Not my story

Hey there Thoughts From the Back, you old neglected blog, you. I’ve missed clearing my mind, typing my thoughts, and exercising some particular part of my brain on you. And although I’m visiting you today and have intentions of restarting our relationship, I’m not sure I’m ready to put the effort in to make this work right now. “What’s wrong, is it me?” I hear you ask. No no, WordPress, you still make this as easy as possible. In fact, I still visit you every day to read all my favorite blogs. This neglected relationship is all on me. It’s not what I would consider a traditional writer’s block – it’s just that I feel like the things I’m thinking about these days are part of someone else’s world and they aren’t my story to be telling.

The biggest story from the smallest circle of my world is that I have added the moniker “Granny” to the list of all the things that people call me. After a difficult but could’ve been worse pregnancy, and a long and unusual but could have been worse labor, and a premature but otherwise healthy birth, and a 3 week but at least no longer NICU stay, two healthy baby boys are now at home with D#1 and the SIL. Someday I will have my own stories to tell about my relationship with my twin grandsons, but for now the story belongs to their mom.

Then there are the big stories from the largest circles of my world. Such as the UN Report on Climate Change. I do believe the worst is possible. I do hope, however, that humans can keep the earth a viable planet for life for many future generations. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t feel like I have a voice in this story. I am drinking my coffee this morning from a mug that proclaims “Environmental Awareness Can Make A World Of Difference – You Can Make A Difference.” This mug was handed to the husband when he was an employee at Shell Oil Company back in the 80’s. Clearly, environmental awareness wasn’t enough. This well-intentioned mantra that guided me for many years has failed my children and my grandchildren. I have squandered the rights to call this my story.

The legislative challenges to women having control over their own bodies and their reproductive rights is appalling. The president of my country is a disgrace at his best and dangerous at his worst. National and worldwide issues in healthcare, immigration, oppression of minority populations, economic inequalities, violence and hatred — these are all issues that I care about. “Issue Awareness Can Make A World Of Difference.” Bullshit, I know it’s bullshit. I know how lucky I am that these are not my stories, and I still don’t know what to do, I still don’t know what to say.

I am fast approaching a round-number birthday, the big six-o. It is a number that haunts me because my mother and two of my grandparents died at age 60. I keep telling myself that their stories are not my story.

In the past six months or so, I’ve been asked to give some honest feedback on the three different writing projects. One was a completed novel, hopefully ready to be shopped around for publication, one was a complete first draft of a non-fiction work, and one was at the very beginning stages – an idea just starting to get down on paper. I have  respect for all three of these writers; for the level of progress they have achieved and for their bravery in asking for feedback. I envy their ability to construct something with words. I let my honest opinions fly, but I also had to remind myself that these were not my stories.

I don’t want to ignore all those stories that aren’t mine, but it might be time to accept that awareness is all I have to give right now. My story. My “thoughts from the back.” My house and yard. My family. My tiny flicker of light, my hope that making my little corner of the world a better place is worth it.

A few weeks ago I went to see my favorite “writer who draws,” Austin Kleon. He was on tour for his new book, Keep GoingIt’s basically a self-help book for artists of all stripes, a “guide to staying creative in good times and bad.” It’s good advice for life, too. Maybe it’s time for a new coffee mug. Hope to see you again soon, Thoughts From The Back, thanks for being patient with me.

Gnomore

It’s been a great year of puns in my front yard, despite most of the neighbors neither noticing nor getting the jokes. All good things must come to an end, but before this one does, I think my pointy-hatted friends deserve one final blog post salute. I present to you, dear readers, a year of #gnomepuns.

 

If you hover over each image, the punny caption should show up, just replace “gnome” with “home” and you’ll get a common word/phrase/title. Thanks for playing and I hope you enjoyed the year of #gnomepuns as much as I did!

The Time Capsule

The detritus of life. It’s not reality TV that motivates me (Marie Kondo, Hoarders, etc.), it’s having cleared out our parents’ homes. The hope is that some years down the road, the daughters won’t have to get a dumpster before they can settle our estate. Who am I kidding, the hope is that it won’t take more than one. The husband still has nine boxes of stuff to sort thru from his mom’s house, from two years ago, that have earned permanent residency status in our front room. Perhaps to prove to him that it can be done, I sent him up into the attic a few weekends ago to bring down some boxes of paperwork that needed to be sorted, recycled, and shredded. Most of it has been quick and easy to go through. Most.

