Writers, Rabbit Holes and Curiouser and Curiouser

My watercolor version of Sir John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland (in the attic)

Alice of Wonderland fame had a curious nature.  Falling down a rabbit hole probably wasn’t brilliant.  However, it lead her into a fictitious world, one that Lewis Carroll fabricated brilliantly.  Was it a political parody?  A not so subtle way to expose and mock the then current political climate in England?  Was it only a fantasy, a child’s tale?  To be taken at face value?

Regardless, writers are curious beings.  They pursue various white rabbits in their quest for a story.  They research and sniff things out.  They discover, uncover, unearth, expose and bring things to light to share with their readers.  Ha!  Curiosity, it has been said, keeps one young.  The exploration can lead you into all sorts of encounters.  However, if it’s a white rabbit that you meet, you might be careful about who you tell.

In my childhood, the oft repeated phrase was “Children are meant to be seen and not heard.”  What clever person invented that one?  Asking questions and having a questing nature is how we discover and learn about the world that we’re born into.  The autocratic family system in which I grew up disallowed individual thinking and discouraged asking questions.  You were served what you were served and it was for your own good–you best swallow it in its entirety.  Some of my siblings chafed under this rule and were given the strap.  Others went into denial… ‘everything is fine’.  And then, the belief that everyone lived like this seemed true.  There wasn’t a lot of connection with the outside world.  Isolation is important in this type of system.  

It takes awhile, after one leaves such a home, to feel safe enough to express yourself freely.  It takes awhile to even realize what your own thoughts are.  But when you begin to come out from under the veils of fear and trauma, you start to notice things around you that just aren’t right.  And  your questions rise to the surface.  If you feel safe enough, you pursue those questions with an avidness, a rising hunger, a quest for your own truth in the midst of a world in chaos.  So, your early childhood, in a sense has trained you to recognize the non-sense that much of the world is buying into.  You have insight into the fragmentation, the separation, the isolation, the not seeing what is really going on (i.e. the elephant in the living room).  When your experiences take you into situations where questions aren’t encouraged, you have a nose for something isn’t right here.  

What I’m noticing is that there are many people across the planet who don’t question the status quo.  I witness how we continue allowing atrocities, warmongering, class differences, economic stratification, ageism, sexism, racism–all those ism’s.  And then there are those who do question, thankfully.  Climate change is real…do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise or do we roll up our sleeves and head into the fray and see if we can learn from the wiser elders, the indigenous ones, those who love the earth?  

No one person can address all the inequities by themselves.  I wonder what might happen if you or I or anyone chooses one thing to be curious about, to study and learn about?  At some point, you might feel the desire to share what you’ve learned.  At times, you could feel inspired to speak with newfound authority on  your topic of choice.  You might be inclined to educate others from that place of passionate awareness

One thing!  One thing only to be curious about and to explore.  What would you choose?

Dream It Better

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How do you care for our earth?  As an individual, I steward a small piece of earth.  I’m grateful for this little plot of land with its variety of fruit trees planted by someone else, perhaps over fifty years ago.  They probably had no thought of me.  But they gave me a gift all these years later.

We are facing a time of global crisis.  The way that we’ve been “using” the earth isn’t sustainable.  The Native Americans believe that we have a responsibility to consider seven generations to come.  They and some others realize that the earth is on loan to us now and to be conserved for future generations.  But most of the world hasn’t held this as a value.  We’ve taken from the earth’s resources and not given in return.  We’ve used and abused our earth, our oceans, our air quality.  Now we see disruption across the planet and we wonder how can that be?  As if it came out of nowhere.  As if scientists hadn’t been warning us.

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This painting is inspired by the animals that live along the Rio Grande River, the fourth longest river in the USA.  Beside a large portion of this river, there is a “wall” being built to define a boundary between the US and Mexico.  This particular area, along the Rio Grande bordering the state of Texas, is considered to be one of those invaluable riparian habitats.  Jaguarundi, Pronghorn, Ocelot, Javelina, Mountain Lion, Fox, Birds, Beetles and Butterflies are some of the animals and insects that inhabit this area.  The “wall” would disrupt the natural navigation patterns of these animals and insects. Some of these species, like the Ocelot, are already endangered. The Rio Grande River itself is in grave danger.

I call this painting “DREAM IT BETTER.”

