The Ones Who Stay

A sad mouse statue ringed with green lights

Recent events have reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s much-anthologized story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which a utopian society depends for its continued existence on the suffering of one child. Some, when they learn of this requirement, leave in search of a different kind of society, but most stay.

Of course, our society is no utopia, and more than one child suffers; more than the two thousand children taken from their parents at the border suffer. But Le Guin knew that. Her parable brings us face-to-face with our complicity: At first, when young people of Omelas learn of the suffering child, they are shocked. But then they begin to rationalize. Isn’t it better that one child suffers so that everyone else may prosper? If the child were released from the dungeon, surely it could no longer function: “Indeed,” Le Guin writes, “after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.” And so the people of Omelas accept the child’s suffering and even believe their own lies about it.

One version of this utopia is white supremacy. People who can justify separating brown children from their parents have already decided that these people are not as worthy, perhaps not even as capable of feeling, as white children and white parents. They imagine an Edenic United States, when it was whiter and more powerful and more prosperous. That this country never existed does not seem to bother them. They believe that, if the children suffer, their city on a hill will shine on.

But I don’t want to let myself off the hook here. As much as I protest this white supremacist utopian ideal, I benefit from it. I’m like the citizens of Omelas who wake from bad dreams in the night but continue to partake in the joys of utopia — in my case, vegetables picked by migrant farm workers, electronics made under grueling conditions, the legacy of wealth and education that came from my homesteading ancestors, etc. and more etc. I read the news. I go to an occasional protest and send an occasional donation. But I don’t walk away.

Last week I attended a tribute to Le Guin in Portland, an evening of love and laughter in an elegant theater from the 1920s. Editors read funny emails they’d received from her, and writers shared reminiscences (China Miéville said Le Guin told him the description of the scary Shadow in The Wizard of Earthsea was based on the tardigrade, a microscopic animal). Margaret Atwood attended via prerecorded video. She said she was talking to us from a planet called “Canada”; the universal translator was translating her words so we could understand them. She told a story about asking Le Guin: “Where do the ones who walk away from Omelas go?” Le Guin couldn’t answer.

And where would I go if I walked away? Justice, of course, is not a place. I find myself tossing and turning. I don’t believe the lie that the child suffering for Omelas is better off in the dungeon, but I have trouble walking away from the benefits I accrue from that suffering. Someone, I keep thinking, will show me the way out. Meanwhile, I guiltily sleep.

 

 

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

LeGuin

Ursula K. Le Guin, Flight of the Mind, 1995

Our class took a break one sunny afternoon and hiked along the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest of Oregon. Our teacher, Ursula Le Guin, led the way, naming the trees, shrubs, ferns, and groundcovers. It was the summer of 1995, and I was lucky to have landed a spot in her writing workshop at Flight of the Mind, a week-long retreat for women writers. In class, we were discussing the first chapters of our novels.

I was in awe of Le Guin, whose work I had been reading since adolescence. On the first day of class, which met in the cottage where she was staying, I had gone into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. This is Ursula Le Guin’s toothbrush, I thought. This is Ursula Le Guin’s lotion. As the week went on, I listened closely to her critiques of first chapters. She was brutally direct with a student who was writing science fiction: “You haven’t imagined this world yet. I don’t believe it.” When it was my turn, every muscle in my body tensed. But she liked my chapter; she liked it a lot.

On the hike, I angled discreetly among the dozen or so students for a spot close to Le Guin so I could hear every word. She looked up and saw, where I saw only towering trunks, hemlock and Douglas fir. She looked down and saw, amid the blur of small green leaves, Oregon grape and salal. “You don’t really know a place,” she said, “unless you can name the plants that grow there.”

I returned to Seattle and resolved to know this place where I had spent many of my growing-up years. I read up on native plants and troweled them into my garden — the clover-like Oxalis oregana; kinnikinnick, with its tiny, tough leaves; the delicate-branched Pacific dogwood and vine maple. I also kept working on my novel. I took a pair of scissors to Le Guin’s comments on my draft and framed them with a picture of her signing a book for me. The chapter she read became a middle chapter of Half-Moon Scar, published five years later.

We never communicated again; I have read in many tributes that she was a generous correspondent. But she touched my life and my writing, not only that week on the McKenzie River, but through her body of work. One summer I read all of her Hainish cycle novels in order, appreciating the interlocking universe they created. I am re-reading The Dispossessed now, and what strikes me is how elegantly Le Guin weaves a classic quest tale with a novel of ideas — about power, sexism, political systems, and ethics.

