Tuesday, January 12, 2016

talking to flowers: on turning thirty

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The first thirty years of my life were characterized by an extreme lack of anger. As a child growing up in a Catholic family, I was fascinated by stories of saints—young women with pretty names who could be burned and maimed in a thousand different ways without ever uttering a harsh word. In highschool, my best friend remarked with awe on my apparently true claim that I didn’t feel anger. Up until very recently, I still believed I had no anger—that I was just so sweet and gentle I couldn’t hold anything against anybody. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and so refrained from expressing any emotion or idea that could make people upset.

But I am thirty today, and have realized I’m angry about all sorts of things. And so, as a birthday present to myself, I want to talk briefly about something I am angry about.

I wrote a few days ago about my death battle with insomnia, a life event that provided the terminal bookend to almost ten years of sleeping pills. I am angry at the doctor who prescribed those pills to me when I was barely out of my teens, the subsequent doctors who didn’t bat an eye when they saw it on my charts, and the systems that collude to ensure that it is never questioned, in our society, whether it is good and proper to treat a condition like sleeplessness with heavy and apparently lifelong pharmaceutical medications.

This morning I gathered the bottles of leftover pills to bring to a drug take-back site, wanting to dispose of them responsibly. As I dropped the bottles into a bag, a thought floated into my mind, so quietly I almost didn’t hear it: You won’t flush this stuff down the toilet, said a skeptical voice, but you put it into your body every night without a second thought.

It was funny. I laughed, sort of. Later, while Googling drug disposal sites in Portland, I came across this gem:

“Don't flush your unused medications down the toilet. This allows them to get into the water stream which can impact fish, wildlife, or even you.”

So when a doctor tells me to take them, they’re safe and beneficial, even though they become an “impact” dangerous to the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and, by gosh, even me! the moment they hit the water stream?

The grasses and plants that appear in a vacant lot say a lot about the soil they grow in—what nutrients it has in abundance, what it desperately lacks. I believe insomnia is the same. But when it comes to conditions like insomnia, the Western medical system doesn’t listen for the message. It only sees the weeds and sprays them—letting all that valuable information about the soil go to waste. It saw the weeds in my mind and sprayed them with pharmaceuticals, and it has taken me until now to slowly begin to decode the message that it ought to have been the role of the healers and adults in my society to help me identify ten years ago.

I am angry about the unstated message, which I absorbed deeply, that the body-mind’s distress signals are something to suppress (that the earth’s distress signals are something to suppress, that the body-mind-earth should bow to the supposedly greater wisdom of chemicals, specialists, people in white coats…) and that this attitude continues to be reinforced, unquestioned, in our literature and media.

I could write about this at length, and probably will in days to come,  but at the moment I am eager to get off the computer and go enjoy the day. It is rainy here, and the plants have all set their buds for spring. Thirty years in, I am only beginning to notice these things.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

disastrous landscapes: survival, insomnia and A Sense of the Infinite

A few days ago, I got some wonderful news: my second novel, A Sense of the Infinite, is a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. It is also a finalist for the Ontario Library Association White Pine Award, a symmetry that pleases me greatly as the awards represent both my childhood home on the east coast of Canada and my current one on the west coast of the United States.

I never properly launched A Sense of the Infinite. It was published at a time in my life when basic survival had taken precedence over such things as book promotion, and this omission left me with an unfinished feeling that has dogged me over the past year. The book has felt like a seed blown onto the pavement: full of potential but unable to germinate until, by some miracle, a bird picks it up and drops it in fertile ground. And so I feel, in these nominations, an inordinate sense of rescue and of second chances, both for the novel and for myself, neither of whose survival seemed like a sure thing in May of 2015.

My twenties were haunted by insomnia which fluctuated in intensity over the months and years, but had recently hit a crisis point. Around the time A Sense of the Infinite was published, I was sleeping twelve hours a week, sixteen if I was lucky. No pill, no herb, no acupuncture, no amount of meditation seemed to help. If a prison guard had been inflicting this level of sleep deprivation on a prisoner, it would have met the legal definition of torture. But the torturer was invisible. It was inside me, or somewhere out in the universe. And it was doing a surgically precise job of driving me insane.

