Honoring Zitkala-Sa

Let’s face it, Google has changed the world in a very big, bold, permanent way. The way it gave us search navigation capacities isn’t an ongoing change, but I’d like to think perhaps Google can still change the world in other ways. One of the opportunities to do so is through the Google doodle, the image featured above the search bar.

Google doodle Feb. 22, 2021

Today’s Google doodle features South Dakota writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, and I hope people click into it and learn something new and wonderful by learning about this writer.

I first encountered her in Pierre, SD as a kid on a fishing trip. No, she wasn’t fishing Oahe or the Missouri River; she died in 1938 in Washington, D.C. But in the way literature brings people and places to life, when I found her book Old Indian Legends at DakotaMart, a whole world came to life for me. Zitkala-Sa became a female writer I could look up to in the way I looked up to Mari Sandoz. These writers from the middle of nowhere drew on the places and stories they knew and shared them with the world.

And I wanted to do that. Well, maybe I didn’t really want to write about Nebraska where I grew up, but I did want to tell stories, and I wanted to get away from that part of the world.

The beings I encountered in Old Indian Legends enchanted me. Itkomi, a spirit come alive in the form of a man-spider, delighted me in his craftiness and intrigue, and I was forever trying to figure out if he was man, spider or spirit.

IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggins with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.

Zitkala-Sa, “Iktomi and the Ducks,” Old Indian Legends.

This opening from “Iktomi and the Ducks,” the first story in the collection, introduces readers to Iktomi and his world. We spend a lot of time with him in this book, but we also meet a badger, a bear, mice, a frog, a rabbit and other creatures. And of course, through these critters we encounter humanity and its various characteristics and foibles.

But Zitkala-Sa didn’t just retell her people’s myths and creation stories and bring them to others. Born on South Dakota’s Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876, this woman experienced the impact of Christian missionaries when she was eight and went away to Indiana to attend school. She was christened (oh, the poignancy of that phrase here) Gertrude Simmons and wrote about these experiences in The School Days of an Indian Girl. Through this, one can see the roots of her activism. Readers of her nonfiction can also see how these events led her to a place of duality as she grew older. She loved her heritage and culture, but she had been removed from it as a child and was educated and lived in white society.

This struggle is one I related to in my own way as I got older, and it allowed me to see her in a a new light and as a model in new ways. From telling her people’s myth stories to advocating for her people, she exemplifies writing as activism.

Google is celebrating her today, her birthday, but she is worth celebrating every day.

Project Gutenberg has Old Indian Legends available for download, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.

Header image credit: 5MinuteHistory.com

Baldwin’s America: A challenge and a lesson

There are books that leave me so dazzled by the setting and scene and characters I can easily think of them as candidates for “favorite book” when someone asks what my favorite book is. These books don’t discuss craft, but are craft at its finest, moments of pure magic that come together through voice and imagery and emotion.

There are books that teach me and guide me as a writer or an educator, and those books stick with me for different reasons. Often those reasons have more to do with how I view the reality I live in and how I help craft it in my writing. Sometimes they have to do with craft, which is a neat meta trick. I recently completed Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, and it is a book that does all these things.

Glaude is the James S. Milton distinguished professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; in this biography and piece of social criticism, he is also a guide for the tumultuous times in which we live. This is fitting, as the book works to unpack the vison of another guide: James Baldwin. Glaude’s mix of Black history, Baldwin and “where do we go from here” thinking makes this book shine brightly from each of its many facets.

I first encountered Baldwin in grad school, through his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Published in 1957, the story takes readers to Harlem and provides a peek into the life of a teacher and his brother, Sonny, who is a passionate musician, veteran and heroin addict. Reading it in my 20s, the music and the drugs appeared to me as realities that just go hand-in-hand with living in the big city, for anyone.

Of course I was just seeing Sonny’s experience through my own lens; today I know it was music and drugs that spoke to me then. But it is Baldwin’s compassionate treatment of Sonny and the empathy we feel for him and even his judgmental brother that is the hallmark of this story. Today I know that what I saw as part of city life is actually part of a complex history for Black people, a history that is more nuanced than any shallow understanding I could have had in my 20s And Baldwin’s fierce compassion is what I see now, when I engage with him. It’s what I see in “Staggerlee Wonders,” a poem as sharp and biting as a blade.

