Category Archives: Writing

Both Science and Story

campfire

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

“The border is porous.  Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth.  But the value of knowledge remains.”

That statement is part of a passage I returned to again and again in my multiple readings of a fascinating book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli, in that passage, talks first about “the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.”  Then he moves on to speak of “the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow traces of.”

“The confusion,” he adds, “between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.  The separation is a subtle one:  the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in the night’s storytelling.”

We need both, he says, but he concludes with, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

That statement stuck in my head.  “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

And that is the power of science.  It is what science accomplishes that storytelling cannot.  It can fill our bellies with real antelope meat.

My father was a chemist, a brilliant man, but so much a concrete thinker that, when I embarked on an English literature major in college, he asked, “What is there to learn?”

For him story was merely plot.

That story and science can co-exist—must co-exist if we are to survive in this bewildering world—never occurred to him.  Thus, I have spent much of my life proving the story side of the equation, leaving science for others to attend to.

(I have been glad enough, though, to feast on the conspicuous rewards science has brought into the world over the eight decades of my life.)

But story and science are coming together for me these days.  I am intrigued by the insights I can glean—meager as they are, because my understanding is so limited—from quantum physics.  Science is telling us what mystics have told us for centuries, that we are part of everything and everything is part of us.

An insight that moves me profoundly, one that inhabits my soul and changes me in deep, invisible ways.

And that’s the way story works, too.  We don’t just read stories or listen to them.  We live them.  And in the living, we are, inevitably, transformed.

Yes, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”  And eating is not just necessary to our survival.  It is profoundly good.

How grateful I am to the minds that have fed me in so many ways, like bringing me the computer that is capturing and disseminating my words today.

As I am grateful to those who have made my life larger through story.

The two co-exist, informing one another, supporting one another, and that is one of the greatest blessings of being alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that we can honor both science and story.

No Answer at All

war

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

The last time I wrote here was New Years’ Eve, and I found myself musing on war, on the privilege of having lived a life essentially untouched by war.  There have been so many other privileges, too, privileges I have too often taken for granted.  But that one, the one in which I have never had to take shelter from bombs and marauding armies, in which I have never had to give someone I loved to the slaughter, is one I have always held close.

I can remember the moment when it occurred to me that World War II, the war being waged when I came into consciousness, the one I used to play out in games with my brother, was actually taking place in other children’s back yards.  The thought filled me with amazement . . . and horror.

How did those children survive? I wondered.  Not just physically, but in their hearts.  Even when the bombing ended, even when the invading armies were called home, how did those unfortunate children move forward into a world in which they had endured such brutality?

I thought myself blessed then because I was an American.  Because my country was set apart from those wars by oceans and by a mix of strength and some kind of essential “goodness.”  We might go off to help others with their wars, because we were the kind of people who did such things, but who would ever dare attack us?  And certainly we would never start a war ourselves!

Oh, how the decades that have followed have disproven my naïve belief!  Especially my conviction that there is some kind of implicit American morality.

According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the military spending of the United States in 2018 alone totaled $649 billion.  In fact, we spent 2.6 times as much as second-place China.

My country stands only slightly lower than the next nine countries in that hierarchy of military spending combined.  And most of those nine are on our side of the fence, the fence between ally and enemy that is being drawn at the moment!

What on Earth—and I do mean what on Earth—are we buying with all those hard-earned taxes?

For one thing, we are buying nearly 800 military bases that we maintain in foreign countries.  (And that is after closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  That’s more bases outside our own borders than any other nation has maintained in all of history!

What are they for except to dominate, to control?

The recognition of my own country’s domineering ways have come to be an ache I carry in my heart every single day.  An ache I can find no way to dispel.

I attend meetings where we gather in support of peace, and I appreciate the gatherings and the passionate people who work so hard to inform us.  Occasionally I even pick up a placard and march with a few other old ladies.  But both activities tend to leave me feeling enervated, hopeless.

Those who are willing to speak for peace are so few.  So few and so powerless.

I have long understood that given the way our system works it is not possible to elect a leader who genuinely stands for peace.  Neither political party has any interest in or loyalty to concept.

I am a children’s writer, and what does a children’s writer do?  Tell children that war is evil?  Tell them that it contaminates everyone it touches, victor and vanquished alike?  Tell them what has already been said many times, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?

Yes, of course, I’ll say it, but I’ll say it knowing that my saying and their hearing will change nothing, not for them, not for those other children around the world whose homes and lives are being torn apart, too often with my government’s complicity.

We move into a new year, a new decade in a new year, and my questions move with me.

Again and again I’ll ask myself, “How do I write against militarism, against war?  How do I write for peace without repeating enervated truisms?  How do I take on these most important of all topics, knowing my words will change nothing?”

I have no answer, no answer at all, except to know that I—that we all—must try.