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We are touched by things that we hear or see.  We know that some things, as the disruption of a riparian habitat, are wrong.  We feel bad about it.  It may even arouse our passion!  Instead of stopping  at feeling bad or sad, consider, “What is an action step that I can take to make a difference?”  One step would be to do some research.  To find some legitimate organizations that are opposing such destruction.  Get informed.  Then see how what you learn can be shared with others.  Take the leap from helpless observer to active participant.  One small step towards change.

Standing Rock

Remember Standing Rock?  That protest was the inspiration for this painting.  Across the world, many were outraged when reading the news about the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that would run beneath the Missouri River and through reservation land.  This was a direct threat to the region’s drinking water, as well as to the water supply used to irrigate surrounding farmlands. The construction would disturb ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of historic importance.

When I was 16-years old, attending an all-girl Catholic High School in San Francisco, we were required to choose a research project.  I chose to investigate the status of Native American Tribes across the United States.  I sent letters off to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and various tribal affiliates.  I received lots of mail in return.  And reading material.  I was shocked to realize the poverty that our First Citizens were living in.  And to read about the high rate of alcoholism was upsetting.  Also, it struck me that a salesman would visit a tribe and sell them refrigerators when he knew full well that they didn’t even have electricity!

Doing this research, the Native American Peoples found a place in my heart.

How many times do the powers that be violate a treaty, withdraw support, move tribes around, encroach on Native American lands and lives before they realize that it’s morally wrong and stop doing it?  Here is one question to be asked in such instances:  “How would I feel if it was happening to me and my family?”

If your answer is something like “I would protest!”  Or “That’s not right!”  Then, why should it be different for the tribes of Standing Rock (or any other group of people)?  Don’t they want to protect their families like I do?  Don’t they deserve respect like I do?  Why do their rights matter less than mine or yours?  Is it too late to make amends?

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Today, I read a recent article on the present day state of affairs around the DAPL–Dakota Access Pipeline…

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Prevails
  as Federal Judge Strikes Down DAPL Permits

This is a victory, but the battle isn’t over.  One cannot assume that once a right is won, it is forever sealed and held sacred.  But for now, a victory.

A dear friend traveled to standing rock and stood with the people in solidarity in opposition to DAPL.  She expressed that there were other benefits of being there.  To witness the tribes who had once opposed each other, here, standing together for a common cause was powerful in and of itself.  Something for all of us who find ourselves in such oppositions today to learn from.  The expression “United we stand.  Divided we fall” was directly experienced.

“Pray under the sky
bare feet on the ground, 
humbly.  That you may 
feel the connection with
all that is and live from
this understanding.
It is so.”

I believe that this prayer is from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Vague Indulgences–Fictionalizing

Taking a subject that you know and translating it into fiction is both a challenge and doable.  You contain the research that is integrated into the story.  The narrative is not intended to be a memoir though it contains elements of your personal experience.

Following is a short story I wrote several years ago while working with my itinerant creative writing instructor.  I’ve taken some elements of being brought up in the Catholic religion and this became the thread that wove the story together.   The characters, place and circumstances are fiction.

Vague Indulgences
© by Christine O’Brien

Clara’s fingers fidgeted behind her back while her friend, Barb, scoped the café for single men.  Dressed in black from scarf to boot, Clara asked the counter person, “Which is better, the pumpkin pie or the chocolate mint bars?”

“I prefer the chocolate mint bars.”

“Alright then let’s go with one chocolate mint bar” she said as her righteous hands settled decisively on her broad hips.

Forget the damn diet she thought.  Indulge is the word of the day, the week, oh well, the month, Clara succumbed.  She recalled the partial and plenary indulgences of a Catholic grammar school upbringing.  Having once again kicked your brother in the shins, showing sincere contrition, you were given a penance.  “One Our Father and three Hail Mary’s,” the priest prescribed.  Although the sin was forgiven, time in purgatory loomed after you died.  If you did something above and beyond the ordinary, you could shorten the time you were waylaid in this half-way house.  Partial indulgences were granted for small acts of kindness like helping an old man across the street. And then there was total removal of temporal punishment through a plenary indulgence which could only be granted by the Pope.  Clara had a sudden image of those black-coated Italian women, their faded faces draped in lacy mantillas.  The black rosary beads slid rapidly through their parchment fingers. They probably stacked up heaps of indulgences for themselves and their crazy families, Clara ruminated.

