Monday, July 18, 2016

I Read Dead People

I bought this bumper sticker at Powell's bookstore. While I enjoy being amused and, more often, disturbed by other people's, I don't do bumper stickers on my car, so I will place this one on my office door.

It seems a good reminder these days as the news gets worse and worse. Almost every day brings word of another act of terrorism or violence.

Every other Facebook post asks me to give in to fear.

My conservative friends think the answer is more law and order and respect for authority.

My progressive friends think the answer is more honest discussion about the deep racial and economic divisions in our country.

It's so stressful, and it's so easy to allow myself to get sucked into the anxiety and negativity and hopelessness. It's easy to become obsessed with what's happening now.

It's at times like these it helps me to read dead people.

Here's a few of the things I mean by reading dead people--and a few reasons I think it's healthy to do so:

By reading dead people I acknowledge that this has all happened before.
C. S Lewis recognized an important tendency in Western society. He called it chronological snobbery and said it was the tendency to believe that our contemporary culture is unique and superior to all the cultures of the past. In technology, it leads to a preference for the latest device. In literature, it leads to a preference for the latest author and to a discounting of dead authors, which Lewis saw as an incalculable loss.

By reading dead people I acknowledge the many ways the authors of the past continue to influence me today.
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," noted how no contemporary author writes without the influence, either conscious or unconscious, of past writers. No poet can write without the shadow of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickinson over her. While this awareness can create anxiety for writers ("How can I ever write anything as good as Sonnet 30?"), it also fosters the humility necessary for creating great art. We are, in a sense, only able to write what we write today because of our literary forefathers and foremothers. Or as the Bible puts it: "you drink from wells you did not dig."

By reading dead people I may just discover wisdom I can use today.
Here's a little story about how reading literature works in mysterious ways.

A few months ago, I joined a book discussion at my church about Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. You can check it out here.

Wiman mentions that one of the authors who's been most helpful to him in matters of faith is Fanny Howe, in particular her novel Indivisible. Well, I'd never heard of either Howe or her novel but decided to make a mental note and read Howe's novel later in the summer.

Making a mental note was not a good idea since I promptly forgot about it (see reading too many FB posts, above). Then I was in Powell's the other day looking for something else and, miraculously, the Howe reference came back to me--not as Howe but as "that author that Wiman, I think, referred to in that book." So I found Wiman's memoir on the shelf at Powell's, found the passage where he referred to Howe's novel, and went to look for it. (Technologically savvy readers, please don't judge the fact that I'm not doing this search online.)

As fate, or the literary gods, would have it, Powells didn't carry the novel, but they did have a book of essays by Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on Vocation, at a reasonable price--so I bought it. You can check it out here.

In one of Howe's essays, she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman I'd never heard of whose life story, And There Was Light, was translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron in 1963. You would do well to read Howe's account for yourself, but here's some highlights:

Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. As a child he was fascinated by light, but at the age of eight, a minor accident at school rendered him totally blind. Lusseyran was not deterred. He learned Braille in six weeks and rejoined his friends at school. Neither did he let his blindness eliminate his appreciation for light. Howe writes:

The first thing he discovered, soon after his accident, was that there was a source of light that was not the sun; it hid within his body; he was flooded by it and because of it, he felt the presence of others and objects through their colors.

Soon the Nazis occupied France, and he and his friends decided to form a resistance group made up of students. The group grew and thrived until they were betrayed to the Gestapo by an infiltrator. Lusseyran was beaten but refused to name names or cooperate. In July 1943 he was sent to Buchenwald.

In spite of this turn of events. he did not despair. Howe notes:

He formed friendships, became a leader in the French Resistance inside the camps through translation and the transmission of overheard news reports in German to other prisoners. In January 1944, there were sixty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald. Six months later there were ten thousand.

Now for the wisdom I gained from reading Lusseyran's story:

Near the end of his horrifying account, he tells readers how to get through torture, through imprisonment. There are three things to remember: 'The first of these is that joy does not come from outside for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.' The third is friendship. If you can form close human attachments to those around you you have the possibility of surviving as a human being.

Aren't those three things to remember amazing? And this also amazes:

I would never have heard those three things in just that way had a blind man from France not endured the experiences he did and had he not written them down.

I would never have learned Lusseyran's incredible story had I not read Fanny Howe's book of essays.

I would never have read Fanny Howe's book of essays had I not read Christian Wiman's meditation about his bout with cancer and his struggle to find faith as a poet.

I would never had encountered any of these ideas had I not read dead people.

But since I did and do read dead people, with my newfound wisdom, I may be able to survive another day of FB posts.

