New York City, like most of the planet, has been enveloped in a heat wave for the past couple of weeks. Until around 4:30 this morning, at 82 degrees and 68% humidity, I’d managed to avoid turning on my air conditioning (I know this sounds pompous, but fuck it: I figure it’s the least I can do for the earth). But yesterday, walking to and from the farmer’s market, I heard or saw a half dozen ambulances, and not counting Covid or other catastrophes the only other times you experience that here are during heat waves—heat stroke victims who live on the eighth floor, say, and can’t afford to own or run an air conditioner (55%-70% of our incomes are spent on rent here). Friday evening I was pulling garbage to put out for my co-op apartment complex (only 17 units, could be worse with a super on vacation), and even with help and being fully hydrated I had to stop to get more water, rest, breathe. And I had to wear a mask for the smell, and latex gloves (that became filled with sweat), so that didn’t help. The air quality is bad, too. Oil, engines, machines. I awoke in wee hours today, as I say, hearing my 88-year-old mother’s words on the phone yesterday, “Don’t die,” and broke my vow. Sure, I’ll live another day in the mid to upper 90s, but to what end?
Calm My Ass
Scrolling through the ol’ Instagram at 5 AM as I drank ice water and waited for the cool air to kick in, I came across an ad for a popular meditation app. There are three signs, it flashed up in meaningful words, that I might be “emotionally detached”:
Neglecting your needs or depriving yourself of pleasures [Warning: lack of parallelism coming up. -ed.]
You are numbing yourself with social media, food, or alcohol
You feel inadequate and alone
So…Tuesday? Because isn’t this everyone on the planet who is guided by love, at this point? (Note: All kinds of five-star ratings and quotations came up, too, encouraging me to “face my fears” and “become a new person”…by, what, shutting off?) I mean, did you watch the eighth Jan. 6 hearing? I think Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) summed up the week’s news well with this tweet:
This app ad got me realizing that in fact I don’t want to be peaceful. Far from it. I want a fire in my belly. I want to feel engaged, alert, excited. I’m tired of feeling tired, sick, inert. This world is on fire. I want to make the dogs bark.
Question from a friend and blog reader: “All your blogs have a very specific rhythm and pattern. Is that intentional?”
Answer: Yes. [Shakes head.] (Also, No. [Nods.])
I also responded, “I’m not sure it’s pleasing. I play with moments.”
I think a voice one “hears” in a letter or blog (which for me is a kind of letter) is as particular as a speaking voice. I think there is an expectation with writing that writers will mix it up a little. Certainly, in my speaking voice, I can become a little bit Southern (from my Virginia background), or a little Midwestern (my folks), or randomly Cockney (natural mimic), depending on my mood and who I’m with. But really, Lisa O’ has one speaking voice. And over time, I’ve developed one writing voice, and I find it only varies when I am writing, say, dialogue for characters. I think it’s okay. (I knew a wonderful professor, Andrea Lunsford, at Bread Loaf who introduced herself at seminars by saying, “As my granny used to say, ‘Andrea, you have a loud but by no means pleasing voice.'”) I mean, you always know it’s a Keith Haring work, or a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, no signature required. And I don’t think you have to be that level of genius to have your own style and say many things within it.
A few years ago, a friend’s son (and he’s my friend, too) and his boyfriend at the time visited my home in Queens. He later told me that I had a very specific aesthetic. When I asked what it was, he paused and thought (we were standing in the Brooklyn Museum, looking at the Judy Chicago installation “The Dinner Party”) and he said, “Dimly lit whimsy.” He smiled.
I think that describes me, my life, my talents, and my writing, too.
Dimly Lit Whimsy
I play with moments. My home aesthetic is born of arranging found and received objects, such as cards and gifts and rocks and pins and books, into vignettes. I play with moments, dimly lit. (I’m not sure I illuminate anything.) Each item in my place came to me at one moment or another, and I assemble and reassemble these moments on my shelves like a story, as I do in my mind, or in a blog post. If I make any “art,” this is about it. I’m not sure there’s any there, there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. I wish I were capable of greater depth, of making real art, for example, but I’m limited to the appreciation of, and at best the arranging/displaying of, the art that others make. (Flashing Sign #3, in red, “inadequate and alone”; very few people see it.)