The locket of Our Lady of Perpetual Help swung forward as she leaned over, staring down into the glass-topped dessert counter.  The locket contained a relic from some long-dead pope.  Clara wouldn’t call herself religious, perhaps superstitious.  “It can’t hurt to wear it,” she often told Barb who teased her about the locket.

“I’ll take that one,” she said, pointing to the smaller of the two chocolate mint bars.

Barb leaned in closer, pointing, “Get that one.  It’s bigger.  Then I can have a bite.”

Clara frowned, then said “Get your own.  I don’t feel like sharing.”

“Be that way, selfish bitch,” Barb snipped.

“Was that really necessary?  Can’t you for once just let me say ‘no’ without making me feel guilty about it?”  Her efforts at converting Barb to at least one act of daily kindness always seemed to fall short.  Clara was committed to the task though.  She shrugged her plump shoulders and said “Forget it.  Let’s sit outside.”

Clara remembered the sage advice from her mother when asked how she handled anger. “Anger is a waste of energy.  I can’t be bothered with that.”  In her slender days, Clara used to lose her temper at the drop of a hat. It seemed that there was always something to be angry about and she leapt for the bait.  Then, in an epiphany of sorts, she got it. Anger was a man’s emotion. It was neither pretty nor acceptable in a woman.  Clara learned to shrug it off…or better yet, stuff it with something gooey and sweet.

Clara’s mom was five feet tall. She weighed over 200 pounds at last weigh-in. When Clara was 15-years old, her father began to sneak into Clara’s bed at night. She wasn’t sure if she should feel proud or pestered. Her mother went into a baking frenzy in those days.

Clara turned back to the counter, “Would you please wrap that piece of pumpkin pie to go? For later.”

Writing Prompt:
In this short story, 572 words, so much is conveyed using the vehicle of something intimately known by the author–a Catholic upbringing.

Within your past experience, find something around which you can build a story.  Do you have a character or two in mind to facilitate the telling?  A setting?  A circumstance?  Give it a try.  Write it, then go back to edit, cultivate, refine, finalize.  Spend time with it.

Free Writing and Then, DO YOUR RESEARCH

Let go on the page, fly free, get it all down, follow the flow.  What fun!

However, ultimately, even if it is a personal experience that you are writing about, you’re going to have to do your research.  There are so many resources out there on virtually everything.  Often, you don’t have to leave your computer desk to gather what you need to flesh out your writing. But then, how boring that can be–spending more time with Mr. Google.

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One summer day, when my daughters were young, I thought we should find out whatever we could about, of all things, Sasquatch.  We lived in San Francisco, the beautiful big city by the bay.  Our chances of encountering a Sasquatch (who prefers deep forested areas far away from humans), were slim. Unless BIG FOOT suddenly craved salty air and the ocean, we weren’t likely to have a personal encounter.

Regardless, for some unrecalled reason, (maybe we had just seen the film Harry and the Hendersons) we began our expedition. We took the BART train to the old San Francisco Public Library on Larkin Street in the Civic Center to research Sasquatch.   Arriving at the library, we were faced with volumes and volumes of books, floors, stairs, elevators, the smell of old books…indescribable.  In those days, we looked through card catalogues and jotted down Dewey Decimal Numbers, book titles, authors and anything with the words Bigfoot or Yeti or Sasquatch.  We gathered and stacked books on a table and leafed through them, finding photos, the stories of personal encounters, descriptions, etc.  Afterwards, we knew a little more about Sasquatch and our city library .

The point being, when you are researching, certainly, you can stay home at your computer desk and discover tons of things.  However, why not find a way to make whatever you are researching into some sort of expedition. Why not? You don’t have time?  We think that, but is it true?

Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist Way, talks about the Artist Date.  The purpose is virtually not to have a plan other than enjoyment and an openness to discovery.  The outcome is that it gives you a break and refreshes your creativity.  It’s best to let Julia explain the Artist Date below.

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While my suggestion for an expedition is more intentional, as you do your research, you can engage an Artist Date openness to delight and the spirit of adventure. Remember, you don’t have to do it all in a day–unless you are on a deadline, I encourage bringing fun and leisure into your expedition.

So no writing prompt today.  Find time to go on a research expedition for something that you are writing (or an Artist Date, or both).

See what there is to discover!