A New Decade

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Here we stand, waiting for the old year to dissolve beneath our feet and for the new one to arrive with all its breathless uncertainty.

2020!  It’s hard to imagine a number like that.

I remember sitting in an elementary school classroom where the teacher was, for some reason I can no longer recall, talking about the distant day when we would make the turn into the 21st century.  I don’t remember why she was talking about it, but I do recall what I thought in response.

“The 21st century!  I’ll never live that long!”

I don’t suppose I did the math to support my musing.  I was, after all, only sixty-one when the 21st century descended upon us, an age that seems young now, though it wouldn’t have seemed young when I was sitting in that classroom.  I just know that the idea of moving into a new century seemed extremely unlikely.

And so today we stand on the doorstep of the second decade in the 21st century, and I find myself thinking that entering the decade that will follow—2030—seems about as unlikely as the 21st century did when I was a child.

It’s not that I’m planning not to be here.  This past year when I was offered a mortgage with a ten-year balloon I said, emphatically, “There’s no way I’m going to sign something that tells me I have to die by the time I’m 90!”

Rather I’m acutely aware these days of the fragility of my existence, of all existence really, but especially that of a woman who has a firm hold on her eighties.

I’m also aware, and more so every day, of the deep, deep privilege in which I have lived my life.  The privilege of my white skin.  The privilege of growing up in a home in which the importance of learning was so taken for granted that I absorbed learning with the milk I drank and the air I breathed.  The privilege, the amazing privilege considering the wars my country has been involved in all my life, of living a life virtually untouched by war.

Concerning that last, I have come to understand that my life has been played out in a golden bubble.  I . . . have . . . been . . . untouched . . . by . . . war!

My father received his notice to report for military service in World War II on the day after the birthday that made him too old for the draft.  My former husband was in Korea, but only after the “conflict” was no longer being played out with bombs and guns.  My son was a toddler when the draft closed on the Vietnam War.

And, most miraculous of all—read Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner to see just how miraculous—we haven’t yet been decimated by one of the nuclear bombs we ourselves brought into the world!

A golden bubble and an unlikely one!

Every time I look back and muse on the privilege of my life, I can’t help but also look forward to the lives my grandchildren have yet to live.  How can I not feel responsible for the world that is waiting for them?  Yet, like most of the adults of my generation, I have cared, I have always, always cared, and I have never stopped trying to make a difference.  And my caring and my trying have never been enough.

So here I stand at the doorway of 2020, acutely aware both of my lifetime of privilege and of a world crumbling in too many ways to count.  I despise those messages too often handed down to the young.  “Well, guys, seems like we messed up.  Now it’s up to you to fix it!”

It was up to me to fix it, too, and I could not, no matter how hard I tried.

My grandchildren are such valiant souls.  Every one of them.  But I don’t expect them to be able to “fix it,” either.

So what is the message for a new decade in a century I never thought to see?  A message mostly for myself, because my grandchildren, I know, are too busy with their lives to be listening.

Maybe just this.  This day, this very day, is sacred.  Live into it.  Live into the day and the day after that and the next decade, too.  And, if it is granted, the decade after that.

Because the deepest privilege of all is life itself, a privilege even when we are not able to live up to it.

A blessed New Year to every one of us!

Loss and Possibility

Photo by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash

It’s a conversation I’ve heard many times.  What a terrible thing it is to be losing the physical book, words printed on paper!  What a terrible thing it is that people don’t write letters any more, words printed on paper!

And always I listen and think, “Yes, yes, of course.  It’s always hard to lose the familiar.  If we are, indeed, losing it, which hasn’t been proven yet.”  And then I think, “But . . .”

Part of my “but” comes simply out of my determination not to think and act like the old lady I am.  Just because something is new, just because it is different, surely doesn’t mean it is bad.  Does it?  I mean, oldsters like me have been condemning the young for their reckless ways since the beginning of time.  And how much change has that prevented?

(Maybe more than we know, but ultimately change keeps happening.)

When it comes to books, certainly I love physical books the way other oldsters do, the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of the paper, the way my books look on the shelf.  I would be sad if one of my publishers decided to bring out my next book only in an electronic format.  Having a physical object to hold proves that this product of my mind now actually exists in the world.

And yet the vast majority of my own book purchases are electronic.  Why?

Partly, I’ll admit, because electronic purchases are so easy.  I can read a review or have a book referred by a friend and, zap! . . . it’s in my hands.  Instant gratification!  And I can even order it up as a sample before making a final decision about the purchase.

Partly because I’ve simply run out of space for more books on the shelf.  Along with another advantage for having a library that doesn’t require space.  I love being able to carry one small tablet or even my phone with me wherever I go and have whatever I’m reading or will soon want to read at hand.

Partly because electronic books are easy to read.  I don’t have to have the correct light.  My electronic books make their own light.  And I can have whatever size type I prefer.

