Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God Is Not My Mom or Dad

So much has been said in the wake of the terrible shootings of children, teachers, and firefighters that have lately filled the news (I want to mention, too, the hundreds of Chicago children who have been the victims of gun violence this year). One theme has been cropping up that I finally felt I must address. I keep hearing commentators from NPR and the New York Times to Facebook memes asking, "Where is God?" Sometimes the questioner is sincere, and sometimes snarky, but the God-concept underlying the question is always the same: that God's role is to prevent evil, to protect humanity from itself and clean up its messes. The implication is that God is some sort of cosmic parent, and while that image is certainly prevalent in many faiths, like any analogy, it doesn't give you the whole picture.

Any parent will tell you the heartbreaking truth: no matter how much you want to protect your children, sometimes all you can do is suffer alongside them. In addition, the older they get, the less able you are to intervene directly in their choices and to pick them up, dust them off, and set them right again when they fall, because the situations facing them are more complex, and because they understandably want to live their own lives. So anyone who evokes God as a parent should do so recognizing that this role has its limits, perhaps even necessary ones, if children are ever to become adults.

This brings me to what I think is the even more important point: that asking God to act as a protecting parent is tantamount to asking to be infantilized. Comforting as that might seem in the short term, that state doesn't push us to claim our full role and responsibility as active agents in the world in which we live. Jewish tradition claims that human beings are b'tzelem elohim, created in the image of God, charged with the mission to choose life and increase holiness, to act as God's partner in perfecting creation. To me, this means that we should not retreat from the challenges posed by human evil, beseeching God to sort it out for us. Instead, we should shoulder that burden ourselves, with humility and resolve, and hear God's answers in the actions that we take. Any mature understanding of faith should teach us this.

Surely we can cry out in grief and seek comfort in the wake of horrific tragedies. I can only imagine how those personally affected by them must feel consumed by pain. But those bystanders who are appalled by these events should take responsibility for spreading healing and pushing back against the darkness. As the posters created after the 1989 shooting of 14 women at the University of Montreal stated, "First, mourn. Then work for change." Yes, let's have nuanced, intelligent discussions about the accessibility of high-powered weaponry and effective mental health care, and about our society's fascination with virtual violence and the vicarious thrills it can bring -- and take action based on those deliberations. Let's also recognize that every day brings with it the challenges of living with a mindful commitment to one another, and to the earth which we share for the short time we are here. Like Rabbi Menachem Mendel said, God dwells wherever we let God in. This is our source of hope to keep going and our goad to do better. At least, that is what I keep reminding myself.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

No More Genre Wars

I would like to use what little bully pulpit this blog affords me to ask my fellow writers to please, please stop engaging in the literary equivalent of the Mommy Wars, in which people who choose to write fiction and people who choose to write nonfiction defend that choice by attacking those who have made a different choice. Every writer does not have to choose one genre and one genre only to read and write (any more than every mother only works outside the home or is a stay-at-home mother, and never moves between those statuses). More importantly, though, the Genre Wars perpetuate the same facile assumptions about each genre that they are meant to dispel.

When someone says something stupid to you like, “I don’t have time for fiction; I only bother with things that are true,” or “Nonfiction must be easy to write, because you just put down what happened,” the correct response is not to bash the genre which it sounds like the person prefers, but to point out patiently (and quickly, because these folks often have short attention spans and aren’t really interested in reading anyway) that in fact all writers deal in imagination and the truth. Sometimes – and it pains me to say this, but it happens – your own fellow writers will make such claims, although I have found it is usually in an attempt to defend their own little corner of the literary realm. Don’t tell me about how great fiction is, one CNF devotee sniffed in a Facebook comment, why should I care about your imaginary friends? The response here should be the same, although given with greater urgency: whatever the genre, we all rely upon imagination and seek truths that we render through the medium of language.

Fiction writers, please bring me your imaginary friends, rendered as carefully and powerfully as you can manage. Elizabeth Bennett, Faith in a Tree, The Monster, Gregor Samsa – I have loved them all, and always welcome the chance to make more imaginary friends over whom I can laugh and cry and wonder and complain, and in the end feel changed, or at least less alone in my human messiness. Nonfiction writers, you too, please bring me your mother, your great-grandfather, the guy on the shrimp trawler, yourself on the Appalachian Trail, yourself in recovery, yourself learning how to roller skate at age 52 – because when you render these on the page for me, your reader, they become my imaginary friends too, as real and necessary and challenging for me as any fictional character, and, no, that is not an insult. It is the way of things for all of us, no matter what genre we choose to write: imagination and the truth are the twin stars to guide us, and bring writer and reader alike to whatever destination the words carry us.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Controlled Burn

Another Rosh Hashanah sermon from the files. May the new year bring us a rich harvest of joy and reflection.

