Books and Stories

A persistent trope among readers and writers on social media is the debate between those who prefer digital reading devices and those who prefer “real” books. In the last few years, devotees of audio books have also waded into the fray. It amuses me how partisans of each type seem convinced that their preferred format really is the best as they seek to convert or disparage the rest.

The question came up in my novel, Shadow of the Hare. The main character, Malia, is a dissident in the Recall movement and adamant in her devotion to the physically printed word. Her preference emerged in childhood:

“I spent hours not only reading but arranging and rearranging my books on the shelves in my bedroom, finding sensual pleas­ure in the feel and smell and weight of them, the hard squaredness of their corners, the colors and images on their covers, the textures of their papers. The occasional, inevitable paper cut was a blood bond.”

She and other partisans of Recall became fearful of how digital media could be too easily revised and manipulated to suit the politics of the moment. In her world, printed books had become a resource hoarded by dissidents.

They may be onto something there.

Nevertheless, I understand that digital books are much more convenient for travelers and may also have some appeal to those advocating for the trees. You don’t have to cut down any trees to produce and access books on Kindle or Apple. People of a certain age also point out the convenience of being able to create their own LARGE PRINT VERSION of whatever book they like.

My latest book, Song of All Songs, features a main character who can’t read. She belongs to a future version of humanity, people who process the world in such a way that strings of figures printed on pages resist translation into anything meaningful. (They have other remarkable capabilities that far outweigh this seeming disability.) There are people in our own time and place who share this characteristic to some extent, of course. Books read aloud definitely appeal to such individuals. Audio books also appeal to people who want to read on the fly, on the run, on the commute, or while they’re doing other things like cooking dinner or cleaning the house.

All three formats have their place. The question of what constitutes a “real” book disappears when we focus on the stories themselves. Real stories can be written down and printed on paper. They can be composed digitally and accessed through cyberspace. They can be told aloud and listened to. Stories can also be acted out in plays and movies. The stories are what matter. However you choose to produce them and consume them is up to you. Just keep enjoying the stories!

 

NOTE: Song of All Songs is currently available as either a paperback or digital book. The process of producing the audio version begins next week!

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

A Little Truth

IMG_2696

“A truism that often forestalls a quest for truth: the moment you’ve been waiting for always finds you totally unprepared for it.” — Fiona Maazel, A Little More Human

Truth is all around me. Everywhere. The “moment” Fiona speaks of is the moment of recognition, of seeing the truth that was there all along. So, really, how could I possibly prepare for that? It would be like waking up ten minutes early in order to be able to observe and find out what it’s like to wake up. The moment is already past! And there I am–awake and unprepared.

So does that mean I shouldn’t look for truth? That I should forestall my quest?

Absolutely!

Let truth find me, in all my requisite unpreparedness. Let it trip me up in the hallway, pounce on me in the street, drop on my head as I scurry through my day.

Honor the surprising truth.

What To Do

IMG_8145

What would I do if the world were ending, which of course it is, as it has been ever since its beginning, just as you and I and all of us have been dying ever since the moment of our conception and maybe even before that?

So the question does not hinge on “if” but rather on “what would I do?” which must necessarily become “what will I do?”

What will I do, given that the world is ending and I with it?

It seems the only rational thing is to give myself over to being exactly what I am – a curious and passionate participant-observer in this whole doomed project. In fact, the finiteness of the project and the minuteness of my role in it is exactly what makes life so very, very precious. No time for pretense, for visions of eternity (which is also a thing although not my thing nor yours). No time for quarreling with the neighbors over transitory possessions or evanescent ideas (mine are ultimately as silly as yours). No time for anything but walking together, hand in hand, and laughing at the joyous unexpectedness of this opportunity to be exactly who we are.

 

Remembering Mothers

 

 

 

The memories that matter are not at your grave site. There I find only tears, sad faces, loss. No, the memories I seek are in the houses where life happened.

In the kitchen where we sat together shelling peas or on the porch where we ate grapes with ice while waiting for the postman or at the table where we listened to the radio and played endless games and you let me keep score or under the trees where we gathered pecans in autumn. Today I remember life. Happy Mothers’ Day!