I read Part I of the poem to students in my Literature of Revolution class, and it gives us so much to discuss: wars, both domestic and foreign, external and internal and those that are not recognized. We get to talk about history, who “the natives” are–who they really are– and how Baldwin’s bite is so carefully crafted here. We also, of course, get to talk about the real life “Stagger Lee” and the violence perpetuated on people like him.

In these contexts, I’ve felt like I have a good understanding of what makes Baldwin’s work so powerful. Its the way he holds his loved ones close and his enemies closer, and how they are one and the same in America. But I am not a scholar of Baldwin, and I only know enough about Harlem and history and Black History to introduce my students to these topics and guide them through it with the voices of the real experts, the writers I draw on, to help lead me. Reading Glaude’s book took me through Black America of the 50s into the 80s, and in doing so, it illustrated white America, too, and the ugliness, hatred and shame that this country has borne since its founding.

Glaude introduced me to Stokely Carmicheal, as I wrote in another post; he introduced me to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old girl who tried to end segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina when she was the first black student to integrate into Harding High School in 1957 (same year of “Sonny’s Blues”). There are several other figures and moments vividly detailed in Begin Again, but I think the most powerful comes toward the end of the book, when Glaude goes south to Alabama and visits some of the memorials to fallen civil rights leaders and those who died by lynching. Between Caroline street and Holcombe Street in Montgomery, he finds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, describes it as “a monument to our dead and to the countrymen who killed them,” and describes his walk into what is sometimes called “The Lynching Memorial.”

As I walked into the memorial, I saw walls featuring text blocks that told the story of the violence…my eyes turned to the Nkyinkyim Installation…a haunting sculptural representation of slaves chained together in agony, defiance, and unimaginable grief. The sculpture stands on the side of the path that leads you up an ascending walkway to the monument, the physical structures that commemorate the dead. With each step you make your way up the hill…you can see lined up across the lawn duplicate monuments that can be claimed by the individiaul counties where the lynchings occurred.

Glaude, Eddie S. Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.

Glaude is overcome by grief as he looks at these 800 monuments, and then again as he focuses on the monuments that list multiple lynchings in one county. He continues with what is for me the most chilling passage of the book.

As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees–except these were stiff.

He recalls Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and in sharing that moment with him, I am reminded that music and politics come together as complexities of the Black experience in a way I could never know, but a way that Baldwin sought to get at through Sonny.

Glaude continues with the memorial and describes the death sentences on the monuments before him: “One man was murdered for having a photo of a white woman in his hat; another had been falsely accused of peeping at a white woman through a peephole; another refused to buy seed from a white man.”

He concludes the passage by noting the monument from Jackson County Mississippi, his childhood home: Eight names. Eight men lynched. Eight men he’d never heard of until that moment. His own experience of what it is to be born a Black man in the South has suddenly shifted, and readers are able to shift along with him.

For much of this book, Glaude asks what it means to be an American, not just what does it mean to be Black in America, or white in America, but what does it mean to exist in a country bound and also separated by a great lie. He seeks to hold those in power accountable for what they’ve done to fail people of color– Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous populations– but he also asks us to wrestle with how we more forward. And because he wrote this book during Trump’s presidency, he also condemns that excuse of a man and all that “Trumpism” has done to set our country at odds. This book is a collection of anecdotes, quotes and their contextual background, history and hope. But it is also a prescriptive guide to how we now must move forward as a country.

“…[O]ur task, then, is not to save Trump voters–it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people out to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe. I am aware that this is a radical, some may even say, dangerous claim. It amounts to “throwing away” a large portion of the country, many of whom are willing to defent their positions with violence. But we cannot give in to these people. We know what the result will be, and I cannot watch another generation of black children bear the burden of that choice.”

Featured image: James Baldwin, featured on the US Embassay & Consulates in Turkey websiteBook

Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.

The gift of literacy

You may not be thinking about it, but just in reading this post, you’re exhibiting a great amount of privilege: you can read.

