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Aug. 4th, 2009

*Not a Meat Pie

Nancy Donoval
Every Pastie* Tells A Story
Playwrights’ Center
2301 Franklin Ave E Minneapolis, MN 55406

Fri., Jul. 31 @ 7:00 p.m. Sat., Aug. 1 @ 8:30 p.m. Tue., Aug. 4 @ 10:00 p.m. Fri., Aug. 7 @ 4:00 p.m. Sat., Aug. 8 @ 7:00 p.m. 
http://www.fringefestival.org/2009/show/?id=1079

You will not learn to make them twirl.  There.  Let me get the only disappointing thing about this story out of the way.  If you were looking for pole dancing, you will also have to go elsewhere. 

I said I was attending the Thinking Woman’s Fringe, but that doesn’t mean I’m not seeing funny shows.  It’s just that all of the funny shows I am seeing are also intelligent.  Nancy Donoval’s storytelling flawlessly integrates humor and intelligence and I never get tired of hearing her tell.  Since I’m her Girl Friday this year, doing last minute errands, recording (when my recorder works), postcarding, fetching cups of hot tea, helping get the props off the stage at the end, I’m hearing her tell a lot.  Nancy’s stories are remarkable not only for their humor and intelligence, but for their accessibility.  You do not  need to be a “theater person” to be drawn into this tale –  you don’t need to have been a good Catholic girl, or even a girl.  Familiarity with Milwaukee – not required.  You only need to have once been young, and to have thought that the rest of your life was hanging on someone else’s opinion of your talent, your competence, your commitment.  Nancy makes it look easy, this storytelling business – natural, like a conversation.  But don’t be fooled – at each and every moment, she is a dancer on point – a consummate, meticulous artist with words.  The resolution of this story leaves you richer, more capable of humor, generosity and intelligence yourself.    

And in the spirit of that generosity, I pass on this resource.  Girl Fridays also do research.

Aug. 3rd, 2009

Barthelme the Scrivener

The Twisted Grin-Assorted Tales to Amuse and Alarm
Mindless Mirth Productions
Augsburg Studio
2211 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis, MN


Thu., Jul. 30 @ 10:00 p.m., Sat., Aug. 1 @ 5:30 p.m., Thu., Aug. 6 @ 8:30 p.m. , Fri., Aug. 7 @ 8:30 p.m. , [S] Sat., Aug. 8 @ 4:00 p.m.

http://www.fringefestival.org/2009/show/?id=974

Kenneth – what is the frequency? In 1986, Dan Rather was attacked by two men who repeatedly pummeled him for no obvious reason, and between beatings, asked this apparently absurd question. The crime was never resolved, though one of the assailants was eventually apprehended. But "Kenneth - what's the frequency?" made a neat song, one Rather got over his trauma long enough to enjoy singing it with REM.

Fifteen years later, iin Harper's Magazine, Paul Limbert Allman claimed he has solved the mystery of this curious assault, pasting together two apparently unrelated lines in Barthelme’s short story “The Indian Uprising” to come up with an equally absurd theory involving the Houston author. Allman has since conceded that he finds his own theory "difficult to accept," and that the assailants could also have been "loose cannons armed with quotes."

Which, interestingly enough, describes Barthleme to a tee. I suppose when you write surrealist fantasy and play with violent themes in fragmentary bursts of flash fiction, echoing the structure and logic of the schizophrenic mind, you should not be surprised when you end up being the source of inspiration for a pair of them - the Jodi Foster of Post-Modernism.

Alternatively, Paul Allman’s piece may in fact be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Barthelme, who died in 1989. It was written in December 2001. If Barthelme had been alive to see the former Governor of Texas shift the blame for 9/11 from Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, he might have written just such a story himself.

I appear to be attending, courtesy of my talented and interesting friends, the Thinking Woman’s Fringe. (Although the Woman's Thinking Fringe makes a better acronym.) This has been making it hard for me to review performances in a timely fashion. I just get too caught up in exploring what I sampled afterwards. I have not read Barthelme in a long, loooong time – one short story in a graduate course on contemporary American short fiction at the University of Minnesota in 1979 really doesn't cut it. After having seen Larry Ripp’s Twisted Grin, I found myself wanting to go home and reacquaint myself with Barthelme’s work. This is relatively easy to do online. So I did. I wish I could take credit for the title of this review, BTW, but at least four others got there before me.

I am amazed that there appear to have been so few adaptations of Barthelme’s short stories to the theater. Beckett was a major influence, as were Sartre and Ionesco, and it shows. Many of Barhelme's stories are monologues, often with narrators of questionable reliability. The folks at Mindless Mirth Productions really have something here – though they might want to change their name. Because Donald Barthelme – while playful - is anything but a mindless experience.

Barthelme’s stories appeared mostly in the New Yorker, where for many I suspect they served the same purpose as the cartoons – short, sophisticated comic relief. Not to say that the stories are not challenging. They are, in fact, linguistic koans, semiotic puzzles. As one critic puts it, for Barthelme the highest success is not if the story strikes us as true, but rather if it shows us how it works. I had to learn a new word - heteroglossia - just to understand some of the criticism. Sometimes I am glad I am no longer an academic.

Turns out I enjoy Barthelme more as interpreted theatre than I do just reading him – though it was interesting in several of the pieces to see what Ripp omitted. There isn’t much, and it seldom does damage to the author’s intention. Of course if it did, Barthelme, an academic himself, could hardly complain. He has read his Husserl, his Heidegger, his Barthes and Derrida. No doubt he has told bar stories at MLA conventions with Frederic Jameson and Stanley Fish. Even now the tenure of entire English faculties depended on an ideology which permits, even encourages, the subversion of authorial intent. The editorial changes of one little Fringe Festival playwright don’t mount to a hill of beans in that town.

Jon Eichenlaub does an excellent job with Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, which is taken almost verbatim from the text, but my favorite stories are those in which the author backs away from fragmented absurdity and meaningless violence as abruptly as he engages it, and imagines instead a different world. We know that this world is as fragile, and as possible, as the other, and yet ending there in some way gives hope. Life is absurd, and we make stupid, even cruel mistakes, but people are essentially good. Sure, the narrator in I Bought a Little City shoots six thousand dogs, proving that power – and capitalism - corrupt. But on deciding he doesn’t like the experience, he just gives it up. At least that’s how it appears in the abridged version. “Took a bath on that deal,” he says cheerfully. And learned not to play God. “A lot of other people already knew that, but I have never doubted for a minute that a lot of other people are smarter than me, and figure out things quicker.” His commentary on the nature of God’s own apparently sadistic imagination - “He does a lot worse things every day” – loses some depth and resonance with the elimination of Sam Hong’s wife. But the essential meaning comes across.

There are times when I sense more gravitas in Barthelme than comes across in Twisted Grin. Like I Bought a Little City, The School, perhaps, loses a bit of its complexity, feeling more like a Saturday Night Live sketch (hence the Mindless Mirth) than a piece that genuinely addresses existential questions. Is it death that gives meaning to life? Or life itself which is its own meaning? Either I blinked or an element rather critical to the ending of that particular story was missing - an element similar to the absence of Sam Hong's wife. Missing that context, I was distracted at first by not knowing whether the narrator was herself a sociopath, or a jinx, or whether the students at the school were just us, confronting what we all must confront –that life, in the end, will kill you. There is also a whiff of Cold War to “The School,” as if it was written in response to the actual absurdity of schoolchildren crouching under desks to protect themselves from nuclear attack. (I was there. We did this.) Yet the story that remained fit the character Rose Johnson portrayed, and I especially enjoyed her expressiveness and comic timing.

