Sparked by Words

Archive for August, 2017

The Sympathy Vote

 

Observe Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers, and Oskar himself is just as shattered. Alone, he wanders New York for months, seeking the lock for a key he believes was left him by his father, keeping his profound terror at bay by wearing all white clothes and banging on a tambourine. Oskar is a diminutive child with immense impact. Safran Foer takes poetic license as his due and employs suspension of reality as a given. Yet I found Oskar, grieving and determined, completely believable. I’ve raised two sensitive sons who didn’t always do what was expected or take the easy route. They and Oskar advise me to be thoughtful of others whose condition I may have misjudged through my own harsh point of view.

My oldest grandson, hesitant, cautious, brilliant, and imaginative, could be Oskar. My oldest granddaughter, adventurous, independent, creative, and fearless, could be Oskar. I’ve taught and mentored so many children over thirty-plus years, that I know the quirky kid whose lens is smeared, is the one who sees things accurately. Wearing white symbolically projects peace and innocence, while making noise routs the monsters under the stairs and makes them scrabble to darker corners. I read the book ten years ago and still recall many details, imprinted on me because they resounded with me. I care about Oskar enough to have remembered his story. He’s a sympathetic character.

We identify with sympathetic characters. Against the odds, we love these people. We ache for them, cry with them, wish they would wise up, and hope they prevail by the end of the book. They remind us that to be flawed is to be human, to cower is to yearn, to try to be heroic means sometimes we end up an ordinary schlub.

Nothing ordinary about my next sympathetic character. It’s Death, usually portrayed in a hooded cloak covering his entire body, only his skeleton hand showing around the grip of his curved scythe, perhaps a ghoulish grin on his skull face. We all fear him. He has no mercy nor any compassion for the people he takes with a slash of his scythe, nor for the ones he leaves behind.

But this isn’t the Death in Markus Zuzaks’s The Book Thief. Death is a gentle creature who lifts the soul out of the body and carries it away in his arms. In his words:

I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum…It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax…

The smiling teddy bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.

I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.

All that was left was the body; the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.

…It kills me sometimes how people die.

This Death is an observer who lingers, one who is haunted by the humans whose lives he changes, by those who are left behind. He connects with the people who don’t even know he’s there.

My mom lives in a residence for those who suffer with memory loss so severe they can no longer communicate in any familiar cognitive semblance. I hope that when my mom’s ravaged body finally lets her go, this is the Death who will come for her and lift her soul gently. Oh, I hope it for myself as well one day. And because this Death is so tender and merciful, I feel kinship with him. What a terrible job he does so well, another sympathetic character.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is on its surface a story of the last generation of Chinese girls whose feet were bound, crippling them but making them desirable brides. Lily and Snow Flower are pledged as laotong, improvised sisters by the incidence of the constellations at the time of their birth. Together they suffer the excruciating pain of the foot binding process. They spend hours locked in the women’s room with each other, and when apart send secret letters to the other, written in a poetic cipher called nu shu, inscribed on the pleats of a fan. Lily eventually realizes that she’s been duped into accepting Snow Flower as her better when it was Lily all along who deserved the most honored position.

Or was Snow Flower’s duplicity meant to protect her from a terrible life while convincing Lily of their equal status? Each of these same-same friends looks in a mirror and sees a lie, but each also sees deception where perhaps there was only a wretched social condition thrust upon them by centuries of cultural restrictions so bizarre that little girls’ feet were broken to make them attractive to men. Bound feet, bound lives, secrecy, and imposed social status enslave the girls while their fan reveals their deepest longings.

I kept a diary as a kid, I keep a journal now, and I write stories that expose aspects of my life. Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth. I’ve had best friends and left some of them behind, painfully, when the relationship changed too much for us to bear. I’m not always honorable, but nearly always beset by flaws. Noble and damaged, Lily and Snow Flower are both sympathetic characters. Were someone to use me as a model for their book, I hope I’d be viewed as tenderly as these laotong.

Books about sympathetic characters are readable because we find ourselves on the pages, sometimes with a guide to redeem our own sorry selves.

See you on the pages in between.

 

 

Angel sculpture courtesy Google images, Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Post-Eclipse-alypse

What if the two Voyager spacecraft enter interstellar space where the Golden Record might reach other intelligent life forms, but – witnessing the savagery we have wrought here on earth – they want nothing to do with us? What if that life form is of such advanced intelligence that they refuse to acknowledge us? What if they have seen us first but have already passed us by? What if the only thing we leave behind is nothing worth owning or passing on? What if the speed at which the Voyagers travel is exponentially outpaced by the momentum of the continuing destruction here at our planetary home? What if the premise of hope launched by the visionary scientists in 1977 has long been dashed by the reality of the horrors the destroyers effected here on Earth?

