Guest Post, Lee Martin: In the Land of “If’s” and “Buts”

In the Land of “If’s” and “Buts”:The Art of Empathy

Model AirplaneWhen I was five years old, I told Santa Claus I wanted a model airplane for Christmas. I meant the gas-powered kind that would actually fly. To my disappointment, what Santa, aka my parents, left for me on Christmas morning was a metal toy plane that I could push along on its rubber tires, and lift into the air, and fly along with my hand while making the engine noises. Not what I had in mind at all. I whined and pouted and had a little tantrum, and my father said to me, as he so often did in those days, but perhaps never quite as appropriately, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘buts’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”

His point was, of course, that sometimes we don’t get what we want. Sometimes life disappoints us. Sometimes our loved ones do, too—our parents, our spouses, our friends, our siblings. The world has a way of diminishing joy, of threatening or harming, of leaving us fearful and angry. Life often falls short of what we want it to be.

Perhaps this has never been so true as now. It’s November when I write this, nearly two weeks past the election. Many of us are trying to make our way through a world that has drastically changed. Here at Ohio State University, where I teach, more than a thousand students—Muslim, Black, Latino, White, LGBT, and Asian—gathered at our multicultural center last night to express their fears and to share their stories of the threats they’ve endured since the election. Here on our campus, students have faced acts of racial, religious, cultural, and homophobic terrorism. They’ve been taunted with calls of “Build the wall,” and “Go back to Mexico.” They’ve been physically assaulted, threatened, and intimidated, even in their classrooms. A Black female student told the story of expressing a point in a class, and a White student responding to her by saying “It’s n—ers like you that are the problem in this country.” And the professor said nothing. At another university here in Columbus, a female student, out for an early-morning walk, was beaten by two young men wearing Trump shirts and hats. Needless to say, these are scary times. We woke up on November 9 with the stark realization that our world was going to be very different from the one in which we thought we were living.

I’ve seen the effects on the students in our MFA program. In fact, in my creative nonfiction workshop this week, a student-led writing activity brought up questions of the efficacy of our words. A number of students talked about not being able to write in the days after the election and questioning the purpose of their writing. One student said she wanted to be a writer so she could have an effect on the world. Don’t we all write because we want to make readers feel and/or think something? I told my students I’d hate to see what happened with the election silence them. I told them that we need all their voices, especially now.

It’s times like these that challenge us—times of uncertainty, times of struggle, times of fear. I’ve always believed that the act of writing is essentially an act of empathy. We do our best to understand the sources of others’ behaviors, to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin, to see the world from their perspective. When someone or something comes along that’s so distant from our own experience, our own viewpoint, we find ourselves sorely challenged indeed. We need to use that challenge to ask ourselves whether the people we are match up with the writers we are. Do we only empathize on the page, or do we empathize in real life?

I grew up in the rural Midwest. An examination of the election returns from the precincts in my native county shows me what I suspected. Not a single precinct went for Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Worse than that, Donald Trump won by huge margins in every single precinct. This grieves me, not only because I don’t agree with the result of the election, but also because it places me on the divide between my values and the values of the people in the place I still consider home. Here’s a truth we may not want to accept right now. There are good people everywhere, even people who voted for Donald Trump. Do I think they’re complicit in Trump’s racism, classism, misogyny? Yes, I do. After all, they empowered him. But I also know the good hearts of people, who for a variety of reasons, truly believed, when they cast their votes, they were doing the right thing.

I grew up among them. My father, a life-long Democrat, was a farmer. My mother, a Republican, was a grade-school teacher. I grew up in the lower middle class. I grew up in the flyover zone. When I was a boy, I stood in line with my parents on Saturdays to receive government commodities: powered milk, sorghum, flour. I knew early on that we had little privilege in the world. Yes, we were White, and I was male, and that was something, but we had no status when it came to our soico-economic class, or the place where we lived, or the jobs that we held, or the schools we attended. I was one of the lucky ones. I had parents who believed in education, and I had a mother who loved books, and who taught me to love them, too. The one privilege I had came from the power of language.

Which brings me to the question of how we’re to use that power. My students wonder if words can make a difference. Here’s what we learn as we age. The tough times will come. We won’t always get what we want. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and no matter how dark things get, there will always be some measure of joy in the world. We may have to look for it in the small blessings of our everyday lives, but trust me, it’s there. And whether from the darkness or the light, we’ll keep making art. We have no choice. We’ve been called. We’ll keep telling our stories, writing our poems, our novels, our essays. Words matter. We know this better than anyone. In the land of “if’s” and “buts,” we can never have enough voices. Let the chorus rise up. Let it start now.

Guest Post, Erin Adair Hodges: The Joy of Quitting

KnittingThough I grew up in a small New Mexican town in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I somehow found feminism. In my child’s understanding of the women’s movement, I decided that anything related to traditional domesticity was oppressive and not for me. Being bad at chores was a sign of my liberation. Cooking, sewing, baking, and knitting were tools used to limit my ambitions, designed by The Man to keep my hands too busy to put up a fight. By the time I entered college and early adulthood in the ‘90s, I found I was not alone. Women in my circles wore aprons only ironically with combat boots and shaved heads. We mended clothing holes with duct tape.

But by the mid-aughts, this same artsy circle found Crafting. I had long resisted the call to develop expertise in some method of fabric/yarn manipulation, but at 30 I had a no good, very bad year. I was in control of almost no aspect of my life, so in a fit of moderate optimism and self-determination, I borrowed some knitting needles and a book and began the work of teaching myself to knit.

