Why We Should Talk about Controversial Issues

A lot of people avoid talking about controversial issues due to fear or discomfort. As an academic, I have a hard time wrapping my head around being afraid to talk to someone because we might disagree on a matter. You see, discussing issues that are seen as controversial is a large part of how I make my living. I get paid to read, write, think, and talk about issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. To me, talking about such issues is a normal, natural, and important thing to do. I enjoy it.

So I am baffled when, in my “non-academic world,” someone shuts down at the mere mention of a controversial topic. “Don’t they know how fun such discussions can be?” I wonder. The answer, of course, is no, they don’t know that. My training has taught me that such discussions are not only safe but exciting. However, others’ experiences–real or imagined–have taught them that talking about controversial issues may lead to kerfuffles among friends and bad vibes all around. I’ve heard the following as explanations for avoiding certain topics in conversations: “there is no point; h/she is not going to change his/her mind”; “I don’t want to say anything that will offend someone”; “s/he is just going to get mad and I don’t want to ruin our relationship.”

I want people to know that some of the most interesting conversations happen around issues that are considered controversial. Think about it. The issues are not controversial because they are boring; they are controversial because they are important. Important issues are those in which there is something at stake. Controversial issues are those about which people have different takes on what is at stake and for whom. The controversy stems from a disagreement over whose interests matter the most.

To make matters more complicated, somewhere along the line, we have been convinced that someone has to change his or her mind in order for a discussion of a controversial topic to be worth having. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, people can talk about issues without anyone having to be right or wrong. This isn’t to say that everyone’s opinion has equal merit; it is to say that it costs us nothing to listen carefully and thoughtfully to another’s point of view.

That is, people can hear and be heard in discussions with one another without having to name “winners” and “losers.” Unfortunately, most people have not learned how to take part strategically in conversations–note I did not say debates–about controversial issues. This needs to change because conversations about controversial issues have great potential for bridging the divides that threaten the well-being of our society at all levels. Where to begin?

Seek to understand before seeking to be understood

Productive, exciting, and intellectually challenging conversations happen when those involved really want to know what others think and why. That is, the best conversations happen when our wish to understand others’ points of view is stronger than our desire to express our own. As Stephen Covey stressed in his well-known best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, effective dialogue and win/win outcomes are possible when people come together seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. To put it another way, good things happen when we are willing to listen to what others have to say as opposed to preparing to shoot them down at the first opportunity. It’s that simple.

So what can we do?

Avoiding controversial topics in our conversations with others doesn’t make the topics any less controversial nor does it resolve related issues. Avoidance reinforces and adds to the ways in which we are divided. So, rather than avoiding conversations about controversial issues, we need to create and take advantage of opportunities to have them. Never miss opportunities to find out what you don’t know you don’t know and/or to better understand what doesn’t make sense to you. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with people across lines of difference.

Meanwhile, tell me, how do you feel when faced with the opportunity for such conversations? Do you avoid them? Do you jump right in? What advice do you have to offer? Please share and don’t forget to subscribe to Letters from the Coffee Shop!

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

Cussing in the South: What Outsiders Need to Know

I have a bit of a potty mouth. I swear. Where I live, it’s called cussing. I found out the hard way that the cultural codes of cussing are written in stone, or might as well be. Unfortunately, no one thinks to tell a “foreigner” the rules of cussing when they move to the South. They let us figure it out on our own. I suspect watching us stumble around trying to learn the rulesof the game is considered sport.

Understand that Magnolia, AR is on the buckle of the bible belt. Whereas maybe just a few students in a class I taught at the University of Alberta would have been churchgoers, most of my students here attend church regularly. And regularly means every Wednesday night and on Sunday. I’m not sure what Wednesday night is all about–a mid-week refresher course I guess.

At any rate, I learned never to schedule special events on Wednesday evenings because no one would show up. As one local pastor advised me, “You can’t compete with God.” I took him at his word.

But getting back to the cultural codes of cussing, I quickly found out that a lot of words I did not consider to be anything remotely close to a cuss, were seen as cusses here. I’m talking about words like “hell”–an off the cuff “to hell with that” in a classroom earned me some looks of horror in my first few years. “Piss” as in “pissed off” got the same response. The ‘F’ word has definite status as one of the Bad Boys of cuss words here, just as it does at home, but nothing, and I do mean nothing, has the status of “G.D.”

