A Ramble Toward the Meaning of Yule

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about the horror of Black Friday. In case you live under a rock–or in a country that worships capitalism less than the United States–this is the Friday after (the American) Thanksgiving. It’s long been considered the real start of the Christmas Season in this country, and for years has been acknowledged as the “biggest shopping day” of the year. In more recent times–I’m thinking within the last twenty years, because I don’t remember it being such a huge thing before that, but it could have begun sooner–it’s become a cultural meme for rabid materialism, as retailers offer rock bottom prices and push their Friday hours toward ever earlier start times, requiring workers to service hordes of deal-hungry customers instead of enjoying a peaceful holiday at home.

During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to my friend that I don’t have anything in particular against shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving as long as it starts AFTER Thanksgiving. That day is the source of many of my few good memories of my childhood, because my family always went down to the big department store in downtown Detroit, Hudson’s (which I believe is now out of business), where they had a wonderful Christmas maze leading to a visit with Santa Claus. My friend responded that she hates Christmas with a passion for numerous valid reasons: The materialism, the hypocrisy of a holiday supposedly celebrating the birth of a person whose message was one of peace and love (in whom she doesn’t believe anyway, being an atheist) being turned into a capitalist orgy, the sappy messages and moralizing and their striking contrast to the way many people are really treated, and Santa Claus himself, whom she thinks is the creepiest fictional character ever.

We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.
We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.

I get all of that, and I even share a lot of my friend’s opinions. Still, I love Yule. It’s my favorite of the eight major seasonal holidays of the Pagan calendar–which is pretty odd, because when I was a kid, it was about the most traumatic time of the year for me. But even then there were things I loved about it. I’ve always loved ritual, theater, and spectacle, and in the Presbyterian church of my childhood, Christmas was the only holiday where any of these were in evidence. I loved being allowed to set up the Nativity scene, both at my father’s church and at home. I loved the evergreen decorations, bringing down the boxes of candles and figurines we only saw once a year. Opening them and finding the perfect place for each one. I loved the ritual foods that appeared during the winter: cookies and pecan rolls, boxes of fruit from parishioners who had moved to Florida and California, sausages and cheeses, choco0late and nuts. Most of all, I loved decorating the tree, which is the lone activity I remember us doing as a family. I loved seeing the ornaments and hearing their stories, from the gorgeous blown-glass balls, to the mess of glitter and string I made in kindergarten, to the hideous fish that always got hung on the far side of the tree “for the cats.” And always, I loved giving gifts more than receiving them. To get in touch with the spirit of the person for whom I shopped, to remember what they liked and what they didn’t, to bring to mind offhand mentions of interesting items, and then to put all that energy into finding the perfect present. To see the smile that told me I had succeeded in reaching something unique, when the present was opened. For me, the winter holiday has always been about connection.

Okay, I was a very weird kid. And sure, I liked getting presents and I got overstimulated and threw tantrums, and behaved as expected for a child. Still, I remember going into the Hudson’s kids’ shopping area with an envelope of cash pinned to my coat and a list in my hand, and perusing the wares. Wondering if my mom would like the blue velvet cat with the perfume bottle–was that her? And my dad, what would speak to him?

One thing I value about the Pagan path I follow is that it allows, and even encourages, a person to keep the things of personal value and let go of the rest. Michael and I have developed our own rituals for the Yule season over the years, and we keep them up as time, resources, and varying stress levels permit. Many of them are not so different from the rituals of my childhood, but one thing that is different is that we try to maintain an awareness of the symbolism of each act, knowing that interacting with symbols is a way of making magic and unexpected things can come from interacting with symbols unknowing.

Historically speaking, most cultures participate in some holiday to mark the time when the days stop getting shorter and begin getting longer once more. Of course, this tradition would have no meaning in equatorial climes, but as one gets closer to the poles it becomes not only desirable but necessary. I remember winters in Michigan as times of unending dark and bone-penetrating cold, and I’m sure that without the assurance that the year would turn and summer come again, as represented by the winter holiday season, I would have gone quite mad. (Madder than I am.) Modern Paganism has a lot of myth and tradition from which to draw, part of it conflicting with other parts–but for this one time of year, that seems much less important than at others. The more powers you can enlist to combat the Winter Dark, the better, I say.

The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.
The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.

At the Winter Solstice, Yule, we (in the Northern Hemisphere) might say the Goddess, who represents Earth and Nature, has given birth to the God, who represents the sun. Many Pagans have reinterpreted the crêche, or Nativity Scene, as a tribute to the She who labors alone to bear the one who is Her son and will become her lover, husband, and sacrifice. I’ve been collecting figures for my own Nativity for years, but I haven’t yet found a goddess icon that speaks to me. I do have Obi-Wan Kenobi for one of the wise men, however. The crêche provides an important meditation tool and connecting point to the energy of renewal, which is part and parcel of the Yule season. By considering the journey of each figure, one can internalize the differing ways the change of seasons might affect those of different backgrounds and even species. Here, Pagan practice, not being limited by a story in a sacred book, can allow a person to pick the figures she needs to participate in the sun’s rebirth, in order to learn the appropriate lessons. For example, the shepherd of Christian tradition might be less valuable to a modern Pagan than a schoolteacher, who might see the turn of the year as a time to put aside mistakes made in the autumn and embark on new, more successful, ways of imparting information.

The Holly King
The Holly King

We might also honour the Holly King, another god form who can both protect creatures from the dangers of winter and bring killing ice (in some fairy tales, he appears as King Frost). The cold and dark have their own lessons to impart, one of them being that everything happens in its season and even the land needs time to recover from the productive months of summer. Sometimes we talk about the epic battle between the Holly King of Winter and the Oak King of Summer, which occurs the day after the longest night (Spoiler: The Oak King wins). The British tradition of Hunting the Wren is emblematic of this battle; wrens are associated with the Holly King, and they nest in the same areas robins do later in the year. By driving out the wrens, the hunters symbolically make way for summer by clearing the nesting grounds for summer’s birds.

Of course, we love the lights and the evergreen, both of which have symbolic value. Evergreen, which appears to live through times when everything else dies, is a symbol of hope and a sign that not all things succumb to the cold. Keeping lights burning through the dark, especially on the longest night, encourages the sun to return by sympathetic magic. It’s the same idea as that behind the Yule Log. And yes, we do know that the sun is going to return whether we keep the lights burning or not. Knowledge doesn’t diminish the impact of the act. Keeping the lights going helps put us in touch with those who came before us, who might have been less assured of the sun’s return. We can imagine our ancestors gathering in a drafty hall, tending the fire that was the only thing standing between them and death by cold, and the imagining gives us a better appreciation of the thin line between light and warmth versus cold and death. I’m sorry to say this is one tradition my household has become rather lax at keeping in recent times. We used to keep a fire burning in the hearth all night, and stay up all night to tend it. We also used to use nothing but candles from sundown on the Longest Night until sunup on the next morning. Since we moved into a house without a fireplace, our symbolic fire is a single candle which we burn only on Yule. And lately we use electricity through that night. The fires are something I’d like to get back to, some day.

