Unsheltered

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I have heard it described by a few authors, this technique of asking readers to consider a truth which they instinctively reject. I heard Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, share his own technique at a conference. It was several years ago, so I am working from memory, but he spoke about asking readers to see difficult realities as if from the corner of their eye. Not head on. The power of a writer to bring readers face to face with truth can be the writer’s own demise. And of course there is my life theory from Emily Dickinson, to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver has mastered this trick of the author’s trade. She has somehow managed to capture the angst of our times, help us understand that it is not necessarily unique to our time while simultaneously unsettling my complacency and giving me hope.

All in a delightful cast of characters navigating tumultuous cultural shifts in the microcosm of their personal dramas. Sounds a lot like my life for the past three years. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the book so much.

I don’t want to give away any details of her cleverly constructed plot. But I do want to gloat a bit (as you likely will if you read it) about the many times I exclaimed “I swear I’ve said the exact same thing,” about words and ideas she draws from her characters. I feel as thought Barbara Kingsolver has been listening in on my conversations.

For example, about air travel, the protagonist Willa’s husband complains about a US cross-country flight.

“Iano had returned to the subject of his miserable flight. It was a little maddening but Willa understood she needed to hear this out so he could move on. “It’s over five hours, this flight, and they feed you nothing. I’m crammed into a space the size of a dog kennel, I have to pee, and I’m starving….These airlines are supposed to be transporting humans. They used to do that. Now they don’t. Nobody could fit comfortably in that space. What kind of passenger are they making these airplanes for?”

Right? Haven’t you said something like that?

Or the comments Willa must navigate, delivered by her twenty something left leaning daughter, Tig.

“Plus,” Tig said, “it reminds me to be patient. Seeing all these people that have passed on. I get frustrated sometimes, waiting.”

“For people to die?”

“Yeah. To be honest. The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”

Yes, I have fantasized about the day the old guard will pass the torch (or the torch will be wrestled from their grasping hands). I am encouraged by the women, young and old, coming into leadership in the world. And I remain hopeful that this will make a difference.

Or Willa’s explanation to her husband, after a dispiriting day navigating a healthcare appointment for her father-in-law, with no chance of getting him treatment. Some glitch in health insurance during a major life transition.

“Sweetheart, it’s not your fault. I know you signed up. You did everything you were supposed to do , and it should have been enough. And still we totally and completely struck out. I’m not sure we have any options for Nick.”

“What is this, Iano? It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore. Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out.”

When I talk to young parents at the preschool where I work and the conversation turns to having more children the comment is always, “can’t afford it.” When I had my children, our health insurance covered every penny of the cost. Young people now talk about saving for kids. Not a college fund. A fund to pay for pregnancy and delivery. When did it become too expensive to have children?”

Barbara Kingsolver makes me feel heard. She makes me feel less alone in my shock at how much the experience of living has changed since I was a young mother. And she invites me to consider where this all might be going.

Another conversation between Willa and her daughter, Tig.

“The thing is, Mom, the secret of happiness is low expectations.”

“Wow. That’s what I raised you to believe in? Low expectations?”

“What did you want me to believe in?”

“I don’t know. You can be anything you want. Hitch your wagon to a star and all that jazz.”

Tig didn’t smile. “I saw you and Dad doing that, hitching your wagon to the tenure star, and it didn’t look that great to me. You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed giving us any long-term community.”

“You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”

Perhaps all the rules have, indeed, changed. But perhaps not. Yet, I love Barbara Kingsolver because I never close a cover on her books feeling hopeless. By the very nature of her story line, the characters she researches and brings into the light, the history that she brings forward into my present, reminds me that human beings are nothing if not resilient. That transition is not without casualties, change is not without suffering, but I am reminded that I can still embrace our ability to adapt. At least that’s what I read. But I’m not sure that’s what she intended. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

Circe and STEM

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“I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

Glenn Holland, in Mr. Holland’s Opus

Just when I thought the Greek Gods and perhaps mythology itself had run its course, a woman steps in to help me re-imagine the legend of Odysseus yet again. Madeline Miller quickly surprised me by sweeping me up into the story of a greek goddess who had been little more than a footnote in the epic mythological tale of Odysseus, the template for the hero’s journey. In this story Miller crafted a compelling allegory for the feminine hero’s journey in the Goddess Circe. Miller shows us the father/daughter struggle between protection and freedom, the mother/son struggle between holding on and letting go, the feminine struggle for power and safety.

Miller led me into a world of Greek mythology both real and mythological. She painted believable relationships between gods and mortals. She balanced the worlds of Gods and mortals in a way that invited me to be present there. I felt acutely the pain of Deadalus losing his son Icarus because he did not warn him against flying to close to the sun. I felt horror at the conception and birth of the Minotaur. I felt rage and defiance as the Gods played out their drama without regard for mortal consequences. I felt empowered as Circe cast her spells for protection. I felt sisterhood as I watched her grow in wisdom through the heartache of making impossible choices.

