Virginia Stem Owens

Virginia Stem Owens


Virginia Stem Owens has written more than seventeen books, including four novels and nonfiction on a wide range of topics from media to metaphysics. She has been on the editorial board of Books & Culture since its inception. She also served for seven years as director of the Milton Center, an institute dedicated to fostering excellence in writing by Christians. Virginia lives in Huntsville, Texas, with her husband, David, a dog, two cats, and a varying number of chickens.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Getting Old

“I have been young, and now I am old.” Psalm 37:26

When did I first begin thinking of myself as old? Old is not a term
much valued today unless it refers to money or furniture, in which
case we actually prefer “antique.”
Aging is not much better, but it’s preferable to old. Aging is a
rather vague category, implying only a direction, not a destination..
After all, aren’t we all aging? (The government’s Administration on
Aging statistics tries to soften the blow of the blunt instrument of
language by calling those 65 and up “older,” slightly less offensive
At sixty my skin was undeniably aging; it was the vellum on which my
future was etched. My arm had become a mosaic of tiny trapezoidal
scratches. The surface of my legs began to look like alligator skin.
Indented necklaces grooved my throat. My eyelids lapped over
And everything, not only my skin but also my eyes, my mouth, my lower
intestine, dried out like the shore of a droughty Texas lake. The
dust-to-dust part of dying obviously begins early.
Still, at that point, I figured I was only in the late-middle-age
category. Not old, or even older. Just aging.
Even at sixty I didn’t think of myself as old. Old meant my mother’s
generation. Permanent waves. Gathered skirts. Breasts closer to one’s
waist than one’s shoulders. A way of moving with tentative slowness. A
downy upper lip. Not going to movies, especially R rated ones because
they were full of crashes, explosions, and too much skin and violent
language. It meant ladies’ luncheons at quiet tea rooms with chicken
salad on a lettuce leaf. Guided tours. Conversations about medications
and doctors’ visits. Medical tests with capital letters for names.
I had been diagnosed in my late fifties with glaucoma. A year later I
had to give up driving. This was my first big loss. A loss I couldn’t
deny or ignore. And it was Irreversible, there being no cure for
glaucoma. I think this loss helped me to nudge my mind closer to
accepting old as a modifier for me.
Old, I was beginning to understand, meant an unremitting series of
losses, ones impossible to remedy or restore. As an aunt told me,
“Your friends die and your doctor retires.”
When I was young, change seemed exciting. Sameness was boring. I
found it challenging to keep up with the latest thing, to live on the
edge, to ride the cultural wave.
But I no longer find body-surfing through our morphing culture
exhilarating. The changes that everyone else -- at least everyone
younger than me -- seems to find congenial, only isolates, even
alienates me. My attitude is slipping dangerously close to those I
used to deplore in my parents and grandparents, suspecting, if not
outright condemning anything new, everything unfamiliar.
This change-resistant mental state of the elderly happens on a
cellular level too. As cells age, they become less able to absorb
sodium and potassium from the bloodstream, chemicals necessary to
sustain life. At 88, my father, always a big salt lover, could not eat
enough potato chips to beef up his sodium level, nor enough bananas to
keep his potassium doing its job. Not even pill supplements helped. As
cells walls harden and become impermeable, it does no good to pour
more chemicals into the system. His cells simply refused to let them
in, just as his mind rejected new information or to change its
responses to the outside world.
Which is not to say I am wrong when I find contemporary music
appalling or disagree with my daughter about what constitutes an
acceptable movie for an eight-year-old to watch. I am indeed set in my
ways, some of which I know to be merely long-established habits and
others which I believe are valid. And valuable.
For I do have, besides a body and a brain, a spirit, the source of
will and, if I work at it, wisdom. I retain the power to evaluate and
to choose. Part of the wisdom of elders is knowing when to speak and
when to keep silent. I figure I am still learning that lesson.
Another part of wisdom is accepting – no, claiming – my identity as
an old, not just older, person. We often start making this choice in a
half-joking sort of way. “Will you help this old lady reach that can
on the top shelf?” I ask the grocery stocker. He grins and so do I.
But over time I have come to say quite directly that I am old. Yet
one needs to train others to accept the statement too, not as a
derogatory designation but as a mere statement of fact.
“Oh no!” they protest. “You’re not old.” Or even worse, “You’re only
as old as you feel.” To which I respond that I feel old.
Even my rheumatologist, whose practice is predictably and primarily
among old people, replied to my claim of age, “Oh, don’t say that.
You’re not old till you’re a hundred.”
So I said, quite seriously, “There’s nothing wrong with old, you know.”
This is a matter of identity, this being old. To disclaim one’s age
is to reject who we are. To be shamed by our bodies, the slower
workings of our limbs and neurons, our increased dependency on others.
That’s why I like the unadorned statement of the psalmist: “I have
been young, and now I am old.” It acknowledges one’s experience of
both ends of life. It affirms their equal value.
Not accepting our identity as old feeds fear, desperation, and shame.
It deprives us of the gratitude, peace, and joy that should be ours.

