Gauntlets, Last Books, and Being Poor Doesn’t Leave You

My book comes out tomorrow. It’s the last book I have under contract and I’m never sure if I’ll sell another one.

That’s a hard truth for me. But I’ve had a pretty amazing run and hopefully it will continue.

Last night I had all these anxiety dreams about picking the wrong test option at school and not being able to find the page that I’m supposed to be on.

It reminded me of this post that I had a couple of years ago about growing up poor, expectations, and helping others.

I grew up poor. 

There’s no getting around that. 

My mom tried really hard to pretend we weren’t poor. She tried to hide it from everyone, including my much older brother and sister who grew up 15 years earlier than me in a much nicer working class reality. But when I came around we were poor. 

My nana stood in food lines to get us commodity cheese because my mom wouldn’t do it herself because she was too ashamed. Credit card companies and collection agencies would call constantly. I was taught early on to lie on the phone when I answered it and say my mom wasn’t home if it wasn’t my sister or one of my aunts calling. 

We didn’t have things our neighbors had

We had a type writer, not a word processor, not a computer. Every time I had to get clothes, I’d feel full of guilt. It didn’t help when one of my older siblings taunted me for my quirky style. Goodwill sometimes makes you have a quirky style. 

In a New York Times article, David Brooks wrote of class structure and how the upper middle class is consciously and subconsciously prevents others from upward economic mobility, writing, 

“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

David Brooks

There are class barriers that aren’t just about goods you own and how you show them off, but also certain ways of doing things.

Have you ever had the chance to learn to play golf? Do you listen to NPR? The right podcasts? Which food truck do you frequent? Do you have the middle-class prescribed ‘right attitude’ about things?

Who I am

As a child, we would go to my wealthy uncle and aunt’s house for gatherings with their friends. Their friends were senators and doctors, people who worked for the World Health Organization, people who helped create the measles vaccine, documentary filmmakers who headed AIDS awareness efforts. I remember looking at their fancy clothes and listening to them and being both inspired and terrified. They placed napkins in their laps. They kissed people on both cheeks. They made eye contact when they talked, and they used different forks for different parts of their dinner.

They were all kind to me. That wasn’t it. But I knew that I didn’t know how to play by their rules. 

Learning the rules

I went to a window seat that looked out on Lake Winnipesaukee. There was a bookshelf at the end of the seat and in that bookshelf was an etiquette book full of how to eat at the table, what manners were, how to write ‘thank you cards,’ exchange greetings, and so on.

It was a beautiful summer day. All the other kids were swimming and playing tag. I was reading and memorizing and trying to learn how to be like the others. 

Eventually my Aunt Maxine noticed that I was sitting there, reading. 

“Carrie. What are you doing? Go out and play, Carrie,” she said. She liked to use people’s names a lot. She also was sort of bossy in a nice way. 

I was afraid of bossy, but I also loved my aunt so I said as bravely as possible, “I’m reading.”

“Don’t you want to go swim with the other children? They’re all outside getting sun, having fun.” 

They were. They were splashing around in the water, doing cannonballs off the dock, or perfect dives. They had perfect bathing suits from L.L. Bean and every single one of them seemed to know how to play tennis and were learning golf.

She took the book from me and read the title. After a second, she sat down on the bench next to me. “What are you reading this for, Carrie?” 

And I said, “Because I want to be better.”

“Be better! That’s ridiculous. You’re wonderful as who you are.”

“I want… I want to fit in.” I looked her right in the eyes and she got it. I knew she got it. She understood all the things that I couldn’t figure out how to say. 

She handed me back the book. “I will make a deal with you. You read this for another half hour and I’ll set the kitchen timer. When it goes off, you go play with the other children and get some exercise.” 

Nodding, I thought this was okay. “But I might not finish the book.”

“You can finish it after dinner and games.” She pet me on the top of the head. “I’ll bring you the timer.” 

I was five. 

