Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Lighting Out for the Territories

 “Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.”
― Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

“Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the center, because the center is the end. Each person is a strand of the story.” - Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

Yesterday afternoon, after carefully considering various modes of transportation, my friend Rob departed for a parallel universe. Perhaps the horse he asked his wife to bring him in his final days appeared at last, or he caught the plane he believed he'd missed, but I prefer to imagine him transported through space on the back of a mechanical Hoopoe, arriving safely on the moon Kahani.  The Sadness factories are far behind as he lowers himself into the steaming waters of the Oceans of the Streams of Story and sips pure strands of narrative, renews his subscription. He's only stepped out for a bit to renew his subscription.

 I met Rob, a brilliant writer and a teacher, ten years ago at Bard College. We were in a week long summer writing class together called 'Thinking Through Narrative".  I have to admit that on the first day, as I entered the small classroom and looked for a seat at the heavy wooden table, the long-haired hippie who was already sitting seemed possibly dangerous. It would have been okay had he only been smiling with all his teeth, but this guy was giggling as he watched other writers come in. I selected a seat a safe distance from him. He turned out to be one of the most important mentors I would ever have. 

A few lessons learned/reinforced by Rob:
1. Read widely. Sometimes it's difficult when you're burning in schema. That shouldn't make you feel stupid.
2. Life is full of absurdities, and the best response is to laugh at them.
3. Even when you feel powerless, there are still ways to protest oppression.
4. Nitroglycerin left "safely" in a snowbank on a warm day is not really safe.

As I look back on the years we've known each other, I realize we never stopped Thinking through Narrative.  I have miles and miles of saved emails with responses to responses embedded into even more embedded responses (this was/is to become a book). Conversations with Rob were exhausting. "Have you read this? Have you read this?"  I had to take notes to keep up with all of the reading I hadn't done. My bookshelves now house the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Louise Rosenblatt, Paolo Friere, Jonathan Kozol. Ruth Vinz (Rob's mentor), Italo Calvino, and so many others. I began reading the work of literary theorists to better understand the philosophical foundations of my discipline. Rob encouraged to consider the "why" behind the "how".

I can't look around my classroom without finding evidence of Rob's influence, from the books we both liked reading with kids to the sometimes bizarre music I still force kids to write journals to (Rob's passion for music surely equaled his passion for reading and writing).  Our stories are connected by common threads. 

At the end of his life, Rob told his wife that he was going to a parallel universe. He told her to look for the signs he would leave so that she could find him again. But I think he's been leaving signs all along. That's how writers get to be immortal.