Empathy

 

Photo credit, Aleppo Medical Centre
Photo credit, Aleppo Medical Centre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friend, excellent writer, dog lover and fine man Brad Zellar wrote in a recent Facebook post that he was at a local SuperAmerica when a man buying a lottery ticket glanced at a newspaper displaying the photo above, with which many of us are now distressingly familiar, and said,

“Boo hoo, some kid in Iraq had to go to the hospital.”

Brad had a few reflections on this. The following are my selections, statements of Brad’s that stayed with me long after I closed my computer.

To the guy at SuperAmerica I just said, “Syrian. The kid is Syrian,”  and

There was a time not all that long ago when I really believed that very, very few people were genuinely evil. I’m starting to change my tune on that. I think the loneliness of this century is corrosive, and is an incubator for terrifying psychopathy,  and

I just cannot grasp the extent to which so many people seem to be completely bankrupt in the empathy department.

When and why have we become so bankrupt of empathy? My computer definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” How is it possible that a grown man could look at the photo of this child and be absolutely unmoved by the boy’s suffering? And even if he were, privately, unmoved, why in God’s name would he say such a blatantly evil thing out loud?

Evil–Brad’s word and mine. Again, a definition: “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” Yes. Both. If you object to finding this man’s attitude immoral, I would ask you this: What has happened to our collective sense of responsibility for children? You could argue endlessly that if this child were grown, to some degree he participated in his situation. But this kid looks like he’s about five years old. He did NOTHING to warrant a fire-bombed house caving in on him, NOTHING to deserve having his 10-year-old brother die in the same air raid, NOTHING to sit, alone, injured, frightened into a silence he will no doubt hear for the rest of his days.

And if the guy is bereft of compassion because the child is from another place in the world, a place he couldn’t even be bothered to accurately name? Here’s the fact of the matter, the evil of the matter: An adult American man, a man who in spite of whatever circumstances he may be living in here is among the luckiest 5% of the world, made light of a child’s suffering. Publicly.

What might motivate such a response? Brad suggests loneliness, perhaps the unique isolation of our times. At first, I’m not sure I agree. I’ve been plenty lonely at times (Brad, too, I think) and I’m guessing neither of us has come close to expressing it in this way. Is the guy a psychopath, then? Can we excuse his behavior as that of a mentally ill person? I think I’d need to confirm that–walk home with him, see how he behaves with the people in his house who love him and eat with him and sit with him in the evenings. But now maybe I’m getting somewhere, somewhere closer to what Brad is saying. What if the guy comes home to no one? What if he comes home to no one and flips open his computer to hours of porn? Or what if he comes home and there ARE people there but there might as well not be, because the guy is going to drink a six-pack and go to bed without a word to any of them? Or maybe they all hate him even before he pops the first can, for things that are simply true: that he works too hard/too little; that he says things that embarrass them; that he’s inadequate six ways to Sunday; that it’s been so long since anyone has shown him patience or kindness he’s forgotten what they mean; that he’s quick to anger because anger is easy and he is tired.

Aw, crap. Now I’m feeling sorry for the guy.

You know what that’s called?

Empathy.

Feeling that you are alone in this way, that not another soul in the world has your back, that not one person cares about what you are feeling: yes, I suppose this could lead to the empathy vacuum this man has fallen into. And if, instead of feeling angry at the guy (kinda easy) I try to walk just a few steps in his shoes, it seems I approach Brad’s more evolved way of thinking: that perennial, intense loneliness, absolute isolation from the love of another human being is what makes a person, in the end, not care about anybody else.

 

 

 

Waiting

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There’s a monthly feature, Minnesota’s Waiting Children, in the Variety section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which tells the story of a child–often an adolescent–awaiting adoption in Minnesota. I always read these stories. I’m not sure why. They always make me sad, and guilt-ridden, too. Who will step up for this child? If not me, then who? And yet I know it is not likely to be me.

