Monday, July 31, 2006

Womenpriests!

Gary, my eagle-eyed husband, regularly sends me articles of interest. Here's a real gem. According to this Salon article, twelve Roman Catholic women will be ordained deacon or priest today in a forbidden ceremony in Pittsburgh. I know Salon's a subscription service that many of you probably can't access, so here's the story as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And here's the very informative and heartening homepage of the Womenpriests movement.

In case you hadn't guessed, I'm all for this. Joanna Russ says in one of her books that liberals work to end other people's oppression, while radicals work to end their own. I've never bought a "Jesus is a Liberal" bumper sticker because for me, that doesn't go far enough: Jesus is a radical who worked to end the suffering of all the crucified, and who endured crucifixion himself in solidarity with that suffering, and who calls us to follow him in ending such suffering today. (Yes, this is unorthodox theology. So sue me.)

Jesus is a radical. And the women being ordained today are also radicals.

(The bumper stickers I do own, by the way, say "Christian, Not Closed-Minded" and "Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People.")

It's ironic that these forbidden RC ordinations are taking place in Pittsburgh, home of the infamously reactionary American Anglican Council, which staunchly opposes the ordination of gays and lesbians, and isn't too thrilled with the new Presiding-Bishop-Elect, either.

And in a happy synchronicity, tonight I'll be attending the ordination of two friends who've been transitional deacons and are now becoming priests. One's a woman. (And since we're in Nevada, they're being ordained by, you guessed it, the Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, the aforementioned Presiding-Bishop-Elect.) In my part of the world, this is an occasion of great joy, but otherwise utterly unremarkable. Of course women should be priests; look at what a wonderful job they do!

Here's a prayer from the priestly ordination liturgy from the New Zealand Prayer Book (a tremendously rich resource, if you don't know it):

Holy and living God,
you call men and women
to bring us your creative and redeeming Word.
Equip your people
for their work of ministry
and give to these your servants,
now to be ordained,
the gifts of grace they need.
Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Old Man Cactus Revealed


A blog reader in Berkeley recognized the cactus I was talking about and e-mailed me some photographs so I could post them. Thank you so much, Niki! And, just for laughs (not because it's a good poem), here's the poem I wrote in class after seeing the cactus. The poem's a pantoum, a form that uses a lot of repetition, which meant we could all produce one in about ten minutes.

The canyons and caverns of the cactus, its archipelagos,
alien as awe, bearing wounds and creatures, fecund,
thrusting up hilarious hands, hiding spiderwebs,
cracking into fragments.
I could spend a lifetime here, mapping your stubborn strangeness.

You are alien as awe, bearing wounds and creatures, fecund;
May I someday stop someone's breath as you have stopped mine.
I could spend a lifetime here, mapping your stubborn strangeness,
the gangly, ungainly growth that mirrors mine -- but God gave it.

May I someday stop someone's breath as you have stopped mine,
thrusting up hilarious hands, hiding spiderwebs,
cracking into fragments
of gangly, ungainly growth that mirrors mine -- but God gave it,
gave the canyons and caverns of the cactus, its archipelagos.


Miscellany, Mostly Non-Medical

I made it home without incident. I was indeed really tired, but that just made me drive more carefully. The main side-effect of the extra pill was that I had a horrible case of cottonmouth and had to drink water constantly, which also meant that I had to use every fracking rest stop between Berkeley and Reno. On the other hand, at least I knew I wasn't dehydrated.

It's good to be home with Gary and the cats, back in my own bed and surrounded by my own mountains. I had two nice packages waiting for me. The first was my contributor's copies of Rich Horton's Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006, which contains my story "The Fate of Mice." That story is also in Jonathan Strahan's Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005, and it's the title story of my forthcoming collection, a link to which you'll find in the sidebar.

The second package contained my third pair of Keen Newport sandals. I have oddly sized and shaped feet, along with flat feet and bad ankles, and I've always had trouble finding shoes that fit and are comfortable. This past March, Gary and I went to Maui with our friend Katharine, who'd just gotten a pair of Newports for the trip, and when we got home, I bought a blue pair. I liked them so much that I then bought a red pair. Now I own a brand new black pair. (I also have a pair of Keen running shoes.)

