Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine’s April 2018 book pick
A shirt-grabbing, page-turning love story that follows a one-of-a-kind family through twists of fate that require nearly unimaginable choices.
Happiness begins with a charming courtship between hopelessly attracted opposites: Heather, a world-roaming California girl, and Brian, an intellectual, homebody writer, kind and slyly funny, but loath to leave his Upper West Side studio. Their magical interlude ends, full stop, when Heather becomes pregnantBrian is sure he loves her, only he doesn't want kids. Heather returns to California to deliver their daughter alone, buoyed by family and friends. Mere hours after Gracie's arrival, Heather's bliss is interrupted when a nurse wakes her, "Get dressed, your baby is in trouble."
This is not how Heather had imagined new motherhood – alone, heartsick, an unexpectedly solo caretaker of a baby who smelled "like sliced apples and salted pretzels" but might be perilously ill. Brian reappears as Gracie's condition grows dire; together Heather and Brian have to decide what they are willing to risk to ensure their girl sees adulthood.
The grace and humor that ripple through Harpham's writing transform the dross of heartbreak and parental fears into a clear-eyed, warm-hearted view of the world. Profoundly moving and subtly written, Happiness radiates in many directionsnew, romantic love; gratitude for a beautiful, inscrutable world; deep, abiding friendship; the passion a parent has for a child; and the many unlikely ways to build a family. Ultimately it's a story about love and happiness, in their many crooked configurations.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Heather Harpham has written six solo plays, including Happiness and BURNING which toured nationally. Her fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in MORE Magazine and Water~Stone Review. Harpham is the recipient of the Brenda Ueland Prose Prize, a Marin Arts Council Independent Artist Grant and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and SUNY Purchase and lives along the Hudson River with her family.
Read an Excerpt
My first child, my girl, was born just before seven on a spring night, perfect. She was compact and fully formed, a little over five pounds. She smelled like sliced apple and salted pretzels, like the innocent recent arrival from a saline world that she was.
But the midwife was worried. "She's small for gestational age," she kept saying. "Any problems or issues during pregnancy?"
I wanted to ask her if heartbreak counted. If sharing a bed with a goodhearted dog, rather than the baby's father, might do it.
"Also," the midwife said, "she looks a little jaundiced."
"That's just the Greek side," my mom cut in, "we're all yellow."
The midwife finally handed her over, a waxy, pinched little thing. Gory and unkempt. Not serenely smiling like the dolls of my youth. But a real baby, mine.
When I breathed her in, a straight, bright synaptic path lit up the center of my brain. Every neuron said to its neighbor, yes, yes, yes, yes, this is the one, yes. This reaction is hardwired. Animals identify their offspring by scent. But to me, it felt like magic. Smelling her elicited euphoria akin, I imagined, to the unadulterated delight of smoking crack cocaine for the first time. After a few hours of life outside the womb, she began to smell less like apples and more like an element, tin or iron. Something practical, a garden tool or an old coin, sprung from dark soil and delivered into the palm of my hand.
After months of waiting to see who this child would be, after fending off the broad hints of a sonographer who was dying to give away the mystery of her gender, after sleeping alone in a thicket of unhappiness, after praying to skip over incubation to active motherhood — here she was. A little football of a person, tucked into the oval between my arm and torso, breathing on her own, making minor noises. Preoccupied with the job of being alive. Under a fringe of downy hair, at the base of her still soft skull, I found a pale pink birthmark, strawberry shaped.
For the next ten hours I lay awake, breathing her in, stunned to find a small human body nestled against mine. I couldn't figure out where on earth she came from. The biology I understood; I knew about the genome, the dim lights, the Richard Buckner music, the curved helix of DNA. But none of that could account for her. Her birth was both an utterly quotidian event (245 new children are born into every minute) and a jaw-dropping miracle to rival loaves and fishes. There was no one. And then, poof — her.
I didn't sleep. I couldn't sleep; I didn't want to miss anything. What if she sighed or pursed her lips or splayed her fingers or jerked her arms upward?
I was still awake, a little before 3 a.m., when a gentle-faced nurse came in. He didn't seem surprised to find me up, smelling the baby. Typical new-parent behavior. He said, casually, that they'd like to take her to the nursery for a few tests. The oddity of routine tests at three in the morning didn't register. It was obvious that my child was totally healthy; what harm could tests do?
