I heard this from a friend in Seattle this week: “I write with a question. After much dithering, hemming and hawing, I have found the key to my book… I would greatly appreciate your counsel on how to navigate the process of getting it published. Finding an agent, self-publishing, Amazon? This is a world about which I know nothing.” Here was my answer to her:
What an amazing place to be: right at the beginning of something new and exciting, feeling clueless, and wide open to learning! Lovely, lucky you. Take some deep breaths, find someone to celebrate, or commiserate, your current state with, and enjoy this moment. I’ll be self-publishing my eighth book this spring, and I’m still far from feeling like an expert. I think I know a few helpful things to share…
The question that you’re asking is a big one. My own short answer is this: center on who and what you love. If you love the process and the people, then you’ll be satisfied (and some days, thrilled) regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen. So part of your goal should be asking yourself these questions as you go: Do I love the process? Am I learning to say goodbye to and let go of what I don’t love? Am I making choices based at least in part on what I most love to do and who I most love to be with? How you choose to publish should reflect who you are: what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, who you like to work with, who your community naturally is, how you and your community members/natural work mates like to work, and also, yes, at least here in the U.S. in 2018, how much money you can spend up front. I’m a present-moment person, so those are my questions. If you’re a future-leaning person, then maybe ask: Where do you see yourself and your book in 2 to 5 years? Who do you imagine will be your coworkers along the way to get there? Who will you read the book to? Where will you be? How much of a hand do you want to have in major decisions and in book promotion, distribution, and sales along the way? If you’re a learn-from-the-past person, then maybe questions like these are better questions: Who has created books or left a legacy that I respect and admire? What did they do and not do? I suggest that you talk to 4 or 5 people who have published books in the past 2 to 10 years (or longer, depending on you and your subject) related to your subject and genre so you can get a broader picture of why people choose to publish the way they do and get a clearer picture of what it takes to publish (the easier part) and to live an authoring life (the impossibly hard part if you’re not an author at heart).
If you want a really long answer, then here are some thoughts from my experience. There are hybrid approaches now, but these are your three basic choices:
- Big publishing houses. In 2009-2010, I spent about a year and a half thinking about publishing via traditional routes. That is, find an agent, shop a manuscript around, find a big publisher, work with that publisher to produce and promote the book, become J.K. Rowling, and then say whatever you want to say on Twitter without fear because the whole world has your back. In big publisher world, as a first-time author you need an agent to even be heard, unless you’re exceptionally famous or infamous. You also need a significant author platform already in place (this is all the ways you’re already listened to by the masses—such as your own blog, speaking gigs you already do, podcasts, classes you teach, programs you host, media coverage you’ve received, etc.) for your manuscript to even be considered, no matter how good it is. As the most forward-thinking and cutting edge big publishing house editor told me “In this space, we don’t start revolutions. We document revolutions that already happened, because we need to make that kind of money [big money] to survive.” So kind, he was, to say that to me, saving me years of wasted time and trouble! There are thick books of agents and publishing houses published every year to be up to date—you can ask at any bookstore for them, and start there. However, attending a few writer’s conferences is perhaps the simplest way to find an agent. You could try Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s (PNWA’s) next writers conference. Most big writer’s conferences set up pitch sessions that you can sign up for and then you get to pitch your book idea or manuscript to a few agents. After about 18 months of exploring this world, I decided that route wasn’t for me. I somehow knew back then that I wanted to be a full-time author: writing book after book after book regardless of what else I was doing. From my perspective back then, the big publisher world felt like choosing to spend my working life on the biggest, slowest (not to mention kind of elitist and wasteful) cruise ship on earth (where authors were deck scrubbers while others drove the ship, made the big decisions, and doled out the wages). I learned that what I enjoy is more like kayaking or sailing with a few friends—a place where everyone gets to be in charge sometimes and people adore and trust each other from the get go for their complementary skill sets. Other authors love the big publisher world. And I get it–I hate doing all the leg work for book promotions. Still, it just wasn’t for me. For one reason, even after you get an agent (which could take years, depending on how much time you have to devote to that), and then get your manuscript accepted by a big publisher (which could also take years), it can then still take an additional 1 to 3 years for the book itself to be published and reach store shelves—and this last part is on the publisher’s schedule, not yours.
- Small publishing houses. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of small publishers in the US. You can find them by asking your book nerdiest writer and reader friends (and their friends), by searching Google, and also at writer’s conferences. I suggest doing all three if you have the time. I recommend trying to find someone at a local (or emotionally local to you) small publishing house willing to talk to you about their process. Often editors from small publishing houses attend writer’s conferences where you can sign up to pitch a book idea or manuscript directly to them. You don’t necessarily need an agent with a small publisher, although you’ll most likely want an attorney to help review contracts and think about legal ramifications of some choices if you aren’t inclined to research legal questions yourself and don’t have a background in negotiations and/or mistrusting others. Artists, who tend to love and trust for a living, can be wise to partner with one kind person who mistrusts for a living. Not everyone who publishes a book is an artist, of course–you might also do fine on your own. I haven’t yet worked with a small publishing house yet, but I can now imagine doing so in the future. Likely because I’m old enough now that I have a few friends who run small publishing houses. People who run small publishing houses tend to be well, cool, from my perspective. People I enjoy spending time with. People whose passions and skills complement and stretch my own. Working with a small publisher is a far more intimate arrangement. Some small publishing houses publish just 3 to 12 books a year, so if you’re among the chosen, you are all in it to win it for your book–rising or sinking together.
