Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rescue by fraud: the true story of the Vénissieux sorting camp

Today in church I was reflecting on this story--the true story I'm about to tell you, the story of how a little ecumenical group of priests and aid workers stole a Vichy telegram and used it, and their best fraud skills, to snatch a hundred children out of the jaws of the Nazis.

I think it may have literally changed my life.

I remember the days I spent studying it for the first time in someone's history thesis, in between nursing my infant son. I remember walking along a road with my husband in the sunlight, telling him how small I felt, like I could do nothing real from where I was against the terrible tides of the world that sweep the meek away like sand, but that somehow I felt this small call--useful or not--to keep the memory of these people alive, the ones who quietly stepped in and rescued. That I was starting to understand the passion of these historians--I kept meeting the same ones in my research, this small circle of people visibly dedicated to making sure the story of the rescuers of Jews in Vichy France were not forgotten. (Some of them had been rescuers themselves. Some of them had been rescued.)

And then I wrote my next novel so hard I ruined my hands doing it. Couldn't use them for almost three months, and not all that much for the two months after that. And it was so hard and I never regretted the novel. Never. Because I was doing my life's work and I knew I was--useful or not--and you can't regret that. But when did I stop seeing writing about such things as something I did because you do what you're good at and start seeing it as--useful or not--the small yet all-demanding service God had asked of me? I don't know when. One thing led to another, like a plant finding its way up to the sun.

But the seed was planted when I read this story.

Thank God.

So here's the story of how, during the worst round-up of Jews in Vichy France, French Catholic and Protestant aid workers rescued almost all of the Jewish children who had been arrested in the city of Lyon.

In August 1942, the collaborationist French government in Vichy planned a nationwide round-up of foreign Jews, to happen on the 26th. The Germans, who had recently shifted their policy toward Jews from expelling them to gathering them in camps and murdering them, had given Vichy a quota to fill, and Vichy was trying to fill it.

What the Germans had not asked for—but Vichy decided to give them anyway—was the children.

On August 19th, Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval sent new orders to the French police who were to carry out the job: the children were to be deported too. Previously there had been a policy in place that they could be left behind if the parents agreed to sign over custody to someone who was staying in France. That was now changed, for the simple reason that Laval didn't want them on his hands. I'm pretty sure this qualifies as the worst crime France committed during World War II.

On the morning of August 26th, thousands of Jewish families in cities and towns across the country found police at their doors, come to arrest them all—men, women, children. They weren't put on trains right away; there was some bureaucracy to do first. They were taken to sorting camps, places where they would be kept a few days while officials figured out if any of them were French citizens or otherwise didn't meet the conditions for deportation. In Lyon, where our story is, they were taken to a disused army camp in a suburb called Vénissieux.

Inside the Vénissieux camp it was chaos. People were having their fates decided and they knew it, but no-one really knew what was going on. The level of trauma it must have been, I won't even try to describe. Though I have tried in my novel, from one young character's point of view, and I hope it won't put too many readers off. It was also chaos from the point of view of the French police. (I'm not asking you to feel sorry for them, this has bearing on the story.) They were supposed to pull out people who were exempt from deportation—pregnant women, people too sick to travel, veterans of French or Allied armies, etc—and the rules had recently been changed and they were not clear on them. This is where the rescuers saw their chance.

The rescuers were the Amitié Chrétienne, a network of Catholic and Protestant aid groups (the name means “Christian friendship,” after the fact that it was ecumenical.) There was also a Jewish group, the OSE (their name translates to “Children's Aid Network”) that worked with them. But unofficially, of course. It was the Christians who had political access. (And that should be food for thought for any Christian looking at the Holocaust. Maybe I'll write my thoughts on that sometime.)

And they had a truly surprising amount of access. Believe it or not, the Amitié Chrétienne actually convinced the police to let them help with the sorting process.

And they immediately set about undermining it just as hard as they could.

They got several of their members onto the “sorting committee.” They performed bureaucratic ju-jitsu I don't begin to understand, to try to prove basically every single detainee exempt from deportation. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they failed. The camp doctor, a young man who had decided in the moment to throw his career on the line and do everything he could, helped over a hundred people fake serious illnesses in order to be declared “untransportable,” unsure until the last minute whether they would be deported anyway. Hundreds of adults were saved—almost half of the people in the camp (though it's hard to sort out from the numbers I've read who was actually exempt in the first place and who was saved by the efforts of the A.C.) Then the Amitié Chrétienne got the chance to do what they'd come for in the first place—save the children.

One of the spearheads of the operation was a Catholic priest, the Abbé Glasberg, who was also Jewish, the son of parents who had converted. (He wasn't under threat for his ethnicity at this point because he was a French citizen.) He had already been working for two years getting people out of the Vichy internment camps, ostensibly on a temporary basis, and then making them “disappear.” He had obtained the support of the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Gerlier, whose name gave him the clout he needed to get government officials to listen to him. And he had a contact in Pierre Laval's office, a secret résistante, through whom he'd been able to find out that the children were going to be deported. Saving them had been his goal from the start.

He got his real chance when he was somehow able to steal the telegram ordering the Lyon police to have the children deported. (My source is maddeningly unclear on just how he managed this.) I think he must have stolen it from an office, because he apparently stole a whole folder of papers as well. Between the telegram—which they soon realized had not yet been read—and the papers, which contained the old orders about allowing the parents to sign over custody and leave their kids behind, the Amitié Chrétienne began to see their way clear.

They also realized they had absolutely no time to lose. The detainees had now been in the camp for the better part of two days and deportation was imminent. And they couldn't expect the news blackout Glasberg had created by stealing the telegram to last very long.

Thus began what people who know the story call “la nuit de Vénissieux,” the long night of the Vénissieux camp. The night when, from dusk to the wee hours of the morning, aid workers went through every barrack, in the dark because the lights had failed, and tried to explain to every family, in French or German or Yiddish or whatever they spoke, that there was a chance for their children—and that it meant saying good-bye. The only assurance they could give them for their children was their word, and the word of Cardinal Gerlier.

Again, I won't try to describe here what that must have been like. Maybe you can imagine. Maybe parents, especially, can imagine. I wrote a scene about this night in my book, from the point of view of a teenage girl. But I wouldn't have dared write it from the point of view of the parents.

All the parents but one parted from their children, in order to give them a chance to survive.

There's a story that near the end of the night, when the children were being put in the buses, a police official heard women screaming and weeping aloud in the barracks and asked the Abbé Glasberg, “What are they yelling about?” Glasberg said, “If someone took your children, wouldn't you yell?” The official was silent for a moment. “...I suppose so,” he said.

And so in the dark before dawn, with permission of the authorities, the Amitié Chrétienne drove three buses full of children out of the Vénissieux camp.

Now they had to make them disappear. Fast.

They drove them all to a huge building owned by some allies (specifically a French Jewish scouting organization, yes really), an almost empty place that used to be a Carmelite convent. The scouts brought food and tried to help the kids, some of them tiny, make sense of what had just happened to them, while every single worker of every group in the Amitié Chrétienne called on every single contact she or he had in order to find swift and secret placements for the kids. By midmorning a young woman from the prefecture (regional government office) showed up with a warning: the préfet, who knew about the new orders, had got wind of what they'd done. He wanted the kids back. He was going to carry out his orders.

They moved the kids through the huge convent to another entrance on a different street at least a block away. None of them would be seen going out the door they'd come in. They kept a watch at the front door and dispersed the children with frantic care: a group to a convent here, two or three siblings to a private home there, twenty teen boys off into the wilderness where they would camp disguised in scout uniforms till placements could be found for them. A handful of the children went to Le Chambon, the town I write about.

They were lucky; the police didn't come to the convent till the next morning. All they found there was Madeleine Dreyfus, a French Jewish psychologist and social worker, a Jew who saved Jews and whom I've got to write about sometime. Every question they asked, she answered with “Ask Cardinal Gerlier.” The préfet himself called him up and asked him. He didn't know; he was just the backer. He had not been on the ground with the others, he had never had the addresses. And although he wavered when given the personal word of Marshal Pétain that they would not be used to deport the children (he and Pétain were old friends), he soon firmed and let the authorities know that he would neither give the addresses nor ask his colleagues to do so; the parents had entrusted their children to him and that was that.

