Things Are Much More up for Grabs Than You Think They Are

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Mark Vonnegut, from the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect

I think this is going to be about story and story is important to me.

I went to New York City two weeks ago to take a seminar from Robert McKee. I had taken his Story seminar in 2000 and 2003 in San Francisco. I took it twice because the first time I took it (in 2000), I had to stop taking notes and just let the experience of story carry me out to sea, knowing it would bring me back to shore. Or maybe I didn’t know then that it would bring me back to shore.

I just trusted.

I had been through a particularly traumatic experience in which I thought I had lost the family I had worked hard to build. I’m a stepmother. Stepfamilies are precarious. The heart is a resilient muscle. And that’s a good thing. Life tests it.

As I sat through his seminar, I began to see the story of how I discovered the heart’s resilience. A villain is not a villain in the villain’s story. The character is right from the character’s point of view. If you can’t see that, you have a caricature of a human being. You haven’t drilled down to the truth of what it is to be human.

That humanized the trauma for me. It didn’t take it away. Instead it lifted the numbness and allowed me to feel the loss. It also lifted blame.

This latest seminar I attended was called Story in Business. McKee is right about story. It is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to connect with people and move them to action.

Leader as author he says. I agree.

As the day progressed, I found myself once again being swept out to sea. I was nursing a recent disappointment. Not traumatic like what happened in 2000, but nevertheless very disappointing.

Once again, I saw the events and my experience in terms of story. No villains. No heroes, just humans acting in very human ways, driven by fear of change and life passing them by. It’s what we do when change is thrust upon us and our lives are turned upside down. We try to restore our lives to what they were before they were turned upside down, when what we need to do is use our experience to change the story we were living.

For me, it’s allowing myself to be swept out to sea and then use story to make my way back to shore. It’s what I have in place of religion, my way of making sense out of chaos—out of that which I cannot control.

I said this is about story, and I still think it is. Story does not so much give me hope and faith as it shows me that things are much more up for grabs than I thought they were. That’s how Mark Vonnegut puts it in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:

What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.”

The news has been filled with dread the last few weeks. Between ISIS and Ebola, we’re all feeling as vulnerable as a young black male who’s stopped by the police, or a raped woman who wore a short skirt.

We’re all going to die, Lindsay Graham predicts.

Well, that is certainly true. We all are going to die. We have that in common.

But in the meantime, things are much more up for grabs than we thought they were. Story, our stories, can help us discover that. Not a bad thing when dread hovers over us.

Keep Your Hat On, I’ll End Up Miles From Here

“Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
Kurt Vonnegut

I’m on a Kurt Vonnegut roll. I recently read If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, a compilation of his graduation speeches. As I said in my last post, Kurt Vonnegut is living proof you don’t have to be alive to be living.

There’s just something about him. I would have liked to have taken a writing class from him. I imagine he would say this about writing: “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.” He actually did say that. I just don’t know for sure if it was about writing.

I attended Fourth Friday last Friday, the local venue for writers to listen and read. The featured writer was Holly Hughes who read from her book of poetry, Sailing with Ravens. It was important, she said, that instead of diving in randomly to read poems in her book, that you start at the beginning and continue on.

From the back of her book:

“Gillnetter, mariner, and naturalist Holly Hughes has experienced first-hand the practical and philosophical consequences of navigating difficult waters. . . . In this exquisite collection of poems Hughes deftly navigates the ‘wavering, certain path’ of a woman’s heart, finding that sometimes the best directions to follow are those that come from the natural forces in our lives. . . .”

I’ve been on the ocean—I spent 75 days on a Dutch freighter traveling from Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California. We went days without seeing either land or another ship. Once, we patiently watched for what in my memory seems like hours for a ship to transform from being a dot on the horizon to a sister ship gliding by alongside us, bow to stern, and then sail away to become a dot on the horizon again.

And then we were alone on the vast expanse of water with the occasional school of dolphins that appeared.

The ship I was on raised three stories off the surface. I can only imagine what it would be like to be on the 33-foot fishing boat Holly Hughes set sail in—what it was like to be at sea with that much uncertainty surrounding you.

It occurred to me as I listened to her that she did what writers do—she saw the poetry in the prosaic. I think at the heart of being a writer is an understanding that we “ . . . never had to leave home to be writers, because there are people there just as smart and just as dumb, just as kind and just as mean, as anywhere else in the world.” Kurt said that, too.

I’m having a serious Kurt crush these days.

Somehow that gives me permission to leap into this next thing I’m going to write about: tent caterpillars in my trees.

They are voracious little creatures, eating anything leafy. Not the evergreens—the tasty leafy things like the leaves on the apple and cherry and pear trees.

Side thought: With all due respect, they sound very much like us humans who are sort of kind of’ ravaging the planet—not by eating the leafy things but by changing the climate with our behavior and modifying the genetics of plants and planting plants that have been pre-treated with systemic pesticides that kill bees.

But, back to the tent caterpillars.