I’m sure you don’t think about what a special gift literacy is, but in a world where 14 percent of the world’s population is illiterate, it really is a gift. That 14 percent is 107 million people, or, if you think about the US having slightly more than 330 million, that’s like a third of all Americans. What if one third of America couldn’t read? (I know, I know, half of America is about that stupid…) If that portion of our country couldn’t read, it would mean oppression and control in a way none of us alive today can imagine. But we all know of a time when a group of people was barred from learning to read: the years before the Civil War. Not only did slave owners prevent their slaves from learning to read, laws such as the South Carolina Act of 1740 existed to make it illegal.

I always start my Literature of Revolution class with a section on poetry, and one of the poets we encounter is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Born in Maryland to free Black parents in 1825, Harper used her position, education and life to work as an abolitionist, educator, writer and suffragist.

We read two of Harper’s poems in this class, “The Slave Auction” and “Learning To Read” and students tell me how much these two poems shock and move them. “I can’t imagine not being able to read,” they say, even if they don’t like reading. The speaker’s experience in both of these poems gives them perspective and sometimes introduces them (anew perhaps) to the reality that some people have been purposefully kept in the dark when it comes to literacy.

If you haven’t explored Harper’s works, I encourage you to do so now. She is one of the first Black females to have her creative works published; in 1859 a short story, “The Two Offers” was published by the Anglo-African. Another champion of Black literacy was Frederick Douglass, who, once he learned to read, found both joy and despair in it. Joy in what he could access through books and papers, but despair in what the lack of literacy meant for other Blacks.

I know the ability to read is something I take for granted on many occasions, but as I go on my own journey to be better educated and more aware of Black history this month, I’m in awe of people like Harper and Douglass who grew up acutely aware of what a privilege it was to have this cornerstone of education and freedom.

If you’re looking to unwrap the gift of literacy a little more, why not present yourself (bad jokes are a gift too, aren’t they?) with some other Black authors. Thrift Books has put together a nice list here, pulling from books they offer. Author Faith Adiele and several other California authors offer a list of their own here.

Black History Month offers lessons for everyone

It’s real easy for me to look at the calendar and come up with something to write, or at least the starting point for something. That’s no different tonight because I’ve been thinking about a flurry of social media posts I saw–and didn’t see– on the first day of the month.

What stormed my Facebook and Insta feeds was a lot of Imbolc photos. This ancient European festival day celebrates the halfway point between the solstice we go through in winter and the equinox we celebrate in the spring. It’s a pagan celebration, but no matter what religion or lack thereof one practices, it’s a day that signifies coming light and longer days. It looks forward to a change in seasons.

I’m not surprised I saw a lot of friends celebrating Imbolc. I have many friends doing the homestead thing, the farm thing, the fuck the mainstream thing. And even my friends who are clearly religious and live here in the Midwest are definitely looking forward to longer days.

And I’m not surprised about the lack of other posts I was thinking I’d see: Black History Month posts. It’s a bummer, but it seems to me that a lot of folks don’t think about Black History Month unless they celebrate Blackness as part of their heritage or their family’s heritage.

Black History Month was born in 1915 when Carter G. Woodson, who had studied at Harvard, and Jesse E. Moorland, a minister, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Originally, Woodson had hoped for a day, and then a week to honor Black culture. Why February? Because it’s the month of Frederick Douglass‘ birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My calendar reminds me that it’s also Washington’s birthday month, and President’s Day (but the same calendar does not mention Douglass or Black History Month).

I can’t act like I knew all of this before this month; it was the lack of posts about Black History Month that spurred me to read posts about it. I think our present political climate has heightened people’s awareness of the fact that we don’t know so much about some groups of our fellow Americans. History, written by “the winners,” has silenced these stories.

So for the rest of the month, I want to share some of the things I’m finding and reading and learning about Black History Month and the people and culture it celebrates.

First up, on the first, I read this piece from the New York Times about Rosa Parks. Did you know she had been working to combat police brutality and sexual assault for two decades before the bus incident she’s famous for? Did you know she was married to a barber; after her stand for justice, she and her husband lost their jobs and could not find decent work in Montgomery again. Her family moved to Detroit, and she found work in U.S. Representative John Conyers’s office. I had no idea.