Gravitas is there, if you wish to find it. And affirmation of what is beautiful and joyous in life, amidst the absurdity. My favorite story (as anyone who knows me could probably guess) was A City of Churches which for some reason I will probably never know, is available online in English and Chinese. Like another reviewer who claims he “went to that school,” I have done time in that city, which has a peculiarly Southern feel to it. I feel like Barthelme has stared with me down the length of Hillsboro Parkway in Nashville, where the steeples line up like missile silos. A city where you can “live in the church of your choice.” A choice as American as the color palette of a Model T. Vickijoan Keck’s portrayal of the young woman looking for an apartment in Prester, who has already been offered a job as their “car rental girl” despite the fact that everyone has a car in Prester and nobody wants to leave it, is spot on. She has the ability to act whatever age the part demands, which is a rare gift. For the most part, Cecelia (her name in the story; I do not believe it is mentioned in the play) is the rational voice, the reasonable outsider. Of course she will not take a job renting cars in a town where no one rents cars. That makes no sense. Of course she will not live in a belfry apartment. That would be bats. Are we in the Twilight Zone? But when her guide asks, quite pointedly, what denomination she is, the woman responds with an apparent non sequitur that explodes any precoonceptions we might have had about her character:

"I can will my dreams," Cecelia said. "I can dream whatever I want. If I want to dream that I'm having a good time, in Paris or some other city, all I have to do is go to sleep and I will dream that dream. I can dream whatever I want."

In the end, the guide’s insistence that Cecelia must stay “for balance” – that they need a car rental girl to make their town complete and thus perfect, to quell their own restlessness with the illusion of opportunity – has a certain menace to it. And yet Cecelia – who the narrator of “I Bought a Little City” would recognize immediately as “too imaginative” - threatens to break open their perfection, shake things up. Who will win?

I will admit this story has an idiosyncratic, personal meaning for me. In a past life I lived inside many churches. I know, in less than playful terms, what that does to a woman’s dreams. Especially a woman who is “too imaginative.” So I’m rooting for Cecilia. Dream on, baby.

Aug. 1st, 2009

Guilt Trip

From July 30-August 9, I will be reviewing Fringe Festival shows.  Reviews will appear on the Minnesota Fringe Festival website of each show, although long reviews will be truncated.  All reviews will also appear here.  For general information about the Minnesota Fringe Festival, go to www.fringefestival.org .  

Death Camp Diaries
Howard Lieberman / Jaded Optimist Productions
U of M Rarig Center Xperimental
July 30 @ 5:30, July 31 @ 8:30, Aug 2 @ 7:00, Aug 5 @ 7:00, Aug 8 @ 4:00
 

http://www.fringefestival.org/2009/show/?id=991

What is the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist?  And which one is Howard Lieberman – devout agnostic, secular Jew – as he “does” the Death Camps?   Your guess is as good as Howard’s.  Because clearly he identifies with both.

We know what a pilgrim is, don’t we?  One whose journey into sacred space is a quest.  A tourist – well, a tourist is just on vacation.  A pilgrim encounters the Other.  A tourist consumes it.  Been there, done that.  Got the t-shirt. 

And yet the distinction is not so simple, and never has been.  Nor is it simple for Howard.  The honesty and ironic humor with which he explores that paradox in himself is one of the best elements of Death Camp Diaries.  If Howard is going to go on a psychologically grueling journey, he will at least travel first class.  Not with those other Jews, always looking for a bargain.  He will stay in a nice hotel.  Living well is the best revenge, isn’t it?  He will find a good jazz club, and friend the vocalist on Facebook. 

Pilgrims have been tourists since the merry band of the Canterbury Tales first got the springtime itch.  The rich Saracen and his entourage were a major force in the economy of every little oasis on his haj.  For better or for worse, trade, travel and transformation have always been entwined. 

Transformation is never a one way street.  If you cannot visit the Death Camps without being transformed, you also cannot do so without contributing to the economy of the descendents of those who ran them.  It is easy for the locals to resent tourists.  They swarm everywhere, make the check out lines longer, insist you speak English.  Is it Anti-Semitism I saw in their eyes, these people who claim they never knew?  Or are we just being Ugly Americans?

This is a once in a lifetime experience, the Orthodox rabbi said.  One you will be processing for a long time.

Howard had been back two days when he opened at the Fringe.  Where he finally really does have a Good Venue.  The fact that this is a work in progress does not bother me in the least.  We are all works in progress. 

Besides, I love watching Howard grow.  In many ways all of his previous work as a storyteller – particularly his most recent performance in June with Noa Baum at Loren Niemi’s venue, Two Chairs Telling – has been preparation for this experience, so that even in its rawness, certain themes are emerging.  The one that intrigues me most is the quest for identity, and how inseparable this is from community, even when an iconoclast like Howard defines himself against it.  

“You call yourself a Jew?”  The Orthodox says this to the Conservative, the Conservative says this to the Reformed - and all of them say this to Howard.  Who gets to decide?  Enquiring Howard wants to know.  What does it mean to be a Jew?  Is this a cultural category, an ethnicity, or a religion?  I like the rabbi; I like my brother and his wife, who are also on this trip – but the rest?  Do I really even want to associate with these people, with their narrow perspectives and prejudices, their “organized superstitions,” their lack of taste?    If I don’t, who am I? 

One way of handling this dilemma is to plunk yourself down in Lutheran Minnesota, where you are Jewish by default.  No need to Measure Up.  Or, for that matter, to Put Up With.  But there are limitations to this approach. 

Academia has a special word for people who go sightseeing at scenes of death:  they are thanotourists.   There are less intimidating, but no less equally bizarre alternative phrases:  dark tourist, grief tourist.  The category includes trips to the sites of battlefields, cemeteries, natural and unnatural disasters, prisons, slaveholds.  Concentration camps.  You do not need to travel outside the United States to be a thanotourist – you can go to Gettysburg, Wounded Knee, New Orleans, Ground Zero, Alcatraz, Manzanar.  Eventually, no doubt, if we ever find homes for the current tenants, you will be able to tour Guantanamo.  And take home a refrigerator magnet.

Thanotourists are not necessarily morbid – though Sarah Vowel capitalizes on that brand, and builds much of the quirky appeal of Assassination Vacation upon it.  Theirs are educational trips.  This is a safe, neutral term – even a secular humanist can use it.  But is it enough to call visiting the site of an atrocity “educational”?  When you can map an archipelago of such sites  across Europe?   And visit them on a package tour? 

George Santayana said that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.  The spate of “histories” purporting that the Holocaust didn’t happen are reason enough to justify the trip.  See for yourself – and never forget. This is one of the primary justifications for atrocity tourism, which comes close to being a moral obligation for Jews and Christians alike.  For different reasons.    

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost.

It didn’t matter to the Nazis if you were a good Jew, a bad Jew, or even a practicing Jew.  What mattered was that you were vermin.  To visit the camps as a Jew is to confirm your solidarity with other Jews – whether you are Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, secular, or Devout Agnostic.  Whether you live in Israel, or Brooklyn, or Stillwater. 

Those of you who know Howard know that he is always threatening to get naked on stage.  What’s different is that this time he does it.  And that it is not gratuitous.  Indeed, it was one of the most moving parts of the performance.  I do hope that by now he has stopped apologizing for possibly offending people for this afterwards.  Although the fact that I do not believe there was originally a nudity warning on the Fringe site might have been the real issue.

