Silence Gives Consent

I never set out to write a novel touching on racism—but the story found its author, its time and its place, as it were. Wyoming, where I live, is ninety percent Caucasian, eight percent Hispanic or Latino, and three percent of what is listed as “other,” in galling assertion, signifying Blacks and indigenous peoples, or “First Nations,” as our neighbor Canada prefers. White supremacy—two words I cringe to pair—rears its shameless head in my story, but so too, the remedial antidotes of friendship, courage, moral indignation, and finally, love. These qualities, among others, have imbued the Black Hills region with a particular sacredness to many peoples, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache. We who dwell here today may soak up sacrament through a sort of osmosis, despite the occasionally alkaline water, the bland color of a toad’s belly. Peely wally, say the Scots, refers to a pale skin color, and actually means, to appear sickly, but I digress.

In 2015, at sixty-two, I set out on my literary journey, hero or not. The entire previous year I had sat out—reading, resting, and consuming words, “like tiny tranquilizers,” as creative Julia Cameron once warned. Having had a collection of short essays published in 2006, I wanted to write the story that had percolated for years. During my so-called sabbatical, I studied the way tales are woven together, the warp and woof of the myriad possible decisions and choices. To do my level best would be my aim and I blocked out mornings for writing. Determination is a powerful thing. Within a year, after revisions and cutting 16,000 words, I completed The Riven Country of Senga Munro with welcomed assistance from my editor. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,” Goethe said.

Two more novels in the Riven Country series followed: Starwallow and The Simpler. After querying and much deliberation, I chose to publish on KDP Amazon, taking the recommendation of two friends, given that I am nearing seventy. Mostly pleased with my decision (a wider audience and readership would be a fine thing), I never expected the cataclysm of events that have since upended our lives. Travel restrictions and health precautions squelched travel to see loved ones, and normal book release activities, like book tours, readings, and signings were postponed. I carried on with my efforts, however, and I am glad I did so. “Write your book—it will change your life,” is not a facile suggestion, at least it doesn’t have to be. I might substitute “save” for “change.”

The work of writing and its attendant tasks have eased long absences from my family and friends. It has delivered a quiet sense of joy and agency—if solely personal—and indeed my life has been enriched for the dogged doing of it. Forgive the overwrought reference, but it’s as if I made a pact with my soul. (Nay, I did.) Set mostly in the Black Hills region, and at times featuring Paris, Denmark, Italy, and Ireland, the series centers around Senga Munro, a middle-aged wounded healer who is nudged by the universe after the tragic loss of her young daughter.

The second protagonist, Gabe Belizaire, confronts racism for being “other.” Senga is also other, for seeing what others can’t, in the series’ thread of magic realism. The notion to include a former bull rider/Tulane-educated M.A. from southwest Louisiana, who simply wants to write while working on a Wyoming ranch, might not have raised eyebrows (at least in this part of the country), but Gabe’s skin color is rare in Wyoming. I describe an incident at a regional rodeo (unnamed, as it could have occurred anywhere, sadly), which leads to Gabe’s acquaintance of an irascible old ranch couple and their neighbor Senga. To set the matter straight, similar incidents as Gabe endured have been reported in first-hand accounts. From one of these I took my cue, but no spoilers from me.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2020. I could not have known that late spring and summer would erupt in protest marches following the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of a policeman. “Black Lives Matter,” coined in 2013 after the Trayvon Martin killing, becomes a rallying cry tacitly including all races. The holographic principle declares, “The whole is inherent in the part.” That we are all one race is a given. No room for blind men trying to identify an elephant here. The BLM phrase could be interpreted with more subtlety, nuance, delicacy and truth by detractors. But what is understood is left out. Black Lives actually do Matter. The oft-used rebuttal, “All Lives Matter” weakens the argument of those who utter the retort. I hear it as sarcasm. It dismisses those who insist on simply being seen, acknowledged, and understood.

Since the inception of these United States, ever the hope and aspiration of our founders, people of color and destitute immigrants of all races have often been poorly received in this country. In blinding understatement. We fall short of our ideals—morally, democratically, and ethically. That there is always room for improvement must be accepted, moment to moment. If I sound painfully obvious, I mean to state an obvious fact. My literary series casts a wide net, but addressing respect and regard between people answered the questions my soul posed as I wrote. Daniel J. Levitin suggests in Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives that creative writing lends itself well to the aging brain. Late in life I set myself a challenge, and as the old poet wrote, it has made all the difference.

The much greater and more significant national challenge awaits.

Excerpt

Below, please find a short excerpt from Starwallow, Book II of my Riven Country Series. https://amazon.com/dp/1734043717 The second novel involves travel to Italy from Wyoming, and the journeys back home to oneself. Each character makes their own precious way. The formatting here is a WordPress default. It’ll do.

From Chapter 2, Seagulls and Jambalaya

Rufus pulled on his good Pendleton wool shirt, a past Christmas gift from one of his daughters, then his wool vest. Still barefoot, he stepped into the warm kitchen. It smelled like fried sausage.

