Rambling on Story

In China. photo by Mary Dessein
I have a pale dusty-blue gauze curtain in my writing room window, which allows me to look out yet not be readily seen, lets daylight in, and makes a wee bit of a buffer for the cold air in winter.

In wondering what to launch my writing with today, I figured I’d look at one of the many blogs I have started, that await completion. Then I looked up at my curtain and there in the wrinkly texture of the fabric, I saw the word, ‘Story.’ On a forty-five degree slant down from left to right, in a jaggedy font, I saw ‘Story.’ Like a shape in the clouds, no one else may be able see it, but I did.

How cool is that? There were stories at the Board meeting this a.m., a friend has stories to tell me about the wild City Council meeting on Tuesday, always Story. My podcast co-host and I caught up our stories with each other yesterday at the radio station. The Jimmy Webb song I’m learning, Wichita Lineman, is a story and the life of the song itself is a plethora of stories. Most songs are stories.

Country music legend, Harlan Howard’s quote that “a great country song is three chords and the truth,” is oft-repeated. Harlan was interested in story early on, being an avid reader since childhood and having “an ear for a telling phrase.”

A friend told me that some in her book club thought one of the novels by T. Coraghessan Boyle, who has won more awards than I have fingers and toes, was implausible because that much bad cannot happen to one person. So for stories to be believable do they have to be similar to our own, or something we can relate to? Like the Syrian family who’s boat capsized as they fled for their lives across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Greece, leaving the young father to see his three year old son’s body washed up on shore in Turkey, later to find his wife and other son had also drowned? Many of us saw that on the news, and were not only stunned but grateful that story was not our own. The stars in the sky are easier to count than the scenarios that fit into the “how did they ever live through that?” category.

Story – contains our humanity, recalls it, records it, and reminds us of our own.
“I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name.”

Story. It all comes back to story, often with questions. Is the story true? How could that be? What is the human component? If the actual story isn’t provably true, the story is the vehicle for the human truth contained within it. Such as Ananzi the spider smashing a gourd on the ground, which releases all the common sense stored in the gourd out into the world; an explanation for the truth, if you will, being that some people have common sense, while others appear to have little.

As a professional storyteller, after I would perform in elementary schools, often students came up to me with seeking eyes to ask, “Is that true?” Animal tricksters, gossiping trees, tall tales, legends. I would answer, “There is truth in every story I tell. Flying donkeys may not actually exist, however, there is a lesson or an element that is true that we need to know. That’s why we tell stories that are thousands of years old: they contain human truths that we need to hear.”

Is fiction really fiction? Arguably, yet it contains human truths that we need. That’s why there are best-sellers, be they romance, detective, historical, fantasy, thrillers, super-heroes, or westerns. We crave those truths, and are intrigued, interested, or captivated to observe characters going through all the machinations to get to them, while we safely turn the pages. Granted, some truths are really difficult to accept. A recurring theme for me, I’ll be coming back to this concept. Truth – belief – choice.

“I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name.
I fall to pieces, time only adds to the flame.”
Ah, Harlan and his three chords.

Wrinkle in Reality

Photo by Mary Dessein
A wrinkle in time. Sure, I’ve had one of those… okay, several of them. One fold happens when I look at the framed photo of my eighteen-month old curly-topped son hanging in my hallway. Then I realize he and I haven’t talked in three weeks. Oh yeah, he lives 2,500 miles from me and is thirty-five years old. My starz.

My wrinkles are not as remarkable as Madeleine L’Engle’s. Even though it was fun to remind my son of when I drove with he and his dad to Portland, Oregon when he was about four years old in order to hear Madeleine speak, he didn’t remember the trip or Madeleine L’Engle. However, it was a lovely reminder for me of the seats we had up in the curved balcony in a huge old church to see her, to hear her talk about her father’s health condition and her spending time as a little girl living in a castle in Europe. Remarkable is barely the beginning to describe her.

