Sunday, October 14, 2012

Notes on Grace

I'm writing essays these days, and a theme has emerged: I was born to, and have surrounded myself with, people who, though they may kick and buck and complain about this fact, do not give up on other people, on life, on relationships.  I've been writing about what it means to not give up, and how a choice that might look from the outside like defeat is really sometimes a more beautiful and complicated thing called acceptance.  And as I write, I'm reading both new-to-me writers and my old favorites, pulling both crisp-paged books and yellowed and much-bookmarked volumes from my bookcases.

One of the writers I am reading is Andre Dubus.  In his essays, he writes as a man badly injured in an auto accident, a man who feels as though he has lost so much of himself that he is struggling to even define himself as a man.  It is relevant to me for several reasons, as it was when I first read Dubus a decade ago, but also in a way that is new, because I am no longer the woman I was when I first read these essays.  Dubus' voice on the page, sometimes so raw it scrapes, reminds me that in every human relationship there are at least two participants.  Each has a voice, each has a perspective, and sometimes more than one perspective over time.  I love the way words on a page can do that, reach out and touch you across years and miles and distances, and then touch you in a different way when you bring a new self to the same work at another time.

The essays seem especially important as I think about the people in my own work, the people I know and love, or those I knew only fleetingly, bit players on the stage of my essay's drama, in the drama of the lives I've observed.  I'm thinking hard about being fair as a writer, about being fair as a person, about the enormous weight of accuracy when we tell these big stories.  It's something I've always wrestled with when I write nonfiction, and it is one of the gleeful freedoms of writing fiction.  And this balance, this accuracy, this fairness--it is something I sometimes cringe over when I read other writer's work and see lives laid bare on the page.  Yet -  this honesty and detail is generally what lifts creative essays or memoirs from wimpy to powerful.  When writers take risks and tell the truth wholly, the stories they tell benefit.  They ring with both truth-of-telling and the bigger truths of what it means to be alive and human in this world of ours.

I'm always interested to know how other writers handle this struggle.  Some are defiant, or simply do not acknowledge that there is a struggle  "I'm just writing it the way I saw it, that's why my name is on the manuscript."  Others are careful, and acknowledge the challenge, the risks.  Some writers are simply paralyzed by this struggle, and choose to write about safer material.  Mary Karr prefaced her book with acknowledgment and gratitude for her mother's involvement as she wrote the stories of her apocalyptic childhood in her memoir, "The Liar's Club."  For me, and many other writers I know, the struggle to decide which parts of any story are the writer's to tell, and which feel like a betrayal of trust or intimacy can consume many hours at the editing table.  And often some liquor.  The occasional coin toss.

The other aspect of Dubus' essays that is consuming my thoughts when I'm thinking about this work is his use of the word "sacrament."  I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and Dubus was an actively practicing Roman Catholic for most of his life.  The word sacrament has a very specific meaning in our faith.  Dubus uses it differently, to describe the daily rituals between lovers, and sometimes parents--the small and generous actions that express our belief in one another and the connections between us, even when we might be angry, frustrated, exhausted, desperate to run away to some imagined better place.  I cannot think of a word that expresses this idea more accurately, but I'm trying.  Because, like Dubus, I believe in those small rituals.  They might be as simple as making a meal for your lover, picking up after your has-been-told-a-thousand-times kid.  Or they might be as large as committing to care for your husband or your father who has become disabled.

Sometimes, language can be a barrier to meaning, especially when the emotional stakes are high and you're speaking over hurt, anger or a history of both.  It is why sometimes your mere presence, some small act of giving--a  phone call, a shared hike, a gentle touch, a house filled with the scent of baking cookies or simmering Coq au Vin, a repaired kitchen faucet--speaks more clearly than hundreds of words. Faith in the power of those moments is what defines them as the human form of a sacrament, connecting you to those you love more firmly than some jaded sense of responsibility, your legal commitment, your morality.

Sound heavy?  It isn't.  These are the moments filled with healing, with joy.  They are the small risks we take every day--I am going to love you enough to do this in spite of your flaws, in spite of my hurt, in spite of what may or may not be in the future.  They are the moments that, even and maybe especially in apocalyptic life circumstances, sustain normalcy and connection.

I'm going to be thinking about the people I love today, as I take a hike in Boise's foothills.  Best to all who happen this way!