Gabe was seated in his usual place.

Gabe Belizaire, thirty-nine and recently retired (he claimed) as a bull rider, was born and raised in Louisiana on a ranch. An MFA from Tulane, he’d given up a teaching position to concentrate on writing. He’d just submitted a collection of short stories. But he still wanted, what he called, a “day job,” so he continued to work for the Stricklands, who now considered him family.

In 2006, one of his rides was ignored by the arena clown and pick-up men in a case of abject discrimination. The bull mauled him in a horrifying spectacle. Rufus remembered the bright red blood drenching the yellow shirt of the Louisiana man, whose skin gleamed as black as a no-moon night.

And what color was that bull? A brindle, maybe, Rufus recollected.

The Stricklands had invited Gabe to recover at their ranch, offered in the guise of a job, and the man accepted their hospitality.

After he had been treated for his injuries at the rodeo, Caroline and Senga continued his care. Senga Munro, their nearest neighbor, provided salves, tinctures, compresses and an ear.

Gabe explained he’d traveled to the Black Hills in search of his sister, who’d disappeared after Katrina’s destruction in New Orleans. A truck driver contacted his parents to say he’d driven the girls—Allie and her friend—to western South Dakota, where they had waiting jobs at a guest ranch in the Wyoming Black Hills.

“Mornin’, patron,” said Gabe. “How’s the hip? Or should I just shut up?” he grinned after Rufus threw him a look.

“Mornin’, Gabe. And how’s the recently engaged man?” He smirked. Distractions were gifts from God. Maybe they are God. He lowered himself gingerly onto the chair, placing the cane on the back. “Caro?” he held up his socks.

“Doin’ well, boss, doin’ well,” and Gabe picked up his mug of coffee.

“Be there in a sec, hon,” Caroline said, as she moved the skillet off the heat and covered the eggs with the lid. She stepped over to Rufus, knelt down and pulled on each sock. Then she reached for the slippers he kept beside the stove. “There,” and she looked up at him.

Caroline was heavier than she liked to be, and rising to her feet took some effort.

“Thank you, wife,” he said, meaning it, then to Gabe, “You’ll like it, being married; they’re handy to have around. Like pliers, you know?” He winked at her.

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If you’re in the area, The Good Earth Health Food Store on Main, in Spearfish, South Dakota, is hosting a Reading/Signing for me, on Saturday, September 19, 2020, from 2:30-4:00. This accompanies the town’s Art/Wine/Food Truck Fall Celebration; also, fellow Wyomingite Jalan Crossland, and Lacey Nelson, play from 2:00 until 6:00 at the Spearfish Corn Maze. How fun is that?? You can bet I’ll be skedaddling to the corn after the book event. 

Joys and Sorrows

STARWALLOW, the second book in my Riven Country series, is available on Amazon.com on June 21 in paperback and as e-book. I picked a strange time to release my first two novels. “Not getting any younger,” scrolled in the back of my mind, like a looping film clip. So! Carry on, doesn’t matter, I hear. The next installment takes up where The Riven Country of Senga Munro left off, with the folks in the Northern Wyoming Black Hills going about their lives with grit, forbearance, and, some grace. Travel is a theme. My short tag line reads: “. . . explores the distance between home and the travel necessary to come home to oneself.”

My joy—and satisfaction—at completing this writing project is tempered by a deep sorrow. A highly anticipated visit by our distant grandchildren has been cancelled, due to the virus. They live in the mid-west, and all possible routes lead through areas of virus spread, i.e., eastern South Dakota, or Nebraska or Colorado; and the stats are rising in Missouri itself. I abhor letting people down, especially our son and grandchildren, so it’s doubly difficult. The assertion that we would like to, someday, be able to attend the kids’ graduations, weddings, etc., doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid, and we’re left with a hollow feeling of perhaps being too cautious. Reason cries no! Still. . .

Between Joy and Sorrow there lies a field, to paraphrase Rumi. I’ll meet you there. . .

Navigating the times, a raging river, are we headed for a Niagara’s Falls? Both/and inclusion insist we’re aboard a hardy Lifeboat and shall weather the rapids, to finally make our tenuous way toward the far shore. I must believe this. Our country, and the world, have faced adversity before, as well as revolutions of mind and heart. This particular Lifeboat is large enough for EVERYONE. May all beings be safe. May all beings be loved. May all beings be free.

It may not be coincidence that my novels feature a Louisiana man who chooses to live in Wyoming, where his skin color is rare. Gabe Belizaire, of blue-Black heritage, quotes W.C. Fields to a belligerent hunter: “It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” When I began writing this story six years ago, notions of white supremacy and its hurtful message slithered in like the proverbial snake in the garden. For a reason, I suppose.

Beyond the idea of good and the idea of evil there lies a field. I will meet you there. ~Rumi

May you stay safe, afloat and, keep breathing.