Some Thoughts on Jesus (or, Samsara Revisited)

Not long after I posted about “The Moral Arc of the Universe,” I realized how nihilistic I sounded. There have also been much better explorations of that quote than my own musings. I’ve decided to revisit that quote.

Trump, beyond his personal failings, represents the union of two awful movements: post-modern “truthiness” and 21st-century fascism, aka the “alt-right.” These aren’t merely typical, spectrum-graphed American political positions, but existential threats to a secular, multi-cultural society. “Truthiness,” the warping of truth in the pursuit of entertainment, breaks a belief in objectivity. Fascism punishes the other, either conforming everyone to the same mold or casting them out, metaphorically or literally. Trump, an entertainer, distorts the truth for political power, and allies himself with far-right movements that are reviving xenophobia in the 21st century.

I’ve struggled with how to respond. Buddhism failed me in this, as I can’t extend my compassion to all beings without being overwhelmed with their suffering. Nor can I bury my head in the sand, as tempting as that has been. I also can’t throw my life into becoming “the resistance,” like so many activist friends, as people depend on me for support.

Then I remembered I believe in God.

Yes, despite being a student of Buddhism, I never stopped being a Theist (Process Theology helped a lot with that conundrum). I’ve always been a believer in Buddhist ethics, but its metaphysics never sat well with me. That’s why I look back on my Samsara post with disdain, because if it’s true then I have no moral counter-argument to Trump’s methods. I have to believe in objective truth, and I have to believe in the inherent worth of everyone, especially our differences.

The following may come as a shock to some readers.

Remember when I read CS Lewis and couldn’t stand him? Well, that’s still true, but reading other Christian writers gave me some better perspective. Progressive Christians, the kind that embraces Jesus’s admonition against stoning in judgment, are up in arms over Trump’s co-opting of the evangelicals to further these agendas.

I’ve always had a strange, heretical relationship with Christianity — it’s why I became a UU in the first place! — and it’s an odd feeling embracing it now. Yet I follow Jesus on Twitter. I consider the Beatitudes more than just a fancy sermon, but a call to action. I don’t consider the historical Jesus of Nazareth to have been divine (no more than the rest of us!), and my God is, erm, unitarian.

But what if I believed that the story of Jesus could be a transformative force, that it has power despite not being historically true (like all other good myths)? That if God had appeared in human form, that God might act and speak like Jesus does? I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and religion before — I mean, it’s not like I believed the stories about the miracles Buddha performed — so why should the divide between the historical Jesus, a revolutionary Palestinian Jew speaking out against Rome, and Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh, be a sticking point?

I can’t believe I’m typing these words, but am I a Christian?

That might be too far — again, I’m a heretic in most churches! — but Christians believe in an objective truth (or Truth), and they believe in every person’s inherent worth as a child of God. These are the counter-arguments to Trump’s truthiness and fascism. And if the loosest definition of a Christian is “someone who follows Christ,” then that’s true of me.

“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed. I write this post a day before MLK day. If God exists as the Christians describe, that can be literally true, not just as a metaphor. The world may exist in Samsara now, but it won’t always. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and it’s big enough for heretics and cowards like myself if we work hard enough.

Inposter Syndrome: A Case Study

How many times have I put aside/sorta quit/tried to walk away from writing? I could list practically every other blog I’ve posted here. It was almost six months ago that I wrote “Writing Shouldn’t Hurt”, about how awful the grind had become.

(As it turns out, the short break I took has helped a lot. I recharged my batteries, finished the draft of Altars and Acolytes, and I’m now halfway through a new short story, my first in several years. I also found some success, which I’ll be happy to tell you about when an official announcement is made.)

Two years ago I posted a retrospective on my time at Viable Paradise. VP for short, it’s a one-week, intensive writing workshop taught by industry professionals. I hadn’t articulated it at the time, but I was suffering from some severe imposter syndrome. Several writers in my cohort had gone on to publish novels, others broke into the short story market, and I … hadn’t sold anything. (For money, I should add. Giving away stories isn’t worth your time.) I continued to write, request critique, revise, submit … and didn’t make any noticeable headway.

