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.

The Ugly Duckling: The Ambiguity of Fairy Tales

canstockphoto17569045It was “show and trade” day in 1st grade. Everyone got to bring a toy from home that they could trade with another student. There wasn’t much I could bring. My mother finally gave in on a doll. It was a large plastic doll, a hand-me-down from another family. It was the kind of doll you put diapers on, except she didn’t have any clothes and one of her arms kept falling off.

Each student would go to the front of the classroom to show and talk about the toy that they wanted to trade. I was shy and it was the first year I had to wear glasses. They were black-rimmed, in the shape of stop signs, magnifying my eyes. I shuffled up in front of my classmates and stood there in plaid jumper and octagon eyes, saying nothing, doll hanging from one hand upside-down. A few awkward moments passed and then the teacher called the next student.

After everyone had shown their items, the trading floor opened, a mosh pit of grabbing and shouting “I called it first!”. I stood off to the side. The teacher gently called me over to the wall cabinet near her desk. “I’ll trade with you.” She dug through a box and pulled out a square envelope. Inside was a black disc, a slightly used 45 of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. I had just received my first audiobook.

canstockphoto14735381My mother played it upon request, in between her Steely Dan and Simon & Garfunkel rotations. It told the now classic tale of the ugly little duckling who endured ridicule and misery, only to become a beautiful swan. It’s a message I took very much to heart, believing that my day would come if only I were long-suffering and patient.

The ugly duckling story shows up time and time again in popular culture. I just re-watched “Strictly Ballroom”. The movie had a sledgehammer of a theme that with time, a little rhythm and some googly eyes from a boy, a tragically inept and bespectacled heroine turns into a woman of substance/beauty – worthy of admiration and respect.

As a child growing up in the 70s, I watched fictional women become beautiful and substantive through the most artificial of means – Wonder Woman spinning off her glasses and hair bun, Jamie Sommers getting bionic bits and pieces, and the bespectacled librarian calling on the goddess Isis for lip gloss and a miniskirt.

It wasn’t just about superficial beauty created through handicapped vision, bustiers and spackling. It was, under all of that glitz, about being a special little snowflake in a world of dust bunnies. It was a consolation prize for being miserable in the now, for feeling left out, looked over, and shoved aside. It was a selfish sort of martyrdom, a comforting bit of procrastination.

I waited and waited to become something special, to feel like I was in the skin I was supposed to be in and not just an ungainly duck. The magical if-then thinking was a comfort while I waited to outgrow the awkward stage of being me. Nearly forty years later and I’ve given up daydreaming, curtailed wishful thinking, stood in the moment I’m in and thought Well, how about that, ducky?

It’s not a fairytale ending. I wrote this thinking I’d likely end up with some sort of self-affirming bravado, but I don’t roll that way. The bottom line is that there will always be ducks who are ducks. Plain and simple. There’s a pragmatic clarity that I like about that thought. There’s no condescending cheer Be the best duck you can be or you’re beautiful on the inside as some sort of consolation prize.

I re-read The Ugly Duckling recently and it seemed more an odious tale about bullying and an ugly obsession with conventional beauty and conformity, than inspirational fodder for the homely. What we take away from stories can say a lot about where we are in our lives. And the reality is that swans are rather aggressive. If the tale were truer to life, that ugly duckling/cygnet would have kicked those mean ducklings’ asses all over that pond. Now that’s a tale I’d enjoy reading.canstockphoto21971542

I’ve been exploring fable and fairy tale themes in writing. Here are some helpful resources:

Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable by Adrian Room

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of Grimm Brothers: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Aesop’s Fables (Oxford World’s Classics) by Aesop, Laura Gibbs (Translator)

Tea and Toast: Stories at Breakfast

Writing prompts have never appealed to me for a couple of reasons. There is the Rule of Obstinacy that guides most of my life. Suggest something to me? You’re not the boss of me. Join a group, a trend, a club? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would take me. Recommend something to me? What are your supporting sources? I need to do the research.

canstockphoto17725260The second reason that writing prompts don’t appeal, is that I cannot eat a simple breakfast without my mind falling over itself with ideas and thoughts. I so often start conversations with people, “I was just thinking about…”, which is to say, I spend a lot of time inside my head. I get up at 4am every morning, so that I can sit in solitude and silence for a few hours. I read or write, eat breakfast or have some weird-ass epiphany.