 If I was offended by anything, it was by the way he occasionally lumped all his audience members together as “you Christians” – as if he was the only Jew in the room.  As if there were only two religions in Minnesota.  As if we were all religious.  At times Howard’s attempt to talk about his own prejudices seemed unreflective, which I do not think was intentional.  But admitting that you stereotype Poles at one point and that you know those stereotypes are not an accurate reflection of reality, then talking as if those stereotypes were true several minutes later was confusing.  Which Howard am I listening to now – the one reacting to his experience, or responding to it?    The one who is buddies with the great grandson of the King of Poland, or the one who is convinced that given the chance, the bastards would all do it over again?

Like another reviewer, I would like to see this again in a year, or two, or five.  While I deeply respect the authenticity of Howard’s personal experience, I cannot really say I was challenged by the piece – though it was clearly heartfelt.  But though I am not a member of any organized religion, I have been so.  And I know that religious people have the capacity for complex and nuanced thought. Unlike Howard, I don’t happen to believe religion is “organized superstition,” and I have a healthy appreciation for the Jewish theologians who have struggled with this problem – Emil Fackenheim, Richard Rubenstein, Arthur Cohen – in ways that did indeed challenge me, and remain with me, even after thirty five years.

I cannot say I know these thinkers well.  But the fact that I do know them is attributable to an Introduction to Religion class taught thirty five years ago at a small Catholic university in the southern tier of New York State.  By a Franciscan friar.  Father Tony Struzcynski.  I think he was Polish.

Jun. 26th, 2009

Catching Up

I’ve had a couple of people ask if I dropped them, accidentally or on purpose, off my Ordinary Time list.  In truth there has been very little of the ordinary to my time recently – or I haven’t been sure what the real ordinary is.   

The last time I sent out a broadcast email with blog links was after the entry on September 14, "Chiropractic" about my friend Nancy's clinic visit.  “Going Down” (a story which is economic, not erotic, but at least I got your attention) followed, and then “American Zombie” – a pre-election Halloween story about watching Night of the Living Dead with my Crisis Connection colleagues while passing out candy to future voters:  little Spidermen and Hannah Montanas.  As I hand them Snickers to keep them satisfied, I wonder if their parents have dental, and if I am liable for root canals.   

On my hard drive recently I found an aborted fragment of an Epiphany letter - essentially my version of a story of Maggie’s that gripped me so powerfully I never got beyond it to talk about the rest of the family.  I posted that as a blog entry.  The next entry is the story I performed for the Spirit in the House festival, “Two Falling Voices,’ in late February and early March.  And then silence.   

Not the way to make your fame and fortune blogging. 

But creative writing has never been about either for me.  Although I certainly wouldn’t mind getting paid for it.   Maggie even got me signed up for my first course at the Loft that was actually about trying to sell a piece of writing, though this week we switched to a course on travel writing because the time worked better for her.  Still, the essential purpose is insight, not income. There is a process of making myself aware, and then sharing that awareness with others, that is lifegiving.  Of recognizing beauty in the texture and complexity of life   Of transmuting suffering.  One of my friends, Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux, a very talented young storyteller and writer, calls her business Alchemy StoryWorks. There is more than Harry Potter chic to such a moniker.  Those of us who know this secret have found the Philosopher’s Stone.   

Trust the practice.  Trust the creative process.  Trust yourself.  Then there’s nothing to fear.  That mantra, paraphrased from John Daido Loori's The Zen of Creativity, has been my touchstone – my tool for finding gold, if not creating it - for the last two years.  Creative writing is something I find I must do, like eating and drinking, or my spirit wastes away. I would say it is like breathing – that would be very Zen – but I am certain I cannot hold my breath as long as I have gone without writing.  I could probably not go without water that long either.  If I stopped eating as long as I’ve stopped writing… well, I would certainly not be facing that extra twenty pounds on the scale again.  This is worth considering.

Storytelling allows me an outlet that does not depend upon connections with publishers.  It gives me a audience – not to gratify my vanity so much (though this can be a pleasant side effect) – but to teach me - with an immediacy that the written page cannot - how to shape a piece so that it means something to someone other than me.  And blogging allows me to share my writing with you.  Right now, that is enough.   Because I have found right livelihood through another kind of writing.  At least for the time being.

Since the beginning of the year I have been a full time freelance grantwriter – a move I chose with intention in August of 2008, a month before the economy crashed.  Great timing, huh.  

Most people do not go to school to be grantwriters.  I’m no exception.  I’m one of Garrison Keillor’s English majors in supersaturated form – I have a Ph.D. in Victorian religious literature, having written a thesis with the impressively esoteric title Reconstructing the Bible:  Fantasy and the Revelatory Hermeneutic of George MacDonald -  but I tell people that I’ve always gotten a job in spite of that.  First technical writing for the automotive industry – for which Victorian literature is interesting preparation – then grantwriting and organizational development.

I finished the draft of my thesis a week before Maggie was born in Port Huron, Michigan, and defended it at the University of Minnesota six months later while Paul walked back and forth with her in a front pack at Coffman Union, hoping they would finish grilling me before she needed to nurse.  The full sized, bound copy with the title and my name in gold letters ended up on one of the shelves of patio bricks and boards that served as our bookcase as students.  They were mine originally – I stained the boards, and the bricks are green, not gray, a rare element of style back then – and we lugged the damn things from Minneapolis to Chicago to Port Huron to Dearborn to Nashville to Sewanee and to Nashville again before bringing them back up with us to the house we bought in Eden Prairie. Post-divorce, they are once again mine.  The fruit of my scholarship sits upon them, between an oversized copy of Dante’s Inferno, with the illustrations by Gustave Doré, and volume 9 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The latter contains the only article I ever published under my maiden name, back when I was not a Victorian scholar, but an Americanist – the entry on Edna Ferber. For anyone out there who can tell me one thing she wrote without doing a Google search, the drink’s on me. 

I take that back.  The Inferno apparently stayed with Paul.

When I first began working for the Institute for New Americans in 1999 – can this really have been a decade ago?  - it was because of two grants I had written almost twenty years before while a research assistant for Don Ross in the Program in Composition and Communication.  That research got me to my first and only Modern Language Association convention in 1982, while I was still ABD – all but dissertation.  I had three job interviews there, all of them composition and computer related, none of them for a position in Victorian literature.  I should have known then that academia was not my destiny.  Perhaps I did, and didn’t care.  The dissertation was, at that time, my way of doing what creative nonfiction does for me now.  It served as a focus for awareness, for insight, and growth.  The faith and doubt crisis of the Victorian era mirrored my own adolescent angst over religion.  What they learned – MacDonald’s mythopoeic resolution of that crisis in particular - I needed to know.    

Setting up a new business is time-consuming, and in some ways frightening in this economy.  In other ways, it is the most secure option.  Tina Brown in The Daily Beast in January coined the term “gig” economy - and then the phrase was everywhere.  Project-by-project work is something artists and other freelancers have always understood, but the economy is now producing what Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti-9 to 5 Guide, has called the "accidental freelancer."  Another blogger, Marci Alboher, has coined the term "slash" career to describe the entrepreneur that applies her skills in multiple markets, and claims this sort of flexibility is the only real job security to be had in any economy.  (I cannot help but think of slash fiction, which is something quite different – unless Marci is also a Harry Potter fan.)   We are seeing a lot of new terms coined these days - perhaps more than we are seeing coinage.  But in truth I feel a lot better about working for several clients and paying for my own health insurance than putting all my eggs in one  employee basket these days.

And it was a choice, not an accident.

