For Those of Us Who Have Never Stopped Thirsting to Learn

My article that appeared in the Tacoma News-Tribune on Sept. 7, 2015

Today is Labor Day, which in America means the start of school.  I spent years on a school schedule, first as a student, then as a mother of students, then as a teacher.  Now that my first grandchild is about to start kindergarten, my eye is on the academic calendar again, but not only because of her.  A year-and-a-half ago I began graduate school, studying creative writing.

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

I am not alone in starting back to school later in life.  Some of my classmates did, too.  My program with the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) is low-residency: each semester begins with an intensive (read, exhausting) session on Whidbey Island, but the rest of the term’s work is done on line.  Since the program doesn’t necessitate moving or giving up a job, some of the students live as far away as central Canada, Georgia and even Dubai, and most are older than the traditional college age.

Some are much older.  At our most recent commencement, half of the graduates had gray hair; and one diploma, sadly, was awarded posthumously.  These people studied with NILA not so much to advance their futures but to fulfill a creative longing that had been with them for years.  As I listened to them read from the impressive novels and poetry collections they wrote as thesis projects, I was thankful to be part of a learning community that knows no age barrier.

I know from my own experience that the decision to return to school in the autumn stage of life can feel awkward and out-of-sync.  When I applied to graduate school in my late fifties, my family and friends were very supportive.  My own impulse, however, was to be self-deprecating, to say I should have done this years ago, to joke that if I had got things right earlier in life, maybe I wouldn’t have to do all this cramming now.

But I as I began my studies, I realized there were advantages to being an older student.  Although my memory is not as quick as it used to be, some kinds of thinking are actually easier for me now.  I make mental connections by drawing on years of reading, going places, talking with people, and watching the world.  Years of living.  These days, when I read about Vladimir Putin, I think of conversations I’ve had with Eastern Europeans, and then I am unsurprised by Putin’s Russia-über-alles stance.  When I hear about urban crowding, I remember seeing the endless apartments and hopelessly clogged traffic of Manila.  When I try to understand ineffective governments, forgive me, but I think of fruitless meetings I’ve sat through.  Perhaps most significantly for a fiction writer, when I need to create young male characters for my stories, I think of the teenage boys I taught and especially the sons I raised.  There is a kind of understanding that comes only with having cared so deeply that you’ve lost sleep, cried, worked, yelled, prayed, and felt an impossible joy.

Perhaps that’s why I and especially my classmates in their sixties and seventies have undertaken such huge writing projects.  By this point, all that we have absorbed in life is aching to be expressed.  Call such writing a bucket list venture if you want, and in some ways perhaps it is.  But it is also a love effort, creating an opus magnum from a lifetime of the soul.

Yet I also understand as never before that thought and creativity don’t have to spend decades waiting.  Some of my most talented classmates are young.  What will they accomplish in the many years ahead of them?  And my little granddaughter, so enthusiastically beginning school—what will be her greatest work?  It’s exciting to ponder what can happen in a life of eager learning.

Better You Go Home: A Tense Novel by Scott Driscoll

In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher.  I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries.  Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home.  I read the novel eagerly last month.  It is powerful.scott driscoll's book

Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here.  He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs.  Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted.  More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.

The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities.  The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency.  This book is not light entertainment.  The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret.  But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real.  Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise.  This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism.  In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity.  Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.CIMG0779

Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating.  “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said.  “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family.  But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”

Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape.  This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.

Here is the Amazon link for the book