When Labelling People Is Good For Them

I came to social awareness (as opposed to, say, growing up, which is quite a different process) at a time when political correctness was just beginning, and–unlike other periods of time that I’ve mostly read about in old novels–labelling people was considered wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, this move away from labelling is generally a good thing, as this Psychology Today article points out. We are more than our skin tone, our body mass index, our age, our job. I have been labelled from time to time, and those labels make my skin crawl, make me–even now–want to jump out of my chair and shout “you don’t know me!” I am not where I live, or where I grew up. I am not my education. I am not my family of origin. I am not my hair colour. I am me.

Sometimes though I think we’ve taken things too far. Sitting on a plane on my way to the USA for the very first time it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what to call black people these days, and if I found myself suddenly in a situation, say, where a key was dropped at McDonald’s, and the waitress asked me who was sitting here before me and I said “A tall black guy”…is that offensive? Would I need to say “an above-average height African-American?” What if he wasn’t of African descent, but Carribbean? What if he wasn’t even American? Did any of it matter? Thankfully nobody dropped any keys at McDonald’s while I was in the US, so I never had to deal with the fall-out from this, and consequently I have yet to discover whether I would be frowned upon from describing a person as “black”. Or brown. Or, as my young son used to say when describing a kid in his class at school, “he has a brown face”. Notably, there are only two “white” people in my family – the rest of us are a kind of pinky colour.

I’ve been so aware of anti-labelling, of the risks one takes in using phrases like “black”, or “retarded” (which was in common usage when I was growing up, and wasn’t seen as a slur), or “crazy”, and it occurred to me that there is also a positive place for labels. I’m not a big, noxious word like “crazy”, but I’m a smaller, more precise word, like “introvert”. That label has helped me enormously, has helped me classify myself not just according to “I am me and I am unique”, which can be terribly lonely, but  part of a crowd, a subset of people just like me. I am left-handed – not just the only one in tennis class, but one of millions of people throughout the world.

If I’d only ever seen apples, pears, bananas and oranges, the first time I saw a custard apple, a mango or a paw paw I would think them crazy, different, wrong. (Actually this is precisely what happened when I was young – yes, even to mangoes. I still remember my first one). Labels help us classify. Stone fruit. Tropical fruit. Fruit. Without these labels we’d be less willing to try things, more inclined to throw them out and to not experience the good within.

Pineapple and apples (Wikimedia Commons)

Pineapple and apples (Wikimedia Commons)

I read an article the other day that helped me understand an old friend of mine so much better. He’d worn a million labels, some he’d fought against, some he’d embraced, none of which gave me any context at all to understand him better. I kept him there, metaphorically, my pineapple in a lifetime of apples, having to suspend all understanding when with him and define him,not as crazy, but as “unique”, “odd”, “different”. None of these labels are helpful, either, not in a real sense. They didn’t help me relate.

There were a few articles I read. One was about Asperger’s Syndrome. Another was about personality disorders. Another on different types of mental illness, and psychosis.

I’m not a doctor, but within half an hour of reading I could feel certain labels my friend has worn dislodging in my brain, and other, better ones take their places. He may never read these articles, and I may never discuss my thoughts about them with him, but for me finding those labels allowed my heart to expand, and helped me to love him better. He’s not alone, not unique as such. He’s not a not-apple, but a pineapple. I may have never met anyone else like him, but now I know that there are probably many others.

It may be nice to be unique, but there’s such a joy in finding one is not alone.

I’m all for labeling people, if that’s the result.

 

On Vision, Writing, and the Nobel Prize

I wouldn’t say I’m prone to visions really.

The Vision Of Saint Helena

This is Not Me. (The Vision of Saint Helena by Paolo Veronese. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Can’t say that many times I’ve been struck dumb as the Lord has vouchsafed to me a drop-down movie-theatre in front of my eyes where He unravels some mysterious plan (although it did happen once…and no I wasn’t on drugs…and no, that is not what this is about).

Can’t say that, in recent years at least, I’ve been beset with the other kind of vision much either – motivation and direction for my own life, that sense of knowing exactly where I’m headed, what I’m doing, what I want out of life. Sure, I knew the answer to these things in a vague and general way, hopefully as we all do, but sometimes it’s hard to be driven and motivated when, by necessity, your day-to-day life has very little to do with your career goals. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life, and I love what I do and am grateful every day, but I’m not aiming for a career in toilet cleaning, or laundry, or driving kids to music lessons. I don’t want to be a professional Lego builder (oh okay, that one would be fun), and, here’s the rub, the vision for my life I had ten years ago I’d done.

Ten years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have said “I want to travel, and I want to write a book”. Both of those things, for various reasons, seemed wildly out of my grasp at that time. Both, now, I have done.

So. Now what?

Well, go back and travel again is one answer, and publish the book is another, but they’re still vague answers of the not-particularly helpful kind. They’re goals, but they’re not Vision. They’re not propelling me forward, encouraging me to get out of bed in these early hours of a cold morning. They’re true, but they’re not…enough.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. I’ve been planning the rewrites for said book (because it needs them), and trying to pinpoint exactly who I’m telling the story for. It’s one thing to have a goal to write a book. It’s quite another to know exactly who your target audience is and how to reach them, and what specific expectations they have in a novel, especially because I don’t write in a particular genre (thriller/mystery/romance etc).

