Friday, February 12, 2010

the art of following

I'm not a leader. It took me awhile to figure that out when I was in my twenties and thirties, because back then, we all thought everyone could be whatever they wanted to be. In the 80s, I was all about feminism: women taking back their power and women being just the same as men. In my mind, not being a leader meant being weak and insignificant. In the 90s, I was in one of those women's spirituality groups where we were all supposed to share the leadership equally. Each week, we traded the leadership role. It went as you might predict-- when some women were leading, the meeting went well. When others were leading, the meeting ground down into pettiness. I think I was somewhere in the middle. I can do a decent job of leading a discussion, and I'm pretty good at reading group dynamics. But making decisions, taking responsibility for the direction of the group-- definitely not a skill of mine. And being able to inspire other people to follow, the most valuable leadership skill of all imo, is something I lack entirely. In that particular women's group, we were supposed to keep trading the leadership role around so that all of us could develop our leadership skills, and I do see the point of that. Some things get better with practice, and if that is one of the goals of the group, then it makes a lot of sense. But I also came out of that group thinking that there are some people who will always be better at it than others. And lucky for the rest of us, there are some people who are natural leaders, and we should all be damn grateful for that.

Even now that I understand that about myself, though, I still find myself taking leadership roles sometimes. I was on a committee a couple of years ago where even my limited leadership skills were more than anyone else had. I avoided taking over during our first several meetings because I didn't want to seem like I was... well, taking over, you know? And because I know I'm not the best at it. but eventually I stepped in and took charge, because the meetings were degenerating into pointless, meandering discussions that just went around in circles. We weren't exactly making waves with me in charge, but it was better than before.

So maybe since I've been on both sides of the fence, so to speak, I'm a little more aware of what it takes to be a good follower. There's an art to it, and it's one that is often ignored or devalued. A good follower listens, pays attention, tries to understand, and does his/her best to be supportive of the group and of the leader. You offer your opinion, and then you accept the decision of the group. And the most difficult follower skill of all: you have to be able to figure out for yourself when you need to speak up and when you need to just go along and be supportive, even if you don't agree.

OK, I'm waving my magic wand to come up with a simple example here. Let's say you're on a committee that's planning your child's senior class trip. There are twelve parents on the committee, and fortunately the one who is the chair of the committee is a good leader (which isn't always the case). There will be at least four or five opinions about the destination of the trip. Everyone, including you, expresses their opinion. Then you either vote or someone decides. If it's not the destination you wanted, you let it go and turn your attention to planning for the chosen place. That's easy. They can only go one place, they can't go to all of them.

But what if the group has chosen an activity for the trip that wouldn't be appropriate for all the students? Say, going to see a play that is about mature themes. Your child would be fine with it, but you know your child's best friend would be shocked and offended. So you speak up. We need an alternate activity for the kids who don't want to go to the play, or we need to choose a different play. The other parents downplay the problem and try to move on. Do you stick to your guns, or do you just give in, thinking (as the other parents do) that it will be good for the more sheltered kids to be exposed to some new and different experiences? It would depend-- on the play, the community values of the place where you live, the availability of other options, and how strongly you feel about it.

That to me is the hardest thing about being a good follower. I picked an innocuous example (and it's totally fictitious, by the way, my kids' high school doesn't do a senior trip). But it can actually be quite difficult to figure this out. When do I refuse to give in, because I know that either a) there will be consequences that aren't being taken into consideration, or b) I just won't be able to live with it as it stands? and how far do you push it? and when is it time to just throw in the towel and decide you can't participate anymore?

I'm a follower. I know how difficult it is to be a leader, to be the one that takes responsibility for decisions, and I don't like doing it. So I value someone that does. I admire and respect people who are willing to take that on their shoulders, and I'm willing to be supportive and encouraging. But you have to feel like the leader is understanding and respectful of his/her followers, too. That you're not just being ignored and shunted to the side. At least sometimes, the leader has to be willing to put his/her own interests aside in favor of the best interests of the group.

I'm being vague here and it's intentional. sorry about that. :-) but I still think it's an interesting topic.


Monday, February 08, 2010

I've said before that it's much harder for me to write about the resolution of a conflict than it is to write about the conflict itself. There are a lot of reasons for that. A large part of it is because that's just the way my brain works. I'm better at picking things apart than putting them together. And also, when I do resolve something, once I get there, it seems so obvious that when I write it out it sounds kind of dumb and corny. But to skip over writing out the moments of insight is to come down on the side of despair, and I don't want to do that either.

So I'm behind a bit. Because the stuff I wrote back in --I just looked, and it was November, and I can't believe it's been that long-- has worked itself out for now. As more than one wise person has noted, the spiritual path is never a straight line. It has meanders and dead ends and side steps, but it shakes out roughly into a spiral. You work your way through some difficult places, and then a few months/years/decades later you find yourself circling back to work through the same things again, but in a different place with a different perspective and a different set of experiences to feed into it. So I don't think I'm done with this. But the dissonance I was talking about in November, the dialogue going on between the part of me that believes and the part of me that doesn't, seems to have worked itself out for now. And the seeds of the resolution are in those posts, which is why it seems so obvious now. I needed to let go of my worn-out expectations of what God is like to make room for something bigger and more expansive. You might call it another round of forgiving God for not being what I expected God to be.

When I was in junior high I heard a Christian speaker talk about the meaning of commitment: giving all that you know about yourself to all that you know about God. So that as you find out more about yourself, and as you find out more about God, you have to update your commitment. I might word it a little bit differently now, but I still think about that.

