Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Signs of the Times

April 24, 2016

I order books from Daedelus, usually fiction, often mysteries. I enjoy exploring places and time periods unfamiliar to me, via the settings of the stories, and am particularly happy when the writing is really good – vivid, original in its imagery, witty or incisive. I have been especially pleased, recently, with my discovery of Richard Crompton whose lead character is Detective Mollel, a Maasai working in modern Nairobi. Crompton skillfully weaves tribal culture into the present-day narrative.

But the interplay of traditional and modern African culture is the topic of a different essay than this.

Quite by chance the previous two books I read each featured a lesbian protagonist. What stayed with me was not that coincidence, but rather the matter of fact tone of the stories, each of which adhered to the expected blending of investigation into “who/how done it” with development of the character of the investigator. One was a current inhabitant of the U.S; the other an historical figure, a writer herself of “puzzlers”, now cast into the role of investigator of fictional events which might have occurred in her life. Both authors (Ellen Hart and Nicola Upson ) meet my criteria for a good read – they create the backdrop world for their stories with clarity, originality, and a fine use of language. Both present the love relationships of their protagonists in a style appropriate to the time period in which they take place. And both happen to present those relationships as lesbian.

What most struck me, as I read the novels, was both how matter-of-factly the lesbian material was included in the stories, and how matter-of-factly I accepted it as normal and natural to the characters. I think I’ve always been comfortable with the fact of homosexuality, certainly never one to think sexual orientation should be relevant to employment, housing, entertainment or any other aspect of public life.

One of my first (boy) friends shared with me that he enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing and sometimes thought he was born into the wrong gender body. Later in life he began exploring the process of changing gender identity. I lost touch with him about the time he met a woman whom he had come to love deeply, and whom he said he could share his life with as he was, “somewhere in between”. Perhaps for Jan, and many others, the solution to the North Carolina bathroom crisis should be the European model familiar to me from decades ago – unisex bathrooms, with the calm expectation that women would walk past men using the urinals, to reach the stalls at the back of the room.

But I digress from my original point, that mystery novels now include lesbian relationships as a matter of course, are marketed to a general reading public, and are not singled out or “flagged” except perhaps by the intolerant few who still think they have a divine right to judge. With so much strident name-calling and ugly rhetoric usurping public dialog, it’s reassuring to find quiet examples of tolerance and acceptance between the covers of a good book.

In Ones and Twos

May 25, 2015

I’m taking my time reading In the Shadow of the Banyon, by Vaddey Ratner. Each section of a chapter is a meditation, a vividly imaged reflection on an aspect of relationships, whether between father and daughter, human and landscape, chaos and sanity, or physical and spiritual realities. Set in the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, it is a marvelously sensitive and mature child’s view of life. The landscapes are familiar to me – Cambodia as described is much like the Vietnam of my childhood. The recounting of emotions stirred up by violence and turmoil, by loving relationships and by subtle but profound parental education of children is flawless, presenting – again – a familiar landscape. How can a story set in what I know to have been a devastating massacre of more than a third of the country’s population seem so quietly normal?

Maybe I’ll find an answer to that question by the time I finish the novel. Maybe I won’t, and the question will join others that I ponder about humans and our treatment of one another.

A discussion at the supper table recently explored a different aspect of the human condition, this one looking into interpersonal dynamics. The participants were, with the sole exception of me, young and not so young men from Cameroon studying here and trying to improve their lives and those of their families. Each of us has had a similar experience of a few people who are supportive of our efforts to advance, to learn, to become contributing partners in business or family – and each of us has been dismayed at some point by the negative response of a sibling, or cousin, or coworker.

What, we were asking, makes an older brother, working and well established in a good profession, refuse to help pay a school fee to enable his younger sibling to continue studies (and to remain in status vis a vis the US Immigration Service)? What makes an older sister complain to parents that the student struggling to survive in an unfamiliar culture has neglected to call her and inquire how she is doing? Why doesn’t she initiate the call? She is the elder, and yes one owes respect to one’s older siblings, but they in turn owe care and support to those coming behind them (at least in traditional Cameroonian village culture).

