Tag Archives: family

Photo Friday: Nancy’s Garden

Once again, the weekend is upon us. Here on the Cumberland Plateau, we have moved decisively into the hot, humid days of summer. Warm nights, steamy days, afternoon thunderstorms, the rise and fall of cicada trill, the nighttime drone of katydids.

Nancy’s flower garden is in fine form — next week I should have photos of her huge patch of black-eyed Susans. This week, though, it’s her coneflowers — specifically a breed called Cheyenne spirit echinacea — her daisies, and her purple calla lily. The echinaceas are a particular favorite of mine. They’re a bit finer in form than wild coneflower, they bloom in a variety of colors, and butterflies love them.

Wishing you a wonderful, safe, healthy weekend. Be kind to one another.

Echinacea, by David B. Coe Daisy After Rain, by David B. Coe Calla Lily, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Thinking of My Dad on Father’s Day

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about my Dad for today’s post, and I find myself struggling.

I’m surprised, because it’s not for a lack of affection or great stories. I loved my father and I miss him all the time. I hear his voice and laughter in my head every day – bits of advice that remain relevant, remembered jokes that still make me smile, a strange surety – utterly at odds with my well-practiced agnosticism – that he sees my daughters growing up and is as proud of them as I am.

There’s a ton I could write, but everything I think of feels trite and well-worn. I’m sure I’ve said all of it before in Facebook posts and previous blog entries. And yet…

My father was born in 1919, lived through the Great Depression, lost a brother to World War II, married my mother half a year after V-E day (almost to the day). He supported Wendell Wilkie in the Presidential election of 1940 (although he would have been too young by a month to vote) and very nearly lost my mother when he confessed this to her before their wedding. Never again did he vote for a Republican for President.

He was caring and generous, devoted to his family and friends. He loved a crass joke, but he took great pride in being gentlemanly – a product of his upbringing. My grandmother demanded no less of both her sons, just as my dad demanded no less of my brothers and me. I remember in high school he and I drove my girlfriend back to her home – I sat up front and she was in back. We pulled up to her house, and he turned around and said, “M____, you stay right there until he gets your door for you and walks you in.” Which, of course, I scrambled to do.

He loved sports, and he especially loved watching sports with his kids. I was the youngest sibling by far, and so, long after my older brothers and sister had left for college and life beyond, I still lived at home. I had six years “alone” with my parents – a mixed blessing at the time, a treasure trove of memories now. Dad and I would watch some sort of game almost every weekend: football, hockey, basketball, tennis, golf, and, our favorite, baseball. We would guess what play was coming and then, after, talk about why we were right and the managers were wrong. Sometimes we rooted together. Often, if I got to the television first, he would ask me, “Who are you rooting for?”

“Team A.”

“Okay, I’m rooting for Team B.” Just because.

Like my mom, Dad, through his example, taught me so much about what it means to be a parent. The phrase has gone out of style, but it was truly apt in this case: He was the product of a “broken marriage.” My grandfather was a philanderer. Egotistical, self-centered, more interested in his professional status than his personal integrity, he left my grandmother when Dad was eleven years old. Almost as soon as the divorce was finalized, he married his (wealthy) mistress. Soon after, Dad went to visit his father and new stepmother. He tried to greet my grandfather with a hug, but grandpa stopped him at arm’s length and said, “You’re old enough now that I think we should greet each other with a handshake.”

Years later, Dad would tell me that story, adding, “I knew that I would be a good father, because I knew from my father all the things not to do.”

Dad was affectionate – demonstrably so. He hugged and kissed all his children. He doted on my mother. He cried at movies and was perfectly willing to put his sentimentality on full display. Without possessing the modern lexicon, he understood instinctively that modeling masculinity and strength for his sons meant being gentle and loving, honorable and generous, supportive and wise. In this regard, he was an anachronism for his generation.

When my mom got sick in the early 1990s, my father threw all his passion and energy into caring for her. Her illness consumed him. We always thought that Dad would live forever – his mother, my Gram, lived to ninety-one. His father lived to be 103. But after Mom died, Dad had nothing left. Two months after her funeral, he was diagnosed with Leukemia. He died a year later.

I have no trouble celebrating Mother’s Day and basking in memories of my Mom. For reasons I can’t explain, Father’s Day is much harder. Maybe because it’s a day I should be able to share with him and can’t.

I miss you, Papa. I wish there was a game on.