Keens fit perfectly out of the box. I've never had a blister from them; they're incredibly comfortable. They're very adjustable and fit a huge range of foot widths (although they do run small, so you have to order half a size up from your normal size). They're waterproof and machine washable, guaranteed for 1,000 washings. And they're funky looking. And I'll be able to wear them in cold weather too, because you can wear them with socks.

I don't advise ordering off a website unless you've already tried on a pair and know you like them, but if you haven't tried them on, you might want to think about it. Everybody's selling them now, so they're readily available.

And, finally, let's hear it for Gregory Boyd, the conservative evangelical pastor who lost a fifth of his congregation by backing away from politics and refusing to support the war. "When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross." I don't agree with all of his positions, but on that one I can say, "A-MEN, brother!"

Note: this is in no way intended as criticism of our troops. It's criticism of the decisions that have put them where they are. Salon just published Anthony Bourdain's gorgeous and heartbreaking piece about being trapped in Beirut, and his comments about the kindness and professionalism of the Marines -- the people who finally got him and his co-workers out of there -- brought tears to my eyes.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Miscellany, Medical and Otherwise

I'm now the proud owner of a t-shirt displaying this icon of J.R.R. Tolkien. I suspect Tolkien himself would have been horrified at the idea of his image being used as an icon, but I like it.

I've seen A. several more times this week; I learned that he has a mailing address, so I'll be able to stay in touch when I'm not here. It's clear that lots of local folk look out for him in various ways, and that's a comfort.

If you enjoyed Grand Rounds, Kim over at Emergiblog, one of my favorite sites, has a similar compilation called Change of Shift devoted to nursing blogs. Again, I haven't had time to read this as thoroughly as I usually do -- although I was pleased to see that she included a post about spirituality -- but one of the posts she chose seems to me to violate HIPAA guidelines, because it contains the blogger's real name and location and quite a bit of specific information about a patient. That blogger doesn't mention having asked for the patient's consent, and none of the folks responding to the post (some of whom are also medical professionals) even alluded to the issue, so maybe I'm over-reacting. But this is the kind of thing that would definitely cost me my volunteer gig if I did it. (I'm still waiting to hear back from our volunteer coordinator about blogging guidelines.)

And on the home medical front, I did something really stupid this morning. Along with most of the rest of the Western world, I'm on antidepressants (better living through chemistry! yay!). I've had chronic depression, fairly low-level, for most of my life, and although I can often handle it with daily exercise and various other disciplines (prayer, service), sometimes it gets bad enough for me to need meds. I took Prozac for four years a bunch of years ago, and although it definitely made me feel better, I couldn't write on it. My wonderful current doctor informs me that suppression of creativity is a known side-effect of the SSRI's, so when my self-care routines stopped working last year and I decided to go back on meds, she put me on nortriptyline, one of the older tricyclic drugs. I'm on a very low dose (25 mg once a day at bedtime), but even so, I get the occasional heart flutter. I can write, though.

So, anyway, I take my nortrip once a day at bedtime. But this morning I reached for my morning stomach pill and took a nortrip instead, and today's the day I have to drive back home. Ooops. Because I'm on a low dose, I wasn't really worried, but I called the Reno Nurse Hotline, who connected me with Washoe County Poison Control, where a very pleasant man said, "You're on a low dose, and there are people who take much higher doses of that stuff around the clock, so you should be okay. Just wait a few hours before you start driving, because if there were going to be a side-effect, it would be fatigue."

So I'm hanging out in my dorm room for a while. I'm indeed tired, but that could also be because I didn't sleep well last night (or maybe because I've only had a few sips of my morning coffee). I'm sure I'm not the only person who's ever done this, but I was still annoyed at myself.

When I do get back home, I'll enter the next phase of my Thrilling Blog Adventure: trying to figure out how to post pictures. I really like the final project I did for my class, so I'll try to put up a photo of it.

First I have to get back across the mountains, though.

Friday, July 28, 2006

God is a Feminist Science Fiction Writer

Walter Brueggemann, in his wonderful book The Prophetic Imagination, observes that "The speech of God is first about an alternative future" (64). This was one of the statements that first got me thinking about the connections between faith and SF/F, and that prompted me, among other things, to moderate a series of panels at WisCon about Faith, Feminism, and Fantasy. There've been two F(3) panels, in 2004 and 2005. This year we switched gears a bit and did one on "Where is the Religious Left?" (answer: right here!), and next year I'm hoping to moderate a panel on "Writing SF/F as Spiritual Discipline," although I don't know yet if it's been accepted. This year at WisCon, someone came up to me at the SignOut and thanked me for "making WisCon safe for Christians," which I may have to put on a t-shirt. (A prodigiously talented but extremely combative UNR student once described me, in a moment of grudging admiration, as "a Christian who kicks ass." I definitely need to put that on a t-shirt.)