Broken Things

image

I broke a teacup today. Well, I didn’t exactly break it; it was broken when I unpacked it from the move. You can tell by the clean lines of the break that divided it into exactly four pieces that it was a pressure fracture rather than an impact. That would have shattered it and produced messy shards.
The cup was part of a delicate little tea set hand painted for my mother by my best friend’s grandmother in the late 1950s. Well, she was my best friend back then. After my family moved away in the summer of 1962, my best friend and I wrote letters back and forth for a while. We were in high school and by the time we both went off to college, we only saw each other a few more times. Now I don’t even know where she is or what her name is. These things happen to women. We change our names and move on.
One of my Facebook friends suggested I have the cup repaired by the Japanese technique that fuses the pieces back together using gold or silver, making the piece more beautiful for its accident, making the break a part of its history instead of the end of it. That didn’t seem right for this piece.
My friend Debra Broz said she could put it back together and make it look good as new. I’ve seen her work; no one would ever have known it had been broken. Except me. I’d always know. And I’d always know it was Debra’s art as much as my school friend’s grandmother’s art that created my teacup. That didn’t seem right either.
Another friend suggested I have one of the fragments made into a piece of jewelry. Maybe I’ll do that.
Or maybe I’ll just try to track down my school friend and we can talk about her grandmother and drink tea from the cups that didn’t break.

Same and Different

CB017727

As I continue to read all the words flowing forth from both the wise and the foolish in the aftermath of Orlando, I keep pondering, “What can we do to prevent such a thing happening again?” Yes, we definitely need to do something about the ready availability of such powerful tools of death as were used in this instance. I applaud the efforts of the Senators (not mine – I’m from Texas) filibustering to compel their colleagues at long last into action. But we also need to do something about the hate that fueled this particular outrage – the hate directed against, as it’s often put, people who are “different”.

What does that word even mean these days? Different? Different from what? Just as humans don’t inhabit skins of a limited number of colors – black, brown, white, yellow – but instead come in a marvelous gradation of every color and combination, we also don’t come in only two genders. This realization shouldn’t come as a surprise; human cultures around the world have made room for these non-binary gradations in gender and sexuality for centuries.

In order to combat the hate coming from the stubborn gender dualists out there, we need a new and empowering alliance of all people who want to challenge such stifling gender definitions. We need to come together as LGBTQ folks and cis-gender feminists and men who are weary of the old macho mentality. We need to embrace one another as members of one incredibly diverse and beautiful array of human possibilities.

In a sense we’re all different. And all the same, all beautiful manifestations of exactly what it means to be human. We need each other in order to know, experience, and understand the full reach of our humanity.

Be the rainbow, y’all!

“This Changes Everything?”

Aug. 1, 1966: A man with a gun shot and killed 16 people from a university tower at the University of Texas in Austin before being shot by police.

Maybe we should change some things.

July 18, 1984: A man with a gun killed 21 adults and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., before being killed by police.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A part-time mail carrier with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Okla., before killing himself.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. With his gun, he shot and killed 23 people before committing suicide.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A student with a gun went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., killing 32 people, before killing himself.

Certainly this will change everything.

Nov. 5, 2009:  A man with a gun killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.

Things have to change.

July 20, 2012: A man with a gun killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

This has to change everything.

Dec. 14, 2012: A man with a gun killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.

Now. Now this will change everything.

Sept. 16, 2013: A man with a gun killed 12 people and injured three others at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C. He was later killed by police.

Will things ever change?

June 18, 2015: A man with a gun killed nine people at a weekly Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The dead included the pastor Clementa Pinckney; a 10th victim survived. The suspect said he wanted to start a race war.

This is it. This is the one that will change everything.

July 16, 2015:  A man with a gun opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn. The first was a drive-by shooting at a recruiting center; the second was at a U.S. Navy Reserve center. Four Marines and a Navy sailor died; a Marine recruit officer and a police offer were wounded. The shooter was killed by police in a gunfight.

