Tag Archives: relationship

Declaration of Dependence

why it's sometimes a good thing, and what we can learn from being dependent

(Remember to send me your Mad Quotations! So far, song lyrics are well represented. What else have you got up your sleeves?)

American Statue of Liberty from the back

CC image “Statue of Liberty” courtesy of rakkhi on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve begun to think a lot about Dependence recently.

This is a change of pace. Generally speaking, I haven’t thought much about Dependence as a positive trait. I hadn’t considered it a virtue. It mostly surfaced as a counterpoint to a theme I’ve thought a lot about throughout my life thus far, namely Independence.

I’m not just talking about big geopolitical ideas of Repression versus Freedom for groups and in the political arena. I mean personal self-reliance, a sense of individual freedom, the concept that the individual is capable, and therefore responsible, for arranging the circumstances of their life. But before we get into the thorny issue of responsibility, a comment on the idea pair dependence/autonomy. You can take this pair any of a number of ways: physical dependence, which happens when we cannot care for ourselves physically in some way because we are ill or incapacitated, temporarily or for our lives; financial dependence, in which we rely on someone else to supply the money necessary for us to procure the things we need to survive, like food and shelter; emotional dependence; and so forth. So while there are variable permutations of dependence/independence, the root identifying characteristics are the same across all cases.

Generally, I’ve seen dependence as a negative, a burden. Worse yet, I’ve interpreted my own episodes of dependence as pushy neediness and a sign of personal weakness. I didn’t learn this from my immediate family; somehow I taught myself the Stiff Upper Lip principle. I am the oldest child in my family, and (on one side) the oldest of all my cousins, so I got to be a trailblazer by default. I was rewarded with lots of praise whenever I did something well. Perversely, instead of increasing my confidence, throughout my formative years I developed a sustained fear of failure.

An independent personality

Not every aspect of my life was fraught with such deep psychological angst, but if I was unable to do something or figure something out for myself, I got annoyed (with myself). I had something to learn, and pronto.

I don’t like asking people to do things for me. I don’t like owing people.

I can usually figure out how things need to get done. If I don’t know the answer right away, I probably know where I should go to find it. If you give me a task, I’ll take care of it  — and do it well — whether I have to stop at the beginning and sort out a few basic principles or not.

So where does this leave us with our current discussion of Dependence as a virtue?

I’ve gone through a lot of life transitions in the past year and a half. When I embarked on my adventure two thousand miles away across the country, I thought I’d be trailblazing. However, as with any good enterprise, there have been a number of substantial immediate challenges. To my chagrin, I’ve had to accept help, and, more often, ask for it.

I’ve found that Dependence is a great teacher. I’m having to learn — repeatedly, it seems — that it’s OK not to be perfect, and that no one is, overnight, anyway. Also, with each overlapping obstacle, I am learning that there are only certain aspects of my life that I have direct control over or even significant input into. Despite my being fabulous, transition is hard, and it takes time. It takes other people. So I am bumping into my own hubris. I’m learning that the ideal of the Rugged Individualist can be really selfish.

“Collaborator” is a reflexive term: it takes at least two.

Most of all, I’ve had to learn that accepting help can sometimes be a great gift to the giver. Whether it’s time, resources, or an actual physical gift, it’s a blessing to be giving. So I’m learning to accept with grace. Do I still want to be self-reliant? Well, I still would like to know how to fix my car. And I still don’t want to be a secretary. But if I have to learn how to receive now, in order that I can give like crazy later, I’d say that’s a fair trade.

Depend upon it.

What about you? Have you discovered any virtues in Dependence?

The problem of judging a book by its cover

What happens when there isn't one?

Happy 2013!

After my long holiday break, I have a few thoughts about books to share — partly because of the awesome number of them gifted to me and weighing down my suitcase after the holidays.

library stacks

Word goodness! Image courtesy of geekphilosopher.com

The wave of digital readers and e-books that is swirling into publishing-dom, tsunami-style, consistently creates existential ripples among traditionalists (yours truly included) and those affiliated with the traditional order, along the lines of, “What is a book?”

This isn’t one of those existential ripples.