- Self-publishing. This is the wild west of book publishing, and it’s where my own expertise lives. It’s still not simple, but it’s considerably simpler to self-publish in 2018 than it was 7 years ago when I started. Systems that tend toward getting simpler (not easier) with time are where I like to live, I’ve learned–likely because most of the human world is getting more complex right now. There are still emerging and new ways to work in the self-publishing space, and you can try different things with every book you publish (if that sounds like fun, this might be for you). In this space, you are the publisher/big decision maker and often the project manager while others—such as distributors, printers, editors, cover artists, indexers, etc.—essentially work for you. Getting a book to a published state can be much faster here. I self-published my first book in 2012, and I will be publishing my eighth book in March 2018. I chose to self-publish the first seven for many reasons: because a) I wanted to learn the process from end to end, b) I had the mindset (coming out of Microsoft and my doctoral program back then) of experimenting and learning at every stage as a fun thing and also confidence in my own skill set (as a dev editor I’d helped others get their books published via Microsoft Press), c) I wanted to publish some of the books quickly—for particular purposes or for particular people, in the same year I’d written them, d) I had community members with skill sets that complemented my own, e) an ability to ask for help and hire/barter skills and services with friends and friends of friends, and f) I was willing to manage the book as a project and try my hand at promotions/marketing/sales. I was lucky (and naturally inclined) to have people around me willing to learn along with me. For example, people who were editors, illustrators, publications, and manuscript to book and eBook conversion experimentors who were willing to learn along with me and work with me. I also got legal advice, as needed, from a group of attorneys that worked at the same coworking space where I worked–another place we traded services instead of paying for them. We used Amazon’s CreateSpace (book) and Kindle Direst Publishing (KDP) (eBook) for the first seven books because they were the easiest for us (back then) and we had so many other things to learn that we needed easy. They were essentially the printer and online distributor and I myself (with my spouse and closest friends) made the big decisions. We were the publisher.
Another upside to this approach is that it is a relatively inexpensive up front route. I needed that. I’d quit my day job to finish the last year of my doc program and I decided to try to write full time before pursuing another day job. Self-publishing is relatively inexpensive in that, for example, for some books I leaned on my closest friends or my spouse to do publications, formatting, and manuscript to PDF and MOBI file conversions to hand off files to Amazon (bartering their expertise on my projects for my expertise on their projects = free labor for everyone!). I’ve always paid for quality editing, but I’ve bartered my own skills and services for everything else at some point: for example, some of my cover art and promotional materials like postcards and bookmarks. The way CreateSpace and KDP (and many others) work, you pay nothing to them up front. Instead, they take a percentage of every book that’s sold, and the physical books are print-on-demand, which is invisible to anyone who purchases books online (well, except for big publishing company and other traditional purists and book makers who will notice the subtle-to-invisible quality differences). I’ve published several books for under $1,000 this way—paying only for editing and sometimes cover art up front. So this is a great way to start if you don’t have much money and want to experiment. The down side is that you are on the hook for ALL your own marketing and book promotion. Don’t quit your day job to try self publishing, unless you’re already famous somehow. We lost money on my first 3 books as we figured things out. We broke even on books 4 and 5. We made a little money on book 6 the first year. A little more on book 7. We have big plans for book 8! Another upside is that we can promote and sell these books forever (if that sounds like an upside to you, you might be a self publisher). All our books are residual income for us now. Tiny amounts trickle in each month, and more money shows up whenever we do book readings, teach workshops, give interviews, do online training, and so on (basically, whenever we show up in person we see bumps in book sales). With a traditional big publisher, to the best of my limited knowledge, your book might be promoted in a big way for just the first year (or a few years if you’re lucky). If it’s not selling well, they’ll pull it at some point.
Things have evolved quite a bit in the self-publishing world since 2012. Personally, I find working with small organizations more fun and interesting, so I’ve been looking at For my eighth book, here in 2018, I’m using BookBaby. They can handle cover art, publications/formatting, editing, conversion to ebooks, and getting it out onto all the major online booksellers and into the hands of the publishing house that makes it possible for bookstores to order and stock your book (Ingram). (Basically, all the things I’ve learned I don’t love doing or managing myself.) You can pick and choose services too: for example, I used my own editor, not theirs, since as a former editor I have dozens of editor friends–from proof readers to copy editors to dev editors. And BookBaby can connect you with book marketing/promotions consultants that charge by the hour to give you advice about how to focus your efforts and best market and promote your book. (I would have killed for that back in 2011 and 2012 and 2013–back when I was trying dozens of things and failing at almost all of them.) I’ll let you know how it goes with them. See, even after eight books, there’s still much to learn and experiment with here in self-publishing land! There are other end-to-end self-publishing services companies like BookBaby out there now, too. There’s a more local one in Portland that someone suggested to me recently: Luminare, I believe their name was. I may check them out for the next book. BookBaby is based in New Jersey.