This morning was no different. I woke up at 3:42am with a cat sitting on my chest, purring its sycophantic feed-me purr. I had a post ready to put up on this blog, but I didn’t like where I ended it, so it stays in the draft pile. I wonder if I’ll post anything at all. No worries, time for breakfast.

The first order of any day is to put on the kettle. We have a lovely ceramic electric kettle. Tea has been a part of my life since I was born. It was the cure-all for whatever ails thee and the only proper way to begin, well, anything. Nothing happened until the tea was made. Visitors could not talk, Christmas presents could not be opened, phone calls could not commence.

My family came to the United States from England in 1953 on the last White Star liner built, the MV Georgic. They arrived rumpled and tired at Ellis Island, and made their way to Savannah, Georgia. They lived there for a year with a disagreeable relative before taking a train to San Francisco. Eventually, my mother, reluctant father, and I moved to the midwest, where I have lived most of my life. This is all to say, that much of what was British was left in a trail all over the country, with the exception of tea and accents and a certain reticence about…everything.

The tea is not a fancy one. In my cupboard, there is almond, chai, green, white, jasmine and a lot of made up flavored teas. I’ve tried them all, but my regular cup is black pekoe with sugar and soy milk. The soy milk is a nod to my newly acquired veganism, but I expect with all the soy I’ve been consuming, that I’ll be growing a third breast any day now. Moo.

The mention of veganism is an awkward segue to the other part of my breakfast, toast. I baked the bread yesterday, after making vegan adaptations to the recipe. I use the oven, don’t have a dough mixer and the recipe has no weird ingredients. This means I’ll be finding flour in the kitchen for weeks to come. It takes 3-4 hours to make this bread, which allows several hours of proofing the dough, pounding it down again and letting it rise. And if you can’t see the analogy to writing in that, there’s no helping you.

canstockphoto18405495I once worked in a bakery at a grocery store. I’d arrive at 5am, mix dough for doughnuts and plop those little rings into the fryer. I didn’t last in that job long. I was still wearing the Hi My Name is Michelle. I’m New, but I’m Exceptional nametag when I quit. I now have a lifelong doughnut and nametag revulsion. The doughnut’s history is disputed, but it is thought that olykoeks, meaning oily cakes, were brought over by the Dutch settlers. I went to Amsterdam once and got food poisoning (not from doughnuts), but no pot. It was a disappointing trip. Except for the tulips. They were pretty.

canstockphoto6826957Which reminds me that I have to get some fencing up around the still dormant flower beds. The rabbits go to town on the tulips, spitefully biting off full blooms mid-stem and leaving them on the ground. They don’t even like to eat them, the little nobs. Still, every year, I plant in excess to make sure that after all the animals get done with our open buffet, we get a damned salad out of it. This year, our full ecosystem is in swing. The rabbits, mice, voles and chipmunks have brought in owls, hawks and last year, a red fox. Population control is cruel, but innate.

Well, breakfast is done. Now I have to do some offline laundry. Which reminds me of a story…

Look at what this artist did with a simple idea. Have a lovely Sunday!

Time Travel on Facebook

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I’ve written before about my aversion to some social media. Besides the conspicuous consumption of time, Facebook is how I found out that my best friend from 5th grade had lost the use of both her legs and arms in a car accident. Which led me to a search where I found out that another classmate and her brother were both dead in their early 40s. It was jarring and traumatic. These faces, frozen in my mind’s eye, were young and healthy and living happy lives in some far off world. Anything beyond that failed to reach my imagination.