The préfet attached an extra train car to the deportation train and called again. The cardinal refused. The préfet invalidated the Amitié Chrétienne's custody of the children, but that didn't provide him with their whereabouts. Prime Minister Pierre Laval himself—the same man who'd signed the deportation order, and I refrain from profanity only because there's none strong enough—told the préfet that if the cardinal cared so much they'd better make him happy.

And the case was closed.

They got away with it. They got away with it because they were French Christians dealing with other French Christians, or nominal Christians, or cultural Christians, or people embedded in a culture, in a country, that had respected the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for well over a thousand years. They got away with it because they were people the authorities deemed respectable—as they had deemed others disposable.

They got away with it for the same reasons a Christian in America today would get away with it. The same reasons I would get away with it.

And that's the story of Vénissieux.


Source: Août 1942, Lyon Contre Vichy: le sauvetage de tous les enfants juifs du camp de Vénissieux (August 1942, Lyon Versus Vichy: the rescue of all the Jewish children from the camp at Vénissieux), by Valérie Perthuis-Portheret

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Grieving, weakness, God, and my friend Rich

I am re-running this, because I know that my publisher put my blog URL on the back of Flame in the Night, and if anyone new here shows up because of that, I want them to know about the person I dedicated the book to.

I wrote this in March 2017.


I've been realizing, as I recover from finishing my manuscript, just how many things I put on hold as I raced toward the finish line. (And then limped over it, having gotten a nasty chest cold in the last week of the work; between the book and my 3-year-old I managed to ration out just enough energy to finish.) One of those things, naturally, was cleaning the house. (You should've seen it.)

But I think another may have been grieving.

My dear friend Rich Foss died in January. I think it was January. It's been so surreal. It was expected, in a way; his health was bad at the best of times, and was getting worse. Then the blow came suddenly: he was newly diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, when his immune system's continual fight against his chronic lung condition was all that was keeping him alive.

Rich was always a brave and honest man. He could barely walk; he'd had rheumatoid arthritis since he was seventeen, and by the time I met him his feet literally pointed in opposite directions. He spent the bulk of his time in a mechanized recliner, hooking himself up, with his wife Sarah's help, to three or four medical machines daily to stay alive. And I'd venture to say he spent the bulk of that time facing things head-on. (Not just his own things. All the things. But that's too long a story for today.) He had been talking openly about his own death for over a year, even when the rest of us felt that social impulse to tiptoe round it. He had known a long time that he wasn't going to live to a ripe old age. When the last diagnosis came, he accepted that it was the end. He went on hospice care.

But we did think he was going to live longer than two weeks.

When it happened, one level of my soul accepted it, in a stunned sort of way: this is happening, this is real. But for weeks afterward when I woke up, at the moment of coming back to consciousness, it would hit me with shock: Rich is dead. There was a part of me, down inside sleep, that still had no idea.

I used to visit Rich every Thursday evening, for years. We'd talk about this or that. But in the past two years we'd started to talk almost exclusively about the book I was writing. After the first few weeks of mostly talking about myself and my work I started to get uncomfortable: clearly I was monopolizing these conversations. I loved being able to talk about my writing--it's not easy to do so in a way people can even understand, when you're still in process, and Rich did--and Rich was always generous with his listening, but I needed to rein it in; even the most patient person would get tired of this week after week. I kept checking in with him about it, first in subtle ways, then asking him outright. Finally he managed to convince me: he was genuinely enjoying himself.

It felt like a miracle to me. That I could get what I so badly needed without having another person generously sacrifice their time for me; that I could get it while actually adding something good to someone else's day. Rich was a writer himself--if you can find a copy of his beautiful novel Jonas and Sally, I recommend it very heartily--and interested in Story, in the travails and dilemmas and emotions of human beings and how we resolve them, how we make the big choices, which is what fiction is about. As I went deeper into the book, themes developed in it that were very dear to his heart. He would tell me stories from his own life that re-echoed the themes, we would talk about what those things meant to us. Sometimes I would come to him with my latest thorny problem and he would give advice. Sometimes I would simply tell him the scene I wrote that day, and watch him react, and see that it was right. Sometimes what I was writing would lead into profound stories from memories he was sifting through and processing, knowing he was at the end of life. Sometimes he would cry.

(I think he would be all right with my telling you this. He was a very open person.)

Then came the time it became a miracle for him.

He used to be a leader, a writer, a mentor, a counselor. He was profoundly respected, it was clear at his funeral. But in his last few years he had no energy for the contributions he used to make; all his energy was spent in the sheer work of staying alive, managing his medical conditions--and that took work all right, a day-long routine of medical machines. One hour of conversation a day was pretty much what he had the energy for after that. And he needed more and more help--someone to come over & warm up his supper, for instance, which he could do but getting up and walking would wear him out. I did that often, I loved doing it, it meant a chance to talk with him, even if briefly. As things went more in that direction, I was stunned by how much that meant to him--that I wanted to.

It was getting harder and harder for him, being helped. He'd been helped all his life, of course, but he'd also been a leader. Now he talked about being an "outsider." Now most of the interactions in his day were someone coming over and doing him a favor. One that he wasn't able to return.

But with me he was. With me he had the energy (on a good day) to have at least a little bit of deeply meaningful conversation, because Story energized him; with me he was a mentor giving deeply valued advice and understanding, giving me something I needed very much. With me he was not just a receiver but also a giver, and he needed that. His soul needed that. We came to understand this end-of-life friendship as a deep gift of God to us both.

There was something about it that was very hard to understand, for me. It's this: God's power is made perfect in weakness. To receive, to be helped, isn't this a connection that has God in it? Simone Weil says "Compassion and gratitude come down from God, and when they are exchanged in a glance, God is present at the point where the eyes of those who give and the eyes of those who receive meet." I think that's beautiful. And true. I knew Rich agreed with me on this. And I knew Rich was deeply connected to God. But to see just how much it hurt him, this profoundly respected man, just wondering if he was a burden to the friends who stopped by to hook up his oxygen or microwave his pizza--I don't want to go into detail, honestly, I don't want to make you picture this, that might be a bridge too far in terms of openness--well, I couldn't parse it. What about the power of God?

What I learned from his feelings at the end of his life was this: oh Lord, Heather, it is so much harder than you think.

I have not been tested on this. But I will be. Except for those of us who die very, very suddenly, every single one of us will be. And that is the other thing I have learned: in the face of someone who is in that place of vulnerability, when you have to help and yet helping is painful, that is the one response that brings connection and relief: I will be in your place someday.

(It's ironic. It's one of the themes in my book. The Jewish characters and the pain of their vulnerability, the way the non-Jewish characters have a profound "I had no idea" shock when they finally come to understand--due to the threat their rescue efforts end up placing them under--what their friends have really been experiencing this whole time.)

Why? Why does weakness, plain material weakness, hurt us so much? Why does dependence on other people hurt us so much? Why are we ashamed of it? It's one of those places where all I've been taught about God seems so right and so good, and yet it is so hard for it to come to birth in our daily world. (What Simone Weil said is beautiful, and I still believe it, but I love her all the more because, though the quote doesn't show it, if you read the whole essay you will see that she fully understands the pain involved, and the difficulty; what she is describing in the quote is literally a miracle.)

Why? I don't know. I don't know. There are only two things I know: It is much harder than I think. And I will face it someday.

Oh, and one more thing: I still believe. And Rich knows. Rich knows all of it now.

So here is the thing I can say at the end of this story, that I would not have dared to say at the beginning, because I fear so much to sound selfish about my friend's death. Ever since I finished the book I have been mourning what I used to think this time would hold. I was recording the book for Rich to listen to. I had just recorded Chapter 15 when he died. I went ahead and recorded Chapter 16, because I had other reasons for wanting a recording. It broke me up hard, to read it into the microphone, to feel no-one on the other end. I always believed he was going to read this book. I want him to read it, I want to put it in his hands. But they're gone.

And yes, I mourn the help he could have given me. There are very specific questions I want to ask him: should I change this? Is this over the top? And I don't dare tell people that part, out of context. But the help he gave me was the connection, the friendship, the gift, it was the help I gave him too. It was the help God gave us. It was the miracle.

