More good stories: from middle America to Africa and the American South
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts (1986). A sweet, quick read that lifts my faith in humanity every time I read it. Caney Paxton is a Vietnam vet who runs an Eastern Oklahoma diner from his wheelchair but hasn’t been outside since the place opened twelve years ago. The diner is peopled by a mash-up of locals who rally to help one another at every turn. Crow Indian woman Vena Takes Horse blows in the door one day with an injured dog in a cardboard box, upsetting the order Molly O has established as her way of watching over Caney and managing life with and without her wild and estranged daughter Brenda. Meanwhile Bui, a homeless Vietnamese immigrant finds a home in the local black church and surreptitiously restores it even beyond its former glory, while working as short-order cook and handyman.
In here he knew what to expect. The smell of hot grease and stale beer, the flicker of red and blue neon, the taste of ketchup on fries, the clink of spoons against coffee cups. Days as predictable as…Suddenly, Caney grabbed the wheels of his chair, gave them a powerful jerk and popped the chair over the threshold. Clearing the door frame, feeling the heat of the sun on his face, he squinted against the glare.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (2016). When I got to the end of this absorbing novel, I turned right back to the beginning and started over. I can’t say that about any other book. Gyasi’s heroines are half-sisters Effia and Esi, born in different villages in 18th century Ghana. Married off to an Englishman, Effia lives out a European colonial life, one of the many native women the British take as second wives. She does not know that her half-sister Esi is imprisoned in the castle dungeon below her palatial quarters, about to endure the agonizing Middle Passage. In alternating chapters Homegoing then traces the sisters’ parallel stories generation by generation. The unfolding of tribal warfare, control of the slave trade, and colonialization on the one hand. Plantation life in the deep South, the Civil War and Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance on the other. On my second pass, I read Esi’s story straight through, and then Effia’s, and absorbed more details of the finely-rendered characters, times and places.
…two long moans meant the enemy was miles off; three quick shouts meant they were upon them…Esi did what her father had taught her, grabbing the small knife that her mother used to slice plantains and tucking it into the cloth of her skirt. Maame sat on the edge of her cot. “Come on!” Esi said, but her mother didn’t move…”I can’t do it again,” she whispered.
Non-fiction: the power of recognizing yourself in the text
Running on Empty, Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Jonice Webb, PhD, with Christine Musello, PsyD (2013). Webb’s book was life-changing for me. For this book among many things I am ever grateful to my healer Brenda Blessings. In Webb’s cogent analysis I recognized my own life – the way I experienced the world and behaved in response. If anyone had ever asked me straight out if I was emotionally neglected as a child, I would have responded with a puzzled yet definitive “no.” But Running on Empty helped me to see the relationship among what to me had been unrelated fragments. Feelings of isolation while real life went on in Technicolor on the other side of a barrier I could not breach. A capacity to speak up, and passionately, on behalf of others, but not for myself. A disconnect between “work” and pay, cause and effect. And other mysteries of my life. Five years later, the these fragments have softened and integrated – still around, yet no longer running my psyches and my life. Such as…
Signs and Signals of Alexithymia
– you have a tendency to be irritable
– you are seldom aware of having a feeling
– you are often mystified by others’ behaviors
– you are often mystified by your own behavior
– when you do get angry, it tends to be excessive or explosive
– sometimes your behavior can seem rash to yourself or to others
– you feel you are fundamentally different from other people
– something is missing inside of you
– your friendships lack depth and substance
Inspiration and guidance from many cultures
Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott (1994). I was a fan of Lamott’s from the time I first read Traveling Mercies (1999) – captured by her plain-spoken struggles with faith in daily life. It was many more years before I began to have any thoughts at all of myself as a writer. Writing was just something I did, and loved, whether I was journaling or writing testimony for a legislative hearing. If you think that none of this could apply to you, take my word for it: good writing and a good life both follow the same instructions, as Lamott’s title indicates. She opens and closes Bird by Bird by calling us to truth.
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, but we do…But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
There are so many things I want to tell my students in our last class…Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.
The World has Changed, Conversations with Alice Walker, edited with an introduction, Rudolf P. Byrd (2010). This volume was a sale-table find at Red Emma’s, where I was browsing while waiting to meet my friend Lisa for lunch. In these nineteen interviews and conversations with Walker from 1973 – 2009, she is often asked the same questions. What changes and what remains a steady thread in her responses is the instructive nourishment of this compilation. Then there is the sheer power and magic of her speaking.
On writing fiction:…there’s that wonderful, playful quality of knowing you have dreamed up people who are walking around and who have opinions…You’re dreaming people, creating people, they do surprising things, but it’s only because you have given them that freedom in creating them.
On Possessing the Secret of Joy: I learned about genital mutilation twenty years ago in Kenya, and it was just so completely beyond my experience at the time…that I didn’t, I literally didn’t understand what they meant…But by the time I actually started [the book] I was in such a state of grief that the only thing that sustained me was that I could go outside and just lie facedown on the earth. And I really understood…that the body of a woman is the body of the earth, and it was the same kind of scarring, mutilation, control. You know, “If you’re gonna have a crop, it’s gonna be my crop.”…And the same where they cut the woman and they sew her up, and they say, “if you’re gonna have children, it’s gonna be my child.”
The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (2016) Two of the wisest men on the planet are in conversation, and their love for one another and their warm and playful friendship, displayed in photos and verbal exchanges, bring delight, though Abrams as narrator sometimes got in my way. My friend Greg loaned me this book, accurately sensing that my spirits were sorely in need of upliftment. Joy, in fact, remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Abrams did redeem himself in my eyes by including this definition from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens.”
The Dalai Lama: After 9/11 you would have suspected that those who hated America would have been gloating. But there were very, very, very few people gloating, People were deeply, deeply distressed. Had the American President not hit back, we might have had a different world. We will have a different world of course, eventually. But just look at any tragedy…There is compassion that just springs up.
Archbishop Tutu: You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others…God created us and said, Go now, my child. You have freedom. And God has had such incredible reverence for that freedom that God would much rather we freely went to hell than compel us to go to heaven…And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something.
For Part 1 for Ardent readers: http://alifeofpractice.com/musings/ardent-reader-pt-1-good-stories-perennial-wisdom/