In moments when my own writing seems pointless, self-absorbed, unnecessary — a kind of fiddling while Rome burns — I remember the fierce intelligence of Le Guin’s work and how powerful words, stories, histories, and visions can be. I want to walk with her and others like her, naming the leaves and stars.

 

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A New Year

People in a street in front of a house, watching fireworks

New Year’s Eve 2018, Panama City

At midnight on December 31st, Arline and I followed her cousins out of the house where we’d been eating tamales and into the empty residential street to watch fireworks bloom over the neighborhood. We toasted. We hugged and wished each other a feliz año. In the distance, several golden lights floated in the sky. What were they? Lanterns. On New Year’s Eve, many Panamanians send a lantern into the sky with a wish. Within a few minutes, dozens of lanterns were rising in every direction.

Arline and I made the same wish as we clanked our glasses: for a better year. We will always remember 2017 as the year of the cancer. Arline found the lump in her leg in January, was diagnosed in March, had five weeks of radiation, and endured two surgeries in May and June that removed parts of her quadriceps muscle and rectus tendon. The rest of the year she did physical therapy exercises every day to regain function in her leg.

Some people see cancer as a gift that reminds us of all that is precious. I can’t see it that way. Cancer spiked our lives with moments of terror and sorrow so acute they left us sobbing and breathless. If I could return such a gift, I would.

But as I thought back on the year, I realized how many moments of joy and pleasure we had during an otherwise challenging time. On the day Arline returned home after the first surgery, a flock of grandchildren fluttered around, laughing and joking and asking questions about the brace on her leg. We managed to make our annual camping trip with friends in August, and Arline hiked with her walking poles at Sunrise on Mount Rainier. In fact, we took several camping trips this year — to Deception Pass, the Olympic Peninsula, and Mount Saint Helens.

We also celebrated birthdays with family and friends, went to a retreat for cancer patients at a beautiful center on Hood Canal, spent several days with my parents on the Oregon Coast, took a trip to Los Angeles to walk on the beach, and, in the last days of the year, returned to Panama, where we hadn’t been in almost a decade. Everywhere we went, Arline was embraced by long-unseen relatives and friends who reminded her of what her home country had given her, even as her adopted country feels as much, if not more, like home now.

What I want to remember about 2017, then, is that, while cancer shredded the fabric of our lives, our community of friends and family and the solace of oceans, trees, and mountains knitted it back together. What gets unraveled gets continuously re-raveled. Regardless of the sorrows that may await us, we will laugh again.

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The Nonfictional Dream

Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens through the windows of the Johnston Ridge Observatory

 

On the morning of May 18, 1980, volcanologist David Johnston radioed his colleagues at the Vancouver branch of the United States Geological Survey. Mount Saint Helens was erupting. “Vancouver, Vancouver!” he said. “This is it!” And a river of hot gas and rocks barrelled over him. Later, searchers found his backpack, parka, and fragments of his trailer, but not his body.

On a beautiful October day, Arline and I read his story at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which looks straight at beautiful, gutted Mount Saint Helens from the ridge where Johnston monitored the volcano. A short film in the observatory theater opened with an actor reading Johnston’s last shout, and I was completely distracted by his pronunciation of the city: “VAN-couver, VAN-couver! This is it!” No one who has spent any time in this region puts the emphasis on the first syllable. I waited through the film’s cheesy imagining of the eruption for the credits. The film was made by a company in Boston.

It’s the smallest of errors, but enough to distract a viewer from an entire film. John Gardner, whose book On Becoming a Novelist I read in graduate school, said a novel is a fictional dream, and the wrong word or image or detail will wake the reader from the dream, the last thing the writer wants. But memoir is trickier. The reader expects memoir to be true, so there can be no wrong word or image or detail. Either the cup the father threw across the room was white or it was blue. The memoirist is not supposed to change the color to resonate more deeply with the essay’s overall themes. Maybe the cup should be red, the writer might think, like anger. But the rules of engagement don’t allow the writer to make the cup red.

Still, maybe the writer doesn’t remember what color the cup was. Is it wrong to make up a detail? Some would say yes; the writer should talk to the father or a sibling: “What color was that cup that exploded into shards against wall?” Surely someone remembers not just the color but the shape and feel of the dishes the family used for so many years.