Ava DuVernay’s recent movie version of A Wrinkle in Time is worth seeing. It is as much about love, family, loyalty, community, belief in one’s self, and tenacity as it is about science fiction and interplanetary space travel.

In part, what launches A Wrinkle in Time is an inadvertent consequence, an unpredicted result to a pursued goal (Dr. Alex Murry, who is the main character, Meg’s father, achieves his goal of finding the tesseract and successfully tessering, however he gets trapped on a planet far away and cannot escape.) Oh my, I’ve had one or two of those unpredicted results. Haven’t you? Such as getting the promotion then getting transferred and having to leave all the co-workers who helped you get it and whom you trust. Or bringing your spouse with you to volunteer at the Food Bank, who then falls in love with one of the other volunteers, and a year later you find yourself divorced. I know, I know, “one door closes and another one opens;” and the ever popular “life presents us with opportunities for personal growth.” I do endorse those beliefs, it just takes me a little time to get back in the saddle.

In the three deleted pages from A Wrinkle in Time, released by her granddaughter in 2015, pages which the publisher perhaps thought too political or controversial, Ms. L’Engle talks about the dangers of pursuing security, that security is a seductive thing, and that the sick longing for it is a dangerous thing, and … insidious.

How are we manipulated by supervisors, credit card companies, politicians, retailers, spouses, neighbors, perhaps even our children, by their threatening our security or offering to enhance it? By dictators and autocrats? Yee gods, that list is endless and will continue to be so. Fascinating that Ms. L’Engle called this out in a conversation between a father and daughter. The father attempting to show his daughter a larger view, that questioning, exploring, and taking risks are what move us forward.

My regrets in life, the few I have, are related to what I did not do for my children. Sometimes it was that I did not set limits. My most lamentatious ones are when I did not protect them, or did not stand up for them. I was unable to de-stabilize my alleged security. In hindsight, I say alleged as it really wasn’t stable. With their dad, with my employer, with my sense of obligation to others, or that nebulous entity: what I thought others thought of me.

And another wrinkle – security and safety are not the same nor interchangeable.
None of that was within my grasp twenty-five years ago.

“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” Madeleine L’Engle.

Root Bound…

Photo by Mary Dessein
My jade plant is blooming. My jade tree rather, as it is bigger than either of my children were when they started second grade. I’ve had the plant for close to thirty years. Seventeen years ago, it was in a three inch diameter ceramic planter, a swan to be exact. Now it is busting out of a foot tall, eighteen inch diameter pot.

I believe it is root bound. When other plants I have started blooming after years of not, I was told it was because they were now root bound. Really? In looking at articles on root bound plants, it is reportedly a negative thing for the plant and ought to be rectified.

Yet, my jade tree is blooming elegant little white flowers at least once a year, starting about five years ago.

My sansevieria (snake’s tongue or snake plant), which I got off a clearance table at the drug store in a tiny square starter pot sixteen years ago and is now hundreds of times larger, filling a foot tall, twelve inch diameter pot, currently blooms a couple times a year that I know of. Some times the stalk of blossoms is inside the forest of leaves and I don’t see it until much later. Both of my asparagus ferns, sprengeri and densiflorus, which are not ferns nor asparaguses, bloom with wee white flowers and tiny berries. After decades of no blooming.

My hoya. Oh my gosh, the hoya carnosa blooms three or four times a year. Lovely dangling clusters of blossoms whose lush fragrance fills my home.

This root bound concept and it’s physicality. Root bound could mean I don’t venture out or try new things, don’t go new places, or experiment with new ideas. It also could be where I am now: having been many places and done quite a bit over the last twenty-five years, and then having lived a quiet, low activity life in 2017, my root bound-ness was solidifying to allow me to bloom.

I had several gigs in the last three months, challenging me to expand my repertoire, and spend time with my performance pieces of music and storytelling.