I will refrain from giving too detailed an account of this time. There is too strong an urge to make it poetic, to soften its brutality with pretty words. The truth is, I was a walking corpse. After a few months I’d given up hoping and negotiating and observing my breath and had arrived at the point of praying to be hit by a truck so I could finally die. My publisher asked me to write a promotional letter that would be bundled in with review copies of A Sense of the Infinite. I sat in the library and wrote a suicide letter instead. I had no intention to kill myself. But I needed to give myself permission to die—to acknowledge, if only in the form of a few typed words I swiftly deleted, that the torture had reached a level of severity, cruelty and seeming relentlessness under which it would be perfectly reasonable and indeed forgiveable to choose death.

On the day A Sense of the Infinite was published, I drove to Mount St. Helens and walked around the blackened landscape, past twisted and burned-out pieces of logging machinery nobody had bothered to haul out or reclaim. It was a place frozen in time, a disaster area which the processes of life had only barely begun to recover. It was a landscape eerily similar to the landscape of my own mind. I sat on a rock and nervously nibbled on the cheese and crackers I had brought. On my way back to the car, my troublesome knee gave out; I dragged myself the last mile using my hands, grabbing at roots, cursing my own body which seemed to be breaking down on every level.

*

In a few days, I will turn thirty. For the first time since I was a teenager, I’ve been sleeping every night (every single night, without any kind of medication—and this after a decade of struggle and anguish.) The blasted-out landscape is starting to grow back; I can hear birdsong in there, and see the shoots of small green plants. More and more, I’m starting to write again, and read, hungrily and with great and urgent questions. I feel like a beginner, a kid discovering the world for the first time, a creature engaged in the slow and curious process of figuring out what kind of creature it is.

Our machine culture places a lot of emphasis on productivity, and one result of this obsession is a feeling of shame and panic when one’s ability to be productive goes away or is forcibly removed. Since my own illness, I’ve come to see that a machine’s definition of productivity is insane; I now prefer to use nature as my guide. Productivity can mean waiting until the right moment. It can mean burying yourself underground. It can mean sitting still while yourself and everything around you burns up in a fire. It can mean dying, or rather, appearing to die, and trusting that nature is strong, the life urge is strong, and the processes of life are always working, working, working to rehabilitate what has been destroyed, to filter that which has been poisoned, to feed that which has been starved, if only we will allow them. I believe this is true of tortured minds as of tortured landscapes, and I’m grateful to have experienced this first hand.

Friday, August 14, 2015

the two-minute tiger: notes from the Woodland Park Zoo



Last week, I had the pleasure of going to Washington for a handful of book events. The book events only took up about an hour and a half per day, and I spent the rest of my time wandering and pondering and enjoying being away from home.

One place I went over the course of my wanderings was the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I've been thinking a lot about education—the teachings we communicate intentionally and directly ("a triangle has three sides!") and the ones we communicate indirectly and often accidentally ("success means knowing how many sides a triangle has!") Over the past few years, I've become particularly interested in the indirect messages we teach kids about nature. The zoo is a great place to watch this direct/indirect split in action, as parents are constantly aiming to educate their kids in words, while communicating a second set of unspoken messages with their behavior.

Parents take their kids to the zoo to teach them about animals, but they end up teaching them an entire orientation towards life.

With that in mind, here are some of the indirect messages I picked up while standing by the tiger pen:

"Animals are fun."

In general, people go to the zoo for entertainment—not for religious purposes, or to hunt the elk, or because the only way to get to their grandmother's house is to walk straight through the tiger pen. We go because it's fun, or because we want it to be fun, and feel anxious when the animals are not acting as fun as we need them to be.

An almost universal reaction to the tiger amongst toddlers and young children when coming upon a sleeping tiger in the tiger pen was to tap on the glass and sing "Wake up, tiger, wake up!" And even though the adults were too well-behaved to do the same, one could sense they shared the children's desire for the tiger to get up and dance, or at least to move around—make it fun.