That's probably not very clear, but it's the best I can do at the moment. And as always, interpret the use of the word "God" in this post to mean "what I think of as God."


Saturday, February 06, 2010

I almost deleted this whole thing last week. Then over the weekend I was considering just deleting back until last fall sometime. Too much angst in my life right now. But, hey, lighten up, right? To delete it in a fit of self-disgust would only give it more importance than it's worth. Or that's what I'm telling myself anyway.

So I'm fighting a losing battle here on the literary vs. genre fiction and I know it. I just don't want to admit it. but honestly. Here is the last sentence of the Book Shop: "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop." What is that? Is Fitzgerald making fun of her character? It very nearly sounds like it. Or is she really convinced that the actions of a courageous, sensitive person are bound to end in shame and humiliation? Do the turkeys always get us down? I wish I could ignore the whole thing and just work on finding, reading, and writing some sort of hybrid where the whole of human experience is acknowledged and not just the sordid depressing bits. But unfortunately I've chosen to re-enter the academic arena and ignoring it is not exactly possible in an academic setting. Or at least not ignoring it in the way that I mean. They would certainly allow ignoring genre fiction.

And truth be told, I can't entirely blame them. I came up with a list of a dozen genre books worth reading from the ones I read last year, but that leaves out the DOZENS of books that I read that weren't worth reading at all-- more than a few were downright awful. I'd read 20-50 pages and throw them back in the bag to go to the thrift store. Some of them were so bad that you just are embarrassed at the waste of paper and ink.

So I'm done with this topic. I think. I hope. :)

hope is the thing with the feathers. --Emily Dickinson
not exactly related, but I love that line.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010


I'm feeling the need to explain how I think about prayer. Twice in the past week, I've told someone that I would pray for them, or keep them in my prayers. And I feel somewhat guilty about this, but not for the reason you might think. Even though I don't really believe in God, I still believe in prayer. I can't explain how it works. But I believe that praying for someone helps them in some way. Is it just that you've told them you're praying for them, so that in itself offers moral support and they feel buoyed? Is it some sort of mental intention, a focusing of attention, that actually does give them a boost of some sort? Is there an actual exchange of personal energy that goes on? Is there a being, supreme or otherwise, that we address when we pray that can distribute help from a vast supply of spiritual/emotional resources? What I think is some sort of combination of those, but I have no idea how it actually works, and certainly no way to prove it. I just know that I don't feel hypocritical when I tell someone that I will pray for them. (And I do pray for them.) The thing that makes me feel a little guilty is that I know when I say it, often it means something to them that it doesn't mean to me, leads them to think that I'm doing something that I'm not.

I know I can't control how other people interpret my words. It would be silly to explain in depth precisely what I mean every time I use words in a way that is different than what other people expect. Silly and unwelcome. But there is a fine line to walk here in terms of personal integrity. I'm OK with this one, after having given it a great deal of thought, because it's a common enough phrase that people use it lightly all the time. I've even heard people with no particular religious views at all say something of the same sort. But obviously there's something that doesn't sit quite right because here I am typing this out.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

I've found two new blogs in the last couple of weeks and I am addicted. I don't check them every day (who has time?) but when I do check them, I keep reading till I'm caught up. I'm afraid these are y-chromosome-limited (ie, you're probably not going to enjoy them if you're male). There's this one, because it makes me laugh (sometimes to the point of tears), and then this one, because it makes me think.

Sorry guys. If I come up with some good not-gender-specific ones, I'll let you know.

Monday, February 01, 2010

You know, for reasons that are already escaping me, I signed up for a creative writing class this semester. I think I already mentioned (didn't I?) that I'm not driving to the state unversity this semester, so this is just at our local community college. It (the writing class) is making me a little crazy. Nothing makes me as neurotic as trying to write fiction.

Well, OK, I admit my spouse might be able to come up with a few things that make me more neurotic than that. But we're not going there right now.

So, anyway, I am feeling the need to apologize for obsessing about this genre fiction vs. literary fiction argument that I keep coming back to, because I know that I'm the only one that's interested in it (well, and maybe cheery-O occasionally). But I can't help it. Because I have to hash it out to figure out how to write. My writing style isn't like genre fiction writing. And I don't necessarily mean that my writing style is "better"-- I can only dream of being able to write like P.D. James, for example. I just don't write that way. But I really really don't want to write boring depressing stuff, which is what literary fiction often is. So I'm having to duke this out in my own brain, which is why I keep writing about it here. And I guess that tells you everything you need to know about me: that my brain considers the distinction between literary and genre fiction something that needs to be duked out.

The good news is that I'm discovering that the distinction between the two is less prominent in reality than as it exists in my head. The class I'm taking has a definite bias toward literary fiction, and we read a story last week that could have been a sort of off-beat romance story if it had had a happily ever after ending. And I read bits of an article about Raymond Carver that said his editor had to be always on the watch to make sure he didn't succumb to creeping sentimentalism. RAYMOND CARVER. That practically made my jaw drop--it's like saying Picasso had to watch to make sure he wasn't letting photorealism into his work.

the bad news is that in the academic world, it has become almost an article of religious faith to eschew genre fiction. It seems far more pronounced to me than it did twenty years ago, when it was bad enough. From my limited viewpoint, anyway.

so. unfortunately I don't think I'm done with this, but I'll try to post about other stuff, too.