Monthly Archives: September 2017

On Blended: the refugee story

 

So, the plot of Blended centers around Tillie’s decision to volunteer through her local church to help a refugee family from Pakistan assimilate into American society, or more specifically, into the fictional middle-American mini-pot that is Bishop Grove, Oregon. The family consists of a thirty-something couple with seven kids, recently emigrated from the area of Pakistan that is near the dangerous Afghan border. The father is a former translator for a private security force attached to an unidentified American corporation. He says little about this background and Tillie doesn’t inquire, not so much because she isn’t interested—more because she is discreet in her approach. Half-internalizing her ambiguously xenophobic mother, she is reticent in her queries, not wanting to intrude. Tillie is…what’s the word…polite?

This lends an air of tension as the story proceeds, as curiosity builds and mysteries grow. What were their lives actually like in Pakistan? Why did they leave, or why did they leave so suddenly? Why is this foreign couple—Bahram and Mira are their names—so brittle and seemingly distant with each other? It seems inevitable that something will be revealed, and it won’t be pleasant. The reader may observe that Bahram seems enamored of American life, its seeming abundance, material promise. Actually, what he likes most is the fresh, unpolluted air, the greenery in the landscapes; the chance to see an ocean and relax on sand that is devoid of warfare. The rest of the family seems numb, and Tillie wonders: How are the children—aged 1 and ½ through 12—coping with the upheaval in their lives? They seem variably adjusted to circumstances: some are playful and bright; one or two others seem withdrawn and haunted. Whatever is the truth, none of it seems normal to Tillie.

And Tillie herself doesn’t know what normal is. Or, she is re-appraising that vague construct. Such and such is the new normal. That’s commonspeak today, for none of us knows anymore, I guess, what normal is. Peripherally interested in the politics of 2016, and critically observant of her own society’s norms, Tillie is perhaps best positioned to guide a new immigrant without judgment or fear. She is open-minded, and at least imagines that she will not be subject to any fears or judgments from this immigrant family—an assumption that will be tested when they begin to inquire about her. What will they make of her background: of divorce, of blended families, a third marriage, an unsatisfying working like in which she is straining for purpose? She might imagine their envy of so-called first world problems. Meanwhile, what will they think of American consumerism, or the various icons of American culture that they have previously experienced (especially the covetous husband), but only from afar. And will they experience xenophobia, or its umbrella concept, racism, as they settle in?

BTW, in telling this story, I’m not trying to assert myself as any kind of expert with respect to immigration, society’s norms, the politics of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region—none of that. Also, commentary on domestic politics is at best allegorical, perhaps facile, even. We’re not talking to one another properly: that’s the main subtext of Blended. The remaining thematic residue is really in the title. There’s a mix here of background, of present, of future fears and hopes, which block clear thinking, blinds vision. But it’s there to see. Characters observe in others what they might see in history and in themselves, but if they stopped and observed themselves—what’s called the observing ego in object relations/ego psychology—then…well, society would be better, let’s say. Projections are interlocking, moving fast, and in various directions. The author corrals ideas, other bits and pieces, but I, for one, don’t really know how these stories end. My endings are contrivances, my best guess (es), reflecting a desire for tidy order.

Which reminds me…

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Falling Squirrels

 

Staying with a theme. But first, a departure: last entry I wrote about some public musings (that’s like, thought plus something) of Salman Rushdie, who remarked that there are too many books in the world, sort of. He didn’t sound as elitist as I’m making him sound, but he was cautionary. Should we keep publishing? Do we need to, he meant, given the volume of titles that exist? He forgot one factor, it seems to me. This will sound elitist. People don’t read. Or, they don’t read old-fashioned print–not as much. And they don’t read novels, especially. Or do they? I don’t know. I heard all this on the radio, another declining medium. Perhaps if books could be downloaded onto I-phones. Actually, can they? Is there an AP for that yet….someone?

Anyway, a man in my office—not the same one as last time—also mentioned squirrels this week. I guess people have squirrels on their minds. Coincidence? Maybe not. Maybe squirrels are a new zeitgeist. Squirrels are important because they feature metaphorically in my novel, Blended. They scurry about the property, stealing food, getting in places they shouldn’t. That was the problem, the man in my office said. Squirrels were climbing atop his roof. One had fallen down the chimney and gotten stuck. He had to get it out. Can’t let it—them—run wild.