There have been a couple of months, especially at the beginning of the year, when cash flow has been pretty scary.  The mortgage and association fees are high, and my house is now worth less than when I bought it.  The loans I have taken out while both kids have been in school have been coming due.  And there are running credit card balances – always anathema to me -  acquired during those few months of unemployment in late 2006 and early 2007, that I just don’t seem to be able to pay down. Apparently Suze Orman doesn’t want me to till I have six months of emergency savings, which is some consolation.  Still, I have yet to figure out how to do that.  When my dad learned what I could charge on an hourly rate, he multiplied that by forty hours and fifty weeks and came up with $170,000 a year.  If I could really do that well writing grants, he said, my money problems would be over. 

I can’t, of course.  At least I don’t know any grantwriters who do.  You actually have to spend about a third of your time prospecting for new business – networking, staying up to date on current issues, attending meetings.  Few of these things are billable to other people, but they take up time.  Then there are the leads that don’t lead anywhere, the clients who for one reason or another take more time than you are authorized to charge them for, and the jobs that, for whatever reason, do not go as planned.  Sometimes you can bill for them, and sometimes you can’t. 

At any rate, it will be awhile before I find myself with a six figure income.

There is also the feast or famine phenomenon.  In the early part of the year I had few new opportunities – now there are often more than I can handle, and on short notice.   Recovery Act requests for proposals have been coming out fast and thick the last few months, with increasing urgency now so that proposals can be reviewed and money can allocated before the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30.  A lot of nonprofits who have never applied for federal funding before are trying to do so now.  Often they think they can handle the very complicated process themselves, in their spare time, and only realize two weeks before the grant is due that they need help.  This is the type of job established grantwriters run screaming from.  I’m not established, so I take the job.  And scream silently.

In truth I am not a person who likes deadlines. I can handle them, unless they bunch up like fabric beneath the foot of a sewing machine.  But I don’t like to.  I am chronically late these days, trying desperately to get “just one more thing done,” and would prefer to have been born before the invention of train schedules.  Deadlines are good motivators, and helpful in some ways for perfectionists.  But when I find my life lurching from one to another with little time for sleep or leisure, to nurture relationships, or do to that daydreaming Brenda Ueland says is so necessary to the creative life, I become tense, anxious, and depressed.  There were a few weeks recently when the days were for gathering information and making appointments, and the nights were for writing.  Sleep found room where it could.  I would like fewer deadlines, less often.  But for now, the trick is learning how to choose among options, and find balance.  

I do love the freedom of being my own boss, and working at home.  And I love the days without deadlines, when I can go into fugue state if I want to, and spend all day on a single project –like catching up on my blog.  And I love the variety of this work.  I love learning about the issues, and the ways in which compassionate and talented people strive to address them, to serve the public good. Most of all I love the fact that my writing can provide the resources to make change happen in the world.  Preparing a strong case for an organization and getting them funding is a gratifying, heady, powerful high.  And it feels a lot more like a real contribution than a dissertation on microfiche sitting on a dusty shelf on Zeeb Road in Ann Arbor.  Though it is fun, after a few drinks at cocktail parties, to take out the large volume bound in black with my name in gold letters, and make guests Touch the Book. 

Perhaps I will have to have my avant garde artist friend Tom Cassidy illustrate it someday.  I do not believe he has ever defaced a dissertation. 

Up until now my business has been focused on grantwriting, and the name and tagline I have used for that business, which has never been formally incorporated, has reflected that.  Formula 501c3:  We Make Nonprofits Shine.  The old brochure and price sheet, which I hardly ever needed,  used 1950s retro clipart of a housewife  in high heels and a housedress, spiffing up the lampshade with a feather duster. 

Then a mysterious thing happened.  As an introvert, organizational life often saps my creativity, and leaves me starving for solitude.  Though the original Ordinary Time began as a column in a church newsletter, the first piece was written on a Sunday morning, in the reprieve from service given by a sick child.  Much of my time as a clergy wife reflects this paradox. 

But for reasons I do not entirely understand, when I work to grow capacity in Northstar, the Little Storytelling  Organization That Could, my personal creativity and my productivity flourish.  It seems that my private creativity is tied in some tangible way to the creative capacity of all.  This means something. 

So it is time to rethink my earlier approach, to create an artistic vision statement and a business plan simultaneously, and have them inform each other.  To bring my whole self to the work.  When that is done, I think I will know again – in both the secular and the sacred sense – the meaning of ordinary time.  Because this, as the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says, is my path with heart.

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Mar. 30th, 2009

Two Falling Voices

This story was told as part of a performance, Saving Pagan Babies:  Catholic Culture Clashes, featuring myself, Ann Reay, Loren Niemi, and Curt Lund at the Spirit in the House Festival, February 27-March 9, 2009.  I am grateful to my fellow performers for helping me shape this story, and for producing such jewels of their own; to storytellers Nancy Donoval and Regina Carpenter, who provided incredibly useful feedback; to Dean J. Seal and the volunteers that made Spirit in the House possible, and to Northstar Storytelling League for providing promotional support. 

In retelling history, I have stuck to facts whenever possible, but allowed myself to imagine and infer motives and conversations. In addition to the sources on the life of Mary Jemison cited in this story, and my own independent research on the Sullivan campaign, I want to acknowledge the influence of Deborah Larsen’s historical fiction The White, published in 2001, a stunningly beautiful book which gave me additional insight into the character of Mary Jemison.  

In the storytelling community it is often said that not everything in a story need be factual, but all of it must be true.  May this be so.     

*****

 When the people of the longhouse, the Henosaunee, returned to the Chemung River Valley in the spring of 1780, after the Sullivan Campaign against the Six Nations, they found the corpses of pack horses - the horses that had carried Sullivan’s cannons, driven to exhaustion, slaughtered on the scorched earth. 

Forty towns of the Six Nations  –Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Mohawk… Oneida  – were no more.  Twelve hundred longhouses, a million bushels of corn, and beans, and squash – the Three Sisters - torched.  That winter hunger had put an end to the oldest democracy in the world – the Iroquois Confederacy – to make way for our own. 

The Seneca warrior Hiokatoo turned in disgust to his chief.  “What kind of savages would treat an animal this way?”

“They are Christians,” Cornplanter replied.  “Their God had a Son who took their place and died for their sins.  What they do to horses does not matter to them.”

Hiokatoo got down from his own horse:  sleek, powerful, its eyes dark and liquid.  They were Seneca eyes.  “The God of the whites is no Great Spirit.  He is small and mean and stupid.”  Hiokatoo began to gather the bones for burial. 

Cornplanter watched the warrior in silence.  He had seen Hiokatoo kill a white captive by nailing one end of his intestine to a post and letting the raiding party take turns chasing the man with hot pokers till he disemboweled himself.  The wife of Hiokatoo was a white captive.  Cornplanter’s father was white.  Cornplanter got down off his horse to help bury the bones. 

They left the skulls there to shame us.  Staggered them along the trail like Stations of the Cross.  When the settlers came they named the town Horseheads, in honor of the Revolutionary War Hero General John Sullivan.  The Chemung County Historical Society says Horseheads is “the only town in the United States dedicated to the service of the American military horse.”

*****

It’s the town I grew up in. 

 In 1965 I was nine, and my family moved into our new house on the outskirts of Horseheads, a house we built ourselves, like pioneers.  The lot was on the edge of a golf course, so we would always have a nice view of nature.  My favorite book that year was Indian Captive:  The Story of Mary Jemison.  It was a true story. I loved the blue-eyed, blonde haired girl ripped from her white family at twelve during the French and Indian War and adopted by the Seneca, who named her “Corn Tassel” because of her yellow hair – her beautiful yellow hair.  A homesick girl who, when a trader finally told her that her family was all dead, realized this was her home, and learned to love the Indians.  