When I was in my teens, we moved to a house, town and school far away from where I’d grown up. It was, in reality, only about 40 miles away, but rural miles. No public transportation or extra family car or cell phone plans to keep in touch with old friends. We wrote letters. It seems quaint now, as if we’d moved by covered wagon.

The year before the move, on a parental whim, I had been pulled from the public school where I’d been since Kindergarten and plopped into a church school, where, as a girl, I was not allowed to wear pants with pockets. The culture shock led to a series of uncharacteristic pranks and mild hooliganism, including pouring unholy amounts of pepper into the school’s soup and some minor brawling during flag football. It was the same year in which the pastor of the church got caught embezzling and a teacher at the school molested my best friend. The following summer, we moved.

The student population at the new school was drawn from four rural towns and still my eighth grade class only had some 50 students. I settled in awkwardly, made friends at the fringes and envied the popular kids. With a deteriorating home situation, I got involved in everything: track, editor of the school paper, speech, plays, musicals, band, choir. I felt like a constant outsider, but pictures of my unwieldy teenage self are sprinkled liberally about yearbooks.

I worked, bought a car, started to drink, got high a few times, and went to frat parties in the nearest college town. Wherever I was, I felt, as so many teenagers do, that I did not belong. I had two best friends, one who was a parent’s dream and another, two steps from rehab and/or juvie. The three of us didn’t hang out together. I led distinctly separate lives. One had me competing in band and speech contests, the other got me acquainted with the police in two cities.

canstockphoto23898647At home, being tuned into every vibration of other people’s moods was self-preservation. It could mean the difference between being screamed at and hit or currying favor at just the right moment so that I could hang out with a friend. Sometimes it meant determining whether or not I would sleep in my bed or if the five of us, my mom, two brothers and sister would be staying in a dingy hotel room that night.

Living on eggshells and developing survival empathy made me weird. Other people became cults of personality in my head. I watched and listened keenly to what they liked and didn’t like, who their crush of the week was, what they wore and how they walked. I wanted to be them, but they seemed like these marvelous, otherworldly creatures to me – ethereal and unreachable. I was small.

It’s a particular kind of body schema to look out at the world, seeing and admiring other humans as big and important and full of life. It took me well into my late twenties to gain perspective in that rear view mirror, and years of living alone to step into my own life and take up space.

Which brings me to the other people. There were two friends. I have a picture of them together in front of the place where we all worked during the summer. They’re pretty girls with stylish hair and clothes I could never afford. Clear skin, beautiful eyes, casual in their bodies, bodies that had been admired and felt up by boys on whom I had revolving crushes. In my eyes, they had and were everything.

Our junior year, they were driving home from a game on one of those winding rural highways, cut into the earth, the pavement laid out four inches higher than the gravel. The driver over-adjusted when the tire slipped off the edge of the road. The car flipped and rolled, sending the two girls through the windshield. One of them died.

Teenagers grieve loudly and visibly or they shutter themselves in dark corners and write bad poetry. We mourned that whole year, gossiping in righteous indignation when the dead girl’s boyfriend began to date someone new. By the next year, life had found a semblance of normal. The friend who lived was still enviable, made more alluring by her survival of a tragic accident.

In a story of fiction, she’d go on to live a happy life, a joyful existence in honor of her friend, never forgotten. In real life, she was dead at 41 from cancer, leaving behind several children. A few years later, her older brother, the quarterback with a quiet smile and gentle demeanor, was crushed to death by industrial equipment.

canstockphoto14061639If I ever needed a reason to read and write stories, it is this: they explode the moments, magnify the minutiae and put some meat on the bones of our lives. Between youth and endings, tragic or not, we are more than our milestones, births, marriages, deaths. These lives, so full of promise, take up space. To see only the milestones and the end of their story has all the depth of a deflated balloon. I missed all the meaning in the middle and it feels like cheap voyeurism.