Mother in the Mirror
The first time my mother’s face looked back at me from the mirror, I was shocked. Was I becoming her, with all she did that irked me? Taking over my projects to make them better but no longer mine? Giving me lessons when I just wanted a sympathetic ear?
Today on her birthday I’m recalling traits I cherish. She cultivated my love of reading, taking me to the tiny library in the fire station basement and the annual AAUW book fair. Along with English classics from her Canadian childhood, she pointed me toward stories of children in other cultures, times, and places.
She taught me to relish small wonders. We trekked through fields and forests, delighting in spring trillium and summer wild raspberries. One night she had a group of girls sleep in a barn loft so we could wake early to marvel at the dew on the grass. My memory doesn’t include why we couldn’t see the dew just as well on the lawn at home.
If the face in the mirror shines with love of books, curiosity about lives different from mine, and joy in everyday wonders, it's hard to complain.
My friend Ellen always carried a book on public transportation so she wouldn’t be alone with her thoughts. People vary. I tend to find my thoughts pleasant companions.
Ruminate is what a cow does when she chews her cud. Webster’s says it also means to think carefully and deeply about something. Sounds good, no? But online article after article discusses the dangers of rumination and how to quit. Psychologists appear to use rumination for obsessive, repetitive rehashing of the sources of discontent.
It’s not just a difference in definition. I’ve read that a mind is a dangerous place to dwell, trying to understand your emotions is a mistake, and problem-solving should take over as quickly as possible. The implication: Any thought that isn’t purposeful puts you on a slippery slope toward depression.
Whatever happened to reflection, contemplation, imagination, introspection? Meditation in the old-fashioned sense of pondering something, as distinct from emptying the mind? Liberal arts along with employable skills? Please understand, I’m all in favor of mindfulness meditation. I appreciate planning and problem-solving, value the trades, and don’t have much use for obsession. But isn’t it possible the seed of at least one of the world’s great inventions, discoveries, or works of art may have germinated in a mind allowed to run free?
Where Fantasy Rules
Another summer, another Saturday of escape into a fantasy of the past. In the depths of winter my husband and I share a litany of future joys, as certain in our life as the rising sun. Part of our litany is always, “We’ll go back to the Faire.” The Bristol Renaissance Faire, midway between Milwaukee and Chicago, has never failed us yet.
Each year delights us with a blend of familiar and fresh. While our favorite porcupine wasn’t at this year’s petting zoo, we got to gape at a large horned zebu cow from Africa. We missed a couple of bands we enjoy and happened onto others that kept us smiling. I shot six arrows from a miniature crossbow. Only one hit the target.
What do you suppose time travelers from Elizabethan England would make of it all? Would they find anything familiar? Not the fairy wings, accordion music, or chocolate-coated bananas. It doesn’t matter. Historical accuracy matters a lot for nonfiction, quite a bit for historical fiction, and not at all for playing at the past. Getting to pick and choose makes the Faire a lot more fun—not to mention safer and more healthful—than if we could actually travel back in time.
The drive home took us through Wisconsin countryside devastated by flash floods. Roads and bridges were out, vehicles half under water, farm fields transformed into ponds. I’ll bet a flood disaster would make perfect sense to visitors from the Renaissance. In real life they, like the residents of this week’s flood-land, didn’t get to pick and choose.
And Now for Some Good News
An 18-month-old boy was the third child paralyzed by naturally occurring poliovirus in Pakistan in 2017, we learned last week. Polio struck four so far in Afghanistan. Just seven in all the world. Tragic for them and their families, but remarkable compared to 350,000 cases a year in 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began.
When I’m not writing blog entries or historical fiction, my major project is writing the ongoing history of polio eradication. Conveying the drama gets harder as eradication draws near. Don’t blame the media for reporting polio outbreaks more often than achievements. Bad news draws us, the adrenaline rush is so delicious.
It’s got me considering the contradictory ways news affects emotions. An endless onslaught of bad news can instill depression, the opposite of an adrenaline high. Fight-or-flight responses, energizing in a crisis, turn debilitating when they go on without release. I’m told to give fictional protagonists not only distress (fear, misery, torment) but also resilience (strength, courage, ingenuity) to respond, whether their responses succeed or fail.
Does bad news hook you with drama and then drag you down? If you don’t make the perfectly reasonable choice to avoid the news, the trick may be to pair distress with resilience or stories of resilience. Take some positive action, however small. Fred Rogers’s mother famously advised him to look for the helpers.
The lesson for my polio writing is the reverse: to breathe life into success stories with tales of trouble. Seven children and their families are devastated, with others at risk. Migratory families are elusive. Violence stalks vaccinators, sometimes fatally. It’s not just the polio they prevent but the challenges they overcome that makes heroes of the protagonists.
Do Artists Need an Excuse?
A nasty little voice in my head says writing is self-indulgence when there’s so much that needs to be done, protested, supported, or fixed in the world at large. A wiser voice in my gut says I’m doing what I’m called to.
Writers, and perhaps all artists, try to understand a little about the world and share that understanding with others. Much of my favorite fiction touches on justice, ethics, relationships, motivation, and the interplay of individual and society. It leads me to perceive or experience life in fresh and deepening ways.
Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling wrote, “To ask what art is good for is not exactly the same as asking what its purpose is.” Art and literature are their own excuse for being. Novelists and painters create for pure joy, or to pay the bills, or for any purpose or none. Their creations may be entirely self-indulgent and still do good in the world at large.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.