The ritual I treasure most these days is the feast. Every year, no matter how poor we are or how little we’re in the mood, we have our Yule goose with all the trimmings at sunset on the Longest Night. Part of the reason I relate to the feast so much is, a feast in the dead of winter carries the same weight it always has. To eat the best of what you have put by at the season when you’re least likely to be able to replenish your stores is an act of trust, an act of faith. Now that I think about it, the entire Yule holiday is a celebration of those two things: trust and faith. We trust that life will improve. We have faith we’ll live to see the sun. We open our hearts to the stranger, give to those less fortunate, acknowledge difficulties past and celebrate successes to come. It’s funny to me that this holiday bears so much meaning to me, since I do not consider myself either a very trusting person or one whose faith is particularly strong. But this one time of year, I can find it in myself to believe. And it’s this belief in the goodness of the world and this trust in the dependability of nature, whether or not it results in personal gratification, that sustains me through the bad times and helps me stand against rampant materialism, ignorance, and injustice. Not just in a particular holiday season,  but all through the year.

May light and life bless all creatures, of every species, and of all religions or none.

So Mote It Be.


We Still Have A Long Way To Go

For the last few days, I’ve been nursing a cold. This always makes me cranky, because I have an active mind and feeling foggy and unable to exercise my mind due to some whim of my body frustrates me no end. I get discouraged about life in general and the fact that despite the best I can do in the promotional department, my books aren’t selling the way I would like. Anyway, earlier in the day I was chatting with a friend about the difficulties of self-publishing, and how there’s still a stigma around it despite the fact that many in various segments of the book industry–authors, editors, and agents–now support self-publishing as a valid path. The conversation reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in March of 2013, so I decided to reprint it here.

Another Dig At Independent Authors

Ran across This Blog Post the other day. In the main, it talks about how the publishing world is out to screw authors (for more about this, See Here), and how many professional associations purporting to support authors–e.g., the SWFA and the HWA–have membership restrictions that are far too narrow for this day and age.

All of that, I agree with and applaud. Thanks for saying all this, Elizabeth Donald.

But then. Then the author feels compelled to make a dig at independent authors:

“Here’s the other danger of a kerfuffle like this: aspiring writers will look at this and say, ‘Screw all the publishers. I can bop onto Amazon right now and put my novella up for the Kindle. If I’ve got to pay for the thing to get published at Random House, then I’ll just pay CreateSpace or Lulu to do it, then I get to keep all the money!’

First: don’t. Just don’t. I’m begging you.”

(Editor’s Note: By the way, I’m not sure Donald did her research here.  You don’t have to pay anything to publish through CreateSpace, and Lulu only requires you to purchase proof copies. Both companies do offer services you can buy–anything from editing to book and cover design packages.  But neither technically charges anything for you to publish, unlike some other POD companies or so-called “vanity” presses.)

She goes on to tell you the things that you really need from a traditional publisher, because you poor, ignorant saps who self-publish obviously will not take the time to research how to make your work the best it can be. Because you all sit around in your bathtubs thinking up great stories that you never edit, and you’re so in love with your idea of yourself as A WRITER that you lose any capacity for self-criticism.

Here’s my “favourite” quote:

“You are not a special snowflake who created the Great American Novel the first time out, and it’s a brilliant stroke of lightning sure to outsell Fifty Shades of Grey, because that was a piece of shit.”

Condescend, much?

I am the first to admit that there are many self-published authors out there who really should have stuck to selling used cars. I have done some beta reading for people intending to self-publish that just had me shaking my head. But the kind of attitude Donald shows in her blog only serves to perpetuate a stereotype that does a disservice to authors of ALL stripes. I know a great many independent authors who work harder and know more than any traditionally-published author I can name. We are hard on ourselves. We constantly question the quality of our work on all fronts. We read with a critical eye, hunting for writing that moves us and looking for the reasons it does. We enlist intelligent readers–editors, writing professors, critics and the like–to beta our work and tell us truthfully what they think. We make changes where we need to.

We do not simply upload the first thing that comes out of our heads because being published would be cool. This is our career. Credit us with some measure of professional pride, please. And if you needed a traditional publisher to teach you the basics of sentence structure, well, that’s your problem. Not ours.

When I read stuff like this, particularly from small-press authors, what I think of is Poor White Crackers who go around saying, “I may not be rich, but at least I ain’t no nigger.” You may not publish with a major label that gives you a huge advance, but at least you’re not (shudder of horror) one of those.

It’s demeaning. And it’s bad for everyone in a business that already treats writers as poorly as it can manage.

Writers–ALL writers–need to stick together and stop playing the hierarchy games. We need to support each other, not throw labels and tired stereotypes around. That’s is the only way we can achieve a modicum of power in an industry that eats its own young as a matter of course.

Things have changed in the industry since I wrote this post. Many organizations have begun to recognize self-published authors as the professionals we are, and now offer different membership options. Options based on earning rather than advances, for example. Some of them require total earnings from self-published authors that are rather higher than most can expect to achieve, but it’s a step in the right direction.

We still have a long way to go, however. People who love books and their ability to give us access to realities not our own, previously unimagined worlds, or simply to provide a means of escape for a few hours or days, are at odds with each other in many forums. Writers of “Adult” literature dis YA. Men who write Science Fiction and Fantasy give less credence to women in the genre. Romance is dismissed as less valid and valuable than “serious” work. Traditionally published authors look down on self-published and Independent authors for being lazy and producing work lacking in quality, and self-published authors attack traditionally published authors for bowing to “the gatekeepers.” Booksellers and reviewers dismiss certain works and laud others for what seem spurious reasons. And the list goes on. Personally, I see much of this as a reaction of fear in the face of a changing industry, where no one knows what’s going to happen next or whether his livelihood is going to vanish with the next radical shift. As such, it’s understandable. But fear and the reactions it provokes are rarely helpful. Most often, the impulse to protect what we have at all cost prevents us from coming together and supporting each other through difficult times. It hurts everyone, and in the long run, it hurts you as well.

In her speech at the national book awards, Ursula K. LeGuin said:

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

(She said a bunch of other incredibly relevant stuff, too. So if you haven’t, just go read her speech for yourself.)