Controlled Burn

Creating a prairie required an acre of dead grass, apparently. Somehow the trees survived whatever killing agent the Chicago Park District had laid down; they remained broad and green despite the dry, brown lawn stretching out around them. The same paths wound through the dead zone as through the untouched landscape. Only a big sign announcing the inception of the Burnham Prairie Project let you know that this acre of partial death was premedtiated, and geared toward some greater end.
Once prairie covered most of what is now called Illinois. Now, prairie must be installed, after erasing whatever was there before. Was this exact parcel of land once a prairie, or was it a swamp full of stinking onion? Could this truly be called restoration? Glancing at the project as my bus rumbled by on Lake Shore Drive, I found it hard not be cynical, not to dismiss the project as a Disneyland of flora, simulating what could never be again or maybe never was.
I was not opposed to landscaping with prairie plants. I had ripped out my own little patch of urban lawn and replaced it with native perennials once it was clear that the gas company, after running a new meter line underground, had patched up our yard with grub-infested sod. I had always wanted to get rid of the grass anyway: it took more time to drag the mower up front from the garage than it did to mow. Now I had weeding to do, mostly in the spring, but the plants would reestablish their residency soon enough. They were dependable ornaments, requiring no feeding or other fussing. They knew how to take care of themselves in the summer heat, letting their leaves droop during the dry spells, guarding their moisture inside their hard, fuzzy stems. They also looked right for this flat, Midwestern locale: quietly pretty, sometimes a bit ungainly or informal, but pleasant for all that.
Still, as the bus rolled past this blighted stretch of as-yet unrestored landscape, I was struck more by the evidence of eradication, undistinguished as this grassy area had been, than by the sign’s promise of a more decorative future. On the other side of the road, a ragged line of trees hid the vacant lots created when the projects were imploded but nothing was put in their place. After the leaves came down, in winter, you could see the rubble and naked dirt. This city knows all too well about renewal as a euphemism for erasure.
I had been pondering the nature of renewal during my commutes, reading texts about it from the mystical tradition in Judaism; when I looked up from my book, I also found a lesson in scene on the side of the road. My reading of these texts and my viewing of the prairie’s unfolding taught me that whether renewal takes the form of encouraging the return of what once was, or the emergence of what should have been, those undertaking the process must recognize that it is an act of creation, requiring care and commitment to an ongoing process of growth. True renewal must be undertaken with humility and sensitivity, because it requires the destruction of what was there before. It must involve risk and perhaps even pain, no matter how untenable the situation might be that needs changing.
The prairie itself embodies renewal, especially in the guise of transformation through destruction. During a springtime visit, a notice inside the Trailside Museum in the Cook County Forest Preserve warned visitors about controlled burns in the area. Another notice in the flower beds just outside the door explained that, here too, a controlled burn had taken place. You could see the black marks where some flammable liquid had been poured in neat, curving lines, and then lit. Prairies need fire, the notice explained. Old or invasive growth needs to be cleared away. Some native plant seeds even need the scorching to germinate.
Trained professionals start these fires now, we were told, not lightening in the dry grass; they keep them from getting out of hand. Do not try this at home, was the implicit warning, although I was tempted to squirt curving lines into my own garden. I wanted to see if I could make new life out of burning. I wanted to be the one who made the flames rise, who watched them do their work, and then squelched them when the time was right, smoke rising from the smoldering flowerbed. To be honest, I was also hoping that the clover and crabgrass and other weeds that I was always battling would have the kind of seeds that are not encouraged by fire. I really hate weeding. Fortunately for our neighbors and for the underwriter on our homeowners’ insurance, my partner convinced me to leave my pyromaniacal urges unfulfilled.
Fortunate, too, as I learned from my textual explorations, because true renewal does not assert power, but relinquishes it; it requires the “I” to exist in conversation with the “thou,” to use Martin Buber’s terms. As Adin Steinsaltz says when writing about the Jewish concept of t’shuvah (literally “turning”; often translated as repentance), it “does not bring a sense of serenity or of completion but stimulates a reaching out in further effort” (The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 132). For Steinsaltz, t’shuvah is “a constant process of going toward,” the ultimate goal of which “lies beyond the correction of sinful deeds and the creation of independent, new patterns,” but “is reached when the change and the correction penetrate the very essence of the sins once committed and, as the sages say, create the condition in which a man’s transgressions become his merits” (p. 135). Inspired by Steinsaltz’s comments, Lawrence Kushner claims:
Ultimately, teshuvah is nothing less than a willingness to die and become one again with one’s Creator. It is clicking on the computer software button that says, “Restore default configuration.” (The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition, p. 110)
This default configuration is oneness with God: to perform true t’shuvah is to connect with the Source of all creation and possibility, and make that connection manifest in the world. Or, as Steinsaltz puts it, “The penitent thus does more than return to his proper place. He performs an act of amendment of cosmic significance; he restores the sparks of holiness which had been captured by the powers of evil” (Thirteen, p. 136).
According to the Jewish mystical tradition, creation by its very nature depends upon dissolution. The Maggid of Mezeritch argues:
Nothing is able to change from one form to another – for example, an egg that would hatch into a chick, without first completely nullifying its present form, which is to say, the egg. Only then will another form be able to come forth from it. It is this way with everything in the world: it must attain the level of Ayin, Nothingness. Then it will be able to become something else. (Maggid Devarav Le-Yaakov, sec. 30; quoted in Kushner, p. 33)
In the Jewish mystical understanding, creation did not happen once and for all; it happens continually, every moment. The world that we see, Yesh, or Somethingness, came into being at one point, but it would cease to exist without the sustaining energy of Ayin, or Nothingness – not an empty nothingness, but a complete No-one-thingness, the ocean that at every moment can become, is, and has been individual waves, but is not merely the particular waves themselves. When we become aware of Ayin, Levi Ytizchak teaches, “then the Name of God, as it were, enters the present tense and God’s Name becomes the One who creates, even at this very moment!” When we “[return] to the level of Yesh,” however, “the Name of the Creator then reverts to [the past tense] “…the One who created” (Levi Yitzchak, 1:1, quoted in Kushner, p. 22). The prairie blooms, dries up, and comes to life again through the application of both fire and water; this cycle parallels the way in which t’shuvah creates new life: cleansing fire and healing water create new structures which embody Creation, a continually renewing force.