That book changed my life and so did my aunt and uncle. 

They realized that there was a social code and a way of being that wasn’t easily accessible for me no matter how hard my mom tried. I was a poor kid in a wealthy town. I was a latchkey kid who was awkward and driven and terrified of failure. Paying for acting lessons, to play on the soccer team, to play piano were huge stretches for us. Sometimes they happened. Sometimes they didn’t. 

My aunt and uncle understood my situation and my want because my uncle was the same way. He was the oldest son of a single mom. He pushed himself hard to succeed, to learn the social code of success and wealth. He went to UNH because it was the only place he could afford and he was valedictorian there, desegregating the fraternity system while he was class president. He eventually went to Harvard Law, married Maxine who had so much intellectual stock and prowess, it was just ridiculous. He ended up being the head of an international law association, head of a law firm, chairman of the board of trustees at UNH and so many other things.

Cracking the code With books

My little five-year-old self was trying to do the same things as he did. Somehow. I took the first and only step I could think of taking – reading that book, trying to crack the social codes of behavior that made his friends and him so different from my mom and me. 

I was in college when Uncle Dick was dying. 

We had all gathered for one last Thanksgiving. There were tons of people there, the same kind of brilliant, world-changing people that were there when I was five and when I was ten and when I was 15. My mother and my nana were barely able to sit still because they were so overwhelmed with Dick’s impending death. They’d have to leave the room every time someone mentioned his name. 

During dinner, Maxine called them into his bedroom with her. They stayed for about two minutes and left sobbing. 

“He’s too tired,” Maxine said at the threshold of the hallway that led to those bedrooms. “He needed them to go.”

But then, a minute later, she called for me. “Dick wants to see you, Carrie.”

I remember pointing at my chest. “Me?”

“Yes.”

“He’s not too tired?”

“No,” she said. “Not for you.” 

Not for you

There was a bit of a murmur at the table because Uncle Dick wasn’t really calling for anyone to come see him. He was barely holding on. 

She ushered me into a back bedroom that wasn’t their normal place to sleep. The wooden walls were dark because the shades were drawn. There was only one bedside light on. My uncle was thin and his breathing was so heavy. It seemed like there were a million blankets layered on top of him. 

He met my eyes as I came to his bed and sat on the edge of it, ignoring the chair.

“Everyone sits in the chair,” he rasped out.

“I wanted to be close to you.” I grabbed his hand.

“Nobody wants to be close to death.” 

“You aren’t death. You’re my uncle.” 

We were quiet.

The weight of his hand in mine seemed like nothing and everything all at once. I think he might have fallen asleep, but I sat there thinking about how beautiful he was, how elegant, how he changed systems of injustice one at a time, as best he could, how he taught himself Japanese, how to play the organ, how to be wealthy, how to fit in with an entire class of successful people that he wasn’t born into, and how he and Maxine both tried to lift other people up into that class with them. 

He opened his eyes. “Carrie, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Will you pick it up?” 

There was only one answer. 

“Yes,” I told him. “Yes.” 

It was the last thing he said to me. He fell asleep again. We left for home. I left for college. And since then, I have spent years trying to figure out how to make my words to my uncle not be a lie. How to meet the challenge of his life so well lived.

And I know I’m not doing enough. This David Brooks article reminds me of that. It’s hard to motivate other people. Sometimes it’s hard to even motivate myself. 

I have a friend who recently said to me, “You do so much volunteering. I don’t. I can’t. I’m a selfish person. I want to make money.” 

And I didn’t know what to say. 

I still don’t. 

What is the gauntlet? It’s inclusion

I have only succeeded as much as I have because people were willing to let me read a book, to be examples of goodness, to give me the opportunity to interact with senators, opera singers, doctors who have saved thousands of lives.

Humiliation and exclusion are not what we should aspire to. Inclusion and praise are not things to be afraid of giving to other people. Enjoying other people’s successes and happiness doesn’t make you any less likely to succeed. 