I love self-publishing because as the publisher I automatically own all the content and can do whatever I want with it, when ever I want. There are no complicated negotiations that require an agent and few (typically) that require an attorney. BookBaby’s staff work with me: I don’t work for them. For my latest book, which is twice as long (120,000 words) as any other book I’ve written, I paid ~$1,300 for editing (which is low, thanks to my connections and friendships) and I expect to pay ~$1,500 to BookBaby for covers, publication/formatting/proofing, and getting the book to the dozen or so distributors. I now work with my husband from our own work/home studio space, Silly Dog Studios. We promote our books via an email mailing list, social media, friends, prereaders (who get a free book for providing reviews online, even bad reviews–I’m not Trump), local booksellers, in-person book readings at places that make the most sense for each particular book, as part of workshops and classes we teach here at Silly Dog Studios, and at the two big Whidbey Island farmer’s markets April-October. I’m looking into Indiebound right now to move future marketing to a space I more naturally fit than giant Amazon (who is too big to care, for example, that another Lori Kane writing 5-page terrible erotica “books” shows up in searches for me–the people may empathize, but the organization can’t, it’s just too big to make changes for one author). We also have many artist, writer, neighbor, and other small business owner friends who naturally promote books for us, too. Here in very small business land, we all promote each other’s work. That’s how we survive. More importantly, that’s how we like it and how we thrive. (I’m far better at promoting group work/community-level work and other’s work than my own individual work, which actually works just fine here in self-publishing land–I don’t have to change who I am in ways that feel unnatural to me. Daniel and I also plan to make the individual chapters of book 8 available on my website, so I can also sell individual chapters to people who don’t want the whole big book, too. My latest book is creative non-fiction and the chapters stand alone well. It’s a busy world. My audience may want just two of the 9 chapters–that’s perfectly fine with me. We’re planning to host workshops here that use the book’s content as the base. We make all our books available for sale to those who come to workshops and events here. FYI, [person-specific suggestion for my friend who asked the question] are terrific places for book readings and book sales about [your subject]! Just remember to bring cash/change, since many people there don’t want to swipe their credit card into a device on somebody else’s smart phone to buy a book!
In my professional opinion, the process to have a great-selling book, become a well-known author, or to make a full-time living as an author takes between 8 and 20 years of dedicated hard work and learning to ask for and accept community help at every turn, regardless of which publishing route you take. If you’re not an author at heart, you will fail regardless of which approach you try because your heart won’t be in it. If you are an author at heart, you will succeed regardless of which approach you try because you won’t give up no matter how many failures and rejections you encounter and you will draw people to you who will support you in your efforts and you’ll support them in theirs. You have to grow through the process of publishing and becoming an author and that growth takes time—it can’t be rushed by mere humans. I know a few exceptions who got there faster than 8 years, but those exceptions work their BUTTS off night and day, almost round the clock, 365-days per year to make that “exception” happen. As a secondary caregiver for one parent with Alzheimer’s disease and a primary care partner for the other parent (who is exhausted from 15 years of caregiving), not to mention as someone who needs a well-rounded life outside of constant book promotion to create great books in the first place, I haven’t had that kind of time to become exceptional quickly. 😉 Today, that’s fine with me. Exceptional isn’t a thing I aspire to anymore. Here in Lori Land, exceptional is a thing we all naturally are when we slow down long enough to notice.
An up side to self-publishing is that you can get a published book in your hands much faster than the big and small publisher routes. The down side is that if you’re not interested in doing ongoing community building, personal growth, marketing/promotions, and even sales some days, then you can end up with a finished book that almost nobody knows about or cares about outside of your own family (I have several of those). The biggest up side to self-publishing is that you are clearly the primary decision maker. As such, you naturally focus on what you love about the process, you learn to readily ask for help (or you get nowhere fast), in regularly asking for help in your community, you fluidly pull people to you who you need to work with next (and they need you), and you end up naturally spending quite a lot of time with people you love and respect. So if you keep at it through all the failures and second-guessing yourself and kicking yourself for trying things that you knew in your gut wouldn’t work for you, then you will one day find yourself surprised–as you type the words to your friend–that you now have a custom-made-by-you, for you, totally unique to you and kick ass author platform (aka, author’s life, aka, the life you truly want).
Loving the process and loving all (ok, almost all) of the people you work with doesn’t just makes all of your books (even the money losers) meaningful and worthwhile endeavors. It also lands you where you truly want to be, doing what you really want to be doing, wearing what you really want to be wearing, and creating the work that you are on this earth to create. Surrounded by people doing the same. Most days. Huh, wow–I think that’s where I already am.
Thank you for the big question. I hope something in there helps!
We have some news. I’ve been away from my computer for a week—up with mom and dad—thanks for being patient with me. A week ago Thursday, Mom moved into Harbor Care, the memory care building in their retirement community. Dad still lives in the cottages, just one block away, and visits daily. I’ve been visiting late mornings or early afternoons, every other day since it’s a 40-minute drive there for me. Yesterday she and I did a spa day together and had lunch. Family eats for free at Harbor Care!
At first, they asked us to stay away for a few days, so that she could bond with her new friends and caregivers and adjust to her new routine: hardest 4 days of my life. My heart felt like a stone within my chest and I cried if the wind blew the wrong way. I’ve since learned that dad snuck in about 10 times to check on her from a distance. 😉 However, before you get too sad about Mom’s move, listen to what happened this week. From day 1, Mom clearly adored her new digs. She’s been noticeably improving by the day this week. She is talking again (her new friends are chatty and often talk nonsense mixed in with clarity, and we think it’s making her comfortable again with at least trying to speak and not minding nonsense so much). She is laughing and smiling more. She’s even back to recognizing herself in the mirror and using it to adjust her hair instead of thinking that it’s a window with friends on the other side. This was the last thing any of us expected—because it’s always the horror stories that you hear about—so it’s almost unbelievable. But our truth is this: surrounded by friends, even here with late stage Alzheimer’s, mom is thriving at the moment.