Friday, December 14, 2007


**Caring for Mother named one of Top 150 Best Books of 2007 by Publisher's Weekly**

Monday, October 22, 2007

Remembering Your Life

“How was school today?” Isn’t that the first question most parents ask their children when they walk in the door? “How was work today?” we ask a spouse or friend, and, unless we’re very tired, we want someone to ask us a similar question. Why?

Say you go on a trip – an Alaskan cruise or a visit to a previously estranged relative. If you return and no one asks you to tell them about it, don’t you feel that the experience was somehow incomplete? If no one listens to the tale of our travels or trials, we feel a little, sometimes a lot, frustrated. The human race seems to have a deep seated need to narrate our lives to one another.

Again, why?

Because, I believe, we have an inborn need to give a shape to our lives instead of experiencing life as only a jumble of sensations -- just one darn thing after another, a string of unrelated occurrences. We do this by identifying ups and downs, what was good and what was bad about the day or trip or lifetime. We want to figure out what caused certain actions. Did we get fired because we were incompetent or because the boss was paranoid? Was the high score on the history test a result of hard study or pure luck?

And as we shape our story, we shape ourselves. We come to know, or at least think we know, ourselves. We all live inside some story. We have to. What, we want to know, does it all mean? And somehow we have settled on stories as the best tool with which to make meaning of our lives.

Memoirs Ancient and Modern

This is nothing new. From the furthest back evidence we have about human culture, people have been telling stories and preserving them even before they had written language. Egyptian hieroglyphics are picture books showing the exploits of kings. Even the cave paintings in Europe probably record how the tribe’s hunt went, thousands of years ago. Gilgamesh, the oldest written work so far discovered, tells the story of the king and his friend Enkidu. By far the largest part of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are narratives of heroes and villains, human tragedies and divine rescues.

Any number of venues today encourage us to “tell our story.” Support groups, twelve-step programs, therapists, retreat leaders, even media forums such as Oprah and public radio’s Storybook Project ask participants to divulge, if not their entire autobiographies, at least the parts relevant to its current audience.

As listeners we seem to have developed an almost insatiable hunger for “true stories,” or what book marketers classify as nonfiction. Witness also the upsurge in the past few years of so-called reality TV shows. And since the arrival of lipstick-size video cameras that can be strapped to one’s forehead, some people have begun streaming their daily lives on the internet. Stranger still, even more people log on to watch these unedited everyday lives. I’m taking it for granted that, since you are reading this, you are interested in reading and perhaps even writing the more shapely form of memoir than the streaming of digital dailiness provides.

Some Parameters and Pressure Points

Here are the basic parameters. Memoir is autobiographical, but not necessarily autobiography, a genre that generally spans the writer’s lifetime. Usually a memoir focuses on a slice of time in the writer’s life. Elie Wiesel’s Night records the period he and his father spent in a concentration camp during World War II. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions covers her first year of motherhood. In Down and Out in Paris and London George Orwell recounts his experience living among the poor of those two world capitals.

Occasionally a memoirist captures events in someone else’s life, usually someone close who has had a significant impact on the writer’s own life. For instance, I wrote a memoir of my grandfather’s last years, something he would not have been able or cared to do himself. However, as his life had affected his eight children and also his many grandchildren, of whom I was the eldest, I felt compelled to gather his material in a way that explored its meaning for three generations.

Memoirists have some advantage over writers of other genres. Novelists and poets have to spend time considering what they want to write. Their material has to be invented and decided upon. But the matter of memoir is simply there. It has already happened and, in most cases, it weighs upon the writer’s consciousness with so much pressure that, like toothpaste in a tube, it gets squeezed out eventually. For example, in Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye, I wrote about my mother’s decline into disease and dementia. At first, I kept a journal in order to preserve my own sanity. Later I used the journal to organize my memories and thoughts about what had happened in an attempt to try to understand how what had happened to her fit into my moral and spiritual universe. Elie Wiesel used memoir to make sense of the horrors of the concentration camp. In Walden, Thoreau worked to tie the natural world to human endeavor. So significant, so pressing were these preoccupations that they had to be dealt with in order to go on with life. We speak of recounting a tale or story; the verb recount is instructive. We are trying to make it all add up.

