When we think about our own personal heroes, can we see a pattern? How did they rise to the challenges presented in their day?
How are we rising to the occasions and the challenges presented in our time? Right now. Are there injustices we can speak up against? Are there places where our voices will make a difference? What are the rights and wrongs happening right now today?
I am about one-fourth of the way through Charles Dickens’s, David Copperfield. It’s astonishingly good, as are most of his books. And, like others, it calls out some of the injustices of his day—child labor, poorhouses, domestic violence, emotional cruelty, sexism, bullying and so on. With his wide audience and engaging stories, he had tremendous power and is credited for being the impetus for many social justice reforms.
However, he had his own blind spots.
One reader, Eliza Davis, wrote to him, accusing him of portraying her people, those of Jewish ancestry, in stereotypical and negative ways. She cited Fagin, from Oliver Twist, a cruel and selfish man teaching young street urchins to steal. Eliza begged him to show more complexity in his Jewish characters.
Dickens was unimpressed.
However, taking a page from Dickens’ own, Christmas Carol and the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Eliza wrote him again:
And this time, Dickens was moved. And changed. From then on, his Jewish characters were complex and kind, and the exchange between Eliza and Dickens is credited for having a part in reducing anti-Semitic views and laws of the day.
Eliza had the same tools at hand as Dickens himself: pen, paper, and a keen sense of justice. While she lacked his fame, she made up for it by essentially teaming with him to bring about change.
What are the injustices of our day? It can be challenging to see them, sometimes, because we’ve been so steeped in things the way they are, that they seem normal. But if we pretend we are explaining our world to an alien, for instance, we might be hard-pressed to answer some of their questions. It is in those places, those places we know to be wrong, that we can strive to be the heroes of our own lives.
Not every problem can be solved. Not every complaint wants a ‘solution’. Sometimes the heart just craves company, someone to walk beside in trying times.
As Henri Nouwen says,
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
― Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
Consider jobs. Today’s jobs may not be tomorrow’s jobs, just like yesterday’s jobs aren’t today’s.
and knocker uppers
went the way of electric street lamps and alarm clocks. (Go here for a fascinating list of 51 jobs that don’t exist anymore.)
And yet the people who had these now obsolete jobs led as full and vibrant of lives as we do. We are not our jobs. Our worth has little to do with the job we have. Our jobs are external to our essence.
For proof, consider this paragraph written by AI:
Sure, I’d be happy to help with that! While our jobs can be an important part of our identity and sense of purpose, it’s important to remember that we are not defined solely by our careers. Our individual identities are made up of a wide range of experiences, values, and beliefs, many of which extend far beyond the workplace. It’s important to recognize and honor the many facets of our identities, including our personal passions, relationships, and hobbies, as well as our professional aspirations. While our jobs may provide structure and direction in our lives, they are just one piece of a larger puzzle that makes up who we are. By embracing the totality of our identities, we can find greater meaning, fulfillment, and happiness in all aspects of our lives.
We are at an inflection point when a bot can write copy like this in seconds. We’ve seen self check out lines in grocery stores and libraries. Automation in every aspect of manufacturing. We’ve seen artificial intelligence pass the bar exam and win photography contests. What are the arenas for only human hands and heart? What are the jobs of our future? What does artificial intelligence lack that only humans can provide?
First among these must be soul. And then heart. Compassion. Human to human contact. Empathy. If and when AI enters into these realms, the world will be a very complicated place.
I’m not a fan of clutter. I’m also quite challenged to part with stuff. It’s a problem. Like some people avoid carbs or sugar, I avoid ‘collecting’ because I know, given my propensities, it will lead to clutter. But there are many things that are clutter-free that I love to collect. Among these are words. Words are just so delightful— the sound and smack of them, their history, their aptness for a particular purpose.
One of my favorite bits of writing advice is to collect words that might fit for the time and place of your story.
In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long writes:
The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds, and tools, and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They savor not only the meanings, but also the musicality of words. They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words but mainly words they like. They are not “improving their vocabulary” or studying for the SAT or the GRE. They are not trying to be fancy or decorative. This is a different kind of thing.