There are a few measures of success for writers. One, simply put, is words written. It’s the one you have the most control over, but also the least noticeable. However, your writing improves incrementally over every page written, so even if the world beyond your beta readers doesn’t see your work, you can still tell you’ve made progress.

A second measure is your overall rejection count. Stephen King famously hung his rejections from a rail spike. Some successful writers I know use this metric. If they aren’t getting rejections, they aren’t making progress. You have a bit less control over this — you can finish your stories, but there also have to be markets to send them to.

A third metric is market sales. How many stories of yours found homes? Are your novels repped by an agency? You have the least control over this: there’s the words you’ve written, plus the preferences of the editorial staff, shifting publishing trends, and the economy as a whole.

When I wrote that retrospective in 2014, I was too quick to judge my own success against others using that third metric: sales. Rejections to sales for an author just breaking out are 100-to-1, maybe an order of magnitude more than that. Oh, and because social media only presents our best selves, we never hear about the thirty rejections a pro author received before a sale, just that they sold their book and yours is on rejection #45.

When your friends are successful, it’s easy to forget just how hard breaking in truly is.

Even now, the hedonic treadmill rolls on. My one sale isn’t enough anymore, not to be a real writer. Real writers have their own anthologies, and three-book contracts, and book tours. Heaven forbid I ever go on a book tour and think, “well, real writers do lectures…”

The times I’ve wanted to quit writing, it’s usually been because I was feeling like a failure, and I felt like a failure because I was using the wrong metric for success. Words written should be the only metric that matters. Some authors, like Brandon Sanderson, publicly track their writing progress, but many are fairly secretive about their process. Writing, after all, is usually a private affair.

Imposter syndrome has also kept me from pursuing further writing workshops and critique groups. I skipped the Viable Paradise reunion earlier this year; although I was short on vacation days, the bigger reason was my reluctance to compare my progress with the rest of my cohort. I didn’t want to look like a fluke, that the VP staff had wasted a spot on me.

That’s changing. I registered for Paradise Lost, a weekend-long workshop meant as a refresher for established pros and graduates of other workshops. It helps that I have something ready for critique by then, whereas a year ago everything was either too old or half-finished.

If I care about my writing, I have to treat myself like a real writer. And the first step is measuring progress in a way that makes sense.


The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. – Theodore Parker, by way of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m not sure I believe this anymore. It’s a common refrain among my fellow UUs after the events of this year, a reminder that, like love, justice takes time and justice takes work. But I don’t know if there is any inherent moral arc of the universe. God is inscrutable, possessing something beyond our conception of consciousness and morality, so how can we know if our conception of justice fits?

The Just World hypothesis is, after all, a fallacy. It’s one I’ve fallen prey to so many times before. Things will work out if you put in the effort. No one can get away with so much without some sort of retribution. What goes around, comes around.

It doesn’t, at least not in puny human timescales.

In Buddhist metaphysics, we inhabit the world of samsara, the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction and pain. Without heroic and skillful effort, that cycle rolls on and on.

Justice isn’t God’s responsibility, but ours. It’s a mortal endeavor. Justice takes time, and justice takes work. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice because we bend it ourselves.

I gained faith this year, but lost much of my optimism. Optimism is no longer an outlook I can rely on, but a deliberate practice, a stone wall built against the oncoming tides of samsara.

Earlier this evening, I wrote a letter on a holiday card to a friend. A member of my graduating class, I’ve recently become reacquainted with this person, and I realized how much it meant to me. That, and a few other small, personal achievements, are what I want to remember this year for. I hope I’ll judge 2017 on the merits of what little I can do to bend that arc towards justice.

NaNoWriMo 2016: A Post-Mortem

Final count: 17,746 words. I may not have “won” NaNoWriMo this year, but in a larger sense, I accomplished exactly what I wanted.

My draft of Altars and Acolytes, aka Oh, How I Wish Stories Wrote Themselves, is done. Still needs work, but the story’s coherent, it follows an outline, and successive edits won’t be nearly the slog that this draft was. I wrote maybe 13K to get to the end. My plan of throwing out everything and writing the third act from scratch actually worked.

