Life is Like a Book of Chapters

You can’t skip chapters–that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character.

You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. Longer.

You will read things you don’t want to read and have moments when you didn’t want the page to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours. Don’t miss out.

These are thoughts and advice I wrote with a single person in mind, but I think it sounds broadly applicable, like a graduation speech for English majors (and others—I just work most closely with English majors). It was not received well. It was received with some gnashing of teeth and some pleading, and I get that, but there was nothing I could do but try to avoid repeating myself and offer a hug.

The good news is that most of the chapters are good. Most move your plot forward and expand your perspective and add to your character.

Most characters you meet are wonderful; some are helpful without being wonderful, and some are wonderful without being helpful. But many are wonderful and also make your life easier or happier or more productive.

At times when the global or national narrative seems overwhelmingly tragic and frustrating, I need to remember that those sweeping narratives are made up of millions of individual narratives, and the individual stories are usually more satisfying and more easily controlled.

And boy, are they wonderful. I know a retired teacher who stays active by volunteering in her daughter’s elementary classroom. I know a librarian who helps everyone she meets find something they need, from law code to job listings to availability of audio books—even when she’s not working. I know people who bake for others, who volunteer at shelters, who march and protest peacefully so that others can reap the benefits. People who crochet for penguin chicks, who clean up beaches, who work on cars, who lead classes at historical sites, who tell stories and sing songs and create art and offer guidance and shelter and support. 

All of those people have their own stories. They each contain their own constellation of memories and skills and heartbreaks and jokes. And all those stories add up to our larger narratives, so that when one person feels like one chapter of this book is too hard to live through, too overwhelming, too disheartening, it helps to twist the telescope a bit and focus on the microcosm, where examples of good work—of goodness itself—abound.

 So you can tag out—slap a hand on your way out of the ring and go home and restore yourself. Look at smaller scale narratives where, no doubt, great things are happening. But you can’t bow out completely, because all of the stories connect at some point, and we need your little one to help weave the big one we all share.

This is starting to sound trite (some may argue with the “starting to,” even), so I’ll close. But for those who could do with a reminder, stay for your story. Hug it tight. Live it large. And thanks for making the tapestry more beautiful.


Welsh Dungeons and Finnish Dragons

Lucie wants to be a dragon when she grows up.

My kids play Dungeons and Dragons. It is the first thing they played together since the golden days of Star Wars Galactic Heroes invading Polly Pocket land, when they were about six and four. And it is glorious.

I had always thought, as a non-gamer-type, that those shelves of D&D books some of my friends had must have been full of rules and storylines. Otherwise, why would one need so many books? Then my kids started asking for Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals for holiday gifts. They’re not full of stories. They’re full of characters. You get to make up the stories.

My kids are all about stories.

The boyo started playing first, and when he brought in the girly, he helped her make her first character and get her head around the rules. It took hours, and it was adorable to watch. Her first character was a bard, and she wrote 20 different back stories, so she could roll a 20-sided die and tell a different version of herself to everyone she met.

The girly uses Finnish names when she’s making characters. When she was 7, and her principal suggested something to do about the “wonderful problem of your daughter” might be teaching her a foreign language after school, my daughter asked for Finnish. This probably has nothing at all to do with my reading her the Kalevala as a wee munchkin. The world will never know, really. But needless to say, I don’t speak Finnish, so that’s not what we did after school. But to her they sounded like magic, and they stuck. All the big players in the Kalevala have these long, thumping names: Vaїnӓmӧinen, Ilmarinen, Lemminkӓinen. They sound like a chant. She has never forgotten.

The boyo, who cut his teeth on fantasy video games and books, had hundreds of cool-sounding names at his fingertips. But when he wants to make a new character, he looks at Welsh stories. Welsh names are cool too: Pwyll. Culhwch. Blodeuedd. He may have run across a tattered copy of the Mabinogion in his youth. Realistically anything that looks hard to pronounce from Southern Californian English is fair game, but this is where they turn when they need to create.

Maybe before she grows up.

Because much of creating is starting from something and tweaking it. You have to have something to make art from. Sometimes it’s paint and canvas; sometimes it’s ink and paper; sometimes it’s Welsh folklore and a Character Sheet.

I’m thinking about creativity as I try to increase my output (summer is coming, after all). But it’s also creeping up on Mother’s Day, and I’ve been staring at my kids, being grateful for those quirky, wonderful humans, and marveling at how adorable they still are, even on the edge of adulthood.


