In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
I have long known that if all the keyboards were to disappear off the face of the Earth my career would be over. I don’t know why, but the act of pushing words through a pencil onto a piece of paper has always been painfully difficult for me. Until I learned to type, my stories existed only inside my head.
But there is another physical ability I have been granted that helps with my writing almost as much as keyboards.
I can walk.
Yes, I know. That’s a bit like saying I can sing opera because I know how to fish.
But not quite.
Let me take today, for example. I have had a young-adult novel rummaging around in my head for several years now. More than just in my head. At one point I had almost 200 pages of it down.
And then I lost faith in what I was doing, put it aside, went on to something else.
A couple of years ago during a long car ride, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, brought up that novel I had laid aside. He hoped I would return to it. (To my astonishment, he could remember those almost-200 pages in more detail than I could.) I raised various objections. He raised various solutions. And then I nodded . . . and went on to work on other things.
But when someone you believe in believes in you, their belief becomes part of your own psyche. So that novel, the possibility of that novel has never gone away. Even though, when I moved to my new house, I gave away all my research books, the books I had read and highlighted and tabbed with sticky notes, it still didn’t go away. (“I’m never going back to that novel,” I told myself sternly as I filled grocery bags with “unnecessary” stuff.)
So guess where I am now, where I’m thinking about being anyway. Of course, back to that long-ago novel.
I’ve sorted through a number of solutions for the problems I was having. Experimented with a new form, found a new voice. But one question remained, and it kept flummoxing me.
The novel is set in 1968, a time that the story seems to need. But in the previous draft, for all my copious research I couldn’t quite get hold of the feel of that time.
Yes, I know I lived through that disastrous year. In 1968 I was 30, in fact, and should have been very much present. But I was a mommy, my life completely absorbed by babies. The world happened someplace else. Someplace I paid little attention to. What I did experience that year occurred at such a distance—partly because of those babies, partly because of my own capacity to turn inward and let the world fly by—that little registered.
Which leaves me dependent on research to reinvent what so many know in their bones!
Not an enviable task.
And it leaves me using an old brain to try to hold the myriad events of 1968 against my characters’ personal struggles.
Just thinking about repeating all that discarded research, about trying to coordinate the complexity of that time with my story, leaves me feeling cross-eyed.
So I came back to it all again today. I let it bang around in my head for a while and got nowhere. “Dump it again!” I told myself. “Go on to something else,” I said. Though I have nothing else in my mind to go on to at the moment.
Finally I gave myself an order, the one I usually deliver at such moments.
GO FOR A WALK!
And I did.
I don’t know what it is about walking. The snow lay deep and untouched across the frozen lake I circled. The air was crisp and fresh. The rhythm of my steps brought every cell of my body alive.
And every cell of my brain.
By the end of the walk, by the time I emerged from the trees and could see the cheerful red of my car waiting for me in the parking lot, I had a solution. It’s a bit odd, this solution my feet beat out of the asphalt path, but it might work.
And when I sit down tomorrow, if it doesn’t?
Well, I’ll go for a walk again. There is nothing like it for getting my writing under control.
I am enormously grateful for my keyboard. Always have been, always will be.
But, oh, I am even more grateful for my feet!
I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the Boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides. But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox? And he stared out at ocean and said “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” And every day, in some little way, I tried to do what he said. I tried to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I’m never disappointed.
“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.
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.