I’ve been around for a while. I’ve been a reader almost my entire life, and a writer of some sort very nearly as long. I’ve watched various independent publishers in all genres, whose staff were generally motivated by the love of books and who were willing to take a chance on new and challenging voices, get absorbed by larger, profit-motivated companies until five or six corporations virtually control everything the public has access to. And yes, I do realize that every business is to some degree motivated by profit. And I certainly do not intend to cast aspersions at or diminish the contributions of all the agents, editors, and publishers in the traditional industry. But it concerns me deeply when it seems that a skillful practice of the art I love has less importance in the current environment than potential profit; when the market gets flooded with books in a popular genre until everyone gets tired of it and it becomes a “difficult sell” despite originality or quality; when–excuse my hyperbole–fame and fortunes get built upon the backs of those who create “the product,” and the likelihood of those creators benefiting in any measurable way is slim. It upsets me that a wonderful book may never see print because the author doesn’t have the–completely different–skill of expressing his point in a 140-character pitch or 250-word query, in a way that will make an agent or editor take interest. (And in case you wonder whether this is sour grapes on my part, I DO have that skill, and I have worked hard to develop it. I didn’t choose self-publishing for lack of traditional interest.) I loathe the fact that agents and editors are so overworked that they rarely have the time to savor submissions or the ability to take a chance on an interesting new voice that might just need a helping hand.

And, of course, I realize I have a one-sided view of the whole process. When I wonder how much you can really know about a 100,000-word novel from a 250-word query, I also remember that when I was a DJ, I could make a decision on whether I wanted to air a song from previewing the first ten seconds.

In the end, I have no words of wisdom, no sweeping resolution to offer other than this: Publishing is changing, and it will continue to change. If we want the changes to carry us in the direction we would prefer, all of us who love books and believe stories have a value beyond their profitability as a commodity need to support each other in moving the industry forward along the path we’d have it follow. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. And in that respect, we still have a long way to go.

The Way of Me


My Spirituality and Welcome To It

After I wrote my first post on my particular, peculiar belief system (My Path to the Craft, published, appropriately enough, on Samhain), certain people noticed a glaring omission in the content. I. E., while I gave a rather detailed account of HOW I came to believe what I do, I never said what I actually believe.

Damn. Not going to let me get away with that, are you?

Okay, fine. What I believe. Um.

Can’t you all just read my books for a general idea?

While I acquired a number of unusual notions about religion and spirituality early on and from various sources–for example, I first started thinking about reincarnation after reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, because how does that NOT make sense?–the main thing that drew me to identify as Pagan and a Witch was the idea of God as a Woman. Being a budding feminist in my early twenties, and having come from a family that practiced unconscious sexism as a matter of course, internalizing that many cultures had throughout history (and a few in the present day) given women’s experience equal weight in matters of the divine was a huge revelation for me. I mean, I’d always KNOWN it. As a senior in high school, I wrote an analysis of Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a conflict between masculine and feminine deities. I had no idea what I was talking about, but I somehow managed to pull it off. It wasn’t until later, though, that the idea became any more than an abstract concept. It made sense to me on a deep level. I’d never really accepted the standard Judeo-Christian construct of God as some old, bearded, white guy on a golden throne in the sky. I didn’t understand how that was supposed to work. I REALLY didn’t understand why we were supposed to worship this being or why he would care. Once I asked my dad, “If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why do we have to prove we’re faithful by going to church? Doesn’t he already know if we’re good or not?” (No, I never really cared about standard questions of why an all-powerful, benevolent God would allow evil. Gods are gods; who can tell why they do what they do? I was always way more concerned with the relationship.)

“Of COURSE it’s a good idea!”

Well, anyway. I really loved the idea of Goddess. God being a woman and concerned with women’s things. What would a male god know about childbirth? Pregnancy? Fear of being alone? Menstruation? Boobs? Finding an appropriate dress for every occasion? All these things that women are brought up to believe have less validity than “manly” concerns suddenly become sacred when a goddess is concerned. When the female is just as sacred as the male, WOMEN STOP BEING DISPOSABLE. This was something I could get behind.

I also could get behind the idea of immanent deity. If this is new to you, immanence is the quality of being present. An immanent deity is one present and involve in the world rather than removed from it (“transcendent,” in other words). Most of the religions people are familiar with worship a transcendent god and place a high value on transcendence. What this means is, their god is removed from the world and worldly concerns, and a high value is placed on non-earthly things like the afterlife, abstract thought, and unattainable goals. When you have an immanent deity, your point of view changes. Your gods are dirty and messy and concerned with practical things. Since your gods are present in the earth, the earth becomes sacred. You no longer have the ability to think, “Nothing here matters because getting to Heaven is the true goal.” Your actions on the earth and the way you treat the earth gain importance.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying transcendence is necessarily wrong. The ability to transcend trouble and pain is a good skill to learn. And many non-Abramic religions practice a combination of transcendence and immanence. (An Abramic religion is one of those based on early Hebrew texts, like Judaism, Christianity, and, as I understand it, Islam, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this last one.)

Okay, so I liked having goddesses and I liked the idea of immanent deity. But I didn’t want to shut out male gods either. It seemed to me both were necessary. This led me straight away to Wicca, which is the Pagan religion most people are probably familiar with. Wicca was basically founded in the 50s by a man named Gerald Gardner, who claimed at the time that he was revealing a religion that had been secretly practiced in the British Isles since prehistoric times. These claims have since been debunked; Gardner mainly took his ideas from the spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, combined them with popular notions of what Witchcraft should look like that reached back to Medieval times, and gave them street cred by attaching his ideas to the notion of a long-standing tradition. (Short story. If you want a longer, scholarly take, look here.)

DISCLAIMER #2: I have no particular problem with Gerald Gardner or his system. Nor do I blame him (or anyone, really) for claiming a longstanding tradition. In the first place, a lot of the main ideas of Wicca can be traced pretty far back. In the second, generally speaking to get a religion taken even halfway seriously, it’s simply necessary to connect it with something old because people have this need to think of religion as something handed down from time immemorial by people with special skills and/or wisdom regular folks don’t have. I personally don’t subscribe to this view, and I’m quite comfortable with someone following a religion she invented yesterday because it spoke to her. But whatever.

Wicca is a specific religion with a specific doctrine. A lot of Wiccans will dispute this, because part of the dogma of this dogma-less religion is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There’s no holy book and no standard liturgy. Rituals and practices can change as necessary. And all this is true, but from a comparative religions point of view (and yes, I took several classes on this), a religion MUST have a doctrine to be considered a religion at all. That is, there is a common set of beliefs that set it apart from other religions. The doctrine of Wicca sets it apart from other Pagan religions like Heathenism, which is Norse-influenced, or Native and Indigenous systems. Wicca is a dualistic religion which worships a goddess and a god who work together and have different roles. Generally speaking, these female and male deities are non-specific and unnamed; mostly they’re referred to as The Mother Goddess and The Horned God. A Wiccan ritual takes a specific shape and always includes certain elements (“casting a circle ” by calling on the four directions, invoking the goddess and/or god, completing a symbolic action, etc. I’ll probably write a separate blog about the shape of ritual later). Wiccans use a particular set of magical tools, each of which is associated with one of the four directions. Generally speaking, the goddess is seen as more powerful than the god. Wiccans keep eight major holidays, known as Sabbats, and may keep any number of lesser ones, known as esbats. They believe in the “threefold law:” Whatever you do returns to you three times, for good or evil. They also attempt to live by the “Wiccan Rede:” And it harm none, do as you will. And so on.

witchcraft meme

Wiccans usually meet in small groups which may or may not be known as covens. Some traditions keep to a strict number–13 is common, for obvious reasons. The group is most often led by a High Priestess acting in conjunction with a High Priest; they represent the goddess and the god, respectively. Offices are usually not permanent, but pass through the coven members as time, ability, necessity, and other influences require. There’s a lot of fluidity in the system, with some groups having standard rituals for particular occasions, and some writing new rituals or improvising them every time.