Whenever I look at pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, however, I find myself dreaming that I was that person, content with one lovely stone, a clean old bone, a simple wood slab of a table, white walls, bright natural light, maybe two wooden chairs, a desk, a sculpture, one painting.
The way I live, in reality, couldn’t be more the opposite of that. I’m not entirely sure why. Something about a need to feel cozy, to not lose a single memory.
When I started blogging several years ago, on Blogger, I made it my weekly task to hold in my mind all the disparate things that caught my whimsy and use the writing task to arrange a sort of pastiche/synthesis (since the post-modern world is essentially collage) to see if I could find the connective tissue (sorry—mixed media, mixed metaphors) to somehow point to solutions for the troubles of the world. It all came down to education. Everything does. Not merely knowing a lot or being smart, but rather making connections among the things we learn to try to do something with it, to use it, to put in service to something.
I’m not sure that I accomplish anything, and yet I persist, as I’ve noted before. I had a high school friend who always introduced himself with his IQ, 185, and when I reconnected with him decades later, he was still doing that, as if stuck on a tape loop. (Am I stuck on a tape loop? See also, “feeling alone and inadequate.”) Where do we find the inspiration to grow and change?
Dimly lit whimsy: More and more I find myself writing in the dark. Less and less to say. Amidst so much chaos, so much violence, so many opinions, causing, ironically, so much isolation, where to? And like me, I suspect we all desire not so much “quiet” inside ourselves as stability in our outer lives.
I believe this is important. Without stability in our most basic living, it’s hard to become outer directed. And if we don’t create a stable center and combine with a contained fire of purpose, the nihilists win.
In the meantime, as that fucking app reminds us, we eat, we drink. Possibly we read. We watch the January 6 hearings. We vote. Stream a show to binge watch. But there has to be more inside us. And it wants to come out.
So here’s a call to action, to us good, caring folks who need to get off our asses and do what needs to be done, somehow. Right after this heat wave passes.
“Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.”
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
Years ago, after a friend of mine had been married for several months, her relatives and friends began asking, “So when are you having a baby?” And the longer time went on without a pregnancy, the more her relatives began muttering, “Oh. Selfish.” My friend teared up as she told me about it. She wanted to scream, “No—we tried and we can’t. Go to hell.”
So who in that story is in truth being “selfish”? If you aren’t sure, we may need to have a talk.
When I think of humans who are “selfish,” inevitably a few names spring to mind.
So here’s what I really want to talk about: Yesterday, over walks and talks and viewings of various programs, I found myself reflecting on the concept of selfishness in the time of pandemic. So I guess what I want, selfishly, is to talk about selfishness and have you, my reader, reflect on it, too.
Your Miss O’, like you and the rest of the world, is living into a new year of an old pandemic; millions of us have perished, or lost loved ones, or endured the illness, or have somehow managed to avoid it, ever-present though it remains. Some who were infected merely “tested positive” and had little more than a loss of taste and smell and maybe sniffles (as with my brother Pat and his family, as well as a few of my friends). More often, people have had high fever, aches, and their breathing almost lethally compromised for weeks (one of my dear cousins is currently hanging on day by day; others I know have recovered; a few friends were touch and go for months; one friend died); or experienced near-lethal dehydration as a result of severe diarrhea (two close friends); others, quite young, died suddenly after throwing a blood clot, including those who had been otherwise asymptomatic. The disease is utterly different in different bodies, and over different amounts of exposure. For nearly half of the United States, the view of the pandemic, whatever the human cost, has shifted from “hoax” to “who cares?” These same Americans view this pandemic in the same way that they excuse war or mass shootings, as nature’s way of “culling the herd.” And these same people don’t bother with masks or social distancing, and not only because of a cavalier attitude toward health. In their view, any restriction on their personal liberty is the greatest evil that any person can experience. Even more evil than a gun massacre, they insist, is the law that would prevent any individual from committing that massacre.
And so it goes. And don’t get us started on vaccinations!
This week, I am getting my second dose of Moderna. I mask up and live every day hoping against hope that I can remain virus free long enough to get fully vaccinated. To many, this is me being selfish. All I want is to see my parents again for the first time in a year and a half; and meet my new baby nephew James, who (if I can make it to the end of May), will be just over 6 months old when I meet him. Have I been selfish to wait this long? Or have I been responsible?