Partly because it’s so easy to highlight passages I want to remember and then to return to them.

Partly, I’ll admit, because that’s the way the world is going, and in this respect at least, I don’t want to be left behind.

And is any of that bad?  Or are some of us just so committed to the way things used to be that we can’t let the good in just because it is a new and different good?  Or even if we let it in, we feel obligated to complain about it.

I feel the same about the constant complaints I hear about people not writing “letters” any longer.

When my grandchildren want to communicate with me they usually text.  When my friends and I are making plans, we rarely pick up a phone.  We email.  I wonder if there has ever been a time when people used writing more.

Yes, of course, texts and emails can be hurried and slipshod.  But I’d guess in the days before the telephone when mail was delivered multiple times a day and penned notes were used for all kinds of daily communication, few of those notes were literary gems.

Most of my emails, I know, are as carefully thought through as any letter I ever wrote during my letter-writing days.  Better for the fact that I can so easily go back and revise before I hit send.

So I can’t help but wonder if our nostalgia isn’t misplaced.

I used to know a number of writers who wrote their first drafts by hand.  They said that in order to create they needed the feel of the pen, the slide of the hand against paper.  And I’m sure they did.

It happens that I never needed that.  I have some kind of motor deficiency that makes writing by hand difficult for me.  In fact, if all the keyboards—typewriter or computer—were to disappear off the face of the earth, my career would be over.

Yet I understand that other people’s creativity might demand a different sensory experience than fingers tapping keys.

The interesting thing, though, is that for many years now I haven’t heard a fellow writer say that she writes her first draft by hand.  Probably some still do, but I’m pretty sure their number is diminishing.

The world changes.  Some changes bring loss.  But even in the midst of loss, many bring great possibility.

Even when those losses touch our own most tender places.

Nothing wrong with lamenting the loss, but opening to possibilities is so much more fun.

On Staying Alive

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, noticing the elements of my day that bring me joy, that wake me into aliveness.

The waking isn’t automatic.  I don’t open my eyes each morning to say, “Wow!  Another day!”  Rather, I wake into an ordinariness I treasure.  (How aware I am of standing close to a time when I will, inevitably, look back on this very ordinariness as golden.)

I wake, get up, dress, meditate and exercise, then gather myself a lovely breakfast.  A spinach-bacon omelet this morning with homemade guacamole tucked inside, grapefruit topped with a sprinkle of granola, and a chai latte.

Then I settle into my study, surrounded by books, by reminders of Vermont College of Fine Arts where I once taught, by photos of my family and beloved friends, and I dive into my computer.

That’s what it feels like most days, this thing that happens when I sit down to the computer, a deep dive.

And in that immersion I come most fully alive.

Sometimes the dive is into very cold water.  Can I do it again?  Is what I’m doing even worth the attempt?  What in the hell is wrong with this manuscript?

What in the hell is wrong with me?

In the balance between sitting down to do again this thing I know for certain I can do and tiptoeing out over the abyss of something I’ve never tried before, I tend to favor the tiptoeing.  Which sounds nice in the telling of it, but the living of it can be as eerily uncomfortable as the language of this analogy.

It is, however, the very tension that comes with stepping out over the abyss that keeps me knowing I am alive.  I have encountered people who thrive on the adrenaline that comes with jumping out of planes.  That kind of rush does nothing for me.  When I went whitewater rafting to research a long-ago novel, I spent the entire three days imitating an oily puddle in the bottom of the raft.

But the challenge that comes with learning something new, struggling to put it into words!  That is a whole different kind of adrenaline.  And a whole different kind of aliveness.  At least for me.

Recently, I have been trying to create a picture book that could be a worthy companion to my most recent The Stuff of Stars.  I have been working on it for months.

My first attempt turned out to be too like the original.

My next couple of attempts bemused both my agent and my editor.

This attempt . . . well, this attempt . . .

A friend recently passed a quote on to me.  It was Kim Stafford quoting a jazz musician.  He said, “Creative people are comfortable with not knowing . . . yet.”

I would say that “comfortable” is too strong a word for me, much too strong.  I’m not the least bit comfortable with not knowing where this attempt will land, but I’m committed to finding out.

I’m tiptoeing over this particular abyss because I read a book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.  I read the book three times, in fact, and still keep pulling it out and dipping into it again.  Because I fell in love.

I fell so hard that I set out to write something to be shared between an adult and a very young child, words based on the mysterious excitement I draw from my first real encounter with quantum physics.

I know.  I know.  Of course, I don’t understand quantum physics.  I don’t pretend that I do.  I have no meaningful background in science at all.  But the description of a universe that comes into being through interaction, in which reality is a happening and we are a happening too, in which we are part of everything and everything is part of us thrills me.

It’s that kind of challenge . . . and that kind of excitement that wakes me into aliveness each day.

And keeps me writing!