The Wind is Just Wind

The following is an excerpt from Educated by Tara Westover, one of my favorite books from 2019. This passage made me consider the source of fear and if fear serves me.

Finally, the staircase opened onto the roof, which was heavily slanted, an inverted V enclosed by stone parapets. The wind was gusting, rolling clouds across the sky; the view was spectacular, the city miniaturized, utterly dwarfed by the chapel. I forgot myself and climbed the slope, then walked along the ridge, letting the wind take me as I stared out at the expanse of crooked streets and stone courtyards.

 “You’re not afraid of falling,” a voice said. I turned. It was Dr. Kerry. He had followed me, but he seemed unsteady on his feet, nearly pitching with every rush of wind.

 “We can go down,” I said. I ran down the ridge to the flat walkway near the buttress. Again Dr. Kerry followed but his steps were strange. Rather than walk facing forward, he rotated his body and moved sideways, like a crab. The wind continued its attack. I offered him an arm for the last few steps, so unsteady did he seem, and he took it.

 “I meant it as an observation,” he said when we’d made it down. “Here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured toward the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall?”

 He was right. A few were venturing onto the ridge but they did so cautiously, taking the same ungainly side steps Dr. Kerry had, tipping and swaying in the wind; everyone else was holding tightly to the stone parapet, knees bent, backs arched, as if unsure whether to walk or crawl.

 “I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally.

 “So your legs are stronger? Is that why you can stand in this wind?”

 I had to think before I could answer. “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said. “The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.”

 He stared at me blankly. He hadn’t understood.

 “I’m just standing,” I said. “You are all trying to compensate, to get your bodies lower because the height scares you. But the crouching and the sidestepping are not natural. You’ve made yourselves vulnerable. If you could just control your panic, this wind would be nothing.”

 “The way it is nothing to you,” he said.

Two lines in this passage stand out for me – “The wind is just wind,” and  “There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.” When I read this a year ago, I stopped to read it over a few times. These words caused me to consider the ways in which I work myself up or let fear and doubt creep in, over things that are either not in my control or smaller than I have let them appear in my mind. I consider a situation to be a stumbling block, when if I would look at it for what it is I would see it as more of distraction than any real obstacle.

It is easy to get so caught up in the swirl of perceived problems that I can miss the solution. There is usually a way through, but first I need to settle myself. Sometimes the wind is just wind.

My Guest Post for Hidden Timber Books

This must be the season for guest posts for me! Last week, I wrote a post for Christi Craig, Publisher at Hidden Timber Books. My relationship with Hidden Timber Books goes back a few years, they published one of my essays and they are very supportive of writers, those they have published and many others. The essay talks about why writing is important to me and can be found here.

Recently, I have been so busy with work and other obligations that it would be easy to let my writing take a back seat to other demands. But I realized that writing is essential for my wellbeing and creativity, so even if I only have a half hour, I make time to write. I hope you are also doing something to nourish your spirit during these times.

 

Ramona

Staying at Home: My Tips for Coping during COVID-19

I have a checklist that I’m trying to adhere to in this time of uncertainty, maybe some of my tips will help you.

My COVID-19 staying at home checklist:

  • In the morning – wake up, give thanks
  • Spend a little time being quiet – devotions, reading, prayer
  • Move a little – I can stretch, do Pilates, even lift weights at home. I don’t need a gym to move.
  • Check on family and friends, reach out – a note, text, calls later in the day
  • Work – I’m most effective in the morning so I tackle the more challenging tasks first.
  • Check reliable media to see if there is a useful update on the virus. I need to be informed, but not overwhelmed.
  • Write or do research for my writing
  • Relax
  • In the evening – Wind down, perhaps read, get several hours of sleep so I can do it again the next day

During the day, I try to eat simple, healthy meals (soups are filling and making them is relaxing for me) and drink plenty of water. I also am intentional about stopping during the day to check in on how I’m feeling—restless, tired, energetic, stressed, calm, grateful, etc. I realized getting a good night’s sleep was essential to being ready to go in the morning, and sleep is also important for a strong immune system and overall health. I hope to incorporate more time outdoors now that the weather is getting warmer, even if it means climbing the small hill in the backyard.