Yesterday, my friend Connie made a FB post about the ACE Academy, a private school in Sioux Falls, SD for kids in kindergarten through eight grade. This school runs year round and gives at-risk and students of color opportunities to engage in an academic community that values diversity and brings into the classroom concepts like meditation and culture-based curriculum. ACE is the kind of school that is working to support the real history of various cultures in our society, and they’re doing it not just for their students. This month they’re posting all sorts of tidbits about Black history. You can check out their FB page here to get in on updates, the fun posts and more.

And tonight I read that the Library of Congress is hosting a transcribe-athon Feb. 12-14 to finish a transcribing project of Mary Church Terrell‘s papers or documents related to her. Born in Tennessee in 1863, Terrell was the daughter of slaves. She earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Oberlin College and became a teacher and advocate for racial justice.

I learned of Terrell tonight as I read about the transcribe-a-thon, and I am sure there are all sorts of things I’m going to learn this month. I’ll learn because I’m looking to learn, and I hope in the process I’ll be able to share some of this knowledge with you. I didn’t have a school like ACE as a kid, but as an adult, I know it’s up to me to educate myself in areas I’m unschooled in.

Did you know all of these little info nuggets? Any of them?

Fighting not just inaction, but disregard

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, mostly known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At a time when the #BLM movement has made great progress in raising awareness about systemic racism in our country, I wonder if MLK Day is more than a “day off from work” for a lot of people who could help break down some of the systems that have kept racism in place. I didn’t have the day off, and if I’m honest, I only began pondering this question after friend, Whitney Raver, posted these thoughts:

FB post from Whitney Raver’s profile.

As I wrote to her in my response, I’m not 100% white, but I can recognize that I fall into a category of moderate Americans who have for so long been quiet on the sidelines as people like MLK and today’s freedom fighters work for justice for people of color. I can recognize that in my work as a teacher I think of my contribution as making a difference for the future. But is it really enough?

As a Latina who understands what it’s like to grow up in a sea of white faces in a white place, it’s easy for me to be an ally to those who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin. I’ve experienced it myself. Yet am I part of a problem noted by Dr. King? It’s a problem he addresses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action…

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham jail, April 16, 1963

Am I part of the moderate crowd that isn’t doing enough? Sometimes the answer is yes. I know that one of the tenets of Critical Race Theory is that people in power use their experiences to talk about other people’s; I’m guilty of that here. And I’m not a march in the streets kind of a person. I don’t yet know how to talk with former classmates and community members about their racism. I don’t know how to get them to see that saying, “but I have a black cousin” doesn’t mean they are devoid of racial bias.

But what I do know is that I want to help raise awareness about social injustice, and it starts with work that I do know how to do: Asking questions. Listening. Teaching. Writing.

That teaching component is so very, very important today. I mean today in general and today specifically, as #NotMyPresident Trump released his “1776 report,” a document that basically excuses slavery and says the nation’s schools need a whole new curriculum to teach them about how great our country is and how condemning slavery and other unjust practices have a “devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.”

Living next to South Dakota, where the troll of a governor Kristi Noem has started her own re-education campaign, I am transported to Cambodia of the mid-to-late 70s and the Khmer Rouge’s re-education efforts under Pol Pot as I read about this new course of history these people want to create.

I believe education is such an important part of moving through social injustice and racism, and it is truly frightening that people in power (people who are definitely not moderates) are trying to erase entire histories. This is not just inaction, it is a disregarding of reality, a disregarding of thousands of people’s experiences and the foundation of racial problems we’re experiencing today.

I urge you to read about Trump’s delusional report, but also to read the 1619 Project cultivated by the New York Times. Knowledge is power, and sharing it is my form of activism.

Viva la revolución

Evaluation. It’s a process I encourage my students to undertake every time they engage with a text in our class. What is it saying, I ask them. How does it make you feel? Do the ideas have merit? Why or why not?