What if we deserve nothing more and Earth is really our one chance? Shouldn’t we live here as if that is the final and only truth?

And if we choose not to respectively honor our place in the Cosmos, what then do we tell our children’s children’s children?

 

Just a Thought 6

 

Voyager image courtesy NASA

Earth image courtesy Pixabay.com

Waiting for the Light

A horizon line is an error of our vision. Still, we plod determinedly toward it. We reach it in our imaginations, then move again. It’s the forward movement that transforms it – and us. Closing our eyes makes it real.

But open your eyes today, behind your special protective glasses, about 10:00 a.m. if you’re on the West Coast. Watch the solar eclipse, performed especially for the United States. If one thing can unite this savage country in a peaceful moment, let it be all eyes peering toward the heavens, each of us somewhat in the dark, holding hands, breathless with wonder, waiting for light to reach us again.

Waiting for the light.

 

Just a Thought, 5

Eclipse image courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

Dirty Words

Dirty words. Stub my toe on the sharp metal caster and you’ll hear me spew lots of dirty words. Crap, kocker, damn it, dreck. It hurt, damn it, I’m allowed to holler, and I don’t have to be nice about it. In English and Yiddish, I holler all the bad words. Feckuckteh caster.

Lenny Bruce, the rebellious comedian who loaded his dark comedy with language considered obscene, made seven particular words famous by virtue of their being too dirty to speak aloud. So of course he did, and was arrested for his defiance. Cover your eyes if you’re the sensitive sort because I’m going to list them here: cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, tits. Bruce’s real crime was pointing out the hypocrisies of our culture but the words got him in trouble. He was too vulgar for polite society, no matter that society was too brutal for the underrepresented and downtrodden. Bruce was no angel, and many people lost sight of his legitimate demand for free speech, the very thing we now take for granted. Today, his seven dirty words hardly raise an eyebrow, so often are they hollered through the night.

An infant’s first word is “mama” or whatever word in her native language aligns with that individual. Fathers have been trying forever to get the first word to be “dada.” But the first word ever uttered by the very first human who found she had a voice box that allowed more verbalization than a huff, grunt, or yowl? It was “fuck.” Had to be – standing small and alone in the African desert, she found the world terrifying, she saw her life in peril, and she said what we all say at such realization. “Fuck.”

Here are dirtier words, much dirtier:  abandonment, abuse, arson, betrayal, bigotry, deceit, drug trafficking, exploitation, false accusation, forced starvation, genocide, holocaust, human experimentation, human rights suppression, human trafficking, incest, lying, misogyny, murder, prejudice, racism, rape, religious persecution, sexism, slavery, terrorism, theft, torture, war, xenophobia – sadly, I’m certain there are more. This is the real dirty language. Still, language is benign. Add music and every word sounds like sugar being spun into cotton candy. To be offended by dirty words but ignore the acts they identify is akin to disdaining the menu but still ordering awful food.

You can put in all the asterisks, ellipses, blank spaces, bird calls, or underlines you want in order to grant your writing a measure of gentility, but face the facts. You may swear upon your holy books, mutter amens and hosannas, grovel on your knees, pledge your honor, and promise repentance. None of it means a thing without follow through. Every writer, humanitarian, philosopher –  every decent person accepts the same truth. Words are harmless, scratches in the dust even when howled under duress. It’s the acts that are horrific, and the reality that these acts take place every single day all over the world – the acts are far worse. More hurtful, longer lasting, intentional.

Writing these words does not make writing a bad act. Writing them brings the implied actions to the attention of a public that often wants to hide behind prayers, lattes, and cell phones. There is no indecency in words. The indecency is in the fact that so many engage in the actions described by the words. When we eliminate these bad acts so completely that to say one of these words engenders genuine confusion among all people – what does that mean? I can’t understand words that don’t relate to the human condition anywhere in the world – then we can label them as really bad words.

Words can lead the ignorant to understand the complexity of past events, so write. Words can warn or instruct, so write. Write the truth in any and every way you can. Employ words that hoist power, and worry little about words that bear no weight. Even if they’re ugly. Worry about acts that injure, abuse, kill, threaten, maim, enslave, bludgeon. If the dirty words you write make someone see the other side, feel the pain, and change their behavior, you’ve done your job. If the dirty words you raise on a poster cause the government to enforce justice, you’ve done your job. If the dirty words you speak arouse the pulse of the apathetic public and encourage them to find out the truth for themselves, you’ve done your job.

Call me a dirty girl. I yearn to be that and more. I will not stand down. The only thing I own is my integrity. Pen to paper. Truth to power.