Watching this interaction repeat itself over and over again, it struck me that the modern urban human's behavior around a tiger is almost the exact opposite of how humans would have acted around tigers throughout most of our history and pre-history. A child from a rural village, encountering a sleeping tiger on her way to get a jar of water, would almost certainly do everything she could to pass undetected and make sure the tiger stayed asleep. A modern, urban child does everything she can to make the sleeping tiger notice her, entertain her, giver her some sign of her specialness—wake up, tiger, wake up.

"One minute is a good amount of time to look at something."

The average time that any given party stayed to observe the tigers was one minute. After the one minute mark, most parents would begin to herd the children on to the next exhibit whether or not the children seemed bored with the tiger.

In the thirty minutes I was watching, not a single party stayed longer than two minutes. I got the sense, from watching the adults, that they deemed it right and proper and somehow responsible to move on after a minute or two—as if to stay longer would be awkward, creepy, or otherwise suspect.

I found this pattern especially interesting. We feel anxious if we observe any one animal at length, when there are still ninety-nine more exhibits to see—and to spend an entire morning watching only the tiger would be an act of blasphemy, of not-getting-one's-money's-worth of the worst degree. We're driven by a need to check every box, even if we'd be happier checking only one or two. We skim instead of reading deeply. We don't know how to observe animals at length, nor do we have any practical reason to do so—and so we move on, baffled and more bored than we care to admit, to see if the next one will be any more amazing.

"Learning about animals means learning to name and count them."

Many of the parents at the zoo seemed keen on stimulating their child's verbal and math skills, prompting them to repeat the names of the animals, or to see how many they could count—not how to track them, hunt them, cook them, pray to them, or interpret their behavior. In short, not how to have any sort of meaningful and necessary interaction with them. It struck me, as I watched this name-and-count pattern repeat itself again and again, that the children might as well have been counting Tupperware.

Indeed, the entire message of the zoo seems to be that animals are very wacky and fun to watch and it is so very sad that they are disappearing, but at the end of the day, they have no relevance to our "real" lives—neither as a threat, nor a food source, nor a source of the divine or mundane information necessary to organizing our days. At best, they are a vehicle we can use to learn about counting or colors or some other "educational" subject, but we could just as easily be counting something else.

"The interesting animals are the ones in the cages."

...Not the native squirrels, crows, hummingbirds, racoons, snakes, and possums that roam, scurry, and flap freely throughout the zoo grounds and which nobody has bothered to put in an enclosure.

"It is sad that animals are going extinct (but not sad enough to depave the parking lot.)"

The zoo is full of placards informing guests of the tiger's dire situation and suggesting we can help by changing which brand of cookies we buy (a table staffed by zoo volunteers displayed a range of Nabisco products, the company having signed some kind of rainforest pledge.) The message is that there is nothing we can do directly to help wildlife; we can and should continue to live as before, while mitigating our guilt by buying slightly different things.

I'm no psychologist, but I wonder what effect this kind of splitting has on children's emotions—I wonder what kind of effect it had on my emotions: to invoke a terrible, sad, guilty thing like extinction, get people feeling awful, and then offer impotent and abstract "solutions" (buy Nabisco!) while continuing to perpetuate the very thing (the economy, the culture, the disconnect) that is contributing to mass extinction in the first place.

How much healthier, saner, and more empowered would we be if there was a zoo volunteer standing next to that extinction placard handing out pickaxes so that kids and their parents could break up the concrete together? Instead, the adults at the zoo seem weak and ineffective, unable to do much in this world except buy popsicles and take pictures and possibly donate a dollar or two to the save-the-tiger fund. Nothing heroic. Nothing that inspires confidence or awe. What does it mean that most kids never see their parents making any serious attempt to address the most pressing crises of our time? That even earnest attempts to make things better often take the indirect forms of clicking or writing or buying, and only rarely of doing something physical—building, planting, fighting, slogging through mud.

"Being kind to animals means not tapping on the glass (let's not talk about whether it's kind to put them behind glass in the first place)"

Another way to state this: 'The problems with the way our culture deals with the wild are too large to tackle; therefore, let's just do our best to be as 'nice' as we can to animals within the absurd and insane constraints we've imposed upon them.'

As above: what does this kind of splitting do to a kid's psychology? What does it say about good and evil when the adults in your world bulldoze a creature's habitat and lock it in a pen, then inform you that you are being "bad" when you try to speak with it the only way you know how?

