Disaster Zen for Writers (and Readers)
This is a repost of a blog I wrote for Lighthouse Writers Workshop in November 2016. I came across it this week, and it feels apropos during the COVID-19 quarantine. Enjoy!
Did you hear? We had an election, and it was a doozy.
Before Election Day, I knew a few things:
- My left-leaning friends worried about whether we could have unity afterward.
- My right-leaning relatives worried about whether we could have unity afterward.
- People say they are frightened that the extremists in our world are coming out of the woodwork, and I say that they have always been there. People say the extremists didn’t feel powerful before, and I think, what about the Klan in the 1920s, the Holocaust in the 1930s, the 1960s with its divisiveness between generations? The Civil War, the abolitionist movement, suffrage movements, Civil Rights?
- People worry about post-election acts of violence, and I remember that acts of violence often occur, depending on nothing in particular.
Somehow, I manage to be simultaneously a bit of a Pollyanna and a bitter realist. One might call the philosophy that has allowed me to keep my equanimity around the election “Disaster Zen.” What is behind my adoption of Disaster Zen? Literature, of course.
I’m fearful, by constitution, and so it might seem strange that the most crucial literary moments of my youth — the books that made me into a reader — center on disaster. In Swiss Family Robinson, that shipwrecked family turned potentially cannibalistic calamity into an exquisite precursor to the Tiny House Movement. I drifted in my mind to the tropical Robinson treehouse while I lounged on my family’s hand-me-down gold velvet sofa or, on a hot summer day, on the covered patio, sucking on a popsicle, waiting for my Toni home permanent to set, or taking a break to pick bags and bags of mushy-sweet purple plums from the trees that bordered our yard. (Rereading the book as an adult was vexing.)
Little Women I read again and again, on a lawn chair dragged into the playhouse in the back yard, the smell of dust heavy in the air from the dirt floor. Our playhouse had been a garden shed until my parents spruced it up with a set of curtains over the little single-pane windows. I teared up when Father March arrived home from war, and again at the satisfying reality that Jo March and Laurie could never love each other the way a person ought to be loved. Jo’s literary career drove me inside, where I wasn’t to touch my father’s IBM Selectric, but I could bang out anything I wanted on his old Underwood typewriter, with a seemingly endless stack of yellowing newsprint paper at my disposal. I became aware that I would be a writer like Jo (pleasant), and just as awkward with relationships (a far less satisfactory trait).
The book I turned to perhaps more than any other, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, offers apt aphorisms for election season. For example, the infuriated and hurt Sara Crewe tries to reassure herself:
When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in — that’s stronger. It’s a good thing not to answer your enemies.
Even poor Sara finds it hard to believe her words, which is what makes the book so captivating and so enduring — that and the fact that the book is an allegory for the human condition. When we feel exhausted and cold and alone, when our legs feel skinny and a cough is coming on — don’t we all yearn for a cozy garret, which someone who secretly loves and watches over us has furnished with a dressing gown and silk slippers just our size, a warm fire, a pleasant meal, and a pet monkey or whatever floats our boat?
If this fantasy sounds like a dream, it’s no accident; the book is like a dream, absorbing and melodramatic and wise all at once. It’s the kind of book you don’t want to put down, a sensation Burnett understands so well, writing of Sara:
Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage.
The same could be said of this election, and yet even if we are unreasonable and snappish, we must move on.
Now I’m an adult, of course, and so on election night, I opened a new book, a classic paperback I found in our neighborhood Little Free Library, a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time — The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. As it happens, I couldn’t have found anything better. The first part of the book is Baldwin’s letter to his 14-year-old nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. That’s 1963, or 53 years ago:
I know … that [my country and my countrymen] have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.)
Perhaps, in service to my Disaster Zen mindset, I’m quoting Baldwin selectively, making him sound gentler than he intended. But I know this: To my mind, the United States has long had a simmering wound, resulting from years of inequality and inequity. Skin has reappeared over the wound, maybe a scab. The wound has healed around the edges, although it still glows red and shiny with danger.
Underneath, the infection, the pain, the danger has never been mended. This year, we’ve ripped the scab clean off. It hurts like hell. It’s bleeding and maybe oozing pus. Yet exposing the wound to the air — painfully, searingly — is the only way we can let the infection breathe. Out in the open, our injuries might actually heal.
Right now, it feels like our differences, the edges of our wounds, are far distant from each other, and it hurts. We need more than stitches. We need a butterfly bandage or even a skin graft. And that’s where literature comes in, because it lets us try on someone else’s skin, and learn how they coped with the disasters that must befall characters to make a story a story. Literature tells us who I am and who you are. It tells us who we were and, just maybe, who we will be.
Or to turn once more to Sara Crewe, “Everything is a story — everything in this world. You are a story — I am a story — Miss Minchin is a story. You can make a story out of anything.”