This week, rereading the Brueggemann book for my Creativity, Spirituality and Transformation class, I've been especially struck by his statements about hope and compassion:

The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there. Hope . . . is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. . . . The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly forfeited because they are an embarrassment. The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly squelched because they are a threat. (65)

Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. . . . Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. (88-89)

In other words, rickety contrivances of Doing Good aren't trivial. They're subversive. And one way to disarm and dismiss the subversive is to trivialize it.

Brueggemann's comments resonate very strongly with Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs, which had a huge effect on me when I read it in graduate school. Tompkins defines literary modernism as a reaction against the nineteenth-century domestic novel produced by the "damned mob of scribbling women:"

In modernist thinking, literature is by definition a form of discourse that has no designs on the world. It does not attempt to change things, but merely to represent them, and it does so in a specifically literary language whose claim to value lies in its uniqueness. Consequently, works whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history, and which therefore employ a language that is not only not unique but common and accessible to everyone, do not qualify as works of art. Literary texts, such as the sentimental novel, that make continual and obvious appeals to the reader’s emotions and use technical devices that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be. (125)

According to this definition, if a book's accessible and has emotional appeal, it's Not Art. And if a book talks about changing the world, or descibes a world that's not a mimetic representation of everyday life, it's Not Art either. Well, so much for SF and fantasy, not to mention any text with political or potentially didactic content (feminist, Marxist, fill-in-the-blank-ist). This one paragraph helped me understand why nearly all of my high school teachers, many of my college professors, and too many of my professors in graduate school dismissed genre fiction, sometimes even as they were embracing feminism: they'd absorbed modernist biases they didn't even realize they held, because their own teachers had accepted and taught those biases as self-evident truth.

I entered graduate school in 1990, and things have changed quite a bit since; popular culture's now a respectable academic discipline with its own conferences and journals, and previously marginalized texts and autbors have been reclaimed and energetically scrutinized. I received tenure at a state university on the basis of my publication record in SF/F -- fiction, not criticism -- which would have been impossible twenty years ago (although I don't know how many places it would happen even now; I'm acutely aware how lucky I am to be at UNR, for many reasons!). These are all very healthy developments.

And yet I still sense that hope and amazement are undervalued and in short supply, both in the academy and in the larger culture. I'd love to be wrong about that, and if any of you have evidence otherwise, please share it. Of course, from the perspective of many of us, these are very dark days indeed politically: but Brueggemann would argue, I think, that such days are precisely when it's most crucial to offer hope in the form of alternative futures, rather than succumbing to despair.

So here are my questions: What hopes and yearnings have you denied, suppressed, felt embarrassed for holding? How can you make those hopes and yearnings visible, in artwork and other creative activity if not yet in direct political action? How does your own compassion represent a critique of Things as They Are, rather than a purely personal emotional response, and how can you imagine rehaping the world into Things as They Could Be?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Far Countries

Patrick thought I should start a blog to post homilies, so here's an old one. I preached it on June 1, 2003, and it's about both fantasy and Berkeley, where I am this week, so it seems fitting for the blog. Reading it at this distance, I'm a little dissatisfied with it, but that's probably a Good Thing: as I tell my writing students, when your old work makes you itchy, that means you're getting better. But I'm posting it as is because it was well-received at the time.

The Gospel reading, for those of you interested in such things, is John 17:11b-19.

* * *

I read a lot when I was a kid. My favorite stories involved other worlds: Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth. These were places where ordinary people could do wonderful things, where small people could be heroic, and where endings were ultimately happy. People gave you gifts for no good reason; doors opened when you needed them to, and sorrow never lasted forever.