I have no siblings, so I can’t comment on how/whether there is a similar implicit set of obligations in western families. I can note that we acknowledge certain rights and corresponding obligations that go with seniority at work – and that there are usually one or more coworkers who object to this tradition. The Cameroonians commented that too often in their society, people fail to see the hard work, perseverance and sacrifice that goes into family advancement. They only look at the outcome and attribute the family’s change in status to graft, or black magic, or some similarly negatively acquired advantage which isn’t earned by merit.

Our discussion included the image of crabs in a barrel, reflecting the way some members of a group will not try to join the one climbing up and out but instead collect together and do their best to pull the leader back down to their failing level. I encountered the latter attitude locally, when I first started my role as director of a home health agency regional office. One of the nurses I hired for “as needed” visits had been employed as a clinic LPN for a number of years, attending school part-time to get her RN. When she did achieve it, the doctor heading her clinic gave her roses and I gave her a happy hug and a pay raise. Her several nurse co-workers scorned her achievement and excluded her from their circle.

At the dinner table, we didn’t talk about competition versus cooperation as a societal dynamic – but we could have done. Instead we stayed on a more individual level and came to the conclusion that people seem to fall into two main categories when it comes to achievement. The first group is of people who are motivated to achieve for the group of which they are members (family, clan, work team). They are generally open minded and flexible, enabling them to see and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. They grab their chances, work hard and try to make the best of the gifts that come their way, gifts for which they easily express gratitude and thanks.

The second group is made up of those who single-mindedly think of and for themselves and their own advancement. They often seem to believe that the way forward is by finding an edge, an advantage, perhaps the softhearted person who can be persuaded or manipulated into giving them what they want. They work hard also – but their energy is devoted to manipulating others into giving them the preferment, the promotion, the degree or the job. And they disdain those who don’t cater to their sense of entitlement.

One thing we did all agree on, is that parenting and education play a role in which route a growing child decides to take – but neither parenting nor education explains why in a family of five or six siblings, there will always be at least one who falls into each of the two groups. In other words, nature plays a role, not just nurture. We did not digress into beliefs as to what makes for those inherent, nature-based differences. That is a topic for another dinner, or week of dinners, and another post.

Our conversation instead moved on to how we each (believing and being perceived by the rest as members of the first group) have chosen to deal with our relations who are part of the second group. Here, we parted ways. Some continue to try to engage the disdaining other by placating, by continuing to reach out despite the lack of reciprocity, and by “not sinking to their level”. Others have resolutely drawn a line, stating that “he has my number, when he chooses to call me I will talk to him but otherwise I’m functioning as if I don’t have a brother at all.” Neither route is satisfactory – nor were any of the several balancing acts falling between these two end points. However any of us decided to manage the situation, however comforted we felt that we are not alone in our quandary, however clearly we understood the nature of the differences between ourselves and those others, none of us was satisfied, not having a final answer to the question of “why” our opposites were the way they are. The closest we came was “C’est entre les mains de Dieu.” It’s in God’s hands.

As I write now, I’m aware that once again, as so often of late, I feel I have come up against a limit of rationality, a limit to mind’s ability to understand. Trying to reason my way to a course of action regarding the Group Twos in my life is futile. I need instead to let mind go still, and hear the inner voice of spirit directing me on what to do in this moment of this particular relationship. I need to remember that what is appropriate in this moment may be quite different in another moment of the same relationship.

Mind thinks in abstracts and wants answers that will be good for a period of time. Reality only exists in the moment, so there really are no answers to mind’s questions. It is enjoyable – and creates new and positive bonds – to talk things out with others, but the process does not, cannot lead to answers because the questions are by their nature unanswerable in the mental realm.

Which is undoubtedly why I am finding In the Shadow of the Banyon such a rewarding read – it invokes life as a constantly flowing series of moments of now, wherein questions are asked and answers have at least a possibility of arising. It speaks to the spirit within, more than to the mind. It covers births, and deaths, separations and new bonding. It beautifully reflects life. As does the newest member of our household, born just a week ago, on May 18th. Welcome to our world, Storm.

 

One Week Lively

One Week Lively

A Snowy Contemplation

February 9, 2014

Have you noticed the unique silence that accompanies a fall of snow? The white blanket covering the ground somehow muffles ordinary noises of a country stillness, so that the world is – for a short time – truly quiet. I see birds at the feeder, fluffing themselves to shake dampness off their feathers, but they are not noisily jostling as they were yesterday. Even my dogs lie in, enjoying their heated porch rather than running barking at the rising sun.