Photo Friday: From the Archives — Beach Photos

Every now and then, a week comes along when I haven’t had a chance to take my camera out for photos. This week has been rather plain weather-wise. Some flowers are blooming in Nancy’s garden, but nothing too spectacular. And, I will admit, I have been rather glum.

My mood is almost too frivolous to discuss. My family and I are healthy, we’re generally happy, and have very little cause for complaint. But, due to Covid-19, we have had to cancel our annual family beach vacation. Problems of the privileged, I know. Hence my reluctance to bring it up. The fact is, though, I love our time at the beach. It’s always just the four of us – Nancy, our two daughters and me. We rent a house right on the shore. We have no particular schedule, few chores, little work. We swim and take walks on the beach and nap when we feel like it and eat good food and drink good wine. What’s not to love?

We had a reservation, but for reasons relating to the pandemic and its effect on Nancy’s work, not to mention concerns about traveling with the virus still raging, we have cancelled it. We should have been heading to the coast on Saturday. Obviously, we won’t be.

So today, I offer you a couple of photos from the archives – images I captured the last time we were at the beach. I hope you enjoy them.

Enjoy your weekend. Be safe; be kind to one another. And to all my fellow dads, have a great Father’s Day.

Laughing Gull, Topsail Island, North Carolina, by David B. Coe Coast Storm I, North Carolina, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Challenging Ourselves

I will admit that my first impulse for this Monday Musings post was to write about something other than race and politics. Not because those things aren’t still on my mind. They consume me. But rather because I was thinking, “I’ve written about White privilege two weeks in a row. I don’t want to seem like I’m harping on it.” [Here are links to my post from two weeks ago and last week.]

My next thought, right after that one, was, “Why the hell not?”

College Town Protest March, David B. CoeThis past Friday our little college town had a peaceful protest march followed by a rally on the college quad. It was a terrific event: somber, but also uplifting. Several people spoke, including my wife, who is provost of the university. Most of the speakers were Black; Nancy is not. And her message was directed at the many White allies who were in attendance. Showing up is great, she said. But it’s not enough. We who consider ourselves allies of those fighting for racial justice, but who also carry enormous privilege, have to challenge ourselves to act, to fight every day for a better world. And she, in turn, challenged us. Think of things you can do. Commit yourselves.

She and I have been making donations to organizations that fight for racial justice. We are committed to voting, to supporting candidates who will help put an end to systemic racism. We have reached out to our Black friends to make sure they’re doing all right. We are more than willing to have difficult conversations with family and friends. We would be willing to have those conversations with our daughters as well, but, frankly, we have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.

But after those things, I found myself wondering in response to Nancy’s challenge, what else I could do? The answer came to me pretty quickly; it should be obvious to anyone who knows me.

I write.

That’s what I do.

I’m not saying that race and racial politics will be the subject of every Monday post for the rest of time. But one of the great problems with American politics is that we as a nation have no attention span at all. We become obsessed with the issue of the day, the tragedy of the week – a mass shooting prompts calls for serious conversations about gun control. Until the next police shooting exposes for the thousandth time the need for a meaningful conversation about race. Until the next ridiculous or outrageous Tweet from the Infant-In-Chief prompts renewed obsession with the campaign and the latest polling numbers. Until a new spike in Covid-19 cases reminds us of the devastating toll the virus is exacting. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

My thoughts about this post are symptomatic of that short attention span. Two weeks in a row writing about race? Yikes! Time for another post about my five favorite rock ‘n roll albums.

And more to the point, that short attention span is an expression of privilege. I have the luxury of being able to turn away from the conversation about systemic racism if I want to, because I’m White. Because I don’t have to worry that my next traffic stop could prove fatal. Because while the unemployment rate among my people is high, it’s not at 16.8%, as it is for Blacks. Because my health care is affordable and readily available.

I can eventually look away after the next shooting sparks a new debate on guns, because while gun violence should concern all of us, Blacks are (according to the Giffords Law Center) ten times – TEN TIMES – more likely than Whites to be murdered with a firearm.

I can be distracted from the pandemic, because while Whites get the disease and die from it, preliminary data indicates that we are proportionally less likely to get sick than are Blacks, and we are far less likely to die from the illness than are Blacks and Latinos.

We in the White community can afford to lose interest, to get distracted, to move on to other issues. But we, as White allies in the struggle for racial justice, can’t. Just this weekend in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police in an incident that began with him sleeping in his car. I guarantee you, that is a sentence that has never been written about a white man.