Yesterday’s story is about Kevin. You can read it here. There’s a photo of a beautiful boy with glasses. His story starts like this:

Kevin, 13, is sweet, funny and energetic. He has a big imagination and tells whoppers of tales (He flew a rocket! He called the president! He hit a baseball across a whole town!).

In the middle we read this:

Kevin will need a family with a lot of patience and mental energy, because he often needs frequent reassurances, check-ins and reminders.

It’s the last two lines of the feature that will kill you. They left me in tears, and, obviously, thinking about Kevin long after I finished the article:

When asked what he’d like to share with adoptive families about himself, he said, “I got abused and didn’t get fed,” but he can “smile and laugh a lot” when he’s happy, and he’s “saving up for a pair of sunglasses.”

It doesn’t happen often, but I am at a total loss for words.

For more information on adopting Minnesota’s Waiting Children, contact MN ADOPT by phone 612-432-3696 or email, info@mnadopt.org.

The Loft Literary Center: Join and Support Today

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This morning I got a message from my pal Tanner Curl at the Loft Literary Center, where I am a sustaining member, to please put the word out to my friends and readers about coming on board with a sustaining membership of their own. He writes:

We’re nearing the end of our budget year (Aug 31, to be exact) and want to end on a high note in terms of member giving. As a Sustaining Member, you’re already doing your part with your monthly contributions! Thanks for your support!

But perhaps you have friends who might be inclined to join themselves. Will you help us spread the word about the Loft and how member support makes our work possible?

Yes, Tanner, I’d be delighted.

First of all, it doesn’t take much to be a sustaining member (and then you get all this Loft-love and emails from Tanner, too). Seriously, the significance of a sustaining membership of any kind (and I mean, any kind, any amount, literally) is it’s money the Loft can count on. Sure, a donation when you think of it/a windfall allows is great, but it’s a one-time deal. The Loft will put it to good use and thank you profusely, I guarantee. But anything you pledge as an ongoing contribution is money they can use when they’re looking ahead, as in, what can we try next? How can we reach every person in our community? If this is important to you, consider joining as a sustaining member.

Have you taken a class at the Loft? Absolutely, that’s one way to support this amazing resource of ours here in Minneapolis. How about participating in any of their programs? For me, that would include about a million readings and events (the last one with Lidia Yuknavitch and Ben Percy was about as phenomenal as you might imagine), mentorship, the MN Emerging Writer grant, to name just a few. If you’ve benefitted from these or any other activities sponsored by the Loft, I would just ask that you not take them for granted. Other cities marvel at what we have here, in these multiple and ongoing literary opportunities. If any of these are important to you, I would encourage you to join as a sustaining member.

And if you, personally, haven’t benefitted? I’ve got two answers to that:

  1. Why not? I was a 40-something wannabe writer with a dream. Now I’ve got a citation in Best American Short Stories 2015, a few Pushcart Prize nominations and I’m a staff writer for local media company. I will tell you this: none of it would have been possible without the Loft. NONE. If you’ve got a writing dream, email me/message me/comment here/find me. USE THIS RESOURCE. Make your dream come true. Take a class. Go to an event. Apply for a program or a grant. Become a member of this unique and supportive community.
  2.  Maybe you’re not a wannabe. Maybe you’re a “BE.” Good for you. Now share the love. Help other people tell their stories. We need this, especially now. See my Loft writing friend Kurtis Scaletta’s amazing post on just this topic here.

The truth  for me is this: I think some 50% of my satisfaction about living here in Minneapolis is because of the Loft. I’m guessing it’s not the same for you–we all have our unique geekiness. But what is your Loft love? 10%? 20%? Do you love living here in part because of the Loft Literary Center, because of the opportunities it provides, the forums it imparts, the speakers and readers and writers it gives a voice?

Let’s keep the Loft alive and vibrant and meaningful. Please, seriously consider a sustaining membership today.