The Worst of the Worst

“G.D.” is the absolute worst cuss word anyone can say. Period. It’s much more offensive than the “F” word. In fact, it’s so offensive that I won’t even type the actual words because I do not want to offend my friends who simply do not want to hear or read that word. Ever.

The status of “G.D.” took me a while to get my head around. It is still a little confusing to me. Many of my friends at home toss around a “G.D.” as casually as they do an “oh darn it” and no one bats an eye. Curiously, it is okay to say “Gawd Dangit” here, but you’ll notice that the “G” word is clearly spelled differently and that is understood when someone says “Gawd Dangit” in a moment of frustration. You can hear the difference in the spelling, right? Yeah, so can I.

Seriously, though, the “G.D.” taboo is one that I really do respect, though I don’t understand it. If someone says “G.D” aren’t they asking “G” to condemn something? And if so, isn’t that like calling on a higher power to help out in a situation where something bad is going down? “G.D. those animal abusers!” See what I mean? I think it makes sense, but I’ve yet to find any Southerner worth his or her salt who agrees with me. So be it. Unfortunately, no one told me how “G.D.” was positioned in the hierarchy of cusses. I learned that the hard way.

Learning the Hard Way

It was a dark and not very stormy night and I was driving home from a riding lesson. As they did every single time I drove by the little house by the tracks, several big dogs came racing onto the road barking like crazy at my vehicle. I was so afraid I was going to hit one of them, which was the last thing I wanted to do. It pissed me off to no end that the owner just let the dogs run.

On the evening in question, though, the owner happened to be outside when I drove by. As usual, the dogs came running and I decided enough was enough. I slammed on my brakes, rolled down my window and yelled, “Get your “G.D.” dogs off the road!” Except I didn’t use the initials for the “G.D.” I said both words…in all their glory. (I know. I’m going to hell.) I rolled up my window and continued driving. Then, I noticed that the owner of the dogs was behind me in his truck. That freaked me out just a little bit. Okay, a lot. It turns out that Miss Potty Mouth is pretty brave until someone chases her in his truck.

 I figured or hoped, the guy would get bored and turn around, but he followed me into town, which is about 10 miles away from his house. There was no way I was going to lead him to my house, so I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot and dialed the police. They said they would be right over and told me to stay in my truck.

The man parked his truck right behind mine and approached my window yelling at me. I stared straight ahead, pretending to ignore him, while my heart was about to beat its way out of my chest. When the police arrived, I got out of my vehicle. I told them what had happened as did the dogs’ owner. Our stories matched, until the dogs’ owner said to the police, “She had no business saying “G.D.” If she hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have cared, but that made me really mad and that’s why I followed her. I wasn’t going to hurt her. I wanted her to say she was sorry.”

That blew my mind. The man pursued me for about 10 miles because I yelled “G.D.” at him. He wasn’t fooling though. My use of the term really made him that angry. I felt bad. I had no idea just how big a reaction to the use of “G.D.” could provoke. I apologized to him and I really was sorry. I wanted him to get his dogs off the road. My intention was not to offend him at any level beyond that.

We shook hands and went on our way. A few months later we ran into each other at Wal-Mart and had a laugh about that night. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t say “G.D.” anymore because I do. But I am much more aware of when and where I say it.

Bless My Heart?

Southern culture, like all cultures, is an intricately woven fabric of rules and guidelines, and customs and codes. A newcomer is left to figure all of them out on his or her own. Thankfully, most of the time I’ve been able to decipher the codes for becoming a good Southerner through mostly pleasant exchanges with the people in my community. When I have slipped and violated some code of conduct out of habit or ignorance most people have been relatively forgiving. I say that, though I suspect that my heart has been blessed behind closed doors more often than I probably need to know. At any rate, it is pretty clear that I’m never going to be a true southern woman, a Steel Magnolia–they really do exist you know. But I admire such women for reasons that I will talk about in a future post.

Until then, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

Why Did the Canadian Move to Magnolia, AR?

“How did a Canadian end up moving to Magnolia, Arkansas?”

I am asked that question at least a couple of times a week even though I have been here 15 years. I’m often amused by people’s reactions when they find out I’m Canadian. For example, there was the time an acquaintance introduced me to her elderly mother: “Mama, this is Linda. She’s from Canada.” Mama’s eyes grew very wide and she exclaimed, “Oh my! A real, live foreigner!” On another occasion, a friend introduced me to someone she knew. “This is Linda. She’s Canadian.” That information generated a squeal followed by, “OOOhhh! You’re from Alaska?” Hmmm.

