The vision, uncertainty and hard work of moon shots

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This morning, spin class started with mash-up song of Kennedy’s 1962 Rice University speech about expanding the space program. We sprinted up a hill, fueled by these rousing words:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

I resolved on the spot to listen to this every morning before starting work. What better way to get psyched up for the day’s challenges? It does make me wonder why our politicians don’t talk to us like that anymore. It’s become unpopular to tell people the truth about anything, or to promise that something will be hard. Ever since President Carter’s 1977 “MEOW” (“moral equivalent of war”) talk during the energy crisis, our leaders have been skittish to tell us the truth.

And no wonder. Carter’s talk opens with: “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you, about a problem that’s unprecedented in our history. . . . It’s a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years, and it’s likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.” Man! Talk about a downer! He should have studied Kennedy’s oratorical techniques. President Kennedy spun his dazzling vision and inspired people to hurl themselves into the unknown, with only the promise of a lot of hard work and no guarantee of success. Continue reading

A letter from the future written in the past

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My novel’s heroine was going to be a time traveler from fifty years in the future. I liked the idea of a Cassandra figure, someone who lived in the everyday hell of an unstable climate gifted to her generation by ours. She arrives in New York City in December of 2009, just in time for the Copenhagen climate summit. I had fun with implanted nanotechnology merging powerful databases and communications with her organic brain. And with what she would think of the quaint, primitive technologies we have now. (Actual cell phones! Power cords! ATMs!) Or the things we take for granted that they no longer have in 2059, like sushi, cars, coastlines and forests.

In 2013, I dispensed with the future-world scenario when I realized that we don’t need someone from the future to tell us what climate change does to the planet. We are living it already. My first draft from 2011 has plenty of rookie writing mistakes, but it also has this letter that my heroine writes on her second day in 2009. Despite all the changes this novel has been through, it still forms the DNA of my story. Enjoy this letter from the future written in the past. Continue reading

In support of fiction that gives voice to the living world

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“There are people who think that things that happen in fiction do not really happen. These people are wrong.” ~ Neil Gaiman

I had one of those aha moments last week about my writing, the kind that make me feel really dumb for not having clicked earlier. The epiphany was triggered by this article by Paul Kingsnorth, asking why fiction so rarely extends imagination beyond the human realm. We would have to set aside the modern story of a mechanical nature in which only humans have consciousness. Instead, consider that the nonhuman world is as alive and aware as we are, which has been the understanding for most of human history.

There’s a lot being said these days about the importance of hearing from previously marginalized voices. And we are blessed with an abundance of writers meeting this challenge from all directions, people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mark Haddon, Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi Coates, Charlotte Wood, and Yaa Gyasi, among others. The living world is the ultimate marginalized voice, you might say. After all, the modern view of human exception and superiority has given us mountaintop removal coal mining, factory farming, fracking, genetic engineering, clearing rainforests to graze cattle, and on and on. No wonder we are awash in dystopian fiction.  Continue reading

The redemptive power of “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist”

3.6.16_Leopard2Sunil Yapa’s novel has a strong structure: a ensemble cast—seven different points of view plus a narrator’s voice–weaving around an actual event with vivid details that rise to the level of mythic symbolism. A billy club stands for the brutality of all authority wielded in violence; a police horse evokes intelligence beyond the petty human; a facial scar suggests menace or heroism; the misty rain sets a theatrical atmosphere. Details like PVC pipe, apple cider vinegar-soaked pink bandanas, swim goggles, and a riot helmet reflecting clouds passing overhead work together in an ominous concert of impending doom.