I loved Lois Lenski’s Indians too - their gracefully rounded faces and hands, limbs sturdy like trees, like trees that lift and move and carry, trees that build things.  I looked for their world beneath my own – beneath the blacktop and the golf course and the housing developments.  I couldn’t find it. I wanted to live in that world.  

I took the book out from the library five times in a row. 

Eventually Mrs. Berlozan told me that until there were two more names on the card that were not mine, I was not allowed to check the book out again.

I didn’t know how Our Lady would feel about my liking this Mary so much.  Had she died a martyr, thrown to lions or shut in a tower or gored to death by a mad cow, it would have been different.  But she lived, and she lived a pagan.  I tried not to think about it. 

Our Lady was my favorite part of being Catholic.  She had her own altar, her own statue and candles.  God the Father was scary, Jesus too perfect, the Holy Spirit…hard to get a grip on.  Mary interceded for you, like mothers do.  I loved the rosary, the click of beads, the grave beauty of the Latin phrases:  Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Hail Mary, full of Grace.  The Lord is with Thee.  Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,  ora pro nobis peccatoribus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. 

I could follow along with the English in my St. Joseph’s Missal, but I really didn’t need to:  it sounded like prayer.  An older brother of a Protestant friend of mine had called Latin a dead language, which confused me.  What did that mean, dead language?  It seemed very alive to me – as alive as Jesus and Mary were, certainly, although they lived on this earth a very long time ago.  And if I’d learned anything in church, it was that there was more than one way to be alive. 

My father was a Protestant.  Not as bad as being a pagan, but bad. Sister had shown us that when Protestants pray, they hold their hands like this, with their fingers laced together – but when Catholics pray, they hold their hands like this, pointed upward to God, their thumbs in the shape of a cross.  And whose prayers do you think are going to heaven? Sister asked.   

That was when I was taken captive.

*****

“It will be better for us,” my mother said, “to worship together as a family,” “And to pray in English.”  My Protestant friend’s older brother agreed.  People should worship in the vernacular.  I looked the word up.  It meant “native to a country.”  It was from the Latin, vernaculus.  Go figure.

St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church was musty and dark, like the papery leaves of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The Mass – no, the service – was in English:  the King’s English, the language of Shakespeare.  What was native about that? 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. 

There were old people everywhere.  Their papery skin was lined with such prayers.  Even the children looked old. 

At St. Matthews, they only brought Mary out with the other decorations at Christmas. She had no altar, and no one called her Our Lady or said prayers to her in any language.   

I needed a Mary.

After Mrs. Berlozan forbade me to check out Lois Lenski’s book, I did a risky thing.   I went to the adult section of the public library.   

I found  the 1824 biography by James Seaver, who interviewed Mary Jemison in her nineties.  His sentences were long and sanctimonious, like the Book of Common Prayer.  Yet beneath that voice, I found the voice of Mary.  Her native voice. 

It was not Corn Tassel’s. 

 My hair was chestnut.  Not blonde.

I knew from the beginning they were dead. Two days after they put the moccasins on my feet and separated me from the rest, I watched my family’s scalps prepared, scraped and stretched and dried over the camp fire.  I recognized my mother’s red hair. 

The Seneca sisters who adopted me named me Dehewamis, Two Falling Voices, because I took their brother’s place and ended their mourning.  My sisters loved me, as they loved him.  When I could feel at all, I hated them. 

But eventually winter turns to spring, as it always does.  And my sisters were persistent.  It is hard not to love back.  And things were better; my life was better, when I could love again.

I might have been twelve when I was captured.  I might have been sixteen.  I can’t remember.   

My marriage to Sheninjee was an arranged marriage, but  eventually winter turned to spring, as it always does.  I found I loved him.

It was my right as a Seneca woman to name our children. I named my son Thomas, after my father.  Then a fever killed Sheninjee.  And winter came.     

After the French and Indian War, after the death of Sheninjee, the King of England offered a bounty to anyone willing to ransom white captives.  The Seneca chief said  I had a choice.  I would not be taken against my will.  

I considered this.  I could still speak English, although I had forgotten how to read or write and  I no longer knew the Christian prayers.   I looked at my brown Thomas . He had the dark eyes of Sheninjee.  

I chose not to be redeemed. 

In the spring, when Thomas was three I caught the eye of the great warrior Hiokatoo.  I found myself looking back.   It was not an arranged marriage.  I chose him. 

The courtship was a strange one. He told me stories, as warriors do.  My sister thought he was bragging.  He told me every brutal thing he had ever done.  But at the end of each story, he would search my face, as if to say,  This is what it means to be a brave.  This is who I am.  Can you face it?  I opened to him. 

We had six more children.  All in all I had three sons and four daughters.  I gave them all Christian names.  They took the  place of the family I had lost.  Perhaps that was wrong.

After the Sullivan campaign, before the Winter of Hunger, I hired myself out as a farm hand so my family had corn. In the treaty with the colonies, I came to own land. And I became…naturalized. A naturalized citizen of the United States. 

Eventually, Hiokatoo died of consumption, well past one hundred, still telling stories to anyone who would listen.  Not his sons.  Whiskey told them stories.  

In his fifties John, his firstborn, my second, murdered first Thomas, then James.  Finally strong spirits brought a tomahawk to John’s head too, spilled his brains.

I buried all three.   

I was glad Hiokatoo had been spared this. This was not what it meant to be a brave.   I faced it for him.  Took his place.

 *****

On the outskirts of Horseheads, on the edge of a golf course, I grew up in the home my parents built. Houses rose up around us, one or two new ones each summer, till the creek bed went mysteriously dry, and the fields full of puff balls and thistles, milkweed pods and garter snakes were gone, and the green was all for sport. 

On Saturday morning, the construction workers were on overtime.  People were eager to move in.  I went downstairs and sat in a patch of sunlight coming in from the bay window.  The light poured down,  a wave of particles, full of the dust unto which we shall return. 

The house was quiet, I thought, until the refrigerator motor suddenly went off.  No, this was quiet.  A turtle dove sighed in the chimney.  Then the metallic clunk of the machinery began again, drilling a new Artesian well. 

Perhaps she thought it was the grinding of corn. Perhaps the scrape of a scalping knife, the beating of drums before a gauntlet was run, the clinking of coins in a false redemption. 

A volume of the encyclopedia was next to me, open to those plastic overlays of geological strata, The names sounded like books of the Bible:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus; Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic.  The shaft hammered down, drilling for water.  Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.

 I let my prayers drill down, down, past ranch houses and farm houses and log cabins, till they struck the soft thatch of a longhouse, and the Finger Lakes filled with living water and their names once more held the flowing vowels of the Iroquois: Seneca, Keuka, Cayuga, Owasco, Canandaigua. 

And there she was, the thick chestnut braids tumbling down, the beaded buckskin tunic, the trousers, the moccasins.  Mary Queen of Captives, Two Falling Voices, ora pro nobis peccatoribus.  

Praying for me. 

Jan. 6th, 2009

Epiphany

I did not write a Christmas letter in 2008.  I started to.  This was as far as I got. 

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary has four definitions of epiphany, only one of which – “a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi” – is capitalized.  Since there’s not enough capital to go around these days, we will skip that one.

