Thursday, April 5, 2012

Writing for survival

" is no longer such a lonely thing to open one's eyes."

So grateful for the many bold and courageous women writers who over the past decades have made it less lonely to open one's eyes. They don't tell us it's easy, just necessary in order to live one's real authentic life.

"It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful."

Yes, all of those things. Because to awaken consciousness means to wake up to what's really going on, to the damage that has been done, to the long road it will take to recover, to heal, to begin life anew.

I'm quoting Adrienne Rich again, this time from an essay: '"When We Dead Awaken": Writing as Re-vision,' in the volume, Arts of the Possible. These days I'm working on memoir and family history, and, in that narrative, searching for some wisdom that can shed light on this moment in our country, a story that is in many ways paradigmatic of our culture's crisis of meaning, a window through which to view how it is that we have come to this point of cultural dis-articulation and fragmentation. We seem so lost.

Memoir is a powerful thing, opening up old feelings, sensations, dynamics left behind long ago. Can't conjure up the story without conjuring up what went with them. It's all still within us. I surface a memory that breaks open the meaning I am seeking here, and others flow through the hole in that old dam that was just cracked open. We don't even realize the font of life and learning and sorrow and rage and potential wisdom and insight that lie within all that stuff. A lot of times we view it with pain and even embarrassment, preferring to keep to our consciousness only what was bearable and sometimes even happy. But there is never only one side to the wisdom coin. And, as the old saying goes, can't see light if there is no darkness. To know one, you need to know, or at least be aware of, the other.

But now the cultural background noise and pace of our 21st century lives make it very difficult to find the space and time for attentive, nonjudgmental, listening. Hard to find the silence and solitude where we can allow old narratives to surface and greet them with the tenderness and compassion they deserve.

"Re-vision," writes Rich, "-- the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction - is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society."

This memoir I'm writing is an act of re-vision. And when the first draft of a chapter is done, I re-vision again, maybe more than once. And then I share it with my writers group, and then I let those comments sit for a while, until I open up the file, read them through, and re-vision again. Then I go back to the source material, the genealogies and journals, the old letters and documents, the news articles and photos - and I re-vision again.

Re-vision: a text, a life, a family history, the history of 20th century US America. One interrelated context that I try to open up so that it can be seen, as when the fog suddenly clears and the sharpness and vividness of what you can see in that moment takes your breath away.

Women have lived for centuries and centuries in patriarchal cultures that are so assumed, so much like the air we breathe, that getting outside to see who we are there, how skewed our sense of self and world has been because of that, can be confusing, disorienting, and painful indeed.

We have had decades of these path-makers now, and yet, friends, the patriarchal culture still overwhelms, even when women get to have leadership roles within it.

Rich insists that we have to know this culture in order to break free from it. She is speaking here specifically of writing, but one could easily make similar critique of other cultural realities, like history, philosophy, medicine, science, religion, etc.:

"We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us."

I know that's part of my motivation in turning now to memoir and family history - I want to know it differently, not to pass it on, but to break its hold over us, to enter in, and invite readers to enter in, to a story familiar throughout US America, a narrative of family and ancestors, of immigrants and poverty, of war and patriotism, and the roots of the unsustainable, and now quickly collapsing, 'American Dream.' I am probing buried pain and suffering, shame and humiliation, along with pride and dignity, survival and even triumph, and how tortured we are by the combination of these things.

I am doing it for survival, but not only mine. I know as well as I know anything that my survival and yours are now intertwined in a great ecological upheaval in which everything seems to be at stake, everything that makes life good, adventurous and wondrous - you know, worth living.

My last book was a straightforward account of the various aspects of the ecological crisis, with a dose of Christian spirituality thrown in at the end to try to open up its possibilities in this very Christian nation. But I am opening up something else now that feels more important, our narratives and how, if we look at them truthfully - confusing, disorienting, and painful as that may be - we just may discover how we got into this mess - and therefore the path to get out of it.

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