Thus, the writer takes what weighs on her or him (or as some would put it, what the Lord has laid on their hearts) and squeezes the material to move it from the inside to the outside where others may regard it, reflect upon it, and perhaps find a connecting thread to their own experience. Maybe it throws a little light on their path. At the very least, they know they are not alone. Others have been this way too.

My first observation to pass on to prospective memoirists actually came from a talk I heard Elie Wiesel give. He said, “Only write if you have to. And only write what only you can write.” Which I take to mean: the matter you write about should be elemental, understanding it essential to your sanity or at least your understanding of life. Writing is too hard to waste the effort on anything less fundamental.

Don’t be surprised to find that what you squeeze out of your tubular self lacks adequate substance for shaping into a compelling narrative. You are writing about your own life or that of someone close to you, so that makes you the expert, right? It’s not always that simple. The very leakiness of life, the way it pools and runs into other lives and events makes it impossible to isolate from other influences. Only inside the tube can we sustain the illusion of autonomous experience. Your life began long before you were born. The strands of DNA stretch back a long way. And those strands have been kneaded and coiled and strung out by other forces ever since your birth. Discovering what those forces are and writing about them with all the accuracy you are capable of makes up much of the fun of memoir-writing. What made your parents choose the place where they planted you on the planet? Finances, family connections, a thirst for adventure, their particular vocation, war? This may take some digging, during which these archetypal figures in your life may turn into fascinating characters, whether the evidence supports seeing them as heroes or villains or just people trying to do the best they knew how.

Researching Yourself?

What large social forces have been at work in your life, pushing or pulling you this way or that? This could take some research, if you want a meaty rather than a thin work. You must remember that younger readers will not have the same reference points you do. If, say, the civil rights movement became a pivot for the direction your life took, readers under forty will need a detailed and dramatic entry into that time to appreciate its impact on you. A generic reference will not do.

When Mariane Pearl wrote A Mighty Heart, the memoir of her husband Daniel Pearl’s capture and murder by terrorists in Pakistan, she turned what could have been a sob story into a powerful tale of triumph by giving us a richly textured account that included descriptions of the various ethnic groups that inhabit that country, its geography, various religious sects that threaten to tear it apart, the fascinating struggle between the military, the police, the national secret intelligence personnel, and the pervasive corruption infecting the government. All this was necessary to her vocation as a “truth warrior,” as she calls herself and her husband. What could easily have turned into a standard melodrama, dwelling primarily on her suffering and loss, deepened to give us more understanding of the incredibly complex forces that affected all our lives since September 11, 2001. While Mariane Pearl waited for news of her husband, she researched possible kidnappers on the internet, clipped newspaper stories, interviewed sheiks and mullahs, filled a wall with schematic links between possible suspects, made detailed timelines to help the military intelligence officer in charge of the search. When she left Pakistan, she took with her sixty notebooks filled with information collected during those terrible weeks. They provided the detailed information needed to make her story compelling.

Journals are essential to a memoirist. How you organize those depends on your personal proclivities. Some writers keep separate notebooks for interviews, book or internet research, and their own initial musings. Some do notecards or physical notebooks. Some keep all their notes on their computers. Whatever method you use, keep some version of it by your bedside. You may wake up in the middle of the night with a memory that needs snaring. Trust me. If you don’t pin it to paper then, it will have fled by morning. Memory is about the most elusive of all human gifts. Also, I have found that misty period when one is first coming to consciousness in the morning the moment when I sometimes receive my best insights into my material. Revelation often happens when our rational minds are muddled. That’s when the cap can come off the toothpaste.

Assessing Your Audience

Now we come to a delicate point. A glob of toothpaste has, by itself, little appeal. It is one thing – and often a very important thing – to write in your journal. It can be therapeutic and sometimes revelatory. But if you are writing in hope that others will be interested in and perhaps even edified by what you have to say, you must take heed of those hoped for readers, people who don’t know you and have their own lives to deal with. Their attention is at a premium. Bombarded as we are by demands on our consciousness, -- commercials, music, billboards, memos, email, junk mail – getting someone to sit down and read a book requires craft and deliberation.