On my 6-sibling text thread, besides enjoying adorable baby pictures, we’ve been reporting our vaccination updates. My sister Sherry works in a retirement home, so she was the first of us to be fully vaccinated. My brother Craig, who is taking care of his and Sherry’s mom, Ann, who has Alzheimer’s, was next—he and Ann both have theirs now; I finally qualified and have one dose down; then brother Jeff, who will get his second dose April 30; and my youngest brother Mike, dad of wee James, had his second dose on Saturday, leaving just his wife to finish hers. There was, however, one notable silence on this thread: My brother Pat.
This does not surprise me.
When Pat texted on Friday that he was going to be visiting my brother Jeff and our parents, I flew into my usual hyper-responsible panic: I texted Jeff and called my parents to advise them to wear masks and keep their distance from Pat; don’t go out with him, etc. My mom called him to query this, and he declared that Covid was nothing (he and his family were hardly sick), that he’s pissed that his wife is getting their son vaccinated just because the school and his sports teams won’t take him back unless he is, that it’s his choice, hardly anyone has really died relative to the world population, etc. My mother told him not to visit if he wasn’t going to be responsible about it. My brother was furious and didn’t visit after all. (No one said who told them, but Pat knows that I know and have challenged his anti-vaxxer views.) Query: Is it selfish or simply freedom not to tell the people you love that you are not vaccinated and never intend to be vaccinated against a deadly virus?
“SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.”
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
First, is it in fact asking too much of one another to wear a mask in public, socially distance, and wash our hands regularly during a time when such actions could prevent mass death?
To me, such a question sounds absurd; even to ask it feels ridiculous. For at least half of America, these simple precautions, requested by leading epidemiologists, are in fact too much to ask. Why?
“It’s almost paradoxical that on the one hand they want to be relieved of the restrictions, but on the other hand they don’t want to get vaccinated. It just almost doesn’t make any sense.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussing [the] vaccine hesitant
Second, is it too much to ask all eligible (that is to say, not allergic) Americans to get vaccinated against Covid? After all, polio and smallpox did not eradicate themselves. Children must be vaccinated by law to attend public school. As a society, I thought we had accepted this, and if we don’t, we move to a survivalist compound in Idaho or Texas and spend a life in hiding. Again, why is this request too bitter a pill to swallow?
On this same subject, people claim “reaction” as their reason for refusal; so if your personal child once had a bad reaction to a vaccine, does that mean we should not require vaccinations? Or, because I had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin as a child, should my family have lobbied to have penicillin banned from pharmacies? What if we had, and had won?
Third, is it fair or unfair of national or state governments to require a “vaccination passport” to travel? (My brother, for example, who loves Mexico, would, I think, get vaccinated if Mexico or the US required such a passport.) Or is this too much government in the name of preventing a virus from doing what it was born to do—kill as many of us as possible?
In other words—and not that environmentalism is on the minds of anti-vaxxers—are those of us who would prevent mass suffering and death, including our own—deaths that may in fact save the health of planet Earth—really the selfish ones?
What is the line between selfish and responsible, and what makes this line so difficult to navigate? I ask that because it seems to me this is the dilemma. Is denial easier to live with? If we don’t attend a church service or a wedding or a funeral or a birthday celebration due to Covid, are we being selfish (not making ourselves physically present to honor others), or are we, in fact, responsibly looking out for the greater good? Or is it both? If we deny them and ourselves a temporal pleasure with the idea of serving a greater longterm goal, is it worth the sacrifice? Or are we being fools?
Perhaps we should consult the healthcare professionals who haven’t seen their own families in a year. And the soldiers who go to war.
The Royal Treatment
Yesterday afternoon, I streamed the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, via the BBC, listening to interesting history but able to fast forward to the essential ceremony, which was beautifully done—intimate, restrained, yet also grand. (Robin Givhan of The Washington Post captures it perfectly. )
It might seem odd to talk about privileged royals at a royal funeral in an essay that concerns selfishness in the time of a pandemic, but the broad sweep of history and the roles of those in power are part of the big story. To be unselfish in the big moments means, for example, sharing your personal grief with the larger world, accepting the condolences and comforts and kindness of the many with grace and gratitude even if you might wish to weep alone. In addition, for those of us who might not understand why a royal relic of a colonial era is deserving of this globally seen ritual, we have to be unselfish enough to try to understand the full picture.
