Why Do I Write Novels?

Winter                                     First Moon of the New Year

So, why do I write novels?

In a writing group some years ago, maybe 20, a writing exercise turned into 120 pages of Even the Gods Must Die, a novel inspired by the Norse Ragnarök.  The doom of the gods, Ragnarök foresees the end of the nine worlds, the death of the Aesir and the Vanir with plenty of teeth-rattling battles.  Fenrir fights with and kills Odin.  Thor fights the Midgard Serpent, kills it, but dies later from its poison.  What’s not to like?

The exercise came in the midst of a writing group I formed to help me as I wrote my dissertation for McCormick Seminary.  My dissertation on the decline of the Presbyterian Church satisfied the writing requirement for a Doctor of Ministry which I received in 1991.

By that point I had met Kate and discussed with her leaving the ministry. If I left the ministry, what would I do?  The skills I’d learned didn’t transfer readily.

Well, there was that 120 page story.  Hmm.  Maybe I’ll write.

Not a big stretch, really, since my Dad had earned his living as a journalist and columnist.

Early on I decided to focus on ancient religions as a fundamental component of my novels, fantasy novels all, so far.

So, in one important sense, I wrote novels to escape the ministry after it had become a swamp.  Do I write to overcome existential alienation or do I write so that others can overcome their existential estrangement?  No.  I write because the process and the stories fascinate me.

At some point I hope I can make some money, too.  And, if you read my work and find your angst or your anomie lessened, all the better.  But I’m not counting on it.

Growing Up

Lughnasa                                        Waxing Harvest Moon

Mark’s (my brother) days here will end on September 16th provided the Saudi visa process works and it’s on track, though a track with a terminus very near his flight date.  He flies from Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Amman, Jordan and onto Riyadh.

He will spend a few days in Riyadh in an orientation program for new teachers at the English Gate Academy after which he reports to his teaching post.  He asked for Hal’in, but his assignment is not yet certain.

We sat on the couch tonight, after having watched some TV, and did a favorite family thing, trading memories of when we were young, especially memories we did not share.

I told him of climbing up on a chair to find, to my dismay, a door knob above a shelf I could not see over at age 3 or 4.  It looked like a big eye looking back at me.

In the basement of the same place, an apartment building where I lived with Mom and Dad, there was a coal chute. (“Coal?” Mark asked, a bit wide eyed at this ancient heat source.) The coal room connected to the big pot-bellied furnace through an augur that would turn on whenever the thermostat called for more heat.  In other words unpredictably.

When I was down there with Mom while she did the laundry, I would play.  Until the coal augur came to life.  It was loud and came on with surprising swiftness.  The furnace would hiss as the new coal fed the fire.  Made me think of a dragon.

Mark remembered sleeping in Mom and Dad’s bedroom until he was 5 or so, then moving upstairs in our house on Canal Street.  When I went off to college, he took my corner room, the one with a window facing west and another facing south.  Out that west facing window, at midnight, a Nickle Plate train would rumble down the tracks, and sound its warning signal for the crossing on Monroe Street only two and a half blocks from our house.  Mark remembered the train, too.

I’m not sure why I recall this and I don’t know if it was true, but I believe the last steam engine in US pulled its train through our town, sounding its steam whistle every midnight.  Right there on Monroe Street.

Political Heartbreak

Mid-Summer                                                           Waxing Honey Flow Moon

“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” – Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.

Stevenson was my first political heart break.  My dad and I were for Adlai.  Dad probably had his reasons, mine were because Dad was for him.  That might have been the last political agreement we ever had.  Anyhow, I watched the Eisenhower/Stevenson returns on our television, a still rare phenomenon in Alexandria at the time.  The returns took until the wee hours to come in and staying up late delighted me.  I was, what?  5 at the time.

The more I’ve learned about Stevenson, a Unitarian, since then makes me wonder how Dad could have liked this guy and been so far adrift when it came to the Vietnam War.  Stevenson was the real deal, a man I’d still be proud to support.  We haven’t had a candidate like him, perhaps with the exception of Obama.

Death of the Liberal Class, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, a book I’ve just begun, had me gnashing my teeth by the end of the first chapter.  In a good way.  In that chapter he gives an astute analysis of the role of the liberal class in a culture, its necessary role as assurer of at least incremental reforms, and why America’s liberal class began to wither early in the 20th century until it is now virtually dead.  I suppose he’s right about needing a liberal class, I mean his argument makes sense to me, but the other point he makes, the way the liberal class of the FDR era right through today bankrupted itself through a mindless anti-communism and a venal capitulation to so-called free market economics, makes me mad.

