Still Frozen: Olaf, Oates, and Morality in Creative Nonfiction

best american essay book cover

As I girded myself at the end of Thanksgiving for this week’s news cycle of impeachment shockers and “presidential” deflections, I started thinking about the five-year-old who had been seated two seats away from me at the matinee showing of Frozen II and of the anthology edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Best American Essays of the Century, that I was in the midst of reading.  

Both left me weepy.

In the wake of, literally, years now of watching the values and morals—those good old human values, forget just American, of honesty, integrity, inclusivity, respect, honor, kindness, empathy, generosity, (the list goes on)—which I had been taught as a child, wrecked, dumped, scorned, annihilated, (the list goes on), I am feeling, frankly, fragile.  

 Give me any glimmer of soul and I am sent to tears, even the crystalline one of a rotund, buck-toothed snowman who extemporizes on everything, including the cucumber (really?) much to the glee of the five-year-old who bounced from her seat. “Cucumber,” she chortled. “Cucumber!” —Disney apparently once more successful in mining the mysterious depths of childhood humor.

I, on the other hand, grew glummer as cartoon characters danced through choruses of “just do the next right thing” and contemplated in their own big-eyed, silly ways the unbalanced porcelain (come on, Disney!)  world that buffeted them. No real solace to be found in an animated world that embellishes what I know now, in the grown-up world, has the weight and density of a pixel.  

Enter the Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. “Here,” Oates says, “is a history of America told in many voices.”  Old friends– Twain, Hurston, Thurber, Wright, Porter, McCarthy, Carson, Walker, Baldwin, Momaday, Angelou, Kingston, Rodriguez, Manchester, Ozick, and Gould, (the list goes on)– gathered together into one volume. 

“The more we know of history of both the natural and the civilized worlds,” Oates says in her introduction, “the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever evolving.” And the more I understand why it’s these tangled, complex souls, sifting through the dust and dirt of a real world, that I have learned to know and love.  

I read the story of a man, a “deformed man,” Randolph Bourne calls himself, and I understand the struggle to live in grace and dignity in 1911 . . . in 2019.  I follow Alice Walker in her search for the grave of Zora Neale Hurston and we find the field of shameful weeds, Walker’s foot poised in a sunken unmarked hole. “Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?” she asks.  I walk the shoreline’s “Marginal World” with Rachel Carson amid spiral shells and ghost crabs and discover in this world of “exquisite beauty” the evidence of “continuing creation” and the “relentless drive of life.”  I stand on the frontline of a war, the “Bloodiest Battle of All,” William Manchester calls it, in Okinawa where 4000 men died, a place soaked in blood and shit where my father will be shipped to six years later to finish out his medical service, and where the shinbone of a fallen comrade blown to bits impales Manchester, what he will carry the rest of his life: “Nations may make peace. It is harder for fighting men.”  

Here, in these essays, in creative nonfiction, I find the human weight and depth of soul I need: vulnerable and searching, complex and world-wise (the list goes on) and, sometimes, world-weary.

But moral. And tear-worthy.  

Difficult Grace: Michael Chabon’s essay, “Final Frontier,” and the Balance of Truth and Fathers (and Mothers) in CNF

Regis Mile High MFA has asked me to pull together a large lecture hall seminar for our next residency on the ethics of creative nonfiction.  I’m calling it, “ truth, TRUTH, my story, your story: The Ethics of (Creative) (Non) fiction.” As I scroll through the famous infamies of creative “non-truths” in the past decades—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea to name the most web-notorious—I realize that my students don’t worry so much over the truthfulness of their stories as they do over their own capacities to hurt (or enrage) those close to them– good, bad, and/or ugly–who appear in the often painful memories these students find themselves compelled to write.

As  a poet, I thought nothing of truth or ethics. The poet Richard Hugo declared what we poets already knew: “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” But then I wrote my first creative nonfiction book, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, about a subject I had never broached with my family since the long decades past when my mother and father took me to testify in court against the stranger who assaulted me by the side of a graveyard. Each time afterward, they would stop off at the local ice cream parlor with me, in hopes, I think now, of returning me to the normalcy of childhood through a chocolate chip sundae, even after that last day in court when the judge read the verdict and the mother of the rapist half-collapsed at the end of the long court bench within reach of me, weeping to her son, “You said you didn’t do it,” as the police led her nineteen-year-old, convicted and sentenced, down the aisle between us. 