If rituals remind us of how small we are in the scope of history, they can also reassure us that despite all evidence to the contrary, none of us is alone.
So many people have been missing the reassuring powers of rituals these past 13 months — especially the spiritual ones. They have not been able to attend religious services, and when they have, they’ve been reconfigured for safety. Perhaps they’ve been held outdoors. Communion has been transformed into a drive-through event. It has been impossible to extend the hand of fellowship, and there have been so few people in attendance that it hasn’t felt like fellowship at all.
And so Philip’s funeral was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.
~ Robin Givhan, The Washington Post
Learn One, Try One, Teach One (Repeat)
In the end, the events of the past year have reminded me of the importance of our teachers. To take one example: Last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched again (for the first time in years) William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and that prodigy Patty Duke as the prodigious Helen Keller. To help bring to heel the ungovernable and tantrum-prone Helen—who since an illness at 19 months (possibly meningitis) had been blind and deaf—her parents have sent for a teacher; and while wrestling Helen to gain control and be effective, this teacher is doubted and questioned continually by Helen’s parents, “Why can’t you show some pity?” At one point in the film, Helen’s older half-brother (who had been on Anne’s side but sees the whole business to teaching Helen as a hopeless cause) asks Anne, “Why do you care if Helen learns or not?”
Any reasonable person watching this madness, this wrestling match, might easily wonder both of those things: Why fight this poor, wretched creature? and, Why do you care to try?
And I can tell you, as a teacher, that any teacher watching this film will offer in answer to anyone posing those questions, “Well, it’s obvious you aren’t a teacher.” Anne herself says it, that where there is one closed mind that is never opened, that’s a loss to the world, and so of course she must work to open that mind. (She spells into Helen’s hand, T*E*A*C*H*E*R, not ANNE, to introduce herself.) So, how much learning is “enough”? When Helen learns to sit at the table and fold her napkin, for example, instead of roaming the room eating off of everyone’s plates, the family is satisfied. What more is needed? Isn’t it enough that she obeys? Anne, the teacher, knows that obedience is not enough: Where there is only obedience without the knowing why, that’s a loss not only to the person, but also to the world. (As you know, of course, because of Anne Sullivan’s teaching persistence, Helen Keller went on to be one of the most inspirational activists for good that the world has known.) Selfishness may be born of ignorance more than anything else, and that is why education is key.
I’m sometimes messaged by friends on social media, following one of my usual posts on racial injustice, for example, “Why do you care so much about other people?” I don’t know; I never really thought about it. I just always did. I guess that’s why I became a teacher in the first place. What I find odd is that so many people who do not have the vocation to educate or help others, want selfishly to throw up obstacles to prevent the success of those of us who do. See also: voter suppression and climate change denial.
Selfishness, then, causes loss—first for the closed or untapped mind of the “selfish” person, sure; but ultimately, it is that other and more insidious selfish desire for “calm” and “order” without sacrifice or struggle (obedience without knowing why one obeys, nor caring), that makes the world the biggest loser of all. Why should we, as individuals, care about the world? The teacher says, How can you not?
In sum, anyone who claims not to understand why he/ she/ they must “obey” an order to be vaccinated against a deadly and highly contagious disease, or openly rebels against the order fully knowing and denying the consequences, is acting not righteously but selfishly—selfishly because, even with all the information to explain the why, he /she /they has chosen personal and unfounded belief over the greater good. Morally, this is simply wrong. So judgeth Miss O’.
I look back to Ambrose Bierce up there, who hit the mark where too many people today live: the idea that my asking you not to be selfish, makes me the selfish one. Teachers especially are imbued with just that kind of selfishness—the selfish need to unlock closed minds so that all of us may experience life in all its richness and complexity, and grapple with all the points of view so that we ourselves may grow and be more fully of service to those we love.
