Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Common Ground: A Guest Post by Monica Devine

Natalie Goldberg teaches at Upaya Zen Center

Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico. 

These words were uttered by Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, and  the governor of Territorial New Mexico.When I first read this quote, my recognition drew an immediate parallel between New Mexico and Alaska.  Though two disparate landscapes, both are raw, gritty and magnificent. Both have a rich cultural history; both breed self-determined thinkers who (perhaps out of necessity) solve problems in an unclassified way. New Mexicans and Alaskans are people who don’t necessarily follow implicit directions because the way things are handled elsewhere often fail there.

Because of these parallels, and because of the luminous light, I visit Santa Fe often to write, photograph, and imbibe the rosy sunsets. Last month I attended a writing workshop at the Upaya Zen Center  offered by two accomplished writers, Natalie Goldberg (author of a dozen books, most notably Writing Down the Bones), and Wendy Johnson, a gardener who describes herself as “untamed and weedy” (author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate). Both women are Zen Buddhists who brought heart, energy and the love of paradox to our experience.

Our assigned task was to write, which we did daily to a handful of timed, thought-provoking prompts. We then read our pieces aloud, but in place of analysis, we relied on recall. Individuals called out remembered passages or words from the piece just recited, creating a satisfying poetic tapestry. We also discussed two memoirs. The first: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Abbey is a master storyteller, and he writes of his life as a park ranger in southeastern Utah at the Arches National Monument. Abbey’s prose is gorgeous; he expertly paints an accurate picture of the gripping beauty of Utah’s stunning landscapes. 

When you examine a book, you examine the mind of its writer. Abbey was an activist who delivered his message in his legendary bitter, cocky, self-indulgent way and with contempt for the growing exploitation of the wilderness by tourism. He called tourists “those people” (the bastard Industrial Tourists), people who “camp” from the trunk of a pollution-spewing vehicle that has no business being in a wilderness area. This, while he drove around in his pick-up truck throwing empty beer cans out the window, littering sacred land! 

A rebel, a loner; combative and pompous, a guy who can find no better company than that of himself, and yet ponders how it is that being alone often turns into loneliness. The solution? Entertain the company of one other person, preferably a good woman. Not many writers can pull off being so beautifully reverent and unabashedly irreverent at the same time, with as much skill as Abbey. Can we hold him close as a writer with all of his inconsistencies and contradictions? And do we not struggle with our own deeply rooted and malignant contradictions ourselves? Abbey incited strong emotions about ethics, the environment, and virtue itself.

Next we took a look at Brothers and Keepers, a memoir by John Edgar Wideman; a novelist, a black man, and professor of African studies at Brown University. He explores the wide gulf of distance between he and his brother, Robby, both raised on the rough and tumble streets of Homewood, a Pittsburg ghetto. His brother was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a botched robbery where a man was killed. Wideman struggles with the inequities of our prison system; the barbaric loss of dignity, and the lack of vocational training and rehabilitative education therein. But this book is far more than a rant on our prisons; it is a collaboration, a conversation about their sorrow, guilt, and difficult, though deeply shared brotherhood. Wideman experienced great duress in his task; through writing of his brother’s fate, he exposed his own anger and disappointment in the prison system, his community, and ultimately himself.

What are the similarities between these two books? Can we discover common ground between the writers? Both had a deliberate and passionate cause. Both were fiercely attached to their individual environments, one to the natural world and his beloved solitude and the other to his family and life on the streets. Is the environmental movement isolated to saving rivers and mountains and other pretty places? Annie Dillard grew up three blocks from Wideman, in an affluent neighborhood. But it is still Pittsburg; all of it is still Pittsburg. Is the environmental movement for white people? How we can find common ground where people of widely different ideologies can develop a personal connection to eachother? How can we ennoble people on both sides of the issues, without turning to name calling, condemnation, and hate? What do these authors teach us? How can we hold both the devastation and the pristine simultaneously and look deeply at what is and what was, while bringing together unlikely partners? How do we channel our anger and frustration into actions that bring out the best in us, as well as the opposition?

Natalie spoke of how the experience of pain and suffering more deeply awakens one to the world. “Enjoy your grief; you’ll miss it,” she said. Be ruthless as a writer, go to where the energy is and where it hurts. Fall over the edge; delve into your wildest mind. The world constantly pushes you to close down. Instead, allow your life to be very large, holding all contradictions equally, without dissipating your energy.

It is not unusual in Santa Fe to see a hawk soaring on a thermal while waiting for traffic to clear on a busy street. The amalgam of art and landscape, the rugged mountains, the smell of pinyon pines; it is no wonder visual artists spend time there (as they do in Alaska) to write, paint and create. I hold both landscapes in my heart, and now have the great idea of going adobe on a few acres of land here in Alaska. My husband insists it won’t work here. Too much earthquake activity; mud doesn’t hold heat that well; a no-go on flat roofs.

But I’m sure it’s been done successfully elsewhere.  Or maybe it would be an experiment doomed to fail.

I’ll just have to continue living with my feet planted in both of these beautiful, rugged places.

Monica Devine is the author of four children’s books, among them Iditarod: The Greatest Win Ever, a former nominee for the celebrated Golden Kite Award. Her adult nonfiction piece, On The Edge of Ice, won First Place in Creative Nonfiction with the New Letters journal of writing and art. She currently writes memoir, poetry and fiction from her home in Eagle River, Alaska, and pens a weekly blog: www.monicadevine.blogspot.com



3 comments:

Julie in AK said...

I lived in NM for 25 years before moving here. I see many similarities between the places, yet here we stand on gravel, there we stand on sand. I liked your idea of building a adobe house here (I built one in a small Spanish village along the Rio Grande) and puzzle as to whether one could be constructed here. Where would the sand come from? Could you really make a lasting adobe brick here from our local materials? Or perhaps you could use a rammed earth technique instead. Since I moved here, I've been working on a novel set there....seems like the right combination, somehow.

Thanks for your post!

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I admire your split-location life (the desert sounds mighty good right now) and enjoyed your post, Monica!

Monica Devine said...

Julie, I would love to hear about your construction of an adobe in NM. I've done some research that didn't have high regards for the building of one in southern Colorado; it really takes a large margin of sun to dry things out and added insulation, of course, to retain heat...both missing elements in Alaska. Interesting to ponder new techniques...