The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

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Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!

 

 

Great American Read

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Summer is the time for reading. There is nothing better on a lazy, hot day than to loll around in a hammock or beach chair and plow through a stack of good books. I favor more light-hearted reads and thrillers in the summer, but in the past, the summer was the only time I could master a tome such as War and Peace.

PBS is kindling an interest in literature through its program “The Great American Read.” Through a survey of random readers, it has culled a list of the most popular 100 books (or series) in America and is asking everyone to vote on their favorites. A series of television specials on PBS will explore people’s love affairs with the written word, and on October 23, the results of the survey will reveal the most beloved book or book series of all.

One of the things I love about reading is that it inspires conversation. I had been unaware of “The Great American Read” until my brother brought it up at a family dinner. What ensued was an animated discussion of various books. When Gone With the Wind came up, there was disagreement about whether it was a great novel. One sibling averred that it was a false and racist depiction of the South and America during the Civil War. Another countered that you can’t change history and that that was the prevailing sentiment in the South when the book was written in 1936.

The 100 book list is certainly diverse – not at all a snobby English teacher’s syllabus. I was personally appalled that Fifty Shades of Grey made the cut. I’m not a prude, but the writing style is atrocious. I couldn’t get through more than a chapter before I fell over laughing. On the other hand, some of my favorite novels are on the list: Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, To Kill a Mockingbird. And popular series such as Harry Potter,  The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones show that the list has mass appeal.

The list of 100 favorite novels for “The Great American Read” is posted on pbs.org. You can vote for your favorites every day from now until the final results are tabulated in October. You can also find out how many of America’s favorite books you’ve actually read. I was disappointed to find out I’ve only read 43 of the 100. I guess I’d better hop in that hammock and get cracking!

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

Measure for Measure

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William Shakespeare knew his Bible. His dark comedy Measure for Measure uses the words of Luke to fashion a tale of sin, hypocrisy, and justice. In the play, the emphasis is more upon getting one’s just deserts in a negative sense. The character who condemns others for their sins also stands condemned for the same sin. Yet at the very end, Shakespeare affords its hypocritical character something truly God-like: mercy.

The words of Luke 6:38 are really about extravagant giving. So often we as humans are worried about having enough – money, time, attention etc. We hoard what we have or give only from our excess. It is really hard – and takes a lot of faith – to give until it hurts.

I like to think of myself as a generous person. I give to charity, try to be kind to strangers, and consider myself a good friend, especially in times of need. Yet I know that I often begrudge the time I spend on others. I may smile and offer to help, but later I can be found complaining about someone’s neediness or constant requests for help. And my donations to causes don’t really cause appreciable distress for materially.

I want to learn to give with extravagant love, not counting the cost. I want to lose myself in service to others. I want to embrace the unloved and the seemingly unlovable. But I’m often afraid or tired or discouraged – even, at times, annoyed. It’s a sad truth of the human condition that we are first and foremost concerned with our own survival. Or to paraphrase a famous saying, “To hoard is human, to give divine.”

Many years ago, I learned of a local family who had lost all of their worldly possessions in a fire. The family had young children, so I asked my daughter if she would be willing to donate one of her toys to a little girl who had lost all of hers. My daughter selected a beloved Little Mermaid “Barbie” to give. Almost from the moment the doll left our house, my daughter had “giver’s remorse.” Although she had several Barbies, Ariel was her favorite. My young child instinctively knew how to give until it hurt.

As we approach the days when we commemorate the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it’s good to reflect upon what self-abnegating love we can share with others in our lives, knowing that “the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

The Magical World of Children

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Children’s literature and films are rife with stories about magic: from ancient fairy tales to the 1,001 Nights to modern day blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series. A world in which magical things can happen appeals to the imagination of children in part because of their natural wonder at a world that seems big and mystifying.

Thus the appeal of the magical worlds described in such works as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Magic Treehouse series, to name just a few. Although these fantasy worlds can be scary at times, they are also filled with such wonders as a chocolate river, talking animals, caves filled with gold and the like. It’s no surprise that in Alice in Wonderland, the titular character is nodding off with boredom during a history lesson when she spies a mysterious white rabbit and follows him down a hole into Wonderland. Charlie Bucket of Chocolate Factory fame also longs to escape a rather poor and dreary existence by entering the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.

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Indeed, magic in children’s stories serves as a form of wish fulfillment. For instance, in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a group of siblings discover a magic coin that they use to make wishes, to both comical and disastrous effect when they realize the coin will only grant half of their wish. Their adventures serve as a diversion from their life with a strict nanny and absent parents. Similarly, in the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the main characters are poor young men who find riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Many characters in children’s literature use magic to escape terrible childhoods. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan being raised by a pair of abusive aunts when he discovers said peach, climbs aboard, and escapes his tormentors. The same is true for young Harry Potter, who is forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle after his own parents are killed. When dozens of owls bombard Harry with invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it’s a dream come true. In C.S. Lewis’s iconic Narnia series, the children are escaping the fears of a world at war and the loneliness of being separated from their parents. For the children of A Wrinkle in Time, magic is a way to save and bring home their missing father. All these works speak to the normal fears and anxieties of children, for whom the world is often a scary and confusing place. And they give children something that may be missing in their own childhoods: hope.

Children especially seem to love books that take the whole magic story line one step further: that is, the children themselves discover their own magical powers. Matilda, another Roald Dahl classic, features a young girl whose powers help her overcome negligent parents, nightmare teachers, and schoolyard bullies. In Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned children with extraordinary powers discover their origins and the place where they truly belong.

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And, of course, there is Harry Potter, the main character in one of the most beloved series of books ever written. Harry discovers that he is a wizard and that there are many other children who have the same types of powers he has puzzled over for years. Over seven books, Harry Potter enters the world of Hogwarts, faces unimaginable perils, and learns to use his powers for good.

The success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from her keen awareness of the tribulations of childhood. For children, whose world is largely beyond their own control, the idea that they may have it within themselves to escape their fears, shortcomings, and circumstances is a powerful one indeed. As Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon in The Lightning Thief, puts its, “The real world is where the monsters are.”

 

 

 

On Writing

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I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s newest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. In it, Tan describes the inner workings of her process as a writer. She details the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties that accompany a writer’s life.

I have always considered Amy Tan one of my most admired writers. Her stories of motherhood, childhood loss, and the Chinese experience are deeply moving and, it would appear, deeply felt by Tan herself. Indeed, she describes how her life experiences have informed her fiction, sometimes at a subconscious level.

It’s a writing cliche to say, “Write what you know.”  For Amy Tan, that dictum seems to hold true. While her stories play out in other times and places, the emotional themes of love and loss reflect the tragedies Tan experienced in her own life.

Over the past three years, I have merely dipped my toe into the writing life. My twice weekly blog posts have helped me express my beliefs, vent on politics, and, most importantly, delve into my past and present life experiences. Like Tan, my urge to write comes from a need to explore and make sense of the joys and tragedies in my life in order to understand myself better.

It also helps to realize that a successful and critically acclaimed writer such as Tan struggles mightily with her writing. She dissects every sentence and discards whole chapters – sometimes even whole novels – in an effort to write something worthwhile.

The writing life is a solitary and difficult one, one without many signposts to show the writer she is on the right path. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages artists to press ahead, creating and expressing themselves on a daily basis no matter what, knowing that the jewel of a good idea will emerge if we can push past resistance and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity.

As a new year approaches, I plan to use the insights of Amy  Tan to renew my writing efforts and to learn how to use adversity to inform my work in a deep and meaningful way.