Healthy babies were all I knew. The array of placid baby dolls I'd spent hours clucking over as a girl had smelled faintly of vanilla. They had coy smiles and carefully molded plastic hair. I tucked them in. I burped them. I crooned into their plastic ears. None of them ever ran a fever or broke out in hives. Even baby Jesus (the biggest celebrity baby of all time) was a robust little soul. Holy infant so tender and mild.
The nurse promised to bring her right back. Without her, I was at a loss. I motored the bed up and down, edgy, unfocused, waiting for my fix. An hour later the nurse came back empty-handed. "Where's my baby?" I said, sounding, even to myself, absurdly panicked.
He gave me a pointed look, half sympathy, half crowd control, and said, "We'd like to run a few more tests." At the door he added, "The doctor will be in to talk with you in a few minutes." I didn't know anything about hospitals yet; I didn't know enough to be terrified that an actual doctor would appear bedside before daybreak.
When I had imagined threats to my future children, they'd been external. Strangers hovering at the edge of playgrounds in loose, gray sweatshirts; rotting rope swings fraying over jagged rocks; cars, everywhere, callous, steely-eyed killer-cars. These were possibilities I could conceive of. Illness had never slunk across the screen of my anxieties, with its curved spine and sallow cheeks. I probably wouldn't have recognized it even if it did. Serious illness, life-threatening illness, was outside the realm of my imagination. If pushed to consider the question, I might have responded that I was protected from the possibility by the mere fact that it had never occurred to me. I might have said, "If I can't imagine it, how can it happen?"
* * *
On my first date with the father of this five-pound girl we went to an intimate place on the corner of Jane Street in Greenwich Village. The kind of place where, to reach your table, you're obliged to wedge sideways and apologize to strangers whom you've brushed with your hips. Seated, we leaned over the small table to breathe the same air and figure each other out. He said he'd read recently that everyone has a personal "happiness quotient," that your happiness in life is essentially set, regardless of circumstances. He reckoned his was low, and guessed mine was high.
I'd never heard of a happiness quotient. I'd never stopped to consider happiness as anything other than an assumed default state, a place to return to after the occasional thick fog. If, as a kid, I had been asked to state the one thing I believed to be true about my future, I'd have said, "I'll have a happy life."
Not that I'd had a blindingly happy childhood. I hadn't. I'd had a childhood of being profoundly loved amid serial chaos. I grew up as the only child of a warmhearted, fleet-footed single mom who was always exploring her options, in men, jobs, lifestyles. It was California in the 1970s. For a while I attended school in a geodesic dome on a hilltop. A herd of goats grazed on long, golden grass outside the open door. Sometimes we ran among them without shirts, boys and girls alike. One of the male teachers enjoyed watching, too much. Everything in my world moved fast, and my job was to hang on. Still, I'd emerged with the idea that my own adult life would be happy and essentially free of adversity. The optimism of youth, which I'd somehow hung on to until thirty, thirty-one even.
A happy life, at the time of that Jane Street first date, did not include, from my point of view, being the mother of a child who required extensive neonatal medical care. Or spending a pregnancy alone, heartsick. Those possibilities weren't visible from the corner of Jane Street; all I saw was the man before me in a pressed blue dress shirt, delivering literary jokes with a shy, sly humor. The amused look in his eye when I chirped with surprise at the arrival of our salads. "Do you always greet your food so enthusiastically?" he asked. "Not always," I said. "Only sometimes." Only now.
* * *
The 4 a.m. doctor was short and bespectacled with a round, soft face. A pleasant-looking bearer of bad news; he seemed personally pained by what he was about to say. He started by explaining the baby had high levels of something I didn't catch, emphasizing the need to transfer "the patient" to a larger hospital. "Right," I said, trying to muster a little dignity in my flapping nightshirt. "But what is actually wrong with her?" "Your baby is at risk of brain damage or" — he paused and glanced around the room as though looking for something he'd mislaid — "death."
I felt embarrassed for him; clearly he was in the wrong room. He'd confused my baby with another baby. I tried to break it gently, "This is the baby born at seven p.m., the five-pound, five-ounce girl, with a strawberry on the back of her neck."
"Yes," he said. "I know."