In my head, he was going to live till spring came. We would talk. He would listen to the book and we would talk about it, talk about it. I would bring him the first spring flowers. And then I would be ready to let go. That was how it was going to be, in my head.

Oh Lord, Heather. It is so much harder than you think.

Monday, August 20, 2018

A 400-year tradition of welcoming refugees

So this week someone sent me a Smithsonian magazine, with this story in it (please do read it! I can't do it justice.) A story about the little place in France which I write about, where during World War II the local plateau farmers and townspeople went about sheltering and saving thousands of Jewish refugees as if it was the obvious thing to do. You run across stories about it here and there online, often on Holocaust memorial sites (the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a good one,) telling what they did during the war.

Well, this one isn't about what they did during the war.

It's about what they're doing now.

Now, they are taking in refugees. Now during the worst refugee crisis since World War II, they are simply doing what it is their towns' and their region's tradition to do: offer shelter to those who need it.

If you don't know yet about the story of this place, I'll offer you here the summary I put into the historical note in Flame in the Night:


In south central France there is a high, cold plateau, a hard place to farm, a hard place to keep warm through the long, bitter winters. Hundreds of years ago the Huguenots—French Protestants fiercely persecuted by Catholic kings—fled to that cold plateau and made it their own, built their homes out of the rocks, and learned to till the stony soil. For hundreds of years their descendants kept their traditions: their worship, their independence, their distrust of the government. Their memory of persecution.
And then France fell to the Nazis, and the new French government in Vichy began arresting Jews.

Writers still debate why the people of the Vivarais-­Lignon plateau hid so many Jews during World War II, but one thing is clear: they did, and it seemed normal to them. It’s said by people with memory of that time that there was a Jewish refugee in every farmhouse. They saved thousands of lives at the risk of their own, saying afterward that it was only the decent thing to do. And across the plateau, in its eleven villages, a network of pastors worked with each other and with their congregations and their neighbors to welcome refugees, hide them, feed them, provide them with false papers, and eventually (with the aid of allies Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, French and Swiss) smuggle many of them across the border into Switzerland.


And they continue that tradition—local families taking in families from Congo, from South Sudan, from Syria. Teaching them French, giving them a place to breathe, to taste peace and normal life again. It's remarkably similar to what was going on there during WWII, even in that—it's not always said, but there was a huge emphasis on not only hiding the Jewish refugees but giving them (especially the children, many of them separated from their parents) enough peace and normality and hope to help them carry on. They're really doing the exact same thing they did during WWII—I've said it before and I'll say it again, they would never have saved the lives they did if they'd done it for the sake of being heroes, if they'd waited till they knew the mortal danger before taking people in—no, they weren't trying to be heroes then and they aren't now. They are simply continuing their tradition. Simply giving their neighbor what they would wish for themselves, what we all wish for: a roof over our heads, a table with friendly faces around it, a place where our children can play in peace.

It seemed normal to them then, it seems normal to them now.

God grant us such normality in our own country, in our own communities. God grant us such traditions.

It's not just a matter of granting, of course. But man, God grant us the chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Flame in the Night is at my house!

When I was a kid, my mental image of being an author was this: you get a big package in the mail, you open it, and there it is! Your book--dozens of it! Your author copies have arrived! You're an author!

So yeah, that's one day in an author's life (the most filmable, of course, which is why it was my mental picture!), out of approximately one thousand and thirty-six. But it is one day--and it has come!

Here's a little video of my son playing with them, facilitated by my husband (and the Boy's rather interesting notions of how libraries work!)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Healing "tendinitis"

See end for an important update to this post.

I thought it was time for a post about what I've learned due to my injuries—but not what I've learned about life, the woods, and God this time. Just what I've learned about tendons.

This does mean that if your tendons are fine, you could skip this one—but maybe don't? I'm writing this in hopes of being useful to a few beleaguered people out there, and one of them just may be someone you know. And maybe you could point them to this post, today or sometime down the road. I hope so. Because as I've learned, injuries like mine—repetitive stress injuries of all kinds—can be truly horrible for people whose livelihoods depend on the very muscles and tendons they've been stressing. It can be extremely hard to recover, and extremely hard to find answers as to what, if anything, can truly be done.

And the truth is, there are answers now. They're new (in a way at least), and not very well-known yet. But if I can help spread the word, I may help restore strength to a few people who desperately need it, and I want to. I don't want anybody else to have to go through this.

1. It's not tendinitis, exactly

It's tendinosis.

This has actually been accepted medical doctrine for a while, but most people don't realize it because doctors have tended to use the familiar term tendinitis with patients, while officially diagnosing tendinosis.

So is this just semantics? Not quite.

The suffix "-itis" denotes inflammation. Tendinitis basically means an inflamed tendon. This does happen, but the newer medical research suggests that it's less common and much briefer than the condition I've got, and is usually caused by a sudden strain or injury—not by repetitive stress. Chronic tendon pain like mine, they now believe, is almost always tendinosis.

Now "-osis" suggests, not inflammation, but degeneration—actual changes to the tissue. That's why complete rest and anti-inflammatories were not enough to heal me. Something was wrong in the tissue itself, something that needed active physical treatment. I can't give a full explanation of exactly what was wrong (although if you have lots of time you can get one here) but here are the main things I understand: the repetitive stress I imposed on my hands & forearms caused scar tissue to form in my tendons. This scar tissue is matted and tangled whereas normal tendon tissue lies straight and smooth, and so it impedes function. This scar tissue also is far more sensitive to pain than normal tissue—and so using my tendon causes pain.

The scar tissue will never go away. I'll always have it. But there are ways to change it, re-align it into a healthier configuration that—though I'll always have to be a little careful with it—will allow me to work pretty much as I did before without pain.

Actually, there are almost too many ways…

2. Scar tissue treatments

The first time I ever heard of a therapy that could actively begin to reverse my condition was on the website of Dr. Schierling down in Missouri—and let me tell you, within an hour or two of finally deciding he was for real, I was on Google Maps looking for campgrounds in the Ozarks. (Fortunately, since our only option for travel to a rural area in another state would have been someone else's car, that didn't prove to be necessary.) It did take me a little while to decide he was for real—if you have a look around his website, you'll notice a few of his opinions are a little far out—but I do think that he is, and I think his distrust of the medical establishment is understandable in light of the fact that for years he's been using a therapy they didn't recognize but which did wonders for at least certain of his patients. He doesn't have to be right about everything—just as long as he's right about scar tissue, and how to change it.

Because that's the key. There are quite a few different versions of the technique by now, but the fundamental thing is this: what this type of condition needs is a direct therapy to break up the scar tissue that has formed in the tendon and remodel or recondition it. The scar tissue doesn't go away, but it can be changed enough by the therapy—and the stretches prescribed alongside it, which help the tissue to heal in the right configuration—to turn the tendon back into something that's usable without pain.

Like I said, there are different versions. And they're practiced by different types of practitioners. The first clue I ever had about scar tissue therapy, weirdly enough, was a guy telling in a forum how the only thing could ever heal his "tendinitis" was a strange balm bought in a little Chinese store in Chinatown and rubbed into his tendon by the seller, painfully hard (an extremely important part of the process, he was told.) Immediately following this story, someone else chimed in to say his chronic tendinitis never went away until he visited a bodyworker/massage therapist who gave him a similar painful massage.

I've learned since then that scar tissue work is indeed something that many massage therapists are trained in, though it's not well known to the public. (I have one story of a massage therapist who chose not to pursue training in it because she realized most massage clients don't want painful therapies. They want massage to feel good—it's seen as a luxury, not as therapy.) Which is too bad! It seems to me that in their not-officially-scientific way, they've held out answers for a long time, and science has only recently caught up. As many of us learned in math class, just because you're not able to show your work doesn't necessarily mean you got the answer wrong…

But like I say, science has caught up. There are now scar tissue therapies done by physical and occupational therapists, covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

There are so many different versions of this, you guys. I don't know everything about them—I don't even know the names of all of them, most likely—but I want to give people a starting point for exploring and choosing. Most likely some of them are more effective than others, but it probably depends heavily on both the skill of your practitioner and how their technique connects with your condition. You can do your own research starting with the links here. So here's a quick overview with links.