And myself.
The quiet time, seeming inertia compared to my previous level of daily and weekly activity, was a puzzlement to me. Then my jade tree blossoms sprung out and began to open, reminding me how I felt enervated by the gigs, by interacting with the people involved, and the preparation time.
That quiet time was as if I had become root bound: I nested, wrote daily in my Artist’s Way journal, stayed up late and slept late, dialed back on my real estate activity and ventures, read novels, and even took an occasional nap. I did all the life stuff of paying bills, doing my podcast, going to various meetings and all, yet I was quiet.
That quiet time was me becoming more stable in this chapter of my life. More confident in who I am. More sure of my talents. Forming healthy detachments. Resolving ambiguities about what I want now, what gives my life quality, and what nurtures me.

What nurtures me and forming healthy detachments are two things that have eluded me during my life prior to now – I learned as a child not to do those two things. The belief presented was “always take care of others, it is selfish to care of yourself.”

Yet when two friends, I thought to be close friends, walked away from me without a word, healthy detachment lessons appeared. I felt the loss of the friendship yet have been able to move away from having to fix the problem; the problem which I was unaware of and is not mine. And to be able to see these people on occasion and be present in that moment with them, carrying no negative baggage forward.
My two children are now young adults with life partners they have chosen; one lives thousands of miles away from me. Healthy detachment. I am still deeply connected to them, yet have no responsibility to fix their problems and challenges. I listen, and offer advice when asked.

Nurturing myself. My, oh my. Maybe it is not selfish to prioritize what I need and want, perhaps it is even the best choice I can make. Yes, there are endless needs of millions of people in the world as well as there are starving children in China (which is what I was told as a child every time I did not eat every single morsel on my dinner plate. Both my parents having been raised in the Great Depression, I get where their reasoning was coming from; I am also pretty sure that statement has unintentionally caused many an eating disorder by overriding kids’ natural self-regulation and limits.) However, my job at this time is to take care of me. I donate each month to multiple causes, as well as volunteer. Laugh-out-loud! I am still justifying nurturing myself and not being selfish!

Four years ago on a landmark birthday of mine, my drunkard’s bottle cactus (hatiora) exploded in small yellow blossoms; the plant looked like it was covered in a beaded hairnet. It had not bloomed in the previous twenty-plus years since my sister gave me a tiny fingerling of a start off her plant. It is now a thousand times larger. And in a pot it is nearly growing up and out of, the pot is about a quarter the size of the cactus. Its hundreds of tiny branches hang elegantly several inches. Nowadays, my drunkard’s bottle cactus blooms each year around my birthday.

There is a lot to be said for being root bound.

Santa & Perfection

Tram in Juneau photo by Mary Dessein

What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and perfection have in common? They don’t exist.
There are a zillion articles on how to deal with the question from your child when they come to you asking if Santa is real or how does the Easter Bunny lay eggs. There are also a myriad of opinions about it and the circumstances of the child doing the asking.

I’ll just tell you the truth flat out: perfection doesn’t exist.

Perfection is taught, inculcated, and presented as the best option, as the only viable goal, as the normal expectation, and yet it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps it can be meant to encourage people to do their best. Okay. However, there is usually a significant downside when ‘perfect’ is not achieved: getting written up at work, shamed by co-workers and/or boss, made fun of in school, as well as taking a hit to one’s self-esteem and self-worth. Conversely, those people doing the shaming and making fun are often just blinkin’ glad it is not them being called out, so they pile in with the nay-sayers in order that their lack of perfection is not identified. Dang, that is an out-of-balance system.

I used to be in the camp of ‘Perfection,’ believing it is a good thing, we need to work toward it, and shaming people is a way to motivate them. With dismay, I admit I have at times been in the group of people who pointed at others to avoid the spotlight being focused on me. In retrospect, it was my youth, my mistaken belief that others’ opinions mattered, inexperience with detecting groupthink, and fear.

Groupthink is a phenomenon when a group’s desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational, dysfunctional, and/or faulty decisions. My, oh my. I did participate in that, even though it didn’t feel right, I was unable to stand up and say, “Nope.”