From my Window

From my Window

Not much snow fell, not much more than a promise of wetness to our parched land. But the sky is still grey, except where the rising sun has broken through a cloud bank to paint a few slashes of peach and gold. Perhaps a few more drops will bless the earth from the clouds in the west. That is the direction our winter wetness comes in from. In summer it is often the reverse – systems stretch up from the gulf off Texas to give us summer rains. This past year, Texas did not share, and after a good start in late fall, the weather gods have chosen to send all the moisture either north of us into Colorado, or farther east where the blizzards and cold have caused major havoc.

Have you noticed how people’s temperaments are affected by the climates in which they dwell? It is an almost universal truth that cultures in hot, wet environments become gregariously noisy, even in Asian regions that one tends to think of as possessing a pattern of restraint. The silence of traditional Japanese people passing each other in public (it snows in Japan you know) is vastly different from the voluble street harangues of Vietnamese pedestrians in a country where the difference between hottest and coldest weather is less one of temperature than of moisture – monsoon season, or “dry” season when the humidity is perhaps 60% rather than 85%.

I knitted my first sweater in Saigon, when I was fourteen, and wore it twice on “cold” dry season days. Not days really suited to wearing a sweater, but I did so want to show it off. By the time I arrived in a cold enough climate to need a sweater, I’d outgrown it. A pretty dark cherry red pullover, with cap sleeves and a mini-turtleneck, the sweater went with me on to college and to Boston and eventually here to the desert, where I finally gave it to the daughter of a friend to be worn during what used to be our very coldest weeks of January. Used to be – it got down to 30 below at night and not much more than 5 for a daily high over at least a couple of weeks each January, even as recently as 20 years ago when I moved to my present home. For the past ten years, the night time temperature here has not dropped below minus 10, and the sun has warmed us comfortably every day. Pleasanter living than the mid-west’s polar experiences, but dire for our drought.

A snowplow has been by, and the school bus’ flashing lights indicate it has picked up my neighbor’s boys. I see cars making their way down the road that curves toward town, heading into the start of another workday. But still it is silent here around me, in a way only snow produces. It won’t last, neither the silence nor the snow, so I cherish it.

Have you noticed how people’s expressions of temperament change with their circumstances? A man courting a woman asks cautiously will she do this, would she help him to do that. Having won her, he issues orders – we will do this now, you must do that. The woman still has choices. She can simply agree, or she can learn in what way to express her own preferences so that she is heard. It is not significantly different in non-traditional relationships – we learn each other’s ways of being and how to express ourselves to influence the nature of the relationship. We learn how to help one another grow, and sadly, we also often learn how to block or stifle one another in an expression of frustrated, never-outgrown teenage envy.

Have you noticed how, entering a new relationship, there is a tendency to ask oneself, “Should I trust this person? How far? With how much of the truth about myself?” Past personal history of support or betrayal, extent of confidence in one’s self, willingness to risk, curiosity about different life styles, what a friend of mine simply calls open-mindedness, can all blend together into a force that shapes how a relationship develops. That is the common way.

How differently the issues of trust, of exploration and communication and growth of understanding unfold, if one considers a new relationship from the perspective of why the Divine ( God, or Fate, one’s Master, one’s karma, one’s wise inner self, or a Higher Power) “has brought this person and this experience to me at this time.” All the ambiguities of trusting in another person are released to the trust that we are alive for a reason, and that we can understand that reason, learning and thriving in our understanding.

Like the rare silence of a snow-covered early morning landscape, achieving an understanding of ourselves in relationship is a blessing. The moments of silence are brief; I woke early to enjoy them. The opportunities to intuit “what we’re here for” are also brief. I wake early to contemplate them.

The line of cars I see driving to work has warmed the thin snow covering on the road, and it is already turning to splashing slush. My big dog is out and barking to let the world know he has started his new day alertly. His two little companions romp patterns into the snow of my long, curving driveway. Outside, and in, the world is no longer silent. A new day of life has begun. What will I learn? What will I hear? What will I come to understand? What will I teach? What will I give, and what will I receive? Soon enough, I’ll have answers. Soon enough, too, I’ll have another opportunity to practice trusting that what is, is so, for a reason I may or may not be able to fathom. In trusting, I live. To cease trusting would be death – and I’m a long way from ready to die!

