A study in futility?

I’m reading Purgatory Ridge, the third novel in William Kent Krueger’s series of stories set in the “Iron Lake” region of Minnesota and featuring former sheriff Cork O’Connor, who is part Irish but has some of the blood of the Anishinaabe tribe. O’Connor’s attitude toward history jumped out at me.

“History, in Cork’s opinion, was a useless discipline, an assemblage of accounts and memories, often flawed, that in the end did the world no service. Math and science could be applied in concrete ways. Literature, if it didn’t enlighten, at least entertained. But history? History was simply a study in futility. Because people never learned. Century after century, they committed the same atrocities against one another or against the earth, and the only thing that changed was the magnitude of the slaughter.”

Wow. To a certain extent he nails it there, although I don’t know if it’s fair that people never learn. It feels like folks have finally begun to realize the extent to which bullies have dominated public life through the years — or are the same tricks working year after year and it’s only the folks who pay attention who understand the game?

Mikhail Gorbachev has died, they say, and I remember a time when he was hailed as a potential hero for his perestroika reforms that opened the Soviet economy and eventually ended the murderous communist disaster that Lenin and Stalin and their successors wrought. For a while it looked like some history had been learned and some real change had occurred, but the ruling class has fallen back into the same patterns of pitting us against Russia and beating our plowshares into swords.

Will our rulers still be goading us into hating each other in 1,000 years? Or will the communications revolution, which has put us all in touch with our brothers and sisters around the world, finally show us how much we have in common, and we won’t get fooled again?

I’m going to bet on the optimistic spin and go to bed tonight believing in 1,000 years we won’t be studying war no more.

The writers room

He took off his shirt, revealing tattoos scattered across his back in a not-artistic fashion, walked into the water up to his waist, and plunged in. Across the way houses nestled on the side of a hill. Docks and rip rap lined the shore. A pontoon boat waited, moored, ready to be pressed into service on some other sunny day.

His head bobbed as he swam slowly across the river, which was about 200 yards wide at this point. He climbed onto a dock, strode across a deck, slid open a patio door, and stepped inside. A moment later a scream, short and loud, ended as suddenly as it began.

Oh crap, it’s too gentle a day to maintain a horror story. What do I do now?

“The characters in a book live day by day and nothing happens,” said the woman at the table. “There’s no story. They’re bored, there’s nothing to do here, until one day they realize they’re happy having no stories to endure.”

One of the men across from her looked up. “That’s it?”

“Hey,” she said. “Seinfeld did a show about nothing and milked the concept for nine years. Why not do a show with no story?”

“Excuse me,” said the little man taking notes at the corner of the table.

“You have to have a story!” insisted the man across from the woman.

“Says who? Stories are overrated,” said the woman across from the man.

“Excuse me,” the little man tried again.

“Stories are the building block of all we do! You have to have a story!”

“Take your stories and shove —“

“EXCUSE ME!” The little voice was so powerful it hushed the room. Everyone looked at the man with the notepad. “Thank you.”

He gathered himself up and assumed his most dignified pose, which, to his credit, had more than a splash of dignity.

“Now then,” said the little man, “Who screamed?”

Magic in no time

I woke up and sat down to write. I heard the sounds of the house springing to life. I didn’t think I had much time, so I set my mind to write something special in an intensely short time.

Five minutes later, I looked at what I’d written and thought, “Whoa.” Now I believed all those songwriters and other creators who confess that they banged out their most memorable work in an insanely short period of time.

You don’t need a lot of time, just a determination to create something before you tackle the day. If the will is strong enough, if the desire is deep enough, you will create.

To everything there is a season

Why can’t you have it all?

Why can’t you have all of your dreams?

Why can’t you “be all that you can be”? The military thinks so, if you believe the slogan, so why can’t you embrace all of the possibilities in the name of peace?

I can make newspapers and books and music albums, and I have over the years. It’s a long life and there is time enough. It’s a big world and there is room enough.

Dividers like to pump up the stress and resentment and declare impossibilities, but they have their own reasons for doing so.

What if the purpose is to live life to its fullest, all of us? Where’s the stress in that? What’s to resent?

If there is a season for everything and a time for every purpose under heaven, then it’s time for something right now. Let it be your thing.

Occupy your life

(“One of these days” I’m going to begin a systematic catalog of all the stuff I have written, so that I don’t forget pretty good stuff that I wrote, and so I can find it when — when I need it? When I want to remember what I’ve written? When I’m compiling a new book? All of the above. I found this again this week, from November 2011, and wished I’d remembered it when I was putting Refuse to be Afraid: Tenth Anniversary Edition or Echoes of Freedom Past together. But I’m glad I rediscovered it now, because it is as relevant as ever.) 

I am not one of the 99 percent – and neither are you.