I am faced with a decision . . . do I get rid of them, or just let them cycle through. There is a non-poisonous solution: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). It’s made from dead ground up caterpillars and introduces a bacteria that they eat and then get sick and die before they become moths and lay eggs. Or maybe they lay eggs and then become moths, I’m not entirely clear on that concept. But they die before they become moths.

The point is that by introducing Bt into their world, I interrupt their transformation. I keep them from learning what it means to take flight.

Which gives me pause.

Note: Literally, it gave me pause. I removed my hands from the keyboard and put them in the pockets of my fleece vest, wondering where I’m going with this. Hold on for the play button.

I’m back. I stepped outside to the balcony. Birds were singing and in the background I could hear Tom’s music playing on the iPod inside my writing Shed. They didn’t compete (the birds and Tom’s music). They complemented each other. Here’s what I saw.

So here’s what I think. I will spray the Bt. It doesn’t poison other insects (maybe mosquitoes, I’ll research that and I’m okay with that because of the equine virus thing, though I suspect that mama equine viruses love their equine virus children as much as we love our children). I think that introducing the bacteria will give the trees a fighting chance.

Now, will it kill all the tent butterflies? Probably not. I suspect there will be some who will survive the bacteria. Which could mean that they will create a new generation of tent caterpillars that adapt to the bacteria. That is the cycle, I think.

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

Where was I?

Oh, right the transformation-interruptus thing.

So, here’s where I am with that: what I will be doing is introducing living things that interact with each other into the environment. Apparently there is a three-year cycle of tent caterpillars getting overly enthusiastic about reproduction. This is the third year of that cycle, or maybe the second, depending on who you talk to.

I think what I’m doing is giving my trees a fighting chance of staying clothed and producing fruit. I’m okay with that and I apologize to the moms and dads of the caterpillars whose offspring won’t get a chance to take flight. I think they might have had a good life anyway. They certainly are beautiful creatures.

And, for what it’s worth, I suspect that bacteria are hard at work thinning out the human race.

That’s the cycle of things. Or, as Kurt would say, “And so it goes . . .”

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?

We have to be constantly jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is living proof that you don’t have to be living to be alive.

I thought I was going to be writing about Cougars today. Cougars being what older women who are involved with younger men are called. One definition defines it as an older woman (35 or older) who preys on younger men.

Older men who are involved with younger women, on the other hand, are generally referred to as Lucky. I think men start being considered older at 50.

Whatever, this age thing is absurd. I remember an episode of Picket Fences where the widowed father of the character played by Kathy Baker (I think the character’s name was Jill) brought the much younger woman he was involved with to Thanksgiving weekend. Chaos, outrage, and judgment ensued. Jill became unhinged.

Then, came the reveal. Her father wanted someone younger because he didn’t want to have to go through losing another spouse to death. The younger woman, however, had cystic fibrosis. She would not live to be an old woman. She would die a young woman. She wanted to be involved with an older man because his experience of life was closer to hers—they were both closer to the end, rather than the beginning of their lives.

It turned the age thing on its head.

I don’t know whether it is only American culture that is so clueless about what to make of women as we grow older. Actually, I think it is more accurate to say, “I don’t know whether it is only American culture that is so terrified of women as we grow older.”

The meaning for the Cougar in the Animal-Wise Tarot card deck is “coming into our own power.” I think of that every time I hear a woman referred to as a Cougar. That is certainly what growing older means to me—shedding whatever isn’t my story to make room for what is my story.

Whew! What a relief. I don’t need to worry about being nice anymore. Not that I always was, but at least now I don’t worry about whether what I do is nice, or not.

Being kind is another thing. Kurt Vonnegut also said, “There is only one rule that I know of, babies—, Goddamnn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I think it is kind to live and tell your own story, and respect that others are doing the same.

The end parenthesis that is death makes for good grammatical living. It forces us to pay attention to meaning, or perhaps more important, meaningfulness. It’s been almost a year since we took the leap to start the next phase of our lives (Tom’s and mine). It has taken much longer than either of us thought to settle into our home. Where we put things, hung art, placed books on shelves took on a deeper meaning to us. There was awareness that this could be the last place we live. So how did we want to do it—live our lives.

We were a bit like a deer caught in the headlights. It was disconcerting and for a while innervating. But that still time was necessary. Then there came a point where we just plunged ahead. We jumped off the cliff so we could develop wings. And so we discovered our new home. We live in beautiful surroundings. Our home is filled with art and books and music.

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

That’s also a quote from Kurt Vonnegut. His Uncle Alex used to say that to note a particularly lovely moment, like sipping lemonade under a shade tree in summer. Uncle Alex thought it was a terrible waste to be happy and not notice it. (Oh, right, I live in Happy Valley).

And so, as I become a Cougar, I fill my heart with power, knowing that there is no time like the present to embrace my story and live it assertively.

I leave you with one last quote from Kurt Vonnegut, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories.”

All quotes in this post are from If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? The Graduation Speeches by Kurt Vonnegut. I read it in one sitting. When I finished I thought—if this isn’t nice, what is?