She suggests keeping a journal of these words and going on quests to capture more:
HANDS ON: MAKE YOUR OWN LEXICON Buy a small bound and sewn blank book, with fine paper. This is your Lexicon. Put in words you like, words that strike your fancy, words you want to own. I suggest giving each word half a page. Put in the word _ lickspittle – and draw a horizontal line dividing the page in half. This way you can put in a word and look it up later. (Under lickspittle write: a contemptible, fawning person; a flatterer or toady.) You will end up with two words per page. This is not a typical vocabulary list full of horrible Latinate words you don’t know and don’t want to know. The rule is, put in only the good words, the juicy words, the hot words. From time to time, savor this book. Look up words you’ve put in (something from your reading) and haven’t looked up yet. Be sure to investigate the root. Put in familiar words along with new words. Play with sounds right in your Lexicon: kitchen matches; cord/weird/word/ fired/turd. From time to time read a big dictionary hunting for a new good word, any word that strikes your fancy: galoot. On some pages make word lists. Fiddle parts – peg box, button, side rib, bridge. Words for blue – cobalt, woad, sapphire, smalt. Words from an art exhibition you especially loved – bone, tin plate; cotton, cord, silk ribbon, silver, galloon; coconuts, shells, ostrich eggs (from Moscow Treasures). Put down things you don’t know the names of. Do you know the parts of a window? (Muntin? Sash?) Do you know the parts of a rocking chair? Draw or describe the thing in your Lexicon and then set about looking (in a book on house repairs or on furniture) for splat or spindle or stile. Do not order your list in any way.
She goes on to discuss making a word trap to fit the piece you are working on, the musicality and derivation of words, the vowel scale, and all sorts of other intriguing ways to add nuance, accuracy, and lilt to your piece. Hers is one of my favorite craft books, of which I have dozens. (See above about my hoarding propensities.)
But this intro brings me to my joy for the day. I discovered someone on Twitter who shares this love of words, who posted a word for the day. It’s blutherbung, an appropriate word for me these days as it turns out.
And then I looked at her feed and found another
Lickspittle, blutherbung, biophony. Aren’t these just wonderful? who do you suppose thought these up, studying human nature or the natural world and coming up with just the word to describe that particular confluence of traits? And now I’ve subscribed to her feed to get these delightful tidbits each day.
As you can probably guess, another thing I collect is quotations. I have a little book to jot them as I’m reading an article or book. I periodically look through this little book and write my thoughts about them. Which is what brought me here to writing Quotable Creek.
Another thing I ‘collect’ is gratitudes. I write the things I’m thankful for in a gratitude journal, to keep them and remember those moments. My next thing I’m thinking of to collect is book impressions. I read quite a bit, but get blutherbunged and forget about them. Perhaps keeping a little thought about each will bring them back to me. It’s another thing I found on Twitter. Probably when I was reading from the word lady’s thread.
Standing up to fear changes a person. It helps you to put matters in perspective. Where once fear loomed over you, insurmountable, now you can honor the courage it took to move past it into unfamiliar territory.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a courageous woman. Despite her husband’s attempts to placate the South, she regularly bucked segregation and was a vocal proponent of civil rights. She was able to call out racism and force others to see it for what it was:
By 1939, ER decided to attack the hypocritical way in which the nation dealt with racial injustice. She wanted her fellow citizens to understand how their guilt in “writing and speaking about democracy and the American way without consideration of the imperfections within our system with regard to its treatment . . . of the Negro” encouraged racism. Americans, she told Ralph Bunche in an interview for Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, wanted to talk “only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet.” Such withdrawal only fueled violent responses; Americans must therefore recognize “the real intensity of feeling” and “the amount of intimidation and terrorization” racism promotes and act against such “ridiculous” behavior.
You can’t clearly see a problem before you if you are too scared to look at it and call it out for what it is. Where are the injustices in your immediate orbit? Are there people being treated unfairly? How can you add your voice to help identify the problem and move toward healing? These problems are right here, close to home.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said:
Where after do human rights begin? In small places, close to home– so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
Fear is a crippler. It keeps you rooted in a course of action you know to be wrong. Focusing on the fear helps it to loom even larger before you. Instead, focus on the better world you are trying to help build. Spreading love and justice is exciting and uplifting. Being part of something bigger than yourself, working for a common goal, in an effort to improve people’s circumstance is rewarding.