These worlds were often nicer than the one where I actually lived, so I spent as much time in them as I could. I wandered around with my head in books; I walked into things a lot, and sometimes I didn’t hear people when they talked to me. I was in the world, but not quite of it. While my parents worried whether I’d ever acquire social skills, I developed a persistent homesickness for a place I’d never even seen, a beautiful place where magical things happened. Everyone told me that place wasn’t real, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe them. I knew that I had to learn to live in this world, but I never stopped yearning for that other one.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is getting ready to go home, and he prays to God to protect his disciples. “And now I am no longer in the world,” Jesus says, “but they are in the world, and I am coming to you . . . . They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Jesus is going home, rejoining his Father. The rest of us have to stay here for a while, in a place where we’ve been explicitly told that we don’t belong. We’re exiles, resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. We aren’t supposed to get too comfortable.

The mountain of books I read when I was a child did not include the Bible, because my parents weren’t church-goers. I knew plenty of people who loved the same imaginary worlds I did, but only when I was thirty-eight, and began attending St. Stephen’s, did I find fellow travelers who dared to believe that some such unseen places might be real. Only when I came to St. Stephen’s did I meet people who understood the homesickness that had been dogging me since childhood, and believed in the home to which that hunger pointed. Only when I belonged to St. Stephen’s did my feeling of not quite belonging to the world begin to make sense.

What exactly, though, is this world to which Jesus tells us we do belong? There are two possible answers. One is heaven, which lies on the other side of death. The second is the Kingdom of God, the place that, Jesus tells us, lies around and within us. The Kingdom of God is the realm of justice, peace and abundance that the Church -- when it’s working right -- works to create in the here and now. Heaven and the Kingdom of God sound like two different places, but I suspect that they’re really the same. I have a hunch that if you’re living in the Kingdom of God, you don’t need to die to go to heaven. The Kingdom is heaven brought down to earth.

But if this Gospel passage charges us to remember the differences between the church and the world, and between this world and the next, we must also be mindful of what it is not telling us to do. Even though Jesus says that the world hates his disciples, he does not give us permission to hate the world, to try to escape from it, or to feel superior to it. Close attention to his own career -– his life of love, of engagement, and of servanthood –- is our surest defense against these temptations.

Theologian Daniel Migliore calls the incarnation “the compassionate journey of God into the far country of human brokenness and misery” (1). The birth of Jesus means that God chose exile in our far country. Jesus’ death, similarly, reveals love for the world, not contempt. In the familiar words of John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.

Jesus’ life, and death, also explode any notion that Christian faith is escapist. Jesus’ journey into our far country led him directly to the cross. His citizenship in his father’s country didn’t permit him to avoid suffering, and we can’t avoid it, either. Jesus wept at the death of a friend. He experienced loneliness, betrayal and abandonment. He suffered and died. Because those things were not the end of him, we know that they will not be the end of us. But we also know that we must face and accept them, as he did.

Finally, any temptation to superiority must be undone by Jesus’ insistence that “the last shall be first,” that “whoever shall be first among you must be servant of all.” The God who broke bread with outcasts, who washed his friends’ feet before enduring an ignominious death between two criminals, clearly doesn’t define discipleship as social climbing.

But even once we realize that Jesus is telling us to embrace our exile, to love the world where we are, and to serve the people who live there, another problem remains. We know all about our own far country: after all, we were born here. But we only have hearsay reports about Jesus’ country, the one he returned to after the Ascension. Nobody we know has ever reported back from this supposedly wonderful place, right? So how do we know it exists? How do we know that it isn’t as imaginary as Oz, or Narnia, or Middle Earth?

Well, sometimes we get hints of it. Sometimes we’re granted glimpses.

Three years ago, I took a week-long summer course at GTU, the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley. The first day I was there, I went to the bookstore and loaded up a basket. When I took it to the checkout counter, the clerk smiled at me and said, “Do you have the 10% discount coupon that came with your registration packet?”

“Oh,” I said. “No, I don’t. It’s in my dorm room. I can run back and get it -–”

“That’s all right,” she said. “I believe you.”

She gave me the discount. When I got back to my room, I looked at the coupon –- which specified that it was a one-time only offer –- and then threw it away, because I’d used it.

The next day, I decided to buy another book. At the counter, a different clerk asked me, “Do you have a discount coupon?”

“I used it yesterday,” I told her, “so I’ll pay full price for this.”

The clerk looked at the book. She looked at me. She smiled. “This is an expensive book,” she said. “I’m going to give you the 10% discount anyway.”

