Learning in the Worst of Times

I’ve been thinking about pinch points lately, those intervals in a story when you realize how difficult the hero’s task is.  They occur (optimally) at the 3/8th and 5/8th point in a story and structurally, they serve a two-fold purpose: to show how vulnerable the hero(ine) is and what will happen if he/she loses.  But structure never interests me as much as character and pinch points teach and clarify these better than anything else. The same thing is true about people. Pinch points are what we learn in the worst of times.
The axiom says failure teaches more than success and the essence of a pinch point is failure.  For example, the first pinch point of LOTR’s The Fellowship of the Ring happens at Weathertop, when Frodo succumbs to temptation and puts on the Ring.  He becomes vulnerable to Sauron’s most powerful agents, the Nazgul, and the resulting injury nearly destroys our hero.  Frodo never fully recovers from the experience but both the reader and he learn from it. Frodo shows a resilience and physical fortitude after the injury that most other beings don’t possess. And his character is strengthened after the failure. Strong as they are, the Nazgul never successfully distract Frodo from his destiny again. None of this is apparent until Frodo fails and his failure at the first Pinch Point strengthens him for the second, when his company loses their leader, Gandalf. Grieved as they are, Frodo and his companions continue with their journey knowing their likelihood of success fell with Gandalf into the abyss.  Their reliance on each other increases and the remaining story turns on both those redoubled and fractured alliances.

Frodo at Weathertop in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring

The fact is people, like books, have pinch points, but ours aren’t conveniently scheduled at the 3/8th and 5/8th points of our lives.  Instead we face instances when we’re overwhelmed by pain and events. That’s how I felt eleven years ago when my father died.

Losing a parent, for many of us, isn’t just overwhelming emotional grief, it’s an existential crisis.  No longer are we junior citizens in some family corporation; in an instant, we become senior members, the next in line to go, and the sole custodian of some childhood memories.  That’s an incredible amount to assimilate all at once and more than most people can handle. Luckily, as Frodo found, catastrophes can be met, especially if we don’t meet them alone.

The Fall of Gandalf – same film

Led by my incredible sister, people who loved my Dad pulled together through the despair that followed his passing.  They listened to us, laughed and cried with us, fed and boarded us, fetched, carried, and above all, showed us we were still loved even if we’d lost the man who’d loved us first. I learned a lot about the strength and love of old friends eleven years ago.

I also learned a lot about my sis and myself in those days. Her strength of will has been apparent since infancy; seldom has a more focused person walked this earth.  But dad’s death taught me more about the nature and limits of my sibling’s strength, that it can become over-stressed, and when she can use my help. I found out I could help her.  In my own way, I dealt with disaster and found I could tolerate pain and help others with theirs. I found out many things I feared were worse in anticipation than reality. Sis and I both learned a lot in that time and that knowledge served us well when Mom’s death followed Dad’s. If their passing turned us irrevocably into grownups, those events also made us into something new: a team.

That’s the nature of learning in the worst of times.  We’re under so much stress, we don’t even know we’re learning, much less learning what really matters.  Only afterwards, will we recognize it as a pinch point.  And we’re better beings for surviving its lessons.

The Evolution of a Name

I like to believe that somewhere out there, someone reads what I write. (To quote one of my favorite plays, In a world where carpenters get resurrections, anything’s possible)  If so, they’ve seen alterations in the name of this place, patiently reading while I tried to find the phrase captures the idea and atmosphere I’m trying to create here.  The search hasn’t been easy.

Initial Title: A good start but not yet there.

I started out with “The Stories that Follow You Home” a phrase I love because I believe some stories do just that.  While trends change and popular poems, books and plays appear and vanish like popular music recordings, some stories put down roots in your soul and imagination. They stick with you, like a good friend, and when you re-read them, you find gifts you didn’t see before. I love those rewarding tales and the people who feel the same way. I love people fascinated by the structure and function, and power of story. But, what are those people called?  Is there a term for a lover of stories?
We all know what lovers of books are called: bibliophiles.  It comes from two old Greek words, biblion (meaning books) and philos meaning loving.  But the stories that follow you home come from more places than books.  Some of my followers came from plays and quite of few came from poems. Some come from oral tradition, news reports or the earth itself. So I searched and searched through lists of “philes” for a one-word term meaning “lover of story”.  And I found exactly nothing.

Better and Worse: I’ve got the Atmosphere right but this isn’t about me, it’s about the people who love STORIES!

This amazes me.  How can there recognized terms for the love of poetry (Metrophilia), plays (Theatrophilia), even myths (Mythophelia), without a name for the underlying element that pulls them altogether?  The idea is ridiculous. Finally, I did what everyone does when proper terms don’t exist: I invented a one that does.
According to Google and Wikipedia, the ancient Greek word for story is Istoria (ἱστορία) and it means “learning through research”, which is exactly what we do when we read.  So, someone who loves the function and power of “Story” would be an Istoriaphile, right?  And since I want this to be a comfortable place where lovers of story are free to relax and talk, I’ve turned it into the coziest spot in my library.  
Now, that’s more like it!

So, here we are, after almost two years, in the Istoriaphile’s corner.  If you’ve been reading awhile, thanks for your patience.  And if you’ve just found it,Welcome Home.

