Wednesday, May 25, 2011
At this point, I’m finding that writing isn’t so much an act of crafting sentences, but a matter of sitting with a mound of material and carving the path of my characters through it. It’s a matter of time and place for three kids close in age, who were born in the late 1940’s. I am terribly interested in context, in the circles people saw themselves as part of, and the way in which each of the kids grows, plant-like, into the particular flower they were meant to become. They were all lucky. The soil was fertile, they got a lot of what they needed in terms of nutrients, and as they reached up their hands, sunshine and rain in goodly measure came to them.
But as I have been thinking about writing, and whether I am actually doing it or not, I remembered Henry Miller’s voice from Tropic of Cancer in 1934: “Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.” Of course it didn’t stop him, and it certainly hasn’t stopped the rest of us! He wrote the book of the present, of the complete and total appreciation of the moment of life he happened to be in. Of walking beside the Seine in the evening, he writes “For the moment I can think of nothing - except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world. All along the banks the trees lean heavily over the tarnished mirror; when the wind rises and fills them with a rustling murmur they will shed a few tears and shiver as the water swirls by. I am suffocated by it. No one to whom I can communicate even a fraction of my feelings …”
None of us can compete with the book of the present. And no writer would want to. If anyone is sitting in the eye of the present, he needs nothing. What a writer can do, and Miller certainly did, is help peal back the layers and crusts that we put between ourselves and the present so we can stand it. Many of the things that allow us to cut through them are tough. For Miller, the poverty and uncertainty of his Paris years helped him break on through, though I doubt if he would have chosen them.
I believe it is a contemporary fallacy though, that only if you are an individual, embattled, poor, alone, can you feel the present. In the lives of my kids, as they grow, it will be possible to sense many moments when they are gripped by the hand of the present, often in choruses of people, in beautiful woods and fields or beautiful buildings, sometimes in meeting terrible demands, sometimes in tragic circumstances. The present speaks to us as individuals, whispers to us or shouts, and we are never the same. But the ways in which we sense it are without limit.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
The names in the area reflect its cultural history, from the native Americans names (Ojibwe-Chippewa, Wyandot-Huron, Sauk, Pawnee, Ioway, Dakota-Sioux and Omaha), to those of the French explorers and missionaries, such as Father Jacque Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who first came down the Mississippi from the north. Competition between the French and the British for the fur trade drove much of this early exploration. The French controlled the land along the Mississippi River.
When we moved into the “driftless area”, it was called “the Little Switzerland of Iowa” because the hills and bluffs weren’t common to the rest of the state. It began to be farmed in the mid 1800’s when European settlers moved in. Farming and grazing practices contributed to erosion and flooding, but quite early on this was recognized and attempts were made to control it, especially to keep the Mississippi shipping lanes from filling up with silt! Along the Mississippi itself, much of the land is maintained as parks, forests and wildlife management areas.
My parents were amateur naturalists and quite curious, so we did quite a lot of sightseeing when we first moved into the area. We investigated the caves, springs and palisades along the river, and watched the operations of the locks on the Mississippi, which allowed vessels to "step" up or down the river from one water level to another. We went to see the mounds near the river in the shapes of bear and birds, ceremonial and sacred sites built by the Effigy Mound Builders more than a thousand years ago. We visited the Bily Clock museum in Spillville (see detail of carving by Frank and Joseph Bily) and the Villa Louis, a home first built by a wealthy fur trader and maintained as a museum in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
The “driftless area” was a stark contrast from the Red River Valley in North Dakota, the floodplain of an early glacial lake, flat as a pancake and open to the wind and weather systems of the Great Plains.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
The Mikkelsons are moving from North Dakota to northeast Iowa! The kids don’t like it much, and I’m not sure I do either, after these months being immersed in North Dakota. For all its harsh weather, it is a beautiful place with interesting politics. But Dad used to say that the only way for a pastor to get a raise was to accept another call. And the Mikkelsons probably need the raise. They have a new little sister, and Ellie, the eldest, will soon set off for college. Actually, the kids are too young to suspect what a move will mean to them. They have never done it.