Across the Pasture Gate

Across the Pasture Gate

Another wave of snow clouds is sweeping in, flecks of white are drifting across the window. I will delay, just briefly, starting my own work day. Because I can do so, I choose to savor for a few moments more the regained silence (dogs still, birds quiet, no cars passing on the road), the blessing of extra drops of precious water, and another opportunity to consider why I am where I am, and for what inner purpose my outer life has taken on its latest form. Thank Thee, Master, for these gifts!

In Another Language

January 12, 2014

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

Disconnects

November 17, 2013

It’s odd how easily what seems like a simple communication can be misunderstood. I received a spread sheet from one of the higher ups at my new job with a label of “Staffing and Skill Set”. It only listed two of the six areas in which I have skills. I replied with a query regarding why my other four skill areas were not shown. Then from a co-worker I heard that the spread sheet is meant to indicate the areas of specialty to which we are being assigned. OK. Those two are fine with me. I replied to the emailed spread sheet with that acknowledgement, only to learn from my manager that the sheet was indeed meant to cover all our skills. Full circle, confirming a gap in communication.

*********

This morning I tried to complete online registration for the 401(K) I’m eligible to participate in, through my new employment. The managing company’s form kept giving me error messages related to the amount of contribution I wished to make, although the money is already being deducted from my check in accord with a paper application I completed through my employer’s Human Resources office. The online form doesn’t provide options for non-traditional contributors like me, who are not restricted in size of contribution, due to already being over retirement age. Nor is there any way to communicate this information without waiting until next week to call and – presumably after punching lots of irrelevant buttons – hopefully reach a person with whom I can talk through my situation.

*********

Last week, I joined a group of my classmates (all career women, all aged early 40s and up) in the bar area of the hotel where we are housed during orientation. We were taking advantage of the free drink per person, and light snacks, offered by hotel management as a thank you for our extended stay. That evening was our last together, at the end of our five weeks of orientation, before we dispersed back across the state, to work from home.

We progressed from drinks to dinner, and from talk about our training and upcoming new responsibilities to more personal sharing of events in our lives. Unaccustomed to this sort of socializing, I mostly listened – and laughed at some of the wryly told stories. Young teen offspring wanting tattoos led to the revelation that the person we all thought least likely to have one actually had three. She showed them to us, discretely – breast, hip and lower back. Another woman stood to reveal her numerous decorations on legs, arms, neck, lower back – and one that remained hidden because she said she couldn’t reveal it without stripping off her top.

She did not hesitate, however, to offer up her (clothed) chest for “a feel” of her saline implant breasts in response to a query from the woman sitting next to her, who recently underwent a double mastectomy.

At this point, we became aware of the lone male in our vicinity (by that time the only other patron in the area) whose attention was fiercely glued to his smart phone. He appeared to be in his 50s, muscularly well-built and attractive, grimly determined to ignore the behavior of our cheerfully frank and laughing group. We did, briefly, consider inviting him to join us. Embarrassing? To him, or to us? No, just funny – and a reversal of experiences we have all had, being professional women who occasionally go alone into predominantly male environments.

*********

Direct deposit of pay is mandated in my new work environment. I expected to receive a pay stub, or some similar accounting of the allocation of my money, when the disbursement was made, but so far nothing has arrived. Maybe there’s a place within “my” portion of the employer’s website to find this data, but if so I haven’t been introduced to it yet. It is, for me, a singularly uncomfortable feeling that changes are being made to my bank account virtually without my knowledge. A lifetime of instruction on the importance of being in control of my financial status is totally undermined by processes that seem designed to “go behind my back” and wrest that control away from me.

Communication is connection.
A feeling of connection is important to emotional well-being.
Why then is so much of everyday experience so disconnected, misinterpreted, overlooked, or ignored?

ERRor, ErroR, ERroR, ErrOR

Plenty of Nothin’ is Plenty

August 4, 2013

I wonder if the hardest part of getting older is not the challenges of coping with a failing body and mind, nor the inevitable sorrow of losing friends and peers, but the gradual – or sometimes very sudden – loss of illusions, loss of aspirations, loss of hope. At some point we all face the recognition that a cherished desire or goal is not going to be fulfilled. What then?