In time, the dead grass of the Prairie Project was succeeded by naked earth marked with an array of red, pink, and yellow flags. I saw an elderly man there one afternoon, sitting in a metal folding chair at the edge of the field of markers, most likely just taking some air and enjoying the late summer sun, but looking to me like he was keeping this expanse of earth company while it waited for its (re)new(ed) state to become visible. And it did, slowly: green growth filled in around the little flags, so that even when plain dirt could still be seen, and the plants had not yet reached their mature height and bloomed, I had to strain to remember what the scene looked like before.
This unassuming pageant of prairie restoration reminded me that its human planners could take advantage of a capacity for growth which they – I – did not share. At the “L” station where I started and ended my daily commute, spindly stands of Queen Anne’s Lace, unafraid to blossom anywhere, graced the cracks along the concrete abutment that separated the train tracks from the Eisenhower Expressway. With some plants, bidden or unbidden, their seeds are present, and they grow. How much more so when they are planted and tended?
Prairie plants are unself-consciously hardy, engineered for renewal, even seeking the aid of a great consuming fire toward that end; human beings must struggle with fear, complacency, vanity, solipsism, and the human mind’s many other blocks to releasing oneself into a mindful process of change. We must seek out renewal, actively engage it, all the while making sure that our intention is not merely to improve the self, but to reach out beyond the self, to make our words, thoughts, and deeds reflect the not-one-thingness which is the Source of creation as it happens every moment. That is our burning, the fire which sets us free to become what we once were, or should have been: the very embodiment of change.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Q & A, or, Might as Well Write

So what’s the point?
she wants to know –
always some no-nonsense
middle-aged lady with no time
for waste, for self-aggrandizement
with no other price tag.
All those words
nobody will read ­– she can see
not only does the emperor
have no clothes but the tailors
honestly believe they are sewing something.

Maybe you pile up those words
for your protection,
like a levee you crouch
against, flood waters
lapping and spitting
over the top, spraying us all.

Maybe you will be the one to say it:
slot the necessary words in the order
that springs the lock, releasing us
from our own stupidity, from an existence
empty and hungry as a mouth
gaping and bleeding like a wound.

Maybe you try to say it
so the stupid doesn’t chain you
so you can go on believing
that at least you somehow
remain unchanged.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I Want the Copy that Dreams

Blood Orange Review has just posted their "collections" issue, and I'm proud and pleased to say my story, "I Want the Copy that Dreams," is a part of it!

The BOR folks do lovely work, so please do take a look.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dark Epiphanies

Has it really been over two months since I posted last? Shame on me for neglecting you, blog. It's been a lack of time, really, not a lack of ideas. I keep thinking, "I should write a post about that," but then time runs away from me, and it's another week gone without posting.

