Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

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Time & Magic

“Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once and space exists so that everything doesn’t happen in the same place.” — Albert Einstein (allegedly…)

 

This quote showed up in my Facebook “memories” today. It was fortuitous, since I had already typed in the title of this post…

 

Bali (the space I currently occupy) invites reflections on time. In Bali, you see, there are three calendars running simultaneously – our standard Gregorian calendar is one; the 210-day calendar called Pawukon is another; and the third is the Saka lunar calendar.

The Pawukon is not so much a “year” as a cycle, “since no record is kept of successive ‘years,’ nor are they numbered or named. They just pass by.” The Pawukon is organized into ten different systems of weeks, from a one-day week to a ten-day week. Most important are the three-day, five-day, and seven-day weeks. All these different “weekdays” have names and the conjunctions of these myriad cycles is important in differentiating auspicious days from inauspicious ones for all kinds of activities.

In my new book (coming July 20), “time” is an important subtext to the story. Meg is an archaeologist, obsessed with the past. Her husband Seth is a science fiction author, writing about time travel and the future. So, yes, the subject of time comes up in their world. Here’s a brief example, in which they’re discussing an impasse in Seth’s WIP. Meg speaks:

“Are you sure they’re not inter­fering with the timeline?” (Would I mind so much if they were?)

“Well, there’s another aspect of the story I’m still work­ing on.” Seth scratched the back of his neck and frowned. “Maybe time isn’t a line…” 

You may now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!

(Quotes about Balinese time are from Fred Eiseman, Jr., BALI: SEKALA & NISKALA.)

What To Do

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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!

On Saving Daylight

Welcome to Daylight Savings Time – again. Why we continue to torture ourselves with this semiannual self-imposed time disruption is beyond me. Today’s Washington Post includes a piece on this annual ritual that refers to it as “a glitch in the matrix that reminds us that clock time is always artificial and arbitrary”. I’m using it as a reason to share with you a passage from my second novel, Shadow of the Hare, in which protagonist Malia Poole reflects on the relativity of our experiencing of time.

When I first arrived in Walden 27, I still felt the need to know the exact time of day or night and I positioned my little digital clock on my table like some deity in a shrine. I learned that Walden 27 was positioned at the far western extreme of the Eastern Time zone. There were only two North American time zones by this time; I remembered having read that, before the original four time zones were established for the convenience of railways in the 19th century, every town kept its own time, keyed to its own experience of the sun’s movements. I came to realize that time zones and clocks meant little to the community of Walden 27.

As my stay extended into weeks and then months, I, too, stopped keeping track of time. It’s all relative anyway, I told myself. We mark our distance from some event in the past or from some planned, imagined future, organizing our activities within the diurnal/nocturnal cycle, across the flow of seasons. In Walden 27, residents rose with the sun, broke for lunch when the sun approached its zenith, or when the temperature rose to a point making a break desirable.

Tracking the cyclic phases of the moon became more important to me than the name of the month or the count of days on a calendar. I noticed how the moon phase tracked with my menstrual cycle. I began to observe the stars and how they shifted position in the sky as we moved toward spring. They don’t actually shift, of course; it’s we who shift our position relative to them. I’d never seen so many stars before coming to Walden 27.

When spring came, the yard around my cottage was planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Every square meter of fertile land in the whole of Walden 27 was planted with something edible or useful and it was all worked cooperatively, which meant that I was always encountering people in my garden, working the ground, tending the plants. I had to remind myself it wasn’t “my” garden, though I soon began to do a little weeding there and, later on, I did claim some of the produce for myself.

The lack of regimentation was seductive. In Walden 27, we kept our own time. I relegated my little clock to a dresser drawer.

 

Shadow of the Hare: Recall Chronicles, Vol. II available on Amazon.

Retrospective

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The house where I lived for four years during high school no longer exists. The ground where it stood is now a paved parking lot for the Methodist Church across the street. That church is why I was there. My dad was the preacher. We lived in the parsonage.

The church is still there, white and solid and pretty as ever, with its proud historic marker out front, its claim to continuity and care. The town itself looks much the same as I remembered it, only older and with a few things missing. The old train station is gone. It was where the whole town used to turn out for pep rallies on Thursday nights before the Friday high school football games. Trains hadn’t stopped there in years. The old Baptist Church is a ruin, but there’s a new one.