The word is also used to refer to “an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.”  Well.  No deities here.  Thunder, lightning, the heavens opening up, doves descending – way too much drama for me. 

Here’s the most you can hope for in Ordinary Time:  “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something” – anything will do – “usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”  The existence of which  would make this entry fulfill definition #4, “a literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.” 

And in fact I must take issue with Random House where the word “sudden” is concerned.  There is something sudden about an epiphany.  A moment when things coalesce and you know that that moment is charged with meaning.  But for most of us, unpacking those experiences is the task of a lifetime.  If it were not, there would be no need for stories. 

Maggie spent her junior semester abroad at the University of Ghana in Accra, leaving in February and returning in June.  At least in body. It was a complex experience, and she was not entirely happy there – but she longs to go back.  She both loved and hated being obruni – a word that means both foreigner and white person.  To be perceived as exotic and interesting is a heady, if sometimes inconvenient, experience. Obruni, obruni, buy something from me! Obruni, I love you!  I want to marry you, obruni

She wrote a great deal about her time in Ghana in her online journal; and I’ve done the maternal midrash on some of the things she told me in mine.  But the epiphany she had while on the package tour of Elmina Castle, where captured slaves were held before being packed into ships and sent to the New World – the world from which she came - is still working its way into story, and will be for some time.   

She has written some about the experience.  How she stood in the women’s dungeon and could still smell the stink of excrement and tears that had been absorbed by the rock walls. About the claustrophobia, and her overwhelming sense of complicity and guilt. About how she and the other members of her group – mostly white women, as it happened - came back up to the sunlight and the fresh air.  And freedom. 

Or so she thought. 

In the courtyard, the male guide told the story.  “The Governors never brought their wives with them, because they died of malaria. But they would still want women, so they would take the African women.” And the women were brought out into the courtyard, covered in their own filth, and one would be chosen for a public bath.  Then the Governor would rape her, and when he was done, the officers, and then the soldiers, and then the clergy would take their turn.  What was left of her at the end would be sent back down to the dungeon. 

Above the courtyard, standing on the promenade, was another group:  the Legon class of Ghanaian men. Well.  They were young men, 14 or 15, most of them.  Horsing around. They joked in pidgin as the guide told the story.  And they pointed. Maggie understood enough pidgin to know what was being said.  That one is mine.  I’ll take that one.  Hey, obruni.  You need a bath!  And that was when she realized that the story the man told was not about the women, or their pain, or their suffering.  “And they took our women and raped them.”  Our women.  Our women.

Shame and anger.  Is it one epiphany or two to be hit, suddenly, by two conflicting emotions?   And what is the reality or essential meaning of that simple, commonplace, homely symbol, the possessive pronoun?  What does it mean to belong to someone – really?  For reasons that are at once deeply personal, culturally conditioned, and political, my daughter works her own story out in fear and trembling.  And as stories are the only salvation I believe in anymore – as well as the only damnation – I watch her with fear and trembling of my own.  And pride.  And great love.

Nov. 2nd, 2008

American Zombie


Halloween was scary this year. First of all, my coworker Linda brought Kitty Litter cake in to work, and I had to watch people eat it. I don’t care how many tasty ingredients it includes, the idea of Scoop and Snack just makes me gag. But apparently crisis line counselors are made of stronger stuff. When staff found out my level of discomfort, they all had to come into my office and munch contentedly in front of me. This was while I was trying to push the send button on the United Way Health and Independence application, due October 31 at noon, which was scary enough in itself. It will probably take me until Thanksgiving to recover. In the meantime I highly recommend that should we encounter one another, the words “cost per unit of service” do not pass your lips.   “Diversity audit” is a good phrase to avoid as well. I also don’t intend to get anywhere near a partially melted Tootsie Roll.

 

Halloween night I ventured to White Bear Lake, way out in the wilds of Ramsey County, to have pizza at Cathie’s house with Linda, hand out candy to princesses and vampires, and watch bad horror movies on her big screen TV. Cathie and Linda and I have been working together in the Little Nonprofit Shop of Horrors a year and a half now. We’ve done a lot of therapeutic drinking together, but we’ve never been to each other’s homes. This was an important bonding ritual. Besides, I never get many Trick or Treaters at my house. I’m surrounded by too many other townhomes with dark windows, the neighbors don’t know each other, and the kids don’t come.

 

I have to admit I am a complete horror movie wimp. When I was a kid, I used to avoid changing the channel on the television on Saturdays for fear I’d encounter Frankenstein. Poltergeists know what scares me. Over the shoulder camera angles creep me out for weeks. But I figured with two other people mocking the cheesy effects, I would be sufficiently insulated from my own wimpitude. At least while we were all in the same room. I had never seen Night of the Living Dead, but it was So Very Retro, I thought I could probably handle it. I mean, who can take zombies seriously, right? 

 

Never underestimate the power of an academic. 

 

Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968. Romero claims that the film wasn’t about racism, and that Duane Jones, the black man who played Ben, simply read best for the part. But ten minutes into the film I was itching to Google it into its historical context. It drove me nuts not to be able to pull out my laptop and look up deets while I was watching. You can accuse me of many things, but being a couch potato is not one of them. 

 

At home the next day, I found everything I was looking for, and more, in Stephen Harper’s article in Bright Lights Film Journal.  Harper calls Night of the Living Dead “a dramatic appeal for communication and cooperation in the face of paranoia and violence.”   Its discussion of identity and metamorphosis, of what it means to be “human” or “thing” in the context of the political and social anxieties of the 1960s is fascinating – as is the analysis of race, gender, and genre. The zombies are supposedly created by radiation from space, and radiation makes the Cooper family quite literally nuclear. The fate of Ben and the fate of Martin Luther King are horrifically aligned. In the still photographs of carnage and the dead at the conclusion of the film, you can see the Vietnam War. 

 

But even though Harper’s primary purpose in this article is to set the film in historical context, he can’t resist discussing the theme of  catastrophe and apocalypse, and the way Americans religiously cling to the ideology of patriotism, which Romero vigorously critiques. When Harper does this, however, it is not to a 1960’s context he refers, but to essays of Slavoj Zizek written in response to the bombing of the World Trade Center. 

 

Which is why Linda and Cathie and I found ourselves watching the film with a whole different cast of characters in mind.

 

The hero is a young black man, Ben, a “clean, articulate guy.” (His real name is probably too foreign-sounding to use.) A gaggle of dead white men come after him, and he holes up in a house with a catatonic blonde, who is scared witless when she and her brother are attacked by a zombie . (This is entirely realistic because all blondes were powerless before pantsuits.) Meanwhile, John McCain and Sarah Palin are hiding in the basement with their special needs child, who has been bitten by one of these reanimated corpses. They have a young couple with them. Eventually, they all realize they are in the same bipartisan house, and will have to work together to get out of it.

 

Ben and McCain (whose name in the movie is Harry Cooper)  start debating over how best to defend themselves. The debates go nowhere. So the media tells them what to do. Get to safety. The National Guard will protect you. Cremate your dead, and shoot all zombies in the head. Harry says the fundamentals of the basement are sound.  The efforts Ben has made to defend the upstairs are just too flimsy. Ben wants to get the truck filled with gas, try to make it to a safety station.  Harry wants to sit tight.

 

The young couple switches their support over to Ben, who has the best plan of action. They make a break for it while Ben throws Molotov cocktails at the field full of boomer zombies – you knew he was really a terrorist, didn’t you? - who lumber at them with their arms outstretched, demanding their social security checks.  They are all white, but now there are also some women. One, of course, is naked. 

