Mindy Quigley in Space!

I got word a few weeks ago that my short story “Equality Day” was selected as the winner of the 2018 Women Hold Up Half the Sky Award, sponsored by Artemis Journal, Light Bringer Project & the Hollywood Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The contest required me to write a science fiction story with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. I’ve never attempted anything even remotely like this. Though I did manage to birth an infant, launch a child into middle school, and have my kitchen renovated, 2017 was a spectacularly unproductive year for me in terms of writing. For most of the year, I’d felt all but brain-dead. However, when a writer friend sent me the contest details, I could feel my long-stilled creative juices begin to softly burble.

I’ve written before about how I tend to approach writing like a project to be managed. The contest had a very concise 1,500 word limit, which made it feel like a do-able project. I didn’t have to try to snap my sleep-deprived synapses into shape in order to knit the details of an entire novel together. I just had to maintain concentration for a few hours at a time. Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

 

Even still, the road to triumph was paved with many false starts and deleted pixels. When I begin a short story, I almost always start with an idea that’s WAY too big for a short story. That was even more true with “Equality Day,” where the story I wanted to tell had enough detail for at least three feature-length films. The world I pictured had achieved a veneer of social equality by eliminating all outward signs of gender. I didn’t want it to be hard-core scifi (no spaceships, no time travel, no blue-skinned creatures sporting ray guns). But despite the similarities to our own world, the story remained stubbornly unwieldy and enormous, and there seemed to be no way to make it smaller. To make matters worse, I had next-to-zero time to sit down and start working through my ideas on paper.

Weirdly, the fact that baby-rearing gave me so little time to write improved the story. What I lacked in computer time, I made up for in many nights of half-conscious cogitation. Throughout November and into December, while I was nursing my son, I kicked around ways to bring the story under control. Late one night, with my little son suctioned to me like a remora fish, a vision dawned on me–a little child who lived in a genderless world, seeing a woman for the first time. Before I slipped back in bed that night, I jotted down what became the first sentence in “Equality Day”:

The first time I saw a woman, I must’ve been about five.

That sentence gave me what I needed to get started. A few furious drafting sessions and many edits later, I’d managed to tell the story I’d wanted to tell, in only 1,468 words.

Look out for “Equality Day” in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in early May. And look out for me at LitFest Pasadena where the story will be read on stage by a celebrity guest on May 19, 2018!

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When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.

 

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 1

Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.

One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?

This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.

Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.

That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…

Sisyphus’s reading list

With apologies to my parents and the various governmental and charitable bodies that funded my higher education, I have to confess that I remember almost nothing from my undergraduate courses. One obscure factoid, however, stands out with surprising clarity: the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza read every book in print during this lifetime.

The Gutenberg press was invented around 1500, and for the first few decades almost all books were printed in Latin. Despite the obvious improvements from the days of hand copying, books were still relatively rare and expensive commodities. Only tomes of great importance, written by men of means, were deemed worthy of publication. To possess a vast library, or even a single book, was a mark of distinction. Throughout the sixteenth century, though, printed books became more and more commonplace, and the array of printed matter increased exponentially with each passing decade. By the seventeenth century, when Spinoza lived, there were hundreds of presses across Europe and the entire canon of classical Greek texts (Plato, Aristotle, and various other toga-ed toffs) was in print. During Spinoza’s lifetime and after his death, this proliferation only increased as books and pamphlets in vernacular languages flew off the presses. By 1800, a new kind of press could churn out almost 500 pages every hour.

Walk into even the shabbiest small-town library and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed paper arrayed before you. I despair of ever finding time to finish Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s wonderful Clare Fergusson mystery series, much less read every book in print. Getting through my reading list can feel like a never-ending task, a “to do” that will never, ever be done.

Spinoza had a couple of advantages over you and me. First, he didn’t have kids or a spouse or a regular job, and, though I can’t prove it, I suspect he also didn’t have a demanding miniature schnauzer. Most importantly, though, he lived during the sweet-spot era of knowledge creation and dissemination when there were thousands, but not yet millions, of books in circulation.

Northwestern University, my alma mater, is organized around approximately 10-week “trimesters” rather than semesters. This gives students the opportunity to cram in more courses during the academic year than is typical. I must’ve taken close to 40 different courses during my time there, and this anecdote about Spinoza is what has stuck with me. If you love reading as much as I do, the idea of being able to read every book inspires awe and envy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have time to really read each word that passes in front of your eyeballs? And to savor your favorite passages?

As you glance at that pile of unread books on your bedside table or file yet another friendly suggestion of a “must read” book into your mental Rolodex, maybe you, like me, will give a jealous thought to Spinoza. We live in an ever-expanding universe of words that continually stretches further from the Big Bang origin of the invention of the printing press. Quit your job and spend every waking minute with your nose stuck in a book, and you’ll barely have begun. But take heart. Though you didn’t live at Spinoza’s perfect moment in publishing history, you can take some comfort that you live in the era of indoor plumbing, Oreo cookies, and Dr. Who.

You secretly believe life is fair.