I may even be able to survive the Republican and Democratic conventions--at least with Stephen Colbert's help, who, I'm pretty sure, also reads dead people.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Prairie Home Companion Prayer

Most Sundays at my church, there's a time set aside for sharing joys and concerns. Members who have something to share with the congregation come to the front, light a candle and place it in a bowl filled with sand, state their name, then say what's on their heart, concluding with "God in your love"" or "God in your mercy," to which the congregation responds "Hear our prayer."

It's one of my favorite parts of the service. Though many concerns center around health issues, either for self or a friend or family member, folks address a wide variety of of joys and concerns. One might share joy at a daughter's graduation or new job while another announces the birth of a grandson. One might relate grief at having to say goodbye to a beloved dog or cat while another mourns the loss of children caused by gun violence. Pretty much anything is fair game.

This past Sunday as I drove to church, I felt moved to share during joys and concerns time, but I wasn't sure the topic was appropriate. I'd been thinking about Garrison Keillor hosting the final performance of his long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR, July 2, 2016, realizing I had probably listened to my first Lake Wobegon monologue over thirty-five years ago, and pondering how much pleasure the show had brought me over the years. That's a joy worth sharing, right?

As I turned into the church parking lot, I had pretty much convinced myself to do it. After all, I reasoned, though some people (likely the younger ones) will have no idea what I'm talking about, I know for sure we have a lot of NPR junkies in our congregation.  I was beginning to compose in my head the words I would say when I lit my candle for Garrison and his radio show.

But then I remembered today was communion Sunday, and we don't do joys and concerns on communion Sundays.

So since I couldn't share my prayer of joy in church, I'll light a figurative candle here at my blog and share it with any virtual congregants who care to join me.

I'm Gary Tandy, and I'm lighting a candle this morning for Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion radio show. I realize it may seem odd to pray about a radio show, but this one's given me lots of joy over the years, and it feels right to express my gratitude for it.

When I first heard Garrison Keillor tell stories of growing up in a fundamentalist religious family in the Midwest, I connected easily with the world he portrayed with words. As he talked about being a part of a small movement that saw itself as the "true Christians," as opposed to those liberal and heretical Lutherans and Catholics, I realized that his Sanctified Brethren experience in Minnesota was not far removed from my own, growing up in the Church of Christ in Kansas in the 1960s and 70s. Apparently, as children we heard many of the same warnings: it's a dangerous world out there, so be careful what you see and read and, of course, don't smoke or drink alcohol or play cards or, heaven forbid, dance.  Keillor said when he was a child he used to fantasize that instead of his own family, he had grown up with a modern family in New York where his parents encouraged him to smoke cigarettes and drink wine--and to call them by their first names.

Yes, Keillor poked fun at and looked satirically at the restrictive religious environment in which he grew up, but it was a gentle satire. Its tone was never hateful or dismissive. Though Keillor himself had changed, adopting radically different political and theological ideas than those of his family of origin, he was still able to speak of his family and the people of his town with genuine love and affection and to celebrate the many values they got right: hard work, loyalty, humility, compassion, common decency.

Above all, it was this tone that attracted me to Keillor and his storytelling because it was true to my own feelings and experience as I thought about my past, my family, my church. I admired this ability to look back and not to ignore the flaws or the damaging theology of his past but to continue to love and be grateful for the people who, as often as they made him feel guilty and shameful, made him feel loved and welcomed, valued and protected.

And it's precisely that tone, I think, that is missing in our current American society where we seem not to be able to disagree with people's politics or theology without demonizing them, where we seem not to be able to take an opposing position without denigrating those who hold a different position. Keillor has always provided a model of civility: he doesn't shy away from expressing his opinion, but he treats those who don't share it with respect. It's an approach that says we're still Americans, no matter how much we disagree. We still have much in common. We're in this together.

This is my prayer of joy for Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. My intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life would not have been the same without them, and for that I'll be forever grateful.

God in your love.

Hear our prayer.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Belated Thanks to a Writer

As I opened my Facebook news feed on Friday morning and scrolled through the political posts, the selfies of friends, and the hijinx of assorted animals, I was stopped short by a notice that a friend had died. He was 70 years old, and the cause of death was his recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer.

Though I call him a friend, our friendship was extremely one-sided. In fact, I'd never met him, written to him, or even seen him in person. In spite of these facts, it felt like losing a friend because I had read and been intrigued by his books for over thirty years.

Pat Conroy. Writer of novels and memoirs, among them The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Water is Wide, and The Prince of Tides. You can read more about his life and literary achievements here.

Why do we as readers connect so strongly to some authors they come to feel like old friends? Why do we not make that connection with other writers--even the ones our friends or the critics tell us we should love?