I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few weeks, in between toilet cleaning and laundry and driving kids to music lessons and everything else. I’d added a new character, a new storyline to my novel, and I was excited by the things that was bringing up, and the new direction and focus – and all of a sudden I “looked” at the pictures in my mind and I noticed something strange: the new characters and storyline, when I imagined them, appeared in different colours to the rest of my story. Does that sound dumb? (It may help to explain that I have a mild form of synaesthesia, and sometimes I see words in colours). They didn’t fit, they looked as if they’d been cut out of something and pasted there…and I knew the canvas where they did belong too – another novel I’d been struggling to make all the pieces fit.

Have I lost you yet? I don’t have visions but I “saw” my book and the colours were wrong. Yeah. Stick with me a minute, okay?

I realised something else, too: every time I thought about my novel (the one I’m trying to rewrite) the same image turned up in my head, not in a loud, intrusive way, just subtly in the background like the ads on websites that we tend to ignore until we accidentally click on them. It was my grade nine English classroom.

What? I hear you say. You clicked on an ad on the internet for your grade nine English classroom?

NO!! I realised that every time I thought about my book, and who I was writing it for, and why I was writing it, I thought about that class. I thought about reading Lord Of The Flies, and how much it had inspired me at age fourteen, not only in the depth but also the simplicity of the story.

True confession: when I was fourteen I was so impressed with Lord Of The Flies that I decided that when I grew up I wanted to write a book that could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Don’t laugh.

Oh okay. Go ahead. Laugh.

But that was my vision, and it served me well. It made me write, and research and learn the craft of writing. It made me look for stories to tell, and deeper meanings within those stories. That vision, that lofty goal, made me think, made me learn, made me the thinker I am today.

Here’s an interesting thing. Somewhere along the journey I let go of my vision to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and settled instead for writing a book…maybe that came with realising how hard it was to write a book, let alone a good one. Maybe it came with growing up and realising the silliness of adolescent dreaming. Whatever the reason, the result was that my arrow-sharp focus blunted, widened, in something akin to mock-contentment, and it’s only now I come to realise I lost something in that. It’s like the time my daughter had a go at archery – she didn’t hit the target. She didn’t even hit the hay-bales the target was attached to. Her arrow fell a metre or two short, flat and lifeless on the grass.

If I don’t have a vision – a target – my arrow will land on the grass, and I will think that’s okay. If I don’t have a target I won’t have the determination and drive to go get my arrow again and strengthen my muscles and my pull until my arrow DOES reach the hay-bales, and, eventually, even the target.

I’m glad I’ve found my vision again. It’s helped me hone down the knowledge of exactly what I want from my story, and what I want for my readers. It’s helped me sift through the mass of story to find the questions that gnaw at me, and will hopefully gnaw at my readers, too. And so, proudly, I’ll stand before you today and say (with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek), “Hi, my name is Megan, and my goal is to win the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

Can you see my smile? I won’t be at all disappointed if I never achieve such a crazy goal, but the fact that such a goal exists is already helping me. And, with any luck, if I keep working hard towards my lofty goal, maybe one day my book will land short, on the desks of a student in my old grade nine English class, and maybe they will be inspired to a lofty vision of their own.

 

 

Holy Flamin’ Mandarins Batman! Ain’t That The Truth!

Sometimes, have you ever noticed, our personal truths are so odd, so out there, that we hold them tight in our hands in an odd mix of wonder and fear. Sometimes our truths are hard to talk about. Even though we know them to be true we know that they fall so far outside people’s expectation that we’re afraid we won’t be believed. So we don’t talk. We hold them tightly to our chests and gently hope them soon buried.

Here is a truth from my life, one that is so strange I found it exceedingly hard to believe: when we were in the Canadian Rockies last October we drove past a truck full of mandarins that had caught fire.

Yes. The truth. I know. Weird, isn;t it? For one thing, when has anybody ever seen a flaming mandarin truck, and for another thing, what on earth was a truck full of mandarins doing driving in the Canadian Rockies?

But it’s the truth.

I have the photos to prove it. Sure, they’re not the best–we were driving past this thing at 80 miles an hour–but still:Mandarins in the Canadian Rockies

We talked about this a lot amongst ourselves, but after a while we stopped. We didn’t share it, even though it was the truth, and no amount of wondering why such a strange occurrence could happen would answer our questions. Sometimes you need to learn to live with contradictions.

The other day my aunt and uncle came to visit. I hadn’t seen them for a long time, and we got to talking about our trip, and showing them photos of the things we did and the places we saw. And lo and behold, up on the computer came the photo of the smouldering mandarins, and we told our story and expressed our incredulity at this our odd and incomprehensible truth.

“Oh yes”, my auntie said, not at all perturbed by such a strange sight. “The oil in mandarin skins is highly flammable. My mum used to keep them and dry them and use them to light the fire.”

We stared, open-mouthed, at her for a minute. Our strange truth was believed, and, not only that, it had a reason. What we couldn’t comprehend was comprehensible to someone.

I’ve thought a lot about that mandarin truck again since that day, and allowed the truth to seep deep down into my story, allowed the strangeness to become normal. In that process I’ve been reminded of other truths I’ve held close to my chest, things that have been too personal and too odd for me to ever talk about, and how other people’s stories have helped me recognise the truth of my own, have validated them, justified them. I remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, that express uncomfortable truths I thought were known only to me, and how those books, those movies, have made me feel less alone.

So this, my friends, is the story of my mandarin truck, and my reminder to you, and to myself, of why it’s always important to tell, to read, and to listen to, stories.