The 4K I wrote following that has been split up a few ways. I’ve written 2K for a short story entitled “Juicers,” which is about bicycle generators. (No, really.) I’ve thrown in a blog post or two into that count, as well as a poem.

Given the, shall we say, calamitous events of this month, it’s a small miracle that anyone wrote anything at all. Yet writing reminded me that I still have value, that my voice deserves to be heard, and that making art can be a way forward.

Now, hopefully next year I can start something new for a change. Ad astra per aspira.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Half-Time Report

As of this morning, I’m just shy of 10,000 words written for Altars and Acolytes, aka Please Just Let Me Finish Writing You: The Erik Gern Story. In any other NaNoWriMo, this would be not-so-great progress, but for this book, it’s been amazing.

The strategy of throwing out my last act and rewriting it from scratch has paid off. The chapters have been substantially easier to write with a strong outline, as I’ve been able to finish about one per day. I still get the luxury of minor course corrections, such as changing the milieu of a scene from Point A to Point B, without worrying if it’s going to slow me down too much.

A downside is that, while I’m getting words down, it’s a bit sloppier than the earlier portion of the draft. I was on a “Revise A, Write B; Revise B, Write C” schedule before, which allowed me to clean up the previous day’s words before putting new ones down (as well as letting me retroactively fix some continuity issues as I go along). I don’t have that luxury now, since my goal is to just finish these chapters, so once they’re down I’ll have to go back and do some cleanup.

I expect to be done by Thanksgiving, assuming I finish one chapter a day until then. I’ll likely tap out below 20K words for this NaNoWriMo, but they’ll have been hard-fought.

On Bullies and Cynics

I’ve been bullied at all stages of my life. In elementary school, one boy set his sights on me after I ended a phone call early to watch Deep Space Nine. He teased me endlessly. The advice of my stepfather was to punch him. So I did.

He punched back. I didn’t know what to do.

I fell into a bad crowd in high school for a month or two: teenagers who decided to play on my naive, socialized nature. I was almost literally rescued by the theater crowd.

At FSU, I was the subject of some nasty slander.

When I worked at Target about ten years ago, one of my supervisors picked me out for not being “cheerful enough.”

At my last job one awful manager, after hearing of my plans to attend graduate school, sent a company-wide email saying how I’d fail at everything if I left the company.

Donald Trump is a bully. He’s also a racist, a sexist, and a xenophobe, but his core personality is that of a bully. Bullies tend to think alike: they fear everything, and the only response they know is to dominate and violate. In the schoolyard, children are either a bully, are being bullied, or stand behind the bully and hope they’re not next.

You can’t expect the bullied to stand up for themselves, because bullies punch back. Everyone has to stand against the bully. That’s the only way to win: not with appeasement, not by ignoring the bully. Every kid who used to stand behind the bully now has to stand up to him.

I knew a fellow student in my elementary gifted class whom I’ll call Alan. Alan had nothing but contempt for me. Even the way I walked was a subject of criticism: my strides were too short and too quick. I adjusted my stride and cadence, but he found something else to criticize.

The deeply cynical have no self-esteem, so they must find fault in everyone else.

I’ve heard the following a lot lately: you didn’t support the right candidate in the primary; you weren’t vocal enough in supporting the right candidate in the general; your politics aren’t pure enough; you’re not acting through your opposition the right way; you didn’t speak out enough.

Discerning between someone who has genuine criticism — do these certain things better next time — and the deeply cynical — you will never measure up to my standards — can be hard. Look for something concrete and achievable that’s being suggested. Donate to these causes; use this sheet to de-escalate a hate crime; don’t normalize this behavior. But if the criticism is open-ended or impossibly high, don’t bother seeking their approval.

Nor is it in the specific context of this election. When I was applying for jobs over a year ago, I had a phone interview for a PHP developer position. The interviewer was looking for any excuse to get rid of me; despite answering their questions to the best of my ability, they ultimately dismissed me as “not being experienced enough.” They never wanted me for the position; they just wanted the head-hunter who recruited me to go away.

Just remember: if you’ll never be good enough for someone, screw ’em.