I was back for a high school class reunion – our 50th. Like the town, we were all older and some members were missing. My folks had moved away shortly after I graduated high school, so I hadn’t seen these classmates in 50 years. It’s a strange feeling. We barely remember who we were back in high school and have no idea who each other is now. There were only 33 of us when we graduated; seven are gone. Out of the 26 remaining, ten of us showed up for the reunion. Others were too far away, in poor health, or had pressing obligations of family or work.

“I’ve been thinking about how much things have changed in the past 50 years,” I said to one of my classmates as we departed for our respective homes, some farther away than others.

“Yeah,” he said. “You know, in 1966 when we graduated, it was the class of 1916 having a 50-year reunion. They probably thought things had changed a lot, too.” That added a little perspective.

We talked a while longer. He lamented the local schools having been taken over by the Mexicans. Not just any Mexicans – the Raza Unida ones. He said it was hard to get help on the farms and ranches anymore. Our hometown was now just a bunch of meth labs and addicts. Some people send their kids to distant towns – smaller towns – so they can get that good country schooling experience. Some people, he said, think about selling their farms and ranches. “But where would we go?” It was a tough question.

I felt the distance between us. Not just the years, but the disparate experiences. I thought about the old story of the blind men and the elephant. We’re like that. We’ve experienced different slices and segments of life, so of course we draw different conclusions about what it all means.

He told me about an encounter he’d had a couple years back with a “colored man” coming through town. There weren’t any “colored people” in our town. According to what my dad heard when we were living there, the last black people in the town had been lynched.

This is where I went to high school. This is where I graduated 50 years ago. Things have changed a lot in 50 years. In some places more than in others.

The Journey Continues

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I’m back at my home base in Austin, Texas, after a week on the road and a journey of a couple thousand miles. I traveled on, undaunted by small inconveniences like having some dude in Lebanon (yes, the country of Lebanon) try to use my credit card on the third day of my travels, resulting in the card being cancelled and me being left with only my bank card and cash on hand. Undaunted, as well, by another dude, the one driving the white Lexus, who failed to stop soon enough and plowed into the back of my car exiting off I-30 in Fort Worth.

Never mind those things. It was an amazing trip. There were vast expanses of geologic time strewn out before me, forcing me to imagine ancient seas, volcanic eruptions, eons of uplift and erosion. There were people whose experience and narrative of American history is vastly different from my own, people with gentle manners and firm rules: no photography, no recording. They told me what I needed to know. They expected me to remember it, and I’m sure I will.

My bedtime reading last night delved back into Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the passage where the preacher protagonist reflects on a wartime sermon he never preached. “The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared.”

My own journey through life continues and I remain undaunted by small miseries. Who knows what suffering could have been my lot if I weren’t so fortunate? Happy travels!

Halfway When?

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I find it intriguing that various cultural calendars choose to mark not just the obvious things – full moons and new moons, equinox and solstice – but also the positions halfway between. In the Tibetan ritual calendar, the half-moon days are equally as important as full moon or new moon and are marked as Guru Rinpoche Day and Dakini Day, with appropriate ceremonies.

In traditional Ireland, the primary named celebrations of the annual round – Samain, Imbolg, Beltaine, and Lughnasa – fell halfway between the solstice and equinox days.

February 2nd is recognized in our country as Groundhog Day, but it has deep connections to Irish Imbolg, “a pastoral festival celebrating the coming into milk of the ewes”. There may also have been some weather divination associated with Imbolg, a possible origin of our Groundhog Day.

I muse over all of this as a reminder that time – as well as the way in which we measure it – is all relative. The protagonist of my next novel – Shadow of the Hare, which will be published later this year – had similar thoughts after she moved out of the city and into a remote rural community:

“As the weeks extended into months, I kind of stopped keeping track of time. It’s all relative anyway, gauging our distance from some event in the past or some planned, imagined future, organizing our activities within the diurnal/nocturnal cycle, across the flow of seasons. (…)

“When I first arrived, I still felt the need to know what time it was, positioning my little digital clock on my table like some deity in a shrine. As summer heated up, I noticed that people would begin to say ‘good afternoon’ well before my clock declared midday. Similarly, on an overcast day, they might continue to offer ‘good morning’ long past noon. I soon relegated my clock to a dresser drawer; I had no further need of its guidance.”

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! Happy Imbolg! It will all come ‘round again.