This is not a problem exclusive to zoos, of course; zoos are just a convenient microcosm. But the questions they raise are universal: What does it mean to be kind within a profoundly unkind, unjust, and evil system? Why doesn't the zoo have a special pen with an ethics committee inside who can answer these kinds of questions?

**


With so much that is confusing and contradictory in the messages we send kids about nature, the question remains: is there a better way to go to the zoo?

If there is, I imagine it would mostly consist of hanging out in the small patch of forest near the zoo parking lot, eating blackberries and picking mushrooms, watching the squirrels to see where they nest, checking to see if the saplings we planted last year have grown. Taking naps, building forts, and peeing on the ground. Smelling things and chewing them, getting bored and un-bored, learning to "do nothing" without feeling anxious about it. Learning, in short, to be sane.

I would like to be sane in the way I just described. I can imagine what it would be like. But it takes practice, and a long, slow undoing of the many assumptions, pressures, and anxieties our culture puts on us. Why am I typing up these mind-words instead of sitting outside in the rain? I don't know; I am trying to figure it out. What I can say for certain is this: while I am glad to have seen a tiger, I am gladder when I visit the giant oak tree that grows near my house, or when I go to watch birds by the river. The thing we need to feel and respond to is right here, wherever we are, not in a zoo or on another continent. And maybe the beginnings of answers are to be found there too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Sense of the Infinite(ly) Old Author Photo, and Book Tour News

Hello friends! 

It seems I have agreed, against my better judgement, to appear IN PERSON at the following events in Beaverton, Portland, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, and Bellingham. Help me get through this! Show up and set off the fire alarm so I can get out of it---or better yet, let's fake a kidnapping. Please? I'd owe you one...

If you *would* like to fake-kidnap me from my own book reading, the following poster will be of no assistance in identifying me, because my author photo was taken when I was 23:



I am now a wizened old 29-year old with three books under my belt; I have to admit the process has aged me. Here is an updated photo:
Hilary T. Smith, YA author
Looking forward to meeting some of you. Bonus points if you show up wearing a PEE SISTERS headband.

Best wishes,

Hilary


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

in which A Sense of the Infinite is published, and time travel occurs


Hello friends! A SENSE OF THE INFINITE comes out today. Whereas for both my previous books, my release day to-do list was dominated by items such as "1. Freak out" and "2. Stress balls" and "3. Tweet a bunch," I am celebrating this book by scheduling a blog post in advance and then disappearing into the national forest for the day (don't let the present tense fool you! I wrote this post yesterday. In reality-land, I am nowhere near a computer).

It is pretty nice here, not-on-a-computer. I am enjoying it immensely. Maybe I will even see a snake, or save an injured hiker, or get lost and survive on roots and berries for six months. More likely, I will just tromp around for several hours, eat a bag of peanuts, and go home--but that sounds pretty good too.

Thank you to everyone who has been a friend and supporter of this novel. Here are some links if you'd like to know more about it or buy a copy:

Interview on xoJane
Interview on First Draft Podcast
A SENSE OF THE INFINITE on BookRiot
Starred Review, VOYA
Buy on IndieBound
Buy on Amazon

Oh yes, and if you'd like to chat in person, you can catch me on this book tour in August:


It's been an amazing trip, and I'm grateful. Happy reading to all.

Friday, March 13, 2015

a letter about A SENSE OF THE INFINITE, plus giveaway!

A few weeks ago, my editor at HarperCollins asked me to write a letter introducing my new novel, A Sense of the Infinite, to potential readers and reviewers. I fretted a bunch, tried not to barf, and then wrote this...

Dear Reader,

I am supposed to write this to get you interested in my new novel, A Sense of the Infinite, but every opening I’ve drafted, saying I am so excited for you to read this book, has made me feel more and more like a hypocrite. The truth is I am sitting here wishing I had written something different, anything different. A book about magical ponies who fight to save a cupcake factory from an evil prince, or about a pair of teens math whizzes who find true love. Something easy to explain. Something reasonable. Something that doesn’t make me worry about what people are going to think.