As I said, I started as Wiccan. I was High Priestess of a Wiccan coven for a time. It’s a stressful and strenuous job. After that year, I didn’t have much interest in doing that again. My husband (who had, incidentally, been the High Priest of my coven) and I moved to rural Colorado to start a new chapter in our lives. We sometimes passed along our…I guess I need to call it wisdom, although making a claim to wisdom gives me an upset stomach…to other interested parties and invited others to rituals. But mostly we practiced alone or with each other. And our beliefs evolved.

I still consider myself a Witch, but I no longer can call myself Wiccan. I can’t relate to the idea of one goddess who is all goddesses and one god who is all gods anymore. I have become a straight polytheist. All gods and goddesses under all their myriad shapes and names are real in my cosmology. I have a particular few to whom I am close. They speak to me more clearly and more often than others. I have to admit, this is a bit unnerving for several reasons. Not so much because I feel deities speak to me, but because I’ve never much approved of mixing pantheons. Some Pagans will invoke a god name and a goddess name from any old system–a Greek healing god and an Irish healing Goddess together, for example. And this had always bothered me, because I see deities as individuals, as much as people are. In fact, thinking all deities are the same and can be invoked at whim, without paying attention to their individuality, strikes me as a kind of racism. But here my particular patrons are a Greek wine god, a Norse goddess of magic, and a Yoruban fertility goddess. They seem to get along most of the time.

It’s not that I don’t believe in other gods. I just don’t talk to them. You might hear pagans saying, “We’re not Satanists! We don’t even believe in Satan!” That’s not true for me. Sure, I believe Satan probably exists. There’s been too much energy put into that thought form for it not to have validity. But I don’t talk to him. He’s not relevant to me. I doubt he ever will be. Not someone I want to get to know.

Actually, “belief” is beside the point for me. Starhawk has a great answer to the question, “Do you really believe in the goddess?” She says, “Do you believe in rocks?” That’s what deity is like for me. A part of the world. Self-evident. No belief required. It just is.

This year's Samhain altar
This year’s Samhain altar

I do still keep the major holidays, the sun feasts and the cross-quarters. Kind of. I don’t feel any pressure to do so, but I recognize the shift in energy as the seasons move through their dance, and I feel the…actions appropriate to the time of year changing, transforming one into the next. Sometimes I practice magic and sometimes I don’t. Depends on what I need. If you’re curious about magic, I plan to do a separate post about it some other time, but here’s a brief introduction to how I use it. Aleister Crowley defined magic as “The Art of shifting consciousness at will.” I always thought, “Well, that’s very nice, but why?” I’m all about the why. Plus, I’ve never had any trouble shifting consciousness, seeing things in a different way. For me, magic, performing a ritual or doing a spell, is about engaging in a set of symbolic actions that interact with my subconscious on a deep level and thus influence my ability to make a change in my environment. A teacher of mine used to say, “Don’t do a spell to lose weight. Do a spell to empower yourself to get what you want.” Practical magic works a little bit like cognitive therapy or behavior modification, but it’s more fun. In my experience, it’s also more likely to work, because you can trick your subconscious into making changes your conscious mind would find scary or threatening.

I believe in the Unseen World. I believe there are many entities that are present, that may influence our lives on a daily basis, even, who don’t necessarily want to appear to us. That’s okay with me. I don’t need to know. I believe these beings might be divine or might be spirits or might be faeries, and we CANNOT expect them to act as humans might or have the same values we do. If you want to interact with them, for gods’ sake get to know them first. We simply CANNOT assume faeries are friendly, helpful, and sparkly. No more can we assume that about angels. Remember, angels are the ones YHWH always sent to destroy cities with fire.

To me, the most sacred thing is what I call That-Which-Is. This encompasses…everything. Earth and the stars, life and death, good and evil, male and female and everything in between. The totality of everything that exists as well as the empty spaces. This is sacred, this is divine, but it’s NOT a god. It’s too big to grasp. To be useful, a god has to be someone you can relate to. Some people might take offense at the idea of gods needing to be useful. To me, it simply makes sense. We create the gods we need, and they create us. Personally, I think it’s a never-ending cycle, and where it began I have no idea. I don’t much care about ultimate beginnings. But deities have their lives and their deaths, just like anything else.

I don’t feel a need to prove myself. Religion, to me, is personal. I don’t need anyone to believe what I believe in. I don’t need group support to give my reality validity.

So, that’s a little bit more about where I came from and what I believe. I’m happy to entertain respectful questions in the comments. I also am completely fine with blocking assholes, so don’t be one, okay?

“It’s Just Who I Am”

“It’s Just Who I Am.”  I don’t think any of us reaches adulthood without hearing these words from someone in our circle. Someone close, someone not so close. Sometimes the form is different: “It’s just the way I am,” or “I can’t help it,” or “That’s the way I roll,” or any number of permutations of the same concept. And if you’re like most people, you shrug, and accept it, and move on.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit.

Please don’t get me wrong. I work hard at being non-judgmental and accepting of people’s little idiosyncrasies. This one flips my switch, however. It flips my switch because people usually trot it out when you confront them on a behaviour that they could change without a whole lot of trouble. They just don’t want to. So they tell you “It’s just who I am” to deflect criticism and give themselves an excuse not to take responsibility. And because we have an ingrained unwillingness in our modern culture to confront and challenge, particularly when it’s a matter of internal reality and identity, we let them get away with it. Generally to our own detriment.

This pisses me off.

I had this friend. Not a super close friend, but someone I interacted with on a regular basis. Someone I’ve tried my best to support through various family difficulties. Someone with whom I’ve shared jokes and commiserated over the suckier aspects of life. She’s a person with a personality quite different from mine. I wouldn’t say “diametrically opposed,” but close. This person likes to tease and poke fun. Most often it’s a harmless quirk. Friends share inside jokes and stupid gags and mock each other, and it’s all good as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. But this friend sometimes loses track of what’s out of hand and what isn’t. She pushes things and takes them too far. There’s been more than one occasion when I’ve had to take her aside and say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And she’s responded pretty well, with a “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll give it a rest.”

So I didn’t expect it to be any different the last time I asked her to back off. But it was.

It was a couple weeks ago. I’d been having a string of bad days. By bad days I don’t just mean those days when you’re kind of blue; I mean the days when getting out of bed is a struggle because you can’t see any reason to even try interacting with the world, because it seems like no matter how hard you work, you can’t change a damn thing. The days when everything you’ve ever done and ever will do seems doomed to failure. When you feel ugly and irredeemable in your very soul.