Hedges’ political analysis seems spot on to me and it makes me want to get back in the struggles for economic justice and the true equality that only economic justice can bring.  If you want peace, work for justice.  As a long time convert to the New Left analysis, an anti-corporate, pro-union, anti-war, pro-working class movement, I worked most of my adult life on jobs issues, economic development, affordable housing, civil rights, single payer health care and radicalization of the Democratic party.  There have been some victories along the way, there have.  There have been many more losses and in today’s political climate, the matters that concern me most outside environmental ones have all but disappeared from public debate.

This makes me sad, but not defeated.  It makes me angry, but not rageful. It makes me unhappy, but not despairing.

We need again, a call to revolution in this country, not a tea-party, grab mine, forget about you revolution, but a neo-socialist movement that recognizes government’s role in insuring that no one goes broke due to medical expenses, than no one goes to bed hungry and that everyone has a bed, in a form of housing affordable.  Let’s get to work on that. Now.

The Road

Beltane                                                     Waxing Garlic Moon

The dog delivered, I’m moving more slowly today.  I’ve selected a route home, up I-29 to I-90, then to the Jeffer’s Petroglyphs.  I’ll plan to stay around there tonight, then finish up the drive home tomorrow.

Saw granddaughter Ruth’s new teeth.  Little white spikes emerging between her baby teeth in the front.  Ruth is not sure what to make of Grandpa.  I don’t mind.  I’m in the relationship for the long haul and I know we’ll connect.

Sollie looked at me from the car.  I opened the Subaru’s trunk latch and gave him a hug.  We became pals.  I am, however, not sorry to see him go.  I think the home dogs will calm down.  I hope.

Jon and Jen have their sleeves rolled up, busy with two young kids, renovation and a dog.  At least they have the summer.

Now, I’m going to hit the road and wander a bit, a joy I picked up from my dad, who loved a road trip now matter how small.

The Brother

Spring                                                                  Waxing Bee Hiving Moon

Took Mark (brother) out to Oceanaire for his 52nd birthday.  They print up menus with Happy Birthday on them and give them to you, plus treat the table to baked alaska.  Fun.  Mark had fish and chips, Kate lamb and scallops while I had the pan seared salmon.  All wonderful.

It’s fun getting to know Mark, a chance I’ve not really had as an adult.  He’s grown up a lot in the last 20 years.  Makes sense.  I recognize certain body movements and patterns of thought, sibling resemblances.  Missing puzzles of my family have begun to surface, sync themselves with information I had.  Completing the sense of a family torn apart by death and stubborn men, my dad and me.

These are chances, rare chances, the kind we often don’t get and I’m grateful to have this one.

Then Bang, Things Happen

Spring                                                               New (Bee Hiving) Moon

You know how things go along for a long time and nothing happens, then bang, things happen?  Sollie and Rigel got into it again and in breaking them up Rigel bit me.  Not bad, a scrape really, but it bled, around and below the right side of my right knee.  I had been using the knee to separate the two.  This is out of hand at the moment and I’m not sure what to do next.

In addition I have a family member in crisis, a faraway crisis, so it’s difficult to tell what’s exactly going on.  That means trying to do my part from 12,000 miles away.  My family, and I may have not mentioned it here before, my mother’s family to be precise, has a history of bi-polar disorder.  One of my Aunts was hospitalized most of her life, another for several years and a third in essence starved herself.  My mother never showed signs, but she died at age 46.  Although afflicted from time to time with melancholy, I’ve never manifested the bi-polar symptoms, nor, at least up until now, has either my brother or my sister.  That’s not to say that we haven’t had struggles of various sorts, the kinds brought on by life, but deep depression, no.

This may be a referented depression; that is, one occasioned by a definite external circumstance, but it’s so difficult to say without being there.  And even then…

When I was in analysis, with a Jungian, we discussed nuclear families and John, my analyst, said, “You have an atomized family.”  It was true.  After my mother died, our lives began to spin apart from each other.  I left home first and eventually moved to Minnesota.  Mary next, ending up after a stint teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in first Kuala Lumpur, then Singapore, where she has lived now for many years.

Last of all Mark left home and moved first to San Francisco, then in 1988 took off on a round the world trip.  After crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, working on a kibbutz in Israel and harvesting olives in Turkey, he found his way to Southeast Asia, too.  Bangkok.  He has been there ever since, more or less, teaching English as a second language.  We have ended up far apart, physically, and distance imposes its own psychological barriers.  It’s just not as easy to see each other, help each other.

Now that both Mom and Dad are dead, we have our own worlds, Mary at the National University of Singapore, me here in Andover and Mark in Bangkok.  Once in a while Mary comes home, I’ve been over there once, but it’s difficult to stay really connected.

Now something is wrong.  And I’m not sure what to do in that case either.

First Amendment

Winter                                                            Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice

Walker stands with national peers in support of artistic freedom.  This is a big deal and I’m proud to be part of a community and an artistic/museum community that supports artistic freedom.