I am not one of the 1 percent – and neither are you.

The masses are an invention. There are no “masses.”

We are each created equal – but we are not created the same. Neither are we created as a mass. The act of creation did not produce dozens of you; it created only you (or in very rare cases, it created you and your twin, or your fellow triplets, etc. – but even then, it did not create you exactly and precisely alike).

What does this mean?

It means that no generalization can be made about any single individual. You may make the observation that most people who believe X also believe Y, but you cannot conclude that just because a person believes X that it follows he believes Y. You may collect information that most people with dark skin believe A, but you cannot conclude that the dark-skinned person you have just met believes A.

We are not part of a mass. We are individuals. We are not factory-made components. We are snowflakes, in the original sense — no two alike.

We are connected, but we are not machines – nor is any one of us merely a cog in a machine.

It is easier to deny this and turn responsibility for our lives and decisions over to a collective unit or a corporate entity, but to do so is to let our lives become less than they can be.

It is easier for me to deny your individuality and to make assumptions about you based on what group I have lumped you into, but that is a way to avoid the work of getting to know you and understand you as the unique being we both know you are.

Each of us is a singular work of art, singular in the sense of being one of a kind. Each of us has within us the potential to make art, a special art that no one else can achieve quite the same way or with quite the same perspective.

This, by the way, is why war is such a waste: Because thousands of artists and artwork are destroyed.

A Song to Sing

I gave my newest book the title Echoes of Freedom Past. It’s a book about reopening, reclaiming and restoring liberty in a post-lockdown world.

As the second-guessing that every writer experiences trickles along, I wonder if I should have named it A Song to Sing, after one of the blog posts that linchpins its theme.

The title I selected, after all, suggests that freedom is something that used to exist and needs to be brought back to life or, as the subtitle says, reclaimed and restored. And yes, it is so that the people of this world, and especially the U.S. of A., used to have more freedom than they do now.

But ultimately it is an optimistic book, because from the beginning it asserts what the Founders declared all those years ago: We are born free. Freedom cannot be granted by a master, or a government, or any other than our Creator. The only thing would-be masters and governments can do with freedom is take it away.

So yes, my short little book makes a case that our freedoms have been eroded, seldom more so than during the fear fest ongoing since the spring of 2020, but in the end it is about taking back our lives, emerging from dystopia, and generally work past the fear and reclaim what has always been there all along: our freedom to live the best life we can make.

It’s the most important book I’ve compiled since Refuse to be Afraid. And so I offer this little nudge to encourage you to invest a few of your dollars and an hour or so of your time. The book is still available digitally only at Amazon — I must get busy on that, mustn’t I? — or wherever paper-bound books can be found, for example here.

The joy of running off-leash

Summer and I have begun taking walks through our land of late. For now I have to keep her leashed, but I try to let her lead the way for the most part. 

We may wander near our wildflowers, up and down the septic mound, or as we did Wednesday morning, through the woods. Summer was most intrigued by an old plastic Adirondack-style chair, which we used to sit in, but is now well on its way to being more or less reclaimed by Ma Nature.

Dean Wesley Smith wrote the other day about walking through a mall and seeing a couple of toddlers delighting in the exploration of it all, with their mothers watching carefully but smiling at their kids’ fun. One ran over and lovingly petted a stone elephant. Smith used it as a metaphor for the creative process.

The kids are the creative voice, having fun running this way and that and finding new ways to love life in every corner, and the moms are the critical voice, keeping a watchful eye out that the kids don’t get in trouble but, for today, letting them run and play.

“So next time you sit down at your writing computer, just let the creative voice run and play and pet the stone elephants. You might be surprised at how much fun you have writing and how good what you write turns out to be (if you leave it alone.)”

Perhaps Summer is her own metaphor for the creative process. 

As she and I amble through the woods, Summer sometimes wants to run like the wind and I have to hold the leash with both hands. Sometimes she stops to sniff an old tree or nibble on some grass a little too long, and I give her a little tug. She may willingly yield and come along with me, or she may stand her ground and keep sniffling.

I look forward to the day when, like her beloved predecessor, I can just step outside with Summer and she will run and play and sniff and chase off-leash, because I can trust her to come back to me when I call her. 

There is a feeling here that the day I let my creative juices off the leash is when the real magic will start happening. But, to extend the metaphor, before you can fly and be free you must first learn how to fly. Summer must learn how to stay in the yard before she can be free to run around the yard. 

They say the great improvisational musicians know their instruments and the music so well that they can soar off the written page and create something new and inventive on the spur of a moment. If I want to write something that perhaps breaks the rules and takes the reader to a whole new place, I first need to know what the rules are and master working within those rules.

Those kids and Summer (the creative voice) will someday run and play without Mom or the leash (the critical voice) needing to hold them back. And what a day that will be.