Saturday, November 20, 2010

OUR FAMILY STORIES

I teach a creative writing class at Cheltenham Adult School near Philadelphia...It's incredibly gratifying, because you couldn't  find a more motivated group of students wedged into the desk chairs of a public highschool classroom.

Recently in class, we discussed the family stories we grew up with.  Did our families tell ancestor stories around the dinner table?  Was the atmosphere fogged by secrecy?  Did the chaos or conflict of the moment dominate conversation? How did the particular voices shape us and our writing?

In the years I've taught the class, our backgrounds and life experience have been about as different as you can imagine: Over-privileged, under-privileged, Black, White, Latino, physically challenged, highly educated, high- school educated. This semester we are joined by a sweet-faced seeing eye dog who rests on the floor, sometimes offering a sigh in response to the conversation.

As we talked about family stories, commonality emerged. The voices we heard as kids shaped us as people, found their way into our writing.  Some families spoke one language at home, but English at school. Within those shifts, sometimes deeper shifts demanded adaptation.  Street lingo shapes a kid's identity, but maybe it's forbidden at home. Someone else might have heard too much of it at home, wishing the grownups would talk more like grownups.  Those voices become part of how you think, how you see the world.  Was correct grammar a moral crusade in your household? Do you rely on the world being a formal, highly ordered place? (Those who know me know what I'm talkin' 'bout!)  If language was ever used against you as a weapon, what do you now believe about the power of words? And what if most of what you heard at home centered around the phrase "don't ask"?

More complicated, what if the message don't ask was never stated outright? Who'd you go to for information?  An aunt?  How does that shape your view of what it means to be close to someone?  Did you ever dig through anyone's desk, looking for the person who wouldn't reveal herself to you?  Were family relationships so chaotic that stories never saw the light of day, except in skirmishes?  Was a potential storyteller silent in your family, closing off part of your history?  Did stories remain at the level of anecdote, safe, avoiding territory potentially threatening to the family's view of itself?

Secrets.  Lies.  Lies disguised as truth.  How do you find the 'real' story about your family?  If that's not important to you, what stories have you created to shape your own identity? What stories are important to tell your spouse, your friends, your kids?  What's your "native" diction? In my case, it was highly formal: Two words I knew at a very young age were vulgar and impertinent (the latter often directed at me).

Our heads are full of running commentary--the interior monologue that dominates so much of our conscious life.  Family and friends reshape the monologue in relation to our history--the story of who we are changes all the time.

In my view, the really lucky ones get to explore these questions through their writing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

WHY I CAME BACK TO QUAKERISM

[News flash: the Odyssey lives to tote us around for at least another year. We hope. Parts were replaced.   Unless that recent, chugging noise when you turn on the ignition means something dire...]

Here's the real post:

A pastor at the Presbyterian church we attended a few years ago told me that he thought my interest in returning to the Quaker meeting of my youth had to do with authority: Quakers are anti-authority, he said. Since I had been abused by authority figures in my life, I was attracted to a place that didn't have leaders who, though perfectly fine men, made me feel threatened.

It's plausible, but I don't think it's accurate.  I find it interesting that the pastor assumed that some pathology or trauma lay at the root of my interest in Quakerism.  And did he think I found him threatening?  I didn't.

Actually, it's quite simple. I needed silence. Church was full of talk and restlessness. Stand up. Sing a hymn.  Sit down. Recite something. Listen to more talk. Go home, cogitate, and then tell someone what you got out of it.  Oh, and keep talking to your kids to make sure they 'get it.'

In actual fact, there was nothing wrong with that church. It's a perfectly fine way to conduct worship.  Cogito ergo sum.  Which looks weirdly (to one who failed Latin) like "cogito is the sum."  

For me, in that particular church, the talk was of an exhaustingly rational bent.  My verbal and reasoning capacity is already on "hyperactive hyperdrive," to quote Buzz Lightyear.   I get tired of walking around under my own head.

And as a fiction writer, it was beginning to dawn on me that words emerge from a well of silence.  That deeper part of my mind needed nurturing.  So I returned to Quakerism, which I had left behind in evangelical Christian zeal at age 19.

It's really that simple.  But I was afraid to talk about it on the blog because of how I would have responded years ago, with all good motives, to anyone who appeared to be rejecting my version of Christianity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

RIP Odyssey?

When I was little, cars smiled.  This made me happy.  I had no notion of what a "Ford" or a "Chevy" was.  I only cared about anthropomorphizing them.  The world was a picture book, and we drove from page to page. In our Ford. Or was it a Chevy?

No, this is not a picture of the family car.  Just a happy one, smiling at all the cute kids.  Being the Quakers they were, my parents had no interest in 'status' cars.  I think our then-car was a smiler, but I never looked at it, head-on, driving toward me.

Somewhere about 1962? cars started looking angry.

GRRRR!  Wipe that smile off your face!



As a kid I was convinced that manufacturers had done this deliberately...indeed, it's hard to find a straight-on view of an early 60's car.  Hmmm.  Maybe manufacturers decided that since they weren't marketing to kids, their product had better look like it knew how to mix martinis.



Fast forward through adolescence to the Ford Pinto, aka Doc.  It was my first car and as such was memorable.  To the right is the dinner theater version of Doc. The picture makes me think of someone acting the role of Robert De Niro, who's playing a loser who's pretending to be some cool mobster.


The real Doc wasn't shiny, and this pea soup color didn't age well.  Doc had an interesting problem, which will be the subject of the next QUIDDITY QUIZ!

Now to today.


Now THAT'S a car.  We've had our Odyssey since 2000, and for a while, it turned heads because these  were hard to obtain.  (It helps if you say you don't care what color you get.  We got white, the ugliest car color, except for that pea green.)  We've put almost 200k miles on the Odyssey.  It's well-designed, even down to a cool sunglass holder.  It's been barfed in, cried in, prayed in, driven by children (only on private property, you understand).  It's carried bicycles, Christmas trees, and a rescue dog (hence the barf) as well as a Tibetan monk in full regalia.

Two days ago I was on my way to a doctor's appointment.  Once the engine warmed up, the car started making that anxious noise that cars make when you try to drive in neutral.  I considered pulling in for an investigatory latte at a Starbucks, but decided not to. This was a mistake.  The van died five minutes later in traffic, at a red light. "Sounds like the transmission," my husband said when I called him.  "Sounds like the transmission," I told the tow truck guy.  "Transmission," I told our mechanic.  He looked impressed.

We're still waiting to hear the prognosis.  The thing is, I'm not ready to say goodbye.  I know it's a machine. It doesn't have feelings. But...not once in almost 11 years has this car complained.  It's carried us through hail and across national borders. In the same auspicious September a few years ago, it took my son to college and my daughter to her new school for 6th grade.

When I look at the Odyssey head-on, I can't say that it's smiling, but inside, tears and laughter are embedded in the upholstery.  Come on, baby. Get well.