The first step is to identify and imagine your intended audience. Consider how you operate as an audience for the books you choose. Are you drawn to cookbooks, mysteries, biblical scholarship? Each of those categories is geared to a different audience. Because I am blind myself, I avidly search out memoirs written by other blind people – not a large population, admittedly, but a devoted one. I also scavenge for memoirs by novelists I like. Currently, I’m reading the very funny account by Agatha Christie describing how she accompanied her archeologist husband on one of his expeditions to Syria. This year I found a wonderful little book, Am I Old Yet?, by a woman who confronted her pathological fear of aging by visiting regularly an old lady in a nursing home. I chose it because I’m no spring chicken myself and also because I cared for my own mother in her declining years. None of these books would appeal to everyone. But each connects to an audience who share their concerns. Make a list of categories of people who would have a genuine interest in your story. Mothers of small children? Recovering addicts? Winners of lottery jackpots?

As you write, you will have to split yourself in two. You will be the one telling the story, but from time to time you will have to switch into audience mode, surveying your work critically. Are you able to sustain your own interest in the narrative? Can you find a clear path through the events or do they become muddled and confusing? What’s missing? Perhaps a clear connection between ideas, a lack of specific illustration. Every few pages, it’s a good idea to stop and read aloud what you have written. The ear can hear things that the eye will miss.

The Elusive Voice

Which brings us to another essential aspect of memoir. Voice. In particular, yours. Your story consists not simply of the information you want to convey nor the way you organize it to produce the emotional effect you are aiming for. The best memoirs come to the reader saturated in an oral medium. Voice is an element harder to pin down than organization or facts. Voice brings the writer palpably into his or her own story. It makes sure the story enters the reader’s mind and heart through the ear as well as the eye. The narrator is not merely writing but speaking, even whispering, to the reader. The distance between them shrinks to no more than a few feet.

So how is the writer to project herself over not only physical but psychic or cultural distances that separate her from her audience? First of all, by not doing what will keep the reader at a distance. Too many writers, either beginning ones or those who are used to writing in another mode, adopt a position across the desk from their reader. They want to sound intelligent, prepared, in control of the interchange. Or worse, they stand behind a podium on a slightly elevated dais, looking out at the audience whose faces they can’t quite make out in the darkened auditorium. Writing in one’s own voice demands (unless you are a pompous ass and don’t mind sounding like one), that you come down from the platform or move around from the barrier of the desk and sit down beside your reader who doesn’t want to hear a sermon or listen to a lesson. The reader wants to know what it was like inside your skin as you lived your story. When you had that car wreck, you were not thinking in clear, schoolteacher accents. When you raised your right hand and took the oath of citizenship, your voice tightened and maybe broke. Lived experience cannot be conveyed by trying to sound like a TV anchor or your sixth grade teacher.

It’s easy enough to say, “Just be yourself. Speak in your own natural voice.” But which voice? We all speak differently in diverse situations. We speak to family members in a tone and with a vocabulary we tend to spiff up when we speak to employers, doctors, and prospective customers. Every relationship seems to require a slightly modulated tone and diction. In writing to strangers, we tend to be reserved or even shy. I wrote a letter this week to someone I don’t know who might want to buy some land from me. I wanted to provide the necessary information and sound like a competent business person. The voice was respectful but impersonal. Then I wrote an email message to my granddaughter, congratulating her for doing well in a cross-country race. The email message had whoops and exclamation points and private made-up words families develop over the years. It was personal and full of enthusiasm.

Please do not get the idea that finding a voice means simply reproducing spoken language, however. If that were all that was needed, you’d only have to switch on a tape recorder and start talking. In fact, you might try that sometime just to see how hopeless such a method would be. Spoken language tends to be a meandering river, full of sluggish hesitations and rushing, if incomprehensible babbling. It’s wonderful to tell a story face to face with a friend who knows your references, empathizes with your point of view, and can break in to have you clarify a point or straighten out the sequence of your thoughts. Chances are, a stranger’s eyes would begin to glaze over after a few minutes, however.