Massage therapists:

Massage therapists tend to use manual techniques (as opposed to instrument-assisted techniques, which involve some type of metal or plastic instrument.) It seems to me there are advantages to this, and from my reading it seems a really skilled and experienced practitioner can feel how much scar tissue you have and where, as well as feel it breaking down. I gather that these manual techniques are sometimes painful and sometimes not—if you have concerns about that you'll probably want to ask your practitioner.

Here is an example of an apparently very skilled and experienced practitioner. She's in Australia:

And an article by her about her technique, which she calls scar tissue release therapy:

You'll find an abundance of different names in this business. These folks call it scar tissue massage:

It's also called scar tissue remodeling—a particularly accurate name, if I understand correctly, because the scar tissue is not destroyed but rather reshaped by the therapy. If I were still searching among different practitioners to find someone who knows some version of it, I would probably use the generic term "some form of scar tissue therapy" and maybe add "some therapy that can break down and remodel scar tissue." (I might also mention some of the names in the PT section further down, especially if I was talking to a PT.)


Like I said, the first place I ran across this kind of technique (scar tissue remodeling, in this particular case) was on a chiropractor's website. One interesting thing about this guy is that he learned of the technique (years and years ago) from another chiropractor who successfully treated him with it for the exact condition I have—tendinosis in both elbows. It seems to me that here is another very skilled and experienced practitioner—that does seem to count for a great deal in this business—and I can vouch that he responded to me promptly and helpfully when I inquired about coming down to see him about my elbows.

There are some other scar tissue therapy techniques practiced by chiropractors—I don't know many details about most of these.

Here's one called Active Release Therapy:

Another, called Rapid Release Therapy, which seems quite new and assisted by a type of instrument I've never seen before:

And another, apparently more widespread, called the Graston Technique. The Graston Technique is a type of instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization therapy (IASTM) using metal instruments. More on that in a minute.

But first I want to give a shout out to a somewhat local chiropractic practice, in Peoria. I spoke on the phone with a man named Carl (I unfortunately can't find his last name) who works there—I believe his official title was as a massage therapist. He was so extremely knowledgeable and helpful—completely familiar with the different techniques, clarified things for me, gave me excellent advice—that I very much wished he was nearer (and that chiropractic was covered for me!), as I would have felt I was entirely in good hands. Believe me, that was not the case with everyone I questioned on the phone! Only one other therapist even came close.

So if you have tendinosis or other chronic pain and are in or near Peoria, go to Benningfield Associates and ask for Carl.

Physical and occupational therapists

And now we get to the therapy that I actually ended up going with. But first let me mention the generic term usually used by physical therapists: soft tissue mobilization. There are manual versions of this technique, as seen below:

But one version that seems to be catching on and becoming more widespread—and of course the advantage of this is that you're likelier to find it near you, and covered—is called ASTYM. That acronym is a different version of the other that you saw before, standing for instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization. (This is important to note because due to the "stim" sound in the word, people tend to assume it's some kind of electrical stimulation therapy like an EMS unit.) It's an instrument assisted scar tissue therapy similar to the Graston Technique—I don't know the details, of course, but the obvious difference is that it uses plastic instruments, somewhat different in shape.

It seems like one of the advantages of an instrument assisted therapy is that it can be more generic—easier to teach a wide range of people, more replicable. This is probably why it's more widespread, and it solves the problem of finding a deeply skilled and experienced practitioner—you can be pretty sure of getting good therapy as long as someone has had the official training. And, of course, unlike massage therapy, it's more universally recognized by the medical community, and more likely to be covered.

And here it is:

Along with a more scholarly article about IASTM techniques in general:

My therapist—she is technically an occupational therapist, because apparently, at my hospital, occupational therapists work on hands and arms—has been in the field for 12 years but was only trained in ASTYM a year-and-a-half ago. She says it's given her better results than anything else she's ever done. She spreads cocoa butter on my arms and works them with various shaped plastic instruments, covering the whole forearm but with special focus on the elbow tendons and also a few particular areas of the wrists, hands, and shoulders (just one tiny place on the shoulder, actually, which is apparently a trigger point for certain forearm or hand muscles.)

It doesn't hurt—in fact it feels pretty nice. She and I can both feel a certain roughness or "grindiness" under the skin when she hits an area that has a lot of scar tissue in it—that's actually the feeling of the scar tissue breaking up. It's not a painful feeling, it's actually rather subtle, and she can feel it better than I can. It takes maybe half an hour for both arms—she follows it with a short ultrasound treatment on each arm to stimulate healing—and she says it takes 8 to 12 treatments for full healing. (I expect in my case it'll take the full 12!) I've felt a huge amount of improvement. This week she instructed me to try weeding half an hour each day—carefully, wearing braces and icing my elbows afterwards—and I did it with no ill effects. This would have been completely impossible before we started the treatment.

Yes, I would like it to work faster. It's still possible (I mean very easy) for me to overdo and set myself back, and I did so this week—but so mildly. I didn't get pain, just a bit of warning discomfort, and I skipped the half-hour of weeding for a couple of days and am back where I was.

It's working. Lord willing—and accordingly to the usual progression for ASTYM—I'll be better by the end of the month.

And that's amazing.

Important update for the sake of anyone who visits this post for tendinitis/tendinosis information:

Boy, I'm a bit incorrigible in my wish to tie a nice bow on things before they're finished, aren't I? Here's the truth:

ASTYM didn't end up fixing me. It did a lot, and I suspect that in people with lighter repetitive-stress injuries (OK, people who hadn't injured themselves as relentlessly as I did), ASTYM would have done the trick. But as it was, my therapist told me we seemed to have reached a "plateau" where the ASTYM treatment seemed to be merely maintaining the status quo rather than improving me further, especially as we gently introduced more freedom to use my hands for both light and heavy work into my daily routine. Insurance doesn't like "maintenance" treatments and, frankly, I'm not crazy about them either. I wasn't even working that hard yet! And pretty soon some of the pain even came back...

So we went with what for us had seemed like the nuclear option. (A day's travel to the boonies is NBD compared to losing the use of your hands, I know, but we don't own a car.) Hungry World Farm kindly let us use their farm car and we drove to Missouri to Dr. Schierling, who was exactly as he appeared to be on his website--friendly, professional, and wildly experienced with, & interested in, scar tissue. He explained that in his experience, though the more widely-accepted therapies are very gradual, breaking up scar tissue is frankly "the harder, the better." It's perfectly understandable why the medical establishment would find this a hard kind of therapy to sell people on--Dr. Schierling is very upfront about how much it hurts and what you look like afterward, and that is why what he tends to get (including from out of state and even overseas) is desperate cases like me.

It hurt. A lot. I'd do it again tomorrow if I needed to, though that would mean hopping in a car this instant to get there by then. The fun thing is that Dr. Schierling turned out to be a World War II buff, and explaining to him the history behind Flame in the Night was very effective in taking my mind off the pain while he worked! (I also gave him a copy.) I looked head-turningly terrible on the drive home--as Schierling explained to me, scar tissue contains capillary blood vessels and you're not really breaking it up hard enough if you don't see bruising. A very unusual kind of bruising--just beneath the skin and bright red. I had it on my shoulders, the sides of my neck, and all down the inner sides of both arms.

(Whereas the official ASTYM treatment for elbow tendinosis basically restricts itself to the arms only. That's one reason I now strongly lean toward relying on a practitioner's experience rather than official training: you may need someone who knows where & how to look for something slightly out of the norm. Schierling relied on testing my range-of-motion and pinpointing places where he found it restricted, and also on his process--a rubbing/scraping similar to other instrument-assisted therapies but a lot harder--by which he can feel the presence of scar tissue and see the bruising as it breaks up. I watched him do my forearms, where we found very little scar tissue--the skin got red just as it would if I rubbed it hard, but there was practically no bruising.)

And here's the incredible thing: one session. (And three very intensive days of all-important stretching exercises--every half hour except sleep time!--afterward. That counts, oh it counts, especially as I was hosting a family reunion during them. Ah, timing.) One session! I had two or three months of trepidation afterward, gently introducing myself back up to a full working schedule, but especially as I began to prune fruit trees and do other farmwork and my arm strength renewed, it was clear--I was completely well. I'll never be as much of a fool as I was before, pushing and pushing myself with no break, but I've relaxed. I type, I scroll, I work--I feel fine.