Despite her disease, Mom is young and relatively physically fit. Where she lives now is beautiful: they have gardens to stroll through and look out into when the weather is cold, two big activities rooms, 3 rooms that families can use to have private meals or big family celebrations, plus a big TV room with a huge stone fireplace that’s always on now that it’s cold. Because of her disease and her own amazing nature, she only sees the beauty in the place—she misses most of the sadness-inducing things that we see, such as railings along all the walls, nurses stations, and a few very old people in rooms who can barely move anymore. There are 40 residents and what I’d guess is about 25 people there caring for them round the clock (~5 caregivers, 2 nurses, 3 fun activities people, maybe 3 laundry and cleaning staff, 3 front desk staff, many aides/orderlies, a hairdresser in the hair salon who was already mom’s friend, a nutritionist, and the kitchen staff). The place is bright and decorated to look like home (big windows, cool wardrobes, decorated shadow boxes with their names on them at their doorways, and some rooms even have white picket fences and brightly painted mailboxes outside of them). Everyone loves mom. She is almost always happy and the older ladies think that she and I are beautiful and tell us that repeatedly: so good for the ego! The staff tells me every day that her laugh is infectious.
Mom has a new posse of friends: about 5 of the women are younger and relatively fit, like mom, and all of them are far more verbal/talkative than mom is. Two of them took her under their wing immediately. So, every morning they come get her, go for walks around the big circle that the building was built in, go to exercise time together, go to coffee/tea/hot chocolate together, eat meals together, go to arts and crafts and readings and other activities together, and to the singalongs. The big TV room with big fireplace is just across the hall from mom’s room. After supper, they all gather there and watch movies, usually musicals, and they sing together. She is rarely in her own beautifully decorated room that we spent so much time to make welcoming! And we couldn’t be happier about that.
Mom still recognizes us and loves to see us. I just did a spa day with her yesterday: we did lotion hands, lotion feet, and green clay masks on our faces, which made her laugh out loud for half an hour. Dad pops in to visit some mornings and give things/tips/advice to the staff, and he has supper with her most evenings and sometimes stays to watch old movies with them. So, while it still hurts us to not have her with us all the time, we’re still being healed by her. She’s still being our rock and our leader. We are SO DAMN LUCKY. Even with late stage Alzheimer’s disease, she’s amazing. A decade and a half in, she still says “I love you” with a twinkle in her eye, like always. Words fail.
The staff recommends to us that we not take her out for 3 to 4 weeks, to allow her to really fully get that this is her home and to adjust to their remarkable routine, so we’re just visiting her there at the moment. But she’s doing so well that I plan to still take her out for tea/coffee and walk with her over to the assisted living building now and then to visit friends. And we hope to bring her down to our house for visits for these next two holidays. If she continues to improve or stay the same, she’ll definitely be able to do our house for Thanksgiving and Christmas again this year. This is shocking to us, as she’d really gone downhill fast across the past 6 months: more angry and confused than happy, thinking we were abandoning her when we sat at the table to play cards, talking to the people behind the mirror, etc. She knew what we didn’t know: that she needed a larger, round-the-clock community of peers/friends/activities/support. She is magic. We are the daughters/spouse/siblings/friends of a magical being. She is clearly where she needs to be now: she’s among peers again and supported by cool women caregivers and nurses–round the clock–and she’s totally loving it! Every person is different, so maybe a place like Harbor Care isn’t right for everyone, but it’s clearly right for her.
I hope you’ll come visit as often as you can (and as soon as you can, since this disease does progress inevitably). And if you can’t, but you want to send her something, here’s what’s appropriate as a gift for mom now: upbeat cards, photos (especially photos from her youth and from key moments in life such as your favorite trip together or the birth of your kid or the best party you ever had together), paper wall decorations such as holiday decorations (no nails in the walls here), fun stickers that she and I can stick on her mirror or elsewhere, costume jewelry bracelets (she loves to show her bracelets to her friends and family), or a stuffed animal (she likes dogs, cats, and sea creatures). Another fantastic gift would be a gift for her caregivers—like a bouquet of flowers for the caregiver office or a gift card to Starbucks or Whidbey Coffee. These folks do life-saving, amazing work. They help her get dressed in the morning, help her bathe and get ready for the day, help her make her bed and find her glasses, do her laundry, make sure she takes her vitamins and medicines, smile and hug her and say “Hi Linda!” whenever they see her all day, help her find her way to activities and social gatherings, help her get ready for bed, and they even sit with her until she falls asleep right now. They’re warm and kind, professional angels. A gift to them IS a gift to Mom now. They are family, now, too, and we’re so very lucky to have them in our lives. Gifts can be sent to dad or to us, and we will deliver them on your behalf.
Thank you for your unwavering love and support of our family.
We love you too.
– Linda and Jim, Lori and Daniel, Jen and Cam and Jocelyn, and Eva, Batman, Joe, and Bella
Hey University of Nevada, Reno friends, one of the tiki-terrorist guys in Charlotte is from UNR. Do you know him? If so, please find him and talk to him, or direct him to me, before he gets any more people killed. Three have already died in Charlotte. Countless others have been terrorized by him and his friends around the world now. Let’s shut it down, Wolfpack. Now.
Hello, tiki-wielding white guys. From here, this march of yours in Charlotte isn’t freedom of speech. It isn’t adulthood or manhood. It’s not a revolution. And it damn sure isn’t being patriotic. This is intentional violence against the spirit, heart, and soul of this country. Against all of us who work and play together to make this country better for ourselves and future generations. This isn’t 1930. You look ridiculous and pathetic so trapped in a delusional past. And, this country as a whole now looks ridiculous and pathetic and trapped in the past in the eyes of the watching world. I, for one, am not ashamed to be out in the light. The world should see this. If for no other reason, to feel better about themselves. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And, because our need for each other now spans country borders as if they don’t actually exist at all except in our imaginations.