And so, yes, I am writing about race again. Because once we open our eyes to the prevalence of bias and bigotry and harmful stereotypes (and it is another expression of lifelong privilege that we have the choice of whether or not to do this) we can find them everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to ignore them, or to be utterly oblivious. Race creeps into everything. The next time you’re watching TV, pay close attention to the commercials. Look at how race is treated. Watch for the racial sub-narratives. Be attuned to the archetypes. Once you start to see them, you can’t stop. Listen to sports commentary (if and when we ever get to watch sports again). Pay attention to the adjectives used to describe White and Black players. How many times are Whites referred to as “hard workers”? How many times is Black success credited to “natural athletic ability”?

“Why,” we hear people ask, “do they have to make everything about race?”

And the answer is, because people of color in this country – and throughout much of the world – inhabit a different reality from the one we Whites live in. In their world, racism is omnipresent. It is unavoidable. It is the knee on the neck. Being an ally means looking and seeing, listening and hearing, discussing and speaking out. It means answering my wife’s challenge by pushing ourselves outside of comfort and complacency, and committing ourselves.

And for me, it means writing.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Photo Friday: Climbing Color

Another week coming to a close and another photo to send you off into your weekend. We have grown accustomed to the annual rhythms of Nancy’s gorgeous flower garden, and this time of June is when her Clematis bloom. They are one of my very favorites. Climbers, a bit wild and unruly, with spectacular blooms. Enjoy!

Wishing you a wonderful weekend. As always, stay safe and be kind to one another.

Clematis Blooms, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: On Race, Privilege, and Uncomfortable Conversations

As I white progressive, I have struggled with how to write this post. I know that the white progressives in my audience will struggle to read and process it. All of this, I believe, is to the good.

This past week, as I discussed with my adult children the protests taking place in cities across the country, my older daughter sent me an article called “I, Racist,” written by John Metta back in 2015. This is an extraordinary piece and I urge you to read it right now, before continuing with my post. Seriously, read the article. We’ll wait.

Much of what follows here is my working through of Metta’s piece – the thoughts reflected here are more his than mine. There are four main points to Metta’s argument that strike me as central to all discussions of race in America.

First, “Black people think in terms of we because [they] live in a society where the social and political structures interact with [them] as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”

Second, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”

Third, “the reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad…. People of color, especially Black people… are seen as fundamentally bad.”

And finally, perhaps most important: “White people, every single one of [us], are complicit in this racism because [we] benefit directly from it.”

Last week, my Monday Musings post focused on White privilege, and I suppose this week’s does as well. The truth is, I am thinking all of this through as I write, so forgive me if this comes across as a work in progress rather than as something more finished. I know better than to claim that my thoughts on race and Metta’s essay are well-organized or comprehensive. Like so many of us right now, I am processing, figuring things out, asking myself questions. The fact is, Metta’s observations make for uncomfortable reading for Whites because they are so very hard to refute. But that is also the source of the article’s power and value.

Let’s start with points one and two. Once we accept the notion that Blacks think in terms of “we” while Whites enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world as individuals, we begin to understand how the conversation about race in America has failed so utterly to move our society forward. As Metta points out, Whites take such conversations personally. We see in the notion of systemic racism an attack on ourselves – which leads us to turn conversations about race into conversations about our bruised feelings. White privilege is by definition systemic. It filters into every element of our lives – our health, our shelter, our our finances, our relationships with institutions and their representatives (including police), and on and on.

And, I have to say, most of the progressive Whites I know are open to conversations about privilege and its prevalence. To a point. The problem comes when we turn to the notion of complicity. As Metta puts it, we Whites are unable to “differentiate [our] participation within a racist system” from accusations of being racists ourselves. We conflate the two, turn the conversation to our sense of being attacked and accused, and therefore shut down the discussion entirely. I know this pattern. I have too often gone down that path myself.

Hearing that we are complicit in a racist society hurts. No doubt. Our first response is to deny, to draw a clear line distinguishing ourselves from defenders of the the Confederate Flag, from the idiots who call 911 on people of color in parks and stores and “nice” (re. White) neighborhoods, from those who assault and murder. Defensiveness, though, helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t change reality.

In fact, I would argue this: If only we Whites could STOP taking these conversations personally, if only we could back away from our individual privilege and begin to look at our world and society as part of a larger “we” instead of always as “I, me, my” – in other words, if we could talk about the issues more like Metta argues that Blacks do – we might find that conversations about race progress far more smoothly. Our privilege is actually no privilege at all. It hurts us. It cripples our society. It hurts the people of color around us.