54 years ago I began carrying newspapers for the Alexandria Times-Tribune, a paper route that went west on Monroe Street from Harrison, then fanning out toward the then brand new elementary school.  Learning to fold the evening paper, the Trib was a daily back then, in a square, and how to pitch it in a gentle arc that landed on my customers doorsteps gave me physical pleasure, a manual skill.

My dad was editor of the paper then, so the question of freedom of speech was, at least in our house, not a question at all but a loud proclamation, made every day about 3:30 p.m. when the Trib hit the streets courtesy of myself and several other carriers.

(This artist made the banned movie:  David Wojnarowicz   Four Elements  1990 lithograph on paper  T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1991)

Dad did a couple of things that stuck with me though I imagine he did many more.  First of all when the John Birch Society raised its impeach Earl Warren/US out of the United Nations flag around town, Dad got a copy of its founder’s book, The Blue Book.  In it Robert Welch outlined clearly anti-democratic, plutocratic views.  Dad published relevant portions in the Tribune.  Gutsy in a town of 5,000.   Later, he also published a letter to the editor by a would be English teacher rankled at Dad’s opposition to this coach becoming a teacher of the language.  He printed the letter as received with many spelling and grammatical errors.  Coach did not get the job.

Extraneous sidebar:  the same coach got himself arrested years later in southern Indiana when he stole a bucket of quarters while gambling on a river boat.

You may know the John Birch Society best in its present day position of influence behind the Tea-Party Mad Hatters.  My hometown was and is a hotspot for extremist right-wingers.  Back in the day it was the John Birch Society and the Minutemen, later the KKK and now the Tea-Party.  In fact, the Alexandria, Indiana leader of the Tea-Party got arrested for drug possession last week.  My old buddy, Ed Schmidt, alerted me to that piece of news.  Ed was mayor of Alexandria for a couple of terms.

Muzzling critics, whether political or artistic, cannot be countenanced in a society built on a free exchange of ideas.  The need to speak truth to power demands that we go out of our way to listen to voices on the margin, to open ourselves to what might be unpleasant messages or messages wrapped in unpleasant containers.  The freedom they’re saving just might be your own.

Memorable

Lughnasa                                            Waning Grandchildren Moon

Katie slipped her hands around my arm and stroked.  Then stopped and put some pressure on.  Then stroked some more.  Katie was my birthday present from a thoughtful wife.  She learned her trade from Sister Rosalind and the Sister’s school for massage.  I’m feeling knot and kink free.  Massage clears out the mind as well as the muscles.  As Katie moved around my body, memories came flooding back.  Mom’s hands on my neck when I had polio.  The Alexandria 4-H county fair.  That afternoon in Bangkok when I let a tiny Thai woman loose on my just ruptured achilles, not knowing what it was.  Steel fingers and pain.  Lots of pain.  Then the night I stepped in the sewer grate while my body moved forward and my right foot stayed in place.  Body memories, unlocked by Katie.

Memories have a fluid, slippery existence, just like Katie’s hands as she followed the process of my spine from neck to tail.  As I write about Mom and polio, an image of stuffing tissues into hardware cloth followed.  The float for homecoming for my class, seniors at last.  Being pulled away from that by who?  I don’t recall.  Then I was in Anderson, 9 miles away, at St. John’s hospital where my mother had been taken after collapsing while serving a funeral dinner.  After that the sculpted green plastic and aluminum tubing of waiting room furniture at Riley Memorial in Indianapolis.  Mom on a gurney, now 7 days after stroke, me riding with her as they took for an operation.  She reached away from me and said, “Son.”  The last words I heard from her.  The painful early morning talk with my father, should we remove the life supports?  Yes, we both decided.  Yes.  Then the funeral.  And the days and weeks and months after where I failed to integrate mom’s death as a powerful life lesson and instead took it as an emotional blast that rocked my very foundations.

Bangkok, stumbling away from the 7-11 and the amulet stand in front of it, hurrying to get to the ATM.  Traffic making me anxious, not careful.  Blinding pain, yet running anyway because of the traffic, the cars.  All the traffic and the cars.  The night air humid as the flashing neon of Chinatown bathed the sidewalk in alternating colors, like the northern lights.

As I know, we change our memories each time we access them, so all of these events, crucial as they are to my story, may not represent the truth at all, at least not the veridical, the actual truth.  But, in a more important way, they are the most truthful of all since they are the truth that has shaped my response to all these things and the thousands more accreted over the years of my life so far.  Even my account of the massage, who knows how close it is?  Yet the feeling lingers.  Good.  Feeling.