That was at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week, I packed my two suitcases -– both on wheels, and much heavier than they had been, because of all those books -– and hauled them to my car. I was trying to do everything in one trip, and I had to go along a dark, narrow basement corridor, which slanted up to the door leading to the parking lot. I wouldn’t be able to open the door without letting go of one of the suitcases, which would then roll down to the bottom of the slope. I puffed my way uphill, pondering my predicament and resigning myself to making two trips.

Just as I reached the door, it opened. I squinted into the sudden sunlight and saw a shining figure which resolved itself, after some blinking, into a janitor with a mop and pail. “How did you know I was here?” I asked him.

“I didn’t. I was just coming in to clean the bathrooms.”

“Wow,” I said, “what perfect timing! I’m so glad you came along when you did!”

The janitor looked at my suitcases. He looked at me. He smiled. “Oh,” he said, very matter-of-factly, “things like that happen around here all the time.”

Well, things like that don’t happen all the time in Reno, or anywhere else I’ve lived. GTU was in the world, but not quite of it. I think this is because the place was so densely populated by people who were working towards the Kingdom of God that, for a few square blocks in Berkeley, California, they actually succeeded in creating something like it. They brought heaven down to earth.

Can we do that in Reno? I don’t know, but we can certainly try. Jesus told us how, before he left. He told us to love each other as he had loved us. He told us to lead lives of love, of engagement, and of servanthood. He told us to work for justice and peace and abundance.

And then he went home. He returned to his father from our far country, leaving us to yearn towards his. Both countries are real, and both matter. Living in the country of human brokenness and misery, we are charged with mending it, but we’re also called to remember that we’re the rightful citizens of another country: a country as close as Berkeley, California; a country as close as our own hearts. That country is a place where people give us gifts for no good reason, and where doors always open for us when we need them to. It is the land where sorrow does not last forever, and where God will wipe the tears from our eyes.

Amen.

NOTE:

(1) Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 71.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

When "Scrubs" Isn't Enough

One of the side-effects of volunteering in a hospital is that I've become a pathetic medical groupie (which is why you'll find medical blogs in my sidebars). Every Tuesday, there's a round-up of the best of the medical blogosphere from the previous week, called Grand Rounds. It's hosted at a different site each time; this week, it's over at Medical Humanities.

I haven't had time to read most of this week's posts yet, but they look fascinating, as usual. I'm hoping that I'll be able to blog a bit about my own hospital work, but there are extremely strict privacy/confidentiality standards -- for obvious reasons -- so I'm trying to map out the boundaries of what I'm allowed to say. I think it should be okay if I talk only about broad theological and theoretical issues, with no specific references at all to patients or staff, but I've e-mailed the volunteer coordinator just to make sure.

It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, but it's easier to ask permission than to lose a cherished gig because you crossed a line.

Old Man Cactus

Lee informs me that the cactus I encountered yesterday is a prickly pear cactus. (Thanks, Lee!) The pictures on this site don't do justice to the one I saw, though. This was a cactus cathedral, a cactus catacomb, a concatenation of cactus.

On another note: look! I've finally figured out links! Wheeee!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Aliens Among Us

The comments section of my previous post, "Tiptree in Berkeley," contains a lively conversation about the need to at least make eye contact with homeless people, even if we aren't comfortable giving them money.

Today in my "Art, Spirituality and Transformation" class, we did an exercise where we all walked around the room for a while. Then the teacher asked us to look and smile at each person we passed. Then she asked us to hold the gaze of each person we passed (which meant that many of us wound up circling around each other, grinning, and it became a kind of dance).

We discussed the exercise afterwards, and I realized that -- at least in the urban spaces I've inhabited -- it isn't just the homeless with whom we don't make eye contact. We don't make eye contact with anybody . . . which also means that, on some level, we don't really see them.

The course is very much about encounter and presence, about making ourselves vulnerable to the Other as a way of encountering the divine. I had two interesting experiences with that today. The first was before the class started; I'd gone into the city to have lunch with Jacob and Jill at Tachyon, and we stopped by Borderlands Books, where I met my first Sphynx cat. You know, one of those hairless hypoallergenic ones?