You would think as someone who teaches literature for a living I might have the answers to those questions, but I don't. I know it goes deeper than subject matter or shared experience. The writer of a letter to Sports Illustrated complimented an SI writer on a recent article by saying the writer made him care about a topic in which he had no interest. So we can like an author, even if she writes about a topic we don't much care for.

And while shared experience certainly helps, it's certainly not essential. I've never gone on a whaling expedition, yet Moby Dick remains one of the novels that interests me most. That's where the vicarious quality of literature comes in.

Tone and style definitely have a lot to do with why I gravitate toward a writer, but as I look at my reading experience, I'm inconsistent on this front, Pat Conroy's style being an excellent example of that inconsistency. Conroy's style can be overblown and verbose. His early model, after all, was Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward Angel fame. The article linked above notes that Conroy's first draft for the novel Beach Music was some 2100 pages long, so he and his editor spent four months trimming it back to a mere 650+ pages!

But in Conroy's case, I can forgive his florid and the over-the-top style because he tells such powerful stories. And those stories invariably revolve around family.

The Washington Post article points out that most of Conroy's novels were actually thinly veiled accounts of his own life experiences, especially the way growing up in the company of a verbally and physically abusive father shaped him. The article also points out this tendency caused many family members to quit speaking to him. I admire him for writing about his painful experiences anyway. As Anne Lamott rightly observes, if people didn't want you to write bad stuff about them, they should have treated you nicer while they had the chance!

All these reflections still don't answer the question of why Conroy's been one of my favorite authors, so I'll take a shot at it:

Back to the shared experience thing, I was not attracted to Conroy's stories of highly dysfunctional families because those stories mirrored my own experience. Compared to the children in a Conroy novel, my childhood looks like growing up next door to Disneyworld with a perpetual all-day pass.

I think I was attracted to those stories because, while far different from my own experience, they had the ring of truth. They revealed to me that there are parents who do horribly damaging and irreversibly hurtful things to their children. And they showed me that part of the human reality is that children who go through such trauma are forever changed, that they must live their entire lives dealing with and trying to come to terms with that strangest of all creatures: one who can seem to offer love and affection one minute but in the next perpetrate violence and hatred of the worst kind.

A few years ago, I was writing a nonfiction piece about my childhood for a class. I was wanting to illustrate a tendency of my mom's, specifically her fear that someone would think badly about our family. As a child, I often thought Mom was overly concerned about what people might think. It was the reason I couldn't wear jeans to church (even Sunday night service!), to cite a really serious example.

In trying to think of a story outside my own experience to illustrate this point, I remembered the secret that Tom Wingo has so much trouble telling his psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides. It's an horrific tale. One night when their father is away, three escaped convicts break into the Wingo house and rape both Tom and his sister, Savannah, before the older brother returns to the house and unleashes the family's Bengal tiger (something every family should have) on the convicts.

It's such a horrible tale you can understand why a child would supress it and be reluctant to share it with anyone. However, it's what the mother does after the event I've always found most fascinating. The mother orders the boys to bury the dead bodies, and they spend all night scouring the floors and walls to remove the blood. And then she tells the children they are not to tell their father about the incident nor tell any living soul about it as long as they live. Wow, I thought, that's someone who's really serious about keeping secrets! But then what parent would burden their children with such a secret?

I was pleased with myself for remembering the story and thought it added some drama to my nonfiction piece, but the members of my workshop group were not so sure. They failed to see a strong connection to the story I was telling and thought it could be left out without hurting my essay. When the instructor said something similar, I had to agree, so even though I was still reluctant, I decided to drop the Conroy story.

From this experience, I learned two things.

First, one reason I love Conroy is his ability to write really powerful stories and scenes that stay with you as a reader. In the case of my nonfiction piece, I had been so impressed with the story, I had tried to wedge it into a piece of my own where it really didn't fit.

Second, though I said earlier that Conroy's violent childhood was very different than mine, it's also true that most of us probably can find points of connection with the family stories he tells.  My family never had escaped convict-rapists enter our home, but we weren't perfect and we even had our secrets, and when a child observes that it's somehow more important to keep the family secrets and the family reputation intact than to be open and have healthy discussions about our problems, some lasting, psychologically harmful effects can result.

I'm grateful Pat Conroy had the courage to tell his family secrets and to write about his joys and sorrows in such a compelling way. I wish I had written and told him how much I appreciated his work while he was alive, but I didn't, so this will have to do: I will likely watch the film version of The Prince of Tides soon in his honor. And re-read his novels.

And, partly because of his example, I will continue to look for creative ways to tell my own story, for as Conroy showed us, magical things can happen when an author uses powers of memory and imagination to tell his story, which is in some mysterious and wonderfully complex way, my story and your story too because it is the human story after all.