The Aftermath of Life and the Writer

I spent a good portion of last week writing in a hotel lobby in northern Minnesota. My family was upstairs asleep, quite accustomed to my compulsion to be up early and writing. We were there for my mother-in-law’s funeral. She passed away early last week and between all the planning and rushing about, there was little time to reflect. Now that I’m back home, back to our everyday life, I feel a heavy blanket of depression and am desperate to be alone. Exhaustion has flattened my senses, as has the constant requirement to be around people.

Writing saved my sanity marginally (as is always the case). I wrote her obituary and a eulogy, the few personal touches in a sea of motions and formalities surrounding a person’s death. I thought a lot about narrative and how, after a person dies, they simply become a collection of stories and pictures, all determined by who is doing the telling and the picking. At times I felt angry about misrepresentations – cloying sentimentality and overt religiosity, in which my mother-in-law had little interest when she was alive. Every time I felt a prickle of anger, I had to remind myself that the rituals were for the living, not the dead.

I just finished reading an essay by Rebecca Solnit titled “Twenty Million Missing canstockphoto1323495Storytellers”, where she writes about voting and how the people who vote define the narrative for our country. Those who are routinely discouraged through voter suppression tactics or whose votes are rendered pointless through guerrilla gerrymandering do not get to shape the narrative. And then I think about Sinclair Broadcasting which now requires its local stations to release propaganda as part of their local news reporting. They are shaping the narrative.

The narrative is power. It drives people’s recollections and opinions and decisions. It writes history and bends the people’s will. I came back to my everyday life unable to get back to writing projects, feeling the listlessness and temporary powerlessness brought on by loss. It’s more extreme and immediate than the occasional malaise that has hit me over the last few years, but the question is the same. Why does anything I write matter?

The answer is also the same. We must tell our stories or they will be told for us, whether it be after we pass or used to shaped the political world in which we live. We must tell our stories or they will be stolen from us, revised, and rewritten. We must tell our stories or we will be indoctrinated by someone else’s teachings, our memories overwritten by someone else’s telling.

There is also the personal reason. My life is made more tolerable when I write. My senses are easily overwhelmed by emotion and chaos. I numb myself, shield myself in a dull shroud. But writing frees me, allows me to cry in private, to express intense emotion, to re-order the chaos. It allows me to tell my story in my own time, manner, and place of choosing.

So it matters.

At the moment, writing elicits long sighs and some tears, but it is by feeling my grief in words and finding comfort in silence that I will find my way back. I have more stories to tell. In the mean time, I will read yours.

We Are All Unreliable Narrators

canstockphoto10603891The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.

Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.

I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.

This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.

canstockphoto6397204Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.

Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.

There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.

canstockphoto6433663The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”

One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.

canstockphoto5516626Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive.  When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).

There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.

The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.

canstockphoto12537336When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.

I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within –  that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.

Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:

Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. GinottThe communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.

Walking through Storyland

canstockphoto15817518The most irritating writing advice for me is write what you know. Once I’ve written that paragraph, I sink into a morass of self-pity and caffeine. I wrote about finding narrative on vacation. Sometimes a change of scenery is the jolt needed to wake a person up from the glazed coma of being in one place for too long. Upon return, things look a little different.

Last night, I took a stroll around my neighborhood. With the latest addition of a grocery store, my neighborhood is like one of those preformed children’s city sets. I had a moment when I realized how lucky I was to live here, about two seconds before writer’s angst kicked in – could I create from such a comfortable and comforting kind of life? But wait! There’s more.

Welcome to the calm seas of a suburban life rendered into the turgid waters of human existence. Let’s take a walk.

