Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Accidents of Birth Redux

Below is part of my most popular blogpost. (Okay, we're not talking viral here.)  I wrote it the day William and Kate got married, but it applies as well to the newest member of the royal family. Forgive the recycling. 

When I was teaching at a community college in east San Jose, California, my classes were mostly made up of first and second-generation immigrants—from Vietnam and Mexico, Central America, Africa, the Middle East. A fair number were not yet citizens.  Some may have been illegal. I had no way of knowing and didn’t much care.

Discussions in my Critical Thinking classes often wandered, or maybe came down to, the topic of birth.  Many students believed, or found it expedient to say, that America was the greatest country in the world.  Some had risked their lives to get here. If their parents both worked two jobs to keep food on the table, if they themselves worked nights and weekends while going to school, that was temporary, a small price to pay.  Eventually they would be every bit as American as, say, George Bush.

Occasionally a student—one in particular, I remember, was from Palestine--suggested that he would never be considered truly American by people who were born here. And for this reason his opportunities—it took a lot of courage to say this—might be more limited. Some students, usually also immigrants, were enraged by comments like this. People who never spoke in class raised and waved their hands until I called on them.  My native students, especially the white ones, typically kept quiet.  I don’t know if they feared the speaker was right, or looking into their own hearts, knew he was.

In the interests of transparency, in Critical Thinking classes especially, I made it a policy during the first class session to out the most general of my views on life, the universe, and everything. After that, however, I tried hard to keep them to myself.  Discussions about birth and human value almost always drove me to break my rule. “Who decides where and in what circumstances we’re born?” I said at least once a semester. “Who deposited me in the body of a white baby girl with a particular set of parents in mid-twentieth-century Sacramento, California, USA?”

Usually about half the class replied in unison: “God.”

“Okay,” I said, “maybe so, but does that have anything to do with what I deserve from life, how comfortable or uncomfortable I ought to be, how happy I am?  Did God choose my birth based on my virtues?”

Some confusion here, but most students ultimately agreed that we get what we work for, that life, starting from birth, not from some nebulous place before birth, is a meritocracy—just like the United States of America. I don’t believe that for a second, but I didn’t go down that road.

“So we have no business pretending that we’re inherently better than others or less than others based on the details of our birth?”

Hesitant agreement. 

“What if you don’t believe in God, or at least not in a god who’s the Big Master Planner? Doesn’t that mean that where you’re born, who your parents are, all that stuff, is just random, a crap shoot?”

Occasionally a student brought up karma and reincarnation at this point, and I invited her to explain those ideas to us. 

I never let this discussion go on too long.  Luck—and that’s what this is all about—is a deal-breaker for some, the first domino that knocks the rest down.  I had good reasons in a class like Critical Thinking to be luck’s temporary spokesperson, but I didn’t want to jar that first domino. “All I’m saying is that the circumstances of our births may be accidental, and even if they aren’t, unless we had previous lives--" I nodded to any Hindu or New Age proponents—“our births say nothing about our fundamental value. We don't earn them.”

If this discussion changed the direction or tenor of my classes, I couldn’t pretend then, can’t pretend now, to say exactly how.  But I remember this morning, as Kate and William's son lines up to become  the King, that his birth was an accident, too.  Does he deserve all that will come to him? No. Do I? No. Does a child born today in the Congo or Bangladesh or Rio’s favelas? Probably not, but those new babies matter as much as the royal baby boy.

Here’s where I go off the rails.

Those children matter more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bearing the Unbearable--Cheryl Strayed
I just got back from Fishtrap, where this year's impressive line-up of teachers and speakers included Cheryl Strayed. I didn't much like her memoir, Wild. On the other hand, I loved her novel Torch, in which she carefully told an utterly convincing story about the effects on a family of a mother's death. 

I would have been curious about Strayed whether I'd read her books or not, fascinated as I am by her triumphal facebook posts. Over the last year these have announced the purchase of a new home, trips all over the world, and have featured endless photos of Strayed with her arm around other writers of note.

