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Just as every dispute between lovers is not about this topic, but about someone not feeling loved, so I think that every important story we tell about our lives is actually about survival.
Think of a story in your life. Not just any story. At the end of your life, if you have to choose a memory, it will say "This is who I am" or "This is my life"-what will it be?
Consider the importance of this story in your life. For the human mind, the story is irresistible. Everyone wants to tell a story, even if their talents are in different areas. Now that I am retired, I start my non-volunteer morning by playing Scott Joplin on the keyboard. You will never hear better music (I mean the way he writes, not the way I play). But surprisingly, Scott Joplin was not satisfied with writing his perfect song. He was also driven to tell a story-his opera, Treemonisha. Therefore, even musical geniuses will be attracted to it; we are all.
Is the story you choose a tragedy? Kay? interesting? In any case, I think this is about the core of survival. If it is sad, it is "this is how bad it has become"-and you are still here to tell it. If it’s happy, it’s "Although everything disappoints me, I still have this day."
I will ask you some questions about your story later. At the same time, I will not do what I ask you to do because I am afraid. I don't like thinking about my life. But when I started writing this article, a story did appear in my mind, inadvertently. This is something I haven't thought of for a long time, something that happened in my home long before I was born. My uncle bit a wild mule's ear.
Background: During the Great Depression of the sandstorm, my grandmother and grandfather were cotton farmers in western Texas. They saved the four children from starvation, because this depleted land is indeed detrimental to them. A suffocating sandstorm rolled from the horizon, changing from day to night, and the milk cup on the table gradually turned into a rough brown.
Dry farming is always risky. In the ruins, my grandfather desperately tried to keep his home. In order to make money, he does not hesitate to gin (the gin is burnt), pour concrete blocks in the hot outdoors, and even round up and sell wild mules. As a child, my father’s brother, not the most talkative human being, was considered best suited to work on a demonstration wild mule. Surrounded by a circle of skeptical farmers, when my grandpa sent him a signal, the boy bit the mule’s ear. This is to prove to all doubters that the mule is tame enough.
The little boy on the mule grew up and has two daughters, one is a talented teacher, the other is a heart of gold, but they slowly realize that she is mentally retarded. Over time, my uncle and my grandfather poured their little money to try to solve this problem, but it could not be solved. In those days, there was nowhere else but family. All this survived.
Neither my grandfather nor my uncle can predict their fate. But what happened changed their entire world. For you, when the world changes, is the story you choose a memory? For better or worse, this is difficult. It's like reading a book, but when you turn the page, the previous storyline suddenly disappears. You are in the middle of a new story. What is the plot? What is the subject? Who should I believe?
One of the biggest threats to our survival is when we lose the storyline. We never think that we do not have that person; or that we do not have our parents; or our children, or our health, or our "status" in the community are gone.
Imagine if at the moment your storyline collapses, the narrative of everyone around you also collapses. Indeed, it is annoying when you are the only person, and it continues for the rest of your life. But in a sense, what’s worse is that other people’s lives are suddenly strangled. People feel disoriented, scared, lonely and disconnected from the world around them. We all seem to be experiencing similar things, not only related to COVID, but also related to our current culture. Nowadays, we are not only living in the epidemic of the virus, but also living in the epidemic of loneliness. More and more people say that there are fewer and fewer people they can trust, and fewer people they can talk to. Institutions that were once trusted by many (no, for good reasons, not everyone) are now widely suspected. Desperate deaths-alcohol, drugs-reached record heights.
So how are we now? Where can we find the Americans before us-dating back several generations-suddenly found ourselves in the sinking ship of the Great Depression and had to figure out step by step how to build a lifeboat when they were drowning and how to keep it from Overturned, what must be abandoned, what can be saved. Many years ago, I wrote a story about such a person, who lost their story. Faced with climate disasters, economic collapse and personal humiliation, these people survived. I want to learn how and write it on paper. As Dr. Johnson said: "The sole purpose of writing is to make readers enjoy life better or endure life better."
So because I wanted to learn from these people how to endure, I made up a story about the sandstorm when my father grew up. It is centered in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and when the suffocating black storms roll in one after another, the drought year after year. I wrote about Riah McKenna and her husband Tom, this young farm couple suddenly faced the destruction of their lives. But it was a common disaster, including their little boy James, who suddenly had to deal with overwhelmed parents, there was not enough food to eat, his best friend Buck could speak sign language, no one there understood, and became a li A best friend woman, an outspoken redhead (I always think of her as Betty Midler), a person abandoned by the community whose husband beat her up decades before the law . There is also a town full of other people, everyone has their own burdens, everyone is shocked by what happened to them.
You would think that their first reaction was to talk about it, right? That will be mine; I am a writer. Text is my first and last method. But I know this grassland area too well. I grew up there. God knows, our Depression ancestors have every reason to complain. Roosevelt famously said: "I see that one third of people in a country have poor housing, poorly dressed, and malnourished." Separated from all familiar berths, without a social safety net, it is as bad as their relatives and neighbors— —When we first met them, Roosevelt’s thoughts had just begun — my role was a person in crisis.
