Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Diversity of Thoughts

You probably recognize this fellow. He's (I guess you could say) iconic. Rodin's Thinker. One of the places in the world where he sits is outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. Through rain, sleet, snow, dead of night, sweltering summer, and all the rest, there he sits.

Growing up in Detroit, I passed him more times that I can say. But it wasn't until I returned to Detroit a few years ago, to do research for my novel, that I really took him in, the way an adult mind can, especially an adult mind in the process of trying to understand. He seemed such an apt symbol for what has happened in Detroit over the years. Or not that exactly. He seems an apt symbol for the puzzle of figuring out what happened to his city. I mentioned him in my novel because this struck me in a powerful way. Oh, call it an epiphany if you like. I even named the last chapter of my novel after him.

I'm sure you read/heard the news this week about Detroit, about the population decline as reflected in the latest census figures, about the residents of Detroit who continue to struggle to stay in and support and believe in their city. It's a lot to think about.
There are a lot of other things to think about too. And I've been thinking that we don't take enough time for thinking. Please don't ask me who I mean by "we."
I've been worrying that too many important decisions--in business, politics, the world--are being made without sufficient time to reflect. I've been thinking that doing something like writing a novel is almost an anachronism, because it is such an exercise in deep thought. Don't worry. This isn't an announcement that I'm abandoning this particular form of anachronism. I'm actually making good progress with my novel, and am feeling it come into focus. But still, what am I to make of the frantic pace of things? What am I to make of the lack of time we have to think?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

100 Posts

I was all ready to write a serious post and had the thoughts worked out in my mind, but then I signed into my blog to discover the news that I have managed to write 100 posts.
  I'm not very good at celebrating. This is something I struggle with. When there's still so much work to do, and always so much trouble/pain in the world, how can I justify a celebration?
Still, why not, once in a while acknowledge an accomplishment, feel some pleasure in a job (reasonably) well done? As Rohan Maitzen noted on her wonderful blog the other day, in the context of a discussion of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a book I haven't read and probably won't, the "juxtaposition of beauty and degradation does create a tension, one she [Gilbert] is honest enough to admit, but to turn away from beauty out of guilt would be what Will Ladislaw calls, in Dorothea [from Middlemarch], “'the fanaticism of sympathy.'” Good grief. I want to be a sympathetic person. but I don't want to be fanatically sympathetic.

 100 posts . . . that's no small potatoes. Right? Let's bring out that cake again.

Say amen, somebody.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Diversity of Unimaginables

The tragedies unfolding in Japan. They are unimaginable. Look at it, above, the serene garden, and below, this little wisp floating in the ocean.  How is it possible that a place could absorb or contain so much damage and pain?