Claire Guyton's wonderful blog up on Hunger Mountain's website has pushed me to post, however. In a recent pair of linked posts, Claire mused on what she calls "limbo" in short stories: "people rarely change," she notes in a review of Jennifer Egan's "Out of Body," so why do so many writers and critics insist that a short story build up toward a moment of deep change in a character's life? Claire has her own reasons for "loving limbo," and she does such a wonderful job of explaining them, that I recommend you read the posts for yourself. What struck me most, however, was this paragraph:
I am partial to short stories that end in the middle of a crucial moment, made ambiguous by its refusal to resolve. I like reading endings like that and I like writing them. A moment of becoming (or not becoming), when a character is neither that thing anymore but not yet this thing, either—it’s so honest
Honest indeed, like the Edward P. Jones story which concludes with the main character flipping a coin to choose which corner to turn, then flipping the coin and turning a corner again and again. This is how we live: not in light, but peering through a glass darkly, and that peering is in itself fascinating, ripe with its own sort of drama.

So far as I can tell, if and when we do experience an epiphany, it is not a moment of perfect clarity, but one of perfect cognitive dissonance. It is not a sudden insight into what is, but a slow release into the recognition that one's categories of analysis, terms of debate, and ways of understanding the world (or some aspect of it) cannot hold, have been wrong all along, yet what should replace them are unclear. It is not a moment of "not this, but that," but of "not this – now what?".

My stories usually resolve this way, to the puzzlement of some readers, but, as Claire says, anything else feels dishonest to me. I wrote a story when I was in my MFA program about an academic refugee from Nazi-occupied Holland who comes to the U.S. and struggles to acclimate herself to her new situation, a struggle made all the more difficult by how placid her surroundings are. The bucolic environment in which she finds herself after the trauma of displacement only numbs her further. The faculty member I was working with told me that I was starting the story after the main action: that the story should have been about her escape from Holland, not her life afterward. I can't say that the story was totally successful, but I disagree with the claim that one of the problems with it was the situation it explored. If I were writing a Hollywood screenplay, then, yes, I might want something with more chase scenes and close escapes. I was writing a short story, however, a genre in which character can provide narrative momentum, rather than incident. For me, the question of how one puts one's life and self back together in a place where no one can begin to understand your brokenness was well worth exploring, and the insight that healing would be slow, piecemeal, and probably never total was more than epiphany enough to resolve it, if one can even claim that such a question can be resolved.

Perhaps our cultural moment has made us wary of endings that seem too neat, or characters who could have a moment of pure clarity at all, never mind one that transforms forevermore. Maybe we have become jaded by television shows that wrap up a complicated situation in 20 or 50 minutes, and by a 24-hour news cycle which confirms for us over and over again the awful and absurd ways people can behave. Maybe we are in a transitional moment in our culture, like the postmodernists claim, where the old modes seem worn out, but we haven't been able to come up with any new ones. As David Jauss has pointed out in his wonderful essay on endings in Chekhov (available in the archives of the Writer's Chronicle, if you are able to log in at, however, that 19th-century master was wary of the resolved conclusion long before our time, so I would like to think those of us who share that suspicion are in good company. Chekhov believed story endings should "return the characters to life again," and, let's face it, life is a mess that we pick our way through as best we can.

I know that some writers and readers out there decry the overinfluence, as they see it, of Chekhov in the contemporary short story, precisely because it has lead to an overreliance on domestic dramas in which "nothing happens." What it means to have "something happen" in fiction is a separate topic I would like to tackle some other time, but suffice it to say that a brief moment in time when characters who can't change come together can generate narrative tension and forward momentum, and raise questions necessary to ponder but impossible to resolve. In one of my favorite Eudora Welty stories, "A Still Moment," three men come together at the same spot on the Natchez Trace: an itinerant preacher bound for a camp revival, a serial killer who happens upon the preacher and decides to make him his next victim, and John James Audubon, who is collecting specimens and making sketches of the birds he finds. The prose roils with each man's individual obsession, until a white heron lights down in the marsh, transfixing each man. I won't spoil the story for you if you haven't read it (and if you haven't, please do), but suffice it to say each man then goes his separate way, pointedly unchanged in his obsession and his outlook, in the case of the preacher willfully so. I love this story for the elegance of its construction and the brilliance of its conceit, as well as the fine use of character and voice you'll always find in Welty. Could every story be "A Still Moment"? No. It would lose it's special character if that were so. But to claim that such a story should not have been written, that it presents its reader with a "zero sum"? I could never agree to that.