The gauntlet is about being unafraid and allowing other people into your life, your heart, your communities.

Aunt Maxine and Uncle Dick told me throughout my childhood that intelligence was a privilege I was born with. It could be cultivated and expanded on, but what was the most important thing was finding a way (or many ways) of using that privilege (intelligence, class, race, gender, being physically fit, and so on) and using it to better other people’s lives, your own life, the world, not in a way that makes you a hero but in a way that makes you a friend. 

No more bubbles

Yes, we need to take care of ourselves (thus being selfish), but we also need to not live in bubbles – to see where our language and our rules, our so-called ‘cultural norms’ can be a code that even five-year-olds realize doesn’t include them. 

I don’t know how to fix this, but I know we all have to try. I was so lucky to have an Uncle Dick and Aunt Maxine. Not everyone is. And when you feel excluded because of economic, racial, gender, religious codes? How can you not hurt? 

Rotary International and the Gauntlet

I’ve tried to pick up the gauntlet by being friends, writing books, and I’ve even tried to be a politician. I’ve tried by how I raised my daughter. It doesn’t feel like enough.

Part of why I’m in Rotary International, and even why I decided to be the volunteer Public Image Chair for a huge part of Canada and the United States is because this organization of 1.2 million people is picking up the gauntlet, over and over again. From helping to eradicate polio (one vaccine and one fundraiser at a time) to building a local playground or a creating a book festival, Rotary grabs that gauntlet. The only difference is, they do it together. 

How are you picking up the gauntlet? How do you feel excluded? Included? I’d love to know. 

Being Afraid

Part of why I am so freaked out about this book that comes out tomorrow is because I’m afraid nobody will like it, that nobody will understand the lower middle-class place I write from, that nobody cares about gauntlets. And also because I’m afraid that nobody will buy it and I’ll have to find a new way to earn a living.

Because just like when I was little, I still need to deal with money and economics and how to survive as a writer/artist person in a world where that isn’t the easiest thing.

But also I’m afraid that I won’t ever do enough, that I’m not trying hard enough. Or that it’s like the nightmare I had last night and I picked the wrong test. And I’m running out of time and it’s too late to start over.

IN THE WOODS – READ AN EXCERPT, PREORDER NOW!

My next book, IN THE WOODS, appears in July with Steve Wedel. It’s scary. It’s a bit paranormal. It’s a bit romantic. And it’s one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Buzz Books for Summer 2019

There’s an excerpt of it there and everything! But even cooler (for me) they’ve deemed it buzz worthy! Buzz worthy seems like an awesome thing to be deemed! 

You can preorder this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?

A girl from New York. A farm boy. They’ll come together in this supernatural mystery, connected by whatever’s hiding in the woods. As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, they must discover the truth before they become targets themselves. Preorder your copy of IN THE WOODS by Maine author Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel today. Preordered copies will be signed by Carrie Jones

bit.ly/jonesinthewoods

In the Woods
In the Woods


ART NEWS

You can buy limited-edition prints and learn more about my art here on my site. 

Carrie Jones Art for Sale

PATREON OF AWESOME

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You can get exclusive content, early podcasts, videos, art and listen (or read) never-to-be-officially published writings of Carrie on her Patreon. Levels go from $1 to $100 (That one includes writing coaching and editing for you wealthy peeps). 

Check it out here. 

WHAT IS PATREON? 

A lot of you might be new to Patreon and not get how it works. That’s totally cool. New things can be scary, but there’s a cool primer HERE that explains how it works. The short of it is this: You give Patreon your paypal or credit card # and they charge you whatever you level you choose at the end of each month. That money supports me sharing my writing and art and podcasts and weirdness with you. 