Featured on my kitchen wall is a framed series of five photos, one under the other, that depict me and two other women rolling down a green grassy hill. My friend, Patty, a professional framer, matted and framed this series for me many years ago, though why I wanted it, no one understood. I knew why, so really that’s all that mattered. And though it’s framed nicely, each time I look at it, I get stuck at the last two pictures. To me they are in the wrong order. The second to last one in the frame shows me and Roller No. 2 sitting up, my fists raised in triumph, my legs up, ready to do it again. The last one in the frame shows the Rollers 1, 2, and 3, passed out blissfully on the grass. The trouble is, the action happened in reverse of the order: We were passed out blissfully, and then we popped up and went back for one more roll. However, as Patty pointed out, anyone looking at the series would be aesthetically unsatisfied with that—she insisted that the three of us collapsed at the bottom of the hill was the right feeling of “this is the end.” I didn’t agree, but she was a terrific artist and very sure, and I just wanted to hold the memory, so I let her tell the story her way. It’s a story that, if you weren’t there, maybe made more sense.
Here is the real story: They were middle aged, these three women, and I had just turned 30, and we were teachers in graduate school for the summer. Three of us were housed in a large mansion-style dorm atop a big hill, and I had remarked on the day of our arrival, “This is a perfect hill for rolling.” I was wistful. The two women on my floor whom I mentioned up there, Anna (the photographer) and Suzanne (Roller No. 3), had no idea what I was talking about. Anna had grown up in California where there were no green rolling hills, and the same was true for Suzanne, whose landscape was Midwestern, up northern way. That very same evening—our first of the summer—Annie from Mississippi came up to the house on the hill, and from upstairs I heard her say, “This is a perfect hill for rolling!”
I flew through the door to the upper porch, where my room was set, leaned over the balustrade, and called, “Annie! Will you roll with me?”
Anna, from across the hall, called, “Wait for me!” and came out of her room with her camera.
Suzanne, next door, said, “You mean I get to SEE this?”
I said, “You have to DO it,” and we three raced down the stairs with that child-like rush of feeling—as if, if you don’t hurry, your chance will be gone forever—and outside, where Annie and I taught Suzanne her options: either arms crossed over your chest, or arms outstretched over your head. We spread out. And…GO! Somehow in that flash of chaos, Anna had managed to capture, 1) me rolling alone; 2) a shot of Annie and Suzanne rolling; 3) all three of us from a crotch view, slightly blurred; 4) us three flopped on the ground, three pairs of jeans and shirts of pink (me), lavender (Annie) and purple tie-dye (Suzanne) all against that deep, luscious green; and 5) me bent in a V from my butt, arms and legs up, and Annie, sitting with arms back, her face in a smile, and we’re ready to go.
That is the real story, the real sequence, but because it doesn’t read as the usual narrative, or the most tightly constructed or aesthetically pleasing narrative, I’m the only one who would look at the series and be dissatisfied. Or would I? In truth, I don’t think anyone has really ever looked at it outside of me, because it’s not exactly a universal story, or even a “lovely” portrait of any person, or of nature.
So what does it mean to tell a story “the real” way? And does it even matter?
When I was in college studying to be a teacher—which is as antithetical as it sounds, for as every professor of “education” will acknowledge, nothing they are teaching will be useful for at least three years into teaching, when experience would make it make sense; and my own view is that what they should be teaching is how to write a bathroom pass and not lose your train of thought in an instructional moment—I was fortunate, and I mean beyond lucky, to have two guest professors when I took Psychology of Education I and II in summer school. I’ll call them Ms. Lettuce and Ms. Lovage (with apologies to Terrance McNally). Both teachers were invaluable to me, but Mrs. Lettuce was the person who got me thinking about the “real” story.
As a first-year teacher in a coal-mining town in West Virginia—a town and culture she’d never before encountered—and on her first day teaching first grade, Miss Lettuce decided to start off by reading to her students “The Story of the Three Little Pigs.” When she got to the first instance where the wolf “huffed and he puffed and blew the house down”—the house of straw—a little boy in the front row said, “That son of a bitch.”
Mrs. Lettuce turned to the class, most of us either gasping or giggling, and asked, “What do you think I should have done?”
You know what’s great about her question? THIS moment is exactly the thing that university departments of education never teach you, the kind of thing that will happen to every new teacher in every new school on every single new first day of school in America, now and then and forever: the kind of moment that makes you quit by the end of the first year, after day after day of these moments, with no story to guide you.