This process is one I hope they will use when they’re out in the real world too, and of course I know they come to my class already knowing how to evaluate things in daily life. They can decide whether or not to get the enchiladas or the burrito, the pitcher of beer special or the twofer special. They know how to make decisions and value various things using various metrics. But sometimes I’m reminded in a big way that evaluation and perception must work in tandem, and if someone’s perception of things is filtered in such a way that their metrics aren’t right for the job at hand, then their assessments may have holes in them. And it’s not because the student didn’t take the time to think, but because they didn’t quite have the right tools for evaluation, or the full view of things being evaluated. Case in point is commentary from a mid-term evaluation I received this term.

This class has felt unnecessarily politically charged. The class is supposed to teach the students to write and analyze literature effectively (That is my understanding of it anyway), and I feel that can be done without some of the one-sided left-wing propaganda. Most of it comes in the form of implicit assertions hidden in other statements, but some of it seems rather blatant. For example: Promoting Marxism as 1 of 6 primary methods of criticizing literature seemed rather ridiculous to me. I have not mentioned this in class, as I didn’t want to be accused of disrupting the class and then be on a professors bad side, but I figured I’d leave my comment here.

Yeah. I teach a course about the literature of revolution and it was too political. Dang.

Seeing this comment was both hilarious and upsetting. I wasn’t upset because I felt attacked or anything; no, I was happy to see an articulate comment. From the clarity of the writing, it’s easy to see that the student did put some thought and effort into expressing their ideas. They maintained what I think of as a pretty neutral tone, even as they expressed displeasure. And they demonstrated engagement with the ideas presented, or else how would they have remembered the ideas themselves? All of this was good. All of this allowed me to see that the student did have solid evaluation capabilities and techniques. But what bit so hard was seeing all these good things AND the big black hole that said something like, “your work getting this student to understand that everything is political and thus has potential to be revolutionary has failed.”

I posted the comment to social media, and many friends and colleagues shared a laugh and a face palm with me. I KNOW that teaching the literature I’m teaching must by its very existence be linked to politics. I just thought I was doing a better job of showing students why it is so important to read literature and see how it helps us understand the political — and how understanding politics can help enrich what we read.

So that’s how I get to where I am now, mulling over the idea that someone can be a solid evaluator of things, ideas, people, etc., but they can still miss out on seeing the big picture. I know I risk sounding like I think the student’s critique was wrong, or improper. I don’t. But I do wonder what I could have done differently to give my student the tools needed to have a full scale by which they could assess the value of our theme.

Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Small lights illuminate a star.

Photo by Elias Tigiser on Pexels.com

A brain goes rogue

on December 26, 2004, I experienced a major brain bleed that sent me into a coma and brain surgery. Up until that event, I had been a totally healthy 22-year-old. And then POP, just like that, what I knew of health and normal and independence vanished. Waking up was a two-day process after brain surgery. When I finally had my wits about me, I learned that I’d experienced a stroke, I couldn’t walk and might never live on my own again.

It would take another day for me to get up and test my legs — they worked— and months before I could drive again.  But I did it. In early 2005, I returned to some semblance of a normal life.

At the same time that I was gaining a sense of balance, both physical and metaphorical, another young woman was dealing with her own cerebrovascular event. In 1990, Terri Schiavo, then 26, had a heart attack and collapsed. The loss of oxygen to her brain sent her into a “persistent vegetative state.” For years, her husband, Micheal, had rallied against her parents, insisting that Terri would not want to live in such a state. Her Catholic parents said she was still a human, still their daughter, and they fought his attempts to end her life.

At just 22 when my brain went rogue, I was horrified by Terri’s situation. I watched news updates from my  parents’ couch, torn between siding with  Terri’s parents and her husband.

If it were me, what would I want?

Decisions

In those first days of recovery, before I could drive again, and thus before my independence was re-granted, I decided that I would have wanted to die.

“If I stroke out again,” I’d tell my dad, “you better let me die.”

He’d nod, knowingly. That’s what he wanted for himself, too.  I didn’t talk about it with my very Catholic mom, who I knew viewed every life as sacred, and would do anything in her power to keep me alive. As time went on and follow-up visits persisted, with each new care provider I saw, I would be given paperwork for an advance directive.

“It’s not a bad idea to state what you’d like done in the event of another emergency,” they’d say, handing me the folder. I’d carry it home to throw away, not wanting to think about such heavy decisions.