This week, Michael Chabon’s essay in The New Yorker, “ The Final Frontier,” offers a beautiful lesson on how one narrator, moved beyond malice or bitterness to the “implacable logic of mercy,” can meditate, without indictment,  on the father who abandoned him forty-four years ago.   His father near death, Chabon sits bedside in the ICU, working on a script for “Star Trek: Picard.”  His meditation moves between the Star Trek script he is writing, the imaginary conversation he is having with his father over the script, and the present moments of his father dying. It is in that weaving and Chabon’s careful balancing of language that Chabon teaches us how we can work with the fraught material we are given. Star Trek, especially those episodes with Mr. Spock, that Chabon and his father knew in detail, are the genesis for a metaphor that allows Chabon to both embrace and distance himself from a relationship so complex that Chabon can quietly call his father “an acquaintance of fifty-five years,” without alarming his readers. Halfway through Chabon’s recitation on Spock and Star Trek, Chabon says to his father, whom he will shortly try to “mind-meld” with, “I love Mr. Spock because he reminds me of you.”

That their relationship was fraught is without doubt, but what could so easily be the accusations of a son against a father he has been grieving the loss of since he was a twelve year old boy is filtered by Chabon through benevolent truisms on human frailty, as if said by some all-seeing sage, or fellow Vulcan, above the earthly fray: “the silence that prevailed between fathers and sons, as profound and mysterious as the silence of elevators” and  “the father I had loved so imperfectly, and by whom I had been so imperfectly loved.” Chabon ends his essay in that schism of imperfect love: an abandoned child’s long-lived yearning for a father and that same child’s long wounding, still “trapped in the broken elevator of insomnia.”

Just as my students fear will happen to them, as the publishing date drew near for Phantom Canyon, I fretted over telling my mother what the book was about—she had yet to ask me. Finally, on a walk, I told her with as few words as I could, giving her a preview copy, what I should have given her sooner, I think now, to read.  I waited, imagining my mother bent over her magnifying glass reading my words, her not knowing the story of the long aftermath that had silenced me for too long. I wrote of the morning when she asked me why I was no longer her “sunshine,” and how I was so stunned from what she did not know that I could not speak. I wrote of the evening when she asked my father, what I overheard from outside the kitchen window where I had been crying, when I would finally “get over it.” I wrote of other things, too. Words true. She called and I waited, a poet too painfully aware by then of creative nonfiction’s abysses, but not yet fully aware of the grace of mind-melds and faraway galaxies.  

“Kathy,” my mother said, “the book is beautiful, even the hard parts” –our conversation then, I am still thankful, not imagined, but real.   

Cards, Photos, and Paintings: the Happy Collisions of Prose, Poetry, and the Visual Image

Many thanks to Joan Digby, editor-publisher of New Feral Press, who created a beautiful  card combining my poem, Memories of Horses, with a historic photo of a 15,000 to 17, 000 year-old  Paleolithic horse drawing from the Lascaux Cave in France. Joan and artist Stanley Barkan are producing a box of Artists’ cards with horse poems and illustrations.  (Thanks, Joseph Hutchison, former Colorado Poet Laureate, for forwarding Joan’s call for submissions.)

I am finding myself loving the pairing of prose, poetry, and the visual image.  The photos I’ve taken at my beloved land now have a home in my upcoming book,  Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, including the cover photo, expertly “tweaked” by Don Mitchell at Saddle Road Press. And I’m in the wonderful midst of  a painting and poetry collaboration with the talented artist Trine Bumiller  (who by the way did the cover illustration for my first book of poetry, Air Into Breath).  The Arvada Center’s Pink Progression exhibit (which we just got funding for!) will happen in June 2020.

And I also find myself thankful to all the artists and writers out there who generously help each other out with calls for submissions and leads and inspirations for projects. I ‘ve missed contributing to that in the way I could all those years through Writers Studio at Arapahoe Community College, but I see it all alive and thriving, here, outside of any institution. 

“Retirement” is okay!