Wednesday, December 26, 2018
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 23: Kate Boyes
Weaving a Parachute
by Kate Boyes
“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.”-- William Stafford
I started almost every day of 2018 by reading articles on the Salon, Vox, ProPublica, Robert Reich, and Politico websites, a morning ritual I began quite a few years ago. I did this before sipping my first cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot). Before starting a fire in the wood stove. Before washing up, making the bed, or jotting down ideas for my writing project du jour. Staying informed about political, social, racial, and environmental issues to keep my activism effective was not onerous in the early years of my morning news scan. Since the U.S. 2016 elections, however, the continuing weaponization of issues and the ever-accelerating pace in which they are used by those in power to inflict damage have made my ritual a painful act of desperation.
Until this year. I realized one day, early on, that I had begun to feel a perverse pleasure in the ritual. This is due, I believe, to my new survival strategy: I imagine the current state of affairs as an absurd version of Macbeth (one that is, unfortunately, far too long and has no intermission). In this version, the people causing harm through the misuse of their wealth and power—including a crudely drawn and seriously off-kilter cartoon leader—are huddled on top of the hill that is their last stronghold, bellowing out that they “will not be afraid of death or bane till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane!” I enjoy reading about all the trees, big and small, that are inching their way up that steep slope, coming closer and closer….
Some days, before I could read articles, I was stopped cold by headlines that struck too close, too hard, and broke my heart. The day Ursula K. Le Guin died. The day Kate Wilhelm died. The day Harlan Ellison died (for all his, well, Harlan Ellison-ness, he encouraged my fave writer, Octavia E. Butler, in her career, and I am forever grateful to him for that).
So much is broken. So much that is broken cannot be fixed. But perhaps, as Stafford suggests, it can be used. I don’t keep lists of what I’ve read, watched, or listened to, but Hoopla, Netflix, and Apple do (that’s a bit spooky). Looking over those lists, it’s clear that a significant amount of my reading, viewing, and listening this year focused on going back to what brought me pleasure in the past so I could fashion something whole, something life-saving, to make it through this difficult period.
To honor the writers we’ve lost, I read again: The Lathe of Heaven, "The Wild Girls," and "Late in the Day" by Ursula; Storyteller by Kate; and" I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" (a phrase that describes many years of my life) by Harlan. I re-read Octavia E. Butler’s Blood Child and Unexpected Stories, and Karen Joy Fowler’s "The Science of Herself" and "What I Didn’t See" (the story that gave the collection its title still gives me nightmares). I went back through Sisters of the Revolution, taking comfort from stories in which destruction and loss provide the building blocks to create something positive. Then I moved on to books new to me: Elysium (Wow!) by Jennifer Marie Brissett, and Will Do Magic for Small Change (which made my head explode time after time in the best way possible) by Andrea Hairston. Reading these books, both old and new, was pure pleasure.
There were many other books on my list—about minimalism, sustainable buildings and landscapes, life in the Victorian era, etc.—including an inordinate number of cookbooks (cookbooks are my romance novels; two I particularly enjoyed were Macarons, by Cecile Cannone, and The Artful Baker, by Cenk Sonmezsoy). I mention these because I realized I’ve been drawn more to books with pictures over the past few years. Perhaps after spending hours reading and writing about difficult issues, images give me a chance to take a breath. Or perhaps having pictures in books reminds me of my childhood, and that is another method I’m using to return to the past to gather strength to meet the future. I’m not sure, but I share the observation on the off chance that I’m not the only one experiencing this change.
In terms of viewing, this was the year of A Quiet Place, one of the best films I’ve seen, in any genre, for a long time, and one in which loss holds the key to survival. The year of A Wrinkle in Time: I came for the story, of course, but stayed for the special FX. The year of Black Panther: Warrior women—need I say more?
I was surprised by how much zoning out I did on Netflix, watching shows I would categorize as guilty pleasures (Note: if you download your entire Netflix viewing history for the year and show it to someone, they will never look at you in the same way again; resist the impulse; trust me on this). Battlestar Galactica, for example. Yes, I watched the entire series for the umpteenth time (thanks, Starbuck, I needed that). But there were films that spoke to me on a deeper level, too. The Girl with All the Gifts (I came late to this party) had an interaction I would like to share with those misusers of wealth and power huddled on their hill: When a “normal” human bemoans the loss of the world, the girl responds (and I paraphrase) “the world will go on—just not your world.” Eye in the Sky (with Alan Rickman’s last on-screen performance) exposes the absurdity of our many undeclared wars around the world: Even if we stay above the fray—watching our drones while sitting in front of computer screens in clean and tidy digital combat centers—our destructive foreign policies will still dirty our hands.
Speaking of guilty pleasures, I’ve been listening to “Exoplanetary,” a free scifi audio series. It’s a treat I save for those times when my eyes are so tired they can’t focus on whatever I’m trying to read or write. Turns out (according to this series) families will still be dysfunctional several centuries in the future. “Exo” reminds me of those times when, as a child, I joined my family in the living room to listen to radio shows—and I hasten to add that I’m not talking about pre-television days: TV was available, but it was forbidden in our house for religious reasons (radio = good/TV = bad; yeah, that never made sense to me, either). There was a special warmth during those gatherings with members of my family, many of whom are lost or broken now. More strands to weave into my parachute.
I’ve spent much of the past two years in a state of freefall, flailing about, grasping . . . nothing. This was the year my plummet slowed a bumpy but manageable glide. I don’t know if I’ll make it to solid ground safely. Many of us won’t: those who, due to draconian policies, die in foreign or domestic “wars,” who starve to death in a land of plenty, who freeze in their homes or on the streets, who are forced to suffer needless pain for lack of medical care. I hope you make it down okay. If you see me gliding by, book in hand, please wave.
Kate Boyes’ debut novel, Trapped in the R.A.W., will be published by Aqueduct Press in 2019. She is the author of a biography of Paul McCartney, and her nature essays have been published in many anthologies, including two volumes of the American Nature Writing series. Kate lives on the Oregon coast and falls asleep every night to the sound of the surf.