 

 

 

AWP Writer to Writer Mentorships: Mentee Applications Open NOW

 

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I’ve been an AWP member for many years, mostly because I like to go to the annual conference (I try to set a goal for myself each year, e.g., to learn more about social media [that was 2010, I think] or to learn about magazine article pitching [2015] or book reviewing [2016]). It’s definitely a financial indulgence but the three-to-four-day model (and the nice, private hotel room) suit me better than a week- or two-week-long writing conference. I just now registered for the 2017 Conference (at early bird prices!) which takes place in Washington DC from Thursday, February 9 through Saturday, February 11. For me, the conference (straight-up) would cost $240, but as a member (and early bird registrant) I pay $215: $75 for membership, which reduces the conference registration fee to $140. The greater expenses are travel and lodging (I have no problem eating on the cheap) but again, it costs to travel to a writing conference, too, and the tuition and time commitments are generally much greater.

There are other benefits of AWP membership, which you can find here. The only one I’ve taken advantage of to date, besides the discounted conference fee, is reading the Writer’s Chronicle. Last year, however, my good friend and excellent writer Chrissy Kolaya  suggested I look into the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program:

AWP’s mentorship program, Writer to Writer, matches emerging writers and published authors for a three-month series of modules on topics such as craft, revision, publishing, and the writing life. Mentors volunteer their time and receive a free one-year AWP membership. Writer to Writer is free of charge to mentees…

although in this link about application information, it does confirm that you have to be an AWP member, which of course makes it a little more expensive than “free.”

What I want everyone to know is that the application window for the Fall 2016 Writer to Writer Mentorship Program is short. It’s open now, and closes August 12. I just made it about a hundred times harder for me to compete–but there you go. Apply. Now. Maybe we can be mentees together.

The most intriguing aspect of the program for me is the nod to people who don’t have an MFA. (And it’s an opportunity, also, for writers of underrepresented groups):

Our program is open to all AWP members, but we particularly encourage applications from writers who have never been associated with an MFA program and those writing from regions, backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives that are typically underrepresented in the literary world.

I understand AWP’s interest in the underrepresented writer but I guess I didn’t expect, and I welcome, their specific encouragement of MFA-less writers like me to apply to this program. While I will not call writing a difficult profession (strawberry picking, furniture moving and dairy farming are difficult) it is often a uniquely solitary undertaking. When I came up for air after completing my last (second) novel ms and my agent asked who was familiar with it, I was sad to admit there was no one but me. Although it’s the way I work best, it’s not an optimal situation. And maybe what I need to learn is that I could work better.

I have consulted with many fine mentors in the past, mostly for manuscript review. Pretty much everything I’ve learned about writing has come from a few remarkably expert souls who have, for reasons I’ll never know and for which I will forever be grateful, taken me under their wing: the magnificent Sandy Benitez, Peter Ho Davies, Ben Percy, Brad Zellar, Patricia Weaver Francisco and if I’m forgetting anyone I can only hope you’ll forgive me. Add to this a few excellent Loft Literary Center writing classes and that’s it, folks: my formal writing education in three lines or less. Count in the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve put to the page and, in the end, you’ve got an education.

I’m not dying for an MFA. But it’s been a tough year for me, lots of writing disappointment or maybe just an accumulated disappointment that, in a decade, I’ve yet to write a novel I can sell. You can be sad or you can try again.

I’m trying again, maybe this time with the help of an AWP mentor.

Science Love Letters

IMG_2944Dear Science, I want to tell you how much I love caves. This shield formation here, for example, in Lehman Caves of Great Basin National Park. They say the caves in Great Basin began forming 600 million years ago, when the surrounding area was an inland sea. This is why I love you, Science. Because you have no opinions, only facts, and all the glory the world will ever need.

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of preparing and presenting a talk on submitting to literary magazines to a group of people very dear to me: former and current mentees in the Loft mentorship program. It was a lovely morning in which I met and was reacquainted with many smart and talented writers. One such woman, E.A. Farro, introduced me to her website, Science Love Letters. Here is another page, describing what Science Love Letters is about.

