I always try to pick just the right moment to tell people. That moment is sometime between realizing that they are one of those who will need to know, and the point when they figure it out on their own. Although I frequently share intimate details of my life, in writing, and with my bank teller, or a new acquaintance, there is one thing that I hold back until the last minute.
“Exile brings you overnight where it would normally take a lifetime to go.”
― Joseph Brodsky
On days when the sun is shining across the oak outside my door, and colors I didn’t know it possessed bloom in the bark’s inscribed lines – gold, green, sage – I like to think about the concept of limits. The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, spent 18 months in a labor camp in subzero temperatures along the Arctic Circle. Some have said of this time that “Brodsky’s exile was the best year of his life…because it gave him time to read and write.” Brodsky agrees, “Even sitting there between those walls, locked up, then being moved from place to place, I was writing poems.” Brodsky’s writing flourished in confinement.
I blame Tom Brokaw. Or someone, anyway, west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. This might qualify Walter Cronkite, too, who was no doubt the most powerful white man of my youth. The news itself, it might be said, was the direct descendent of Puritan plain style, the most complex stories broken down into a few short sentences delivered by stolid white men in serious, accentless tones with direct eye contact. And Midwestern English had a starring role.
I first read Nancy’s work in 2006 when one of her essays, “Nothing Can Separate,” was published in Relief’s inaugural issue. My friend Karen Miedrich-Luo, Relief’s first creative nonfiction editor, recruited me to come on first as reader, and then as nonfiction editor. In 2007, Karen and I formed an online critique group along with Nancy and another Relief essayist, Jill Kandel. Karen, Nancy, Jill, and I now count five published books between the four of us – including Jill’s prizewinning memoir, So Many Africas: Six Years in an African Village. The four of us continue to challenge and encourage one another nearly ten years later via the online group.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Our views on the world are framed for us by myth. This is how it should be. Mythologies imagine the ancestry of humankind and give us frames of reference for origins, values, relationships and more. They’re our points of departure for everything we are. But mythologies in a world of science and certainty are hard to come by or keep. But we need them, so modern myth-makers, from gadget companies to masters of cuisine to politicos to religions, fill in the blanks for us. Their modern mythologies suggest that we are the royals of our own realms. That we can live our ideal. That life can be stable, comfortable and happily unconsidered. And even though our world is a big round ball, the arcing horizon is a safe, convenient limit. So we can exist in circles of norms, majority’s rule, the way we do. How we roll. We may play, learn and work in a consistency of comfort while the rest of the world, the suffering world, is disclosed only at our pleasure. And how we see the difference, say, between Somalia and Sonoma, or Damascus and Notre Dame, or Nepal and Manhattan, is through the soaring windows of our mythological frameworks.