In the pictures, those cats look extremely weird. Trust me: in person, they're 10,000 times weirder. The skin felt like really wrinkled suede, and the legs and tail were unbelievably skinny, and the eyes unbelievably huge, and even though the cat acted like the furry cats I'm used to -- rubbing against my hand, jumping into my lap, purring like a motorboat -- I fully expected her to open her mouth and say in a slightly metallic voice, "I accept your homage, but now I must return to the Mother Ship."

I've patted plenty of cats in my life, but I've never had such an acute feeling of being around an alien creature. (Sphynx owners out there, please don't attack me! I know you adore your cats, and I know I'd adore any cat I owned, even a hairless one.) The shock of the strange, while it was slightly uncomfortable, also meant that I was much more aware of the cat's presence, of the encounter I was having, than I would have been had she had the usual complement of fur.

The second encounter was the result of a class exercise. We were supposed to go outside and find some interesting or intriguing object we'd then write a poem about. I've been hanging around this campus for quite a few years now, so most of the landscaping's pretty familiar, but today I ambled down a staircase and turned a different direction than I usually go, and wandered a few feet along a path . . . and found myself facing the most unbelievable cactus plant I've ever seen. It was one of those ones with the flat, oval leaves with spines coming out, and flowers arranged in a row along the top edge of the oval. A classmate told me the name later, but I've forgotten it, and a Google search isn't helping at the moment. Anyway, this thing was a veritable warren, a maze, of these oval leaves. The plant was much taller than I am, and probably occupied an area at least the size of my kitchen at home, with "arms" stretching hither and yon in seeming chaos. Many of the top leaves -- which may not even be the right word for that part of the cactus (can you tell I'm not a botanist?) -- were flowering, but many of the lower leaves had died, cracked and fallen. Others had visible scars or holes in them that had healed over. Spiderwebs stretched between the lower leaves; a butterfly flitted among the upper ones.

This plant seemed both ancient and sentient, some cross between one of China Mieville's cactus-people and Old Man Willow from LoTR. Or maybe an Ent; I'm not sure the sentience was malevolent, just Other. As with the cat, I expected the cactus to speak. It was an astonishing presence, and I really wish I'd had a digital camera with me so I could post a picture of it (if I could figure out how, that is!).

Both encounters reminded me of all those passages in the Bible where the first thing angels say to mortals is, "Fear not." Angels are evidently SCARY. Being in the presence of the divine makes your knees knock and your hair stand on end. And I wonder if many of us walk around with blinders on partly to avoid that experience. We prefer the familiar because it's safe, and we avoid the new and strange because we might encounter something unsettling and hair-raising, whether that something is a homeless person or a truly Gothic cactus.

But if my teacher's right, that means we're also avoiding God, who comes to us in the unexpected.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tiptree in Berkeley

I'm in Berkeley now, taking a one-week summer course on Spirituality, Creativity and Transformation at the Pacific School of Religion. I'm sure I'll post more on that over the course of the week.

I take a course here just about every summer. Two years ago, I'd sprained my ankle just before I came, and was hobbling around in an aircast. On my way back from lunch one day, I gave fifty cents to a homeless guy, who thanked me very graciously. A few hours later, I was crossing the street, limping, when I heard someone call out, "Be careful!" I looked up, and it was the homeless guy, watching me anxiouxly.

The next day, I was wearing a Tiptree Award t-shirt from WisCon, the feminist SF convention I attend every year in Madison, Wisconsin. (For those of you not in the field, celebrated SF writer James Tiptree, Jr., was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon.) So I was walking down the street in my Tiptree t-shirt, and someone behind me called out, "She killed herself!"

I whirled around, startled. It was the homeless guy. "She committed suicide," he said matter-of-factly. "That lady on your shirt."

"Yes," I said, astonished, "that's exactly what she did." Sheldon had killed her husband and then herself. The received wisdom at the time was that her husband had been very ill and the murder-suicide was a mutual pact to end his suffering, although I gather that the new biography of Tiptree challenges this reading.

It turned out that the homeless guy, whom I'll call A., was a huge SF reader. He told me how he'd written a book report about Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND in sixth grade, and how the other kids had made fun of him because the book was about Martians. We talked about the authors we liked, and learned that Peter Beagle was a mutual favorite. A. told me that he hadn't been able to read any current work for ten years or so, because he depended on the free box at the library for his books.

