Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.

 

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Coming Home

How perfect!—my daughter writes a post about being on the road and my thoughts turn to coming home.

It happens every year. Thanksgiving rolls around, she lives in L.A., I picture her here, the sleepy hamlet of Katonah, NY.

Home.

No secret that air travel—even without the added stresses of uncooperative weather—is a nightmare during prime-time holidays.  We talk about how nice it would be to spend Thanksgiving together again. Immediately the memories kick in: our first Thanksgiving in the new house years ago, the dog settled on the kitchen floor staring up at the turkey being carved.  Body language says it all. Any scrap will do. feed me - Thanksgiving 1996

With so many people booking flights home, planes completely full, you’d think air fares could be cheaper, not sky high.  But commerce is never about heart. And coming home is never just about money.  We pull out the rationalization card—there are 365 days to the year, you can visit anytime, why put so much emphasis on one day?  We remind ourselves that life choices sometimes bring complications. What we think of as ‘home,’ for all the memories and comforts it encompasses, is never the same once we leave it.  Sure, there’s always evidence of our presence, even in reconfigured rooms. But sometimes the very quality of what felt good and safe—in my case, a solid middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood where doors could be left open during the day—gives way to a gradual deterioration.  Home is tinged with sadness. What was, no longer is. You can’t go home again.

For my daughter, three thousand miles away, coming home brings some pampering, yes, and favorite meals cooked by mama, and cozying up to the television as a family. But each visit is a reminder of what’s missing (the dog barking at animals on the TV screen or in a game of catch-me-if-you-can or curled in her bed, a ghost now) and every Thanksgiving recalls that first one in a house that is every bit a home, my husband’s gift for designing space all the feng shui needed.  A wall removed here, an architectural column added there, and voilà—the living room/dining room/kitchen takes on a loft-like feel, a place meant for friends and family to gather.

This year there were nine of us around the table.  At its center was a menorah, which my husband lit as I served latkes.  Gold-foiled chocolate Chanukah gelt dotted the tablecloth like confetti.  One friend brought vodka (my request) to go with the latkes.  I like the sound of it, I told him, vodka and latkes. Just as I like the sound of Thanksgivvukah—the rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah that last occurred in 1888 and won’t occur again until 2070.  When the sun and moon cross paths we have an eclipse. When the 2013 solar (Gregorian) calendar marks a feast of thanks on the very same day the 5774 lunar (Jewish) calendar marks a festival of light, everything shines a little more brightly. Gratitude goes hand-in-hand with remembrance.

We held up our glasses to someone with us in spirit, seven years gone now, her husband reminded us.  She was the one who started our Thanksgiving-with-friends tradition, all of us living in the city at the time.  We began alternating when I moved to the big exurban house.  I assumed the mantle when breast cancer made her too weak to cook.  When a link is broken, we do our best to hold together the chain. Some Thanksgivings we spend together, some we don’t. This one was as perfect as it gets. Despite (or because of) telling myself I was letting go of perfection this year, the turkey was brown and crisp and juicy.

So instead of picturing my daughter scrambling to the airport to come home, I content myself with texts from her (when she’s in the passenger seat) en route to Davis, CA, with her boyfriend, where she would spend turkey day with her grandmother/aunt/uncle/cousin.  It warms my heart, really. If only I could get past that little ache, the passing years, the letting go, the nostalgia for that thing called family gatherings in a time when generational distance from the fold is more the norm than the exception.

If there is light in your heart, you will find your way Home

Even if Rumi had in mind something beyond walls and hearths, feasts and comforts, his words have a way of speaking to the moment, and the times in which we live: maybe you don’t have to be fully engaged in a spiritual life to long for the spirit of home. We do the best we can. Realities of modern living make us seek something as close to home (metaphorically) as possible when holidays roll around. We have home pages, homing devices, movies that tell us there’s no place like it. All Dorothy had to do was click her heels three times. All E.T. wanted to do was make a very long-distance phone call.

How can I help but smile? The same Sufi mystic who has me ruminating about home reminds me, in another poem: Personality is a small dog trying to get the soul to play.