Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dinner with Peter

Met up again with Peter last night (thanks, by the way, to Lonnie for her advice to keep up contact with him). He's a little disappointed that another year is ending and the world isn't ending with it, but his vision of the Apocalypse is still strong.

The days are coming, he tells me, when restraint and righteousness have been delayed too long, when the earth runs dry and the blood in human veins runs cold, when brother will fight brother to the death over a glass of clean water, when the piece of technology children most long for is a sharp knife. In those days, he says, women will have nothing but sackcloth left to wear, will have their faces covered in ash and soot as soon as they step into the air outside. In those days, food will carry with it the taste of desolation, night will hang so thick it's hard to see the moon rise red, hearts will groan because they are too tired to break. In those days, prayers will only be whispered because of the scorn that will follow anyone who still believes in a good God.

Then comes the miracle. Cities torn asunder as primeval forests spring at once from the ground; the atmosphere aflame, burning itself free of toxins. The earth closes her wounds, swallows her scars. Adam returns to the world he once knew to meet his descendants, who are rising from their graves, whose spirits are pouring out of the Ganges into resurrected life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Surreality: In the Blood

My grandmother's great-grandfather was a convert to Mormonism during its early days and was deeply involved in the faith. He wrote songs and gave famous sermons, but most of the family stories we told about him when I was growing up involved things like his escape from a jailor and the jailor's dog (when the dog got close, my great-great-great grandpa just yelled "Sic 'im, boy!" and pointed ahead) instead.

A year or two ago I found out my ancestor was also the first Mormon to write a piece of fiction. Two nights ago, my wife and I finally found and read it online.

The piece was written seven months before Joseph Smith was murdered, at a time when anti-Mormon sentiment was running high in many parts of the country. But the piece is gutsy, funny, surprising, and engaging while trying to introduce people to some provocative Mormon ideas in the process.

Well, done g-g-g grandpa! And may my own work be half as fun!

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Alarming Thought

I came back to graduate school last year primarily so I could have health insurance, but also with the idea that I would become a better writer. I feel like I am learning important things, but I feel (today) like I'm writing less important work.

In 2006, among other things, I wrote a play called "Maror." It's based on a true story about a Mormon couple whose two-year-old goes into an extended coma and eventually dies. The play explores what it means to believe in and experience miracles while not getting the only miracle you really want. The play asks us to consider how we can be healed from the bitterness intense suffering makes it so easy to receive. The play looks at how hard deaths in the Mormon community end in a mixture of faith and grief; the play emphasizes that faith and grief are in no way incompatible. We produced the play twice. The first time, a couple who had lost a child in a similar way told me that the play was accurate, that it brought back hard memories, but was very affirming to watch. A woman whose child was in the midst of serious health issues told me the play reached her in ways she never would have expected.

Perhaps a year after the second production, a close relative of one of the actresses ended up in the hospital in a coma and subsequently died. The actress later told me that she thought of the play often in that period, that in important ways it gave her additional resources to process her own experience.

To me, these reactions make a successful play. I am pleased to think I wrote something that helped a few audience members in their own hard times. Our scriptures tell us to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and I feel like I did that with that play.

In 2007, I focused almost exclusively on ten-minute plays, but also felt like I was connecting with local audiences on important, central issues from everyday life. A few times, I dealt with young married couples facing various challenges and learning (or not learning) to talk productively with each other--stories Provo university student audiences need. I explored immigration issues in a way that (I hoped) would promote dialogue instead of stifling it, would enable people to frame the issues in ways they hadn't thought of before. I spent time with political polarization but in the specific context of how the broader culture of partisanship adversely affects the Mormon community. I spent time with ideas about the unexpected sources from which people can find strength to turn their lives around.

Audiences came, interacted, left the theatre a little different. It was a good year.

In 2008, my greatest writing achievement was a piece I wrote in March called "Prodigal Son." In it, I looked at how an otherwise close father and son were divided by the son's conversion to Mormonism. The play takes seriously the values and perspectives of both father and son, reaches toward understanding and a kind of healing that can accept difference and pain. The piece won the Association for Mormon Letters' award for Best Play of the year. It made it into the anthology "The Best of Mormonism 2009" and as such will apparently be required reading in a Mormon Lit class at Utah Valley University next year. More importantly, the play resonated with my its audience and especially deeply with those who live in such situations. Like with "Maror," I was able to speak pain in an affirming way, advocating charity and love as sustaining powers through all kinds of difficulty.

And then I came back to school. I haven't written a play since.