This is where art comes into the craft of writing. Your job is to make your written voice sustain the immediacy of a spoken voice, while at the same time maintaining the shapeliness of your narrative. Language that conveys your attitude and feelings experienced when you were living the story must be balanced with reflective language that keeps your story within the bounds of clarity and controls the shape of your narrative. Augustine’s Confessions reflects at length on his experiences from childhood (including infancy) to his conversion and commitment to a monastic life. But he uses the device of speaking his thoughts directly to his audience – God – in order to convey the passion he feels about God’s grace in his life. On the other end of the spectrum, Agatha Christie in her Syrian memoir keeps mainly to narrative, maintaining a comic voice throughout, poking fun at both the indigenous sheiks and workers and the French officials as well as the British crew’s inability to understand the language and the culture. Who knew a mystery writer could be so funny? Yet she never slips into the harsh or cynical voice today’s contemporary humorists bank on. By placing herself on the margin of the action, an observer rather than a main participant in the action, she keeps her view wide-angle and her voice sympathetic.

Discovering your proper voice and sustaining it is no easy juggling act. It will require experimentation, detached assessment, and no doubt multiple revisions. Again, reading your drafts aloud to yourself or others can be a great help. You will be able to detect any whining, sermonizing, or other undesirable tone creeping into your story. Nothing is so self-revelatory as writing, I have found.


As you can see, you must be exceedingly committed to chronicling this piece of your life to work this hard. Thus, you must treat your narrative with the utmost authenticity, never forgetting that your life is a gift to be honored with your best effort.

This requires excruciating honesty, although if that word makes you squirm, you can substitute accuracy. It is one of the maxims of writing that all writing is fiction. This is not only true but unavoidable. Even when you struggle to be as accurate as you can, as just as possible to the characters who inhabit your story, any individual’s knowledge of reality is inevitably partial., as St. Paul repeatedly points out, “We know in part.” Which does not mean there is no true and solid reality. Reality does not continually morph, amoeba-like, to suit our line of sight. But, like the blind people in the oft-repeated story of their attempt to describe an elephant, they know only what they have experienced, however accurate each is determined to be. One feels the tail, another the trunk, a third the large flapping ears. Writers must simply and humbly accept this limitation as they try to bear witness to the truth.

Which brings us to one of the stickiest problems afflicting the memoirist. It haunts you before you start writing and it will continue to hover over your shoulder as you are in the process. And it will linger long after your missive has been sent out into the world. It is just this: How much truth? Where do you draw the line? I find the question easier to answer when it concerns only myself. Not that I strip my soul bare in my books, revealing my deepest darkest secrets. Those are reserved for God. But what is relevant to the story I do try to record with sometimes painful honesty. Painful, I hope, only to me and not to my reader.

But little of what you write will concern only yourself. Your story contains other people too. Some of those are close enough to you that you worry about exposing them to criticism or ridicule. But to tell your story honestly might require describing them in less than a flattering light. What you see as merely an endearing if eccentric quirk of character they may see as an entirely admirable trait or even nonexistent. There are all sorts of ways to offend people who figure in your story, and I have probably perpetrated most of them. My long-suffering mother once requested, “When you write your next book, will you please make it about a subject other than our family?”

“But I changed the names,” I protested. She merely raised an eyebrow and shook her head.

Sometimes the difficulty runs deeper though. You may face the prospect of divulging secrets other people have worked hard to conceal. I have no absolute guidelines to provide you in this matter, only my own choices and experiences. At times I have known that what I wrote would not go down well with the person I felt was essential to my story. On the other hand, I never wrote with the intention of hurting that person. I just told the truth as I knew it.

Like most families, mine contains alcoholics, adulterers, and abusers. I don’t drag in unpleasant details unless they are relevant to relationships or events necessary to the story. But when they are key, I don’t leave them out. If you find yourself smartening up or smoothing over the truth, you need to rethink your position. Never write anything where truth is not honored. If you find that making your story public would cause more pain than you are willing to accept, write it for yourself and God.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

NTERVIEW QUESTIONS With Westminster John Knox Press

Caring for Mother

Why did you choose to write this book? In the introduction you explain that you began writing about the experience at first in very technical terms, by recording doctor appointments, tracking medication, observing behavioral changes. When did you decide to transform these facts into a memoir?

I did begin by keeping a log of medical information, but I soon also started to keep a very rough journal my interactions with my parents and how the experience was affecting me. I made a conscious decision to write it rough, being intentionally non-literary. To do otherwise at the time just didn't seem right, either morally or substantively. By which I mean that the time was very jagged and rough itself and making it smooth and readable was contrary to what I was feeling. I didn't begin what one might call writing the book until the last couple of years of my mother's life. I believe I began by describing the doctor visits and the parts that were not so personal to me.