This need to wield torches and march with a small group of other angry white guys intent on striking terror into the hearts of everyone else–from my perspective–is about you not having the truly strong community that you need. You likely have been raised to blame yourself and other individual selves for the problems of the world. The lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps shtick. I was, too. I get it. And, its possible to grow fully into that and beyond that. I’ve been helped to grow into recognizing that close, diverse, and tight-knit communities are what most of us need to thrive in the hyper-connected, chaotic world now. The kind of rich community that helps us learn to own our own pain (there’s honoring the bootstraps idea–hear it?), learn how to move with it more fluidly (this was new for me), and how to move through life lifting everyone around me up instead of blaming myself and others, carrying torches, and mowing other people down with my car (this is fully owning the shadow side of bootstraps, which in the past were also seen as useful for beating children into submission–ah, the good old days?).
We all need people who call us on our bullshit while simultaneously loving us and not giving up on us. When we don’t get that we wither, flail, and lash out. To keep growing, we need more people and different people in our lives. Growing means regularly hearing that you don’t have all the answers (damn it), that you’re valuable and loved regardless (thank God), and it also means periodically walking away from those who believe it’s their job to hurt us. Learning often hurts but love doesn’t. We can trust our tender hearts on this one. And here in adulthood we know full well: the people we often need the most next–to mature and grow–very often don’t look at all like us on the outside. The people we need next can only be identified by how they make us feel. They stretch us. Make us more curious about the world. They also make us feel more free to be ourselves: the fearless, learning, growing selves we were at our core when we came into this world. This means we’re more playful in their presence. And more free to reveal our shadow sides. Our hatreds and deep fears.
There are a lot of us in the world suffering from a lack of true community now. In the white world in the U.S., many of us live in isolated bubbles because of our wealth or our long-ago-divided neighborhoods/towns/cities or our failing local economy and job loss or the deep fears and persistent assumptions and biases of our families, and for some of us it’s all of the above. I agree with you that our ancestors were amazing. Both of my grandmothers left their rural homes as children so that they could attend more school. One grandmother defied her own mother after she pulled her out of school because she wanted more help at home with all the younger children. At just 12, my grandmother snuck onto her father’s wagon as it left the farm yard, convinced him to take her hours away to a Catholic school and let her live there indefinitely, and then on the fly convinced a group of nuns and a priest to let her move into the school’s attic because all their student rooms were full. Just so she could keep learning. At 12 years old. That was back in the days when many in the U.S. didn’t count Irish immigrants as white people. I have ancestors who hid their accents and changed their names to get bank loans (this explains a lot about my family’s persistent belief in trying to just fit in). That grandmother became a teacher, then a farmer, then a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and sustainable gardening and living guru. She died just two-weeks short of her 100th birthday. For decades she was considered nutty by many neighbors because she believed that sugar in American diets was our true enemy…
The shadow side of what our ancestors did here, and still do here, is long. Very long. It’s a gaping wound that generations of people have been traumatized and that many of us have spent trying to heal by denying others’ truths, looking the other way, or by throwing Band-Aids at poorly understood problems from a safe, intellectually cold distance. This isn’t a conservative or a progressive issue. It’s an American issue. A human issue. We need to heal generational trauma and we can’t do it separately or only with people who look a lot like us. We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.
And, we’ve made a lot of progress. In this country today, Nazis intent on spreading pain, terror, destruction, and violence across communities lose the respect of grown women and men, lose the respect of most of their peers, and, more and more, they lose their jobs. Hatred as a constant state of being isn’t sustainable, it eats away at us like a cancer, and life-loving humans won’t stand for it. We’ve already fought several wars about this (start by Googling U.S. Civil War or World War II). The fear-mongering, wall-building folks always lose eventually. Always. Because connecting to more of life–not walling yourself off from it–is the approach that actually heals and actually works. How do more casualties to a dying cause help anyone at all?
There are billions of better ways to vent your frustrations, pain, and anger. Connect to someone new, someone outside your bubble, and find another way.
Friends, may we loudly and persistently demand BETTER of ourselves all the way up to the highest elected offices, until all the tiki bros hear our message, even while they’re golfing. Or tweeting.
Looking the other way doesn’t work anymore. Not that it ever did.
We do not fear you, tiki bros. Frankly, we can’t anymore.
We (well, empaths like me anyway) are sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for all pain, because I can often feel others’ pain in my chest until I can’t breathe. And, I am one of billions of humans who won’t allow you to spread terror across this world until you burn it to the ground. Because that’s where unexamined, unchecked, stuck and festering hatred–the deliberate cutting yourself off from all life–ends. It burns everyone near it. We won’t build walls. We won’t allow you to spread fear to those we hold dear–which, hello, its 2017, means a whole lot of people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, people of all ages, people with life-altering diseases, people in other countries, women, and some animals, plants, and trees who comfort us on the days when humanity’s pain is too much. We will play together. Dance together. Learn together. Laugh and weep. Together.