So how did I end up in Magnolia? It was June of 2003. Accompanied by a one-eyed, neurotic, epileptic, Valium resistant, car-ride phobic poodle, an overly sensitive Lhaso-Poo mix, and three pouty cats who considered it beneath them to be contained in crates while traveling, I embarked on a 2000-mile journey from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Magnolia, AR. Two years out from my Ph.D. and fresh off a post-doc stint at NYU, I had accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.

At some point during my three-day trip, I struck up a conversation with a woman as we were filling our gas tanks. She noticed my array of traveling companions and asked me what I was doing. I’m sure she thought I was an animal hoarder. I explained that I was moving from Alberta to Arkansas. She pondered that information briefly, and then, with an expression, I have since seen many times, asked, “Why?” That was the first of hundreds of times that someone has asked me how and why I found myself in Magnolia, Arkansas.

Usually, when a person asks that question, I explain that, in academia, one goes where the jobs are. More often than not, my inquisitors, who are usually not academics, seem less than satisfied by my answer to their question. In fact, some people find it a bit suspicious that a person would move 2000 miles to take a job, in another country no less. It took me awhile to figure out what was behind their suspicion.

Roots Run Deep

Like most academics, I knew from the get-go that such a move was inevitable if I wanted to land a tenure-track job. Over the years, I have come to appreciate that, in Magnolia, Arkansas, rootedness is the cornerstone of community and culture. For instance, I have a friend who was born and raised just a couple of hundred yards from where she, her husband, and their children live in a house that her father built for them. Recently, she told me what a relief it was to no longer live eight miles away from her parents. “I just felt like I was so far away from home” she said.

It is not surprising that people with such a deep connection to where they grew up would be suspicious of someone who chooses to live thousands of miles from home. I get that. I mean, really, what kind of person abandons her homeland and her family and moves 2000 miles away to “teach at the college,” as the locals like to say? What kind of threat does this person with her strange accent and peculiar ways pose to how things are done and have always been done in the local community? Over the years, I have learned about conversations that took place in the months following my arrival. As far as I can gather, the conversations went something like this:

“I heard that the new college professor from Canada takes her shoes off every time she goes into a house; where does she think she is, Japan?”

“I mean, really! Well, Miss Lucy Fergusen told me that she heard from Miss Whitney Selman whose daughter is in Miss Tucker’s class, that she doesn’t go to church at all. They think she might be an atheist.

“Oh my!—well, don’t say you heard this from me– but I heard that the reason she doesn’t go to church is because she’s too busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.”

“Oh, good heavens! Well, I just don’t know, but I did add her to the prayer list at bible study on Wednesday, and I’ve made a note to be sure and invite her to the revival next weekend.”

“Bless her heart, they’ve probably never even heard of Jesus way up there in Canada.”

“You’re probably right. I’ve heard it’s so cold that it’s just not fit for folks; Do you think it’s too cold, even for Jesus?”

Learning the Ropes

As you may have guessed, it hasn’t always been easy figuring out how to fit into life in a small southern town as a Canadian. However, I’m beginning to get the hang of it. Sort of. For example, I almost never forget to say “Y’all,” in one syllable. I try to remember to refer to people as “ma’am” and “sir.” And I figured out that people expect you to have sweet tea on hand when they drop in. I admit that I’m not crazy about people just “dropping in.” And I still find it mortifying that most people do not leave their shoes at the door when they enter a house.

One thing I love is how, when someone claims to “love so and so to death” and/or “blesses so and so’s heart,” it usually does not mean that he or she actually “loves so and so to death” or truly wishes for so and so’s heart to be blessed. Rather, one uses those phrases when one is going to say something mean, or ugly as they say here, about another person. You’ve got to love a place where people go out of their way to be polite even when they are being mean.

I’m not joking when I say that it has been challenging to identify, to decipher, and to navigate the conditions and codes that shape the character of this community. Lord knows I’ve made more than my fair share of blunders along the way. Yet, Magnolia, Arkansas has become my home. What kinds of blunders? And what exactly makes Magnolia feel like home? Those are stories I’m going to save for other posts. Meanwhile, thank you for reading. As we say in my neck of the woods, “I appreciate you.”