Nothing has changed.

Oct. 1, 2015: A man with a gun killed an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Ore. After a shootout with police, he committed suicide.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., killing a police officer and two civilians and injuring nine others. The shooter was taken into custody after a five-hour standoff and charged with first-degree murder.

Nothing has changed.

Dec. 2, 2015: A married couple with guns opened fire at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 people and injuring 22 in a matter of minutes.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: At least fifty people dead in a shooting at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Plutocrats for the Plutocracy!

Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Donald Trump both speak during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

My next book – coming out in May! – is sort of a prequel to Way of the Serpent in that the protagonist, Malia Poole, recounts her memories of what life was like during the last half of the 21st Century. Some of these memories deal with political changes during those years so I thought that now – in the midst of an especially tumultuous American election year – might be a good time to share some of Malia’s observations.

“I finished high school in our neighborhood there in Philly at what was called at the time a public school. It was, as I recall, supported by some local governing body. There were still a few local governments in the late 2020s and elections were held for various offices of the state of Pennsylvania as well as the United States of America right up to 2044. I only voted a couple of times after I became eligible in 2033. Hardly anybody voted by that time. We were resigned to the fact that the so-called governing bodies – from city councils right up to the Congress and President of the United States – were all a sham. The turnout for elections kept dwindling, and eventually almost all of those who voted were people who had been paid or otherwise obligated by their employers (that is to say, by the plutocrats) to vote for the “right” people. After the 2044 election, the plutocracy decided that their wealth would be better spent on less divisive entertainments, so elections were discontinued.”

There are also a few insights in this passage, a conversation between Malia and her friend Lio:

“You realize, Malia, that governments are on the verge of becoming obsolete,” Lio said. “Already they work only at the bidding of the plutocracy. And now more and more of those elected to government positions are themselves plutocrats. At some point they’ll stop convening the legislatures and parliaments, close the presidents’ and prime ministers’ and governors’ offices, pay the judges one last time and send them home with fat pensions. And we won’t notice the difference, because there won’t be any.”
“What will happen to people like us?” I asked.
“As long as we behave ourselves like good consumers, we’ll just keep doing our part to keep them rich and getting richer.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I scowled at Lio. “I meant people like you and me.”

People like us (this is me talking again) should be very, very concerned about this election. I don’t think we’d like the 22nd-century world I’ve imagined in my books!

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.

Where Are You From?

"Trying To Blend In" 8 x 10 framed, $300

“Trying To Blend In” 8 x 10 framed, $300

My collegiate study abroad was the summer of 1969 at the University of Graz, Austria. There I met two women – mother and daughter – and when I asked them that time-worn, tedious question “Where are you from?” they looked confused. I believe they were originally from Bulgaria, but due to politics and undisclosed personal matters, they were officially stateless, traveling around Europe on United Nations passports.

“How marvelous!” I thought at the time. “How liberating to not be tethered to one country and one identity, to be free to move about the world unburdened by someone else’s prejudices about your origins!” I didn’t discuss this with the mother and daughter, though now I fervently wish I had.

I’ve developed some new perspective on this question of stateless persons over the years and especially during the past year as I’ve watched political turmoil and violence turning people loose in the world with nowhere to go, nowhere to belong, nowhere to call home. We call them refugees or, more politely, migrants.

The world appears to be increasingly full of such people, the effluent of conflict and economic catastrophe. Just yesterday I read an article about Nepal, where children born of a Nepali mother and a foreign father cannot claim Nepali citizenship except through a difficult and highly uncertain political process. Without their official citizenship certificates these people “cannot vote, open a bank account, sit for many official examinations, register the birth of a child, buy or sell property, get a passport, or even obtain a mobile SIM card.” They are effectively stateless persons.

Instead of loosening the restrictions of social and political participation, we appear to be getting more and more chary about according citizenship and belonging to our fellow human beings. My youthful infatuation with the notion of global citizenship, one planetary society, was naïve. Although we may be annoyed when people ask the question, we all want to be from somewhere that loves us.

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.