Here in fact are the very most vile, horrendous, and disgusting words in English, and they can be translated into any language and still carry the same inherent evil. I hold out my hands for the cuffs. Arrest me. These are the dirtiest three:

GUILTY AS CHARGED

 

Quill pen and scroll image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

 

A Gentleman in Moscow

Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress – any combination of these can cause the evolution of society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all.

From A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, © 2016, Viking

Quote from a book 1, a thought worth considering,  a book worth reading

 

 

Cover image courtesy Viking

Choices

So many things are going wrong in my life at the moment, most of them related to – well, everything, now that I think about it. I’ll begin by stating that I won’t begin at the beginning. Imagine problems one, two, three, ad infinitum. And the final problem – the car, nineteen-years-old, worn and cranky – was at the mechanic shop last night, and the two older grands spent the night at my home so their parents could have an evening out. Hubby was working out of town. That meant I couldn’t drive the grands anywhere but I asked if they’d like to walk to a restaurant. So we did. The nearby shopping center offers many choices, and the kids picked a favorite Italian place, one that good-naturedly welcomes kids. We each ate pasta with a favorite sauce, slurping meatballs and noodles, gorging on hot bread and butter, sharing our selections with each other. After dinner we walked to the grocery store around the corner and bought food for breakfast this morning.

On the sidewalk we passed a man slumped against a wall who asked for nothing but looked away from us, seeming sad, dejected, tired, homeless. Possibly he was ill from a life lived in dark corners or unkempt gullies for who knows how long. I have so many bills, a falling-apart car, a house in disrepair on many fronts. Our financial situation precludes us visiting our younger son, his wife and the two younger grands.  But I bask in so much wealth in many ways.

My grands waited at the corner and watched as I walked back to the homeless man and asked if he was hungry. He nodded but remained silent. I gave him a bill. He looked and when he realized I’d given him not a one but a ten dollar bill, his face lit up. Ten dollars will buy a fraction of a tank of gas or pay a small bit of what the mechanic is going to charge me to fix the car that may run well enough to need that gas. Tears dripped down the cheeks of the old man; he could barely speak but in a hushed voice, he asked my name. I told him and asked his, then told him to please get something to eat. He nodded, still grasping the bill, a lifeline for the evening.

I don’t usually give to people on the street though we donate small amounts to many charities and worthy causes in more traditional ways. When possible I participate in service projects, and the kids do the same as part of their Scout programs. I know the homeless man may have bought a cheap bottle of booze with the bill, but I can’t stop people from destroying themselves if that’s what they choose. I can only choose my own life, and last night I chose to give a stranger, an old man, enough to sustain him for one more night. I hope he ate something hot and good for him. I choose to think he did. The kids witnessed a small act of mercy, and hopefully it impressed them in a way that will impel them to be compassionate as they grow up.

My grands were so sweet the whole evening and this morning, and so grateful that they got to spend the night at my house. I am angry, distressed, and deeply frightened about the deterioration of the environment, the danger of escalating world political danger, the uncertain economic future facing all my grandchildren and all your grandchildren. But my choice is to continue to do as much good as I can in this world, even if they are only small acts of justice or kindness or being responsible for the earth’s limited resources.

So, it has been a very good week for me despite the falling apart car for which the mechanic shop is having a hard time finding the part it needs to fix it, despite the fact we do not have air conditioning to endure this hot and humid summer, and despite that the floors in the kitchen and the bedroom remain ruined after two different broken pipe floods. Life is very good for me and I know how fortunate I am. It is far worse for many others.

Many years ago I was given a tiny piece of paper imprinted with two Hebrew sentences. I carry it with me at all times. Each sentence reminds me I am part of a world that is incomplete. It is not only my choice, but my charge as a citizen of the world community to contribute in a positive way. On one side is written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.”

I am but dust and ashes. The world was created for my sake, not to squander but to help ensure the future. For the grandchildren of the world.

 

 

The Children painting courtesy Valentin Serov, CommonsWikimedia.org

 

Traveling Back East – Sort of

I have been honored as a guest writer by Adrienne Morris who blogs at Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained-Period Drama on Paper at Middlemay Farm https://middlemaybooks.com/blog/

My story, Jelly Glass, was featured there yesterday. It’s a peek into one family’s life.

I would be doubly honored if you would mosey on over to her blog and read it there: https://middlemaybooks.com/2017/08/06/keeping-kosher/

One of the most incredible parts of blogging is getting to meet people from all over the world, from all walks of life.

You’ll enjoy traveling around Adrienne’s blog, reading about her life in upstate New York on a wonderful farm and learning about the books she writes.

Thank you, Adrienne. Got a big grin going on over here in Southern California.

 

 

Basket of roses photo courtesy Pixabay