We just finished listening to Lois Lowry’s, The Messenger, the third novel in her loosely woven book series. Many of you might know her as the author of The Giver, a brilliant, bleak, and hopeful dystopian novel, which explores the familiar oppressive, what-happens-after-societies-collapse themes of that genre. I love thinker books like these. Eli’s class is currently reading it, and he is proudly one of four kids who has already read the book. “Mom, it is still interesting the second time around.” He tells me as we drive the long, straight road between his and Kyle’s schools. “I bet it is.” I say.
And as I think about it now and thought about it then, my guess is that by the time your son or daughter reaches Middle School they have probably read The Giver too. Kyle read it first, then Dave, followed by Eli with me picking it up and handing it over every time someone else wanted to read. I love this speculative story of a juxtaposed world where there is complete, controlled harmony, you do the specific job you were born to do, yet no one can see color, that is, until Jonas, the protagonist, sees the red of an apple. Eventually I finished, and the book left me wanting more. For a few days I Googled and Wikipedia’d everything I could find. I was obsessed. I was grateful Jonas was free of the oppression, and needed to know, “where did Jonas go?”
Actually, we all loved The Giver, and as time passes, comparing our day-to-day to its worlds-forever-changed themes brings us back, deconstructing all of its creepy little bits. Ok. I swear I am not trying to write a book review, or better, a book report here. And because The Giver is universally loved in this Adams Family, when we were at the library the other day, and because I knew we were hitting the road, I decided to check out another something I hoped we would all enjoy. Banking on our Dune-meets-Fablehaven love, I checked out the next two Lois Lowry books on c.d. Gathering Blue was almost as good, and The Messenger was way too short, seemed to be the darkest of the three, and made my throat swell with achy sadness as it ended. Spoiler Alert: Yes, someone dies at the end, and yes, we are all completely annoyed.
Ok so why am I mentioning this book today? It actually connects to an interview I was listening to on NPR this morning. Diane Rehm was interviewing the author of, The Great Santini, Pat Conroy. His book (which was made into a movie starring Robert Duvall) is loosely based on Pat Conroy’s can’t-help-loving, successful, yet extremely strict and abusive Marine father. As I listened to him tell Diane Rehm about his flight into Washington DC that day, he said, “Diane, I remember it all. I remember where I was standing and how I protected my family from our father. As we flew over Alexandria, Fairfax, and all the places we lived, I remember exactly where I was.”
That is what I thought. I do not remember. I cannot see where I was standing. Sure, I can see very distinct bits and pieces. Like me standing there, freezing on a cold morning. I was standing outside my grandfather’s car, parked alongside Lake Mil Lacs in Northern Minnesota. I stood there firmly yelling at my grandpa, watching him move his little black and white television with a metal coat hanger shoved into the antenna spot from the back to the front seat. Next I can see myself unwillingly hidden in a sea of hanging Persian Rugs. Why did I go with my stepsisters to the Minnesota Museum of Art? Why did I go with those crazy old people, strangers my sisters called their grandparents? I was lost and I wanted to go home. I can see the nurse tell Dave, “You have to decide which of her organs to donate.” To her I was invisible. She did not know I could hear her every word. I have blocked out a lot. That is what I do. What I haven’t blocked out I have been asked not to say. I totally get it. I know my childhood was intense. I know my life has been nuts, and as Dave often says, “You do not have to make things up. You do not need to borrow, steal, misappropriate, or even exaggerate your own story. Your life is crazy, full of tragedy and heartache, interesting, and stands all by itself.” And then I think, “thank God I am still here. I am happy to be here. I kept getting back up. How did I get back up?” And I think, “Thank God my insides are filled with these truths and I do not have to reach outside, stealing or better, justifying, my use of “Creative License” to make you think more.” I do not have to cheat my life to make you read, and for that, I am grateful!