Your previous books have ranged in subject from mystery novels, to meditations about the bible, to political hot-topics such as the death penalty in Huntsville, Texas. What is it that draws you to a project?

I have to write about topics I feel deeply about. I read a lot of mysteries and wrote those three books as "practice fiction. The other novel, Generations ( has only been published in England), is about a grandmother who lived through WWII, a mother who lived through the Vietnam war, and her two daughters during the first Gulf war. Generational links have figured largely in several of my other books as I come from a large extended East Texas family. Interestingly, And the Trees Clap Their Hands, about the new physics, was a subject I was equally passionate about as it opened up my cosmological view of reality in a truly earth-shaking way.

You have addressed the issue of death and dying many times in your writing, most notably in your book about Huntsville’s Death Row chamber, called the "Death House" by locals. You come back to this image of death again in Caring for Mother, but this time you compare your mother’s nursing home to the "Death House" in Huntsville—By viewing both facilities in this jarring light, you reveal the similar social, moral questions about how our society is able (and unable) to treat these two populations. Have you thought further about this comparison? What steps can we take to improve care for the elderly while retaining their integrity as a free-willed person?

My family would say my choice of dark topics fits my general outlook! But I'm actually a rather happy person. Maybe it's just that I don't like to fool around with trivial topics. As for improving care for the elderly, I believe that they, along with many other sequestered parts of the population, should remain integrated in the community as far as possible. But such caregivers need a lot more support than they get in order to do this. The money that Medicare spends on nursing home family care be used to support people in their own homes or the homes of their caregivers .And it would save a lot of money! Of course there are many elderly without families or in such conditions that this isn't feasible. But they would be a much smaller population and would thus, hopefully, get better care.

You wrote, "Nothing had ever confronted so forcefully my faith that an ultimate graciousness dwelt at the heart of the world and cared for us." How have you been able to reconcile this experience since her passing, or have you? In which ways was your faith present, or absent, during this experience—especially after being unable to "flip on [your mother’s] steadfast faith [that] she had always relied on?"

I was surrounded by family and friends who loved and prayed for my mother and me. Knowing of their concern me from feeling abandoned and alone. I prayed a lot too, which I tend to do especially when I'm in a desperate mode. I never thought God had done this to my mother. Statistically, something's going to happen to you sooner or later that's not too pleasant. The body just has a lot of different ways of dying, none of them, except perhaps for a sudden heart attack or massive stroke, without pain and nastiness. It wasn't fair that my mother had to suffer as she did and for so long, but fairness isn't a concept recognized by what we call nature. The world runs by mystery, not by our simplistic categories. We didn't make it; we can't understand it. Suffering can't be solved. It has to be grasped, like a nettle. You have a choice of denying it, running from it, letting it make you bitter, or trusting your way through it.

Your memoir often addresses the human condition on a philosophical level. After finding your mother trying to balance her checkbook, off only a few cents, your mother exclaims that "It’s the only worth-while thing I’ve done all day." You then pose the question, "Who is to treat this symptom, I wonder, my mother’s growing sense of worthlessness?" Although you never answer these questions in your memoir, you suggest in the final chapters that the journey of this experience, a journey that forces these questions into your consciousness, has somehow given you peace about the "not knowing" that is, as you claim, "precisely the point of human death." Could you explain?

One of my prayers - my private paraphrase of part of the Lord's Prayer - is "save us from futility." Futility, uselessness, worthlessness. They are the particular afflictions old people and the chronically ill. It's a feeling I have had to fight against myself as my blindness has descended and I can do less and less to "earn my existence." The older we get, the more we think about what our life has been worth. Our culture is especially good at wasting lives, I think. And at convincing people whose lives have been well spent that they've accomplished nothing worthwhile. Of course, none of us will know what our lives have meant until they're over.

In the end of your memoir you list practical emotional guidelines to assist others who face the eventual care of a dying parent. One of your suggestions is: "Friends and relatives may offer their sturdy support, but they cannot bear your pain for you." Knowing this, what advice would you give to a friend or a relative attempting to offer support to a care-giver in your situation?

Knowing that there is no way to take away or take on the pain, I would also know that there are very practical things that would be a help, such as staying with the sick person for a couple of hours to give the caregiver time to shop or just get away for a while. Or bringing a cooked meal. Or finding information on the web about eldercare, nursing homes, hospice, etc. I would caution against presenting this as suggestions, however. Everyone always has ideas about how you ought to be handling the situation, which gets very wearing. One must be subtle in making the info available. But even letting the caregiver vent on the phone is an act of charity.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Another Sudan Tragedy

Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins. Hardback 2002, paper 2004.