Those of us connected to all of life can’t fear you anymore. We can fear for our lives and our communities, sure, but we can’t fear you. Not anymore. You just look small and sad and highly unlikely to ever get laid again there locked inside a fading 1930s-era fear bubble of isolation with a bunch of other angry white dudes. Even with your guy in the white house. Your faces shine out from Twitter and Facebook in torch light looking like the saddest, most lonely and lost little boys in the world trying to find their way home having stolen their parents’ old party torches. You look like the little boys in Lord of the Flies with not a single playful spirit and true elder among you. The entire rest of the world does not want to be in that fading fear bubble with you.
We want you to come out here. Come out and play with life.
Come out here and truly be with us–learning, wandering, working, playing, struggling, eating, and laughing together. Don’t mistake the people knocking on your door, asking you to come outside to play, for torch-wielding villagers. We may be hurting. But the torch-wielding villagers are only in your mirror.
Friends, those of us connected to the wider world–those of us who love life as a result–must speak out. Let’s not let homegrown white terrorists create yet another new and ridiculous hate-elevating flag, maybe this time with a Fox News logo and a tiki torch on it, imagining themselves as the next ISIS (minus the fake Islam, and adding a fake Jesus, of course), and showing up to march in more towns. Let’s not let these guys be the face of white America. This is the face of unchecked arrogance and ignorance run amok. This is not me! Or is it? This is also the face of kind and open and listening and loving white people not calling their own family and friends on pure bullshit every time they hear it. Not being aware of each other’s pain, let alone helping each other out, when we’re at our most angry, vulnerable, or terrified. We used to be afraid to do so–trapped behind our own walls.
Then we saw the tiki bros and something clicked within us–at least, within this white woman. Wait. These guys? We were afraid of these guys. The farm boys and frat boys we grew up with? Those who needed a lot more kindness than they ever got at home? Those who hated themselves. What were we thinking fearing these guys?!
Let’s commit, Gen Xers and Millennials and all kick-ass Boomers not inclined to give up despite years of struggle. Let’s commit to connecting to more of life. To tapping into her full resources and growing and changing like healthy, living, life-loving beings. Its up to us. If you haven’t already, educate yourself about how to build community and how to approach hatred like this. The world is full of leaders and hard-won wisdom about how to do this, and you’ll make many new friends in the process. Start here if you’re wondering where to start: start here with ten ways to fight hate in your community. Or start here if you’re most curious about how to build a new or stronger community.
Let’s talk to friends and make agreements to support each other in having difficult conversations. I will not be afraid of difficult conversations–with family, neighbors, coworkers–with anyone who I could imagine showing up in Charlotte to cause terror and reopen generational trauma and wounds in communities of color. The love, listening, and willingness to learn and laugh at our core are protection enough for humanity as a whole.
I’m going to speak up more. Every time I feel strong enough to do so, which will be more often, not less so, in the future. My close-knit diverse community of lovely humans, yoga classes and gym membership, and tree advisors will see to that. I’ve dedicated myself to learning and to doing what it takes to become strong enough so that I can speak out against bullshit bigotry and trapped/stuck/spinning-in-our-own-hatred every single time.
We are stronger than we know.
Let’s take back what it means to be human, and what it means to be white (if that’s a label you carry), from the utterly ridiculous, embarrassing, and horrifying Tiki Bros of Willful Ignorance. Because the world doesn’t need another terrorist organization. The world doesn’t have to burn to bring forth massive change–these are the illusions of young people who cannot find truly playful and strong elders to lean on when they need to lean.
Playful elders live a wider truth: the world herself heals us when we set our torches down.
I wrote this three years ago and somehow forgot to publish it. Its about to become an essay in my new book Unshaken Wonder, which will reach others in October 2017. I’m posting it here now for my friend Clay Forsberg. In part, in response to his lovely new essay Staying Strong. Stay strong, Clay! You’ve got this…
I shattered this year as my family shattered.
My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. My father’s been caregiving for 9 years and his own health and well-being and attitude have taken a hit. My sister and I are care partners for both of them now. My extended family has been in a court battle over my grandparents’ estate for a year and a half. Too many of my once-close family can’t stand each other now. So much anger. Some days I choke on it.
Many in my family won’t speak to each other at all now. Some quietly drifted away. Some cut ties with us because they can’t handle our pain on top of their own. One I cut ties with because after a year of inflexible rage I realized that I was actually talking to a wall, not a person, and so was she. I’ve been told my poetry is experienced by some as bashing the family and that my immediate family is no longer experienced as part of the larger family. Some are certain that their ties are broken forever. Some cry for weeks on end. Those not speaking to each other tend to make wild assumptions about the motives and stories being told by the other side. There are apparently “sides” now and a lot of us don’t recognize that taking sides and creating sides are the same thing. Several of the people who spent decades teaching me to love tried—and failed—to teach me to hate. Game changer! It’s bizarre. They rage at each other. Rage to anyone who’ll listen, actually. Sometimes they appear to enjoy imagining and saying the worst. Many feel torn in half. Betrayed. I know I do.
If you want to remain in the Keep Calm and Carry On world forever, by all means, don’t come here. Don’t enter the space between.
Here we rage. We fail. We scream. We yell. We weep. We make huge, unforgiveable mistakes. We fight. We flee. We watch our hands become axes as we cut ties with those we love/hate/must move away from just to survive. Wonder if those sharp axes will ever be reimagined into poet’s hands again.
Here we shatter.
From Keep Calm and Carry On Land, we may appear crazy. Out of control. Scary. Broken. Dangerous.
Oh but we aren’t. We are living a different kind of life is all: a wilder, wider, always-moving-now life.