A Summer Story

Today I am struck by the pathological need we have for stories. Maybe it’s just at our house, but a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry tells me it’s pretty universal.
It’s summer, and the last one before my eldest munchkin flies the coop, in whatever way he chooses to do so after graduation next year. He’s particularly keen to fill this summer with all the fun he possibly can, sure as he is that this is the end of an era, and from now on he’ll be working for the man, unable to have anywhere near this amount of fun ever again, so long as he lives. (I have not disabused him of this notion, at least not significantly.)
What he chooses to spend his time on, primarily, is stories. He plays video games with storylines (and his sister and dad play many of the same ones, so they often talk on our dog walks, for instance, about how far they are in whatever game, and who they’ve met and where their character is going).
He plays the fantasy game “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as the more sci-fi “Mutants and Masterminds.” We play board games, most of which have a story element to them. This summer has been dominated by “Betrayal at House on the Hill,” which offers multiple narratives, so the story is different each time.
And he reads. Some of the books he reads come from his games—like WarHammer 40K or Dungeons and Dragons, but lots of them don’t.
We don’t watch much television; in fact, I’ve watched more than anyone else, and I’m the one who loves to hate tv. But then I don’t play video games. When I do watch tv, I’m looking for interesting, well-developed characters, some I can identify with, and something new and funky that I can learn about, either from the setting or the character development. My last two ‘fixes’ have been set in Australia and the Carribbean, for instance, places I’ve never been.
The point is, when given a break, we have all in our various ways, stuffed our hours full of narratives. We have chosen stories over lots of other options for our summer. Some of the options have been taken off the menu this summer due to health and family issues, so maybe this is therapy. Yeah. That makes sense.
When we have down time–when we need down time–we fill our days and our minds with stories. And they seem to be all we need.  Both kids have commented on what a relaxing summer it’s been, despite the deaths of two family members and a mom in the hospital in the last few months.
They’re not wrong. The ability to escape to another world, whether we’re an active participant, as in a video game, or dragged along (swept away?) by a novelist or screenwriter, lets us come back to our own world refreshed.  Either we’ve seen how problems can be solved, or we’ve actively helped solve them. Either way, stories make us stronger, smarter. Better.

Viva summer.


Stones and Stories

Last week was my kids’ spring break, so we hopped in the car and drove to Utah, staying two nights in Bryce Canyon and two at Zion National Park.  My kids are teenagers in the 21stcentury, so by nature sedentary and attached to their computers and cell phones as if to IVs.  They are also my kids and Rob’s, so they have the added bonus of being bookish, imaginative, and mildly introverted (I totally was an introverted kid—I think I’ve grown up to be an ambivert, but I still LOVE my downtime, for anyone snickering), so they resist long adventures and would naturally choose to stay home and “chill” for spring break.  Unfortunately, for their short-term goals, I think it’s important to a) unplug, b) explore the natural world, and c) encounter and begin to understand the rest of the world.  Poor kiddos.

Bryce Canyon awoke my inner rock hound.  It is a geologist’s playground, and we soaked up both breathtaking vistas (literally—it’s roughly 9000 feet elevation, so the air was thin!) and scientific descriptions of the rock formations. “Hoodoo,” for instance, is the glorious term for the pillars of stone that form as the walls of limestone erode from walls to a line of individual spires. Of course we went to the geology talk with a ranger, where we learned about the eons of formation and erosion of the canyon as well as the strata of stone and mixture of minerals that make it so beautiful—pinks and oranges and reds of the stone against the green pine trees, the blue sky, and in April, the white snow.
But the best part for me was when he told us the legends.  He barely hinted, just teasing us with one story, really, that the Navajo told about Coyote luring all the bad guests to a spot where he promised them a banquet, but instead turned them all to stone. Those hoodoos, man. They look like people.
Because they form in rows, they look like lines of people, like families or groups of people interacting.  I usually have one eye on wildlife and find myself repeating “someone lives there” every time we see a cave or an obvious shelter that could be a den, but here I was muttering the whole time, “They look like people,” so I may have been smug when the ranger told us this tale. And I was struck by the common theme of hospitality, remembering my Odyssey, and my Beowulfand all the other tales that teach us about being good guests and hosts, “lest we entertain an angel unawares.”
Tolkien said “he sees no stars who does not see them first of living silver made that sudden burst…” (and some more great stuff, in my favorite poem, “Mythopoeia.”)  This was that kind of moment.  I could not see the stones as stones completely until I had my imaginative moment about them.  I know they’re masterpieces of sediment and erosion, but they look like people—people in line, people walking together, people with animals (some were shorter and decidedly canine-looking, or maybe I was getting carried away…).

I had a momentary affinity with those Navajo all those years ago, who looked and saw stories. I wasn’t expecting that.  Beauty, yes.  Nature, yes.  Geology, yes.  But not kinship.  That’s another reason to keep waking the kids up and shoving them in the car and dragging them out in to the beautiful world. 


This is a House of Stories

Uncle Gerry brought tiny tomatoes to the birthday barbecue. He’s been very well brought up, my mother would say.  He never comes to a meal without an offering.  I didn’t need anything in particular this time, so he surprised us.  When he drew them out of his tote, like Santa plucking toys from his bag, he didn’t give them to me, to put in a salad or set out as crudites.  He presented them to the kids, drawing them close with one arm in to a conspiratorial huddle, and asking them if they believe in The Little People. 

“You mean like gnomes, or like real dwarves?” asked the skeptical teen.  “The tiny people,” said the uncle of Norwegian extraction, “like the faery or the nisse.”
At this point, both kids, the skeptic and the dreamer, stated firmly, “Yes.”
Then he told how he gathered the cherry tomatoes from his garden, where he regularly witnesses acts of magic and wonder.  The tomatoes are tiny—half an inch in diameter for the big ones, and most a little smaller.  They look like fairy fruits. 
The kids started munching, but reverently, plucking the stems gently and looking appreciatively at each fruit before popping them in their mouths like a giant pops pumpkins. 

While they were happily chomping, Uncle Gerry put that arm around me and said, “I knew I couldn’t come in to this house without a story.”