So, in my rickety-contrivances-of-doing-good way, I decided to buy A. some new books. My ankle was a bit better by then, so I walked down to THE OTHER CHANGE OF HOBBIT on Shattuck Avenue and bought two paperbacks: Connie Willis' FIRE WATCH and Barry Hughart's BRIDGE OF BIRDS. The next day, feeling more than a little self-satisfied, I found him in his usual spot and gave him the books (along with some money).

"That's so nice of you!" he said, beaming. "Come by tomorrow, and I'll give you some books!"

I'd given him two paperbacks. The next day, he gave me three hardcovers. One was a signed first edition of Beagle's TAMSIN, which he'd picked up from the free box at the library. "A," I said, "I can't take this. This is worth money. You could sell it."

"No, no," he said. "It's such a good book, and the way I'm living now, it would just get trashed. You take it."

So I took it, feeling very humbled. I thought about A. a lot over the next year, wondering if I'd see him again. The following summer, I went looking for him my first day in Berkeley. He was on his usual street, but he had bandages over one eye, and he was distraught. He'd been attacked on the street -- "Somebody mugged me for my wallet, and it didn't even have anything in it!" -- and both eyes had been injured. He'd been treated at the county hospital, but it had been months since he could see well enough to read, and he was worried about his vision. He was feeling very low indeed. He had read the Connie Willis collection, though, and enjoyed it, and we talked about her story "Samaritan," which both of us had found particularly moving.

A few days later, I had lunch with Jacob Weisman from Tachyon to discuss the possibility of their publishing my story collection. Jacob had brought a copy of STARLIGHT 1 for me to sign, since it contains my story "G.I. Jesus." Since Jacob publishes Peter Beagle, I told him about A. (Tachyon also publishes an annual Tiptree anthology, although I wasn't aware of that then.)

Leaving the restaurant, we had to pass A.'s usual spot to get back to Jacob's car, and sure enough, A. was there. I introduced them. "This is my friend Jacob," I told A. "He publishes Peter Beagle."

A. peered at Jacob with his good eye. "Hi, nice to meet you. What's that book you have there?"

"It's a book with a story by Susan in it," Jacob said, and handed him STARLIGHT 1.

A. opened the book right to my story. "You write stories? I didn't know that! I'd like to read this sometime, when I can see again."

Jacob explained that he had to get back to the city, and we left. "You didn't tell him you write? Well, I guess the conversation wasn't about you." Which is true; it wasn't. But when I thought about it, I realized that I'd wanted to emphasize what A. and I shared -- our love of the same authors and stories -- and not how we were different, which was already entirely too obvious.

Over the course of that week, I gave A. more money and bought him one of his favorite take-out meals ("Won't you share this with me?" he asked). But I knew I couldn't solve whatever problems had led him to years of life on the streets -- especially since someone from social services must have seen him at the county hospital -- and I knew I couldn't fix his eyes, and I felt sad and helpless and angry.

The day I left, it was raining. I wanted to say good-bye to A. and give him a final donation, but I couldn't find him. So I wrote a note, folded it around a $20, put both inside a plastic bag, and weighted them down with a rock on top of a milk crate in an alley where A. often sat. The rock was a smooth and black, with white veins; I'd found it on Ocean Beach. I knew that probably someone else would take the money, and that A. would probably never even get the note. I wondered if I'd ever see him again. I wondered if he'd still be alive in another year.

Well, it's a year later, and I'm back in Berkeley. And today I saw A. on his usual corner, sitting on one of his milk crates. "A.!" I said. "It's Susan! Remember me?"

His face lit up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the rock I used to weight down the note a year ago. "Look what I have! I kept it. I got your note, but somebody took the money. I was thinking about you the other day, because I hadn't seen you. I thought maybe you weren't coming this summer." I asked him how his eyes were -- they looked clear, without bandages -- and he grinned. "They're fine. I can see you! I can see things. Remember last year when I wanted to die? I don't feel that way anymore. I got over that." He gestured down at the rock and said, "It looks like a petrified turkey heart, doesn't it? Are you still writing science fiction stories?"

I told him I was. I told him I had to get to my class, but that I'd see him tomorrow. I gave him some money. And then I hurried away, feeling inordinately happy. I still wish he had a better place to live ("I've been camping out here for fifteen years," he told me today, sounding perfectly cheerful), and I know that some people will criticize me for giving him money. I do it because I want to, not because I think it will make any permanent change in his condition. I've decided not to worry about what he spends it on: that's his business.