Why Being Organized Counts As Self-Care

I have always found being organized and decluttering forms of self-care. This is not true for everyone. I remember vividly the day I discovered that some people do not fold their underwear before putting them away. I was in the second grade. I was enjoying a play date at Colleen’s house. We were happily engaged in some activity or other in her bedroom, when I noticed the open dresser drawer.

To my horror, it was overflowing with what seemed like hundreds of pairs of “panties.” (At my house we just called them underwear.) Colleen’s “panties” were thrown pell-mell into the abyss. There was nary a crease line in sight and no order whatsoever to their arrangement. “My gosh,” I thought, “Who are these people? Should I call my mom to come and get me?” I hardly knew what to think.

Prior to my discovery of the state of her panty drawer, Colleen had seemed like a perfectly normal girl. I loved going to her house because her parents were very kind and she had many pets. I tried hard to put the sight of that open drawer full of panties on the loose out of my head and to go on with our play. Truthfully, though, I saw Colleen, and her mother for that matter, differently after discovering that they had no idea how to organize their things. To me, that was a very serious character flaw.

At my house, in contrast, underwear was kept in the top drawer of a dresser. Socks were kept in the second, t-shirts in the third, and pajamas in the fourth. When my mother put away laundry, she folder underwear into uniform shapes and stacked them neatly. I took things a step further by subdividing the stacks into light colors, dark colors, and patterns. I don’t know why I didn’t think to subdivide the patterned panties into light and dark too. I was not to adopt that practice until much later in life.

Today, you will not see a navy pair of striped panties next to a pastel pair with flowers in my drawer. No way. Socks enjoy similar treatment: white sport socks, ankle high, black anklets, black trouser socks, white crew socks, and fuzzy socks that I use as slippers are all folded Mari Kondo style and filed in their respective categories. Thankfully, despite the company I kept as a child, my underwear and sock sorting skills were not seriously impaired. For that I am thankful.

I have always disliked clutter and disorder. I suspect it stems from being raised in a family that, unlike our underwear and sock drawers, was very chaotic and disorderly. My father was an alcoholic. That means that one could never count on life following any kind of discernible pattern from day-to-day. My mother used to say that the only thing predictable about my dad was his unpredictability. It stands to reason, then, that I would try to create the order that our household lacked in the spaces over which I had some control.

It isn’t surprising that I took, and still take, great pleasure in “nesting.” I never had to be told to clean my room because I loved keeping it tidy. Everything had a place. I took great pleasure in carefully arranging my precious collection of dog ornaments–Mitchell, Rex, Prince, and Danny Boy were among them–at particular angles on my shelf so they could see each other and not feel lonely when I was at school. My desk in elementary school and my lockers in junior high and high school were similarly tidy. Even now, colleagues, students, and custodians alike comment on how homey my office feels, which makes

me very happy. I want people to feel at home in the spaces where we spend time together.

Anyone who wants to know what kind of mood I am in or what kind of day I am having has only to look at the condition of my office to find their answer. If I have a messy desk, it means I am really stressed and probably overwhelmed. I have a dirty little secret though.  I have been known to throw caution to the wind, to pack my bag quickly at the end of my last class of the day or week, and make a beeline for home leaving in my wake a nest of chaos and disorder on my desk.

Between you and me, it feels deliciously liberating to leave all that crap behind to deal with on another day. It feels good knowing that I have broken the rules–MY rules–by leaving the evidence of my shortcomings as a human being in plain sight for the custodians to see when they empty the trash or for my colleague Shannin to mock when she scams the key to my office from our administrative assistant to loot chocolate from my Drawer of Sin. (Okay, she only did this once…14 years ago.) “Take that!” I think saucily as I lock my office door behind me on those sorts of days, “Let them think ill of me! I do not care a lick!” Of course, no one else does care a lick–whatever a lick is–because everyone is dealing with his or her own stress in his or her own way on any given day. Whether or not my office or home is cluttered is probably not on the top of anyone else’s list of concerns.

For me, keeping clutter at bay and purging it when it accumulates are some of the ways in which I keep up and/or regain a sense of balance when life is stressful. Discarding material clutter, whether at the end of a day, or in a seasonal purge, makes me feel in control of my work or living space even when other aspects of life feel like they are out of control.  Although I recognize that others find decluttering a chore they’d rather not do, so they don’t, for me, the act of decluttering is a form of self-care. It restoreth my soul, much like an afternoon spent writing or reading in a coffee shop.

