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.
“Pale horse, pale rider done taken my lover away,” a line from an old spiritual hymn, is the inspiration for the title of Katherine Anne Porter’s novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. I taught this text, a rare narrative of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, to my students last semester because it provides an accessible introduction to stream-of-consciousness writing. More importantly, Porter’s story is autobiographical, as the author herself nearly succumbed to the flu. Through stream-of-consciousness, she shows the effect of a collective trauma on the individual psyche, a dark night of the soul.