Enjoying some literary downtime on my recent Santa Barbara business trip, I attended a writing workshop and dinner with LeeAnn Howe, at the invitation of our mutual friend Marisela Marquez (my UCSB client and a close buddy from grad school). She led us through a miraculously simple yet powerful series of writing sequences that inspired me immensely, even though I didn't really follow the directions. (Note to teachers: I never really follow directions.) Then a small group of us women had delicious mole enchiladas, chili verde and Tecate's at Del Pueblo Cafe.
We were asked to write about an object of meaning, to explore our own stories through this catalyst. LeeAnn chose the stones in her heirloom ring. Perhaps the ring also has Indian significance, for she's an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and much of her work embraces Indian stories and themes. Part of her fabric as a person, a woman, a writer and scholar. In fact, everyone at the following dinner has an identity she allows to enrich her individual personality -- lesbian, Indian, Japanese-American, Chicana, women of color ...
I guess I could, sort of, although my dry-spell fantasies sure confirmed my mainstream sexual preference and my ethnic ancestry's a few generations back. Three of my four grandparents came from Europe, aged 3 or 5, wide-eyed and perhaps a little seasick, holding tightly to their parents hands in a blurred mishmash of strange languages and faces, stepping through Ellis Island amid confusing paperwork and beleaguered immigration clerks who changed their Polish or Italian tongue-twisters to names easier on the New York ear. My other grandparent was mid-point through an equally unique lineage -- four of her five grandchildren (including me) mark five-generations born in Brooklyn, certainly a whole culture in and of itself. My mother was raised Jewish before converting when she married my father, the Episcopal seminarian; I was the preacher's kid who attended my 2nd cousins' bar mitvahs, the Goyeh who's Cousins Bea and Arthur had concentration camp tatoos. My father, the priest, had gratis memberships to the most exclusive clubs in our Long Island suburb, but they would have banned my mother had they known her heritage.
But I never wear these things. I know for certain that my discipline for diversity and tolerance moves lightingly straight with the fact that my best friend and I weren't allowed to swim together in the country club pool. But, I think my bewildered fury preceded the insult, and, besides, beyond that I'm wary to Identify. With anything.
Mostly, I am wary of Stories, particularly my own. They seem to interfere with, more than illuminate, who I am. Even my strangest personal adventures seem inconsequential backdrops to my ever-sharpening unique qualities. I'm fairly reserved, smart, well-spoken, determinedly naive, a fierce friend, clear to articulate, and a staunch defender that everyone should be able to invent her or his own rules and life. I increasingly believe my stories merely illustrate these things, not shape or define them. And, quite honestly, I can't imagine why anyone, including me, would care about the narrative tragedies and triumphs of my ancestors or my past.
I honor others' stories, but honestly -- running the risk of stepping beyond correctness -- they don't interest me nearly as much as the essence of the story teller. I admired LeeAnn Howe because of her obvious commitment and skill at inviting forth the deepest nuance from her workshop participants, not really 'cause she's one of only half a dozen full professor Indian women in the country, inspiring as that is. I embrace Marisela's Chicana identity marvel at her melodic Spanish. But I love her because she is kind, wise, smart and has one of the deepest hearts I know. And I bet she's been like that far longer than our 24-year friendship. Far longer than her stories, too.
I get that story telling allows us to express our essence in ways that closed ears might hear. But I'm eager for the time when we know each other without the need for such accompaniment.