I have done some good work over the past year and a half. As far as I can remember, I've written:
-an essay about how our modern understanding of how trauma can affect individuals well after traumatic events end can enrichen our understanding about a Book of Mormon passage in which Jesus blesses some deeply traumatized children. The essay was written between classes rather than for a class, but won me some money and got published in a BYU Essay Collection.
-a draft of a picture book telling the stories of my experience as a terrorist look-alike after 9/11 and my grandfather's experience being separated from his best friend during the Partition of India. I like it, but haven't done anything with it. I finished the draft in December 2008 and haven't touched it since January of this year.
-a cycle of very short stories (less than 300 words each) about immigrants, structured around the Jewish liturgical calendar (a story about an African refugee invokes Passover imagery, Judah Maccabee is an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the Hanukkah piece). Again, I think it's beautiful, but it's just sitting in my files now.
-"Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg" a fictional set of folktale fragments. I love it, and it's been published online, which is great, but it's been hard to see much fruit yet. I think the piece has the potential to deepen the way we look at things, but it's sort of weird and without being trapped in a theater in advance, not everyone seems to have the patience for it.
-"Four Side of a Rhetorical Triangle," an essay with a strong voice that explores the ways in which we think about writing. This one, I think, will be able to make it into a national literary journal and be read mostly by writers and English professors. Maybe it will change the way they think and talk about writing. Maybe it will just give them a good laugh. It may not ever find out.
-and last, but not least, my three blogs. People do read these, at least according to Google Analytics. And they probably are helping someone somewhere with something. They have certainly helped me to write, which I was finding very difficult to do.

This school output is not too bad, but when I consider that I haven't written plays, haven't run a theatre company, and haven't done nearly as much connecting with audience, I'm faced with the alarming thought that maybe I'm not doing better. Maybe my writing is doing less to serve the community I love than it did before I came back to school. Maybe this whole academic career thing is a distraction from the core of what I once managed to do in engaging with real-life issues in moving and meaningful ways.

And maybe it's time to stop for today and go clock in to the research job that puts bread on the table.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Blove

Love. It's a theme that has preoccupied dateless philosophers for centuries. It's a theme songwriters consistently exploit in order to make alimony payments. It's a theme connected to time-honored social institutions like mawwiage and Nora Ephron.

But has it ever been successfully explained?

I don't think so. In an impromptu song, however, I think my daughter captured the basics of what story, song, and film have been arguing is the nature of love since at least the mesozoic era (dated by most pop culture archeologists as beginning in 1980s).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Cartographic Conspiracy

Cartographers today, when asked to produce a map of a given country, focus almost exclusively on the territory within the recognized borders of that country—a disastrous practice which has contributed to numerous failed policies and countless deaths. Whether a nuclear war will also result from this vast cartographical oversight remains to be seen. At the very least, large warning labels ought to be legally required on such maps, something like the labels on cigarette packages, if future crises are to be averted. Better yet, current country maps would be largely replaced by a new breed of “around maps” which balance focus on the internal with careful attention to external context.

If we had been using such maps ten years ago, perhaps the Bush administration would have thought twice before occupying both Afghanistan, to the east of Iran, and Iraq, to the west of Iran, simultaneously. More relevantly, American and European negotiators today might not spend so much time scratching their heads wondering why Iran is suddenly interested in refining uranium. If current negotiators would consult maps of around Iran instead of maps of Iran, they might recognize that their time would be better spent thinking about the implications of an Iranian nuclear program than in hoping a country with hostile forces on both sides can be dissuaded from developing some sort of meaningful military deterrent to invasion.

Unfortunately, our thinking about Iran typically stops at Iran’s borders. Through a happy accident in English-language alphabetization, some hardworking government officials do consider Iran and Iraq in the same day, but Afghanistan, though equally close physically, is banished by a conspiracy between cartographers and the alphabet to a separate compartment in our consciousness.

I’ve considered suing cartographers at large for malpractice on behalf of the United States—I’m not in it for the money, mind you (although I do plan to retire off my .5% share of the multibillion dollar settlement I anticipate). I just think that someone ought to pay for what has been lost to the epidemic of myopia that has us seeing one country at a time and missing what goes on just across borders.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

November Commies

The Commie Committee talked awards today over a breakfast of waffle-scent. (It's been a tight month, budget-wise, as party members have been defecting to the Democrats. Note to Republicans: stop mixing people up with your accusations! We are the real deal, not some smooth-tongued President!)

We've invited a very special presenter this month:

Mother Teresa is, as a proponent of unearned healthcare, apparently a communist by association. She is not, to our knowledge, a fan of this blog, as she is far too busy doing good in the postmortal realm(s), but has agreed to come and visit us anyway, thinking that the nominees were ultra-needy rejects from society (we will leave it up to our readers to decide whether her assumption is correct or not).

The October nominees are:

Rachel for wanting me to do her hair
Grandpa Zorro on hybrid leftovers (and other hybrids)
Auntie S. on the good and bad twins of November 26
Kathy Cowley for her October Commie acceptance speech
a.k.a. Olivia for her comment on "An Open Letter to the Master of the Universe"
with a special joint nomination going to the first five responses to "Is Extinction Forever?"

Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu a.k.a. Mother Teresa says, "And the winner is..."

"A.k.a. Olivia!"
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