Taking a Walk

It’s no secret that I love stories: reading, writing, or telling them.  Reading stories is easiest for me to do; all I need are the words and my glasses. Once I find the narrator’s voice, we’re off and all I have to look for is when to take a breath. Telling a story is scary and a whole lot of fun, especially if there’s an appreciative audience. When I’m telling stories, the hardest thing for me to know is when to shut up.  (I’ll admit it, I’m a natural-born ham.)  Writing stories is a different cat altogether; in fact, writing is a cat with claws. As soon as my fingers hit the keys and letters show up on the screen, my inner critic emerges and starts pointing out the obvious flaws. At that point, the tale that was bubbling and aching to get out locks itself behind a gate in my brain. So, what do I do? I’ve learned to take a walk.
Taking a walk is something Stephen King mentioned in his wonderful book, On Writing.  (Seriously, I’ve read a stack-load of books on the craft of putting down prose and this one makes me believe I can do that.  That means it’s either a great book for unlocking the would-be writer or Mr. King is a terrific snake-oil salesman.  Your choice.)  When he’s unable to see the way to move his plot forward, the man takes long walks. Of course, it was during one of these walks that he got hit by a van but, so far, that hasn’t happened to me.  When I walk, two things happen.
First, I get away from the problem.  I know this sounds a little like run-away-Leslie but when the screen is white and the words aren’t coming, away is where I need to be.  Once my mind is focused on something else, the pressure is off.  And when that happens the words come back.  Maybe an idea, a scene,  or just a sentence or two, but enough to move the tale a bit further.  Do that often enough and you can walk your way out of trouble.  Or you’ll start losing weight.  All it takes is getting away from the page.  Well, it takes one other thing.
Hit the Trail!
My sister once told me of an early exercise she saw that helped a small boy with autism. A counselor sat the kid in a swing and tried to interact with him.  No dice. Kid seemed like he had turned to stone sitting there on the seat.  The counselor started pushing the swing so the kid’s form was in motion.  The little boy began to talk, laugh, and react.  It took the motion of the swing to unlock the kid’s communication center.  I think that’s what happens when people walk.  The legs get moving, the arms start swinging, and the frozen communication center cracks open. All you have to do is remember what the unblocked brain released and stay away from the traffic.
Does that mean the secret to great writing is a treadmill desks? Perish the thought.  Creating is just the first part of the task; honing and revising sentences until the paragraphs begin to sing requires long-term focused, not creative thought.  But if you need to write something and it feels like your brain’s  in concrete, don’t panic.  Just grab your walking stick, your sneakers and music and hit the trail.  It’s amazing what you’ll see during a walk.

The Harbingers of Change

When the stores said fall was upon us, I didn’t believe them.  Stores put out their “Back-to-School” signage before the summer is half way through.  On the other hand, the calendar’s decree of fall’s arrival comes far too late.  By that time, classes are well-started and my old school has won at least three football games.  No, you can’t predict the seasons by anything man-made.  The long, slow slide away from summer started about 3 weeks ago, according to my early warning portents.  I know when the year starts to turn by the leaves, the nuts and the spiders.
A 2 day haul of acorns and pecans.
Anyone want to pick up the rest?
Some people say they see the signs of fall.  Me, I hear about it first from the trees.  When the leaves are still green and the thermometer hovers above 90, trees signal the change of season with a series of small bombing raids generally known as the falling of nuts.  Phooey.  These nuts don’t fall.  From the sound of them hitting our roof, they are hurled and God help what they hit when they land.  The impacts and ricochets sound like gunfire and the noise initially scares the hell out of me and the cats. Now, we are so inured to the occasional bangs and rattles that I doubt we’ll even notice when they cease. At least then, I’ll be able to rake the leaves without fear of a concussion.

The trees begin their annual strip routine about two weeks after the nuts start falling.  The whole business takes about three months so these are early days.  But in the meantime, I sweep the leaves off the deck in the morning…

…and sweep more of them away at noon.
I keep telling myself that sweeping is good, low-impact, exercise and this is just the first of the season.  So I re-clear the deck and rearrange the modular seats for good measure.  (If reincarnation exists, I’m probably the idiot who shifted Titanic’s deckchairs around while the liner foundered.) Sweeping leaves at this stage is no more useful than reshuffling the chairs but it gets me outside. And there are guests waiting to meet me.
Thanks to E. B. White and Charlotte’s Web, I know something of the life-cycle of spiders.  Late summer/fall is their time to start new lives before their own are complete.  So dense webs and egg sacs are starting to appear in all of our corners and eaves.  Now, my husband deals with cat-hunting dogs, varmints, and rattlesnakes without ever turning a hair, but when it comes to spiders, I’m in charge. Arachnids trigger an atavistic terror in him that no therapy can assuage.  So I capture and remove the disoriented spiders that bungle their way inside and I clear away their errant webs.  This time of year, they keep me busy.  Sometimes I want to apologize for knocking down these complex, silken edifices.  An exhausted, furious arthropod probably crouches in some a corner and curses my name while I tear down all of her hard work.  If someone demolished the nursery I’d just built for 3,000 soon-to-arrive babies, I’d be boiling mad.  I wish I could tell her my intent wasn’t malevolent.  She just constructed in the pathway to our house and I hold the right of eminent domain.
We’re still a long way from the technicolor of fall and the parade of plaids that lead to Thanksgiving.  But it’s definitely on the way.  The Heralds of Autumn have spoken.