Stay safe, take care of your health. What are you doing to stay healthy in these stressful times?

I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

My essay, I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You, appeared on the Brevity blog a few days ago and I wanted to share it with you. If you love creative nonfiction like I do, this blog, which has more than 46,000 readers, is one you should take a look at.

 

By Ramona M. Payne

My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with […]

via I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Ubuntu

Ubuntu means our common humanity

Last year, while reading an international magazine called flow, I came across a word that made me sit up and pay attention. The word is Ubuntu, a Zulu and Xhosa word that means our common humanity.

Intrigued, I decided to learn more about the African philosophy of Ubuntu, reading books and articles, including The Lessons of Ubuntu by Mark Mathabane, who also wrote the memoir Kaffir Boy. Ubuntu encompasses ideas such as respect, caring about each other, empathy, spirituality, and that we are inextricably connected to each other, even when we do not recognize it. It means that I am a person because of other people, or as they say in South Africa, “I am, because of you.”

It is a balancing act—recognizing that individuals have unique gifts to offer the group or humanity, while believing no one individual is more important than the group. This kind of balance requires careful thought, especially in a culture that celebrates individual accomplishment.

At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, President Barack Obama spoke of Ubuntu as Mandela’s gift, “his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye, that there is a oneness to humanity that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us…”

During 2019, I sought to learn more about what Ubuntu is, and began to see the world and its troubles in a new and more hopeful way. In 2020, I hope to go more deeply into both an understanding and practice of Ubuntu, trying to see the ways we are linked despite the differences that keep us apart.

 

 

Remembering Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison novels

 

I first read Toni Morrison in my twenties; it was the novel Tar Baby. Three decades later, I find her to be the most compelling writer in my lifetime. In her writing she chronicles and lays bare the experience of black people in this country in a way that is both affirming and gut wrenching in its truth. When I heard the news she had passed on I felt compelled to try to explain what her work has meant to me, but it is nearly impossible to do.

Maybe the best way is with a story, one related to her book Beloved. I had read Beloved before, but it was only after rereading it a couple of years ago that I truly immersed myself in the history and legacy of the story. In the book, Sethe makes the lifechanging decision to escape the cruelty of slavery in Kentucky and cross the Ohio River with one toddler child, and another on the way. When the slave catchers come after her, she attempts to kill her children rather than have them be enslaved again. It is hard to imagine making that choice as a mother, but then again, only one who had known how horrific life would be if she returned, for all of them, could understand the choice she made. Sethe kills one child before she is stopped and captured.

The story of Beloved was based, or maybe inspired is a better word, by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky, got to Cincinnati,(my hometown) and like Sethe in the novel Beloved, killed her child rather than have it taken away. Margaret Garner was captured as she killed the child, and was later tried. In another insult to her humanity, and the humanity of her children, she was not tried for murder. She was tried for destruction of property, because the child was not considered anything more than the property belonging to another human being, the slaveowner.

In Beloved, Ms. Morrison accomplished a major feat—addressing the devastating and ongoing impact of slavery on the minds, spirits, and bodies of black people, as well as the daily cruelties and suffering they endured. It is not easy to read, but I felt as if she had explained my story and the story of my ancestors in this novel. She wrote in her foreword, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”

I read Beloved and I realized the river I grew up looking at from the bluffs of Eden Park had helped Margaret Garner pass over, and streets I knew in downtown Cincinnati had sheltered her and many others seeking freedom. Other forms of oppression awaited them, even in the north, but they sought relief from physical slavery and a chance to start new lives.

The Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned the opera Margaret Garner, and I was involved in a community engagement project to expand the audience for this opera. Margaret Garner was performed in 2005, each night sold out, and it was the most diverse audience in the history of Cincinnati Opera. There was a private reception before its opening and I was among the guests. I looked towards the door, and in walked Ms. Morrison. She was regal, her gray locks flowing, eyes scanning the room. There were so many people in the room, all eager to meet her, have their time with her. But in one moment, she saw me looking at her, and I smiled, and whispered “Hi”, trying to communicate I see you and I’m glad to see you, but I know everyone in this room wants to have your time, and I don’t want to be another person pulling at you. She smiled back, I nodded, and I left soon after. I had seen Toni Morrison, her books had already touched me, and there was no other reason for me to stay.

Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel in Literature in 1993. Our country’s greatest writer has passed on. She has been an inspiration to me because her prose was so powerful and evocative and gave attention to stories about people that had remained unknown, ignored or unexamined by many. I am grateful for the richness of her legacy and the magnificence of her writing.

***

One other note: I have heard many adults say that Morrison’s work is difficult. I believe it requires careful reading, but the topics and her unflinching look at our culture are very likely what people find difficult. However, she wrote a children’s book, The Big Box, with her son Slade Morrison, which I gave out as a graduation gift for years while it was still in print. I will make sure that my granddaughters do not wait until they are 20 to pick up their first Morrison book; I am so glad to have a copy of that book in my collection.

The Big Box by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison

 

 

I am Exceptional, Except When I am Not

When I was young and someone was nasty to another person, or displayed meanness of spirit when they knew the victim could not fight back, if I could not get directly involved, I used to wish for a hidden power that would let me take retribution in my own hands. I quietly thought it would be fair that if a person was unkind, disrespectful, racist, or violent, they should experience a sudden jolt of discomfort—perhaps churning stomach cramps that caused them to double over. For extreme cases, Continue reading

Thoughts on Father’s Day and Fathers

Father’s Day has always been special for me; I have such a good father, and the day also comes so close to my birthday that my birthday and being a daughter have always felt linked. Today we celebrate the fathers, godfathers, other family and friends who have raised us and in many cases, helped to raise our children. We also remember the fathers who have passed on, and those who miss them.

Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, wrote about her father in a way I could relate to. In this book Kushner, who grew up reading in Hebrew, explores how differences in translation, language, and culture affect the understanding of the Bible. It is also a fascinating story about her  family and I highly recommend you read it. Here are her words from this memoir:

My father taught me what he has always taught me: how to ignore the disapproval of the world, no matter how loud it is. He taught me how to listen to myself, and how to hear that same thing in other people and places: the quiet beating of the individual heart.

I hope each one of us would have such a person in their life.

 

Practice Makes Progress

 

I’ve been taking a drawing class at the museum for several weeks. On the first day, our instructor asked us to draw a self-portrait. I started with the obvious—trying to capture the shape of my head, the size and slant of my eyes, the fullness of my lips, adding in cheekbones and topping the image off with hair, or enough swirls and poufs to make it look like hair.

The finished drawing looked nothing like me. Maybe there were a few aspects that resembled what I had seen in the mirror, but my drawing could have just as easily been a picture of someone else.

The takeaway for the day was to learn how to look and then sketch what I saw, rather than what I thought should be there. Next, I had to copy and draw a photo that was placed upside down, which forced me to look at lines, edges, and shapes to complete the picture. Instead of thinking, well, this is the arm, I know what an arm looks like, so I’ll draw an arm, I drew from sight, not expectation.

Guess what happened? My upside-down drawing was far more accurate than I thought it would be, because I made myself focus on what I noticed as I went along, rather than what I know.

Learning how to draw has been rewarding because the initial progress has been swift, hastened by learning some basic rules. My pictures look considerably more accurate than they would have weeks ago. There are basic principles and with practice I am learning how to employ them, observing shapes and shadows, how to measure and adjusting on the page.

I see parallels between my writing and my new drawing practice. When I write an essay, I often start out with an idea, not fully formed, just a sense of what I want to write about. As I keep going, noticing small details, or where my interest picks up, I make decisions about incorporating them into the work.

My drawing instructor recently said, “You have to bound your composition, you cannot fill everything in.” I decide which elements serve the final drawing, much as choosing the right words serves an essay or story. Drawing has taught me to look more closely at the world around me, and reinforces the truth that practice is essential to improvement. My goal is not to hang my work in a gallery or museum, although I share each week’s work as eagerly as a first-grader, excited that my hands and mind have tried to work in concert to create something. Like my writing, the process is as importance as the outcome, and the process and the practice are the two components I can control. The more I draw, the more I want to write, because they complement each other.

Writing will always come before drawing for me, but I’ll keep up with my sketches, if only because they are fun to make and use a different part of my brain. Practice does not have to make perfect, making progress is reason enough to keep on.