But they are also people who never ask for help. They never think or talk about their feelings since they were young. This is dangerous: speaking out how you feel is always at the risk of making you a pariah. Even before the sandstorm, this grassland with few trees, lack of water, and sparsely populated family farmers was a culture based on survival. Therefore, the tolerance for personal preferences is not high. Anyone who says "wrong" or does not "do the right thing" will be seen as endangering the survival of the tribe-and will be exiled. After the storm came and the crops failed again, this situation became more real. And your instinct knows that you cannot survive the end of the world alone.
Therefore, when they most need to use language to help them figure out how to replace damaged personal and national narratives, these people would rather not say anything. They are ashamed of being forced to use language. When they speak, it is reluctant and hesitant. I don't remember that I spent ten years writing this book, but I remember one time when I went to the National Archives in Washington, I was stunned by my reception. I am not a full-time faculty anywhere; I am not a publisher or an important person; but the staff respects my request very much. I have already written it in advance. After arriving, I walked to my desk and said naively: "I want to read the original letter from the farmer to Roosevelt during the sandstorm." A good man said, okay. I forgot what the rules were, but I was taken into a room by the man, I thought, I thought it was paper and pencil. I sit at a table alone.
I am waiting to retrieve the folder from their archives and bring it in. This seems to be a bit longer than I expected, but I know they have many other requirements to fill out.
Imagine that I was surprised when I looked up and saw that good man drove into the room with a forklift. He began to unload the letters one by one.
There are also letters: handwritten, many of whom come from elementary school or below, each word is deliberately drawn instead of written, usually in pencil. These people have worked hard all their lives and pride themselves on never asking for help. In fact, they live in a country that has never offered anything. But now their children are starving to death under their noses. Now their home is almost gone. They write with great respect; they constantly apologize; they need everything, and the farm housewife will write Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt, just as she writes a sense of shame to estranged but trustworthy grandparents. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, it is cold, can you give my little girl a coat? Her little sister is now wearing hers. thank you very much. Dear President Roosevelt, we have not gained for two years. Can you help me find a job? I will go anywhere. Or: My husband is sick. He can never get out of bed anymore. We can no longer ask the doctor for help. Can you help us. We will return it to you as soon as possible. thank you very much. And it is always a signature, written slowly, clearly, and highly concentrated.
There is usually a margin on the edge of each letter. Like a poem. In the middle of the blank space: the attempt of language is obviously reluctant, keep it as short as possible. So when I started telling the legends of these people, I felt that they had already shown me how to do it. I divided each part of the big story into smaller parts, with a silence before each part, a silence after it, and a silence at the end of each line. We have names for such languages. You know what this is. Many people today believe that poems should not be stories, but these stories must be poems, because they require inner silence, and because the concern for language carries the feelings of these people.
You may now think that I have forgotten your story, but I have not. Just as I created my story because I want it to help others endure, so out of respect, I want to encourage you to share your story with others. In an era of ideological division and tribalism, sharing stories may be one of the few ways to build bridges. In "Together: Sometimes the Healing Power of Interpersonal Relationships in a Lonely World" (2020), surgeon Vivek Murthy said: "Even when there are no other people, stories can make individuals feel connected and promote belonging. Sense. [...] They give meaning to our struggles and comfort us when we are suffering or afraid. They bring us together."
How does the story bring us together? In our culture, language is increasingly used as a weapon, whether offensive or defensive, everyone is convinced that they are right. But let us not forget how useful language is when we are uncertain, and how helpful it is in reducing defense rather than improving defense. Words can provide space for public work that eliminates confusion and uncertainty, where we can pick up intermittent clues and start weaving new storylines. In my Dust Bowl story, people are groping into a new language, trying to create a tentative grammar, a staggering syntax, which might make them speak a new self. Just like we were on a bad day, only in their case, day after day, they only have problems left. In the huge, identity-destroying chaos, how do people learn to speak, not in anger, but in sadness? When people are pushed into a world where nothing is right and everything goes wrong, what is the defense they are trying to build in their heads? With the old clues gone, how do you find the words for what you must do to be a good person? Do some people have a core of kindness deep in their hearts — if so, what strikes and arouses this core? Or is there no core, only a group of people groping to do good deeds?
Groping is the key. The structure of a poem provides a shelter for each character's trial, wrong start, tentative steps, and reorganization. When the world changes, it is impossible not to make mistakes. The people in this town went the wrong way, tried stupidly, wandered, made mistakes. How do they feel about this? what are they doing? When we are deceived, they will do the same thing: walk around in shock, continue to try, give up, try to find the language, stick to the old behavior, learn to give up what we think we can never live, try to ask God , To figure out how to not fail in an area that is always under our control: how we treat each other.