This very moment is the intersection of art, faith, and identity.

(CW: suicidal thoughts)

I was devastated by yesterday’s news. I stayed up into the small hours of the morning reading election results. I then dragged myself to work on three hours of sleep, putting on as brave a face as I could (messaging friends with “are you okay?” when I wasn’t at all). Then, after someone replied to one of my Facebook posts with “Oh, now you found your voice!” — as if I hadn’t been telling everyone I know that this result would be a disaster for our country — I lost my resolve.

I was moments away from stepping into traffic, in front of a box truck, before I came to my senses.

You do really stupid shit when you’re tired (like I was), or drunk, or in grief. I know better. I know my life is worth living. It has inherent worth, if the first UU principle is taken at face value. Even when the future looks as awful as it can right now, it’s still worth living.

Life contains suffering. That’s the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. But life isn’t just suffering, and our suffering, like everything else, doesn’t last forever. Our job is to ease and prevent suffering as much as possible, in others as well in ourselves. We all have our different talents for making that happen.

Me? I write. That’s what I’m good at, writing. Fiction, blog posts, witticisms like Hawkeye’s arrows. Far from the best (some readers would put that less delicately), but still good at it.

So, to my (now former) friend who asked where my voice went: it’s still here. I’m still writing.

NaNoWriMo 2016: Yes, We’re Doing This

It was Stephen King, in his mandatory book On Writing, that described his writing desk at two stages of his life. Early on, his desk was gigantic, “T-rex sized” as he puts it, in the middle of his writing space. But later, he got a smaller desk, placed it to the side, and filled his room with other things.

Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to my writing was walking away from it. After my output slumped in June, I decided to break from anything that wasn’t paying me (basically, everything but The Daily WTF) and focus on everything else in my life. I had to get rid of the T-rex desk in my own life to get some things in order, but coming back, I realize that writing never left me. It’s always there, no matter how long I break from it. The trick is, as King discovered, not letting writing run your life, but to live as broad a life as possible and still be able to write.

So, this year’s NaNoWriMo is an extension of last year’s. Altars and Acolytes, the most recent title of what’s been called A Buried Stone Gate, The Coral Gate, and (dubiously) That F***ing Novel, will finally see its most recent draft done.

See, Altars was an easy first draft but an immensely difficult revision. Writing it through several years ago, I went on flights of fancy, creating darlings left-and-right. Stream of consciousness? Check. Style changes? Check. Way too many POV characters? Check. Too long for my genre (YA Fantasy)? Check. Italicized thoughts? Dune has more, but just barely.

I did one revision shortly after finishing the rough draft, but upon reading it later, it was clear that the story wasn’t working. Everything needed streamlining, the tension was as slack as a wet noodle, and I had converted to avoiding italicized thought narration. (Sorry, Frank Herbert.) Plus, there were character changes I could make to strengthen the narrative, but they would require a lot of revision.

So, v3 was what I started on last year, and I soon found that writing around existing scenes wasn’t the fastest way to make a new draft. I continued on after November, despite moving to a new apartment, getting hospitalized for heart trouble (just a vasospasm, not a heart attack, but damn did it scare me!), and acclimating to my new job. I took a break when my output whittled down to next to nothing every day, and since I was ramping up work in my church, my headspace wasn’t focused on writing at all for several months.

On Thursday, as my friends were three days into NaNoWriMo, I lamented not having a project to work on. I was considering starting from scratch, but I had no fresh ideas. My friend DM Bonanno suggested that, since we both have novels that need finishing, that we work on them simultaneously for NaNoWriMo.

While I didn’t take a totally “scorched earth” policy, I did decide that the halting progress of revisions on Altars could be sped up if I did something drastic: tossing out my existing third act. I had already stripped out unnecessary and obsolete scenes, but the rest depended so much on deleted characters and plot developments that stitching them together would take forever. So, taking a page from 2K to 10K, I made a new, detailed outline of my third act, tinkered with it over a couple days until it was just right, and put it into action.

And the words came back in a tidal wave.