A Sense of the Infinite is not reasonable or easy to explain. The heroine, Annabeth Schultz, is a girl who gets an abortion, enacts vigilante justice on a rapist, and cheats on her art assignments; who finds friendship in unexpected places and turns to nature for companionship and strength. Because there are no car chases or explosions, it is what they are calling a “quiet” book, an appellation that is funny to me because it can be applied to just about anything, as long as it can be compared to something louder. A human howl is easily drowned out by a jet engine, but which one is more likely to set your heart pounding if you heard it in the middle of the night?

I didn’t set out to write a howl. I wanted very much to write a jet engine novel, but the howl came out instead. It is the howl of growing up in a culture that eats up wild nature and spits out places that nobody loves; that teaches young women to seek social approval at the expense of whatever in them is most precious and alive; that conspires to punish and eliminate diversity instead of cultivating it. Over the course of two years, I deleted the manuscript six times and wrote the whole thing over again. I am, quite simply, terrified that you are about to read it.

There is a scene near the end of the novel in which a dismembered finger gets thrown over the edge of a thundering waterfall. I feel a little like that right now, standing at the edge, vertigo setting in, mist soaking my face. It’s a scary thing, to throw a piece of yourself over the waterfall—a wondrous thing too. I hope, after reading A Sense of the Infinite, that you will join me here, where it is roaring and wild, and where even howls that start out anguished find themselves transformed into something fierce, hopeful, and true.

Sincerely,


Hilary T. Smith

**

Pre-order A Sense of the Infinite here.






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

should bloggers be novelists? INTERN looks back

I remember when all the writing and publishing bloggers I knew began to “graduate,” posting book deal announcements and slowly (or quickly) abandoning their blogs to the cobwebs as the novels gobbled up more of the available time and energy. At the time, it seemed like a natural progression: build an audience, leverage it into a book deal, emerge from the cocoon of the blog into the sunshine of a “real” writing career, leaving the blog’s dried up husk behind to look on fondly and occasionally climb back into for old times’ sake. And why not? Weren’t the book deals what we wanted? And weren’t they proof that we knew what we were talking about when we posted advice on revising scenes and developing characters? We wanted to be novelists, didn’t we? The blogs were just vehicles—lovely, meaningful, intelligent vehicles, but still vehicles—weren’t they?

I have a friend who worked at a coffee shop for years. She talked to customers all day, read their tarot cards, learned the names of their pets and children, gave them spider plant cuttings and relationship advice. She was such a good employee they gave her a raise and promoted her to manager, upon which she grew very unhappy. She had moved up in the world, but now she was isolated, and her best talents were lying fallow as she attended to the supposedly more desirable job of running the shop. The world sets up all sorts of confusing situations for us. It is especially confusing when the reward for doing something well is to be allowed to do a different something you are perhaps less suited for. If you are an excellent barista, why should it follow that you will be happy as a manager? If you love blogging, why should it follow that you will want to publish novels?

This is not me admitting that writing novels has been a terrible mistake, although I know it might sound that way. I don’t regret a single minute I spent writing WILD AWAKE and a SENSE OF THE INFINITE, strange and difficult as some of those minutes were, and I’ll certainly write more books. But I do question whether the “graduation” model is the best thing for every blogger, every time, and if the prestige we place on having a published novel is an outdated relic that will soon fade out of importance as other forms of writing become more and more valued.

As I approach the conclusion of my own two book deal (a deal that happened as a direct result of writing the INTERN blog), I have been spending a lot of time pondering my next steps as a writer and trying to figure out who I really am. There are a lot of voices in my head. “You should write literary fiction,” says the part of me that still wants to be the next Janet Frame. “You should write another YA,” says the part of me that has a nice home in YA-land and doesn’t want to move. “You should quit writing altogether,” says the part of me that is tired of trying to figure out how to write a book without ripping it apart a dozen times. Then a few days ago, I got an e-mail from an old INTERN reader and another voice whispered, “Maybe you should  blog.”

There’s no moving back into your old cocoon, and no adventure in doing the same thing forever just because it works. But if you’re happiest being the person who makes the coffee and hands out spider plant cuttings, that’s a wonderful thing, a worthy thing—and perhaps not a thing to abandon when you get a promotion.