Imagine

 

My convent memoir completed, I sent out numerous query letters, synopses, and proposals hoping an agent would snap me up. After all, who doesn’t want the inside scoop on those saints or wretches (depending on your experience) called nuns? When the response was silence, I realized I needed help. I signed up for the annual Willamette Writers Conference and an editing session with Molly Best Tinsley.

First item of my day was to Google Molly. She is a writer of short stories, spy novels, and a memoir. In addition she is a teacher, and is professor emerita at the United States Naval Academy. She has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Sandstone Prize and the Oregon Book Award. Critics write of her complex characters and intelligent, clear style.

Impressed with her qualifications, I sent in my twenty-five pages and received not only an astute critique but a request to read the next twenty-five. When she asked to read the entire manuscript and showed an interest in possible publication, I knew she believed in the book.

Belief in a book. Belief in the writing. The words take me back to my two years at the Northwest Writing Institute where gifted professors Kim Stafford, Joanne Mulcahy, and Jim Heynen encouraged me to examine with kindness my writing and the writing of colleagues. Jim Heynen’s words stay with me: “When critiquing a work, believe in the possibilities.”

To believe in the possibilities requires not only focus, but also reverence for a work. Molly Best Tinsley has been that kind of editor for me. In the words of my Facebook post, she has guided, questioned, and challenged me to write at the top of my game and beyond. What more could a writer ask?

Whiplash

As a middle school and high school teacher, I wanted my students to experience “the joy of learning,” through a study of illustrated children’s literature. You know, those blissful books meant for young people and philosophers. We explored ABC books, including the masterful work of Seuss, Van Allsburg, and Musgrove. During this unit, students laughed and remembered read-aloud times with parents. Joyful, stress-less classes led students to bring ABC books from home—a little battered, always beloved. The young people created their own bright, happy alphabet booklets.

My personal favorite was and remains Ashanti to Zulu. The 1977 Caldecott winner, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, is a festive celebration of African tribal customs and a colorful peek inside an unknown continent. The Gold Coast tribes alone are worth the experience: an Ashanti wears his silk-threaded kente. Ewe drummers signal to tribes far away. The Fanti host offers bubbly palm wine. An ABC book which might be a metaphor for joyful learning.

Some reading, though, is not meant to be fun. Some reading is like my visit to the intentionally angled Danish Jewish Museum: requiring involvement and throwing me off kilter, leaving me disturbed and yet wiser. At times I procrastinate tackling a book because of the pain that lurks in the pages.

homegoingSuch was my dilemma with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “an inspiration.” The book is a multi-generational story that begins in Ghana with two sisters, one from the Fanti tribe and the other from the Ashanti or Asanti. True to my children’s book, palm is referenced as wine, but also as leaves slick with blood. The kente bright threads appear again, but in a story whispered by a dungeon slave.

Both books enrich me as a learner because the language is dense with gorgeous imagery and invaluable history. Ashanti to Zulu grants me magical escape and Homegoing won’t let me go.

For me, the child’s book is a treasure but the novel is a necessity. I need something more than the level in my life’s geometry. Angles force me toward the upside down and off-kilter. Maybe that’s why children somersault and adults climb Everest. Maybe that’s why I cannot forget a large room in Copenhagen, retelling the Jewish suffering through the Danish experience, and where I leaned to the right to keep my balance.

In Control

Water fountainOnly lately have I realized how control adds to my appreciation of this outdoor decoration. Any time of day or night, I plug it in and presto! A bubbling fountain. My responsibility lies in keeping the agates clean and the water level high. I choose when the soothing device operates. I decide which way the bird stares. I have no say about hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires, but on this patio, I hold sway.

Eons ago, my God was Gentle Stager, never a formidable being, but a keen-eyed Observer of good order. God could leave me—the heron—as is, lift me out from the stones, point me in a different direction, sink me into rocks or place me atop them. God desired my sleek virtue and heavenward focus. In God’s Plan, I was water decoration meant to beautify a small patio space of the universe. My task: obey and pray.
The Odyssey

Greek myths gave me another view of humans and the supernatural. The gods, so like us, emit love and cruelty, loyalty and capriciousness. Troublesome and controlling, they delight when mortals obey and plead. A favorite of mine is temperamental Poseidon, Lord of the unpredictable, raging sea. Homer’s Odysseus, who blinded Cyclops, wants to go home. Poseidon, father of wounded Cyclops, wants Odysseus to suffer: “When the wanderer had come close to shore, he heard the surge; against the shoal it hammered hard; the wailing combers rolled and thundered all along the dry land’s coast. Sea-spume enveloped everything in sight.” Only when wily Odysseus takes charge of his situation does Athena come to assist him. Mortals thrive when they challenge the gods.