Recently, I happened upon a brief (one minute long), wonderful video that first came out in 2016 featuring educator and activist Jane Elliott. She is White, speaking to an auditorium filled with White people, and she asks them to stand if they would be willing to trade places with Black people in America. Not one person stands up. She asks a second time. No one. And then she tells them the obvious: that they know there is a racial problem in America, and they are willing to accept its consequences for others, but not for themselves. That is privilege.

Only when we can accept that our society is inherently racist, that we as Whites benefit every day, in every way, from that racism – only then can we start to improve our country for all Americans. It’s not enough to differentiate ourselves from the conspicuous racists we see on TV and read about in the headlines. It’s not enough to say “but my heart is in the right place,” even if it is. We have to be willing to do more – something my daughters have been telling me for some time now. We have to donate to organizations that support those who are fighting racism. We have to stand up and say to our fellow Whites, “Open your eyes and ears – see what is happening, listen to the people who live this racist reality every day.” And instead of saying, “I am better than those other racists because I have not done those terrible things,” we have to say, “From this day forward, I will be better than I have been, and here is how.”

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

Monday Musings: 29 Years Ago This Weekend

Wedding Day Photo 1 It’s Memorial Day – and, it seems to me, a particularly somber one at that – and so I won’t write too much for today’s Musings.

But this is also a very significant weekend in my life. Twenty-nine years ago, on Memorial Day weekend 1991, Nancy and I were married. (Our anniversary is actually tomorrow, the 26th.)

To this day, memories of our wedding, and all the festivities surrounding it, warm me and comfort me and bring a huge smile to my face. We lived in California at the time – Mountain View, in the Bay Area, to be precise. We were graduate students at Stanford, Nancy in biology, me in history. The tradition, of course, is that the bride’s family pays for the wedding, but Nancy’s folks ran a small family farm, and even with our modest plans for the ceremony and reception, a Bay Area wedding was beyond their budget. They helped us out, and so did my parents.

Wedding Day Photo 2But we did everything we could to keep costs down. Because we were students at the school, Stanford allowed us to marry in the Rodin Sculpture Garden, near the university museum, for something like $200. It was a gorgeous venue — we have joked since that we were married in front of the Gates of Hell, because, well, we were. We had our reception at a reasonable local restaurant – part of a Bay Area chain called, I kid you not, the Velvet Turtle. Not amazing, but decent food and lots of it. We hosted a party the night before the wedding at our apartment, and then did the same for brunch the day after the wedding. Our big activity? On Saturday afternoon, after the rehearsal lunch, we had a softball game for the entire guest list – whoever wanted to play. (We played a lot of softball in grad school – her bio lab had an intramural team.) The game was bride’s team against the groom’s team (randomly selected). I have no idea who won. But the two key rules were, 1) Nancy didn’t have to play in the field, and 2) she got to bat whenever she wanted, no matter which team was up. She would just announce, “Bride’s turn to hit!” and then she would…

Mostly, we spent the weekend catching up with family and dear friends from near and far. And, of course, celebrating our love. That sounds like the worst sort of cliché, but I honestly don’t care. It’s the truth. From start to finish it was about the joining of our lives, the bringing together of nearly all the people in the world whom each of us loved most, so that they could be with us when we declared our intention to build a life together.

Yes, the memories are bittersweet. We have lost too many of the people who stood with us that day. Nancy’s sister and one of her brothers, one of my brothers, my parents, other relatives and friends… As I say, too many. And I won’t stand here and try to claim that the entire weekend went smoothly, that there were no conflicts or problems or logistical issues. There were. Some were truly comical, others just annoying.

Overall, though, it was wonderful – the perfect kickoff to what has been an amazing 29 years.

Across the country this Memorial Day, young couples are dealing with wedding plans that look nothing like what they hoped for, or that have been postponed until who-knows-when? It’s not something we hear about often – such disappointments are overshadowed by the breathtaking scope of this tragedy. For those affected, though, it must come as a terrible blow. I can say in all honesty that it’s the love that matters, the bond these couples mean to celebrate. I can also say, with equal candor, that this would have brought me small comfort had we lost out on our big weekend all those years ago.

I wish I had more to offer by way of wisdom and solace for those whose plans have been ruined by the pandemic. I will spare you sappy declarations of my love for Nancy (except to say that I honestly do love her even more today than I did back then, which I wouldn’t have thought possible). Part of the point of Monday Musings is to share with you where my thoughts have wandered over the weekend.

This weekend, they were in a sculpture garden two thousand miles from here.

Wishing you a great week.