My uncle bit a wild mule's ear. His brother dropped a finger on the hapless cotton gin. The youngest child, my father, had an asthma attack. Since there was no medicine, my grandmother used to lie in bed and breathe with him. I come from a family of panting, four-fingered mules biting survivors. The same to you. If you look at your story, look at the story of your family, the most important thing will reveal a story of fighting for purpose. Putting his son on that mule, my grandfather, a ruined farmer, tried to rediscover his goal in life-to help his family-instead of just giving up drinking and despair. During my 40 years of teaching at a local community college, when we read a novel or poem about someone in trouble, I often tell my students: if people find a sense of mission, they can survive . It's really the same, isn't it, like trying to write and rewrite the story we continue?
In my Dust Bowl story, many plots make people try to talk to each other, sometimes even completely misunderstanding each other. However, they continued to talk, staying in front of each other. They are people who talk to each other like real people. They have not only inner monologues, but also outer dialogues. They feel lonely in despair like we are now, but they enter the language field with painful honesty and self-doubt. Because even if it fails, in their own ears, they can hear how humane the attempt is.
That attempt may be the greatest gift they must pass to us now.
From Rain: The Story of Sandstorm
Am I the only one? Cross, she loosened her needle. It stung her-Riah jumped up and sucked blood. Oh, you hear people say, "Time is hard" or "Money is as scarce as a hen's teeth"-Mrs. Parr's old saw-"It is about to become difficult, and the hard beginning"-they are in Lost the farm? Their house? Their land?
money. This is a private matter, she understands. As private as between a man and his wife. You never asked; you mostly know. Assume that other people have more or less what you have. In the sewing circle, at Christmas time, it is used to make new skirts and children's coats. However, last year-there was no gay clothing. Nothing new. Patches and torn pants. Just like colors, ribbons, and Christmas red drained from their hands and legs. They knit socks in December.
They sew in a hurry now. Recently, no one wants cake or coffee. No one provided-wasting flour, eggs. They cancelled the food break-saying they had a lot to do. Mrs. Mike, the elder, began to take the fragments, almost fragments-out of the rag bucket, trying to take these rights. Others followed suit-rags until they ran out.
These are these, she thought, scan them, who will help me. They will accept me. They will provide food for James. But what-her breathing stopped, her thoughts-if they were also not doing well? What if it hits them? They look calm and are repairing, but they all look weird these days. Cotton has never fallen so low. And it's very dry. But then it was always like this, it rained.
Riya saw a photo in the newspaper, a row of people walking down the street, in the county seat, waiting to drink soup. Nowhere to go. She tied a knot. Hope God, she thought, I am the poorest woman in this room.
James sat between them, not behind. Riah was very happy to see his hat, not lost in the wind, but caught by his little hands. Ford rolled slowly—headlights were rarely used—he was crushed on his shoulders by the weather, beaten, pushed away, and trembling, hiding in the road with every new yank and impact of sand. The wheel shook suddenly in Tom's hands. Sand sprayed out of their noses. They pursed their lips.
James hunched forward, nervous. He thought: Should I talk about "Eclipse"? In his science books, the word "Eclipse" represents a picture of three balls: the earth. Sun. moon. Somehow-father and mother may not know-these three people may go crazy. Then the sun, although it was big, was blocked. The earth was dark and cold, looking at the yellowed pages, like a round hole. Just like now: James can't see the brush on the side of the road. Tom and Riah sat upright, their eyes fixed on the front. If he said hiss, James would worry about his life.
The wind blows on the car. "I want to know," Riah shouted above the noise, "If we can't hand it in at At the Blacks'. Opal is home now." She took out a handkerchief, wiped her mouth, and handed it to James. There is no answer. "You know," she said, "until the worst is over. It's no use going all the way home." "Let's go on," Tom said. James sneezed: She left him the handkerchief. "You know, I told you that Opal has that magazine. The one I need. At the store, she said she has passed it."
The truck turned and stumbled into the field. Tom leaned on the steering wheel and turned it back. The wind doesn't stop: no light. If Ford can hold on, the black man is nearby. Rhea frowned. She had never seen this before, or heard of this—she could barely hear her thoughts. But-there is nothing to go out, and nothing to play-low-key. "What do you think?" she asked. Tom: "Let's go home."
The car rolled into a blank space. He tried the high beam, but it didn't work.
The entire poem can be read here.
Photos from the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) collection.
Shelley Shaver grew up in Lubbock, Texas and has been teaching at California Community College. She has published articles in "The Seattle Star", "Southwest Review", "Prairie Schooner" and "American Poetry Review".
The way out of the flying bottle: Wittgenstein's 100-year-old "The Analects"
Revisionist Myth: Frankenstein and Cthulhu
Strugglers Abandoned: "Call on Charlie Barnes" on Joshua Ferris
Storytelling: learning from disasters
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