Thank God.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Broken hands and new roads

I was going to write about family separations at the border. I was going to. I didn't know what really could be said about it; in fact I don't know what to say now. I've tried and tried to write a blog post, to be honest--about that, or about anything.

The fact is, my hands still don't work.

I tried to write a blog post about that--to share what I was going through in the middle of it, rather than at the end as people always seem to do. I didn't know what to say. I've been wordless. Once--when the pain had started to come back and I knew I had nothing to lose by the experiment--I typed a sentence. What I mostly learned is that I've half-forgotten how to type.

There's hope for the hands. They actually are improving still, I'm able to do careful light housework without compromising them--it's so good to finally be able to do something, anything, and to get the place clean again--and after a great deal of research we've chosen a method and a place for therapy which by all accounts has a good chance of working. As for me--I've been wordless. I don't take back my previous post, all the meaning I've found in this, but I've been in the place of "I don't know what this is anymore." Sometimes when I look at my a-few-months-younger self, I see someone who couldn't bear to have plain old meaningless ordinary troubles happen to her. I mean, I did learn the things I said. But I set out to learn them. I don't remember asking God what this was. Maybe because it seemed pretty clear. I may have guessed right.

But I probably should have asked.

We're scared of the emptiness. Of not knowing what this is. Of course we are. That's what stories are about, in a way--why we like them and need them. It helps to watch other people go through it, see how they handle it. Robert McKee, the Story teacher, calls it the Gap--the moment when the familiar solutions stop working, when the character is forced to choose a new road.

Can I, for instance, learn to write by voice recognition? Write fiction by voice recognition? I would have called it impossible, but last night I wrote the first page of a short story. It flowed and grew and made me see things, the way good rough-drafting does. I couldn't believe it. I was just trying to write down a few lines I'd thought of, awkward as I expected it to be. Instead I wrote--spoke--a scene. Someone killed a rabid fox. I saw it happen.

In a way, I don't know why I'm boring you with this. To type or not to type? These things are so personal, huge on the inside of a life, very small when looked at from outside. Like a tendon in the foot or in the elbow, just part of the equipment of everyday life, disregarded.

As a child I wondered why prayer requests seemed to be always about health. I wanted people to be more spiritual, or more selfless. I was healthy as a weed.

I was going to write about the family separations. I still don't know what to say, except that when I think about it, really think about it, I feel like I'm trapped under the oak that fell last week just downslope from my spring in the woods. And I experience a burning anger toward Trump--utterly useless. And of course I think of other family separations, of the police official at Vénissieux who asked, annoyed, why all these people were yelling so much. To which a priest replied, "If someone took your children, wouldn't you yell?"

By the priest's account, the official looked thoughtful, and said yes. May God be with the people in parallel positions today, and give them courage to choose new roads.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Broken hands

I'm very sorry for my long silence. I thought it would be shorter than it was.

The short version is, I lost the use of my hands for two months.

Sometime before Christmas I told you all on this blog that I had hand pain and needed to take a break. I had not only stressed and inflamed many of the muscles of my forearm, but also one or more of the tendons that connect those muscles to the elbow. Unfortunately, I was pretty stupid in dealing with it. The story of my stupidity is pretty boring, I suppose, but basically I kept making what I thought were radical, difficult changes in my routine and they kept turning out to be too little, too late.

The last of these changes was to stop using my right hand entirely. I not only used the mouse with my left hand, I typed with my left hand, and I chopped up vegetables for supper with my left hand. You can see this coming, can't you?

I got tendonitis in my left arm too.

I barely know how to tell you what it feels like not to be able to use your hands. It feels like death. Because, I think, death—not a loved one's death, not a stranger's, but my death and yours—feels like helplessness. Death is the moment when it doesn't matter if your life's work is sitting unfinished on the desk, when the world doesn't care. The moment when you can't do anything about it. The moment that most of us, deep in our hearts, don't believe is coming.

I remember the sensation of stopping. The impatience in my soul, the forward momentum—I have to finish this edit I have to clean the house I have to start working on the new farm and show these people what I can do I have to plant my garden I have to—it died hard. Several times. The first time was at Easter. April 1st. I thought I'd be out for a month then. I thought that was a huge deal.

I didn't want to stop.

We found ways. I stored my laptop outside our apartment, bringing it in once a day to deal with urgent email using voice-to-text, manipulating the touchpad with my chin. My husband started doing all the dishes, and chopping vegetables for me when it was my turn to cook. I tried to come up with recipes with little or no chopping. I told my son gently and continually that I was sorry, I couldn't move the little car around, or build the Lego train with him, or get his wagon out of the shed. I accepted not planting my garden—and then my husband offered to plant it for me. I accepted things being done other people's way or not at all. I watched weeds grow, and did nothing. I watched dust thicken, and did nothing. I watched grass grow up around piles of split firewood that needed stacking. I could not change the world. I could only accept it.

I learned to sit. I learned to let my mind wander, and not try to force it into important and purposeful paths. I couldn't do anything important and purposeful, anyway; thinking about it only hurt. I learned to sit and accept the world, let it come into me, whether it was important or not. The movement of the leaves in the wind. The tiny flowers in the grass and the bumblebees visiting them. The ants, the woodlice, the holes in that dead tree that the woodpecker made. I learned to sit in the woods and let them breathe around me. I learned to sit among the trees and not tell them over and over that I was wasting my important time by being with them. I learned their names. I carried my field guides in a bag I could sling around my neck almost without using my hands, and I learned what an ash tree looks like, and an elm, and a basswood. Once I started seeing the shapes of leaves, I couldn't stop. I know so little still, but I feel like I've learned so much. I know where there's a spring now, two slender tunnels opening out of the clay inner structure of a hillside, one slightly larger, one slightly smaller, like mother and daughter. I go to that spring every day. I pray, some. I also just sit. I watch a chipmunk run up and down, or a bird whose name I'm not sure of in the fading light go about its peaceful business. It doesn't have to be something important. Several times I've seen a pileated woodpecker—rare in these parts—but I don't go there to see it. If that was why I went, I wouldn't go. Not after the first time it failed to show up on my timetable.

I don't know how to explain what has happened to me. There was a time when I loved the woods, yet when I could have gone to them, I stayed inside on the computer, reading funny stories about other people's bad books or bad behavior. (You may not be familiar with this particular pleasure; it's relaxing, because it tells you it's all right, at least you're doing better than someone. Might be best if you don't give it a go.) I'll tell you the truth: I never once got angry with God about what was happening to my arms, and that's not because I'm a good person. It's because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I had done it to myself. Yes, I partly did it to myself writing Flame in the Night. But if I had finished my writing and gone to the woods instead of sitting at the computer, clicking on little pictures of cards or scrolling and scrolling while laughing at somebody, I would be fine.

I'm not saying it was a punishment, either. It was a kindness.

Oh, it felt plenty mean sometimes. Like being pushed down and down. Every time I began to feel the joy of recovery, to believe I would be better, I relapsed. I let the joy tempt me into doing too much. Putting a few books away. Taking some notes by pencil. I felt the pain come back, and sat there watching my son play, wondering how many days I had lengthened my sentence by, and trying to look like I wasn't about to cry.

It was two months, in the end.

And it was worth it.

There are practical things. The benefit to my son, of having been called upon to be kind and gentle with me, to see that I'm not all-powerful; of having had to do things himself that he'd rather depend on me to do. The garden, which in spite of the weeds is a family endeavor now, my husband and son proud of what they've done for it—no matter if I go back to doing it all in time, I will remember and so will they. The bonds of need and help and kindness reaffirmed between me and my husband; I have felt so loved. But beyond even that, something has happened to me. Sitting in the woods; reading books, real books, at times of the day I used to spend online; not really wanting, anymore, to read about what's wrong with other people. (I'm not saying I never will again. But you know how they say that if you stop eating sugar, you stop craving it? It's like that.) I'm better at waiting for others now, not trying to fill every minute of my important time. I notice things more. I let the quietness come into my mind, the silence I used to run from so hard—I don't quite remember why. I think there were bad thoughts in it, regrets and fears—or I thought there were. I guess I've found some. They weren't so awful, once I stopped running.

