With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A New Day Will Come

"No half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.”

"Darkness must pass
A new day will comeAnd when the sun shinesIt will shine out the clearer"

- JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

My last post, on struggle, began with this line from Tolkien: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." Tolkien's words make light of difficult decisions, but they free us from the burden of projecting into the future, worrying about what others are doing, worrying about what others will do. The smaller focus liberates us to design a unique and adaptive approach to life.

Some feel that 2016 has left us in dark times. Michelle Obama spoke of hopelessness, and at this darkest point of the North American year, world and national events threaten to drown out the light of our holiday festivities.  In a sense, the growing darkness feels like a sibling to the darkness rising out of Mordor in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. How does the ragtag band of nine companions defeat the enemy (the Dark Lord, Sauron) who threatens them? The darkness has more power, more soldiers, more hate, and it wields these tools to divide the population of Middle Earth - elves, men, hobbits, dwarves.

Representatives of all the groups take part in the quest to destroy the ring of power. They work through initial distrust and suspicion, eventually forming strong bonds of friendship and love. They call relatives and tribes to back the quest, convincing disparate groups to ally through similar passions for justice, freedom, the ability to create good lives for families.  These groups are not unlike conservatives, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Jews, non-religious, refugee, immigrant, and other groups at odds in today's world. What convictions can we unroot to bind us all?

The band of nine also has access to wisdom from the greybeard wizard Gandalf. Every time Gandalf opens his mouth he dispenses gems like the quotes above. He goads, prods, and harasses the hobbits, men, dwarves and elves to work together, to feed the spark of hope that hides in their bellies.  Gandalf's wisdom coexists with warrior strength. He stands up to a vicious demon, an embodiment of evil, protecting his followers as they flee with the memorable words "You Shall Not Pass!"  The force of love, the desire for peace, can be fierce and strong enough to oppose any evil. They are not weak, milksop fantasies. 

Who can be a Gandalf for us in these times?  Jimmy Carter? John McCain? Ban Ki Moon? We need to find our wizards and learn from them.

Tolkien began The Hobbit (a precursor to The Lord of the Rings) in 1937, as the forces of darkness were gathering in Germany. People who lived in the dark times of World War II must have felt despair and the attraction of hopelessness. But the darkness was defeated. Not forever, but for their time. It's our time now, and our quest to battle whatever darkness rises. May a new day come to pass, and may we be ready to meet it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Struggle is the Thing

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

A dear friend of mine just wrote a Facebook confessional in which he admitted to twice contemplating suicide. The latter occasion coincided with the day after Trump won the presidential election. My friend's beautifully written explanation of his despair and hopelessness resonated with me because I care about him, and because I have hidden in a similar dark place.

I was driven to question life's merit by physical and mental illness. Nothing so noble as a fear for the country or the human race (as my friend expressed) but an utter shock and grief at my own personal weakness drove me to wonder why I should continue to struggle.

It's taken me forty - five years to understand this: the struggle is the thing.  We're led to believe that that happiness and ease are the end-goals. Our national outlook and our economy are based on the hope that something we buy, achieve, earn, drive or eat can make us happy, can make life worthwhile.  When these tactics fail, we try others, waste decades avoiding the struggle, pretending it isn't there, hoping it will go away.

But for those who are either forced into struggle or who choose it, the struggle is the thing. Ta-Nahisi Coates expresses this idea beautifully in  Between the World and Me: "So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope."

Verbs over nouns, struggle over hope. That doesn't sound easy and it doesn't sound fun. But Coates named his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, so despite the struggle of growing up as black male in America, he found the splendor in the struggle. No less of a pop culture authority than Iggy Azalea lines up with Coates on this issue: in the song "Work" she sings"Hustle and the struggle is the only thing I'm trusting."

The hardest aspect to swallow - akin to swallowing broken glass in your supermarket hamburger - is that we are not promised results. The struggle is worthwhile for it's own sake. There may be nothing in it for us or for our generation, and we're told not even to hope for the next. The struggle is real, and valuable, and enough.

A prematurely wise and sensitive genius, David Foster Wallace, agreed:
"No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home" (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays).

But I don't agree that the struggle is horrific or that the journey is either endless or impossible. Neither does my friend, which is why both he and I are still around. Our shared humanity and communal struggle provide rare moments of beautiful unity, recognition of our mutual longings. We know that who we become through struggle is who we are meant to be.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Seeing the Signs

In my last post I whined about not knowing where to focus my energies post-graduation. The universe has now shown me the mission, if I choose to accept it.

When I seek help in discernment, when I'm lost and fumbling my way forward, I talk to God (the universe, if that's more comfortable) and I talk to people. God answers quite frequently through other people, as she's good at delegating.

