Reading: An Exercise in Unsettledness

Over the last few days, two books have pulled me back into asking my perennial question: why am I here and what can I do about it? The books were Olio by Tyehimba Jess and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The question was, as always, unanswerable.

In many ways the two books are very different. Olio is poetry about the pain and bondage of black American artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; The Book Thief is a novel about the near-ordinary life of a girl in Nazi Germany, written from the perspective of Death. However, the themes of sorrow and injustice and pain run heavy through both, and they both feel like epics, tracing a larger history than the life of just one girl or a few artists into the tragedy of human nature that continues today.

Olio represents a conglomeration of what you might call “acts,” mostly ragtime pianists and singers who appear in dialogue with and across each other and their oppressors. A common page format throughout the book has two adjacent columns–two speeches by different people–that can be read either separately or as one paragraph: intertwined sentences that often represent hugely dissimilar thoughts. The contrast between the speakers, and the way the speeches fit together so naturally and almost ludicrously, really drives home the injustices that Jess portrays.

For instance, there is a page where one column is an actual quote from Irving Berlin countering the accusation that he stole Scott Joplin’s work, and the other column is Joplin’s imagined response, a seething and grief-filled reply. Joplin’s work never took off whereas Berlin’s hit it big, yet Berlin’s words were flippant and derogatory. It seemed incredibly unfair to me that Berlin ever got away with what he said and did, and though after a bit of research I’ve discovered the claims of the stolen work are not as clear-cut as the book implies, things like that definitely have happened in America’s history. Things where an unjust system took credit from where it was due and placed it in a white man’s hands. Things where the world was upside-down and totally unfair. And still is.

In The Book Thief, Zusak asks my question even more directly. A character dies; another wonders, why wasn’t it me? Even the narrator, Death, emphasizes the places where if a different choice had been made–if Rudy’s family had let him join the army, if Leisel had knocked on the door instead of stealing through the window, if Hans hadn’t given the starved Jew the piece of bread–things would be different. Rudy would still be alive. Leisel would have a friend and the mayor’s wife would, too. Hans would still be at home, and Max wouldn’t have had to leave. But even with all the choices, there are a thousand things that are still not under the characters’ control. Ultimately, Death comes for all of them, and it is not Leisel’s fault that her family was taken from her or that the Fuhror is an evil man. She is simply where she is. There is no good reason why, or why her.

The question of why has caused me a weight of unsettledness. I’m not sure it can be called guilt, and I’m not sure if it’s right to be guilty for a station in life that I never chose. But here I am. And I know that the unsettledness is right, because I am not a Jew in Nazi Germany, nor am I a slave in early America. I am not, but many people in the world were, and many are slaves and martyrs and mourners right now.

Maybe the unsettledness will drive me to action.

Or at least drive me to look for places where I can act.

Anyway, the only place I have found so far is in my writing. So here I am. Writing to recommend that you read these two not only painful but also extremely powerful books, and that you take my own poetry as an outpouring of unsettledness.  Reading books like this is hard and it hurts sometimes, but that is the point. If we are all unsettled then maybe one of us will begin to know what to do.

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Humanity and Its Insanity

Sometimes I wonder why humans are the way we are, and how such small, insignificant creatures can do the incredible (albeit often horrendous) things we’ve done. Many of us aren’t even the weight of an average black bear, but how much more have we done to the planet? Black bears don’t build palaces or nuclear weapons, and they don’t have religious services or bake cookies or keep pets or write blogs. I think of all the crazy, amazing things humans do, and it seems insane that we’re capable of doing them, let alone that we do them every single day and barely ever think twice.

This is one reason I believe in a God. I simply find it impossible to believe that humans are yet another animal on a self-created planet. And this is not arrogance about how great the human race is; humans are horrible. We traffic each other and shoot each other and chop down the trees that we depend on for oxygen and melt plastics that destroy the atmosphere and abuse the beautiful, intricate animals that surround us. But we are certainly different from those animals. And it seems to me we must have been created from some different, higher pattern than gorillas were. A pattern, such as the image of God.

Christianity is the only place where I find a compelling explanation for humanity, with both its beauty and complexity and its stupidity and evil. If you think about the way we’ve been able to use the resources in this universe for the things we’ve done–like, I’m pressing down pieces of plastic (my laptop keys) with my fingers, and at the same time I’m translating complete thoughts into a written language that will show up on the light display of another piece of plastic (your own laptop), and you will be able to read it and understand my thoughts in exactly the way I thought them, maybe from some entirely different part of the world–human intelligence is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, we have wreaked an insane amount of havoc on this world and each other. Every human relationship I find is broken in some way; our wasteful manufacturing processes and pesticide use are broken; our treatment of animals is broken; and in many ways it seems like the world would be better off without us.

So, that’s one reason I believe in a God who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5) and in a man and a woman who, though they were made with everything they needed, rebelled and broke God’s order and beauty. Humans are kind of insane things. No use denying that.

Writer’s Keys: Lying in Wait for a Raven, Step 1

Ideas are really such slippery things; as smooth as a raven, with sleek shining wings.

Harnessing That sort of a bird can be difficult, because there are fat, distracting, and overused pigeons idling in much easier reach. But there’s an art to catching what you really want, if you know where to look. Spontaneous though it may seem when coming from the Greats (Dickinson and Dickens and Hemingway and Hawthorne), lying in wait for a raven is purely technical and purely intentional, nine ravens out of ten.

By far the most important trick is to discredit the easily reachable birds. Given a prompt, most will take hold of the first pigeon they see, and admire its feathers, and give themselves a pat on the back for Originality and Cleverness. It is all too easy to fall into this trap, but when avoided it causes an exponential increase in true originality. Examine one such prompt:

A pair of unlikely friends.

The first idea one thinks up involves a popular, athletic sort of boy in middle or high school, and a quiet girl of the same age and a very different mien. You may have some slight variation on this standard, but it almost certainly stems from the same tree.

This is a pigeon, of the Fattest, Laziest, and Most Stereotypical Sort.

Ditch it.

As much as anyone dislikes the truth, we all live in the same world as everyone else, and the same country as a great number of people. With many of these we share a language, a lifestyle and an outlook on life; therefore, we have the same associations, the same cultural cliches, the same assets and setbacks. And we think up the same first ideas.

So the first step in catching a raven is to not catch the nearest pigeon, no matter how glossy its feathers appear to be, and no matter how well-fed and comfortable it seems. It has almost certainly been caught, caged, capacitated and coddled a thousand times before. You have to Let It Go.

Once your eyes are opened to the truth of what is really a desirable bird to catch, you can train yourself to find the rarer ones, those that hide in the undergrowth masquerading as pheasants or sparrows rather than sitting plumply on eye-level branches. Writing is reaching. Nine ravens out of ten.

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