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.

Lending Grace to Chaos

Amid much angst, nail-biting and throwing off better dietary angels, I took a few weeks away from my writing work (save perfunctory tasks) and sorely feel the hiatus. A blog post may connect some dots of insight. I miss heading down to the little cabin, lighting the Little Buddy propane heater, to return when it’s cozy. I miss the sense of joy and peace I derive within the four pine walls. I miss the ineffable Flow, the Zone, the trance of being so caught up in telling my tale that all sense of time and concern evaporates. I miss my characters (along with proper flesh and blood varieties). I say (glibly) that the writing saves my life, borrowing the sentiment from fellow Wyomingite Craig Johnson of Longmire fame. I don’t wish to appear “precious” about it, but there you are.

Orchard after Harvest

Enough pep talk. Does it sound false? Will truth indeed set us free, and will it arrive soon enough? Especially for the child refugees in detention. Of all the damnable obscenities perpetrated by this sitting head of state, to me, this is the worst. . . An October 21, 2020 New York Times story cites the deported parents of 545 incarcerated children have not been located. An ominous thundercloud hangs overhead.

A maelstrom of discouragement, sadness, loneliness, disappointment and fury swirls in my head. A synesthesia. I draw no facile comparison, but how long before we’ll be able to enjoy our grandchildren and children once again? I complain too much, given those who have lost loved ones, jobs and homes to the virus, to fires, to misfortune. Those in nursing homes are especially vulnerable to both the virus, and the confusion surrounding it. A matter of degree, I suspect. Everyone dreads their critical breaking point, where “I just can’t take it anymore!” burgeons from the subconscious. A good cry can relieve our emotions, if not our circumstances.

Autumn Evening Sky

One night this week, about 2:30 in the morning, I permitted, even coaxed, a bubble of repressed emotion to rise in my gorge and I allowed the tears to flow. Dear Reader, it helped. Weep, cry, stamp your feet, pitch a fit–as Mom used to call it–and then weep some more. I’ll let you know if and when I am tempted to break dishes. (Not yet! not yet!)

A medieval “alternative fact” perches on my shoulder like an abused bat: the tempter-demon introduced in Catholic grade school, the “angel-on-my-right, devil-on-my-left” concept. No mention of metaphor. No psychological analogies. No elementary treatise on maladaptive behaviors or coping mechanisms. Plain old fear tactic 101. A version is employed by mothers the world over to frighten children away from a rushing riverside. La Llorona is a mother who has lost her children. She haunts shores, looking for those who might “do.” The clear light of day generally disperses any and all such notions, but the analogy begs a look.

Consider the end of the film, Saving Private Ryan (spoiler alert), when Tom Hank’s dying character tells the boy, “Earn this,” meaning, the deaths of those answering the call to help find the soldier. Earn it: Live a gracious life. Loosely based on a family’s loss of three brothers during WWII, a fourth brother, Fritz Niland, was plucked from combat by the Army’s “sole survivor” policy. Fictionalizing an incident, as novelists may, affords an opportunity to relate over-arching truths and poignancy.  Poetic Justice. It remains the bedrock attraction of literature, and a means to teach and to form conscience and consciousness. Great tales do this (whether we realize it or not). We stand at the Earn this! moment of the 21st century. The deaths of over 220,000 Americans, and over a million Earthlings worldwide, require our due diligence, and, our unmitigated attention. . .

Some of us self-medicate against the existential affronts bombarding our conscience and sensibilities. Others find satisfaction in working on creative pursuits. Some double-down on child-raising-and-educating efforts. Others live on social media networks. Some throw their heart and soul into improving the lives of those others, by serving and protecting in various capacities. Finally, many let go of their precious lives. “Enough, and Adios.” We owe a debt of gratitude far beyond a capacity to fill it, and this informs, and confirms, our humanity. Our reach must exceed our grasp, as they say.

With this post, I declare my independence from most social network sites, owing to the amount of time and energy related to their use and influence. Fundamentally a matter of physics, the personal cost is too dear. I understand it is precisely our fragile agency that is at stake. Each of us is a “product,” whose attention is to be mined and cultivated, according to producers and writers of The Social Dilemma documentary. (See Netflix.) My Gmail and WordPress accounts will have to suffice as tools to communicate online about my books. Must needs, as the Brits say. I was simply never that extroverted, but I am fine (if you wonder).  Carry on, we must, despite the obstacles. Do what brings you joy, I hear. Figure it out. Meanwhile. . . breathe deeply and, “Look for silver linings!” as friend Gundel counsels.

