The importance of being disloyal
I’m thinking a lot about disloyalty today.
Let me explain why.
I feel like I’ve betrayed my hometown and home state.
This essay was published today, and I’d like to say a few things about it.
A few months ago, Barb Shoup at the Indiana Writers Center asked me to submit an essay to an anthology of Indiana writers that will be published this fall to celebrate Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016. She mentioned that the anthology might end up being used in public schools, and I thought, What would I really like to say to an Indiana high school student? It also stood to reason that Governor Mike Pence might actually read something I wrote. What would I really like to say to him? Oh boy!
Normally, everything I say about Indiana is sentimental, but sometimes, you have to push that sentimentality aside and say something else. Even though you know it’s going to piss somebody off. Maybe especially when you know it’s going to piss somebody off.
The essay started out as two previously written pieces: 1.) an old blog post about Cole Porter and 2.) a speech I delivered to a bunch of Honors College graduates titled “Escape Velocity: Breaking Through Indiana’s Gravitational Pull.” I stitched the two pieces together and added a lot more, too.
I read the essay at an Indianapolis reading in February, and it went over well. But, man, I was so afraid that some nice person from my hometown would be there and object vociferously.
Today, it’s been loosed upon the internets. I’ve heard from a few people from my hometown, and the reaction has mostly A.) “Thank you for saying this!” but also B.) “Peru/Indiana is not like this.” The fact that I’m more worried about B than excited about A. tells you a great deal about the gravitational pull that small towns exert over their citizenry.
Also: for the record, my title of the essay was “Not Like the Rest of Us: Cole Porter as Native Hoosier.” Online magazines often change the titles to be more…um…provocative.
I feel like I betrayed my employer.
A few weeks ago, I went to a public meeting regarding Ball State’s search for a new president. I missed the previously scheduled meetings because I was on sabbatical this spring. There were many people there who voiced their concerns about a recent gift from the Koch Foundation. I didn’t go to the meeting intending to say anything, but all of a sudden, I felt that I had to. Here’s what I said.
I’m in a unique position, because I am both a faculty member at Ball State, but also a writer who gave them the option to adapt my first book into a musical. I don’t know if I made that distinction clear (between Teacher Cathy and Writer Cathy) in my public comments, but I tried.
I absolutely love my job, love the place where I work, yet I feel disappointed that it accepted money (strings attached or no) from an organization I personally (as a writer, as a citizen) want no part of. Ever. In fact, I feel very committed in the years ahead to battle that foundation’s growing influence, especially with regard to legislation. Here’s a good article about that.
It’s a pickle.
I feel like I betrayed my college friends.
Tomorrow, I leave for Greencastle, Indiana for my 25th college reunion at DePauw University. I’m eager to see the women I lived with during my years there—my sorority sisters.
Understand: when I arrived at DePauw in 1987, the campus was 80-90% Greek. If I’d gone to IU, I wouldn’t have joined a sorority, but at DePauw, it was de rigueur. At that time, all first-year students went through rush the week before classes started. Going to college was bewildering enough to me as a first-generation college student, but add to that going through the strange ritual of rush—well, it was like being dropped off in a strange country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have a map and everyone was clapping and singing and smiling and giving you the old once over and saying yes or no. Lots of girls cried when they got their bids. I was just glad it was over.
When you meet someone who went to DePauw, you eventually find yourself asking, “So, what were you?” meaning, “So, what Greek organization did you join?” meaning, “What was your identity in college?” That was the taxonomy. Instead of the magical Sorting Hat, we relied on a system that winnowed and sorted us not by academic major, but by Greek house.
A few years ago, my friend Hilary and I were trying to explain our college experience to her kids and the best analogy we could come up with was that it was like Hogwarts, and we had been some combination of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.
Upon reflection, I think you could make my sorority the 5th house of Hogwarts: Mellowpuss. Our spirit animal would be the laid-back cat.
Technically, I’m not a member of my sorority anymore. I “deactivated” in 2007 after this happened. Remember? The sorority that kicked out all the young women who weren’t “trying” hard enough? It wasn’t my sorority that did this, but to me, that wasn’t the point.
I absolutely love my alma mater and the women I met there, yet I don’t want to be associated with an organization that I personally (as a writer, as an alum, as a woman) want no part of. Ever.
Sometimes, I don’t know how to reconcile these things.
Biting the Hand that Feeds You
That’s good advice. So is: don’t shit where you eat. But I’ve never been good at following this kind of advice.
A long time ago, my aunt (an artist who lives outside Paris) told me that making art requires distance from the people and the places you hold dear. Your only loyalty is to your work. Hold nothing sacrosanct, she said. Not your hometown. Not your employer. Not your alma mater. Not even your family. She implied that as long as I was close to my family and my roots, I’d never be a real writer–because a real writer tells the truth. Even when it hurts.
I’m such a contrarian that I’ve pretty much dedicated my adult life to proving her wrong.
But she’s not wrong.
It’s hard to stay inside (my state, my job, my college, my family, my marriage) and say the things I want to say. It’s risky. Some might even say it’s unnecessarily stupid. I don’t think a week goes by in which I wonder why I can’t just keep my big mouth shut.
When my soul gets to itching, as it so often does, I have to scratch. I just can’t help it.Writing
Yeah, your aunt is wrong, and what she said is horse shit. You’re a real writer because you tell the truth about your home, TO your home. Also, because I quote you in my presentation on writing advice.
But mostly, you’ve always told the truth, no matter where you’ve been. I always know that anything you tell me is the truth. Hell, you went to a room full of people who were going to pick your next uber-boss and told the truth about working against the university’s benefactors. How many more people would have done that?
Real writers — real artists — don’t run away from family and their roots. They plant their flag in their dirt, and punch up at the people above them. You did that.
You’re the best, Erik. Thank you so much.
I’m on board with what Erik said about writers/artists and their family and roots. He said it much better so I won’t add to that.
I’m going to push back on the “betrayed my employer.” I can’t take away your feelings about that, but I had to reread what you said to figure out “what the heck did she say that I missed the first time I read this?” And nope, didn’t see it the second time.
I love where we work, but I never kid myself that as an institution, Ball State can do no wrong. It’s like any institution the idea of which is bigger than us, but it’s run by people who pull on their knickers the same way we do regardless of position or salary. Decisions are made that are baffling and then there are outright mistakes. If I can do that–as I’ll bet you can–other folks around us are pretty likely to do that as well.
The beauty–and this is where for me part of the idea that’s bigger than me lives among us–many of us are able to “punch up” and push back against decisions with which we disagree. Not all of us, and certainly not all the time, but more often than not–and a heck of a lot more often than those who work in places run by people like the Koch Bros and Papa John Schnatter. It’s not easy to believe that it’s true but sometimes we have to do that a time or two to find our feet and to find that it’s true.
Telling one’s truth to improve our institution is not betrayal, it’s commitment. Telling one’s truth without being nasty about it is a skill. Telling one’s truth and bringing more beauty into the world is a gift.
You do you.
Thank you, Mike!
Hold nothing sancrosanct. And hold everything sancrosanct. That is the paradox with which creators live. This is heightened, I might add, at the time of reunions. You may be in the same room with people you barely recognize and yet, just being in the same room has meaning. Life is complicated. Revel in that.