It’s a different ripple. What’s going to happen to the community of reading as the phenomenon of book covers dwindles and vanishes?

The NY Times Travel section published an article in mid-December 2012 about literary haunts in Manhattan. The author, while visiting a “literary” bar recommended to him by friends, observes:

“Most of the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls.’ I would report to you the books they were carrying, but the only readers in the bunch were grasping Kindles.”

The author is sad because he can’t hit on the ladies based on what they might be reading, but I’m sad because not glimpsing what they are reading takes a lot of the community out of reading!

The best way to find new books: as gifts

I’ve always thought that books make the best gifts.

I’m talking as the recipient (although I do enjoy giving them, too). I’ve gotten a lot of good ones over the years, for birthdays and Christmases, and other big life events, such as when I left for my two-year sojourn in New Zealand. It’s how I found some of my favorite books of all time: Anne of Green Gables, the original Earthsea trilogy from Ursula LeGuin, Jane Eyre, Mary Higgins Clark’s thrillers, Juliet Marillier’s Light Isles and Sevenwaters books, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter books (I swear I read male authors too), German young adult mystery and fantasy novels, thick with detail and glorious language…

The tradition was kept up this year, when I received Stephen King’s On Writing, possibly one of the best books, on, er, writing, that I’ve ever seen (and also on my All-Time Favorites list. A male author. There). As well as a few other tomes.

I’ve killed my favorite books with love. The hard covers have stood up well, but the paperbacks are falling apart. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them — I used to read the Earthsea books and Anne of Green Gables about once a year. If I ever wanted to offload them on the Amazon used-book marketplace, they would near-universally have to be rated as in poor condition. The corners are dog eared and frayed; the cover art cracked and barely recognizable to an unknowing eye; the bindings are pulp; the front covers are coming off and so are some of the opening pages; other pages are yellowed with age and exude an old-book smell. The only kind of used-book defacement missing is writing on the pages — I never ever wanted to scribble in my books! Even after they succumb to the ravages of love, they’re kind of sacred.

Now, I flag my books with crazy-colored sticky notes. I still can’t bring myself to create messy marginalia.

Over time, I’ve received fewer titles that I haven’t requested by title or author name in advance. Instead of books, I tend to get recommendations.

The next best way: educated guesswork

In my case, book recommendations — a form of educated guesswork by the recommender — translate into trips to the library (I’d be eating Ramen noodles every day, assuming I wasn’t buried by a collapsing pile of books in my hoarder-style apartment, had I actually purchased a copy of everything I ever wanted to read). One author or style leads to another: I quickly amassed a “to read” list that outstripped my power to ever complete.

red book on a shelf

Standing out from the crowd
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

My primary strategy for adding to the list consisted of browsing the “new fiction” shelves at our local branch, looking over the spines of all the shiny new volumes — a form of less-educated guesswork (this time by me). Unless it was clear from that superficial view that the book was not my cup of tea, I’d read the dust jacket… and if that was promising, the first few lines or paragraphs of the book itself. I knew I had a winner when I got to the third page, standing in front of the shelves, and I was still reading.

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But it’s hard. I picked up Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves based solely on the title, for example. Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Høeg) caught me with the eye on the cover, enigmatic, as well as the taste of winter suggested by the white background.

I agree a book cover shouldn’t be everything, but it’s a logical place to start. Especially if we don’t know the author or have never of the book.

Unsurprisingly, the modern book marketing machine revolves around the cover. The cover is the cornerstone of the book’s “branding.” This holds true even when the visual is virtual: online book stores use cover images as icons to flag books for would-be purchasers, and author websites feature an image of the book for sale.

But there really isn’t any cover on an e-book.

After we’ve purchased the digital copy or borrowed it (depending on the current state of wrangling between libraries and publishers), it resides solely on our flickering little screen. Once we start reading, the cover, visible only to us in the first place, effectively vanishes.

And the reading community goes with it.