You don’t have to see the whole path in front of you. Take, and keep taking, that next step forward.
I recently read the book, Remarkable Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt with my book club. It is a wonderful book of, among other things, the friendship between a 70-year old widow and a giant Pacific octopus. The main character has her own group of friends who have been together for decades and call themselves the Knit-wits because they started with knitting in common.
One of my book club members, the youngest (as she often reminds us) asked at our meeting, “Are we the knit-wits?” I smiled. I have known this group of friends for decades. We raised our children together and now are delighting in grand parenthood together. We’ve weathered storms together, celebrated each other’s victories, and helped each other through loss. We meet religiously every week to catch up with each other. What a delight it is to have ‘through thick and thin’ friends.
I found this sweet friendship poem I offer here to them.
A person who will listen and not condemn Someone on whom you can depend They will not flee when bad times are here Instead they will be there to lend an ear They will think of ways to make you smile So you can be happy for a while When times are good and happy there after They will be there to share the laughter Do not forget your friends at all For they pick you up when you fall Do not expect to just take and hold Give friendship back, it is pure gold.
Recently, I pulled down an old scrapbook from my junior high days to show my granddaughter Lily who is just that same age now as I was then. It contained many ‘treasures’. Among the many letters and cards from my late grandmother was one talking about the buzzards coming back home to Hinckley, Ohio, a phenomenon which I remember amused me. Imagine celebrating buzzards!
It should cheer you somewhat to know that the buzzards returned to Hinckley, Ohio, on schedule on March 15th. It is always a comfort to know those gorgeous creatures ‘do their thing’ each year, as anticipated. It would be a bit discouraging to prepare pancakes and sausages for 35,000 eager folks, and have no buzzards to join in the celebration!
Oh, how I loved her, her humor and wit, her warmth and love, her writing style. I have always felt such a kinship with her and reading over her letters makes her feel so close.
Her letter got me thinking. First, about buzzards. Sure enough, a quick bit of googling shows that buzzards are still returning to Hinckley on schedule and have been celebrated since 1818!
And then about the cyclical quality of nature. The monarchs go south and then back. The swallows return to San Juan Capistrano. The elephant seals come back to Cambria. We humans who love animals mark their going and celebrate their homecoming, yes, even the buzzards, and note the steady passage of time.
And finally about how those we’ve lost stay with us even after they’ve gone. Lily has a freckle on her right hand which I’ve told her is her Nana freckle. I load it up with kisses often when I see her. When I’m gone, I hope that freckle will remind her of how very much I loved her. My grandmother and I were separated by thousands of miles, but our letters exchanged helped us stay close. Those letters remind me now to pause and share bits of life, simple moments, with the people I love. Those moments become the memories and precious treasure later.
As I age, I have a new appreciation for those poets like Dylan Thomas raging against mortality. I do not want to go gentle into that good night. I like it here.
Here is a new variation on that theme I enjoyed:
Sorrow Is Not My Name BY ROSS GAY
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No matter the florid, deep sleep awaits. There is a time for everything. Look, just this morning a vulture nodded his red, grizzled head at me, and I looked at him, admiring the sickle of his beak. Then the wind kicked up, and, after arranging that good suit of feathers he up and took off. Just like that. And to boot, there are, on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things, some with names so generous as to kick the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon, stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks at the market. Think of that. The long night, the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah. But look; my niece is running through a field calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel and at the end of my block is a basketball court. I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
It is a kind of love, is it not? How the cup holds the tea, How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare, How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes Or toes. How soles of feet know Where they’re supposed to be. I’ve been thinking about the patience Of ordinary things, how clothes Wait respectfully in closets And soap dries quietly in the dish, And towels drink the wet From the skin of the back. And the lovely repetition of stairs. And what is more generous than a window?
~ from Another River: New and Selected Poems (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2005)