I know, it's complicated. I heard a Chinese man on the radio tonight discussing aid to Japan: "From the humanitarian perspective, I support it," he says. "But from a historical perspective, I do not. People my age believe Japan ought to be wiped out. During the Japanese occupation, they killed so many Chinese people."
     Still, as with other huge events in places far away, we observers become students at a high-level seminar. For example, from the NPR website, this same story about Chinese aid:
On the streets, instinctive anti-Japanese nationalism is not unusual. Shockingly, online posts have been written celebrating Japan's misfortune. But at the same time, a new respect is emerging for Japanese virtues. People have seen pictures of orderly queues of evacuees, they've noticed the care and courtesy with which Japanese survivors have treated each other, and they've commented upon the lack of price-gouging in the Japanese quake zone. This stands in stark contrast to what happened after China's earthquake, prompting some introspection.
This business of the old grudge, I can somewhat imagine and relate to. I have often wondered how people or countries forgive each other for the devastation and brutalities associated with war. I like to think (in the context of China's contemplation of Japan) that the deep grudge could be tempered by new images, new information.
     And then, as a different variety of unimaginable, there was the story I heard last night, about a young woman in Tokyo who spent $800 and 18 hours on trains, in cabs, and on foot, traveling to Sendai to find her parents and grandparents because she couldn't reach them by phone.
The family dog welcomes her to a home largely undamaged by the earthquake, and a mother stunned by her arrival.
There's no hugging or kissing, just gasps of surprise and shock as she stands and bows to her parents. They bow, too — the emotion of the moment palpable, even though nobody touches anyone.
 That not-touching encounter is almost as unimaginable/foreign to me as the disaster/destruction itself. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Yesterday was International Women's Day, and this got me thinking about a number of things.
      1. The discussion about gender bias in publishing and the (under)representation of women in the literary arts. You can read about that all over the place, including at the wonderful annual Tournament of Books, which (by coincidence) began yesterday (on International Women's Day).
     2. Then I got an invite from the lovely people at the Books for Walls Project, asking me (and others) to celebrate International Women's Day with them, which I scooted over and did.
     3. Putting two and two together (or would that be two and three or some other number), I got to thinking about women writers. Two in particular came to mind--both gone now.
     First, Grace Paley.
Paley was a poet, essayist, and short story writer as well as a peace activist. I heard her speak once (on a panel in Chicago, called "The Writer in the World"), and it was a pleasure being in the same room with her. Her stories made the "small" moments of women's lives (in the kitchens and nurseries and bedrooms; on the playgrounds with children: in the nursing homes and hospitals beside the aging parents) the subject of literature, made them heroic.
Second, Tillie Olsen.
Olsen, also a political activist, was best known for the stories in her book Tell Me a Riddle. One story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is simply stunning, and I recommend that you read it right now. Here is an excerpt.

She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily's father, who "could no longer endure" (he wrote in his goodbye note) "sharing want with us.
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
One reason, some suggest, for the gender bias in literature is that women's writing doesn't have the muscle, or engage the big subjects, that men's literature does. Oh well.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Diversity, More Discomfort

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to visit and speak with his college writing class. (No, that's not the cause of the befuddled discomfort.) I have been to my friend's class to speak several times, and each time I have enjoyed it very much. Also, in my travels with my book, I have now spoken with many groups and before many audiences and encountered questions and comments and people of many kinds. This time, however, something new occurred.
    In addition to all the other students arrayed around the room, right in front of the table where I sat down was a young woman in a motorized wheelchair.
I could see by the way she moved her upper body and her arms and face that she had some complex combination of disabilities, but she was there, and that was fine. I began my reading and talk, and my friend, the teacher, moved to the back of the room. I read a combination of fiction and nonfiction--pieces that were thematically related and showed the way one could adapt the same material to either form. As I went, I stopped several times to see whether anyone had questions. Right away, the woman in the wheelchair raised her hand.
     Fine. Except that as she spun out her question, I realized that I could not understand what she was saying, as she had . . . I don't know how to describe it . . . let's say that her voice and words were highly distorted. As she continued to speak, I felt myself becoming increasingly dismayed and almost panicked at what I would do when she finished speaking. A map of the inside of my brain would look something like this.
or this:
I did not want to embarrass her, and I did not want to embarrass myself, and I had never been in a situation like this, and I did not know what I was going to do. I thought I was listening with every nook and cranny of my listening capacity, but nothing was computing.
     She finished speaking, the room was silent, and then she turned around to look for my friend, the teacher, as if to say, "Can you tell her what I said?" or "What do we do now?" He said (very straightforward, relaxed), "I didn't catch all that." And then a woman sitting near her in the front spoke up and told me what my questioner had said. Ah. Okay. I answered.
     As the night went on, the woman in the wheelchair asked many questions, and every time, she would look to the back of the room to seek a translation/interpretation, and every time, someone in the class would speak up and tell me what she had said.
      When I told my husband this story, he said, "She's not letting anything hold her back," which I think is right and a great response. The amazing thing was that as the night went on, and she asked more questions, I came to understand more and more of what she said. Perhaps I was becoming more relaxed and thus more able to receive; perhaps she was becoming more relaxed as well and thus more able to communicate with me. By the end of the evening, when she bought one of my books for her boyfriend who she said needed "to learn more tolerance," I understood every word.
     By the way, my friend the instructor said that she's a very good writer, and when I asked her what she writes about, she said, "Crazy people." What I'd give to see some of her work.