It occurs to me that it is probably as, and likely more, important to have strategies for clearing our mental and emotional clutter too. That kind of clutter influences our well-being in ways that we’re only just beginning to understand. As I’ve thought about the pleasure I take in decluttering the spaces that I inhabit, I’ve wondered if I have similarly effective strategies for decluttering my mental and emotional spaces. If so, what are those strategies and am I using them often and effectively enough? How do you “declutter” the areas of your life that can weigh you down and get in the way of your ability to live your best life? What has worked or not worked and how have those strategies changed as you have changed? Please share!

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.


Can’t Move On After a Trauma? Then Step to the Side!

Several years ago a very traumatic event dropped me to my knees. didn’t think I’d ever be able to move forward. “I just don’t know how to go forward,” I said to my good friend Erica. (Yes, the same Erica from my last blog post about not settling for a life you don’t love!) “I just don’t know how to move on” I explained. “So don’t” she replied. “Just step to the side.”

Step to the side? Really? That wasn’t an option I’d even considered. No one “steps to the side” in a crisis. Isn’t that against the rules? You can’t just step to the side when your life falls to pieces. Nope. You’ve got to move forward. You have to suck it up. Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Move forward. Forget about it. “Just get back to your normal routine” proclaimed well-meaning friends and associates who barely knew me, let alone what I needed to do. No matter that I was writhing in pain, paralyzed, barely able to breathe. Forget that I could barely get out of bed let alone dust off the residue of the trauma that had occurred so quickly. “Just move forward,” the world said, “Keep going forward.”

Granted, there are people for whom “moving on” is exactly what they need to do in the aftermath of a crisis or traumatic event. I was not one of those people. I wasn’t sure about a lot in those first weeks and months. I was sure, however, that “moving on” wasn’t happening any time soon. Call it a lack of resilience, call it weakness, call it whatever you want, but forward motion was not something I was capable of at that time. I knew it even if no one else did.

Stepping to the side, however, was something I could do. In fact, it was exactly what I needed to do. So, it was exactly what I did.

What Happened When I Stepped Aside

I have the luxury of a job from which I was able to take a leave of absence, which I did. Although I wasn’t sure about a whole of things at that time, I was sure about what I needed to do in the way of self-care. At first, there were days when I just retreated and gave myself permission to feel nothing…or everything. I just let myself “be” whatever I needed to be in any given moment.

At one point, I took my dog Reese and the two of us embarked on a road trip. We visited a friend who lives in Iowa. We stopped at parks in towns that were off the beaten track as often as we wanted. We detoured to places I’d never heard of just because we could. Somewhere along the way, I remembered how to laugh.

Reese #1 Missouri

There was something restorative about watching the obese, 11-year-old, labrador retriever who had adopted me right around the time of my crisis as she romped like a puppy in the autumn leaves in parks across several states. Through her antics, beautiful Reese invited me to remember what joy looks like. She made me believe that one day I would know that feeling again.

Gradually, the idea of moving forward seemed like a possibility. When I was ready, I stepped away from the side and back into my life.

Had I not taken Erica’s advice and given myself permission to “step aside” I am not sure I would have survived that terrible ordeal. I’m not trying to be melodramatic. It was awful and I wasn’t feeling particularly tough. For me, stepping aside was a life saver. I have no regrets.

Going Forward

Thankfully, not everyone has huge life crises that cause them to step aside from their lives for weeks or months at a time. But we all have moments when we are at our wits’ ends and feel like we cannot “go forward” for one more minute. Parents have moments when their children have driven them to the edge. Employees have moments when the workload is too much or a boss or colleagues have driven them to the point of feeling crazy. How much better might our days be if we would just allow ourselves to “step aside” in such moments, if only for five minutes?


How much more focused and calm would we be if, instead of pushing through the craziness to our own and others’ detriment, we allowed ourselves to pause, if only briefly? How much happier and more grounded would we be if we allowed ourselves space to, say, sit quietly and meditate over a cup of coffee before moving forward? How much better equipped might we be to tackle the tough stuff if we gave ourselves and others permission to “step aside” from time to time?

This is hardly an original idea and many practice it regularly in different ways. However, the merit of “stepping aside” may not be in the forefront of our minds often enough, given the pace at which we live our lives today. Think about it. To what extent are you aware of your own need to step aside from time to time and do you honor that need? If so, how do you do that? If not, why not? What form does your self-care take? Please share.

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.