Still, I refused to apply these words — death or brain damage — to my swaddled and fabulous-smelling daughter. Death was ludicrous. And brain damage was out of the question. Way, way, way out of the question. In fact, the question and brain damage didn't even know each other. The question was: when can I take her home? Still, the doctor was in earnest. I decided to play along. "OK," I said. "OK, right. OK. Then what do we do?"
He explained that her red cells lacked stability and were breaking apart in the bloodstream. The iron inside each cell was spilling into the blood and floating freely throughout her body, at risk of lodging into the soft tissue of her brain. "So you are saying what, exactly?" I said. "She's at risk for rust head?" He looked at me, appraising. A long silent moment went by. "That's humor," he said finally, "common coping mechanism."
At the door he added, "We need to clean her blood immediately. We're transferring you to UCSF Med Center. The ambulance is waiting." University of California San Francisco Medical Center, the place I'd elected not to give birth. The big-city hospital. The tall, silver fortress on top of the hill, across the Golden Gate. The last place on earth a brand-new baby wants to go.
* * *
On our second date, we ate at a bright, loud diner along Seventh Avenue. If harshly lit Formica can feel romantic, I told myself, then this is foreordained. He asked me to list my "diner worries," those anxieties so slight they could be jotted onto the waxy parchment of a placemat. I have no idea what I said. I likely made things up, things to make me seem Frenchly philosophical or politically courageous or, failing all this, mysterious. I was young, I owned an apartment in New York City, had a good university job, and was on the cusp of what might be a relationship with a serious, kind man. Diner worries were in short supply.
But I loved that he asked, that he wanted to etch a record of my preoccupations onto a placemat. Later I would learn that he often took notes about things his students said, their goals, their literary heroes — to keep them straight, to accumulate an understanding of what they hoped for. At first this seemed excessive. But later it struck me as intrinsic to his way of being. He wanted to know, understand, remember who people were. How they were. And the best, truest way he knew to burrow toward the truth was to write things down. On the page he could add up a girl's diner worries and see what they amounted to.
* * *
The ambulance driver told me to ride up front.
"What about the baby?" I asked.
"She'll ride in back, with the paramedics," he said.
"The paramedics are great," I said, "but they don't really know her."
"We're just going over the bridge," the driver said, "she'll be fine."
At this point I became what was probably noted in the trip log as combative mom. Logically, I knew the driver was not responsible for my girl's precipitous need to be transferred, at less than twenty hours old, to a neonatal intensive care unit — but neither did he grasp how my entire world was encased in the plastic box that was her incubator. My job was to stick with the plastic box, no matter what.
"Actually, I'm going to ride with her," I said, trying to make it sound as if, after weighing his various options, I'd settled on this. Somehow, that worked.
In the back of the ambulance were four people: two paramedics, me, and her. It was just beginning to get light as we crossed the Golden Gate, leaving Marin County and entering San Francisco. In between the black mass of the bay and a gray bank of clouds, a pale, thin line of pink wavered. Daylight. I relaxed a little. Surely nothing catastrophic could happen during business hours.
My mother's car was trailing the ambulance. I knew she was filled with worry. Worry was undeniably called for given the situation: ambulance, dawn, newborn, bad blood. But the baby sleeping peacefully under my hand defied worry. She had a rosebud mouth and delicately veined eyelids. She didn't stir, not even when the driver turned on the siren to speed through red lights. I stroked her forehead and tried to get my mind around our situation. Inside this tiny person, microscopic red blood cells were falling apart. She was a stressed creature, straining to deliver sufficient oxygen to the outposts of her body. How could she appear so serene?
The repertoire of reptilian brain function — fight, flight, denial, play dead — is great for emergencies. It wedges space between the event and the self. I had been swinging between denial and fight (my two personal favorites) from the moment the round-faced doctor said ambulance. Now, sitting with the baby, I felt the unwelcome return of higher reasoning. I began to pump the paramedics for information: What would happen when we arrived at the hospital? Would I be allowed to stay with the baby? How long would it take to clean her blood? What were the odds for babies in this situation?
One of them explained that the method for cleaning her blood was called an exchange transfusion. An exchange transfusion works, she said, by removing all the blood from the body, passing it through a device that extracts excess iron, warming the blood back up, and returning it to circulation.
Are you insane? I wanted to ask. Bloodletting? So cliché. So over. So Middle Ages. Consider your reputation, if not the baby.
I sat there in silence, trying to visualize what a blood cleaning/warming machine might look like and how they would attach it to her. It dawned on me that the next few hours mattered, really mattered, and that even babies who smelled just right might drift off.