Several of us teachers-in-potential raised our little hands, either pontificating on why he needed a stern punishment and a meeting with his parents, or gently suggesting that the teacher rephrase the remark to something more appropriate and speak to him in private later. Mrs. Lettuce said, “Why didn’t any of you ask how the other children reacted? Did you assume they laughed or gasped, too?” And it made me think: Why don’t we ever stop to ask something as basic as that, about context, to step back and look at the whole picture? She continued, “When that little boy said, ‘That son of a bitch,’ all the other children nodded,” and here she mimicked their very solemn nods. “Now what do I do?” No one in my class said anything. “Because you see what’s going on here, don’t you?” she asked. And we didn’t. “If he said that, and the children agreed and accepted it, that tells me that everyone in this community, in this culture, talks that way, that all their parents talk that way. I saw immediately that if I corrected him, I’d be correcting all these people I didn’t know. And I am the outsider, remember.”
So what did she do?
“I said, ‘Would you excuse me for a moment?’ and I went out into the hall, closed the door, and laughed. When I got myself together, I went back in, and I said, ‘I’m sorry I had to step out,’ and finished reading the story. That’s all.”
What Mrs. Lettuce realized was that the story of this culture was not her story, and so not her story to alter. It was her story to learn. And she passed that story onto us. (And this story helped me stay for three years in an alien rural school system where, in the view of many, I had no business to be.)
And as to the reaction that the child back there expressed about the wolf, “That son of a bitch,” was he wrong to feel that way? In fact, children have an innate sense of morality. Vivian Paley, a Chicago teacher and great researcher of children, relates in one of her books (I don’t remember which, and I think it was Paley, so I hope I’m not misremembering) a similar experience of reading “The Three Little Pigs” to four-year-olds.
First, let’s recall the original Grimm’s fairytale: three pig brothers have to build homes, and the first pig builds with straw, the second with sticks, and the third with bricks. The terrible wolf blows down the first two houses, and eats the pigs, but he cannot destroy the house of bricks. That last pig lives. The wolf goes away. The end. The lesson: You need to work hard and take the time to build a sturdy house to protect yourself, or you will DIE.
But that isn’t the story most people in America know, and here is what Paley discovered by telling the version of the story in which no pigs die. She read the children what I’d call the Disney-fied version, where the brothers sing, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” and when the wolf comes, the first brother runs to the house of sticks, and when the wolf comes again, the two brothers run to the house of bricks, and then the three brothers trick the wolf and boil him in a pot. Disney, who really wasn’t one to shy away from violence—I mean, who can forget the death of Bambi’s mother?—for some reason didn’t kill off the pigs. Without those deaths, what is the lesson? Go ahead and be a lazyass pig—your brother will save you. That is not a good lesson.
And Paley’s young students felt that. When Paley finished reading, the children looked dissatisfied. One child asked, a little fearfully, “Is that the real story?” Other children asked the same question. They’d heard another one, perhaps, but somehow this one just didn’t feel right. And Paley told them they were right, that there was another version. And they looked afraid, but they wanted to hear it; and she told them, and they cried when the first two pigs were eaten by the wolf, but they were satisfied with the story, because innately they knew that this was life, that this lesson mattered. They wanted to hear the real story.
I think that inside of these children, of all children, must be a hundred thousand years of genetic memory. No one taught those four-year-olds about narrative structure, or ethics, or what happens in “real life,” and yet instinctively they knew the real story, what the true story ought to be.
I think American adults in general have lost their way when it comes to our real story, our national story, and the reasons for this go back to the Puritans, as everything does, with a view of life as something to be dictated by religious patriarchy rather than lived and experienced deeply, connected to the natural world and our own intuitive, honest natures. And so, as there must be one narrative, one story, to publish in the history books (for humans are still in need of a story, whatever else happens), we pick and choose the pieces we want to include in our collective story, and by “we” I mean white men, the majority culture, in power. I don’t write this in acrimony. That is part of our real story.