Some people collect gossip about musicians and actors and politicians. I do some of that too, I guess, but more often I follow writers, to see how they manage their lives, to guess if there's something in them deeper than the self-promotion that's so necessary now, to decide whether they're writing to understand the world or to make their name in it, to figure out all those things about myself. I have changed my mind about Cheryl Strayed's character weekly, so I looked forward to last Friday's keynote speech with no small interest.

I have rarely seen a woman with so much self-confidence. Strayed swept into a room of hiking boots and Birkenstocks wearing a black cocktail dress and holding a spiral notebook of index cards, which she flipped through inconspicuously while giving her speech. I wondered if the index cards were different when she talked to writers rather than to the general public. It seemed to me that she had some points she particularly wanted to make to us, the 150 or so people crowded together in the hall/cafeteria/common room we spend so much time in at Fishtrap. Maybe confidence helped her project that desire for a personal connection.

As far as I was concerned, she began badly. Writing, Strayed said, is a lot like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This metaphor seemed so forced that I was sure, after listening to Strayed for 30 seconds, that I wouldn't learn a thing from her. But I kept listening. The room was so packed that I couldn't have fought my way out of it anyway.

The PCT stretches from Mexico to Canada, and Strayed covered a lot of it. She was drawn to that long, strenuous hike in the same way she was drawn to writing. She had to exert herself to walk the PCT just as she had to write--no matter what. So she bought the correct hiking equipment and flew from Minnesota to the Mojave Desert, where she spread her stuff out on the bed of a motel room and packed all of it into a new backpack. She put on her brand new hiking boots and would have walked out the front door except that she couldn't lift the pack. She'd imagined sunsets and birdsong and a soundtrack of the kind of music you hear when you get a massage, but she met with pain and exhaustion. The first few days were hell. The whole experience was really, really hard.

One step at a time she surrendered to the discomfort of aching, bleeding feet and skin rubbed raw by the straps of her pack and kept moving ahead. When she writes, she says, she forces herself to surrender daily to her own mediocrity. She learned to write through reading--she mentioned her MFA mentor Mary Gaitskill as well as Alice Munro--but when she sat down to produce something equally fascinating, she didn't. All she could do to solve that problem was keep going. "The only thing worse than writing a novel that sucks," she decided, "is not writing a novel."

Surrender not only to your mediocrity, she said, but to the story only you can tell, your truest truth, the truth only you can offer. If you begin with what's true, you'll end with what's truer. Speak from your "burning core." Strayed's core story has been the death of her mother at 45 of cancer. Strayed has written about it in order to bear it. Her writing explores "how to bear the unbearable"--acute loss, the heaviest of all backpacks. "Art is the consciousness we bring to our lives."

From her iPad, Strayed read a letter written in 1938 by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a young writer named Frances Turnbull:

You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly . . . This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.  

Be vulnerable, Strayed also said. Your readers will love you for it. "Get used to being in the company of fear." The mail she has received from readers of Wild has been overwhelmingly positive. Only a few have objected to her episodes of sex and drug use because, she believes, she has been so honest about them.  Her friend, writer Steve Almond, said during a class I took from him in April that Strayed practices radical exposure--I think that was the phrase--and I have to admit that I sometimes welcomed Strayed's revelations and sometimes didn't. I was often uncomfortable for what I thought was no good reason. If you want to sample radical exposure a la Strayed without tackling one of her books, take a look at an essay she wrote for The Sun called "The Love of My Life."

In the end, I wondered if I could ever value my own experience enough to expose it with such missionary zeal. I'd rather bring my emotions to bear in fiction. As to Strayed's character, I think she believed every word she said. She would have written Wild just as she did if Oprah Winfrey didn't exist. I admire that. And she convinced me that writing a book about your core story is like hiking for hundreds of miles in new boots carrying a heavy pack. It's really, really hard.