I’m going to pause for a minute here and emphasize the importance of “ugly.” There’s a lot of talk in  feminist communities these days–well, there always has been, but like any fashion it’s come around again–about the pressure women feel to be beautiful, and how we need to reclaim ugliness and have it be okay not to be pretty and what-not. I’m down with that, except when it extends to people complaining about campaigns that put forth the notion that “everyone is beautiful,” because “WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL? YOUR TELLING ME I’M BEAUTIFUL IS OPPRESSING ME!” (Please hold comments on this particular tangent; it’s another blog post.) But my truth is that beauty is important to me. I grew up from about the age of five hearing on a daily basis how ugly I was. I got called “dog,” hag,” “fat cow,” and pretty much every appearance slur imaginable every day. People made barfing noises behind me when I walked down the hall at school; they barked; they mooed. They said, “TASTY!” with that particular Grosse Pointe inflection of sarcasm that told you they meant anything but. And whether it’s social or whether it’s personal, I understood I had no value because I was ugly. I didn’t qualify as a human being. I would never be worth of love. I might be abandoned and left to die alone somewhere, because people couldn’t stand to look at me. And this is a belief system I struggle with to this day, every day.

So this day a couple weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch, intermittently checking in on Twitter looking for something to distract me from feeling like utter shit. And I saw this friend had tweeted about buying chunky peanut butter instead of creamy, and how it was so awful because chunky peanut butter is gross. And I, having a preference for chunky peanut butter myself, responded to this lament with “Creamy peanut butter is the Devil.” Meaning it as a joke, as you do.

A few seconds later, my phone beeped; my friend had responded. This is what she said:

“Your FACE is the Devil!”

Since I am familiar with this friend’s habit of teasing, it didn’t really surprise me, although it seemed an extreme reaction. But it wasn’t something I could really cope with on a day when I was struggling, and it–of course–triggered all my stuff about appearance. So I told my friend,

“I’m having a bad time and I didn’t really need to hear that today.”

In a minute, she came back with, “Oh, hun, you know I think you’re beautiful and I don’t mean anything by it.”

And you know, that ticked me off. Because I would have liked to hear something more like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t know you were having a rough time.” Instead of being told, in essence, “I don’t care about your rough time and you just have to cope.” So I tweeted her and said,

“For future reference, please, I really don’t like being teased about my appearance. It hurts.”

She responded one more time: “Understood.”

And I never heard from her again. I thought at the time that her final tweet had been somewhat brusque. But I wasn’t on-line much the rest of the day, and I don’t always interact with the same people even when I am. So I didn’t think anything about her distance until the next morning. I noticed it because it was a Friday, and this friend was pretty awesome about promoting writers in our circle. I saw that she had tweeted about a couple others of our friends, recommending their books and blogs and whatnot. But she hadn’t mentioned me. And it hurt; I felt neglected and envious. I didn’t like to think that she was trying to punish me for calling her out, but that’s what it felt like. I told myself not to be so sensitive and tried interacting with her, replying to a couple of questions she posted and all.

She ignored me. She ignored me all day, and that evening, thinking, “Oh, no, you didn’t,” I checked her profile to see that she had unfollowed me.

That made me really, really angry. I thought, “Fine, if you’re going to be like that,” and unfollowed her in return. I asked a couple people if they had any idea what was going on, and no one did. I thought I might try to address it later, when I calmed down. But every time I remembered it, I got angry again. Finally, about a week later, I messaged one of my other friends and asked her if she would be willing to see what was up? Because I really wanted to know if it was what I thought or if there was something else going on. My friend was willing. And this is the answer she got:

“I’m not someone who can hurt others in good conscience. It hurts ME incredibly. My only option then was to avoid hurting her further. And I can’t change who I am. This is me. I can’t act differently. So if by being me I hurt her and I can’t change who I am…the decision was one of avoiding causing another person pain.”

Wow. There are so many problems with this, I almost can’t even. In the first place, so your problem was being told you had done something hurtful in words. Did you not know? You’re not stupid, so I have to assume that you DO know, but as long as no one said, “This hurts,” you could ignore it. In the second place, how in the world do you imagine that disappearing without any explanation and refusing to discuss it WASN’T hurtful? You left me wondering what the fuck had happened, wondering if I had done something horrible I had no clue about. Yeah, I felt really good about that. Oh, right–you can’t address the issue because it might be hurtful. Fuck that. Getting stitches hurts, but sometimes it’s necessary.

And then there’s the last thing: “I can’t change who I am.” You know, I can almost accept that having a teasing mode of interaction is part of your integral makeup. But I cannot believe that the freedom to be able to make jabs at another person’s appearance is SO essential to you on a deep soul level that you would rather write off an entire friendship than take a look at that, yo. The reasonable reaction would have been to say, “Okay, Kele doesn’t like being teased about her appearance. Check. I’ll try to remember that.”

The only reason to play the “It’s just who I am” card is that you KNOW this behavior is questionable and you want a good excuse to refuse responsibility for it. You don’t want to do the work, because preserving your dysfunction is more important to you than your friends. Nice job not being hurtful.

I’ve done therapy on and off for thirty-five years, and you know what? You don’t get to play that card if you want to grow. There IS NO “Just who I am.” The collection of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences and all that make up “who I am” is constantly shifting, fluid, and subject to change. You don’t want to make that change, fine. But own up to it, for gods’ sake. Otherwise you’re just wasting the time and energy of everyone who’s trying to be in a relationship with you.

This post is harsh, and I am afraid to publish it. I’m afraid because everyone else in our circle still associates with this person, and everyone will know who I mean. But I’ve never been any good at ignoring the elephant in the living room. I’ve never been good at making nice and keeping up appearances, especially where hypocrisy is involved. These days, when I see that people have retweeted stuff my former friend has said about “being a people pleaser” or posting memes about how “I’ll always have your back,” and it’s all I can do not to explode. Not to say, “Stop lying to yourself. You’re not a people pleaser. You please yourself, and your sense of guilt comes from being dishonest about it.” Not to say, “Sure, you’ll always have a friend’s back until they ask you to face something you don’t want to and you run away like a coward.”

I’m hoping publishing this blog will help me let go and move on. It may take a while, but I expect it will. I’m hoping it won’t let me in for censure from those who think I should have kept it to myself. If I do get flak for it, I expect I will learn to be okay with that, too.

But one thing I’m going to make perfectly clear: I’m not a challenging person because it’s “just the way I am.” If I wanted to, I could have chosen not to speak these thoughts. It would have been difficult, and it would have taken a longer time for me to get past them. But I could have done it. I choose to speak up because it’s healthier for me, because I understand that no one grows by being comfortable, and because I get to have a point of view that people might not like.