I live in a neighborhood built in the 1950s, each little ranch home a duplicate of the one next door. Except that these houses have stories. Our neighbors on one side have home schooled their six children and the driveway is chock full of cars, as each child gains a driver’s license. Years ago, the husband got booted for smacking his wife. He’s back, contrite and polite. I watch for signs that he’s actually learned his lesson.

canstockphoto15722695The children all turned out a bit weird. One walks the dog sullenly, barely making eye contact when I say hello. The youngest has grown his hair as long as my daughter has had hers cut short. The next youngest used to follow me about the yard asking me if I was a Christian and telling me that the raspberries I picked were “God’s juice boxes”. I’m hoping the kid that keeps showing up on the weekend in camouflage is part of a well-regulated militia. And while they sound like a version of creepy Quiverfulls, they’re pretty good neighbors who don’t spray their lawn with chemicals. We share weeds.

The house that sits on the curve was thankfully bought after a brief time as a rental property. It worried us. They had pit bulls that occasionally got loose and the Sheriff showed up once a week to follow up on warrants for the son, an ex-con who was still dealing drugs. Cars would pull up at all hours of the night.

canstockphoto28260950I walk around the high school near us and pass a house where a couple of years ago, a man holed himself up with his shotgun and girlfriend. Eventually he surrendered, but we listened to the choppers all day.

John’s house is on the right. He is a veteran of the Korean war and following a valve replacement, would walk every night down our street. When I saw him coming, I put down my gardening tools and met him halfway. He’d lived here since the beginning and always had a new story. He has Parkinson’s now and I sometimes catch glimpses of him in the evening, slowly walking to his mailbox.

As I walk a few blocks away to the city park, I feel a moment of silliness. I’m in Lego Land. There’s city hall, the police station, the firehouse, the public pool. I think whimsical thoughts about how, if like Lego people, we could all turn our plastic hair backwards, everyone would look like Donald Trump.

There’s a gangly boy using the skateboard park. I always fear that I’ll be witness to a noggin being cracked open every time I pass the park. This kid’s not wearing a helmet and seems light on skills. My pace quickens.

At the outdoor amphitheater, they’re in rehearsal for “Oliver”.  A woman is warning them that four days is a long time without practice and that they need to keep at it. My daughter, years ago, took a summer acting class at this theater. They made the kids wear stage-worthy makeup which smeared in the August heat. She was morphed into a melty butterfly whose lack of interest in stage direction was only eclipsed by this summer’s soccer apathy.

Behind the firehouse, the police and firefighters are having a family picnic. The officer I talked to that morning is there. Two police cars and a fire engine had pulled up in front of our house before 7 a.m. I could see up and down the street, people looking out windows, strolling to the end of their driveways. Hovering at the edges with the odd, wary politeness of midwesterners. I watched officers break into the home across the street.

I used to joke that the guy was either a unabomber or that bodies would be found stacked like Jenga blocks in his basement. It seemed like he waited until no one was outside before getting his mail and his windows were always covered. After having a child, I decided that this was too weird. I started waiting for him to get his mail. And then I’d go out to check mine and greet him with a loud “hello” and big, fake smile. Who’s scary now?

It turned out to be a natural gas leak and he’d moved out a while ago and was just renovating his elderly father’s place, in order to put it on the market. Nothing exploded and no bodies were discovered.

canstockphoto2595648I was glad to see the officers and firefighters at a happy event. They deserve it. Earlier this year, after two new officers were sworn in at city hall, a man entered the building and fired on them, hitting the new hires. They survived. The shooter did not. One of the worst first days on the job ever.

Behind the pool there are tennis courts. A young woman is teaching tennis to a group of elementary kids. Only one parent stays. He watches as her tennis skirt sways and flutters upward during a demonstration for the kids. I slow down as I walk past him, making him unconsciously lean left and right to keep his view. Sometimes I can be a jerk.

One and a half miles of the human experience. Subject to a thousand interpretations, waiting for a writer to take hold and grapple with the stories on paper. To say we don’t know what to write has as much veracity in my ears as my kid saying I’m bored during the summer. My response is the same: Go for a walk.canstockphoto7444328

Stories from the Road: The Search for Narrative

After a vacation in Montana, I’ve returned home, a head full of unorganized thoughts and a vague sense that I’m on the right path again. For months, I’ve been languishing in a purgatory of writer impotence and flailing about for some sense of purpose.

canstockphoto4003992We took the Amtrak train from St. Paul to Glacier National Park, staying in a century-old lodge with few amenities and scant Wi-fi. We paid for a view and a convenient walk from the train station. Following our arrival, we spent our days hiking and horseback riding and our evenings playing board games.