For the 14 years that Terri had been caught between her parents and her husband’s decisions,  the court in her state of Florida sided with her husband. But in 2005, President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed Federal courts to have a say. Terri’s feeding tube, the thing keeping her alive, came out.

On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo’s decades’ long ordeal was over.

Today

Today marks the 15 year anniversary of  Terri’s death, and I have been thinking about her off and on all day, as I do every year. I didn’t know her and didn’t know of her until my own medical crisis brought hers into my world. But in the past 15 years, her legacy has continued to orbit in my mind.

When I finally returned to life on my own in May of 2005, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since before my stroke.

“Mars,” he shouted from across the packed bar I had entered with a friend. “Shit, I can’t believe you’re here. I heard you’d been Terri Schiavo’d or something.”

I assured him that I hadn’t and sent a heart call out to Terri, feeling connected to her despite our differences. I’m so sorry you died, and I lived.

When I moved to Chicago fifteen months later and began volunteering on the stroke and traumatic brain injury floor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab), I felt Terri’s presence as I talked, or walked, or sat with patients recovering from their own traumas.

When I studied the therapeutic power of writing during grad school, I felt her presence when researching and writing about disability.

And in my current life and work, I think of Terri every time I write about advance directives, difficult conversations and life support paperwork. I do some writing for a company that has designed a web platform and coach system to help caregivers navigate responsibilities in their role of caring for an adult loved one, so these topics come up a lot.

And outside of my own  bubble, I see a raging debate about who should get care during this time of COVID-19, how those decisions are made and what it does to those who are actually making decisions.

On this anniversary of her death, I think of Terri not as someone who died stripped of dignity, but as someone who we should all think about on occasion. We should all have in place our desires for our own end of life so that no matter how it comes or when, we’re able to have a say in what we want.

Love and light to you, Terri.

 

Don’t be a sponge

loki couch

Loki the dog is great at getting stuck in couch potato mode.

In my work as a freelance writer and editor, I’m currently engaged in a project designed to help unpaid caregivers find more time for themselves and make it easier to do the extra work they do in caring for a loved one. Free time is valuable and hard to come by for so many of us, but for working caregivers who deal with concerns for their loved ones while at work and then again when the return home,  it’s an even more fleeting thing.

As I recently reviewed caregiver news online, I stumbled across this article in Stria, “a media platform for the longevity market.” The piece explores data that shows how interdependence develops between older married/partnered couples. It was interesting to me from a working perspective; maybe it’s something I can do some more research on and write about later, I thought. But as I read, the findings struck me as something that’s applicable to me, now.

“We all know couples that are joined-at-the-hip couch potatoes, enjoying nothing more than streaming a hit show while sharing a loaded pizza,” writes author Kevyn Burger. “Equally familiar are the couples who regularly hit the gym together, then treat themselves by splitting a post-workout protein shake.”

I cringed a bit when I read that.

My TV-loving partner is not responsible for my decisions to sit with him and get sucked onto something terrible like Younger or 9-1-1, and yet…I find myself doing this more often than I’d like over the winter. I could be reading, working out or visiting a friend. Instead… I’m couch-potatoing it. I’ve been mad at myself for doing this in the past, but when I read this article and gained confirmation that negative behaviors like this can have a particular bad psychological effect  as one ages (not to mention the extra physical effects of weight gain, in my case) I felt called to action.

The article notes that researchers are finding that this sponge-like tendency can lead to chronic issues in the future, and cites Courtney Polenick, assistant professor of psychiatry and faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

“We need to look at the broader picture and gather information about what each person is managing and also what couples jointly manage,” she is quoted as saying. “This study looks at the impact of chronic conditions across a long time frame. We need additional research about how spouses interact to help one another and how couples jointly manage multiple chronic conditions at a daily level.”

Winter is almost over, I hope, and at the very least we have longer days now. When the dogs, the couch, the blankets and the TV beckon, I’ve been working hard to remind myself that there are other things I could be doing to more purposefully engage my brain and my body.  I have yet to use that time for the treadmill, but I am making my way though a few physical books — and I’ve been writing more!

What are you doing to stay healthy, independent and still connected to your partner?