to expect.

I arrived in a manicured downtown park on the river to find balloons, laughter, music, and popcorn.  It was like a child’s birthday party, Kate explained, knowing we’d all been to one at some point in our lives and probably remembered it fondly. But we all learned something else as children, she continued, that we carried forward into our adult lives: “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” But tonight was to be different. We were to pick someone out of the crowd to walk with along a trail across the river and back and talk – or more importantly to listen to what the other had to say.

I looked around the crowd for someone “safe” to hang out with for the walk, but that wasn’t really the point, was it? I found myself face to face with a woman who was also seeking a partner for the stroll and, given that we were both wearing denim jackets, we figured fate put us together. But she wasn’t someone I wanted to get to know. Not because she looked mean or smelled bad or anything like that. It was because she was beautiful, and as someone who doesn’t consider herself in that same category, I prefer to think of beautiful people as shallow and unworthy of my time. Getting to know them spoils that illusion. Nevertheless, Patty and I were now a team.

We set off on our trek across the bridge in easy conversation. Very easy. In less than a block, we’d learned that in the past few years we’d both lost our mothers who’d been vibrant women until the end and that we’d both recently gone through serendipitous career changes. And the conversation flowed from there, moving from the simple social topics of our backgrounds and where we lived to the deeper ones about the revelations that came from the loss of our mothers, to the “whiteness” of certain areas of town, to the importance of human connections. Along the way, we stopped and took pictures for a family that was in town for a convention, framing them against the backdrop of the Columbus skyline. We arrived back at the park to a party of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, dancing, and new friends.

No burning social issues were resolved tonight, nor did we achieve world peace. But true connections were made – human beings reaching out to other human beings and listening to them exist. I’m glad I met Patty tonight. She reminded me that knowing people and interacting with them in positive, meaningful ways is what life is about. And we all could spend more time learning what we have in common rather than focusing what separates us.

Talk to Strangers. It was a beautiful event. Thanks, Kate.

 

Random Thanks for Ripples

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I see no reason that my commitment to eating better or exercising will have more weight today than on any other day of the year. Nevertheless, today I find myself making a commitment to continue something I have just recently started: thanking people for the unintended ripples that touch my life.

At times. we set out to make a positive difference in another person’s life – like volunteering to deliver food to the needy or read to an elderly person who no longer can. More often than not, we receive thanks directly for those acts, and rightly so.  But there is another time, often overlooked, when I have decided to reach out and express my gratitude. These are when people did not set out to do something to help me, or at least not in the way that resulted, but their acts left positive ripples  and those ripples crossed my path.  These are the acts I have decided to acknowledge.

Sometimes, I feel a little silly doing it. A couple days ago, I sent a letter to a famous author letting him know that his success as a cross-genre author provided me with encouragement to keep going during a difficult time. I mailed the letter to the post office box on his website, assuming he will probably never see it.  But that doesn’t matter.  He did something that helped me, and I have thanked him for it.

Today, I came across a short piece containing some details improbably close to an event in my own life. I’d never met the woman who wrote it or even heard of her before. But I sent her a private message relaying my story and thanking her for the perspective her piece gave me, even though it wasn’t the purpose for which she wrote it.

I don’t expect to be thanked for writing thank you notes, nor am I touting myself as a “better” person for undertaking this odd endeavor.  Rather, doing this reminds me that everything we do affects others, whether we intend it to or not. Most of the time, we never see the ripples we leave behind nor their effects. But that doesn’t make them less meaningful. So for the coming year and hopefully beyond, I will pause when I notice a ripple in my path and thank the source for sending it my way.