The subtle differences between the small towns in the Midwest are not inconsequential. Because of their geography, sometimes their history, and certainly the individuals who put their stamp on them, these towns have personalities just like people. If you move into a town you didn’t grow up in, you may understand more of that personality than the long-time residents, but also you will probably never understand the deep intricacies, the layers of relationships, the palimpsest of its culture.
What this lack of deep understanding does, is put you in a class of outsiders, whose loyalties will probably be more to other communities, perhaps not geographically defined. To a community of faith, an extended family, a profession or a nation. You might thus feel more free to move around than a person who is born in a place.
But geography is very powerful. Each of us wants to be related to a piece of soil, to the smell of sunlight on that soil, and to the weather that travels over it, the plants that grow in it. It took me at least seven years to become Californian, specifically a resident of San Francisco and its environs. I knew by then how much I loved the hills covered with golden grass, the sage color of the native trees and the Pacific blue of the sky. After that, several powerful episodes of homesickness confirmed that California was home.
The story of the pastor’s kids, particularly as they grow up and are bent by historical tides and personal winds, is, at least in part, a story of deep geography. We may think, in our technological dream world, that we can move freely, live wherever we like. But our bodies, our deep selves, want a home. Our growth and success in life is partly dependent on our adaptation, or the lack of it, to place and culture. Some of us are, perhaps, genuine wanderers, but not many. And certainly not the kids, Line, Marty and Paul.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
It isn’t hard to know why we’ve become cynical about people in public life, contemptuous of their motivations and altruism. We’ve seen so much lying, so much selfish posturing, and recent laws have contributed to the fact that only a few of us are getting much richer, while most of us falling behind. During last week’s silliness among presidential candidates, Don said: “America is becoming a joke!”
I’ve been studying the Eisenhower years, and this has not always been the case. The mood was quite different at the time. World War II had leveled the playing field for women and non-whites, but in the Fifties we were busy getting women back into bouffant skirts and aprons and re-erecting class and race barriers wherever possible. Eisenhower was a moderate, however, who supported the social reforms begun during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and sent troops to assist in desegregating schools. He tried to reduce military spending, while at the same time not giving ground to Soviet expansionism.
I’ve also been reading Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” which is really a study in fighting the cynicism within himself, while negotiating the heritage of his African father and his white American mother. We all know where his honesty and courage have gotten him, and how he still needs it every day!
Don and I are culture workers, and we have our own fights. Don tries to get Hollywood filmmakers to see the folly of upping the number of frames per second in movies, just because technology allows it, or filming everything in 3-D, just because they can. He would like to see a return to character-based movies. At this moment, he and his producing partner, Anna, are valiantly trying to inject some professionalism into a motley film crew making a movie which gets better at Don’s insistence. Engagement is a way of fighting cynicism.
I’m writing a series of novels which, in the current conditions, stands no chance of getting published. Without a targeted audience (Young Adult? I don’t think so) or a niche market (cooking, anyone?) or celebrity (and who, exactly, did you say you were?), or a clear genre (romance, perhaps?), it is hard to get anyone to look at what you are doing. This is partly because book publishing is being rocked by forces it barely understands. Although people are reading, free web content is probably more likely than books purchased at a bookstore. None of it stops me. By the time I’m finished, perhaps things will have settled down!
Ways of fighting cynicism:
1) Engagement. Work with every opportunity that does come your way to up the ante. Avoid the tendency to laugh things off, paying attention only to what is funny. Humor is the refuge of the disengaged.
2) Talk to real people. Most of us can’t avoid it in our working and consuming lives. We learn more than we expect to. No one is exactly as you hoped, and many are better.
3) Look to history. Things have not always been this way!
4) When all else fails, retreat to the garden, to the quiet bravery of trees and plants, which never quit looking for water and sunshine, determined to fulfill their destinies in supporting us.