Mortal as I am, I flounder between earth and heaven. Watching the spinning Irma, I put my trust in the scientific sphere. With the meteorologists I track Irma’s path, compare models, and know, almost to the hour, when the hammer will strike Florida. I knead facts into a rational, consumable whole. On the other hand, I pray for miracles: people get out in time, the hurricane veers far right, traffic won’t jam, all have enough fuel and clean water, and that (maybe) Athena swoops down to save the animals.

Herons in pond

Looking at my photo of Victoria’s Butterfly Garden, I am once again in a space like my patio. With my camera, I am a woman in control of her natural world: herons preening and water slipping over rocks—fixed in time. Recalling the gentle jungle, I remember nature as a calm and ordered place. Bless the camera, the easy part of control.

What about in the midst of upheaval? A complaint surfaces. “Why would God let this happen?” Zeus heard the same words centuries ago. He refused to let humans off the hook. “Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say we devise their misery. But they themselves design grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.” Uh, oh. 

I am part of Zeus’ ambivalent humanity which causes much of its own grief. Time to get off my knees and share somehow in the work required of humans, not gods: seek the missing, bury the dead, house the dispossessed, and donate to food banks, shelters, and clinics. After the horror come the harder, long-term problems: carbon emissions and aging dams, coral reefs and endangered species, chemicals and rising seas.

CNN blares that Irma will smash into Florida. Before I know it, I’m hoping for an impossible Divine leniency. I look out to my patio where the water fountain stands serene. I force myself to imagine a new world order of wily, resourceful humans in partnership with the God who, without hesitation, has given us both the natural world and the fearsome ability to choose.

Deluge

hpim0283.jpgFor six years I tended this rose bush and she was a beauty. I thought of her heard of the summer scents of Houston: roses and jasmine, orange blossoms and water lilies. That was before the floods drowned the flowers, robbed the city of fragrance and left people, their belongings, and their very souls inundated. Later the receding waters will leave another scent, a toxic smell of mold and gas that burns the spirit and the lungs.

Long ago in a place and at a time I cannot recall, a young woman led me through her flood-damaged home. She grieved for lost photos and her wood floors, now rotting and buckled. My keenest memory was the pungent smell of mildew. It crept from the ruined carpets, sneaked through cracks in the wall. “We can’t live here anymore,” she said. “It’s so hard to breathe.”

The cities and towns of Texas will need resources and time to purify the deluged land and rid it of poisons. Yet the scent of new wood won’t erase the memory of rot. One of these days, though, a flower will lift its head from the ground. A dining room table will be graced with a bouquet of roses, the fragrance filling the air with the scent of a new summer. But not yet.

Sun

My heart goes out to the people of Houston. I ache for the flooding they have suffered. Yet here, in Hillsboro, Oregon, I long for rain. I long for water soaking into dead grass. I want the sun hidden, not behind smoke and dust from wildfires, but behind moisture-drenched clouds.

 

the-worst-hard-timeMaybe my desire for rain comes also from entering into Timothy Egan’s rendering of the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Before grassland in the High Plains was plowed into dust, apple trees and wheat scented the air. The car and tractor brought smells of metal and gasoline and fresh dollar bills. The aroma of cigarettes, prostitute perfume, and booze were signs of progress. Then, like the deluge of flood waters, dust storms arrived. The sky blackened, the crops died, and the lungs of children and animals bloated with sediment. Sunshine and no rain, and the dust rolled in, miles and miles of it, years and years of it.

Dust. I grew up in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat fields. My mother believed in living positively. “Put your best foot forward.” But she hated, with a passion, the dust storms that swept through the town. “Close the windows,” she called out. Dust rolled up to the house and left its gritty remains on the sill outside, table tops inside, under the door, through the windows we could not close in time. Dust had its own smell—a static, mealy buzz in the nostrils. A nuisance for some, a hindrance to breathing for others.

Hurricane Harvey and the Dust Bowl threw nature off balance and left us with extremes—the worst storm and the worst hard time. Too much. I wonder what a world of just enough would resemble? A different way for us to live: enough rain to make the flowers grow; enough dust to make sunset spectacular.