My dilemma after graduating with a creative writing degree was this: do I look for "real" work teaching or in an office, or do I take the time to make my own schedule, my own contacts, and write? The latter option promises no money, benefits, output or water-cooler conversations. When my kids ask me what I did during the day, what can I say? I typed some pages that may never be seen by human eyes?  I was afraid, vulnerable, feeling less-than.

But the universe has a sense of humor, and it delivered a verdict with enough hammer-blows that even I could understand.  First, a kind interview was published on the Regis website, discussing my stories about men and women in immigrant detention. Then, the President of Regis University read the interview at Saturday's graduation (announcing my intent to over a thousand people). Then my older son wrote a paper about the power of literature to change society - and asked me to edit. As a final tap on my skull, I opened Reader's Digest last night to a story first promoted on The Moth https://themoth.org/, a wonderful story-telling outlet that I would like to pitch.

So, I get it, thanks. I will try my hand at writing for the next nine months or so, until the kids go back to school in fall of 2017, and I'm typing my resolution for public consumption so I won't back down. I asked, She answered. Time to put my feet on the road.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chapters Old and New

Regis did a nice "exit" interview with me as I finish the MA in Creative Writing. Luke Graham tells my story in a way that almost seems purposeful, rather than circuitous and random, which is how life often seems to me (You can read it here: Do the Write Thing).

The article was a nice boost for my sinus-infected brain and my sense of loss related to graduation.

The fact that we're doing minor work on the house only complicates my sense of dislocation, as I'm lost in any conversation about textures, walls, ceilings, paint, color (yes, a long list). I had to meet a painter at home this afternoon so he could bid on the work.  He asked thoughtful questions about what type of paint I want and whether or not he should provide a bid on new cans.

I couldn't answer this, not having a clue about what we have on hand/have used in the past, or even what I want to do with the newly surfaced walls. I broke out the usual explanation of how I lack a gene for interior design. Did he want to see the article explaining that I'm a writer? (No, I didn't really mention that, but I was tempted.)

Whenever a craftsman comes to visit I feel inferior, remedial. Once I even told a contractor that we had a built-in ladder to the attic, so he didn't need to bring one.  Do we have said ladder?? Of course not. Hard to explain when we've lived here twelve years.

It's time to move forward with the next chapter of my life, which hopefully includes more published pieces and no home remodels. I'll miss the structural support of the Regis program and my friends and professors there. It's hard to thoughtfully shape my own life in lieu of reacting wildly to each new stimulus - but at least I know that the next chapter won't include interior design.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Let's Put the Bickering to Bed

My inbox just tweeted "75% of Trump supporters want clean energy!"

That's great, I thought. I bet they also want drinkable water and breathable air.

The next tweet was about an on-air fight between a Clinton organizer and her Trump counterpart. I didn't click on the link because really, who needs more bickering? The photos of both women looked ridiculous, their gaunt cheekbones and threatening pointer fingers sharpened for battle.

I'm tired of bickering, division, and manipulation. Most Americans are, too. We want the same things, for the most part.  Ralph Nader says in the latest issue of The Sun ("It's Easier Than We Think") "We're told that we're a polarized society, right? That's the way the ruling classes have manipulated people for more than two thousand years: divide and conquer" (Issue 492, pg 6).

Nader's quote reminds me of a story in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. In the pre-Revolutionary War South, poor whites and poor blacks began to realize how much they had in common. They started to organize against the rich landowners, agitating for higher wages. Let's say, for example, that they were all earning $4/day. They wanted $6/day for everyone. The landowners were spooked by the unity of the uprising and also ticked off because they wanted to keep the money. So they told the poor whites, "We're not giving you $6/day, we're only going to give you $4.50. But it's better than what you had, and it's way better than what we're giving the black folks. They're only getting $3.50."

There was a bit more strategery involved, but the rich landowners drove a wedge between the remarkably similar and united black and white workers. They spent not a penny more, and neither group was better off, but the revolution was still-birthed and division was sowed for future use.

Are we watching it happen again? Everyone's health care has deteriorated over the past decade, everyone's college costs have skyrocketed. Everyone's climate is imperiled. Big majorities in both parties are frustrated by the recent election. We're more alike than we are different.

Who benefits when we spend our time quarreling rather than attacking the big problems? I'll tell you who - the big corporations. They're now allowed to act like people in our democracy. They're allowed to lobby government officials, spend money on campaigns, and support candidates of either or both parties. Some of them are making BIG bucks while we argue about whose supporters are more hate-filled.

This blog simplifies a great deal, I know. Blame it on my cold, on the immense amounts of green phlegm that erupt  when I stop to blow my nose. Blame it on my Friday-night fatigue, or my holiday-tired Mom brain. But when we're done casting blame, let's put the bickering to bed, let's stop being manipulated and let's take on some of the big problems - together.