Emma’s War, by a woman whose reporting for the Atlanta Constitution on Africa and the Middle East has won six awards, intertwines the sad history of Sudan with that of Emma McEwan, a young British aid worker who spent the last few years of her brief life determined to wed herself to an impenetrable place and culture. Emma’s failure gives us an edifying and sobering reflection in miniature of the West’s centuries-long and often catastrophic attempts to pierce that dark continent’s heart.
As a bonus, Emma’s War also provides a surprising glimpse into what life must have been like for the characters who people the early Hebrew Scriptures. By the time I made it through the first half of Scroggins’ narrative, the Old Testament – or at least what scholars call the patriarchal period -- was opening to me in an entirely new way. Like Abraham and sons, most sub-Saharan Africans measure their wealth by their herds. Many still follow their cattle to unfenced grazing grounds. They traditionally practice polygamy and organize themselves socially by kinship ties rather than boundaried locations. As the Old Testament Israelites did, they understand themselves as a people rather than a place. Indeed, the Western concept of countries means little to them.
Moreover, people can still be sold into slavery in Africa, as was Joseph and Hagar. In fact, like the latter, some experience a rise in their social status through enforced servitude or through bearing children to their masters in a wealthy family.
Also, prophecy plays a very large role in the lives of Sudanese, whether Christian, Muslim, or animist. Scroggins saw her first prophet at Nasir. A middle-aged Nuer with the six parallel lines of manhood on his forehead emerged from the forest, singing and dancing. He wore blue underpants, pink flowers behind his ears, and brass armbands. Like the Hebrew prophets, the Sudanese varieties deliver their messages symbolically.
A Christian prophet named Paul wore nothing except a waist belt and a cross. He went among the Dinka tribe, proclaimed that God had ordered all the sacred objects of the Dinkas to be collected and burned on a hill he called Zion. God would then smile on them.
Paul based his message on Isaiah 18, and those who seek to understand the murderous mystery of Africa’s largest country, especially their Christian brothers and sisters in the southern region, might do well to start there. Sudanese Christians generally take Isaiah’s description of “the land which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,” to be Sudan. Certainly the people living there have been, in Isaiah’s words, “a nation scattered and peeled.”
These interesting comparisons with the Old Testament should be important, however, not only to biblical scholars or anthropologists; they contain an even more urgent message for the West's ongoing involvement with other cultures and for the church's attempt to follow Christ's expressed desire that we "all may be one.”
However hard it is for us to absorb the notion, not all of the world's peoples understand themselves to be citizens of a nation-state. Enormous populations find their identity in tribal or kinship groups. Millions more pledge their most fervent loyalty to a religious leader or ideal, regardless of geography. Many areas in the Middle East and Africa were only created in the twentieth century by Western colonial governments or occupying powers. Their official boundaries may have little to do with the actual topography or the existing social organization of the people living there. Trying to impose a Western abstraction that ignores the quite concrete ties of kindship, language, and religion often can result in tragedy for all parties.
Sudan is a prime example of such a situation. Until the coming of the Ottoman Turks to northern Africa in the fifteenth century[, areas of sub-Sahara Africa were most often referred to by topographical descriptions, i. e., the Kalahari desert or the veldt. The lower third of what is now called Sudan was known as “the swamp.” The boggy equatorial rainforest is home to the black-skinned tribes of the Nuer, the Dinka, and many other smaller tribes. The northern two-thirds of the country are largely desert, which have been dominated for centuries by Arabs who first came to Africa to capitalize on the slave trade. Under the Ottoman Turks, Arabs acted as its governing elite in Egypt and controlled access to the upper reaches of the Blue and White Niles, the primary southern route for transporting slaves north from the interior of the continent. The swamp was so impenetrable that neither the Turks nor Arabs were interestid in exploiting the region for any other goods.
The first challenge to this slave trade came from Britain in the nineteenth century. Its anti-slavery movement, fueled by Christian morality, succeeded in banning slavery in England in 1848. The Anti-Slavery Society persuaded Charles George Gordon, the hero who had ended China's civil wars in the 1860s, to take on the task of abolishing the African slave trade. With only a handful of soldiers, he at first tried interdicting the river barges that carried the slaves north. But the traders merely shifted their cargo from floating on the relatively comfortable river barges to marching their captives across the desert wastes.