The notion of writing a love letter to science so excited and invited me, I kind of lost the soulful narrative and visual art components, not to mention the beautiful reciprocity, that are present in Farro’s (and her writing partner, Natalie Vestin’s) concept. So before I further mess up their premise, defined so adroitly on the site,

This website is a way of writing letters to the science we already love and falling in love with the science we newly encounter,

add Farro’s and Vestin’s scienceloveletters.com to your Bloglovin’ feed today. Then consider how any science-lover could resist the site’s subtitle: Being a scientist is like writing a love letter in daily life. The opening to E.A. Farro’s post on ferns will take your breath away:

Not just things themselves, but the shadows of things. The way it becomes dark when you enter the woods, wind held back in winter, sun blocked in July, everything holding its breath. The crushed bracken’s warm oxygenated gasp.

Or how about these beautiful words, from a post titled “Evolution” by Natalie Vestin?

I look at what I love: bacteria. Blochmannia, Wolbachia, residing in the ants’ ovaries. Are they parasites or inextricable helpers, or both, or always changing? They merged – bacteria to ovarian cells – 30 to 40 million years ago. The Trichogamma wasp can reproduce without a male…but with the help of Wolbachia!

I believe I’ve found my people!

I, too, am a lover of all things scientific. My college degrees are in biology and physical therapy. I thought my initial (because I’d love to write more) love letter to science would be physiological in nature, since that is one aspect of science I love most. But what came to mind first, instead, was a tour of Lehman Caves we took recently in Great Basin National Park. From a website called Earth Science Picture of the Day,

As sediment layers built up on the bottom of this [Great Basin National Park inland] sea, limestone was formed from the silt, sand and skeletal remains of sea life. The limestone was greatly compressed as a result of the pressure of the many layers of sediment. As the eons passed, groundwater in the area absorbed carbon dioxide from the air and decaying vegetation in the soil, creating carbonic acid. This acidic water was able to trickle down through bedrock and dissolve the limestone. Cavities were formed, and as the sea level dropped, hollow “passageways” were left behind. Since then, the seeping water has continued to modify the caves, though at a much slower rate.

Scientific research indicates all of this started 600 million years ago.

I have had the privilege of visiting other national park caves: Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, for example, and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. As I recall, Carlsbad is so huge visitors just wander around without a tour. There was definitely a tour at Mammoth Cave, however, and one which disappointed me greatly. Please note: I believe this was the only time I’ve been disappointed by anything in a national park.

The reason for my disappointment may be difficult for you, dear science lover, to believe, but it’s the truth: the ranger was a creationist. The park ranger. A creationist. Of course, anyone can be a creationist; it’s generally no skin off my nose. But when that world-view is applied to a person’s secular/scientific work, I take issue.

For those of you not familiar with creationism, here is a definition:

The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution.

This national park website indicates Mammoth Cave is about 10 million years old. In the course of our Mammoth Cave tour, references to the age of the cave and its formations naturally arose. But whenever our particular ranger spoke of the age of formations, or fossils, or the cave itself, he referred to a number more like 5,000 years than 10 million. Either that, or (I swear this is true) he’d state the scientifically acceptable number and wink.

According to Wikipedia, 

Young Earth creationism (YEC) is the religious belief that the Universe, Earth and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of God between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago.

All those people on the tour heard the same awful, unscientific opinions. A few (in fact, as I recall, most) were families that, remarkably, appeared to agree with the ranger’s interpretation. The best I can hope is that we got mixed into a creationist-specialty tour. But I’m afraid it isn’t that simple.

The thing is, science is simple. It’s just facts. Truly glorious facts, in my opinion. Facts that, if they were simply appreciated for the miraculous processes they represent, would more than fulfill anyone’s notion of glory, perhaps even of God.

People can believe whatever they want about the creation of earth but there’s only one science. I still can’t believe a national park guide would defy such beauty, such wonder, as science represents.