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The Poet Who Saw Me – Wednesday Writing Wisdom

When I was a kid at Bates College, I spent a lot of my time feeling like less. My family had been kind of poor after my step-father died. My nana would stand in line to get us big orange blocks of commodity cheese for the week to supplement our $30 grocery budget Every  week my mom would yell at her that we didn’t need that. She always took it.

My mom didn’t answer the phone because she was so afraid of credit card companies calling.  She’d make me do it and lie that she wasn’t there.

I still hate answering the phone, even the cell phone, even when it has caller ID.

Anyway, when I went to college I wanted to forget all that. I wanted to be an intellectual like everyone else. I wanted to have gone to private school in Manhattan or Conneticut, have a summer home in the Hamptons and clothes that weren’t from K-Mart, which was sort of the WalMart equivalent back then, but worse.

I got over all that because I knew it was pretty shallow. What I had a harder time getting over was class issues that had less to do with materialism and more to do with hatred and intellectual history.

In one of my directing classes, one of the sexier straight guys actually announced about Beckett, “People who are not wealthy don’t care about this. A truck driver doesn’t watch public television or listen to NPR. They don’t care, they’re too busy humping and eating and drinking.”

My dad was a truck driver. He watched public television. He listened to NPR. I didn’t want to think about him humping. He ate food. He didn’t drink. His parents had been prohibitionists.

In one of my playwrighting classes the professor announced, “The working people of this country don’t give a shit about nuclear power. They don’t give a shit about a man of color.”

When I was in elementary school my dad would bring him with him to protest the same nuclear power plant that my step dad was helping to build. He helped me try to get New Hampshire to recognize Martin Luther King Day and do a hundred other civil rights things. He cared.

And one of my college friends would love to say, “Carrie is too poor to be pro intellectual.”

He’s a minister now. That still doesn’t make what he said right.

And one of my female poetry teachers told me over and over again, her voice trilling up with her patrician accent, “Carrie, you have the potential to be a poet, but your voice is too raw, not refined, not artistic enough.”

My voice was poor. My cadence was public school. I was not from rich. Every sentence I spoke showed that.

They still do.

Those are just four of the incidents that made me both angry and intimidated and focused, but in the back of my head it just inflamed my self doubt. I could never be a poet because I wasn’t wealthy, private-school educated, my parents weren’t intellectuals. I could never move people with words because my words were too stark and my sentences too short. I would never fit in because I didn’t have the background that most of the other students had.

And then two things happened. I read Sherman Alexie, a not-wealthy Spokane and Coeur d’Alene who despite his issues with women, impacted me positively. Maybe because I never met him.

And I met Seamus Heaney in real life.

Seamus Heaney came to our college at the invitation of Robert Farnsworth, who was an awesome poet and professor. He met with students, he gave a reading and we all got to hang out with him at a reception.

“I can’t go,” I told my boyfriend at the time.

He bit into his pizza. He was always eating pizza. “Why not?”

“Because it’s Seamus Heaney,” I answered staring at the little bits of sausage on the pizza before I plucked them off.

“So?”

“Seamus Heaney!”

“So?”

I didn’t know how to explain. Seamus Heaney was THE poet, the Nobel Prize winner. He was Irish for God’s sake. Those people were gifted with words. They had so many amazing poets… Heaney, Yeats, Wilde, Clarke, Moore. I was from New Hampshire. We had Robert Frost but pretty much every New England state tried to claim him.

Heaney wrote things like:

“A hunger-striker’s father

stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope

on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

the longed for tidal wave

of justice can rise up,

and hope and history rhyme.”

You will regret it if you don’t go,” my boyfriend said. “I’m going to just be playing Leisure Suit Larry anyway.”

So, I went, as anxious as if I was going on stage myself. Heaney transfixed me with his amazing baritone and bear-like presence. And his words… Of course his words… And when I met him afterwards, I was terrified until he grabbed my hand in his and said, “So you are a poet?”

And I said, “No.”

And all he did was nod and say, “Oh, yes you are.”