They run wild in my novel, also. Or, they are onlookers. They comment on us secretly. Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, ignores them, has other nuisances in mind, at home and at work. Home comes first: where will Bill, her third and by far her best husband, insist on taking them on vacation this broken year of 2016? Tillie likes modest getaways to seaside villages. Bill prefers rugged adventure in the wilderness. I know. What first world drama, you’re thinking? How will you, the reader, stand the suspense? Do I know how to grip you, or what? Well, hang on. Give me a few pages. So far, I’ve given you squirrels as metaphors, so you must be intrigued. And there is that interesting title, Blended, after all.

Tillie’s step-son, Jacob, a largely idle twenty-something, is part of that blend. He is an ambiguous nuisance, not stealing but certainly consuming food, and getting in places that he might have left by now, such as the living room couch. He’s back and forth between home and school, drifting towards his future. What he really wants to do with his life is unclear, but what you’ll read (hopefully) are the offhand comments from the millennial crypt: his thoughts about life as it is in art, as in action movies, as in war, terrorism as a spectator sport; modern diet. Tillie is mystified by Jacob, but were she to look more closely, she’d note similarities between him and her younger self.

There is little that is mystifying about Bill, to whom Tillie has been married for seven years. In his late fifties, he is stably employed, financially secure, having launched at least one of his three adult children. Cuckolded by his first wife, Bill seems decent and reliable, if slightly insecure. His only other foible is a curmudgeonly edge, which he betrays as Tillie introduces plans to help refugee families. Bill is skeptical the way that middle America seems skeptical: he doesn’t know much about life in Pakistan, and doesn’t care to know much. Though careful with his thoughts, he probably thinks that immigrants are a problem. They represent security risks. They steal or consume too much; will get in places they shouldn’t.

 

 

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Chasing Squirrels

 

A man in my office spoke of chasing squirrels and laughed. Prone to using comic metaphors, he explained the link to his current life circumstances. The squirrels represent lost causes, things we cannot change—but also the things we shouldn’t try to change. Let things go. Let nature be nature.

I reflected for a moment, struck by the synchronicity. See, this was yesterday, the day before my plan to write this entry, an introduction to my new novel, entitled Blended. Among other things, the first chapter begins with a brief rumination upon—you guessed it—squirrels. In my story, squirrels are also metaphors. They are likewise out of control, symbolic of the wild, yet they mirror humanity, for they are greedy, compulsive, hierarchical, and frail. They dart about our properties, seizing the unseen territories, taking what they can get, but trailing more elegant creatures, like hummingbirds, in the hearts of genteel homeowners. If squirrels care or have boundaries, as in rules, it’s not apparent. They are strong and quick, yet they do not make good choices. They seem blind and reckless, so they keep dying unpleasantly on man’s roads.

Allusively set in 2016, Blended is otherwise about a middle-aged woman, a mother of three, a step-mom to another three, who begins the story roaming the garden of her Oregonian home, picking fights with troublesome thorns, committed to aesthetics. Tillie Marsden observes the critters but she does not fuss over them. She makes better choices, jogs instead of dashing, and prepares for earthquakes and political fallout. She is likely based (because I don’t remember this specifically) on a character in a Geico insurance commercial. You know, the one with the woman who sits by a pool, calling her action star son at the wrong time (‘You’re a mom, it’s what you do’), and casually mocking his father for chasing squirrels, which appear swarm-like in the background. My character isn’t quite as blasé as that, and her husband, her third, isn’t actually obsessed with squirrels. But the point is that something is lurking in society and nature. Despite a comfortable, as in financially settled and peaceful suburban existence, Tillie feels a stirring unease. She needs to do something.

Family and career are twin poles of struggle and unfinished business, but it’s a new endeavor that’s catalytic for Tillie, and therefore the plot of Blended. An involved church-goer, she volunteers at a refugee support program, is assigned to a young Pakistani family that has recently moved to her town, a fictional Eugene-like community named Bishop Grove. Back in her teens, she’d once hosted an Iranian student for a semester. Bad antecedent. Tillie’s long-widowed mother, a stoic conservative of the American Gothic variety, was barely tolerant of that adolescent fancy, so the world citizen spirit was blunted. This latter-day charity is a do-over of sorts. It’s a resurrection of old aptitudes, promising satisfaction, not to mention distraction from autocratic bosses and drudgery. It’s a vacation from dense family drama, a chance to feel useful and recognized as a caring figure. It’s also one woman’s thumb-on-the-nose prep for Trump’s America.

I recently heard Salman Rushdie lament that there are too many books in print today; that the world’s writers could just stop writing and there would be plenty of titles for everyone to read for many years to come. That’s probably true. Over 300,000 books are published, traditionally and not, every year, in the U.S alone. Rushdie therefore opines that today’s writers should ask themselves an important question: not, is my book good, or entertaining? But rather, is it necessary? Is it a worthwhile addition to that already huge mountain of print?