Or I wonder if the silence itself frightened me. Nothingness, emptiness has always felt like my enemy. Doing nothing, being nothing. I wonder if it looked a little bit like death. I'm not saying I'm not scared of death, or even that I'm less scared. But I do know that it will come someday, and that seems like a step in the right direction. And in the silence--would I have run so hard if I'd known?-- is not nothingness at all. In the silence, where I die a little from my quest to be and be and be something, where I open myself, the lives of others come in. The lives of trees, humble people who stand where God planted them and drink sunlight, and make air. The small, humble animals, rummaging around the woods for their daily bread. Perhaps the silence will let the lives of other people in better too; I haven't had much chance yet to find out. Maybe that's not what God had for me this time. I already knew that listening to people was important. I could have spent two months doing that, and felt I had justified my existence. But there are very few people here now, and what they need from me is work. So I went to the woods. I went to the woods and sat at God's feet, instead of running around and around looking for something to lay at them.

I'm starting to use my hands again. A little. The other day I pruned back a potted heliotrope, scraggly and distorted from a winter of neglect. I cut it back hard—within an inch of where it comes out of the soil, sparing one bud to become the new stem. I layered good compost all over the soil around its roots. We think of these plants as flowers, but the life is not in the flower. The life, the strength, is in the root. I watered it deeply, let the nutrients from the compost leach down to where the roots drink. I prayed, You've cut me back, and You've nourished me. Help me grow straight now, and flower.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

There's strength in the root: pruning and editing and the sharpness of choices

Pruning is fascinating. Would you believe that—and that editing is fascinating too? This time last year I wrote a post called “Pruning and editing”--in haste, because the editing I was doing was heavy and under deadline. This year I'm digging deeper. It's sinking into me. I know this may sound strange, but as I learn better and better how to prune—I find it helps very much to love the tree or vine. But love doesn't look quite like what you'd expect.

Have you ever seen a tree that's been pruned very hard? Or a grapevine? Commercial orchards and vineyards are unsparing in their pruning, eye on the bottom line and the highest possible fruit production—those trees and vines seem cut down to nubs. Our instinct when we see that is that the tree's been killed—like the instincts of a farm intern I had once, who became very worried when I picked all but the smallest leaves off the kale. Our instinct is that most of the plant is gone, so how can it survive? We forget how much, and how vital a part, we can't see.

The life in a plant is in its root. If we ever did to the roots what we do to the tops, the plant would expire in a hurry. But if the root is sound, you can cut the whole tree down at the base of the trunk and it'll send up a dozen shoots the next spring around the stump—so never worry about those nubs, come spring they will branch out in every direction in leaf and flower. There's strength in the root. I sing that to myself sometimes, while I prune or garden, to the tune of the hymn There's power in the blood: “There's strength in the root, there's strength in the root...”

I recently learned to prune grapevines properly. (I know apples and cherries now, and blueberries too, but grapevines were still an “OK, hope I'm doing this right” mystery last year.) First you have to know what good fruitwood looks like on a grapevine, then you make a goal to keep a certain number of fruiting buds per vine and take off, well, everything else. It's that per vine part that tripped me up—no one had taught me to look at each vine before. Our vineyard looked to me like a tangled mass of leafy streamers twining along the cables, sending down a root here and there. No wonder it was a mystery to me! I was starting at the wrong end.

Writers do this too, until we learn.

We start at the wrong end, at the surface, at the leaves. We start at the words. We don't see the words' source; that is underground. Beneath the surface of the page, beneath the dark sweet earth drawing life into our words, is the Story.

When I start at the source, at the root, I prune differently. I don't go branch by branch, bit by bit, asking “Should I cut this?” I look at the plant entire, I draw into my mind a vision of what it can and must be. The good fruitwood stands out to me, and I choose it. In choosing the good, it becomes easier to cut off what I don't need. The question is not “What should I cut?” but “what should I keep?” Ruthlessness is—strange as it may seem—a positive course, a joyous one. It's driven by the lovely vision of the thing as it should be.

Of course I'm talking about editing—though it's true about pruning too.

The rough draft is like the first wild growth of the vine. Sprouting in every direction, opening leaves to the sunlight, photosynthesizing, gathering strength into the new young root. You do need that part. You need to write till your story has substance, till your characters become real in your mind, even if many of the words you write at that point serve no other purpose. (I remember the moment Elisa became real. She was climbing the steps to the Fourvière basilica that towers over Lyon, looking apprehensively at the massive gold statue of Mary over it. None of that's in the novel. Cut. It was the right choice—writing it and cutting it both.) You write and write, till the root gains strength and shape—you write till under the words you see the Story. That is what you are making.

You keep going then, till the Story is made, till the end. Even if you see where you branched out wrongly, you don't start pruning yet. Pruning out of season is a dire mistake—the sap drips out of the cut (I've seen it drip and drip), microbes and insects get in, whole limbs can sicken. Editing out of season drains the energy from your story, leaves you open to attacks of discouragement and loathing. You prune in February, when the sap is not flowing, when the vine has already been dormant a long time. It's hard to wait—it used to make my brain itch, going on and leaving passages I knew weren't right. One chapter I left behind was mostly scene fragments with half-a-dozen empty lines between them. But I could see the shape of the story going forward, so I followed it. I knew it was the important part.

There's strength in the root
Then the break. I was beyond exhausted after I wrote the last word. The book and I rested. The sap ceased to flow. I came back to it after awhile, and that, that's the moment when you do it. The choosing. You look at the story entire, you carry a vision into your mind of what it can and must be. The good writing stands out to you, the passages that shine because they're not only good prose but are filled with reality, because they are moments where someone makes a choice she knows she can't turn back from, feeling both the weight and the freedom of choosing—they are Story. And then you cut around them, cut and shape and rearrange. In choosing the good, it becomes easier to cut what you don't need.

I keep talking about Story with a capital S—I know, it sounds a little funny. But that's what I've learned these past two years, is that it's a real thing, like the root, invisible and really there—and it's the source. What is Story? Short version, it's made of two things: forces and choices. Forces that oppose each other, the desires and aims of the characters, the forces of nature and of need, things that press together to a point and a dilemma: will this character choose the gun, and can he survive if he doesn't? And choices: once and for all, he either takes up the gun or throws it away. All the words of the scene, maybe all the words of the story, come to a point just at that moment—they serve that moment, they have no other purpose. They may be individually beautiful, they may make a beautiful pattern together, but if you cut them off from human dilemma and choice and action they will wither into sad, lightweight things, maybe keeping a melancholy beauty—but dead.

If you understand your characters' dilemmas, the forces they're up against, their choices, the consequences of those choices, you understand your Story. And the role of pruning is to bring it to light.

That's the last thing I learned about pruning grapevines this year—you want your fruitwood as high as possible. You want the fruit to grow on the top, in the light. This keeps the grapes dry and safe from bacteria and mold—and it helps the picker to see them. When your story is finished, those moments of choice will be the fruit—those moments when a character stands at a crossroads for a long moment, then turns and plunges down the path they've chosen, and we see where that path leads.

So I guess, if we're going to make the analogy precise: the forces, the dilemmas, are the root. The turning points, the moments of choice, are the fruit. The rest is a path between the two. If one of your scenes doesn't lead from the root to the fruit—you know what to do. Or if your moment of choice is buried in your scene, de-emphasized, you rearrange it, bring it up to the light.

To bring the strength from the root to the fruit; to bring the fruit to the eater. To sink the root deep into the soil of human experience, and draw up vitality. Those are the great things. And that's what happens when you love the vine—or the book—you see its true nature. You see where its true strength and glory lie, and you want to bring it out. I've become far more ruthless in pruning than I ever expected to be, and I'm glad, because I can see the thing as it can and must be. I don't mourn things I cut anymore—whether branches or pages.

I know what trees know now. You can always make more leaves.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How democracies die (they are not actually killed by Trump)

The other day I read an article on, a review and analysis of a new book called How Democracies Die (by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.) It flabbergasted me. Partly because of the things it said--and how much they explained--and partly because I got to a certain section and thought "But I've thought this for years." I've thought it for years and never quite dared to say it.