And how did I respond to finding out this friend valued her insensitive remarks more than she did our friendship? Two words:

“Her loss.”

Enemies or Allies?

Not more than an hour ago, I returned home from a weekend in the closest city, where I met an on line friend for the first time. We talked writing a bunch, shared life stories, ate in nifty restaurants, drank a lot, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The hotel was lovely, with a friendly staff who expressed an interest in having us back for a more full-fledged writing retreat (several of our other writing friends were supposed to come to this one, but their lives intervened and we ended up being the only two who could make it).

All in all, it was a great experience. However, one unpleasant incident early on stuck with me. Most of the time I managed not to think about it or let it bother me. But in quiet moments alone, I couldn’t help going over and over it, the way one does, looking at it from all angles and trying to figure out if it could have gone any differently. If I should have reacted any other way, said something else. Or just mentally shouting all the swear words I didn’t say out loud.

In this nearest city to my rural Colorado home, a few blocks from the hotel where we stayed, there’s a small, independent bookstore. I’ve noticed it when we’ve been in town before, and I’ve always thought, “Oh, I should stop in there some day and see if they’re interested in carrying my books.” I am, after all, a local author, and lots of bookstores do. Even the Barnes and Noble in this city does. This time, knowing I was going to be in town for an extended period, and having a few print copies on hand, I decided to go in and talk to the manager. I packed up my books and brought them along–although I left them behind for the initial contact, and it turned out to be a good thing I did.

It was a brilliant Saturday afternoon–the weather all weekend was just about perfect, and it’s only now we’re home that clouds are rolling in from the mountains to hint at the season’s first real snow.  Downtown was quite active and crowded; a Veterans’ day parade was planned for later in the day. But the bookstore, when we walked in, was deserted. And maybe this is hindsight speaking, but I think now that I felt a slight unease, as of being about to breach a wall into hostile territory. If I did think that at the time, like as not I put it down to the fact that I was about to embark on a bit of self-promotion. I’ve gotten better with this over time, but it’s never easy. And, being self-published, I’m never sure how the person I’m approaching is going to react. Most people in publishing these days agree that there are many paths and choosing to self-publish for whatever reason is just as valid as any other. But you never know.

There was one person in the store, obviously an employee, and we found out in short order that she was the owner. When we came in, she was in the back, on the phone. So we waited. In a few minutes, she finished her business, and approached us to ask if she could help us find anything. I started my spiel:

“I’d like to ask you a question, actually. I’m a local Independent author, and…”

She interrupted me. “What do you mean by ‘Independent?'”

This flustered me because, as I said, you never know how people are going to react to the label. She sounded hostile, and my heart sank. I thought, Oh great; she thinks self-published authors are only capable of producing trash and now I have to justify myself. I stiffened my spine and went on, keeping my tone pleasant because, generally speaking, it’s good to be pleasant. I’ve never gotten anywhere responding to hostility with hostility.

“I self publish my books for e reader, and I also have print versions…” I began.

She interrupted me again. “Who do you publish with?”

The question made me wonder if she understood what “self-publishing” actually means, but then I thought, Okay, there are lots of POD services and some of them don’t turn out a great product. So maybe she wants to find out if my books look professional enough for her to be interested.

“I use CreateSpace for my print versions,” I said. “And I take a lot of care to…”

She interrupted me a third time. “I’m not interested. CreateSpace is owned by Amazon. Amazon is terrible for publishing. I don’t order from them They’re trying to put Independent Booksellers out of business.”

Now, at that point I should have simply thanked her for her time and left. But I gave it one more try. “You don’t have to order from Amazon. I have copies I could let you have, on consignment if you want, or just to see how they go.”

“If I sold them, I’d have to reorder from Amazon.” By this point she was fairly spitting. “I don’t sleep with the enemy.”

Well, this was inaccurate, to say the least. If she took my books on consignment and wanted more, she could order more from me directly. And frankly, where I have my books printed isn’t any of her business, particularly as Amazon doesn’t make more than a few cents profit off author copies. I didn’t get a chance to say any of that, though, because she launched into a tirade about the Evil Amazon Empire.

“There are lots of options for people who want to self publish. You can use some other system; you don’t have to go through Amazon and I don’t have to support them,” she said.

O-Kay. Yeah, it may be true that at this point in time there are a lot more options for self publishing that there once were. I’ve investigated many, many avenues, and I’ve tried several of them. When it came right down to it, I went with CreateSpace because it’s easy to use, they turn out a superior product, their customer service is stellar, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, you can do it without spending anything at all, which is a huge consideration for me. With all this in mind, I said,

“Well, I need to make the choices that are best for me. And you need to make the choices that are best for you.”

I was trying so hard to defuse the situation–Angelina later told me I was extremely gracious. But this woman simply would not let it go. My memory is fuzzy on the details of what happened next, but somehow she started talking about traditional publishing, and how traditional publishers support Independent Booksellers, and now everyone orders from the EVIL EMPIRE, and bookstores like hers are an endangered species, and really authors should be concerned about that because without booksellers….

Gods help me, I tried again. “Well,” I said, “there are plenty of problems with traditional publishing, too. It’s not all one thing or another. Mid-list authors are getting cut out in favor of high profit, and publishing houses don’t take the risks they once did on new material. Many places don’t promote any but the high-dollar earners…”

“THAT’S NOT TRUE!” If you’re counting, this was the fourth interruption. “Publishers send out ARCs to bookstore owners like me, and we comment on them and tell them what we like. They do so much for writers and…”

I have to admit at this point I lost track of what she was saying, because the worst trigger I have is someone telling me my experience is invalid. I thought at the time that she probably didn’t believe I had any experience to speak of. I don’t think I was much younger than she was–in fact, I might be older–but I look young. And all that stuff about trad publishing does fall pretty squarely along self-publishing party lines about gatekeepers and all. But once out of the situation, I kept going back to the things I wish I had said right then. Things like, “Excuse me, are you an author?” and “How many manuscripts have you queried?” Things like, “How dare you tell me this isn’t true, when I have spoken to mid-list authors who have had their contracts summarily canceled because they don’t earn at the rate of Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks, when I have sat in a room full of traditionally published authors who have told their stories of asking how their publishers intended to promote their books and the publishers laughed at them and told them promotion was up to them (and maybe if you’re good we’ll throw in some bookmarks)?”

But, you know, I think it’s better to be pleasant. And above all, not to get into an argument that I cannot win, on a topic where I can’t even make an impression.

Eventually this disagreeable person wound down, after reminding me that there used to be all kinds of bookstores and now there are only the big boxes, blah, blah, blah. To which I replied that yes, I knew those bookstores and I know those bookstore owners–in fact, my husband built a house for one of them. And I did NOT say that while Amazon may have had something to do with those bookstores closing, it was not the whole reason for any of them, and I could tell her the other reasons if she liked. Angelina and I left, and about a block farther up the street, Ang turned to me and said, “God, what a fucking bitch! I can’t believe you were so gracious to her.”