Psychologists have given labels to the behavior engendered by some of these confrontations – empty nest syndrome and male menopause being the most prominent. Those two experiences are primarily about accepting transitions in one’s life path rather than about loss of a way forward. It may be hard for a mother to accept that her children are grown and must be allowed to live their own lives while she redefines herself – she will still be a mother, but engaged differently in the lives of her family. And just as business managers must adapt their style when a company transitions from growth to maintenance mode, so some men must accept – at some point in their careers – that they have reached a plateau where they may expect to be for the rest of their working lives.

(Yes I’m aware of the sexist, stereotypical nature of the two above examples. Men may indeed have troubled letting go of a familiar pattern of fathering, and career women also have to recognize the point at which their professional lives plateau.)

Except, of course, that creative men and women reinvent themselves, begin new careers, take up new interests and continue to make contributions to their community, their families and themselves, often to the end of their days. Of what is that creativity made? Is it something more than a stark refusal to concede to lost illusions, lost aspirations, lost hope?

Consider a particular expectation – that of finding someone with whom one can walk life’s path, a partner to share the joys and sorrows, someone to ‘be there’ when support is needed. Some of us are lucky enough to find such a mate. Almost all of us are given the expectation that we will be in that lucky group. We read novels about these ‘good’ marriages and we see – or think we see – examples around us. We may or may not also learn that romantic love doesn’t hold up well to the stresses of married life, but that if again we are lucky, we discover a more stable, enduring form of love that does survive the inevitable losses life brings. Above all, if we are lucky, we find someone with whom we can share (and thereby halve) the pain, and share (and thereby double) the pleasures life brings our way.

But what of those who do not find such a partner? Or who find a partner incapable of sharing in a way meaningful to us? There are many such people, their stories recorded over and over again in country western songs. How do we move past the realization that we have come to a point in life where it is clear there will not ever “be someone to hold me while I cry?”

Those of us who are fortunate enough, wise enough to let go of the demand for a single person to fulfill the human need for companionship often find ourselves with support in unexpected but very meaningful ways. When I cracked my spine in a horseback riding accident, a neighbor showed up daily to do my chores and another took off from her work whenever needed, to drive me to my own work and appointments. And years ago, after the love in my life was yanked away, an acquaintance from the Quakers volunteered herself into my new home to help me unpack and settle, and to hold me while I cried.

My spiritual teacher instructs that attention is food. What we give attention to multiplies. Inversely, the way to remove something unwanted from one’s life is to simply take one’s attention off it. Focusing on what is missing from life (a forever mate for example) will only push the possibility of finding one farther away. Psychologists have used transactional analysis to spell out the emotional dynamics of this truth, and shown how unhealthy, unequal relationships are formed from neediness. Most are unfulfilling and unsustainable. In the end, they rupture and dump the needy person right back where he/she began, in the classic cycle of repetitively marrying an abuser, an alcoholic, a philanderer, et cetera. I love the accuracy of the title of the landmark book in this field, Games People Play.

We have the option not to play games. Creatively fulfilling our needs for companionship, for attention, for support by drawing on a variety of resources – including ourselves – shifts attention away from lack and loss and toward plenty. With attention on plenty, it multiplies in a happy way. Porgy, in the operetta Porgy and Bess, expresses giving attention to sufficiency so well:
I got plenty of nothing,
And nothing’s plenty for me.
I got no car – got no mule,
I got no misery.
Folks with plenty of plenty,
They’ve got a lock on the door,
Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em
While they’re out (a) making more – what for?
I got no lock on the door – that’s no way to be.
They can steal the rug from the floor – that’s OK with me.
‘Cause the things that I prize – like the stars in the skies – are all free.

I have so much more than nothing. Most of us do. Whether or not all our dreams are fulfilled, are we not plenty-full?

Plenty

Plenty

What Do I Know?

