Just bitchin'

Lessons from a Lummi

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Growing up, my mother had a friend named Mary Hillaire.

She was an outspoken member of the Lummi Indian tribe in Washington state. Her name was Anglicized from Hill Air, I was told. She was an activist, an educator, and instrumental in founding programs devoted to the study of Native American culture. She left her mark particularly on Evergreen State College in Olympia.

At one point, my mother helped her write some of her speeches. Mom had the secretarial skills, but Mary had the charismatic ability to make people listen. She was an extraordinary woman.

Her spirit visits me every Spring.

I remember her standing outdoors in our yard, breathing deeply of the still chill air. She would joke about it being mandatory, given her name. And then she would fall silent before instructing the pale child beside her, whom she couldn’t know would store her lessons for a lifetime.

She said that Spring was not a season so much as a feeling of life surging upward and forth from the frozen ground. She could feel it in her blood, like wine. Spring was a promise that was always kept.

She told me to follow its example and never break faith.

I thought of Shakespeare’s Juliet, decrying that Romeo would swear upon the moon, saying that the ever-changing, inconstant moon was a poor example upon which to base a vow. The seasons change as does the moon, but they are reliable in that changeability. Mary Hillaire took a longer view, and in doing so, revealed a deeper truth.

Mary gifted my mother with an exquisitely woven basket; an artifact of her people. It featured stylized deer circling the rim. Each stood forth on four sturdy legs. Except one. It only had three legs. She told me it was intentional. She said if all the deer had four legs, the basket would be perfect. Humans were incapable of perfection. To produce something perfect was to mimic the gods…a thing both disrespectful and dangerous.

One must always acknowledge one’s flawed humanity and remain humble.

I don’t know how Mom and Mary met, but I suspect they became friends because they shared a concern about the fragility of their respective cultures.

To this day much of my mother’s background is unknown, veiled in vague mutterings about political expediency and the KGB in Russia at the time. She mentioned how the Soviet Union was overwriting languages of the countries that became satellites, insisting only Russian be taught in schools. She dreaded the loss of so many cultures.

Mrs. Hillaire had similar concerns. So she worked tirelessly to make sure tribal culture had a voice and remained strong.

It was her life’s work and admirably accomplished.

But to me, as trees begin to burst with blossoms, Mary Hillaire is a voice on the wind, telling me to be human and flawed…and to breathe deep.

Because life, like the seasons, is a self-renewing promise.

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writing

Voices from the Heart

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It took me some time to come to a workable understanding of what ‘voice’ is in writing.

So when it’s challenged, I get a little panicky. My back arches. My ears flatten. I discover I have hackles. I discover they can rise and point. And I have to circle back over the ground I thought I’d claimed and check all the territorial markers to see if it’s still mine…if I can still work with it and defend it.

‘Voice’ in writing perplexed me for a long time. I’d get the inevitable rejections, but somewhere along the way editors and agents began attaching little notes: ‘Nice voice.’ ‘Interesting voice, I’d like to see more.’ ‘Keep developing your voice.’

It felt as though they were talking about something as tangible and declarative as a fingerprint, but I couldn’t see it, or, more accurately, hear it. Then I was told a writer’s ‘voice’ can change from genre to genre and character to character.

Fingerprints don’t do that. Not without acid and intent, anyway.

So how do you grab this slippery, inaudible thing and wrestle it into submission? It squelches around in your hands and defies examination. I mean, ‘voice’ is ‘voice!’ If it’s so identifiable and individual and recognizable, then why is it so hard to see in the plain light of day?!

Because ‘voice’ is a misleading, kind of crappy word to use for it.

I’m stuck with it because it was adopted and put into use long before I wondered if I had one. Or wanted one. Or had even the vaguest hope of producing something other than the harshest of caws when endeavoring to display one.

But when I realized what everyone was talking about, I also realized it’s not a voice. It’s a heartline. It happens when you’re so immersed in writing that the rest of the world disappears. It happens when the words come from the center of your being without artifice or detour. It’s a direct line from your writer’s heart to the page.

Heartline.

It is as changeable as mood and emotion and the sky. But at its core…unchanging.

So ‘voice’ be damned. Write from the heart.

They’ll hear you.

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Just bitchin'

Midwinter Malaise

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It’s like cabin fever of the soul.

But not quite.

It’s like mental nails on a mental chalkboard

But not quite.

It’s like teeth grating on the tines of a fork.

But not quite.

It’s emotional mid-winter. Grey. No end in sight. Damp and wet and squelching underfoot. Soggy and chill. It’s wanting to stay in bed all day. It’s forgetting to open the drapes, because, really, what difference does it make. It’s watching the sky drip like a suppurating wound. It’s going a little deaf from the endless rattling of the rain, the sifting of the flakes. It’s life bounded by drear, experienced in murk.

But not quite.

Out of sheer desperation you instigate paltry changes, as though doing so will make Nature take notice; will make Her speed up Her calendar and change now, change soon. As though Nature cares that you’ve hacked off your hair, or thrown out half of your possessions, or walked naked in the snow to demonstrate, if not your power, then your indifference.

As though Nature cares.

It’s breaking rules and doing things you’ll regret; regretting even as you do. It’s squinting at displays of red and pink satin hearts that try to deceive you into believing this is anything other than a time of snarling discontent.

It’s February.

It’s midwinter malaise.

It’ll pass.

Too late.

Damn that groundhog anyway.

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Image: Dark Hand In A Dark Place from pulsamedia.eu

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