The Glacier Park Lodge is an attempt to hold onto and faintly mimic a complicated history of land and people. Displays of old photos, both in the lodge and at the railway station reflect a pride in that history. They didn’t tell the whole story.

Sometimes I get told that I have a negative perspective, but I have learned to deflect this purported insult. It intends to shut me up, but nearly always fails. This trip reminded me of one the reasons I’m a writer. I always have questions and I’m always in search of a true narrative.

I couldn’t look at photos of railway executives and Blackfoot Indians and not wonder about the dynamics of those relationships. There were pictures of Indians performing ceremonies on the lodge’s lawn for upper-middle class white families in the 1920s. Not a half century earlier, the US Army, led by a drunken major, killed 173 Blackfoot women, children and elderly men in the worst Indian massacre in Montana history, about 70 miles away.

This idea that we should just embrace the positive rankles me. It seems endemic to the contemptuous schooling of conquering nations. Human history is populated by millions of stories and many of them are not happy ones. It is sometimes said, to pompously quote Churchill, that “History is written by the victors.” I grew up with those magical history books of American history and was disappointed to see in my daughter’s lessons, that not much has changed, except a sprinkling in of a few minority figures.

While on vacation, I finished reading Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer. The novel is about a Kikuyu family decimated by the attempts to overthrow Britain’s colonial rule and regain native lands in the 1960s. The hope we humans cling to, sometimes blinds us to the reality, both as victims and perpetrators of atrocity. I was struck by these sentences from the book: “He would reduce everything to his will. That was the settler’s way.”

It isn’t white guilt or a need to revel in misery that appeals. It is painting a whole picture. It is avoiding simplistic thinking of good and evil. It’s recognizing the immense suffering expansionism, colonialism and war can cause. It’s understanding that human relations are complex, mired in personal ambition, revenge, fear, greed, as well as noble intention and bravery.

In the railway station, a native American man bent down looking at the photos on display. I watched him, this giant covered in tattoos. Part of me expected him to rise up, angry and disgusted. Instead, he said quietly to the older woman next to him, “They took down his picture. See? They put that one up instead.” Oh, how I wanted to ask him so many questions, but the softness and sadness in his voice prevented me from intruding. The story began writing itself.

As I watched the North Dakota and Montana plains roll by from the train window, I was reminded of my own story. I remember traveling as a kid, watching the endless miles slide by from the backseat of a Buick. My eyes would follow the power lines as they rose and fell. I’d rest my head against the window, drifting off to sleep with the comforting thump-thump of the road beneath us.

I was a born observer. And every observation is only a few minutes from a surrounding narrative, my mind filling in the details. I often go to sleep in the middle of a story, which may explain why the ending of my novel eludes me.

Being an observer means that the natural world is a feast. Initially, I was disappointed at Glacier. It’s early in the season, the lake waters are cold, flowers aren’t in full bloom and the animal youngsters have yet to be born. I felt this hunger, getting up at the crack of dawn with my binoculars, searching for birds or deer, anything to fill the landscape’s narrative.

canstockphoto25706984I waited and I searched. Bear spottings are down this year, one of the guides told us. Another swore he’d seen several on the bank of Two Medicine Lake. Instead, we were discovered by very insistent and entertaining Columbian ground squirrels at a picnic table by the lake. They knew their audience.

canstockphoto15014062On the second day of early morning watching, I was rewarded with a couple of Black-billed Magpies who, despite being members of the crow family, were not happy with the crows that came near their nest. I got a version of an aerial show, magpies v. crows. I’m happy to say the magpies won and I watched for them each morning.

I looked everywhere for stories and I found them. So often we get mired in the day-to-day that we forget our nature. Mine is that of an observer and storyteller. It’s a lovely thing to go away on vacation and to come back to one’s self.