I guess I've never dared to say it (besides the fact that it was only an unsubstantiated notion of mine) because if you start at the wrong end of the explanation, it sounds racist... and if you start at the other end it sounds like you are calling every American racist. And nobody likes that.

Still, I guess it would be best to go with option B.

Here is the thing: I know, or have known, a lot of people from countries that have universal healthcare. Life is easier for them. They would never (the ones I know anyway) trade what they have for a life where health decisions have to take into account the specter of complete financial ruin. They've asked me What's wrong with Americans? Why don't they want this? And I've thought, and haven't said, They don't want to pay for black people's healthcare.

I'm not saying every American who opposes Obamacare has this exact motive in mind. I'm really not. But I'm saying, first, that some do, and second, that--though it's all tangled up with other things too--this feeling quietly, subtly underlies the narrative, the whole narrative about social services in this country--this feeling creates the consensus that makes it seem more normal not to want healthcare security for every American than to want it.

That's just been my sense. See, I grew up in Europe, so I know what the other way is like. I know what it's like to live in a country that (for all its problems!) considers itself a community, considers it normal that we are together and we take care of each other, that within the community "every man for himself" would be inappropriate. And I know that that doesn't come from some sort of innate goodness or humanitarian ideal. French people don't consider themselves community with the entire world. They consider themselves community with other French people.

We have a little problem in this country. Our ancestors forcibly brought in millions of people whom they had no intention of being community with.

So when I read this in the article:

"Our democracy was built atop racism and has been repeatedly shaken in eras of racial progress."

It resonates.

The article's fascinating. I really recommend reading it, because I'm not going to do it justice, but it first makes the case that:

- Nowadays when democracies die, they die quietly, crumbling from within.
- They are killed by people within the system who value their own political goals over the continuation of democracy, and who erode it in small, continual, technically legal ways for the sake of their own agendas.
- This is happening in the U.S.
- It's not about Trump. He's just a symptom.

And then it gets into the race stuff.

"The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion."

It traces a story of stability at odds with equality--of a consensus that America was a community, yes, but only when it was a community that excluded African-Americans. (That sense that the world was safe and kind in the 50s? It was safe and kind--mostly--for the people within the community, which was white people. The memory isn't false--it just has a huge blind spot.) It traces a story in which the U.S. was stable when African-Americans were excluded, and unstable when--during the Civil Right movements, for instance--they increasingly weren't. Because the community of white people was willing to work together only when that one norm wasn't threatened.

And it uses the phrase "original sin."

This explains so much. I've had this sense of such strangeness in the past year--on the one hand Trump, and on the other hand the pulling down of idols--both statues and flesh-and-blood abusers! Two groundswells coming seemingly from nowhere, neither of which I would ever have expected, and completely opposed. But this makes sense of it. Because this is a time when the compromise has collapsed, the people trying for equality have felt themselves free to act. What there was to lose had already been lost, squandered, thrown away.

But it's so depressing. Is equality the enemy of stability always and everywhere? It may be; it's a fallen world. But these guys make an awfully good case that it's so here and now. And instability is awful, as the Iraqis could tell us. And injustice and inequality are awful, as generations of African-Americans can and do tell us. And who am I, really, a little semi-hermit of a fiction writer with no patriotism to speak of--sorry, I just don't have the instinct, it's the truth--to try to put my finger on the truth of this country? Maybe that's why I never spoke my thought aloud. It's not nice to say The foundation is cracked. It's not a smart thing when all you have to back it up is some notions and impressions you've gleaned.

But the authors of How Democracies Die, they can back it up. I mean I haven't read their book. But it sure sounds like they can.

And then they say this:

"The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved."

The implication, of course, is that we're all still tribalists at heart. (And my inner atheist whispers "Monkeys!") That we cling to our community, which must look like us. That even without the horrible history between white and black in this country we couldn't really accept paying for each other's healthcare with grace.

I'm not going with my inner atheist (no offense to atheists everywhere, but see, my inner atheist is an insufferable cynic and a truly scary depressive), and I do believe something more is possible for the human race. I believe it's our duty as Christians to live it. But for America, I don't know what to do. I have only the depressing lessons of someone who has watched a community die.

Here is what I know: it's better to be ready. It really is. And to be ready you have to accept the transience of human things. It helps because it helps you remember that the end of something is not the end of everything. It's better to spend your energy on facing into an unknown future, however scary, than on figuring out whose fault it was. And it's better, if you can, to try and find a way to be kind. To everyone.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The other place in the mind: learning to draw at 36

When I was a kid I always wished I could draw.

"Before": a self-portrait I drew a month ago
I remember, in one of the couple years here and there that I homeschooled because we were traveling/moving too much that year, how one of my textbooks--a math textbook, I think!--randomly had little pen-and-ink drawings of deer and other animals in it, to fill up the empty spaces. They were my favorite part of math class*, and I remember trying to learn to draw that year. I wasn't very good at it.

* My mom and I have a story about me and math. I came home from elementary school and said "I hate math." How my mom later told the story: she was surprised when she got my grades and it turned out I was performing just fine in math. What I said when I heard the story: "Mom, I said I hated it, not that I couldn't do it!"**

** (You're absolutely right, that is not where a footnote goes. Onward!)

Actually that makes an excellent segue back to drawing: I'm not very good at math now. I could fill out our tax returns but I am extremely happy to let my bookkeeping husband do it, and as for trigonometry, forget it. I'm not very good at math because I hated it from day one--I haven't learned, and I haven't practiced, beyond the necessary. (And I don't regret that!) Innate ability counts for something, but experience and practice count for a lot more. (Something we've taught our son maybe a little too hard--you should hear the way he says "EXPERIENCED.")

But with drawing, people--including me--tend to figure that innate ability is the only thing. That either you can or you can't. Imagine if we had that approach to reading! I ended up figuring I couldn't.

But I can.

Sometime in the fall, the Boy and I were at a thrift store with a little time to kill in the book section, and I found a book I remembered from my art classroom in high school: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (BTW please don't jump up and debunk left/right brain just yet. I'm getting there.) I bought it, partly because "thrift store, why not," and partly because that little secret wish leapt up in me again. I decided to give it a go this winter, and try to learn.

The message of the book is essentially this: most people try to draw with the wrong side of their brain. The left side of our brain, the side that does both language and math, is obsessed with symbols. It gravitates toward drawing symbols--stick figures, trees with green balls on top, the idea of a house without finicking over every crack in the façade. You can play Pictionary with it, no problem--communication is its gig. But it doesn't draw what it sees. Or if it does, it doesn't see what's really there.

I copied this Van Gogh sketch upside down
The right brain, on the other hand, takes in what it sees without naming it, simply. It sees line and shape and color and lets them be themselves. So that when it draws them, what it draws looks like what is there. So that's what we have to do, to learn to draw things that look real: immerse ourselves in right-brain mode when we draw.

Now I know, because Ye Olde Internet Debunkers have been on about it for quite awhile, that the popular conception of right vs. left brain has been proven wrong. The book's pretty old. But what's interesting to me is that on a practical level it doesn't matter: the book is right. It describes a set of symptoms--a sense of wordlessness, of timelessness, of deep focus on a thing in itself without impatience or the need to name or define it--that point to a distinct mental state, which is the state needed to draw well. And in order to draw, I don't need to know exactly what my brain-scan would look like in that state--I need to be able to get there. (There's a super interesting analogy to spiritual things here--maybe I'll explore it eventually. There's a connection also with learning the wilderness--you need that same state.) That's what the book offers--exercises for getting there--and they work. I felt those symptoms, and I felt them when I was finally drawing something decent for the second time in my life. (By drawing upside-down, to cut down on my brain's instinct to name things.)