And I thought: I sympathize with you, lady. I really do. I understand that publishing is facing a lot of changes right now and it’s scary. I understand that you’re afraid of losing your livelihood, losing a business you care about. But I wonder if it ever occurred to you that the reason you’re doing badly isn’t because of Amazon at all, but because you’re a defensive, pigheaded CUNT? I mean, both Ang and I walked into that store intending to buy books. And both of us walked out empty-handed.

There are certainly problems with Amazon. They’re controlling and greedy in some areas. As we’ve seen in the ongoing Hachette dispute, they are not above using strong-arm tactics in an attempt to muscle publishers into giving them better terms. (Of course, the other side of this is that publishers make a lot of that attractive profit on the backs of authors.) And I’ve heard it’s a terrible company to work for. On the other hand, Amazon sells a lot more than just books, and I haven’t heard of any other business complaining that Amazon is driving them out. As another friend of mine pointed out, it’s Wal-Mart doing that. And though Amazon may be the biggest on-line retailer, and therefore the most visible and the the most convenient target for blame, they are FAR from the only one.

This may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I don’t believe bookstores–real, physical bookstores–are ever going to vanish. Book people love books. They like to go in and browse, and see what’s new, and talk to other people who love books. They like to sit down and leaf through the pages, and smell the perfume of paper and print. You can’t do that browsing Amazon.

I’ve also investigated several independent booksellers who are successful even in these times. They have programs to support self-published and local authors, and although they have certain criteria one must meet–like using a standard trim size, having an ISBN and bar code printed on the cover, and meeting a minimum technical standard in your prose–I have yet to find another with the criterion: Don’t use Amazon as your publisher because they’re evil.

I don’t have a good answer to any of the questions this incident raised. But it seems to me that, to be successful, Independent Booksellers and Independent Authors should work together and support each other rather than shut each other out. And I keep thinking of a truism I’ve heard over and over again since I plunged into the publishing world: It’s a small community. Kindness pays. If you’re an asshole, everyone will learn about it sooner or later, probably to your detriment.

I can’t quite bring myself to think, “Bitch, I HOPE you go out of business!”

But I also can’t help but think that if that bookseller I met over the weekend is unable to adapt, and if she needs to be unpleasant and overbearing to people who are trying to investigate the possibilities of forming a working relationship with her, maybe it’s time to pull up stakes. Not for all Independent Booksellers. Just for her.

Recognizing Toxic Friendships

Last night I stumbled across this Everyday Feminism article on toxic friendships. I ended up sharing it on my Facebook wall–yes, I still call it a wall, not a timeline. So sue me. I say “ended up sharing it” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to at first. I don’t question the writer’s experience, but most of what she said didn’t resonate with me. I don’t believe, for example, that we tend to dismiss toxic friendships because we see friendships as having less validity than romantic relationships. In my experience, the abuse that happens “between friends” is of the subtler variety–emotional rather than physical–and, as such, is harder to credit. I think, too, we actually give friends MORE leeway than we do romantic partners. We’re more apt to excuse toxic behaviors as “an off day,” or “she has a difficult time with criticism” BECAUSE we value our friendships and good, close friends are difficult to come by. I also don’t think negativity is in itself a sign of a toxic relationship, nor is an unequal level of investment.

But toxic friendships are all too common, and it’s all too easy to let them continue much, much too long. So I did share the article, and in the course of discussing it and some of my own take on the subject, one of my friends (Hi, Stef!) suggested I blog about it because she was interested in hearing more about my experience.

I had this friend, and she was toxic, and according to my therapist she nearly killed me. It’s been more than ten years since I cut her out of my life, and I still miss her sometimes. I still wish I hadn’t had to do what I did. I still remember her birthday. And I still don’t quite know how to talk about it.

We’d been friends a long time, twenty-five years. We first met when I was in eighth grade and she was in seventh. Then, she was best friends with a friend of mine’s sister, and as time went on, she became a member of my circle, a group of brilliant, artistic girls who had little use for social convention–or maybe didn’t understand it–and didn’t fit well into the strict class structure of the private school we all attended. Hearing about us later, another friend labeled us “The Original Riot Grrrls.” Maybe we were. It was the 70s, though, and we were all stuck in preppie hell, and we were all targets for bullying and shaming and…well, you get the picture. With one thing and another, we became closer than blood sisters, probably closer than was healthy. We had the shifting alliances and bitter infighting I am given to understand is normal for high-school girls, with all the intensity exponentially magnified by difficult home situations and chronic depression. After high school, the bunch of us split up and saw each other seldom, for one reason and another.

This one friend and I stayed in more regular contact, however. We ended up at the same college, and we were housemates a couple times. When I moved across country, sometimes she’d phone or write. And I was always glad to hear from her; it was always as if we’d never been apart. At the same time, though, whenever we spent any length of time together–I mean more than a couple months–I always ended up hurt and angry. She had these behavioral idiosyncrasies, affected voice and body language, a studied posture of superiority, that set my teeth on edge. But I never saw those things as a real problem, because it was just her way, and besides, I understood who she was under the mask. I understood her deep hurt. I didn’t take it personally, because I knew underneath she was a brilliant, fun, talented, warm person. So we kept enacting the same patterns over and over again.

This should have been my first clue, and I pass it on to you now: If there is a person in your life who keeps doing hurtful things, who doesn’t change, from whom you keep separating and with whom you keep getting back together, for whom you keep making excuses because “You know who they really are underneath,” that person is likely toxic. If you’re always the one trying to fix things and always seem to be the one taking the blame and/or responsibility for problems, you are likely in a toxic relationship.

Later we lost track of each other for years. I heard through my mother that my friend had become engaged, and I figured she had got married and gone off to have her own life. And I regretted a little the loss of friendship, but not enough to go out of my way to pursue it. This should have been my second clue.

A long time later, after I had moved to the town where I currently live, I got a letter from her and we got back in contact. She had relatives the next state over, and she and her then-boyfriend later-husband used to stop by for a few days on the way to visit them. She came for my wedding and stood up for me. My husband and I went east to visit several times. We became close again. We talked on the phone. She confided her indecision with her path in life, which had seemed so clear once upon a time. She called to cry when she lost her job, and when her plans fell apart, and when she didn’t know what to do.

And I began to think about suggesting she and her husband move out west. Well, of course I did! She was my friend. We had history. She was unhappy. And moving west to rural Colorado had been a new start for me and my husband. There was work if you were willing to work, and if pay was low, so were expenses. There was an artistic renaissance of sorts going on in my community. I thought it might be good for my friend to get out of the smothering city. I suggested it.

It took a couple years after the idea first came up, but eventually my friend and her husband moved west. They bought a house down the street from me. We–she and her husband and I and mine–started a Celtic band together. And things began to fall apart.