Knitters extol the craft’s meditative aspects, and I admit that being able to focus on something that was not the financial and spiritual hardship I was in had a transportive quality. Soon, I knit several crooked scarves the length of a Florida boa constrictor before moving on to baby blankets for the scores of friends having children. Sure, while my friends were starting families I was 30 and working a minimum wage job at a cupcake shop where my manager was a girl ten years my junior whose penchant for posting misspelled signs worked like a burr in the boot of my soul. But I had knitting! Knitting, which allowed me to transform the formless to works of art and function. Knitting! A feminist reclamation of artistry previously disregarded as purely craft because of its usefulness! Knitting! Knitting would save me!

Except that I hated knitting.

I knit for five years. I watched videos, knit purl purled. I went to knitting circles, printed patterns, dreamed lofty woolen dreams. But knitting is unforgiving. Other crafts allow for the imperfect: so your embroidery looks like a thread monster sneezed? Quirky! Seams on your skirt uneven? Fashion-forward. Knitting, though, requires precision. A missed stitch means that, 40 rows and two weeks later, it becomes clear the piece will not work. It is a Yeats poem, what with the not-holding and the falling apart. The very talented can sometimes work in a solution to what’s already been formed, but mostly you just have to tear it down to the mistake and start again, as many agains as needed. In this way, knitting began to resemble too much my real life, not a distraction from my struggles but a manifestation of them. Knitting reminded me that I had no natural aptitude for anything, and that even in trying my best, I would fail.

So I quit. I broke up with knitting.

Like any really good breakup, I marked the seriousness of the separation with a big dramatic act. I had said I’d quit before only to take the needles back up when some friend produced a hat she swore was a cinch to make and I was so smart I could get this, just try again. I thought each time would be different, that maybe knitting could learn to love me the way it loved so many others. Once I finally admitted that this thing which was supposed to make me feel good instead filled me with frustration and sadness, I knew I had to make the break loud and permanent. I filled a garbage bag with everything connected to my relationship with knitting: books, scores of needles, skeins of artisan yarn, and curiously hooked tools. I then took the bag outside and called my friend Christie to tell her what I’d done. If you don’t come and get this stuff, I said, it goes to the dump. As one of the primary knitting pushers in my life, she drove over right away, happy with the haul even if she thought I was making the wrong decision.

But in the years since, I’ve never regretted pushing knitting out of my life. I am tremendously glad I don’t knit, purl, wind, wend, whatever. I was bad at it and it made me sad, so I stopped. That decision runs counter to an American ethos that derides quitters for somehow lacking character. As a kid, I quit all kinds of things I didn’t like and often felt bad about what this must say about me, and so as an adult I’ve tried to make up for this by sticking to commitments far past the point where it would have been healthy to stop. There’s a perverse puritan satisfaction in doing a thing that makes you miserable, and while my forebears have no doubt looked upon my perseverance from their sedately appointed heavenly quarters with the closest they can come to a smile, I have decided to reclaim the joys of quitting.


The year I began knitting I also earned an MFA in poetry and then quit writing poetry. I returned to it many years later, and while there’s plenty about being an emerging writer with wrinkles that I don’t love, I don’t regret having quit that, either. My MFA experience, while positive in some ways, ultimately served to turn me off of the form—I no longer felt that poetry was necessary, and if it was, then I was not necessary to poetry. So for seven or so years, I simply lived—not as a writer but just as a person, navigating and amassing the kinds of experiences that suck us in: marriage and career and babies and sickness and 5Ks and deaths and debt. For several years, the weight of it all threatened to silence me under so many waves until one day an acquaintance at a party threw a life saver and I caught it and it was poetry.

I started writing slowly again, having panic attacks every few poems. I wrote terrible, clunky chunks, garblings I could not show to anyone. But then I started to find value in the making, the crafting, the weaving and suddenly there was joy. Writing! Writing had saved me!

I don’t know where my writing would be, what my voice would be, had I not quit years before. Maybe it would be stronger, less messy, lean and ghost-like. But I don’t care. For me, removing myself from both poetry and even thinking of myself as a poet meant that when I came back to it, I did so with clarity and context. I don’t take myself seriously though I take writing seriously. Years of crappy, humiliating jobs and disappointments tend to beat the pretension out of you, and that’s a perspective I want my poetry to reveal. That’s a truth that being away from poetry has helped me to understand.

In the penultimate episode of the television show “Mad Men,” a main character diagnosed with terminal cancer decides not to fight it simply because she’s expected to, because it’s the show we’re supposed to put on. She defends her decision by saying that she’s fought for plenty in her life and feels blessed to know when to give up, when to move on. I’m not using cancer as a metaphor, even a fictionalized depiction of cancer, because cancer is an asshole that has taken people I love, but rather it’s the attitude of the character that’s instructive. We stand to gain much when we quit, when we strip our lives down of struggle. Most of life is a fight, for food and jobs and parking spaces and love, so why put voluntarily put ourselves in the path of conflicts we can avoid? We can’t quit everything or everyone who drags us down, but we also often don’t allow ourselves the chance to see what we really can cut out.

I say: be a quitter. Release yourself of expectations in order to see what other opportunities that empty space attracts.

Maybe my surrendering knitting and its sister crafts allowed for other creativity to creep back in. Maybe accepting that while I had no knack for knitting, writing for me was a different kind of difficult, not a chore but challenge. I now understand that when I quit poetry before, I did so without ever having really, really worked at it. In my wondrously packed life, there’s little time to take things up as a whim, and so writing again was a decision, creativity handled logically. If you’d asked me ten years ago why I wrote poetry, I couldn’t have given you much of answer. After our reconciliation, I now can, but I think I’ll quit here because I want to and because I have a poem to write.