Tag Archives: fiction

Conversations with Athena

 

In the conversation that followed, we recalled the June day, over ten  years ago, when we had first sat next to each other in a public speaking class.  She teasingly reminded me how shy I had been.

I pictured her back then, sharing scenes from her social life: her stories a playful medley, drawing me in, subverting my best defenses.   High school I had spent seeking refuge in a social cubbyhole. Finding myself seated next to this blonde, lissome girl proved a culture shock. I might as well have shared a desk with the goddess Athena; our early conversations had been that one-sided. Linda had been patient with her shy neighbor, and gradually our conversations became a partnership. Through getting to know her, I had stepped into the sunlight. Seeing her again, I wanted to share this, but it came out this way: “I still think of our conversations before class. You were quite the raconteur.”

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Not a Piano Key to be Played, but a Human

For the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key to be played!  And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don’t know?

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

An 1864 Russian novel I read and discussed in a book club in nearby Ann Arbor yesterday.  The Underground Man asserts a person’s right to be human, with all the “unreasonable” emotions that involves, in the face of reformers’ efforts to conform human behavior to their idea of rationality and “the good.”  Also, a revolution in the novel, with the first anti-hero and the emergence of the unreliable narrator.  Really quite an amazing achievement in the art of writing.  I’m still marveling and will be re-reading after picking up many great insights from the book club members’ discussion.

Warren Dunes state park

Warren Dunes, Michigan

“Vegetation Rioted on the Earth…”

With our warm, humid days and abundant rainfall this Spring, our Michigan woods is beginning to take on the appearance of a jungle.

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

matthaei 5  29  16 011

Katniss Everdeen: The Truth in the Myth

 

forebear of Katniss

The goddess Diana, forebear of Katniss

 

In Greek myth, Artemis served as goddess of both the hunt and childbirth. Katniss Everdeen, the young hero of our modern myth, Hunger Games, combines within herself the nurturing for which women have traditionally been known, with the assertiveness and competence that have been the touchstone of women’s evolving identity. She takes care of the inner world of emotions, as she grows proficient in the world of action. Solicitous to those most in need of solace, yet entirely capable of the hunter/warrior’s resolve, Katniss’ character suggests a renewal for our society’s ailing spirit.

(With the finale of the Hunger Games movies, I re-post this musing on the Katniss character)

Drawing on my own family’s story, I took an early liking to Katniss, the coal miner’s daughter. Her father has been stolen from her by an underground explosion amidst primitive conditions; the mine where he dug coal becomes his tomb. Yet, her bond with him endures. Memories of her father return to Katniss in her dreams, often as nightmares of his violent death–but we are sure, also as a well from which she draws her inner strength.

Her mother has been plunged into depression by the wrenching loss of her husband, and merely walking through life is her daily struggle. She often falters. Despite her trauma, Katniss’ mother retains her gift as a healer for the ill and the injured, practicing natural cures. This, too, blends into Katniss’ identity.

Growing up in want and on the margins of starvation, far from the safe harbor of a middle class life, Katniss’ empathy for the oppressed comes naturally to her. Admirable emotions, though, will not ward off the gaunt wolf of hunger, constantly prowling the coal mining district. In the face of threatened sanctions from authority, she steadily learns the hunter’s craft to provide for her mother and younger sister. At the worst of times, she is the most resourceful.

Given her sympathies and her spirit, we are not surprised when Katniss descends into the vicious combat of the Hunger Games reality show–not through fate, but by choice. The Capitol’s impersonal lottery, designed to intimidate the working class population of the Districts, marks her fragile younger sister, Prim, for a brutal death in the arena. Rather than passively accept the destruction of her sister, Katniss steps forward to take Prim’s place. In the movie, trepidation is etched on her  face–she is not a steely action hero. Knowing the odds against her, she chooses to act as a defender of the defenseless. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s declaration: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Fear is not banished, but conquered through resolution. At this point, the haughty lords of the Capitol have met their match, though they are still blissful in their ignorance.