But in his eyes was this knowing, this connection, and maybe it wasn’t really there. Maybe I just saw it because I wanted him to understand me, because I wanted someone to get who I was and who I wanted to be. Or maybe not?

I don’t know, but one second later my professor said, “Oh, yes she is. I told you about her. She is like you.”

And then one of them said something about growing up not wealthy and I can’t remember the exact words, but what I do remember is that I finally felt understood. Later, I looked up Seamus Heaney’s past, about how his dad was a farmer and neither of his parents were big on words really, not in the intellectual way that everyone in college seemed to be. I found out that he was like me a little bit not because he was a poet and I was trying so desperately hard to write just one decent poem, but because we were both human, that we both came from humble places, that we both looked in people’s eyes when we said hello.

And that was enough for me. That was enough for me to believe in myself.

Seamus Heaney performed a miracle when I met him. He made me believe that I could be whatever the hell I wanted to be and that it didn’t matter how hard I had to fight or work or not fit in. What mattered was that I wanted the miracle of being a writer, of metamorphosis from Carrie the poor neurotic kid from Bedford, New Hampshire into Carrie Jones, the neurotic best-selling author who lives on the coast of Maine.

He gave hope and miracles in his poems and in his person and I am so thankful for his existence and so sorry for the world’s loss.

“The main thing is to write

for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust

that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.

You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.

Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

 

I wrote this post back in 2013 when Seamus Heaney died, but in one of my student packet’s this week, I referenced Heaney and then yesterday I saw this Liam Neeson video (randomly) where he was talking about Heaney, so… there you go. I’ve reposted it.

Here’s Seamus Heaney reading his own poem, “Blackberry Picking.”

 

Do Good Wednesday

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Scary, right?

People are fixing it.

You can help with poetry and kids. These images are from Get Lit’s website and Get Lit is making a difference.

“Get Lit was founded in 2006 after Diane Luby Lane created a one-woman show about the power of words and toured colleges with iconic Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. After the show closed, she couldn’t bear the thought of cutting off the work completely. She started teaching classic and spoken word poetry in two high schools, Fairfax and Walt Whitman. When the semester ended… the students wouldn’t leave. They insisted on meeting after school. The rest is history. Today, the curriculum has expanded to almost 100 schools, and the Get Lit Players are the most watched poets on the internet. Curriculum requests flow in from Mexico to New Zealand.”

Get Lit “uses poetry to increase literacy, empower youth, and inspire communities.”

Get Lit works – 98% of Get Lit Players go to college, and 70% get scholarships!

Here are Get Lit’s specific needs and how you can get involved.

 

Writing News

Carrie’s  super excited about the upcoming TIME STOPPERS book coming out this August.

This middle grade fantasy series happens in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine and it’s all about friendship and magic and kids saving their magical town.

An imaginative blend of fantasy, whimsy, and suspense, with a charming cast of underdog characters . . . This new fantasy series will entice younger fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.” –  School Library Journal

 

“Sticks the landing . . . The world building is engaging . . . between the decidedly wonderful residents and the terrifying monsters who plague them.” –  BCCB

 

“Amid the magic, spells, adventure, and weirdness of this fantasy are embedded not-so-subtle life lessons about kindness, friendship, and cooperation.” –  Booklist

 

“A wild and fresh take on fantasy with an intriguing cast of characters. Dangerous and scary and fun all rolled into one. In the words of Eva the dwarf, I freaking loved it!” –  Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of The Unwanteds series

 

“Effervescent, funny, and genuine.” –  Kirkus Reviews

It’s quirky. It’s awesome. It’s full of heart. You should go by the first two books now. 🙂

 

CARRIE’S BOOKS

For a complete round-up of Carrie’s 16-or-so books, check out her website. And if you like us, or our podcast, or just want to support a writer, please buy one of those books, or leave a review on a site like Amazon. Those reviews help. It’s all some weird marketing algorhthym from hell, basically.

OUR PODCAST

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