Friday, November 16, 2012

Of martyrs, narrative, meaning, truth, and the craft of writing

Martyrs of the UCA in El Salvador
Today is an anniversary that marks murder and horror and the worst of U.S. imperial reach. On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and a mother and daughter who had taken refuge from war on the campus of San Salvador's Central America University were gunned down by soldiers funded, armed, and trained by the United States. They were good men, these priests, brilliant scholars, courageous in the role they took on during their country's civil war, fiercely dedicated to the poor who were struggling in the face of enormous odds for their liberation from decades of US-supported dictatorship.

I mention this because this story, the story of Central America during the years of the liberation struggles, was the work of my life - for nearly 25 years. I used to write the stories.
Yes, as coordinator in a national solidarity office, I advocated and organized and created resources for grassroots groups. I wrote news and analysis for our little journal.

I also wrote stories - of the martyrs, of the reality of war and oppression, of heroic people taking risks with their own lives for the sake of the freedom and dignity of others. Probably as much as anything else I did during those years, this meant a lot to the expansive community of faith-based activists and institutions leading the way in the effort to change our country's abhorrent historical role in Latin America.

My first book came out of that era - Like Grains of Wheat: A Spirituality of Solidarity, co-written by friend and colleague of many years, Marie Dennis (Orbis Books, 2004). It gathers up the stories and testimonies of US people of faith who encountered Central America and were changed forever by it.

My second book, Living Beyond the 'End of the World:' A Spirituality of Hope (also Orbis, 2008), came out of that era indirectly. It looks at the ecological crises now unfolding across the planet because of the way in which we have organized the global industrial culture, the root causes of those crises, including those that stem from our belief systems and religions. It then attempts to open a radical Christian-inspired reflection on our predicament, our responsibility for it, and the new values and ethics that are necessary now if we are to alter course.

Hubble Space Telescope - the collapse of our old gods before the magnitude of the universe

So I've been writing for a long time, and I have loved all this work. But changes come. My own old belief frameworks were collapsing under the weight of the examination of our western philosophical orientation, our human-centered religions in which we make our human image into god's image, and in light of the scientific discoveries that put our small human experience within a vast universe of space and time. And I became deeply aware that we humans were headed toward a crisis on this planet unlike anything the species had ever experienced before and for which we are utterly unprepared, both without and, more importantly, within - within our own human psyches that seem unable to adjust to the magnitude of the mess we have made.

Okay, that's another journey, but it is tied to the one I have taken up in these later years. Reaching for ways to describe the world now, and dealing with a whole lot of grief and trauma from that work of a quarter century, I fell upon the small, profound, deeply intimate story of my own personal/ancestral history. Beginning with what I call "the beautiful dying" of my parents, I found in the narratives of my ancestors, of those stories from which my parents emerged into this world, and then my parents' own hard existence, a completely new lens through which to view this moment in our culture.

We don't come out of nowhere; cultures do not emerge out of nowhere. Only Americans seem to think the world begins and ends with us, and only the "us" of this moment in time. We don't want to feel anyone or anything has a hold on our precious selves, our precious individualism, and so we bury the causes and effects of our past, the interlocking nature of all our relations, of deep past and the traumas and suffering that shaped who we are, what we deny, and our unreasonable and unrealistic expectations about what life ought to be - and as a result, we end up seemingly helpless before the reality we ourselves have made (e.g., how the Civil War continues to shape our political culture and the seeds of racism a century and a half later).

The grandparents I never knew
And so I went in search of this narrative, the narrative of my ancestors. In the iconic nature of their stories, I found revealed there something important about what has led us to the world we live in now - what has shaped me and my responses to life. I found treasure troves of revelatory insight.

But to write it required getting out of my head and into my own vulnerable heart. It meant claiming not just narrative and explanation, but metaphor, symbolic language, images and impressions that speak more than the words alone.

And so I turned to poetry to help me open up that vulnerability. I started reading voraciously, as if making up for a lifetime of neglect and want. I started writing poetry in order to become a better prose writer, a better writer of creative non-fiction. When I found that what I wanted, needed, to do next, was write what I call my "more-than-memoir," I knew I had to unlock some protected places within me, those places where we are most connected to the trauma, pain, suffering, and therefore also the beauty, the spirituality, the poetry of our lives. I had to unlock that resistance to being revealed, exposed, to have parts of my life broken open to the world.

As much as I tried to prepare, I could not have imagined how costly and incredible this journey would be. And that's before this is published!

I am coming to the last chapter of the more-than-memoir, then the epilogue, then the first draft is done. While I expect months of revisions yet, that will be a very different work than getting it down in the first place, going back to all those journals where the narrative was first written down, recovering threads and snippets in time still packed with pain I did not necessarily want to look at again. But the story is there, including that within it which is healing, redemptive, and revelatory.

Think of genius this way
The poetry accompanies this journey. A verse comes as I write the memoir. Or the verse comes on a walk simply because I am so opened to sensory experiences, to the sounds and sights and smells of the world around me, because the writing of the memoir has left me opened, shattered, unprotected. It is a great space in which to discover one's creative genius - I don't mean that egoistically or hubristically. I mean that in all solidarity - because we all have that genius within us, each in our own unique expression. Not that we will all be writers, but that we are all co-creators, if we want to be, of a different, more meaningful, more vibrant, more vivid, more profound world than the one most of us are forced to (or believe ourselves forced to) live in every day - the world that is being ruined and wasted all around us.

We all have our unique gifts, our unique brilliance and talent, to give to that work of creation. All that is needed is that we allow ourselves to be broken open so that the energy can be released.

Last night, I opened a door on my past by bringing the stories of the 8 UCA martyrs to a small group of women that breaks bread together once a month. I wasn't sure I wanted to go there again. I had met a couple of the Jesuits, and became friends with the one member of that community not killed that night because he was out of the country at the time. I had so many friends that were close friends of theirs. I remember the day so well, waking up to a phone call from a Jesuit member of my board who read off each of their names to me, each one an arrow of grief and shock piercing the heart.

My mother 5 mos before she died
Hard as it was, how could I resist going back there when right now, in the writing, I am at the bedside of my mother as the aging slowly steals her life from her while we dissolve over and over again into the solid trusting space of our love for one another?

What I have always known about writing is that it is good writing when it is truthful, when it hits a nail on a head we all recognize, when it lights up a dark room, or brings darkness to a falsely lit room, or ignites an awakening, causes a resonance in the reader, connects us to one another and the world around us. Sometimes it simply gives pleasure, a good in itself. Sometimes it can, in a flash, an instant, change forever how we see things. I think of Terry Tempest Williams, Alicia Ostriker, Jane Hirshfield, William Stafford, Mike Burwell, David Whyte, as among the long list of writers who have done this for me.

Muriel Rukeyser.

Goodness, this has grown overlong. Just some thoughts to share on this grey chilly Friday. The other morning I was seduced by the deepening rose, orange, red, pink sunrise spreading across the east over Lake Michigan. It drew me to the shore, lingered, as it does this time of year, for a long moment of mutual contemplation. We so enjoyed one another, a splendid exchange.

Last night before bed, a screech owl began calling from a tree just outside my window.

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