 

The young couple reaches the truck, but when it comes time to fill up the gas tank, disaster strikes.  The truck explodes. Boomers feast on roasted college students.  We’re eating our children’s inheritance. And also their intestines. 

 

The blonde sacrifices herself for Sarah Palin. (Now that’s not realistic.)  But the special needs child stabs her mother with a garden trowel and goes back to chowing down on her father’s arm. This kid is going to need a lot of social services. Who’s going to pay for that?

Let's feed her the Kitty Litter Cake.

 

At the end, Ben is the only one left alive. Till the sheriff shows up. Beat ‘em or burn ‘em, he says. Shoot anything that moves.

 

We had some debate at the end of the movie. I saw the look on Ben’s face when the rescue squad came. I think he knew exactly what was about to happen. Cathie and Linda are not so sure. They’re still trying to keep hope alive. 

 

Me, I just don’t want history to repeat itself. 


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Oct. 24th, 2008

Going Down

The economy blows, but can you blow off the economy?  Unfortunately not.  I'm looking for Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed behind the counter at the Bailey Savings & Loan, lending away their honeymoon, but Frank Capra isn't directing this film. 

This morning I woke to MPR tellinng me the Asian markets had gone down ten percent while I slept.  But those were just words coming at me over the airwaves as the coffee kicked in.  What struck me with more force was a conversation, and an image, from the night before.

I'd been working late on a proposal, and was coming home past seven, hungry, tired, and with a near empty tank of gas.  I had a nine a.m. meeting the next morning, but I resisted the temptation to go straight home and assume I could just get up early and stop for gas beforehand.  That's the sort of thinking that makes me perpetually late for appointments.  So I pulled into the Marathon station, where regular was a surprising $2.39 a gallon.  I had trouble getting my card verified - the entry pad was oversensitive and kept doubling the numbers I entered for my zip code - but eventually we started guzzling.  And the numbers began to roll.  In a leisurely, almost antebellum fashion.

As I waited, I overheard the clerk on duty talking to a vendor whose truck was idling in the parking lot.  The clerk was standing outside the door to the station, wearing a white shirt and polyester pants, a headband round some dirty blonde ringlets.  In her hand was that long pole with the hook on the end that is used to change the gas prices.  At the end of that pole was a 4.  It looked like she had been fishing for lottery numbers.  Or auditioning for a part on Sesame Street.  Today is brought to you by the number 4...

"I've done this three times today," she said.  They remarked on how remarkable this was, so soon after Staycation Summer.  As recently as a month ago, gas was $3.47 a gallon.  I wanted to put one of those theater hooks in her hand, and set her to work pulling down the Economic Experts.

Instead, somebody else pulled into the station, and ran over the cord that trips the bell. 

Every time a bell rings, an angel checks the Dow.   

Me, I go to twincitiesgasprices.com.  At 5:24 this morning it was $2.24 a gallon in Roseville.  I'll be curious to see what it is when you click.


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Sep. 14th, 2008

Chiropractic

There is a passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch about the patterns created by the flame of a candle against scratched glass. The image has one meaning in the context of the novel, but in my memory it has aligned itself with other truths:

 

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement. 

 

For Eliot this was a parable about how people interpret the events of their lives egotistically. But the image calls to mind for me narrative structure itself: the way events and material things tend to form patterns of meaning when you hold a certain light up to them, patterns that might appear nonexistent or completely different to another person, with another candle, at a different angle.  The question is whether the patterns are illusions, or whether the illusion is that any reality exists we don’t ourselves create. 

 

And the truth of the matter is complicated. Because the need to make sense of the multitudinous wounds and scratches in our lives is very real. 

 

Labor Day Weekend I spent Saturday morning at the chiropractor. My friend Nancy threw her back out and was unable to drive there. I have never been in a chiropractor’s office, and this one was not what I expected. 

 

What did I expect? 

 

Something less Dusty Rose and more New Age, I guess. Chiropractic is, after all, a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In other words, a lot of Woo Woo. 

 

But this was a generic doctor’s waiting area. There were two groupings of six chairs each, one on each side of the room, and a tall counter that acted as a retaining wall between the clients and the receptionist. Each cluster of chairs had a landscape to look at, innocuous, painted by someone with an eye toward colors that complement the furniture. Over-the-sofa painting. The walls were done in a beige speckled wallpaper designed to look like fresco.  All in all, more home-and-garden than homeopathic. No insurance card need be ashamed to be presented here.  

 

Nancy, walking with a cane and in considerable pain, managed to find the one chair that had a back support pillow. I was surprised that there were not more of such accommodations about. Some were available for purchase, though:  the Chiroflow Waterbase Pillow (Feel the Flow!) could be had for only $49.00. 

 

On the wall was a large magazine rack. In a chiropractor’s office, the rack has something for everyone.  Entertainment has a special report: "Living on Camera." The blonde on the cover is MTV’s Lauren Conrad of Laguna Beach Lauren’s head is on a pillow, her hair fanned out carefully before her, in full make up. On one shoulder you can see a satin lingerie strap. Her eyes, accentuated by liner, are wide and innocent. There’s a camera pointed down at her from behind the magazine title like a gun. A large camera with a fully extended telescopic lens.

 

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think I am being filmed,” says the quotation below the picture. 

 

This never happens to me. 

 

I wonder if a Chiroflow Waterbase Pillow would help.  

 

Sports Illustrated is having its Fantasy Football Preview, but the reality-based theme for this issue is Back to Work: NFL Training Camp 2008.  Names roll like credits below: Shockey. Taylor. The Mannings. Favre??? On the front cover is David Tyree, in full NFL regalia. Mr. Miracle in the Dessert, Lancelot the Wide Receiver, our Knight in Shining Sports Gear. Currently listed on the NY Giants web site as “physically unable to perform.”   

 

I have the strange feeling that these magazines came here on purpose, were driven here by friends, hobbled in on canes. Arranged themselves in concentric circles on the rack.

 

Both issues of Golf Digest have the same person on them – one is a young woman, and the other a middle aged man, but they share a single soul. It stares out of each, steely-eyed and firm of grip, following through and watching a tiny white ball bounce onto the green, just past the edge of the magazine cover. They have slammed that ball into precisely the corner of the universe God intended it to be. Could you do that with a poorly aligned spine? Of course not. 

 

Nancy fills out a sheaf of papers, and they call her into the Inner Sanctum, where the Arcane Mysteries of Alignment are performed. “It is scary how much I look like my mother,” she tells me as she tests her balance on first one foot, then the other. Her mother is in her eighties and suffering from the early stages of dementia. Nancy has had a hard year, in ways that have affected her emotional health, her physical health, her economic security. This weekend is the anniversary of the breakup of a long term relationship that catapulted all three into crisis. And her back remembers. 

 

The young receptionist smiles cheerily, clipboard in hand. The door closes behind Nancy. She is gone a long time.

 

Over the intercom they are piping in classical MPR. There’s nothing really unusual about this, anymore than there is anything unusual about the magazines on the magazine rack. Except that the radio seems to know it is in a chiropractor’s office, just like the magazines on the rack seem to align themselves naturally to the physical and emotional stressors of the clients that read them.  

 

The first piece is Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 15. Gypsies leap from chord to chord like bridges over the Danube. I am Slovak (well, half). Nancy, as it happens, is Slovak.  I decide to do a little alternative medicine myself. I imagine her leaping over first one obstacle in her life, then another. With music like this in our blood, shouldn’t anything be possible? 