I want Altars and Acolytes done. I mean, it still won’t be after this draft — it needs a thorough low-level pass and a polish — but I haven’t had a coherent draft of this story in literally years. It’s a story I love with characters that are writing themselves at this point. I just needed to clear away the debris of past drafts to let them.

Flexitarian Me, or My Complicated Relationship with Vegetarianism

It was the morning of New Year’s Day 2001. I was riding with my mother through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and she asked what I wanted. “Hash browns,” I replied. I was (and am) a fan of all manner of chicken biscuit sandwiches, but I was on a mission that morning. I had been listening to Moby’s latest CD, and discovered, upon reading the liner notes, that he was a vegan. I decided that, while going vegan would be too much too soon, a vegetarian lifestyle was something I could live with. Never again would I consume the dead flesh of animals.

My first stint as a vegetarian lasted about 2 years. I was more accurately a pescetarian, sneaking in some fish every now and then, but otherwise I either found meat substitutes or figured out vegetarian dishes on my own. My parents had an awesome time trying to make couscous and lentils. But eating vegetarian at a community college in rural Tennessee had some challenges. After months of nagging from my friends (including one incident when a grown man waved chicken tenders in front of my face), I started eating meat again.

My meat consumption was still dramatically lower following the “chicken tender” incident. It helped that some friends (none of whom attended the same community college I did) were also vegetarian to varying degrees. I attended a small liberal arts college near Asheville, NC with a cafe that specialized in vegetarian dishes, so it was easy to find consistently delicious food that also happened to be vegetarian.

I never seriously reconsidered going vegetarian again until 2012, following a breakup. My ex’s diet was 50% bacon and 50% beef, and I wanted as clean a break as possible from that entire relationship. I think I made it to 2013 before abandoning total vegetarianism again. Since then, I’ve vacillated between being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and a pescetarian. Now I’ve settled into “no mammals” flexitarianism, for reasons explained below. Also, some heart trouble earlier this year gave me cause for alarm, and red meat (along with added sugar) has a substantial correlation with heart disease. All the more reason.

I’ve had an interest in the ethics of food since my Moby-listening days in high school. Back then, most peers were ardent carnists, not interested at all in the well-being of livestock. “Cows and chickens are dumb, awful animals,” I heard frequently. “And steak is delicious.” While I’m sure many friends of mine had worked on rural farms and knew how unpleasant those animals could be, there is certainly some ex-post-facto justification for eating meat. Chicken tenders are delicious, so it must be okay to kill chickens for food, and everyone knows they’re aggressive and loud and poop everywhere.

While I don’t believe that most animals have the same internal, complex lives that humans do (with notable exceptions, such as whales), most feel pain. If we must cause animals to suffer, it should only be for our own survival (i.e. sustenance) or to prevent some ecological catastrophe (e.g. hunting deer to prevent overpopulation). And speaking of ecological catastrophe: cattle, in particular, are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, one reason why I avoid beef in particular.

Ironically, one reason I used to cite for going vegetarian (to lose weight) has been counter-productive. Personal experience has taught me that my body needs more protein to feel satiated, as my issues with fatigue and hunger on my last vegetarian stint were likely due to this. I would need to consume much more bean and nut mass to meet those needs, and while that would be a more ethical solution, I’ve found it more personally sustainable to eat poultry and fish for additional protein.

One philosophy I espouse: “perfect is the enemy of good.” Any change for the better is more useful than trying to be perfect all at once. If “Meatless Monday” is the best you can do on a long-term basis, that’s better than going vegan for a week and then eating nothing but bacon for a month after. And if people give you crap, or (heaven forbid) wave chicken tenders in your face, find a new group of friends.

(If you’re curious, my favorite vegetarian dish is Chana Masala on jasmine rice. There are some good recipes online, but I love making it in a slow cooker while I’m at work.)

Just What On Earth Do You DO?

Being multifaceted has some drawbacks. People speak about having exactly one lifelong passion (and jobs sometimes demand this from employees), which doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like the concept of a soul mate, that mythical person that’s perfectly matched to your strengths and weaknesses.

That is to say, it’s equally bollocks.

So what is it that I do?
Continue reading Just What On Earth Do You DO?