I looked down at my girl, sleeping, gathering air, converting it into oxygen.
"All the blood? Out of her body? At the same time?" I asked. "Is that prudent?"
The paramedic touched my shoulder and said, "She'll be OK. They're much stronger than they look."
Through the small window at back of the ambulance, I could see a steady streak of green. My mom's Volvo sedan, behind us. I had the sense that she would follow us anywhere, no matter how fast, no matter how far. When I had called my mom, only an hour ago, she'd been asleep. "What do you mean rusty blood?" she'd said. "Is this about the baby?"
"Drive here," I'd said. "We need you."
She'd arrived in time to catch the ambulance's wake. For her, I was the girl, and this whole ambulance was the plastic box.
* * *
After our third date, we went back to his apartment. He was a studio dweller on the Upper West Side, twenty-sixth floor, a view of the George Washington Bridge, which he revered. A wall of windows and little else. He had a single pot and stacks of books. Against the barrenness, he'd waged the smallest possible stand — a decorative postage stamp. Joe Louis.
That is how I began to fall in love with Brian, all that emptiness, and then, suddenly, a black-and-white postcard of Paris or Beckett; the hidden trapdoor to something more.
The art in my apartment was as big as I could afford it to be, giant posters from foreign museums, hand-carried on the plane ride home, trying always not to dent them, destined for cheap oversized Ikea frames. My favorite was by the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo; it showed a figure, sitting facedown at a table, the circumference of his head dominating the space in pinks, yellows, violets. Man Radiating Happiness.
In contrast to Brian's, my daily life was erratic, unorganized, and subject to an appetite for salty snacks, phone chats, trashy magazines, generalized rose-sniffing. My mornings were spent teaching drama in public schools with kids all over the city as an "actor-teacher" with the Creative Arts Team at NYU. Afternoons, when I should have been doing my own schoolwork (I was a grad student) or rehearsing a new solo piece, I would instead lollygag about town. If I did rush home, it was to watch General Hospital and eat ice cream. If a friend called to say let's go to Battery Park and check out the river, I was game. Even if I had a pile of more pressing things. Around 11 p.m., when the hourly studio rates fell, I would go rehearse. If I had a performance coming, I'd focus. Otherwise, I was a creative malingerer.
But Brian knew how to work. His life was ordered, boundaried to the extreme. A man who, by his own admission, ate broccoli with brown rice and garlic sauce every night for dinner. A man who pruned back the trivial decisions, who wore French Blue dress shirts and black pants every day of the week, for consistency's sake. A man with an embedded internal clock, which told him to sit and write at the same hour, day after day. A man with a gift, and the dense garden of habit grown around it for protection.
We were a study in opposites; hopelessly attracted. We floated about from dinners to concerts to parties with friends. Holding hands, touching each other's clothes. When we walked through the Village, along Sixth Avenue, shoulder to shoulder, I had a liquid sense of well-being. We were in the throes of infatuation, soft-minded and easily persuaded of our rightness for each other by sexual thrill. But there was a bedrock quality beneath the giddiness, something I hadn't felt before. Being with him gave me the unfamiliar feeling of being what I was — a grown woman.
Excerpted from "Happiness"
Copyright © 2017 Heather Harpham.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
Heather Harpham in Conversation with Bret Anthony Johnston
A charming courtship between hopelessly attracted opposites turns into an unexpected family in Happiness, Heather Harpham's beautiful memoir about her "crooked little road to semi- ever after." Bursting with grace and humor, this is an unforgettable story of parenthood and unconditional love that the booksellers who sit on the Discover Great New Writers selection committee are still talking about.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Remember Me Like This, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the winner of the 2015 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize. After directing the creative writing program at Harvard University for eleven years, Bret is now the director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin. --Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Bret Anthony Johnson: Why is the book called Happiness?
Heather Harpham: I hoped the title would be received as a charged particle -- a word that has the power to carry both its positive face value and its implied opposite. I have this line in the book, from Virginia Woolf -- "Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy." This is a book with veins of unhappiness running through it in the form of a child's suffering, the loss of innocence, and, on a much less profound scale, a series of upended romantic expectations -- and at the same time there is happiness embedded into the small spaces even when we're in rotten shape. I hope the title contains the tension that always exists when we feel happy -- that sense that all could unravel in a heartbeat, as Woolf knew so well. And conversely, when we're unhappy, that we might, at any moment, find some way to laugh at the absurd or at ourselves. There are wounds beyond humor or happiness, there are -- we know this. But surprisingly few. Given enough time and distance, almost anything can grow lighter. Humans are ultimately very emotionally agile, and that's a great thing.