June 22, 2013

Many, many years ago when I was young and adventurous and poor, I earned money for my own art classes by modeling for a sculpture class. I took the same pose (stretched out on a sofa, my lower half prone but twisted at the waist so that my upper half was facing sideways, an arm bent to prop my head on my hand) for 90 minutes each week, over a six week period. During breaks (I wasn’t, mercifully, expected to hold the pose for more than 15 minutes at a time) I walked around the class, looking at the students’ interpretations of me. Quite apart from differences in their skill levels as sculptors, I quickly learned that how they saw me was directly influenced by their relationships to their own bodies. Heftier sculptors tended to perceive my body as longer and leaner than I knew it to be. One very slim woman with a boyish figure exaggerated my curves into a Rubens-like voluptuousness. And the male students revealed the areas of the female form most of interest (sexual attraction?) to them – breasts, thighs, buttocks – in the way they emphasized these aspects of their work.

The lesson – that who we are influences what we see – has stayed with me, and been reinforced in a variety of ways since those early days. It has become salient again recently, in the form of critiques I’ve received of my novel, Like Dust Devils Through a Card House. In particular, readers respond to my character Sylvie in ways clearly dictated by their own life experiences. One who has had a hard time overcoming anger was particularly disturbed by the way Sylvie clings to anger as a motivator. Another asked the reasonable – to her – question why Sylvie would seek out sex when she’s in pain or when feeling weak. I myself, writing the first draft, was somewhat dismayed to discover that of the three women in the story, the point of view and main character had to be Sylvie, the one I personally like the least. But I know her, I know too many people like her to not recognize her as a neighbor, a co-worker, a very real example of a set of choices about how to negotiate a life.

I appreciate the thoughtful critiques which question what I’ve created, because they push me to clarify, refine, or broaden my explication of Sylvie’s character. Adding detail that will reveal her motivations and enable these readers to understand (if not agree with or like) Sylvie, strengthens my story. This rewrite also requires that I get ever ‘more real’ with myself about the experiences and observations on which I draw to create character.

“That’s what actors do as well,” stated one of the reviewers whose comments were most helpful between drafts two and three. “We have to put what we know of ourselves into a role, to understand the characters we’re playing and bring them alive.”

Meanwhile, I continue to be amazed, sometimes dismayed, by the characters that appear in my stories. “Where on earth did she come from?” was my question about the lead in my most recent short story. I began with an idea about links in a chain mirroring the phases of a life and ended up with a young woman who experienced ostracism growing up, was orphaned young, now lives alone on a boat and experiences being assaulted. She is no one I’ve ever known, yet in the piling of cause upon effect upon new cause, she is every one of us. What I don’t know is why such challenged, tortured or difficult characters so often ‘take over’ my stories and demand to be heard!

If I reason from my premise above, I am presumably revealing aspects of my own view of the world. But I don’t see myself as having experienced such a painful, twisted life. Yes, there were difficulties, yes my mother had severe emotional problems that made for a dysfunctional childhood, yes I was uprooted and relocated repeatedly until I was in my late twenties – and yes I have read about many types of personality and culture, have studied psychology, worked in prisons, met a great variety of people in quite a wide variety of places. But I don’t see the world as hurtful, something to be afraid of or to fight against, nor as a place that creates and targets victims. So why do these types of characters appear so often in my stories?

I don’t know.

I do know the truth of “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Especially when that first practice of deception is of ourselves. Unexamined motives, ill-considered actions, un-reviewed decisions, unrepented errors pile upon one another into tangled webs not just of deceit but also of pain and loss. Observing life around me, I have learned that much of this tangle exists just below the surface, and that my choice to look for the good in others, to “seek that of God in every one” as the Quakers phrase it, does not prevent me from seeing the coils of deceit and misrepresentation into which too many people snarl their lives.

How I wish it were not so!

I would far rather live in a world of people who are aware of themselves and their needs, and who feel secure enough to express those needs and seek openly for their fulfillment. I am coming to realize that my choice of mysteries for light, escapist reading is largely the result of my wish for life in a simpler, more straightforward ethical world. And I also realize that my inability, at least up to this point, to write such a mystery is the result of my recognition that the world I live in, the world I know, is neither simple nor straightforward.

When complex, angry, or tangled characters emerge in my writing, I am in fact following the dictate to “write what you know.” Hmmm. Let me contemplate that fact. Because I also know loving and tenderness, and caring people who devote themselves to improving circumstances for others. So I should know, as well, how to write engaging, positive, “good” characters. I do hope one will spring forth the next time I start a story!


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