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This is most, but not all of it. Including a box of 30 yr old textbooks. Please, just don’t ask.

One box, simply marked paperwork without any year, contained three bags stuffed with papers that I had saved. Papers? Letters. Clippings from newspapers and magazines. Comic strips (mostly Cathy and Far Side.) Greeting cards. A few photographs. So many, mostly hand-written, multi-page letters.

Communication was so different in the late-70’s, early-80’s. There was no email and long-distance telephone calls were considered a luxury. If you wanted to stay in touch, you wrote letters. Very few of these saved letters were written by me – a few that I sent to a boyfriend who is now the husband made their way into this box – but what other people sent to me told me as much about myself and my life at that time as any of my own words would have.

Why did I save this stuff in the first place? Some of it was funny or interesting and I likely just thought it would be worth revisiting. Some of it probably felt so true to my soul that a garbage can was no place for it. I’m sure that all of it, at the time, felt important because I have always believed in the importance of the written word. I’m sure that I may even have believed that it might be important to someone in the future. I was right about that last point, even if “someone in the future” is only me.

I think to myself, “I should show this to the husband” – and then I move it to the recycle pile. I think to myself, “The daughter would enjoy this” – and then I throw it away. I think to myself, “I should try to contact this old friend and laugh together over this” – and then I put it in the very small pile of things to save. None of this is important to anyone else, but it is important to the current me. It is a time capsule of my life: My years in college, my short-lived engineering career, romances that faltered and one that survived, friendships that faded and stronger friendships that endured, the wonderful years of becoming true friends with my mom, the choices I made in my past that paved the way to my present.

I’m hanging on to a small portion of this stuff and it will go into another bag in another box. But this time, I’m going to label the box appropriately: Time Capsule – for Nancy.

 

Reading for the ToB

My favorite book event of the year is just around the corner, The Tournament of Books begins on March 6. There are 18 books in the literary bracket challenge this year and I’ve read four of them to date. It’ll be a push, but my goal is to finish 9 of them before the Rooster is awarded on March 29.

I’ve just finished reading three books in a row that might be lumped together in a sub-genre called “immigrant stories,” but my reaction to each of the books couldn’t be more different.

Call Me Zebra

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Viet Oloomi is the story of Zebra, the last in a family line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts in Iran. Throughout history, her family has taken refuge in books and literature. When Zebra is a child, war forces Zebra and her parents to flee their home. Now in her 20’s, after the death of both her parents, Zebra undertakes a journey to retrace the path of their exile, intending to create a grand manifesto on literature and life.

Honestly, Zebra was just too much for me. I’m not sure I would have finished this one had it not been in the tournament. The writing was good, but I felt like I was either woefully uneducated in classical literature (which is true, but still…) or just not in on the joke. There was nothing about the heroine that wasn’t extreme, or extremely passionate, or extremely crazy. I couldn’t connect with Zebra or with any of the other characters, who were all defined by how they reacted to/with Zebra.

America Is Not the Heart

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is, per the goodreads description, “a sprawling telenovela of a debut novel.” It’s a multi-generational family saga about immigrants from the Philippines living in the Bay Area in California. The book is centered around members of the de Vera family: Pol, a former medical doctor from a powerful and prominent family in the Philippines. Paz, his wife, a nurse who relentlessly works to help out her extended family in the states and provide a good, American life for their daughter, Roni. Hero, Pol’s niece, who was disowned by her parents after she left medical school to join the resistance movement against Marcos and is trying to build a new life for herself after being captured, tortured and finally released.

I liked this book, but there was a lot going on.  Castillo was trying to tell more than just a family story. There was almost too much emphasis on Filipino culture, language, and food; it left me unable to fully connect with the characters. My lack of knowledge of Philippines history, especially under the Marcos regime kept me at an arm’s length from understanding Hero’s past. The storyline that navigated thru lesbian and bisexual relationships distracted me from the immigrant story. Whatever story or character I wanted to take center stage at any given point was often quickly shunted to the side. Telenovela, indeed.

The House of Broken Angels

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea is also an immigrant family saga, this time about the de la Cruz family, originally from Tijuana and now living in the San Diego area. Big Angel is dying from cancer and wants to celebrate one last birthday with the whole extended family gathered. The week before the scheduled party, his mother dies, so it becomes a double celebration and remembrance of life – the funeral one day and the birthday party the next.