That's the funny thing--it was the second time. Once in high school, at my missionary-kid boarding school--just once--I was alone in the dorm all one Sunday morning. (It was allowed. Long story.) It was glorious. Remember high school? Well imagine you lived with those kids as well, and unless you were a jock you can probably imagine why it was glorious to be alone. It was spring, and I went out and lay on the green grass under the lilac-trees for a little while; then I went in and got a postcard I loved, of a kitten in light and shadow, and I copied it in pencil and then in watercolors. Time flowed sweet and silent as I painted. I was a third of the way done with the watercolors when the dorm vans pulled in carrying the crowds home from church, and that's how the picture--ten times better than anything else I ever drew--remains to this day. It felt like a magic moment, one I never could recapture. I never tried.

That's the thing about the right brain--or whatever it really is, that timeless mode. I remember the taste of it in that moment, the freedom. Freedom was a prerequisite for me then--I couldn't have drawn like that with all those people pressing on me, with their adult expectations or their hair-trigger teenage scorn--but also a result. And as I did the beginner exercises in the book, the ones intended to get you into that mode as you begin, I could taste it again. The book has you visualize images of it, and for me they were green, all green, rock and lichen and leaf and pine, and me climbing. That's the other place the timelessness came for me, always when I was a child--out in the woods, in the mountains, in caves even, in all wild and rocky places where I could use my body and trust it and let my mind be one with it, knowing my foot was firm in the foothold and my balance was clear and strong.

I drew this over this weekend. Me!
It was good, remembering that. I did feel like I was opening doors in myself to long-missed rooms.

The book claims that our education with its focus on symbols and definitions closes those doors, that we're moved more and more away from that experience and the particular skills it brings. But that they can be opened again, with time and practice. The book seems to envision a kind of equality of right and left--I wonder if that's affected by the idea of two paired sides, and whether it would be changed by whatever the real science is on these two (or more?) different ways of thinking. I wonder what would be the full list of skills that the "right-brain" mode enables--hunting? working with animals? my mind always goes to outdoor stuff--and whether more crossover between the two would help the problem I've so often seen in farm interns here, where they're so taken up with the image behind their eyes that they don't see the plants in front of them, don't learn from observation.

(I remember being that person. I remember push-cultivating a row of the garden and not seeing that the weeds hadn't died, because push-cultivating kills weeds by definition, right? Except nothing kills weeds by definition. And if any of the Logic Guys I knew in college are here, don't start in at me about weed-killer. You spray that weed-killer on some weeds and see if they die, and then we'll talk.)

I don't know the answers to all those questions. But to the last one I'd lay money on a resounding YES. I think this other place in the mind, whatever we call it, is indeed something we've tossed aside too lightly, neglected to our cost. The ability to look at the world and see what is there rather than the definitions we rightly or wrongly impose on it--how many mistakes might that have prevented, at the very least?

But it's not lost. It's right there, a path we can walk down if we choose. Who know what we'll find?

For example--as it turns out--I can draw.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The heart of the story ("My God, why have you forsaken me?")

In the end
Everything will be
All right
And if it's not
All right
Then it is not the end

That's how a worship song written by a dear friend of mine goes. Ah, but you should hear her sing it--and her church sing it with her, sounding like they believe.

It struck a chord with me, because for a long long time I've cherished a concept I call "the middle of the story." It's about... well, I should just show you.

The truth is I'm exhausted again. Hopefully this is the last of it. But I looked through my archives and found a write-up of the only sermon I've ever written, and here it is. The topic I was given was Jesus' cry from the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"


Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a man who was a friend of God. God promised him he would have a son, and be the father of many nations. He waited many years, and trusted God as much as he could; and finally the son came, and was to him like a gift of laughter. And the son grew up happy, and loved, and one day God said to the man: take your son up on the mountain, and kill him.

And the man didn't understand, but he did what God said; he took his son up on the mountain, and he tied his son up, and he got out his knife. And God said stop. God said kill the ram instead. God said, you've passed the test; through you and through your children all the nations of the earth will be blessed. And the man and his son went back down the mountain; and what God had promised came true.

Let me tell you another story.

There was a man, the great-grandson of the other man, who was given dreams and visions from God; that God would someday lift him up high above his brothers. His brothers hated him for it, and sold him to slave-traders, and lied to their father and said he was dead. He became a slave in a foreign country. His master's wife lied about him and accused him of the most unpardonable thing a slave could do, and they could have killed him. And they sent him to prison to stay there the rest of his life; in prison, where God's promise could never come true.

Then he was summoned to interpret the king's dream; because he was known for interpreting dreams. The king saw that what he said was true, and he had him sit down at his right hand and oversee the country to save it from famine. And his brothers came to him, and he forgave them; and his father came, and he saved them all from the famine that had come on the land. And what God had promised came true.

Let me tell you another story. A little story.

When I was seventeen I spent my first summer on my own. My parents were overseas. I lived with a friend, a friend who said we could share the rent, and who didn't tell her landlady about me. I was a stupid kid, I didn't know what was going on, I couldn't find my picture ID for the tax forms at my job and they wouldn't pay me till I did; I'd been working for six weeks and I only had fifteen dollars left when the landlady threw me out. She gave me four days. My parents were overseas and my friend was out of town and I didn't know what to do. I went around to churches, to friends, anywhere I could think of and I got the brush off. I went in to work and there had been a fire. I had put chemical-soaked filters into the trashcan I'd been told to put them into, and they'd spontaneously combusted and destroyed two months' work. And there I was. And I said God, I don't know what you're doing. I guess you don't owe me anything. Whatever.

And the next day I went in to work, because they hadn't fired me. And it was weekly prayer-meeting so I told them what they could pray for me about. And one girl said hey, there's an empty bed at my house, my sister's gone for the summer, we could work something out. And two days later I moved in with her.

Her name was Grace.

And it was my first experience of the real world, and the first time I truly saw God come through. And without it, I probably wouldn't be up here today.

That's my story.

An author once said that God created humankind because God likes stories. I thought about that; it sounded cool; and then I thought about it some more and it sounded like a condemnation of God. Stories are fine when you're listening to them, they're wonderful, but I've been inside a story. It's something else to be inside a story. What is a story about, when you're inside it; when you're right in the middle? What is in the middle of these stories? Pain. A girl feeling alone, abandoned, afraid she'll have to sleep on the street. A man enslaved and in prison, falsely accused and condemned for the rest of his life. A man standing on the top of a mountain with his son tied up in front of him, his heart screaming “God, what are you doing?” At the heart of a story is pain and darkness.

Let me tell you a story.

God became a man. And that man was a teacher. He taught the words of life, he taught the way, to those who would listen, and he lived it too; and people followed him. He knew that it wouldn't last. He knew that he had to die, for our sins and because of our sins. He knew that those in power did not want to hear the words of life, would rather kill him than hear.

This man was not only God; he was also a man. No one can understand it. And like every man and woman he had to choose, it was his choice: to trust God or not. He cried out in the garden and he trusted, and he said Your will be done. But that was not the heart of the story.

They beat him and they laughed at him, and they spat on him and he couldn't wipe it off. He was exposed, nailed to a beam in front of everybody, and everybody turned away. There was no one there who believed that God was with him; no one. He was the scapegoat, he was hung on a tree and accursed, and even God turned away from him. And he cried out a desperate scream: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

At the heart of God's story is pain and darkness.

The cross of Christ is our salvation in a thousand ways. But for now, for today, let me tell you one small way. Because when we are honest about that moment at the heart of the story, that moment of pain and darkness, when we are honest we admit that there is no way out. That at that moment no courage can sustain us. That at that moment no amount of believing that God is there, even if we can't feel him, can hold up our heads. That at that moment we are alone in the dark. Think. Remember. Maybe you haven't lived any moment like that; but I think you have.

Jesus showed us the way to life, in everything; even in that terrible moment. And what did Jesus do, in the darkness at the heart of the story?

Jesus did not turn away.

He didn't say whatever. He didn't say, I should have known. And he didn't lie. He spoke what he felt, what his heart knew, what was all around him; he cried out the absence of God. But who did he cry it to? To God. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? He cried out like a child to his father and mother, to the only good he knows: where are you? The cry of absence is a cry of trust; because he cries as if God is listening.

And God was listening.

And God was with him, and faithful, and never let him go; and though he went down to the darkest place God raised him up. He brought him to the end of the story, just like he brought Abraham, and Joseph, and me. And in the dark at the heart of our stories, it is still as dark as it ever was; but we're not alone. He has gone before us, showing the way in that darkness. "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"