One afternoon, Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, an honest lawyer, and a college student were walking down the street, they all saw the $100 bill at the same time. Who got it? The college student, of course, as the other three don’t exist.

We could each make a list of non-existents, however, groupthink does exist.
A driving component of groupthink is fear. It has a double edge with perfection: if I’m not perfect, then I’m not good enough. Oh la la, if I’m fearful that makes me controllable. There’s that busybody again: fear.

Tyrants, dictators, politicians, bullies, cops, teachers, CEO’s, supervisors, and parents, nearly everyone, have used fear to control. A light-bulb for me, a profound one as it so surprised me, was when I realized how a former boss controlled me with fear. When I saw that, it allowed me to see how her boss did the same thing.

The day the boss’s boss showed up to castigate me for an email that allegedly challenged her authority, I showed no fear as I wasn’t afraid, and when her intimidation and shaming strategy didn’t work, she left my office in a huff. I was calm, I answered questions evenly, I produced a copy of the offending email. Bonus round: I recognized that whatever was going on with her, was not about me. It was not until later in my mental replay, that I saw – without fear, I could be myself and not kowtow to their misuse of authority; and not be put in a defensive, subordinate position.

When the lawyer was waking up from surgery, he asked why the blinds were all pulled. The nurse answered, “There’s a fire across the street and we didn’t want you to think you’d died.”

Fear; fantasies that don’t exist yet serve a purpose for someone.

I’ll just tell you the truth flat out: you don’t have to participate in something that doesn’t exist. Your call.

Resonance, eh?

photo Sean Gaskell

A kora is a musical instrument, originating in west Africa, which has 21 strings. Picture a large guitar, only the body is round, made from a large calabash (a variety of gourd) and the strings go straight up from the body, like a harp, not across it, as with a guitar. The strings are played with the thumb and index finger, while the remaining three fingers grip a handle on each side of the instrument. (Sean Gaskell: House concerts 7/15 Bellingham, 7/16 Snohomish. See the end for info)

All those strings make for a good deal of resonance as they vibrate and reverberate so close to each other. Were some of those strings added primarily to increase the resonation?
Increase resonation in order to enhance the sound, the feeling, the beauty of the experience?
How many of us add things to our lives simply to add resonance? To enhance our lives?
Certainly music would one thing, the resonation an obvious aspect, from along a spectrum of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The origins of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” as so often with old folk tunes, are uncertain. The tune and lyrics familiar to us today were recorded in 1881. Then in 1896, Richard Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel, ‘Also sprach Zarathustra,’ to compose a magnificent piece of music which continues to inspire and awe. Most of us are acquainted with the first section of it, the spectacular fanfare, ‘Sunrise.’

When I look at enhancing my life, adding resonation to what I do, and how I process the world around me, music absolutely comes to mind. Meeting new people and experiencing friendships are another ‘absolutely.’ Also, at this time in my life, some important teachers are making a profound impact as I understand more deeply their lessons: Julia Cameron, Steven Pressfield, Angeles Arrien, and Miguel Ruiz.

There is an expression about whether to be a human being or a human doing. A gift from Julia has been me allowing myself to be. I listen to the myriad of birds in my yard, smell the summer air wafting with mown grass and honeysuckle, I hear my cat prancing around meowing his comments to me. Previously, I was busy doing, with no time for such things.

“Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome,” said Angeles. A life-changer when I can do it. Then Miguel’s, “Don’t take anything personally.” Freedom and peace come with this, when I can do it. Peace is a wondrous resonation at this time of my life, when I can appreciate it and be conscious of whether I create it. Or not.

Come – be with us for some wondrous resonation, music, and stories with Sean Gaskell, master kora player. House concert in Bellingham on Saturday 7/15 at Doug & Melinda McLean’s home @ 4 p.m.
In Snohomish on Sunday 7/16 at Rick & Lynda Condon’s home at 4 p.m.
Suggested donation is $15 – $25, no one turned away.
RSVP me at mary@marydessein.com or my facebook page.
See you there ~