Urrea brings a whole family to life, expertly filling in back story and history as needed. A huge, whole, messy, wonderful, imperfect, funny, fabulous family. Big Angels’s youngest brother, actually half-brother, Little Angel, makes a rare appearance from his home in Seattle. Little Angel always feels like he doesn’t quite belong (it isn’t his mother who just died), or rather he feels like the others always remind him that he doesn’t belong. And yet, he has a bond with Big Angel that is more than just sharing a name. The novel is in no small part about Big Angel coming to terms with his own mortality and his legacy. One of my favorite bits is the notebook of things he’ll miss when he’s dead; it’s both touching and revealing. Little Angel, as an insider-yet-outsider to this family gathering, inserts a lot of humor and understanding to the chaos.

In the author’s note, Urrea writes that The Godfather was his Mexican father’s favorite book not because it was about Italian gangsters, but because it was about family. Urrea wanted to create his own family epic, a Mexican-American family epic. He closes his note by saying, “I hope this family reminds you of your own.” My ancestry doesn’t match the characters in any of these books or the authors, but the de la Cruz family created by Urrea is the only one that indeed finds a way to remind me of my own and that is why this is the book that I loved.

Census

Census

On the pages of Census that have roman numerals (so I guess it is an author introduction, but it’s really important to the book), author Jesse Ball explains that he had an older brother who was born with Down syndrome. Abram Ball died at the age of 24 in 1998, but while they were still children, Jesse understood that he would grow up and take care of Abram. Because of Abram’s death at a young age, this anticipated aspect of Jesse’s life never came to pass.

Census is the story of a father, who is dying, and his son, who has Down syndrome, and a final trip that they take together to places they haven’t been. The father takes a job as a census taker and they travel from A to Z.

And that plot summary, although accurate, is the most inadequate description that could possibly be written about this book. The census isn’t a counting of people, it’s more a collection of stories from people that might somehow explain society. And the book itself isn’t about the father or the census, it’s really about the boy. In the introduction, Ball explains how he undertook to write a book “about” his brother:

I didn’t see exactly how it could be done, until I realized that I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.

Honestly, I still couldn’t explain to you what this means, “to make a book that is hollow'” but damned if this isn’t exactly what Ball has accomplished.

This is a simple book to read and a powerful book to think about.

The simple part is that it is a charming tale of love and loss and acceptance. The powerful part is that, more than any novel that I’ve read recently, Census works with the reader’s own life experiences, somehow allows the reader space to insert themself into the story, and forces the reader to confront their own reactions to and judgements of individuals and societies that are different. This makes Census difficult to recommend universally because it seems impossible to anticipate how anyone else would respond to reading this book.

I loved all the short passages that I marked to jot down in my journal such as:

There is a dream that the place you await does in fact like in wait for you. This is the dream of the traveler.

and

This is a sort of proof of something I have long believed: that reason and sensical behavior are not always necessary if there exists some small flood of kindness.

I loved the character established only by our narrator’s (the father’s), remembrances – his late wife, the boy’s mother. She was a successful performer before marrying the father and having the son. Whereas the father, a doctor by profession, was a healer and an observer of people, the mother, a clown, was able to exist and even synchronize with people. Ball admits to casting himself as the father in this novel, the role he imagined that he would be playing in his adulthood. I believe, as an author, he is also describing a side of himself in this description of the mother:

Also, she thought the person she was in her letters was someone she herself did not know until the letter was written and then it was like she was meeting herself.

I loved the section about the photographs. How the parents had provided the boy with photographs of people and places that he knew and that he could arrange and rearrange on a wall of his room. An activity, an exercise, perhaps to allow the boy to see his world in a different way and to give his parents an understanding of how the boy saw his world.

I loved how the book was physically laid out. I loved Ball’s writing. My husband has a (HORRIBLE AND UNACCEPTABLE) habit of opening a book to the middle and reading a few pages as a way of judging if the book is worthy of his time. I probably would not think much of Ball’s writing style if I did that; odd spacing/formatting and stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentences. All of which are completely appropriate and totally work within the context of the narrator observing and describing his world.

Forget what I wrote earlier about Census being difficult to recommend universally. You, few but loyal followers, should read this book. And then we should talk about it. This is my first book to read for the 2019 Tournament of Books. This one will be hard to top.