But others would say no; it’s not wrong to make a few things up. The memoirist has poetic license to invent details that are probably true, as long as they are relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. A red cup, a blue cup, who cares? What matters is that the mother would never have bought red cups; she preferred white or, perhaps, white with a pale blue band around the rim. As long as the writer stays true to the characters of the people involved, she can invent a blue-banded cup.

I’ve been thinking about this, not with regards to my essay writing but to my other genre of memoir: the Facebook post. There, I do take poetic license, although most of my sins are of omission, not invention. I post a carefully cropped photograph of our campsite that doesn’t show the restrooms nearby. During our camping trip to the Olympic peninsula in September, I reported on whale sightings but not on the disturbing encounter with campers who claimed we stole a campsite out from under them by moving the stool that marked their possession. I posted a series of sunsets at the beach but didn’t record that Arline fell the next morning on the uneven beach stairs, hyperflexing her still healing knee, and we made a terrified four-hour dash back to the city and the emergency room.

But why share such unpleasant details? We were camping again six weeks later, this time at Mount Saint Helens. Arline used her walking poles this time and took my arm when we crossed slippery patches of boardwalk on Silver Lake. The sun swept across our faces on the drive up to the observatory, and the trees were turning gold, and the mountain was deep asleep. We listened for David Johnston’s last words, echoing across the crater, and he was saying “Van-COU-ver, Van-COU-ver!” We looked at the photo of him from the day before the eruption, his boots propped on a log, his journal open in his lap, a happy smile, and behind him miles and miles of green trees about to go down. We tried to imagine what he might have been feeling at that moment, but we would have been making something up. So we just thanked him for his witness. And descended the mountain.

 

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Frogs

Frog

Frog floating in Cowlitz River

On a recent camping trip, I wedged the legs of my canvas chair into the rocks along the Cowlitz River and paddled my toes in the cold water. It was 95 degrees in the campground just outside Mount Rainier National Park, so warm that, although I wanted to nap in our van, I couldn’t get comfortable, even with the doors and windows open and a battery-powered fan turning. The only cool spot was the river.

Our friend Margaret sat nearby, reading. Her partner Machelle and Arline were up the slope in our campsite, napping. The sun had just dipped below the tips of the Douglas firs and red cedars across the river, so Margaret and I were in shade, but filtered light turned the river rocks shades of buttery yellow.

I had been at the river for at least half an hour, watching the water swirl, when I realized a large frog was sitting near my left foot. “Margaret!” I whispered. She looked across at me, and I pointed down. We peered at it. The frog, the color of wet stone, was completely still, golden-lidded eyes open and unblinking. Was it real? Was it alive? I touched a twig to its right back leg, and the leg twitched. Margaret said she could see, from the side, its gullet move.

I kept an eye on the frog over the next hour. Once it blinked. Later, it slightly shifted position. But it stayed there, still, camouflaged among the rocks.

One explanation I read for the frog’s behavior is that it had shut down to survive the heat, a process called “estivation” – the warm-weather equivalent of hibernation. In recent months, as Arline and I have coped with her cancer diagnosis, five weeks of radiation, two surgeries, and multiple tests and appointments, there have been times I wanted to enter this state myself: lower the blinds, throw the sheets over my head, and shut my eyes. I often sleep nine to ten hours a night, the luxury of not working this summer, and still sometimes I nap in the afternoons, my eyes closing as I attempt to read. But eventually I emerge from these periods of estivation to do the laundry, send emails, help Arline with her exercises, and do whatever else is needed. Even when it’s hot, frogs and humans need to eat.

But that’s not right. I’m describing the frog’s stillness – and my desire for it – as a form of hiding, of retreat. The frog was not hiding. The frog was doing what it needed to do to survive. It was slowing, quieting. Less like my naps and more like my attempts at meditation. I try to meditate every day but I don’t always make time for it. I’ve found a web site with recordings, and I like the woman’s calm voice telling me, at the end, to wish myself well. The frog had, perhaps, temporarily narrowed its focus to breathing, the way I’m supposed to do in meditation. That afternoon, leaves drifted by, the sun traveled behind the trees, and our bodies simply breathed.