But here is the shame: The American story is not just Founding Fathers with capital F’s, the colonists against the British; or the Wild West, with capital W’s, with wars of cowboys against Indians; or the Civil War—which in much of the white South is known still today as The War of Northern Aggression—or even only wars. These stories, too often, have been reduced, in the popular imagination (until most recently and blessedly, Hamilton), to vague tales about ragged coats and red coats, white hats and black hats, blue and grey: they’ve become bloodless, artificial. What gets lost in these acceptable history book narratives is the deep story of the People: the thrill of the exploration of the oceans and discovery of new worlds and also the savage destruction of native people and cultures and lands; the astonishing bravery and also the emotional brutality of the Puritans; the deep Christian convictions of early settlers and also the hypocrites who took advantage of those convictions for personal gain; the astonishing growth of agriculture to feed the world and also the enslavement of Africans to make that growth possible; the growth of industry and also the exploitation of immigrants and the earth to make that growth possible; westward expansion and also the utter destruction of the native way of life; and woven through all of this, the story of women taking part in and helping shape all of these stories, shoulder to shoulder with men, with nearly none of that story recorded. This story of America is one thing AND the other. The story is huge and vast and messy and complicated and fraught. It’s a continuing story.
If four-year-old American children aren’t afraid to hear “the real story,” why are the majority of grown American adults afraid to hear it? Why are certain hugely powerful media companies run by white men, for example, so afraid of “the real story,” the true story, of America that they feel they must create their own narratives, narratives in which there must be good guys and bad guys, and the only possible villains can be immigrants, Muslims, blacks, or women, and the only good is the continuation and protection of white male greed using repression and guns? All over the news, this is too often the only story, or the story that a few others try desperately to fight against. But it isn’t the real story, is it? We know that it’s not. What is the real story?
This sort of story manipulation doesn’t belong only to America, and it surely can’t be laid on Disney’s doorstep, or even at the threshold of the corporate headquarters of Fox News. This deliberate, inorganic story manipulation has only been possible in the last few thousand years out of many millennia, when because of agriculture and surplus, nomads began settling into villages, where, out of laziness, really, a few charismatic men began duping and robbing the workers and families of these villages, amassing wealth, and then hiring the men they’d robbed to make weapons and form armies, so they, the overlords, could take even more, scapegoating races of people and creating the massive military industrial complex—models of this dating back to the building of vast flotillas of all manner of ships, the breeding of horses for riding, and the forging of iron weaponry, all made for the sole purpose of carrying out large-scale warfare, among the men of Egypt and Greece and Rome; among Vikings and Saxons and the Angles and Normans; among tribes everywhere, really, when one goes deep into the stories.
That’s the real story of the People of Earth.
And the only way to change that story—because it simply isn’t sustainable, resources being what they are—is to shift the power dynamic, to decide, as a People, that the sociopathic-lazy man-warmonger narrative is not only wrong, it’s silly. We could be having so much real fun when we aren’t facing real, naturally occurring dangers. More to the point, we are, right now, for real, a People in Crisis, a climate crisis, brought on by global warming born of industrial ignorance and, of course, greed. You can trace most any problem to the grasping greed of a few bad men. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we turned our story—focused all our warrior energy—into working to salvage and heal and restore our Earth?
Here is the story:
Once there were three women, all teachers, two middle-aged and one just turned 30. The young woman, from the eastern plain, saw a deeply gray, dirty world that cried out to be cleaned, to be respected, to be enjoyed, and to be loved. She shared her vision with the woman from the western plain and the woman from the northern plain, who agreed, because they had been thinking the same thing. And from the southern plain came another woman teacher, middle-aged, who cried out, “This is a great world, and it needs cleaning!” And the youngest woman called out, “Will you clean it with me, Annie?” And so it was. Western Anna grabbed her camera, to tell the story of the Great Cleaning, and Northern Suzanne, who hadn’t cleaned before and wanted to learn, joined the women of the East and South, and together from all four directions the women grabbed their brooms and flew out into the world to clean it up and make it live, and to tell the story.
Here the storyteller shows the children the pictures that Anna had taken. The children notice that the person who framed the photos of the women in this story showed them flying out to clean the world, one by one, and the last photo is of them lying down, exhausted and finished with the work.
And here a child asks, a little fearfully, “Is that the real story?”
And here the storyteller pauses, and sees that she has to tell the truth.
“No. There is another version. Do you see that second to last picture? The one where they seem to be getting up to do it again? That comes last. You see, the work never ends. The story doesn’t end.”
And though the children were afraid at hearing this, and even cried, still they were satisfied. This was the real story.