Almost from the beginning, I found myself having to defend my friend to others. On my recommendation she got a job at the local radio station, where her superior airs alienated the volunteer staff. I told myself she got strident because she felt insecure in a new position and wanted to prove herself. I encouraged her to relax and loosen up a bit; we weren’t in the city anymore and things were different here. People kept complaining to me about her judgmental attitude and her self-righteousness. I told them she was really okay, they just needed to get to know her (this would later backfire on me). Eventually she alienated her way out of a job, when she made hostile demands of the President of the Board. This was something else I found out the truth of later. At the time, I comforted her when she cried and claimed she hadn’t done anything wrong; the new management had got rid of her because she had supported the former manager, who had hired her.

This is the third clue. If, when bad things happen, your friend never takes responsibility for any part of it but always blames someone else, you are likely in a toxic relationship. Losing her job at the radio station was the first time my friend did this, but not the last. In fact, near the end of our relationship, she said, “The projects I get involved in always end the same way, badly. I don’t want that to happen again, but it’s not my fault.”

In the band, my friend wanted to be the center of attention, but she refused to do the work to merit it. She also refused to admit she wanted what everyone knew she wanted. I was invested–I was default bandleader–in everyone having a good time playing music together and playing out on occasion when we could. In every rehearsal, I checked in with the band to ask what people wanted. I encouraged them to come forward with songs they wanted to do. My friend refused to be honest about these things. When I suggested she take a turn as singer, she said, “Oh, I just want to focus on playing the fiddle.” Then she went to other people behind my back to spread the story that I was so controlling I wouldn’t let her sing because I wanted to be the only girl singer (yet another thing I found out later). And I might have been able to deal with that if she had actually done the work to improve her fiddle playing. Instead, she consistently refused to learn tune sets we had agreed as a band we should learn, putting it down to difficulty, or lack of time, or the fact that she didn’t read music well. Then in the middle of rehearsal, she would whip out some tune she had “just picked up”–never one on the list we had agreed upon–and play it in an aggressive manner, challenging anyone to confront her. I cannot begin to describe how infuriating this was. Everyone knew it was going on. But trying to address the issue only resulted in hostility. Every rehearsal became like walking on eggs. She was so unable to handle criticism that more than once she actually stormed out of rehearsal when someone suggested she tune her instrument.

The fourth clue: Lies and Sabotage. Both these things make it impossible for your toxic friend to get what she wants while enabling her to blame everyone but herself for it.

And I still made excuses for her. She’d lost both parents recently. She wasn’t used to working in a supportive group. She expected hostility and criticism and was trying to fulfill her expectation of getting them by manipulating the people around her, but it was because she’d had a difficult time in social situations. If I just refused to become combative, which would prove to her that she was right, if I remained quietly supportive, she’d come to understand that life didn’t have to be the way she expected it to be. She could let herself be vulnerable and grow.

Yeah, that was never going to happen. As an aside, in later years I can to believe that the real problem was that she wanted to be a “rock star;” i.e., she wanted the limelight, the center of attention, the popularity and notoriety, the small-town fame. Yet she had no musical talent whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. I hate to declare anyone talentless in any arena, and I kept thinking, “If she just would do the work instead of being so belligerent…” But I’m pretty sure no amount of work would have made a musician out of her.

Well, anyway, I kept trying. I didn’t like the job of booking gigs, so I suggested my friend should take that over. She was all for it. And that’s when the gaslighting started. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means “using systemic manipulation to undermine a person’s perception of reality.” It comes from the 1938 play, Gas-Light, in which a husband drives his wife crazy by dimming and brightening the lights in their house, and denying there’s any change when she questions it. It’s a common technique of sociopaths. Here’s an example: We had two gigs we were considering, one in Durango, about six hours’ drive away, and another in Delta. The Durango gig was at night, and could be expected to end well after two in the morning. The Delta gig was the next morning at eleven. I told my friend I would do one or the other but not both, because I did not want to play until two in the morning and then have to get up at five and drive seven hours back to Delta. She booked both gigs. When I reminded her of my conditions, she said, “You never said that. You told me to book both gigs.” And furthermore, she added, “You know, Kel, a real band would be expected to keep those kind of hours if they were on tour.” Intimating that our band was not real, that if I wanted to participate in a “real” band I was not allowed to have any boundaries, and basically the way I wanted to live my life was invalid.

The fifth clue: Gaslighting and Undermining. If your friend consistently challenges your desires for your life and your experience of reality and supports her own version of events with compulsive lying, GET OUT.

Since this blog post is already over 2000 words long, I’m going to try to cut it short. I got depressed, so depressed. I’d started the band to share joy in music, and by that point I detested music. It’s only recently, over ten years later, that I have begun to sing again on occasion and have begun to entertain the possibility of pulling out my flute. I got sick and was hospitalized with gallbladder disease. My friend books gigs for our band for the time I was in recovery from surgery and evinced astonishment when I told her there was no way I could stand up and perform a few days after my gut had been cut open. She found a couple session players to take the place of myself and my husband, and told them I was too lazy to keep a commitment. Shortly afterward, my therapist told me, “I don’t like telling clients what to do, but if you don’t get that person out of your life you’re going to end up dead.” So I broke up the band and I wrote my now-ex friend a long letter explaining exactly why. I still feel like a miserable coward for not confronting her to her face, but there was no way I could have done it.

A few weeks after I sent my former friend the letter, I found a box of mutilated photographs from my wedding in my backyard. I’m fairly sure I know where they came from.

My friend stayed around the area for a little while, living right down the street. It made me sick to look out of my dining room window. After a year or two, her husband fell in love with someone else and divorced her. She floated around town for a while and many people found her charming. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t friends with her any longer. When I tried to explain, they invariably said, “Oh, bands break up.” And they still didn’t understand. My friend tried being in a couple other bands, but eventually she got kicked out of them all for her hostility and rudeness and no one would play with her. Eventually she burned too many bridges and moved away. She still owns the house down the street, I think. My therapist saw her a few months back. She asked if she could have my therapist’s dog. No one knows why.

All the projects she gets involved in end the same way, badly. She doesn’t think she wants it to happen again. But it’s not her fault. It’s never her fault.

A few weeks after I broke up the band, my husband met this former friend for a beer because he wanted to find some kind of closure with her. He told her, “I never felt like I really got to know you and be your friend.” Her response? “Oh, was that important to you?” And part of it I’m sure came from her having a habit of never taking responsibility for her actions, never being honest, and coming at every conversation from a position of superiority. Turning every attempt to address her honestly into…a contest of wit and defenses. But part of it, I know now, came from the pure fact that she was clueless about how friendships work. She could be a remarkable sycophant–she loved making up to people she viewed as being in power. And she could be a tyrant, a superior, a dictator, greedy for all the privilege inherent in the titles. But she could never be an equal. I’m sure she’s very lonely, and I think that’s very sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I did everything I could ten years ago.

If any of this story sounds familiar to you, please get help. Get out. Don’t cling to a friend because you understand where they’re coming from or because you have history. You’re just hurting yourself.