Is Blended a worthwhile addition?

Hmm?

 

 

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The reunion

 

Sometimes you do something spontaneous—something that defies homeostatic caution. I do, anyway. I was overdue for some remembrance. Seeing Christine—I was 99% sure that’s who it was—in the bagel shop, I caught her glance, felt a hit of something and made a decision. After she finishes her phone call, I’ll say hello, I resolved. It had been thirty years since I’d seen her. Twenty years, at least, since I’d seen anyone from high school. Christine and I had been passing acquaintances at best, I thought. She wouldn’t remember me. But that didn’t matter. For reasons I’m about to explain, that didn’t matter.

“Graeme”, she called out, before I could say her name. To say I was caught off guard was an understatement. This, despite the fact that I’d seen her first and had already prepared an approach. She remembered me. I was astonished. By my recollection, I’d been a non-entity in HS: as invisible as any adolescent had ever imagined himself to be, I firmly believed. Christine had been class president. I’m not kidding. She was beyond ‘cool’ or popular. She was gracious, kind—what my father would have called “a class act”—as well as smart, and disciplined. She was even brave. She didn’t just go to school with ‘cool’ kids. She dealt with them.

I decided to share most of this in an e-mail a week later. In the interim I stewed over the prospect of “keeping in touch”, as she had suggested during that light, if genuine ten-minute chat in the bagel shop. Those ten minutes had been long enough for me to confess one or two things: that I hadn’t attended a single reunion since HS (which she probably knew already); that I hadn’t sustained contact with a single member of our class of 86’; that I scarcely recognized half the names she’d name-dropped to me as we spoke. I felt sheepish, embarrassed. I was partially re-enacting an awkward moment from decades past, even as a faint determination stirred in me.

In my e-mail, I shared more about my later and current life: about being a psychotherapist, and more specifically, about my (largely) past work with adolescents, which has long influenced reflections upon that fraught period of my life. I’ve thought about adolescence, talked about it, off and on, with countless people, over the last thirty years. But I’d never talked about it with anyone who’d actually gone through it with me as a peer. To embroider the memory, I evoked the period, recalling what musical icons I liked and didn’t (it was the 80s, past The Who’s halcyon, so there were more in the ‘didn’t’ category), what social or political events once shaped my conscience; what teachers and cliques then inspired or alienated me.

Christine responded promptly, moved by my honest and open-hearted follow-up, and was eager to relate and talk more. Indeed, she was at pains to dispel some of my fossilized projections: the impression that she or some others like her were more mature than I, as I had declared in my e-mail. She admitted that she’d also found some my peers difficult and obnoxious, despite their popularity. She recalled the problem of organizing events, peer activities, having to endure trivial complaints, the self-absorbed superficiality of some. She’d enjoyed my funny observations about the period, the social ambience of HS, and imagined that my sensibility served me in my work.

We followed up with a second meeting, a coffee-talk in the shadow of the old school neighborhood. Anecdotes flowed from those earlier impressions, spinning from one tidbit of recall to the next. I brought an old yearbook along, which further aided memory and stimulated thought. A page filled with handwritten text from a mutual female acquaintance reminded me that while I was once terse and inarticulate (writing single-sentence, banal farewells), the girls were prolific and personable. At this point, Christine further challenged my self-deprecation, saying that I was quiet in HS, but also calm, friendly, and far from obnoxious. Besides, I hardly seemed terse or inarticulate now, she said—regardless of how I once saw myself.

Ultimately, it felt bittersweet, this serendipitous meeting. As Christine and I separated, I almost but didn’t quite regret all the missed reunions and lapsed connections. After all, adolescence remains fixed in my mind as a time when I was not at my best, regardless of what others thought. As a result, I have preferred laying it to rest, and letting go the witnesses. And yet, Christine’s own reflections were compelling, and what once seemed benign or unfulfilling now seems to offer oblique, cathartic promise. She recalled peers who were like me, it seems. She specifically recalled one young man who reported (in retrospect) flitting between groups as a teen, befriending none with any real depth, spending time and energy upon concealment, while concealing that same concealment. That sounded familiar. Christine summarized: at that age, few are at their best, and because many (perhaps most) protect the self from exposure above all else, the young don’t learn to see one another. That’s a problem, she modestly, and without judgment, implied. I may yet change my mind on a few things: I may yet decide to not cheat history; to not deny the witnesses, and thus look upon myself and others from the past with an adult’s perspective.

 

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