After awhile, Arline joined me at the river. The path down from our campsite was thick with roots and rocks, and she needed to lean on me as she navigated with her still unbending knee. Once she had admired the frog and settled in her chair, she noticed another frog to her right. This one was speckled, what I later learned was a Cascade Frog (the first was probably a Red-Legged), and it was also motionless. It rested in the river, only its nose and eyes above the water that eddied around it, cool and clear.

I’ve been meditating to cope and writing in my journal and camping – and I’ve been eating. Usually I can resist something sweet for at least a few days at a time, but not lately. During the long five weeks of daily radiation, Arline and I got in the habit of a cup of coffee and a cookie every afternoon. She wanted to cut back on sugar – many sources say it feeds cancer – but it was hard. We wanted something small and satisfying, a shared moment of quiet in the afternoons. In other words, we accompanied our estivation with a treat.

So we sleep, we nap, we eat. We spend time with friends and grandchildren. We laugh with Margaret and Machelle, taking selfies on our campsite picnic table. And we sit by rivers and look at frogs. We’re surviving. We are.

 

 

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This.

Arline in hallway

Arline taking a walk in the hallway

Five years ago I started writing this blog to exercise my essay writing muscles. I wanted to experiment with voice and tone, with different topics. To think about my imagined audience. Why was I writing and about what and to whom?

Virtually every month I posted a short essay. The blog kept me writing when other things consumed my thoughts and time, things like student papers and committee work, emails and groceries. From this ongoing practice, longer, more complex essays emerged, and I sent them to publications. Ten appeared in journals, including one that was named a notable essay of 2015 in Best American Essays.

And then I stopped writing. Because someone turned this little snow globe that is my life upside down and shook it. Not someone. Something. My love, my partner, my wife — the woman who travels with me — found a lump near her knee that turned out to be cancer.

On February 23, a doctor called to tell Arline that the mass on the MRI looked malignant. Two weeks later, a different doctor called with the biopsy results. He gave the mass a name: myxofibrosarcoma, intermediate, stage 2.

In the four months since then, the only writing I’ve done is in my journal. I have read and read: articles in journals like Lancet Oncology and Medical Molecular Morphology. Blogs left behind by those who wrote and survived, by those who wrote and didn’t. Posts on random chat boards; posts on private Facebook groups. But I haven’t been able to read a book.

And I haven’t been writing because I’ve been going with Arline to appointments, to MRIs and CT scans, to a PET scan in a city an hour away, to some of her twenty-five sessions of radiation. I didn’t write when spending three nights with her in the hospital after the first surgery in May or five nights after the second surgery in June. I wasn’t writing when I went to my own therapy appointments and caregiver support group meetings.

But mostly I haven’t been writing because this turn of events has left me wordless. Everything seems to be coming at me — explanations, diagnoses, pathology reports, test results — and the only things leaking out are tears.

What topics are there to write about now? Only cancer. Who would I be writing to and why? I’m not sure.

But something happened after the first surgery. After several months of not being able to concentrate long enough to read a book, I found myself reading something besides medical studies again. As Arline napped, I read comedian W. Kamau Bell’s book about his life, sent to Arline by Karen Maeda Allman, our friend who works at Elliott Bay Book Company. I think what happened was this: my attention narrowed to what needed to be done in this moment. I needed to wash the morning’s coffee mugs. To open a can of soup. To tighten the Velcro straps of her leg brace. Arline needed me to give her a daily injection of blood thinner. To record the times she took pain medications. To hand her the phone she’d left charging on the table.

My gaze dropped from the uncertain future — its terrifying fog — to this certain moment: a bowl of pears, sun setting on the library bookcase, a drawing of a bunny left by a granddaughter. With my focus tethered to this moment, just this one right here, I could read stories again and maybe tell them. To you. Because why? Because this is what I need to do.

I’m going to try to write blog posts again. They will be short. It feels as if, when I raise my eyes to the future, I risk turning to a pillar of salt. So I’ll keep my eyes down, low to the ground. Plots will be foreshortened. Ruminations kept to a minimum. This is how we live now that we know what we didn’t know before; life is short. It’s this moment right now. This one. And this.

 

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New Publication: “Signals”

I’m honored to be part of this online anthology: Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival. Editors Sarah Einstein and Sandra Lambert set out to push back “against the bigotry of all kinds that has reentered the public conversation, unrestrained.” Thanks to Alma García and Donna Miscolta for helping me shape my essay.

 

 

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