The story at times feels like passages of the Mahabarata, Greek myths of fathers and sons, Shakespearean drama of mistaken identity, or the Bible’s story of the Prodigal son returning. Perennial activist John Henry is a Moses character, bringing his people to freedom through the desert. Even the simple mention of stores at an intersection—the Gap, Banana Republic, a bank—takes on an End-of Empire feel. Yes, they are actual stores, but they also stand for something far greater, beyond any one individual. They are part of a vast capitalist network of exploitation of material resources and people’s lives and livelihoods. Continue reading

Playing it safe is a ticket to mediocrity in art and in life

2.27.16_marsh_620wI was driving last Wednesday night during a sudden violent thunderstorm, first on the highway and then on city streets unable to handle the epic volumes of water flow. It was a terrifying, white-knuckle experience, especially as I had someone else’s child in my backseat. I was thankful for the traffic, so I could gauge the depths of the fast-running streams that crossed every intersection. Give me a snowstorm any day.

That intimidation feels familiar. It’s been with me all week, as I continue to work on my novel. I keep thinking I’m not up to it and finding other things to occupy my time. I’ve never been afraid of hard work—especially when I’m on a roll. This project is calling me to let go, to let the writing take me where it will. And yet I’m afraid I can’t pull this off. That all these years of work will have been for naught. It seems the more I learn about craft, the bar gets higher and the finish line farther away. Continue reading

Ask Edith: animal sounds

Dear Edith:

I was helping my daughter study for a French quiz on animals and the sounds they make. Did you know that the French think a horse goes “hiii hiii?” Continue reading

Ask Edith: Nature Deficit Disorder

Dear Edith:

My 8-year-old son has recently been diagnosed with Nature Deficit Disorder. I should have seen it coming, as earlier in the year he sprained both thumbs playing video games. Continue reading

Are we giving our sacred storytelling powers to others?

2010_8-Maine_620wOur fascination with Story is so deeply embedded I would be surprised if genetic researchers haven’t turned up a receptor gene for it. We are almost as fond of categorizing things as we are of telling stories, so I wasn’t surprised recently to come across an article about the seven archetypal stories. This take on it says that the seven stories are: overcoming the monster, rebirth, quest, journey and return, rags to riches, comedy, and tragedy. Other genre categories break it down differently: love story, thriller, murder mystery, epic adventure, etc. The point is, we relate deeply, even subconsciously, to stories that have familiar themes and structures.

Just as there are types of stories, there are also types of storytellers. Some we call entertainers, others leaders or politicians. Some we call teachers, or pastors, rabbis or imams. Some are advertisers, others activists. All understand the power of Story to help us make sense of our lives, to show us our struggles and shine light on a pathway through them. It’s telling that this particular article ran in an advertising magazine. Continue reading

What happens when we return to trusting our senses?

11.7.15_Horse2_620wIn the final two chapters of his exquisite book, Becoming Animal, David Abram unleashes a series of simple and brilliant observations and proposals for a way forward. One point he makes is that when Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo discovered that the earth is not fixed after all, but rather orbits a fixed sun, the senses were increasingly derided as deceptive and untrustworthy. It was thought that our observations had led us astray into primitive and naïve beliefs about our place in the cosmos, and therefore about ourselves.

It’s true that oral, place-based, indigenous cultures did rely on the body’s perceptions of, for example, the way the sun left the sky and traveled beneath (within) the depths of the earth at night, reemerging in the morning to begin anew its daily transit of the sky. This observation kindled a relational understanding of the fire that is visible in the sky being in league with the fire that is within us. They understood through direct experience that the gravitational pull of the earth on our body is the same attraction between the sun and the earth. Are these two ways of perceiving mutually exclusive? Continue reading

We are all Parisians

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The horrific event on November 13 in Paris has a familiar tone to it, an energetic signature much like a terrible earthquake and tsunami or a hurricane with devastating flooding. Prediction and prevention are just as imprecise and impotent as in the face of a huge “natural” disaster. The victims are struck with random cruelty. We feel helpless in the aftermath.

True, the attacks in Paris were planned and carried out by people, acting out of a story they fervently believe. As such, we may tell ourselves that acts of terror or riots of unrest are preventable—if only we have better intelligence, stronger police response, more proactive targeted drone strikes—in short, we push back. Better. Harder. First. Continue reading