A friend of mine is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She has two young daughters who are, for the second time in a year, having to watch their mom fall ill from treatment, lose her vitality and probably her hair (again), and fight for her life. This same friend’s brother died of cancer last week, after years of often agonizing pain. Oh, and her mom is currently in rehab after a debilitating stroke. She’s holding up incredibly well, but the Bible’s Job is probably looking at her like, “Damn, girl. That sucks.”

I confess. Although I am within sniffing distance of my fourth decade of life, I still secretly believe that life is fair. Or at least that it ought to be. I’m guessing you have the same irrational fantasy. Like toddlers complaining that Timmy got more turns on the slide than everybody else, we harbor a feeling that there should be a universal sense of justice, some kind of correlation between the way we live our lives and the things that happen to us. We see this instinct in action every time tragedy rains down. I often think of the public outcry when, a few years back, a toddler was killed by a rogue alligator at Disney World. Comments sections all over the internet filled up with outraged voices asking why the parents would let the boy get so close to the water. Why weren’t they watching their son more closely? Why didn’t Disney take more stringent measures to clear the lake of alligators? Why hadn’t employees warned people not to be near the water at night? The plain fact is that it was a terrible, terrible accident. Like most tragedies, if a hundred small things had gone slightly differently, it could have been prevented. But things went the way that they did, and a young, innocent life ended as a result. How unfair.

I see this same dynamic with my friend’s cancer diagnosis. People will ask her, “Is there cancer in your family?” “Were you exposed to X chemical?” “Did you eat too much of X or drink too little of Y?” As if there’s an answer. As if we must make this logical and fair somehow in our minds.

I think I write in part from this same deep-seated human impulse to make things fair. I’ve given my main character, Lindsay Harding, a lot of baggage. Deadbeat parents, adoption by an aunt whose ideas about child rearing bordered on Dickensian, a traumatic betrayal by her fiance, frequently being targeted by violent criminals. Like me, Lindsay knows that, despite her belief in a benevolent God, life isn’t fair. She even has several conversations in A Murder in Mount Moriah about this age-old philosophical dilemma. But what Lindsay doesn’t know is that <<SPOILER ALERT>> when all is said and done, she will get her happy ending. I get to make things fair for her. That’s the power of creating a fictional world. I’ll kill off the worst of the baddies and reward most of the goodies. That’s how most books and movies work, and I’m not cruel enough to deviate from that formula by subjecting my readers to an ending that results in Lindsay’s slow, painful death. (I know I’m not alone is still being mad at John Boyne for the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

Admit it. You know rationally that life isn’t fair. But when you see good people suffering I’m willing to bet that you, like me, have to fight an internal battle against the belief that it damn well ought to be.

I’m in love with a weird, evil Yoda creature

I’ve been pretty busy these last few weeks, bringing forth the miracle of life in all its wriggling, pooping, chubby-cheeked glory. Our latest addition, a boy, was born in early June and has kept us on a pretty short leash since then. I’ve been a little hesitant to post here, even when I’ve had the odd spare minute (and spare minutes are very odd these days), because my command of the English language seems to have disappeared along with my nights of unbroken sleep. The other day, for example, I found myself writing “yous” when I meant to write “use.” I guess sleep-deprived Mindy is a wise guy from New Jersey.

Can I share a secret? I really don’t like having a newborn baby. I was first struck by the unusual nature of this feeling when we were still in the hospital. At the birthing center where I delivered, they fit newborns with a little electronic ankle bracelet — the baby version of those plastic tag alarms they put on leather handbags to keep shoplifters from swiping them. I’ve heard stories, and I know there are desperate people out there who have tried to steal babies. Sure, babies are cute when they can sit up and gurgle adoringly at their caregivers. And who doesn’t love a cuddle with a cherub-faced two-year-old who has just awakened from a 12-hour nighttime snooze? By all means, covet one of those. But to want to steal a NEWBORN? Newborns are wrinkly little Yoda-looking blobs who fuss constantly and are essentially super glued to your boob six or seven hours a day. They make creepy little hand gestures and give suspicious sideways glances like they’re villains in a silent film. They use those tiny, powerful lungs to let you know how pissed off they every time they have to fart.

Even though objectively no one should want to endure a hellacious pregnancy, an excruciating delivery, and then several months of Guantanamo-style torture at the hands of a tiny tyrant, somehow there are still seven billion of us on the planet. How to explain this? For me, the magic is encoded in our DNA. Coiled in every cell in our bodies, we have about two meters of DNA strands. Six feet of the stuff! In every cell. The DNA to build a complete human evolved very slowly over millions of years and gosh darn it, it wants to live on. So in those impossibly thin, tightly packed DNA strands, there are adaptations that make us delight in the weird little faces of our babies. And that let loose a hormonal barrage that bonds mother and child. And a thousand other little bits of code unfold to ensure that however we may objectively feel about newborns, we do our darnedest to keep them alive, thriving, and happy. Perhaps the most important of these adaptations is the one that makes us forget all the (very) bad parts and fall madly, irrevocably in love with our children.

Must dash. The evil overlord, um, I mean sweet little baby needs to be super glued to my boob again.