One life is a pond. It is calm and serene on the surface. Its danger is stagnation and limited self-reflection pointing only at the sky. In humans this can show up as stability. Without shatter, though, it can also show up as rigidity, self-righteousness, losing touch with beyond-self reality, and choking on a festering stew of your own judgments and imagined monsters. I don’t have to imagine this. I live it.
Life within the shatter is more like a river. Its danger is flooding and overwhelm. In humans, this can show up as flexibility, empathy, and exploring the nature of things far beyond the self/pond. Without some stability, though, it can also show up as being so far out of control that you visibly cause harm to yourself and anyone in your path. I don’t have to imagine this life either. I live with shatter every day now.
Shattering is not easy. The shattering of my mom‘s former self and memory is heartbreaking some days: wonder-filled and awe-inspiring and beyond amazing other days. This past year, the shattering of my entire family was so heartbreaking it felt like I was going to die. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t.
Instead, I became a family elder. Cut ties with some relatives (and some cut ties with me) to have more energy for supporting my parents, sister, aunt, cousins, husband, and self.
I became sillier. I binge watched all 153 episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix to mend my broken heart. A show that I’d never watched before and written off in passing as ridiculous, harmful, sexist, girly pop-culture brainless fluff. (Gosh, I’m not judgmental at all, am I?). The show mended a little girl’s broken heart. This little girl, age 44. My sister and I then reimagined ourselves as an improv comedy caregiving troupe: Team Jinda.
I became a dragon. I spoke my truth in person, in poetry, and in essays and drew the wrath of extended family, who screamed “You know that’s not true!” at me for sharing my perspective. It worked. Those previously inclined to rage at my exhausted father and my pregnant sister turned their eyes and their rage on me. Or tried to anyway. It’s remarkably hard to fuck with a dragon: especially a poet dragon who works part time as part of an improv comedy troupe. I am a person now comfortable in the presence of pure rage. Yours and mine.
Those who appear crazy, out of control, dangerous, scary, or broken don’t scare me as much now. Those who rage, scream, flail, yell, weep, fight, flee, or make unforgiveable mistakes don’t scare me either.
That’s just my people.
People who shattered. Survived. And got remarkably fluid, powerful, and silly in the process. We got stronger.
We move together like a river now. More powerful, and broken, than before.
We mix metaphors like fancy cocktails with little umbrellas.
Here within the shatter, the sign in the window always glows Open. Wide Open, actually.
Except for the brief moments it glows Get the Fuck Out and Let’s Try Again Next Year.
That’s what staying strong looks like for us now.
Stay strong, my friend!
In late February 2017 before the gray skies here on Whidbey became blue, I looked out the window and saw a poem, about a dead tree, in the middle of the just-barely-beginning-to-bud forest. I called the poem Life 101. I eventually saw it for what it was: a poem for my friend Bernie DeKoven.
Six weeks later, in still-gray early April, my long-time friend and mentor Bernie DeKoven—the very friend who I was dedicating my new and most playful book to—shared with us that he has been diagnosed with the kind of cancer that ends your body’s time on earth, no matter how ridiculously cool and very much needed by everyone you are. He has a year to live, at most, the doctors’ say. The moment I heard, I got so angry. I cursed the universe, and life herself, as I wept and wondered how I would manage to honor his request. This request:
What I need is for you to continue your play/work however you can. Play games. Play the kind of games I like to teach – you know, those “funny games” – harmlessly intimate, vaguely physical games of the semi-planned, spontaneous, just-for-fun ilk, basically without equipment, or goal, or score or reason, even.
Teach those games to everyone. Play them outside, these games. In public. With friends. And strangers. As many as want to play with you.
Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.
Also especially – look into this playfulness thing too. Deeply. Because we’re not talking just games here. We’re talking about how you can let yourself be as playful as you’ve always been, how you can be playful almost anywhere with almost anyone, how you can invite people to be playful with you, in school and office and in the checkout line: all kinds of people with all kinds of abilities from all kinds of backgrounds.
Maybe download a free copy of A Playful Path, even.
But I wasn’t quite done being angry.
Jesus, Bernie, I thought. Really?
Be playful? Right here in this moment? In THIS year?! In this terrible, horrible, pain-in-the-ass, this-totally-sucks, you-give-us-f#$&ing-Trump-but-take-our-beloved-Bernie year? The year my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease will likely land my father in the hospital and her in a memory care facility? It’s like 2017 was specifically designed to make me give up, defeated, shouting “Screw you, universe!” from under the bed.
But then, there you are my dear, wonderful, stupid-head Bernie.
There you are: already being playful.
Still doing your daily play/work in the world, plus bringing in more playful swings to your local park. Still being my playful muse/mentor/friend. And doing the same for so many, many others, too. You’re just, just… what?
You’re just so damn beautiful.
The love and kindness that you share with Rocky, your kids and grandkids, neighbors, old friends, and new friends? The play/work you share with us? The videos. The talks. The games. The websites. The blog posts. All of it.
It’s just so beautiful.
God dammit, Bernie. How am I supposed to be the playful being that I want to be without you here?
Without you around, who am I going to bounce ideas across our country to as if the country is just a giant ping-pong table, with a Rocky Mountains net, and our ideas just giant bouncing balls to play with?
Or wait, no. Rubber chickens.
Ooo, yeah! Giant Free-Range Rubber Chicken Idea Ping Pong.
How fun would that be? No. That’s not quite right, is it?