Katniss preserves her identity, and acts upon it, in the face of the relentlessly dehumanizing Hunger Games. In her search for allies in the arena, she picks the most unlikely of combatants, the slight and vulnerable Rue, who reminds Katniss of her sister. Unable to prevent Rue’s death, she dispatches the executioner with a well-placed arrow. Then, in a touching and understated act of defiance of the Capitol, she covers Rue’s body with flowers. She openly weeps over the loss of her friend, and over what she has forever lost in having to kill another human being. With her floral tribute, she retains as much of her integrity as she can, and still survive the Hunger Games.  Katniss uses beauty  as a protest against her abhorrent situation.

Skeptics might scoff that reading social import into the Hunger Games is a stretch, as it is merely a work of fiction. Myths, however, often crystallize a society’s truths. In seeking to discern the course of underlying social change, we are often as sleuths sifting through clues. The Hunger Games novels and movies have received a tremendous reception. This is a fact which we can grasp, and to which attention should be paid. Could one really believe that the novels and movie would have been embraced in the same manner, particularly by young women, if the hero had been a Justin or a Michael, or a female action figure strutting in a purely macho style? It strikes me as no coincidence that a young woman with Katniss’ character has fulfilled this role in our culture at this time. Her personality, her inclusion of her mother’s nurturing gift with her father’s steady courage and willingness to face a dangerous task, these qualities draw the audience to Katniss in 2014. When the spirit in  politics has ossified, and the political conversation becomes utterly predictable in its myopia, we might better explore the arts as a palette for an alternative, creative vision.

Like One Lost in a Thorny Wood

        kensington park michiganThe air conditioner’s steady whirring was the only sound in the room. “And why do you think,” my therapist said in the modulated tone she used for this kind of question, “that you have such strong memories of your 6th grade teacher,  Mr. Mason, after all this time?”

            A silver sliver of light had found a path between the drawn curtains and fell across the  carpet.  I started to say something about Mr. Mason being my first male teacher, but no, that seemed too pat.  I let my thoughts go where they might and a memory appeared in my mind, as if on a movie screen. This sometimes happened when I talked with Dr. Monticello, but then I am a  movie fan, so no surprise. The  scene took a minute to come into focus.  My therapist shifted in her  leather chair, waiting for me to proceed.  Her eyes were a little more intent than usual, as she leaned forward slightly.   I noticed she was wearing blue eye shadow.  Maybe a new perfume, also.

“There was an evening back then, “ I began.  “I was sitting in my bedroom with the door half closed, reading.  I heard my father coming down the stairs from his study.  My mother called us for dinner.”

“Excuse me, you were in sixth grade at this time?”

“Yes, I was eleven.”

As my story began to unfold to me—and to my therapist—it drew me back in time,  to my childhood home in the suburb of Naperville, just west of Chicago,   More than 40 years fell away, as if in a dissolve shot in a film, as I vividly recalled one eventful day.

In my memory, the reds and oranges and golds had taken over the woods at the end of our street.  But that fall day, what we used to call Indian summer had stopped by for a brief visit, bringing a reminder of late summer warmth before winter’s chill set in.

I had walked home from school at the usual time and spent the next couple of hours in my room immersed in a biography of Patrick Henry, the orator who had touched the American Revolution with fire.  I had memorized his most famous lines, and would sometimes close the door so I could recite them dramatically without being the target of derision.  “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles 1st his Cromwell, and George 3rd….may profit by their example!”  That afternoon, I could not concentrate on the book, being too keyed up about a television show coming up that evening in which I was to have a starring role—I hoped.

I had spent the previous  weekend  at the library, reading up on the election campaign for Illinois’ governor.  I was developing a keen interest in politics, which made me feel kind of strange because none of my friends was similarly inclined.  A good kind of strange, though.