BAJ: Did you always know that you would write about this period of your life?
HH: No, not really. Like most writers, I have a love-hate relationship with autobiographical material, which carries a unique set of potential pitfalls. When Gracie was sick, my hope was just to get through that time, to see her healthy. The writing I did was primarily to keep our people updated and to help myself cope, to have an arena where I could pour out some of the difficulties or tough questions pouring in. After the dust of living that experience settled, about five years post-transplant, I felt compelled to look at the writing and see if it added up to anything like a story. It didn't. But I decided to start at the beginning and see if I could draw a portrait of what had been such a wild-and-wooly time, beginning with how Brian and I responded to: a surprise pregnancy; a surprisingly sick kid; a surprise second kid; and a surprising offer from kid number two to cure kid number one. It felt like snippets of despair and joy jumbled together in one basket; I wanted pull these out, piece by piece, and try to lay out a coherent design. Basically, I wanted to re-see, or see more deeply, what we'd been through together, and there's no better way that I know of than to sit and write. Writing invites you to find sense, or to make sense, out of experiences in which no sense seemed to live.
BAJ: Your husband, the terrific novelist Brian Morton, wrote a novel inspired by this story. Can you tell me a little about the differences and similarities in how you approached the subject?
HH: Brian has the ability to look at life's hardest things with wide-open eyes, to take the reader into true heartbreak, but without a wisp of sentimentality or of exploitation of the material. What I mean by that is that he works incredibly hard to be faithful to what feels and is true, rather than giving readers what they might like to hear. More than one person told Brian that they threw his novel Breakable You (which you referred to) across the room after reading the scene in which a beloved character dies. I'm not sure there's higher praise than having your book physically acted on by a reader so invested in the world you've made.
Like Brian, I hoped to avoid the easy lob of sentimentality. But, and this might be a function of stereotypical male/female socialization, I'm perhaps more protective of the reader, more worried for them. Or worse, worried what they'll think of me. Brian gives his readers full credit, he doesn't pull punches as a writer because he's fretting over their reactions. For better or worse, I'm a fretter. I am often worried about overwhelming people, or saying too much. At the same time, writing material that inherently invokes pathos (such as children in peril) carries a special set of responsibilities; you've got to commit to tell the truth without relying on the expediency of the material to stand in for craft or for honesty.
BAJ: To that end, earlier in your life you studied fiction, and yet you've chosen to write this as a memoir. Was that an easy choice? What did nonfiction offer that fiction didn't?
HH: I wouldn't have known how to approach this story through a fictional lens. It was simply too close to the surface. I think fiction works best when you're taking dictation, as has often been said, from the unconscious. Which is why it's so damn hard. The unconscious keeps its own hours. You have to show up for such huge stretches at the desk with your net out, hoping it will fly by. That's true for people writing memoir, too, it's a ton of time at the desk -- you can't just jot down what happened and call it a day. But you're not searching for the heat, the heart, of your story; you have that within you already. The memoirist's job is more about applying craft, coherence and, if we're lucky, meaning to a miasma of undifferentiated experience.
On the other hand, the writer Geoff Dyer rocked the Bennington writers' community, as we both know, by saying of fiction and nonfiction, "What's the diff?" I like to think he's right in the largest sense; good writing demands imagination, there's no way around it. The imaginative impulse can take many forms -- from a sci-fi plot twist to a new metaphor for the oldest game in town, love and heartbreak -- but somewhere along the line if you're writing, you're imagining. And I love that. What a great job description: imagine.
BAJ: Your daughter, Amelia, is now a happy, healthy sixteen-year-old. How does she feel about the book?
HH: She has a complex set of feelings, and I'm not sure I'm the right person to convey any of them. Writing about her as an infant or as a four-year-old was much easier, and less ethically fraught, than writing about her as a sixteen-year-old. That said, I will share what she's given me leave to share -- that reading the book has widened her empathy for her brother, who, as a very small child, had to contend with his parents' intense worries and distraction. As she put it, "I feel for the little guy." And I think, or maybe only hope, that it has widened her empathy for her younger self, and the tremendous hardships she met with humor and spirit.