Ahh, silver linings. . . I looked up the idiom. I read John Milton likely coined the phrase in the 1600s with his quote, “Was I deceived or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?” Further meaning: bright side: Wikipedia calls this “a metaphor for optimism . . . a negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it.” I imagine a sleek sable on her back, offering her long belly to be scratched, with Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” playing in the background.

Our daughter will occasionally speak of grace with a surprising candor and capacity for sense perception. She exudes a quality of the word, depending on one’s definition. Here I’m thinking of its roots in gratitude. Before sleep, a gracious and useful exercise would have us identify “three nice or encouraging things” that happened to us that day. Grace of gratitude naturally follows, and the exercise prompts inklings of further serendipities. Seek and ye shall find. Merci to French author Raphaelle Giordano for her novel about seeking happiness, Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Have Only One. Pithy title.

Our better angels beseech us.

Work in Progress, Shelter in Place

Sheltering in place is less of a hardship for some than for others. For writers, it can mean a tacit permission to do what they do, a tragic circumstance notwithstanding. Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees, forgive the cliché; and has brought some lower. As of today, March 20, 2020, the first full day of Spring in the northern hemisphere, 259,684 cases have been reported worldwide, with 10,549 deaths. These numbers are fluid and, sadly, are expected to rise exponentially in the coming weeks. In Wyoming, 19 cases are confirmed as of today.

My husband bought provisions to last a while, and I’ve had three months of medications mailed to me. A compromised immune system and heart condition precludes socializing, but I’m experiencing a renewed inclination to be in telephone or email touch with friends and family, those I would neglect while in the throes of formatting my novels for publication, or completing my WIP, or “work in progress.” A paradox, I suppose. I wouldn’t call it a silver lining.

We are being tested, and sorely so, I fear. When I watch a news segment, showing cavalier college kids gathering during Spring Break, flouting the danger that surrounds them, I want to shake my head and sigh. And then, I want to weep. When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish, goes the saying. With half the country minimizing the outbreak and the other half entering solitary confinement of a sort, and, in some states, all being restricted to quarters, there is little room for middle ground. We downplay the virus at our peril.

All this said, my husband and I attended a gathering just seven days ago, when we were still feeling flush, and Wyoming’s lone Covid-19 case was being managed. No get-togethers since then. Given the speed of spread, we will soon know if we, and/or anyone present, already had contracted the virus and were not yet presenting symptoms. Just now, I heard there’s a five-day incubation period. Not long at all. So, we take our temperatures daily, practice social distancing and cancel trips to see our children who live out-of-state.

I like “Work in Progress” as a title—a mantra during fraught times. Progress is positive, or it can be, but disease can “progress” too. I’ve always thought the phrase, “progressively worse,” an oxymoron. There must be a more correct phrase . . .  

It’s Feedback, Not Failure

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A few months ago I was figuratively balancing on the edge of a writer’s deep cauldron. Dramatic, I know, but it serves. The reason centered on my work, and whether I was paying due diligence regarding drafts, revisions, et cetera, after having received several dozens rejections to queries for my first novel, The Riven Country of Senga Munro. Yes, yes, the question answered itself, but not before I considered drowning myself in said cauldron.

Diagon Alley metal art hangs by my writing cabin door, of a pointy-hatted witch stirring  her pot–a useful metaphor for the creative impulse; writing as magical endeavor, except, it’s not. Still, I always touch the cauldron before entering my space to work. Ritual as necessary ingredient.  

A writing friend asked me one day last winter how the revision was going. I mumbled something vague, or likely incoherent, but her pointed question (like the hat) niggled, and I set about finally getting down to it, seriously (read scraping the bottom of the cauldron for baked-on, or half-baked phrasing), and, in the end, cut 16,000 words from the first novel. I swear I hear heavy sighing from the overwrought file. Failure, in the form of declines (my preferred word), together with my friend’s gentle nudge, serve as feedback.

Coming up for air (clinging to our working image of a cauldron/caldera) and seeing what’s out there can be helpful, even refreshing. (Ah, a breeze! Gentle rainfall! The sounds of birds and children’s laughter!) And I took some writerly advice (from Poets and Writers Magazine) to engage with a social media platform, hitherto ignored, except for this outlet. I have now a Twitter presence, to help keep up with literary and musical worlds. @reneecarrier12

I wanted to invite you into my writing cabin. Now go; I have to get back to work.