The Colosseum of the Soul

Imbolc                                                Waning Wild Moon

Fake Nostalgia for a Pre-Therapy Age Past

“I can tell you one thing,” he announced, as I recall. “Back in my day, you didn’t have young kids going around talking to shrinks, yakking about their fee-ee-ee-lings, getting all doped up on medications.”

This article in the March 8th NYT made me think, or better, recall.

In early October of 1964 my family was intact:  Mom, Dad, Mary, Mark and me.  We had extended family on both sides that we saw regularly, Mom’s more so because she was Indiana born and Dad’s less so because of his Oklahoma origins.  After my bout with polio when I was a year and a half, our lives had settled into a usual routine of those years, the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Mom stayed home, doing volunteer work for the church and being available to us, the kids.  She did occasional substitute teaching, but it was rare.  Mary and I moved our way through our small town school system where we were known and knew everyone else at least by sight. Mark was still at home.   Summers were long idylls of bike riding, game playing and lazy reading.  Dad worked at the newspaper, coming home with ad layouts from time to time, marking them up with a ruler and a thick pencil.

Of course our lives had the usual family dramas, the deaths of grandparents, an aunt’s long term confinement in a mental health facility, but for the most part things were calm, normal.

In late October of 1964 my 46 year old mother was dead and our lives would never again be normal.  Grief has its own rules, its own storm sewers of emotion and they track in and out, colliding with the needs and fears of others.  Our small family suffered and suffered a lot, both from the grief, the natural grief that follows an untimely death of a parent, Mom, and the sudden compression of the family into a new, undefined life, a life defined by loss and uncertainty.

Life happens as it does and we relate to the changes as best we can.  That was true then, true long ago in the past and will be true in the future.  I have wondered though what our lives, our mutual lives, the lives of the survivors in our family might have been like if we had access to even the most basic of therapeutic assistance.  If we could have, if I could have, for I can’t speak for Mary, Mark and Dad, grieved Mom’s loss and then moved on with my life, rather than heading toward a ten to fifteen year period where emotional ups and downs, too much drinking, too much smoking, too little in the way of sound relationships eventually forced me to do what I was unable to do in those horrible months following her death.

This is not a regret, for it is not what happened, rather it is a what if.  It is a what if informed now by many, many years of therapy, therapy that helped me see myself as I really am, accept myself and my feet of clay, feet not so different from everyone else’s. Analysis, Jungian analysis, that in the end gave me a place to stand that was my own, not a place over against the grief and the abandonment of those years.  Analysis that afforded me a chance to live into my own Self, live my own life and find, now, in my 60’s, a way of life that has a measure of peace and more than a measure of contentment and happiness.

I agree with the author of the article referenced in the beginning.  It was not a better time, those pre-therapy years.

Remembering Dad

Imbolc                           Waxing Wild Moon

The year moves forward, sun higher in the sky, temperatures inching upward, some snow melting, though  piles of slowly melting hard pack, driven to curbs and driveway ends, darkens and begrimes the landscape.  A bright February sun catches a light snowfall, refracts it in mid-air, giving the day a sparkle, as if a glitter queen shook her hair in the heavens.

The winter olympics continues, too, with this sport and that.  I liked ski cross.  It looked fun.

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death in 2003.  The dead, to paraphrase somebody, are not in the past;  they’re not even dead.  No, nothing metaphysical here, I’m referring to the fact that those important to us take up lodging in our memories, in our inflections and in our perspectives.  We sometimes see the world literally through their eyes, hear things with their ears, interpret something with their sensibilities.  This happens during their lives, of course, but it also continues on past their temporal death.

(The Woolworth Building.  It opened twelve days after dad’s birth.  It was the tallest building in the world until 1930.)

If I see a  person with too much flab (me, these days, for instance), I can hear Dad say, “He likes his groceries.”  In quick train there is, too, his advise about weight loss, “Push-ups.  Push ups away from the table.”  I can feel his scowl when pictures from the sixties appear in the newspaper or on tv.  He didn’t think much of the politics or the movement persons of those days.  Unfortunately for our relationship, I was one.

When I sit down to write, especially here, I feel the ghost of my father, Curtis, hovering over my shoulder.  He is a benign angel in this case.  I fancy my writing style here takes a certain amount of its defnition from his frequent  column, “Small Town, USA.”  When I’m in the other room, working on the novel, I’m reminded of his ambition to charter a boat, sail the coast of Mexico, then write a book about the trip.  He never made it, WW II got in the way.  He never wrote a book either.

So, according to one school of Jungian thought, I write books to fulfill my father’s dream.

He was a man of his times, liberal in his  social politics, virulently anti-communist and suspicious of both patriotic zealots like the John Birch Society and the anti-patriots like myself of the 60’s and 70’s.  His father abandoned his family, Dad never did.  He was there, day in day out.

So, his body no longer walks the earth, but his mind, his dreams, his biases and his humor still does.