I'm just glad he's still here.

So I finally caved in . . .

. . . and started a blog, largely at the urging of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor Books, who thinks this would be an interesting place for me to post my homilies, among other things. I'm a complete newbie at this, which means that I don't know how to insert links in my text yet, but I'm sure I'll get the hang of it eventually.

Why this blog? I'm a fantasy and science fiction writer who's written two novels, FLYING IN PLACE and THE NECESSARY BEGGAR. A third novel, SHELTER, is forthcoming sometime next year. Those three books are from Tor. A short-story collection, THE FATE OF MICE, will be out from Tachyon Publications in February. I've been leery of blogging partly because it seems like shameless self-promotion, but, well, I have work to promote, so why not? And several far-flung friends (hi, Claire!) have asked me to keep a blog so they'll have a better sense of what I'm up to.

I'm also almost (I think) licensed as a lay Episcopal preacher in the Diocese of Nevada. I began attending church when I was 38, much to the consternation of many of my family and friends; when I started preaching, my devoutly atheist father said, "Well, of course. You already write science fiction!" It's a funny line, but there's quite a bit of truth to it: both faith-based writing and SF/F deal with realities not acknowledged by literary realism. I've been trying to suss out the personal and intellectual connections between the two for several years now, and I thought keeping a blog might help.

I identify as a proud member of the Christian Left (one of those people the Christian Right would define as the Christian Left Behind). This is fitting, since my current diocesan bishop is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the historic first-female Presiding-Bishop-elect of the national Episcopal Church. Beliefnet informs me that my theology is actually 100% Reform Jewish, possibly because deeds rank rather higher in my personal theology than disembodied faith does. I'm a big fan of incarnation.

And that brings me to the title of this blog. It's a phrase John Clute used to describe the plots of my two novels, and it's been driving me batty ever since I read it. C'mon: does anybody ever complain about rickety contrivances of doing BAD in fiction? I ask you: are the villainies perpetrated by the bad guys in popular fiction ever particularly simple? Why can't we have the reverse once in a while? I've been obsessing about this for months now (particularly since the happy ending of THE NECESSARY BEGGAR seems to be what readers who dislike the book dislike most about it), and this morning it finally hit me: CLAIM that negative label! Recontextualize it! Redeem it! Wear it as a badge of honor!

I believe very deeply that human contrivances of doing good, however rickety or elegant, are a lot of what hold the world together. Judaism talks about tikkun olam, the repair of the world, which is what people do when they perform even the smallest good deed. I think we're all surrounded by good deeds, most of which we never see or recognize; they don't tend to get on the evening news, and they're drowned out by all the very real and terrible horrors that do get on the evening news (none of which I wish to minimize). But they still count.

I started going to church partly to motivate myself to do more volunteering, although I still don't do as much as many other people I know. I've helped out with Family Promise, a program in which homeless parents and children are housed and fed by faith congregations, and I work four hours a week as a volunteer chaplain at a local hospital. One of the things I've discovered about volunteering is that once you start doing it, you discover how many other people are doing it, and how many forms it takes.

One example: several years ago during one of my parish's Family Promise hosting weeks, I was talking to a mom whose daughter had some sort of blood disease. It was sufficiently rare that it couldn't be treated here in Reno; she and her daughter periodically had to go to Las Vegas for treatment.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nevada geography, Vegas is 400 miles from Reno. That's a substantial journey even if you're comfortably middle-class, let alone if you're homeless. "Where do you stay when you're down there?" I asked the mom. "And how do you get there?"

"We stay at Ronald McDonald house," she told me. Duh: yes, of course, I should have thought of that. "And we fly down with Angel Flight."

I'd never heard of Angel Flight, so I asked her about it. It's an air-transport network that provides free transportation to patients who need specialized medical treatment. Flights under 1,000 miles are handled by individual pilots who have their own small planes; longer trips use donated seats on commercial or corporate jets. Transplant organs get moved this way, too.

Who knew? The logistics of this service must be staggering: positively rickety, in fact. And yet the flights go on, and as a result, some people who need medical treatment and couldn't receive it otherwise are getting it. (Too many others, tragically, aren't. Don't get me started on the miserable state of healthcare in this country.)

There are causes for optimism, even amid all the crud.