How fun it’s been! How lucky we have been. You and I have been playing Giant Free-Range Rubber Chicken Idea Ping Pong for more than six years now. I remember the first time that you commented on my blog. Remember blushing to my roots when I realized who you were. It was like Elvis giving advice to his most star-struck, teenage fan (well, an older Elvis and a very old teenage fan). 😉
And I remember the day you told us that you’d turned down a professorship so that you could just keep on doing what you do–the writing and the playing and the speaking and the wandering. I did that once too, about 8 years back. I didn’t fully know why then, but now, my friend, I do. It was saying no to them that allowed me to play this game with you. What a gift. What a solid choice based on nothing much more than intuition. Hmmm…
Bernie, wherever you go and whenever you go, I’ll still come meet you in the warm evening sun. Right here, within the field of imagination, on our country-sized ping-pong table with our playful ideas flying in directions both silly and profound, and sometimes going in wholly unexpected directions like so many rubber chicken balls. Just ask Mahatma Gandhi. I’ve been playing ping pong with him since I was 11 years old. He’s been dead the whole time, and he still kicks my ass regularly.
I suspect that you and I will be playing Giant Free-Range Rubber Chicken Idea Ping Pong as long as it’s fun for us. Which—given our skill level, general love of play, and abiding love and faith in each other—will be long after both of our bodies are gone.
We may have to give up the body when the body says it’s done, but we don’t have to give up playing, player.
Not now. Not ever.
Because you and I—playing together—are what the universe herself wants to be.
I was contacted this week by a lovely Canadian gentleman who runs a coworking space in Alberta who wants to talk to me next week about coworking, community, play, and collaboration. Fun! And how lovely to be reminded that not everyone on earth is bogged down by the political cluster-F happening in our country this week (or should I say month? year? maybe decade? I can’t decide).
Anyway, this lovely young gentleman told me he’d found my name in a blog post on Bernie DeKoven‘s website. Geez. That Bernie. He’s a peach even when he’s not trying. So, I typed my name into the deepfun.com search engine to find the post and—low and behold—there I was! Mentioned! By my friend/mentor/play guru/elder! Not just the once (which I remembered), and not just twice even, but NINE times do I show up in this treasured database of connection and fun and play and games. Bernie’s quite a writer, and, I must admit, not only when he’s writing about me. Heh heh. But I digress…
In doing this search, I came across a post called “Inimitable Joy” that includes this 2013 video of Natalie Kinsey (aka Pinky), Bernie (aka Blue), and me (aka Batman’s mama) having a playful, thinky, silly, meandering, apparently purposeless, and yet visibly getting more and more fun conversation. The last third of this video is so fun for me to watch that it made gratitude tears slide down my cheeks. I looked down to my lap during the last third of the video and found that Batman the cat had even shown up. He was curled in my lap, purring, and watching the video, too. Yes, Bernie, Nat, and I become so adorable together—so in love with each other and playing together—that cats watch us on the Internet!
Its been a rough week/month/year here. And yet thanks to this video, I remembered myself.
Oh yes, Inimitable Joy! Unique, unrepeatable, bone-deep-for-me joy. I do know how to do that. That’s what inimitable joy that feels like. I do have that inside me!
And that’s what these two have given me for years now, longer than even they know. From decades back when they were my childhood imaginary friends, to four years back when we played together via a Google+ hangout, to just this week, when I read their latest blog posts, and beyond. There are no limits to who I can be when I’m with them. No limits to who we are when we’re together. When I’m with them, I am my river self. My ocean self. My bad-ass-beyond-all-logic-and-reason self. I hold unshaken wonder and inimitable joy within me!
Once we humans taste inimitable joy like this, I suspect that it’s flat out impossible to settle for anything less for very long. Actually, I know this fully. Know it in my bones. As a poet. As a community and self-organizing groups researcher. As a community story wrangler. Coworking space holder. Neighborhood event co-inventor. Work re-inventor. Small business human. Alzheimer’s care partner. Editor. Daughter. Spouse. Friend. Cat mom.
I know that once we humans taste inimitable joy, it becomes flat out impossible to settle for anything less for very long. Because we’re bigger—and part of something bigger—than we were before. But the word suspect makes me sound so much more flexible and cool and open, don’t you think? So I’m sticking with “suspect” here…
Once we humans taste inimitable joy, I suspect it’s flat out impossible to settle for anything less for very long.
And the cool thing about humans is that we’re such connected and intuitive beings that just witnessing inimitable joy–like we demonstrate in the last third of the video in particular–is all it takes to make us stubborn as shit about claiming and reclaiming joy for ourselves and those we love.
So the politicians can fling their mud today. And their attorneys can spin their spin and go in for the win again, today. And the media can fight over who gets to show the most silencing and violence. That’s such a tiny part of the human experience: why imagine it as a bigger part of us than it is? That part of us is like a handful of sand tossed into an ocean, I think my buddy Gandhi said.
I still sit with that part of us now and then. It’s part of us too. But I know that violence and silencing is not why I’m here. I’m here to be dreaming, wandering, reflecting, welcoming, and wondering:
- How do we reclaim our inimitable joy? The deep, unique joy of living? Our birthright as earthlings?
- How do we become a whole beautiful world again of kind, laughing, and playing elders? With sparkles in our eyes? Worthy of the kind, laughing, playing beings that we bring into the world? And
- How do we become so adorable again together that cats want to watch silly human videos on the Internet instead of vice versa?
When I forget, I’ll return to these humans, this silliness, and this video, and I’ll remember.
My dearest Bernie. My tree-haired, kindred wanderer Natalie.
I will remember.
So will Batman.