The Nordic Theory of Everything

NordicTheory“What Americans need, so that they can stop struggling so hard to be super-achievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacation….It’s not that Americans don’t realize that they need to relax, as Ariana Huffington seems to think. It’s that they can’t afford to.”     – The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, moved to the United States to marry an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she depicts how much harder it is to get by in America than her native Finland and suggests we’d be better off borrowing some of the more progressive policies of Nordic countries.

I was curious to know what the Nordic Theory of Everything is, just as I’ve always wanted to know more about the culture of my Swedish grandparents – my mormor and morfar, as my cousins and I called them when we were young.

Several years ago, I enjoyed On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America by Don Lago, which looks at how Scandinavian values have influenced American culture. I hadn’t known, for example, that community well being and service to others are hallmark ethics of Swedes, which informed Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and other political leaders of Swedish descent. Reading Lago’s book left me wanting to delve deeper into the Scandinavian personality, and Partanen’s book was what I was looking for.

Anu Partanen derived her title from the Swedish theory of love as coined by the Swedish scholar and historian Lars Trägårdh:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal….For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…..the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

I’d never been exposed to this line of thinking, and it was, for me, the heart of this book. The theory strikes me as utopian and unrealistic in its purest form, but I agree it would make sense for us to move closer to something like this, especially because so many Americans can no longer afford adequate health care, education, child care, and elder care. Women are still, on average, paid less than men, and many women would be better off with a stronger social safety net, especially single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and those working in low-paying service industries.

I’m quoting Anu Partanen’s more provocative passages, but throughout the book her tone is even-handed. You might think she is squarely in the liberal camp, but her language is not partisan; current politics in America isn’t mentioned, and Partanen has good things to say about the past policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

“…authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She’s been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to adopt policies that have been successful in the smaller, less diverse Scandinavian countries, but my guess is Partanen understands there would be challenges and intends for her book to inspire the conversations we need to be having.

Here are a few more passages:

“…. no one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances. Similarly, a wife should not be put in a position of being financially overdependent on her husband. Or vice versa, for that matter. And people should be able to make choices related to their employment without worrying whether they will still be able to receive, say, treatment for cancer.”

***

“….the brutal reality in America today is that being a special superachiever is, more and more, the only way anyone can ensure a reasonably successful life for themselves – regardless of their core values. …The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

***

“The harshness of American life helps explain the presence in the United States of a dubious, even predatory, wing of the self-help industry, which profits by selling unlikely promises to the unlucky. It’s telling that self-help gurus hardly exist in the Nordic countries…..Wishful thinking can take a nation only so far. Ultimately hope has to be generated by the actual presence of opportunity. And if it’s really there, it doesn’t require constant psychological energy and enthusiasm, or a constant stream of heroic tales of survival against all the odds, to sustain.”

I’ll close with the words of Lars Trägårdh:

“….social mobility without social investments is simply not possible. So if you start to give up on public schools and a collective system for enabling individual social mobility, you’re going to end up with inequality, gated communities, collapse of trust, and dysfunctional political systems. All these things you see now in the United States.”

What do you think?

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

You Are Not a Gadget

YouAreNotaGadget“Humans are free. We can commit suicide for the benefit of a Singularity. We can engineer our genes to better support an imaginary hive mind. We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion.

Or we can believe in ourselves. By chance, it might turn out we are real.”

***

“The words in this book are written for people, not computers. I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

A few months ago, I found my way to futurist, virtual reality pioneer, and composer Jaron Lanier and his newest book, Who Owns the Future?  I was delighted to read the work of a prominent techie genius (Jaron works for Microsoft) calling for a humanistic information economy. I was so impressed with his message and vision, I sought out his first book, You Are Not a Gadget.

Who Owns the Future?I haven’t had a chance to synthesize my thoughts about You Are Not a Gadget. Before too much time goes by and I forget what I read, I wanted to at least post a few of my favorite quotes from the book, which inspired me as much as Who Owns the Future?

I’ve grown weary of social media and the sameness and superficiality of much of what I see online. I don’t know what to make of or how we can stop the fake news, misinformation, and vitriol that spread like wildfire on the internet and degrade our democracy and culture. You Are Not a Gadget was published in 2010 and does not address our current mess, but it is remarkably prescient. I hope that Lanier is writing at this very moment a third book to help save us from ourselves.

Here are some things Lanier has to say in You Are Not a Gadget:

“Web 2.0 designs strongly favor flatness in cultural expression. But I believe that flatness, as applied to human affairs, leads to blandness and meaninglessness.”

********

“If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth and beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.

“The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

********

“Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.

Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomenon that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.”

I highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s books. They will get you thinking about where we seem to be heading and how we might take a more deliberate, ethical path to a humane culture that uses technology wisely while keeping it in its proper place.

 

On enemies of the people, William Stafford, and writing

DailyWritingMuses

I was not happy when the President tweeted that our nation’s news media is the enemy of the people.

AmericanaseriesI am not a practicing enemy of the people, but as an undergraduate, my minor area of study was how to be an enemy of the people. I liked it so much I studied it in grad school, too. I have a brother whose previous job at a major newspaper was to help oversee the printing of work by enemies of the people for distribution to an entire city. When I was a librarian, my colleagues and I taught how to tell the difference between authentic enemies of the people and fake enemies of the people.

Given the President’s careless and disrespectful words, it was a comfort to be taking an online class with like-minded people, “Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford,” taught by his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

A poet and pacifist, William Stafford was amazingly prolific, having written some 22,000 poems during his lifetime.

WilliamStaffordHe had an early morning writing practice, and he never missed a day. Kim Stafford introduced us to his father’s writing process, gleaned from the stacks of journals William Stafford left behind. Kim encouraged us to relax into our writing, to be seekers as William Stafford was, to experiment and explore.

Our only requirement in this five-week class was to maintain a daily writing practice and share one day’s unedited writing with the class once a week. As you can imagine, the daily post-election drama weighed heavily on many of us and showed up often in our writing.

I chose not to work on my memoir during the 30 – 60 minute daily writing practice I began in connection with this class. Kim Stafford believes that, though writing can be hard work, it can be a pleasure, too, something to look forward to. When the writing isn’t easy, Kim looks for ways to make it more easeful. Since working on the memoir is goal-driven and often difficult or stressful, I decided to see if I could make my early morning writing time something separate and satisfying.

It did become that, and I now have the beginnings of several writing projects that I could develop further if I choose to:

  • An essay on whether the President has a mental illness, drawing on my experience of mental illness in the family
  • an essay on dystopias – whether we’re in one now and how each of us is a kind of “hero” character with a role to play
  • a personal essay in which I remember a disastrous first-grade art class and contrast it with a watercolor class I’m taking now, my first art class in decades
  • a sample first entry for my next book project, in which I observe, moment by moment, the sunrise outside my window.

I met some wonderful people, writers of all levels, including: a poet who is also a traditional letterpress printer and bookbinder in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; a professor of psychology and education with a background similar to my own (she also had a mother with schizophrenia) who developed a psychological tool to measure levels of humiliation that is used around the world; and another poet whose dream is to establish a retreat for artists and writers at her home on Whidbey Island.

If you are a writer and would like to know more about Kim Stafford’s approach to writing, you might enjoy his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and the Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. My copy is marked up with several favorite passages.

This quote is on the Northwest Writing Institute website:

“The problems of our time are political, ecological, economic—but the solutions are cultural. How do people speak their truth? How do we listen eloquently? If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?”  Kim Stafford

For a time, twenty of us enjoyed communally “the daily bread of language,” as my new poet/printer friend would say.

Here is a link to William Stafford reading “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

You might enjoy these wise words:

 

It just so happened that at the close of our class, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Natural and Built Environment featured a fascinating interview with the Stafford family, “Talking Recklessly.”

FullSizeRender

A poem by printer Emily Hancock of St. Brigid Press. Emily refers to “the daily bread of language,” and that is what we enjoyed in Kim Stafford’s class.

IMG_4245

Visit the St. Brigid Press website, where you’ll see stunning photos of hand-set type, hand-carved illustrations, foot-powered presses, and hand-sewn books. If you frequently contact your representatives, consider ordering “The People’s Post Cards.” And be sure to see “This Is a Printing Office.”

Failure Is Impossible

Hey women, and everyone, LISTEN UP AND SHARE, a message from author Sonja Livingston & Susan B Anthony in Rochester, NY. Are you ready?

Susan B Anthony.png

Source:  Wikimedia Commons &

http://www.archive.org/stream/historyofwomansu01stanuoft#page/n603/mode/2up

Engraved by G. E. Perine & Co., NY, approx. 1855, plus or minus ten years

“I keep walking by Susan B.’s grave, as if her bones might bolster me–or maybe not so much her bones anymore as her dust–or maybe that too is a stretch. More like her spirit. Here I am on the day before the day, letting Miss Anthony’s indomitable spirit soak into my every cell. It’s a glorious morning. Even the trees are conspiring. Oaks and ashes have gone bronze and gold, the last of the maples are flaming. You were right, Miss Susan, failure is impossible.”  Sonja Livingston

https://instagram.com/p/BMgwyvnB_ee/

Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and often miss because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

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