Photo Friday: One Foot Out The Door…

Another week gone by. I swear, I don’t where the time is going right now. I can keep track of the days, but the weeks… Anyway, for today’s Photo Friday post, I offer you a set of images captured literally right outside our door. Nancy is an avid gardener and her Japanese Irises are blooming right now. They’re gorgeous, especially after a light rain. So here are a few photos I’ve taken over the past week or so.

Enjoy, and have a wonderful, safe weekend.

Japanese Iris IV, by David B. Coe

Japanese Iris I, by David B. Coe Japanese Iris II, by David B. Coe Japanese Iris III, by David B. Coe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Monday Musings: My Mom

We lost my mother nearly twenty-five years ago. It seems like so much longer, and it seems like yesterday. A cliché, I know, but true.

Mom and Dad, by the authorI am the youngest of four children, and by the standards of the time, my parents had me late in life, so I can say truthfully all of the following: I’ve always felt that I was too young to lose my mother, and I know that Mom died too soon, but I also know that she lived a full, rich life.

She was a child of the Great Depression – she would have been seven when the markets crashed, ten when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected. Forever after, he remained her political hero, the measure by whom all other Presidents were judged. She came of age during World War II, a young Jewish woman in New York, horrified by the spread of Nazism across Europe, and by the subtler forms of anti-Semitism found all through her city and her country.

Mom and my father married in the fall after the war ended, while my father and his family still grieved for my uncle Bill, Dad’s younger brother, who died in France. When my oldest brother was born three years later, of course they named him William.

Two and half years later, my sister was born. Six years after that, my second brother, and six years after that, me. Four children spanning almost the entirety of the baby-boom generation. Somehow, Mom managed to parent each of us with both consistency and sensitivity to our unique personalities and moments in history. My brother Bill, who grew up rebellious and tortured, a product of the Sixties, adored and worshiped her. My sister, who didn’t rebel the way Bill did, and who was the lone girl in our family, considered Mom her closest friend and confidante. And Jim and I, younger than the other two, raised in very different eras with different expectations and needs, loved her deeply as well, and learned so much about parenting from her shining example.

Mom didn’t work outside the home for her first two decades as a mother. Later in life, though, as I was starting elementary school, she began her studies to earn an advanced degree and her teaching certification. She taught for twenty years as a learning disabilities specialist in a public school system outside New York City, a job she loved in a field that was her passion.

When she wasn’t working and parenting, she was learning. She was a voracious reader – it’s no coincidence that my siblings and I all wound up as writers of one sort or another. She and my dad were happily married for nearly fifty years, and they loved, loved, loved us kids. But it seems to me that their marriage flourished after we were grown. They had always loved to travel, but once on their own they truly began to explore: France and Greece, Israel and Egypt, Peru and Turkey. They attended the theater, went to concerts, visited museums and galleries. Always together, always curious, always valuing the arts in every form.

On this Mother’s day, I can’t help but wonder what Mom would think of the world we live in now, a world nothing at all like the one she departed in 1995. She would have been devastated by the 9/11 attacks on her beloved New York, and might have wept with joy at Barack Obama’s election seven years later. My father was the gadget lover in their marriage, and so he might have been more taken than she with computers and smart phones. Then again, any device that allowed her to see her children and her grandchildren on demand, at a moment’s notice? On second thought, she might have been the one pushing for the newest technologies.

She would be horrified by the current occupent of the White House, appalled by his lack of intellect and curiosity, his mistrust of science, his cruel and craven approach to politics, his criminal disregard for the principles enshrined in our Constitution. She would have a healthy respect for, and fear of, the coronavirus, and would be contemptuous of those ignoring health experts in their rush to “open the economy.” But she would also have genuine compassion for those suffering in this, the worst economic downturn since the Depression of her youth.

Mostly, she would be concerned for the well-being of her kids and grandkids, frustrated by her inability to get to the symphony or the Long Wharf Theater, and eager for news from all of her friends and relatives.

It would be fitting in a piece like this one to end with something about how much I miss Mom, and how I think of her every day. And I do, both. Honestly, though, she’s been gone a long time, and as much as I grieved in the years immediately after her death, I have long since made peace with the loss. The truth is – another cliché – she is with me all the time. I hear her voice in my head whenever I read something she would have found interesting, or take a photo she would have loved, or cook a meal that might have impressed her, or marvel at the speed with with my own children have grown into adulthood.

It doesn’t take Mother’s Day to make me think about her. But for this Monday Musings post, I thought I would introduce you to my Mom.

Enjoy your week.