 

Now a Handel concerto is playing. Nancy’s spine is first a French horn, curved in upon itself, brassy and muted; then an oboe, straight and reedy. Perhaps the register key is stuck.  I imagine it opening up. 

 

Pachelbel’s Canon is not really a canon when it’s played as a piano solo. But MPR overlooks this.When I was a child visiting my grandparents on the farm, my grandpa used to play the piano. You Are My Sunshine. Jesus Loves Me. Shine On Harvest Moon. He was a small town rural minister. I don’t think he knew Pachelbel.  

 

Most of the time he played his songs on a real piano, but if you climbed into my grandfather’s lap after supper he might decide a more convenient keyboard had presented itself, and he would lay you out across his knee and start to play a tune along your spine. Inevitably the tune would slip and slide, down to your belly or up into your armpits, and soon it was nothing but a tickle fest. “What is wrong with this pianner?” he’d say. “It just keeps wriggling about!” And we would dissolve into spasms of giggles. 

 

I will the chiropractor to work in reverse for Nancy: smooth out the spasms, straighten the keyboard, make the music behave. 

 

But when she emerges at last (to the strains of The Marriage of Figaro), she actually looks worse that before. “There wasn’t much adjustment he could do,” she says. “The area was too inflamed.”  He gives her exercises to perform. 

 

She will go home and follow her doctor’s advice, and eventually her back will get better. But first she must wade through concentric circles of pain.

In the meantime I imagine her spine as a candle, flaring up, a flame illuminating the window of her own experience, making patterns where before there were none.  
 

Tags:

Aug. 17th, 2008

Mashed Potatoes

I don’t have a lot of experience speaking Truth to Power, but I know about the power of lies. I was six years old when I told my first. And because the universe has an amazing sense of reciprocity, I immediately got a lie back in return. 
I can follow a trail of lies like breadcrumbs, back to that day. 
I am sitting on a red plastic chair at the gray laminate table in our kitchen on Stuart Street. My parents bracket the table like parentheses: my brother sits to my right, being a pest, because that’s what God invented him for. Across from me, where my mother can reach her, my sister sits in her high chair, humming as she eats. Mmm…mmm…mmm…. It’s against the rules to sing at the table – and humming is a type of singing, my mother has told me in no uncertain terms - but Stacey doesn’t count, because she is a baby.   Mmm…mmm…mmm.
On the table in front of me is Mt. Everest on a plate: a heap of cold mashed potatoes. My chicken leg is a greasy bone. The canned peaches are gone. I have even eaten all of the green beans in cream of mushroom soup, though I have tucked the mushroom bits beneath Mt. Everest. Now they sit there, those potatoes…white, lumpy, cold. And I must eat them because they are there.

I don’t like mashed potatoes.
“Everyone likes mashed potatoes,” says my father. “What’s not to like? They don’t even taste like anything! They’re just something to put butter and salt on.”
But they do taste like something. They taste like kindergarten paste.
I don’t like mashed potatoes.  
“Scott’s eaten his,” says my father. “He’s in the Clean Plate Club. He likes mashed potatoes.” 
 Scott’s eaten his. He’s in the Clean Plate Club. He likes mashed potatoes.

"What's that missy?  Let's  not have any lip now."
I try putting another pat of butter on. It sits there on that cold mountain like a frozen brick of dog pee. I turn over the shaker of salt, and it snows on Mt. Everest.
“Enough of that,” says my mother. 
Stacey has eaten all of her mashed potatoes – or rather, she’s eaten about half, and is wearing the rest. Baby fuzz sticks up like patches of crabgrass where her fists have left potato deposits. My mother sighs, pulls Stacey out of the high chair, and sits her on the edge of the kitchen sink. She starts The Wipe Down. 
My father tells me to clean my plate, and then I can leave the table. Those are the rules. My father is an elementary school principal, and principals like rules. Rules are what make my father sound like a principal, even when his voice isn’t coming out of the loudspeaker. 
Babies don’t have to follow rules, because you can’t reason with them. They don’t have any language. So you can’t make babies eat what they don’t like. They just spit it out. Or put it on.
I envy babies. What’s the use of having language if nobody listens to what you say? 

I don’t like mashed potatoes.      
When Stacey is finally clean, my mom takes her into the living room. She joins my dad and brother, who are watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Around the frame of the kitchen door I can just barely see the cheetah chasing down a young antelope. Eat or be eaten. That’s the rule of the wild.
I know the pounce is coming, but I still jump. 
My mother sees me and comes over to close the door. “You can watch TV when you’re done,” she says. “The Flintstones are on in ten minutes.”
The Flintstones are my favorite show. The Flintstones are not just a cartoon: they are a cartoon for grownups. The Flintstones are on at night. My parents watch the Flintstones. The Flintstones even star in their own commercials – where they smoke Marlboros. You can learn a lot about being a grownup by watching The Flintstones. 
Like the week before, when Fred and Barney got free tickets to the Saber Tooth / Mammoth game, then they found out it was the same night they promised to take Wilma and Betty to a prehistoric flower show. What to do? They dab on dots of boolahberry juice, and take to their beds. The Mesozoic Measles! What bad luck! No, you go to the flower show with Betty, dear. I’ll be fine
But when Fred and Barney come out of the sports arena they discover something they had not realized before – the flower show is right next door. And before you can say -  Uh-oh. The jig is up -   there are Wilma and Betty. Fred and Barney stutter and mumble excuses; Wilma and Betty put their hands on their hips, scold their husbands, turn up their noses, and walk away. But then the next day, Fred and Barney have red spots all over the faces. Turns out they are both allergic to boolahberry juice. Wilma and Betty have a good laugh, and all is forgiven.   
You can learn a lot about being a grownup by watching The Flintstones.
I take a bite of that mountain of kindergarten paste. I try to swallow, but my throat refuses to open, and I gag, loudly. I hear my mother heading for the door. “Sit down, Dorisanne,” my father says. “She’s fine.” I could choke to death in here, I really could.   Nobody would care.   
The Flintstones are a Modern Stone Age Family. They have pterodactyls that play records and pelican garbage disposals. They have a dinosaur for a pet. I don’t even have a dog to feed my potatoes to.
We do not have a garbage disposal at all, much less a pelican garbage disposal like the Flintstones.  But we have a sink. I stand on my chair, leaning over so I can see the drain where my mother rinsed the mashed potatoes out of my sister’s hair. No clog. 

No clog.
Here is my ticket to the Clean Plate Club. 
 I must move quickly like the cheetah, silently tipping the plate over the sink, waving it back and forth. The mashed potato mountain hangs there, defying gravity. I have to part it from the plate with my fingers. I turn on the water, and Mt. Everest erodes before me. Bits of mushroom re-surface like boulders. I wash all my troubles away.   
Then I push open the kitchen door, and announce: “Clean plate!”  
My mother raises one eyebrow, but says nothing. 
My father asks me if I finished all my potatoes. 
I hold up the plate for his inspection. “They’re gone,” I say. 
He gets more specific. “Did you eat all of your potatoes, Paula?”
 A moment of panic. Eventually, I know, those potatoes are going to leave the sink trap. Where are they going to they end up? In the bathtub?   In the toilet? Can they do that?
“Tell the truth, now.”
There is no escape. My father knows everything. The jig is up. 
He doesn’t want to spank me, but he has to, he says, or I will grow up to be a liar.  
"This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you," he says.
I don’t have a lot of experience speaking Truth to Power, but I know about the power of lies. I was six years old when I told my first. And because the universe has an amazing sense of reciprocity, I immediately got a lie back in return.



 

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