Because books aren’t only just for us to read

worn blue journal

the gift of a story
image courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net

Sure, we think we’re engaged in a solitary activity when we’re reading… it’s hard to have a conversation with someone else at the same time and actually remember a word of what we read… but although I’m not a betting woman, I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that I’m not the only one who’s relied on the recommendations and book suggestions of family, friends, and strangers. And let’s not forget the literary community at Goodreads, more than 13 million users strong. It’s a community built up explicitly around books! And interestingly, the fulcrum of this social media hub, digital and virtual though it is, involves seeing what other people have on their “shelves” (welcome back, cover icons) …and what their comments on these books are.

We lose the human connection when there is no way to tell what someone is reading — or to show anyone else what we are reading. Users of electronic devices could just as well be checking their email, or surfing Facebook, as reading any kind of book.

In an example of classic book interaction, the lady next to me on the plane last month struck up a conversation about the book that I was reading — because she had just caught a glimpse of its cover. Not to browbeat the Kindle, but this conversation would surely not have taken place if I had been holding a computerized version of the book. I then saw she was holding a book of crossword puzzles, and so we went from food (my book was Consider the Fork) to writing to families — one of my grandmothers was a prodigious crossworder in her day.

There we were, two strangers, discovering a common bond by virtue of our book [covers]. As I said, the cover is a good place to start. Not just for marketers, but for the rest of us, too.

Have you stumbled across any good new books recently? How did you find them?

How likely are you to ask somebody reading a Kindle or a tablet whether it’s “any good?”

When does telling a story not serve us?

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It was probably about the fifth time that I was going through the story in excruciating detail that I realized I really didn’t want to tell it anymore.

I had been made temporarily homeless.  One of my roommates had thrown me out of my apartment amidst shouting, accusations, and withheld money.  Everything of mine that was not in storage back East was piled in my car.  I just knew I was leaving; I didn’t know what to do next.

It’s not that I didn’t want to share the story with my friend, but just talking about it made me feel anxious, upset, panicky, angry, and sweaty again… just by thinking about it at that visceral level that any good story needs to have in order to connect with the audience.

I was actually reliving the experience.

To make things even more difficult, my closest family was almost 800 miles, and my closest friends more than two thousand miles away.  All we had was the telephone – and it became my lifeline.

Talking about the experience was a way for me to deconstruct it and try to understand it.  In the first several days, I felt the need to share a blow-by-blow description of events with whomever I happened to have on the phone.  Additional events in the following days meant that the story grew in length with each retelling.

It began to be exhausting, both from a mechanical perspective in terms of speech, but also emotionally.  I felt sucked into the same horrible emotional vortex of that day.  So I tried to triage the details when I had to talk about it, but that felt dishonest – as though I was glossing over the lived reality of the experience.  And yet with each new, loving inquiry as to how I was and what had happened, I started to dread revisiting that place.

I’ve been some kind of storyteller my whole life.  As I’ve written here before, I was drawn to writing from an early age.  But even prior to my relationship with the written word, I used to concoct plays and dramas to stage for my family.  I used the tall dining room chairs and a series of blankets draped across them for theater curtains, roped in various siblings and cousins, whose participation wasn’t always voluntary, and arrogated to myself the functions of plot conception, direction, production, and starring role.  My family also had a tradition of talking to each other in stories, often involving dramatic flair, role play and partial reenactments.  Numerous members of my family have been bitten by the acting bug.  By nature and experience, I was accustomed to really sinking into the details of any story, real or fictional, and participating in it.

This level of involvement makes it quite difficult to approach storytelling of emotionally traumatic experiences.  Though I really did need to share the details of my crisis immediately after it occurred, that need muted within a relatively short period of time.  Since then, I’ve been wondering about the line between storytelling as catharsis, and storytelling as a ball and chain, imprisoning us emotionally.  I had to recognize that the story as I originally told it was no longer serving me.  In fact, it was anchoring me in a place that I wanted to depart from as quickly as possible.

These days, we’ve all been acculturated to the concept of sharing as an emotionally liberating choice; repression, or keeping private, is mostly viewed as a negative, a contributing factor to later snarls of emotional debility.  It’s certainly lonely, not sharing our stories.  But I think our relationship to the story we are telling is important and often overlooked.

Why are we telling it?

How does it end?

Because a story is more than just words.