As I pulled into our driveway, I continued to listen. I listened as Pat Conroy told the lovely and distinctive-voiced Diane Rehm how he was able to heal his relationship with his own father. It took years, and it took telling his story out loud. He kept talking about his mom and how they had a plan. “We had shifts. We were always on the look out for my dad, protecting each other and my younger brothers and sisters.” He talked about the ability to tell his story. I love the lack of shame in his words. This was simply his life. I thought about his freedom to tell the truth. And with my hands tied and PTSD-induced memory blocked, I thought, maybe I am more like Lois Lowry than Pat Conroy. Meaning maybe I need to go more with obscure tales of distant worlds, painting scenes filled with obscure characters, characters created with fragments of my haunted and tender past. Wait. I just do not buy it. Sure, Dystopian themes can safely teach us all to reflect and do better, and I actually think it would be easier and much less pain inflicting to write my own end-of-the-world tale rather than trying to un-puzzle this puzzle.
Clearly I can see the painted brown left side garage frame and the bright orange and yellow autumn leaves wrapped around the bushes. This is where I was as I drove the car mid way between the driveway and inside the garage. This is what I thought, “maybe the Dystopian Societies we think are bleak, scary, prophetic, safe to write about, and far in the future are actually my now.”
That is why I thought of Gathering Blue. See, in Gathering Blue and The Messenger there was a character named, Kira. She was born with a deformed leg. Her father (supposedly) died and was then left in the field, a place where Kira’s society leaves the weak, disabled, and where the beasts will get you. Because of her mother’s strength, Kira was allowed to stay in the community. Sadly, however, when Kira was still quite young, her mother died of a sudden, terrible illness. When Kira’s mother died, women of her community burned down her home, stole her belongings (I know. How crappy!) and wanted Kira sent to the field. Instead, and because of her gift, Kira was allowed to stay.
It may or may not help to know that all the main characters in the Lois Lowry books appear to have special gifts. Jonas, in The Giver, is able to see beyond, and Kira’s gift allows her to see the past and future through the weaving (needlepoint). Through her fingers, she is able to weave the future. She is allowed to stay in her community because the leaders of the society need her to mend and update the robe that shows the history and future of the society. Nearly done with this post I keep thinking that maybe these kinds of books are not your cup of tea. Bear with me. I promise a connection. As a mother of two boys and a Post-Apocalyptic-Novel loving husband, however, these are the books we read. My hope is that somehow it is all making sense. With my mouth protective and taped shut, like Kira, my memories also come through my fingers. Crazy and coincidentally-dramatic as it may sound, I swear it is true. I wonder if it is the same for Lois Lowry.
For a non-Dystopian-teenage-novel example, I will tell you that right this moment you could be sitting next to me at Starbucks. And as I type this post you could ask me, “Hey, Beth, what was the craziest thing that happened to you as a kid?” You could ask me, “Tell me about Kyle’s illness.” I promise you I would hesitate, I would falter. My face would read blank. I would give you short answers like, “It sucked,” or, “there was the time my sister and brother let us melt color crayons onto glass pop bottles over the stove when my parents were gone. Guess what? We almost burned the house down! You should have seen the flames coming off of the stove!” I promise I would tell you what may sound crazy, but was definitely safe. As I tried to articulate Kyle’s story, I promise I would not want to impose the fear I felt as I watched him face death. It’s not that I am afraid of my words. I love my stories. I struggle to know how to write them without hurt or imposition. When you ask, it may seem weird, yet I really cannot speak them. I can ask you about yours. I love to hear yours.
And as I learned about Kira and her weaving gift, I did think of myself, every single time I sit myself in front of this computer screen, write down every deep, dark, hard and painful word. The words flow, bleeding out. They come as along as my fingers tap away on the keys. Moments forgotten catch their breath and leap through my hands. I often go back and read so I can remember too. I am grateful. Seriously, I am grateful, I think my gift or my defect lets all of this stuff find its way out, especially when I do not feel like I have permission to say them out loud.
After writing this post Dave and I talked. Then I cried. I cried so hard my tears took my breath away. He reminded me of something one of our favorite writers, Anne Lamott, once said. I looked it up, and here it is:
“You can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. You can tell if you they’re there because a small voice will say, ‘Oh, whoops, don’t say that, that’s a secret,’ or ‘That’s a bad work,’ or ‘Don’t tell anyone you jack off. They’ll all start doing it.’ So you have to breathe or pray or do therapy to send them away. Write as if your parents are dead.”
–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life