In short, I reawakened to the wisdom of Greek mythology. Circe’s experiences with family, with exile, with motherhood, helped me to reflect on my own experiences and choices. I found, in Circe, a woman to relate to, in all of her splendor and failure. As a goddess, she may have known the unthinkable gift of immortality, but she knew the curse of it as well.

And immediately closing the back cover of the book, I felt sad about the potential loss of these myths as part of our children’s academic training. I thought of the school system’s popular STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) program and our culture’s near obsession with grooming young people toward careers in those fields. I thought of the first programs to be sacrificed under the chopping blocks of budget cuts, the arts, communication and humanities. When I ask my own children if they know who Odysseus was and the story of the Iliad, they have a vague recollection of the classic titles. Scant knowledge of the stories or their meaning.

And yet, our children will not be scared off from mythology. I grieve that they will not find it in their schools. But I have hope that they embrace stories of their own gods and godesses. They find them in popular culture. The cult following of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and more recently Game of Thrones, shows me how thirsty our children are for stories and archetypes to understand their world. Stories that invite them to see the true experience of humanity within themselves by watching it play out in characters in books and on the screen.

What they lose in this math/science/tech emphasis, unfortunately, is the wisdom of teachers who help them interpret the stories. Our educational system tells them that stories are not an important part of their life. That all they need to know to understand living can be found in the study of science, technology, engineering, math. How will our children learn to feel? And how will they learn to befriend their own experience as common among humanity? How will they learn to experience love, and loss, victory and failure, creation and destruction? Myth and story are the age old tools for that type of exploration toward wisdom. Communication and literacy are the avenues through which these truths are shared.

Our children will not allow us to rob them of their mythology. But neither will they have the wisdom good teachers could bring to the process of understanding themselves in the world.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

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I am a closet introvert.

I was voted "friendliest" in my high school graduating class of 400.  When I  participated in the high school Junior Miss pageant, no one commented on the performance of my endlessly rehearsed piano piece played in the talent section. But many people commented on how natural I looked on stage as I thanked the pageant producers and handed out flowers to our coaches. By eighteen I had carefully observed and adopted the survival skills of extroversion.  I went on to major in journalism in college, become a reporter, then a trainer and finally the executive director of a marketing certification program.

Answers to the Meyers-Briggs personality test landed me squarely in the "extrovert" category. 

It took me awhile to figure out that my leaning toward extroversion came to me as a survival skill in an extroverted world.  Susan Cain's book gave me courage to believe I will not only survive, but thrive, as I continue to unleash my introverted self.

Though I found the entire book to be thoughtful, well researched and inspirational, the section about "highly sensitive" people showed me that what Western culture considers a weakness, should, instead, be considered a strength.

Cain tells the story of a psychologist who was described by an associate as "highly sensitive." "It was as if these two words described her mysterious failing."

I feel that way all the time. People who know me always tell me that "I'm too sensitive." I believed them for a long time and tried to toughen up my hide. But in all situations, that approach made me miserable and unsatisfied.

The psychologist Cain wrote about decided to explore the inner lives of thirty-nine people who described themselves as being either introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation. Says Cain, "She asked them about the movies they liked, their first memories, relationships with parents, friendships, love lives, creative activities, philosophical and religious views. Based on the interviews she created a voluminous questionnaire that she gave to several large groups of people. Then she boiled their responses down to a constellation of twenty-seven attributes. She named people who embodied these attributes "highly sensitives." 

Here's a few of the insights her researched showed.  The highly sensitive tend to:

be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic

dislike small talk

describe themselves as creative or intuitive

dream vividly and can often recall their dreams the next day

love music, nature, art, physical beauty

feel exceptionally strong emotions

process information about their environments unusually deeply

be highly empathic (as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people's emotions)

It's taken many years for me to recognize and trust these aspects of my personality. But it changed my life. I stopped apologizing for my penchant to stay home and read a book, or write, or knit, or paint. I learned that the experiences which I find most fulfilling and interesting require a great deal of solitude. I learned to feel lonely and to enjoy that loneliness for what it allowed me to create. I learned the satisfaction of simply listening to my own reactions to the world, my expressions and creations.

I have accepted the freedom and discovered the benefits of invisibility.

Introverts have such a well-honed negative reputation as bores. And yet, they might be the most interesting people in the room. Whether in a classroom of children, a family meal, or a boardroom of executives, the extroverts will be heard, but the introverts will likely have the truly thought-provoking ideas.

Like Susan Cain's. But will it be only introverts who read her book?