I admired the young Democratic governor, who was running for re-election. He had a Kennedyesque image.  He, or more likely his ad men, had hit on the idea of a television call-in show where he would field questions from viewers.  It was my plan to phone in a question and my hope to have it read on TV.  It was the closest I could get to talking with a political leader then, but in the future, who knew?

My mother called, “Dinner is now being served…in the main dining hall.”  This was a favorite saying of hers, as if perhaps she were a lady in a Scottish castle.  I heard my father getting up from the desk in his study and then coming downstairs.  When I got to the dinner table, my  little brother was already there.   The family collie had followed her nose to a place across the room.   “Just for tonight, we will have the television on,” my mother said, and smiled at me.  She was setting aside one of her strictest rules—no watching TV at dinner.

My mother had made steak pie, which I knew was one of her favorite recipes.  The tenderloin, pastry, and gravy made a deliciously rich combination, to be washed down with iced tea flavored with lemon and honey.   I noticed  this change from our usual basic fare.  The dinner passed in silence, as usual, with the exception of my mother’s question to each of us about our day in school.  My father focused his attention on the dinner before him, occasionally glancing up at the television set, which emitted a low hum in the corner.

When the program with the Governor came on, I went over and turned up the volume.  He was seated at a table across from the news reporter, his posture being a concession to his having lost a leg in the war—at Guadalcanal, I had read.  The call-in numbers showed at the bottom of the screen.  I jotted them down, went to our phone, and dialed the first number.  A woman’s voice answered and advised I would be placed on hold, but asked me not to hang up.  When she came back on the line, I gave her my name and city, and then read my question to her as distinctly as I could.  She said my question would be placed in a queue.  I thought the British expression odd, but I thanked her and returned to the dinner table.

The reporter read questions from the stack of cards that had been handed to him, and the governor answered each in turn.  The hands on the clock on our dining room  wall seemed to be moving  too quickly.  I was beginning to think my question would go unanswered.  My mother was just starting to clear the dishes, when the reporter said, “Governor, now we have a question for you from Naperville.”  My heart picked up its pace, and we all turned to the television.

“Jeff Wolinski asks you,” the reporter began, garbling my last name of Wallace.

The garbled name had no sooner left his lips than my father started laughing.  The governor was answering, but I could not hear what he was saying, as my father loudly continued, “Wolinski, what kind of name is that?  Wolinski, does he think we’re Polish, maybe?”

In a flash of anger and desperation, I turned to my father and asked, “Can you please be quiet.  I want to hear what he says.”

My father’s face flushed crimson.   “Don’t you EVER talk to me in that tone.  I am your father and you will not talk to me like that.  Do you read me?”

I looked to my mother, but her eyes were cast down.  Tears welled up in my eyes, tears of anger and humiliation.  I wanted very badly to throw my glass of iced tea in my father’s face and the thought scared me.

“Now, you go to your damn room, mister,” my father said.  “And I mean now!”

I trudged off to my bedroom, my stomach in a knot.  I had not heard a word of my question or the Governor’s answer.  I closed the door behind me softly, but pretended I was slamming it with all my might.  I choked on my tears.

On the nightstand, the biography of Patrick Henry remained open.  Outside, the last streaks of red were fading in the western sky.   I turned on the light, picked up the book, and started reading.  In a moment, I was back in the Virginia Assembly in 1775.

When I finished my story, the memory dissolved and I was back in my therapist’s office.  My stomach was still knotted.  My therapist’s expression showed her concern.  After pushing  the box of Kleenex across the table that separated us, she said, “I’m very impressed that  you were able to tell me that story.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

She unfolded her hands.  “I’m afraid that our time is up now,  Take a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, if you like.  We can go into this more next time.”

When I was leaving, she said, “I’ll see you next week.”  She gave my hand a squeeze, which she had not done before.

 

Copyright 2015 by Tom Schultz.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.