BAJ: We've both written about children in peril. In my novel, even with made-up characters, I felt intensely protective of them. Did you find writing this kind of story especially harrowing? Did you feel any kind of unusual responsibility to the characters, not least Amelia? Did you feel any kind of unusual responsibility toward the readers?
HH: I absolutely share your belief that material harrowing on this level demands special responsibilities: to readers, as I've discussed and also to the subjects you're writing about. I find it touching that you felt this toward your fictional characters -- that must be a mark of how real they became for you. I know your characters in Remember Me Like This were entirely real for me, and I followed their fates with my heart in my throat. With Happiness I was writing with full knowledge, of course, of how it ends. I knew, as I sat to write, who would survive -- whom I could protect and whom, excruciatingly, I could not. Writing about Amelia (called Gracie in the book) was hard, in that capturing a child's idiosyncratic expressions and "vibe" on paper is like running after a wind going, come on, get in this jar! But I had notes and Brian's formidable memory to help me.
As for the other children, I only wrote about children whose families I'm still in touch with. I wanted parents' express permission to record, publicly, the most painful experience in their lives. Even with permission, it's a slippery slope. My intention was to honor the children I wrote about. I hope that is how the writing is received, but I can't know. Most of all, I wanted to record my own grief, to say I was there, I knew you. I saw you. I remember you.
BAJ: When I was doing research for Remember Me Like This, and as I tried to empathize with the married couple, the parents, in my novel, I found that such extraordinary trauma to the child often does irreparable harm to the adults. It's a kind of collateral damage that isn't often considered. How did you approach that in your writing process?
HH: When we witness an innocent being suffer, especially our own child, we naturally cast around for someone to blame: Who the hell has allowed this to happen? Why? These questions feel personal, and enragingly unanswered. It is easy, even if totally illogical, to blame your mate. They are right there, handy! And that's so tragic because in reality no one on earth is more of an ally than your child's other parent. No one on earth cares more -- it's you two. Or in our evolving world, you three or four. Parents are the front line. In the book, I wrote about how alienated I allowed myself to become from Brian, under the stress and anxieties of transplant, and how inspired I was to rethink that "approach," by the loving example of another couple we came to know, Ramya and Deepak Bhaskaram.
Loving each other through fear, through terror, through those unanswered questions is incredibly hard. It's easier, for some of us to isolate and try to gut it out alone. I was afraid of seeing my own fears mirrored in Brian, and so I turned inward. But if you do that, you're cut off from your lifeline. And ultimately I think both parents, if they can bear to stay sentient, stay connected and deeply feeling, can give much more to their child by nurturing one another.
BAJ: I've long believed that the very telling of a story is a kind of victory, a kind of hope, no matter how dark or unsettling the material. How did you negotiate that delicate line between hope and melancholy, between light and dark, as you worked on the book?
HH: The act of telling a story is a kind of victory, I totally agree. It is an act of survivorship; it means you lived to tell. Or more than lived: lived and noticed, lived and stood ready to describe. To tell, you've got to have the power to wedge space between the events and the self -- whether those events are actual or imagined, you have to have perspective, breathing room, a view. And so, in a sense, to tell a story is to transcended it. Or maybe to surrender to it. I don't know really how to describe that phenomenon, but I do agree that telling feels like victory, even when what you're describing is the most knee-bending defeat or loss. Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina springs to mind; it's a description of a the most decimated childhood, and yet we know the teller is intact enough to convey that experience, and so there's hope.
As we've said, telling carries responsibilities, but it also carries great privilege. It is an honor to be a storyteller, to have the time and energy to recast experience into a form that can be shared, or passed along. Telling stories is an innately human act; those first stories were probably mechanisms of actual survival, of evolution: Hey, listen to how Jed escaped the big gray tiger (or how he didn't!). Our lives aren't on the line in the same way, but I do still believe in the power of storytelling -- in the hands of masters - - to evolve us, to grow us; to make us understand ourselves, or one another, better. Our world has some terrifyingly narrow-minded streams running through it at the moment, and the ability of story tellers to grow empathy and mutual curiosity has never been more necessary. Collectively, we have this impossible, essential job: to face what's dark, full on, unblinking, but with an open heart.
--October 16, 2017