Gordon began to grow pessimistic about this tactic. The desert sands were soon littered with the skeletons of slaves who never finished the trek north. "I am sure a poor child walking through the burning plains would say, 'Oh, I do wish those gentlemen had left us alone to come down by boat,'"he wrote to the Anti-Slavery Society.
Slavery had been a fact of life in Africa since the third century B.C. The Sudan had supplied the Egyptian army with soldiers from the time of the dynasties. As the story of Joseph in Genesis suggests, for some, slavery presented a way of moving up in the world. Centuries later, after the Muslim conquests of North Africa, life in an Arab household might prove easier than life in the swamp. Though under Islamic law, masters could use their slaves sexually, the resulting children were born free.
Ending slavery in the United States had taken a bloody civil war. Ending slavery in Africa would be much more difficult. In fact, the slave trade continues today, despite the well-intentioned efforts of American activists and school children who have adopted Gordon's next tactic -- buying the freedom of slaves. Unfortunately, Gordon’s freed slaves were then left far from home and unprotected from other captors.
Even when the Turks’ Egyptian envoy made Gordon the ruling governor general over all Sudan, the British soldier had no real means of accomplishing his goal. He was the sole administrator over a million square miles stretching from the Libyan desert to the equatorial swamp, a land with virtually no infrastructure other than foot trails and rivers for transportation, no common language for communication, and no shared legal system. To Gordon's supporters, "Sudan was not so much a real place," Scroggins writes, "as a magic mirror that reflected back a heroic picture of them and their culture.”
The Anti-Slavery Society was horrified when they heard that Gordon was buying slaves himself. He responded in a letter, "People think that you have only to say the word and slavery will cease. I need troops. How am I to get them but thus by buying them, just as the Egyptians have for centuries. I need to purchase slaves to put down the slave dealers."
In 1879, Gordon resigned as governor general and returned to England, convinced that the only way to change conditions in Africa was to bring it under direct British control.
Britain soon set about doing just that, though the government’s motives were not quite as pure as those of the romantic General Gordon, All the major European states were competing for some part of the riches of the continent which had for so long remained dark to them. King Leopold of Belgium, determined to satiate his lust for African rubber and ivory, certainly cared little for the misfortunes of enslaved black Africans. The French, Dutch, and Portuguese governments made shifting alliances, trying to secure their foothold in advantageous areas. The Suez Canal, a joint project of the French and Egyptians, had just been opened. Seeing the canal as necessary for protecting its own colonial interests, Britain bought out the shares of the impoverished Egyptian government.
A further opportunity for England to assert its own authority in Africa came in 1882 when it entered Egypt to help the Turks put down a nationalist rebellions led by a Muslim calling himself "the Mahdi, a term meaning "expected one," roughly equivalent to Messiah. What proved to be unexpected, at least by the West, was his military success. He soon had the few English soldiers remaining in Sudan cut off, along with a considerable number of Christian missionaries.
But the British government, prefiguring a later, similar failed American attempt in Somalia, decided not to expend further British lives by sending in more troops. Instead, it once again called on its hero, General Gordon. And, armed only with his unshakeable belief in the moral superiority of his country, Gordon rose to the challenge, making his way up the Nile to Khartoum, without supporting troops or weapons.
Though Gordon managed to get over two thousand Europeans to safety, it was not long before the Mahdi’s army swept down on the garrison and beheaded Gordon. It would be twenty years before Britain would finally recapture Khartoum and Kipling would write his poem in praise of the fallen British hero, exhorting America to join England to take up "The White Man's Burden, the savage wars of peace." Fortunately, America demurred, at least for the time being. Today, the anniversary of Gordon's death is celebrated as a national holiday in Sudan.
America, like the rest of the West, has often responded to the next words in Kipling's poem, however, the exhortation to "fill full the mouth of famine." We have poured millions of aid dollars into Sudan, as well as other regions of Africa. Yet hundreds of thousands still starve there every year. And slavery still continues.
Scroggins quotes one of the disillusioned aid workers who pointed out that Sudanese culture operates on the "politics of the belly." When indicating how a person makes his living, they say, “he is eating from that.” In the West we look in the mirror to see our bellies. Ours is the "politics of the mirror," at least when dealing with Africa. We like to admire the magnanimous image of ourselves reflected in Africa's mirror, We feel affirmed by those pictures of celebrities surrounded by emaciated black children, saving them from starvation.
Emma’s War tells the story of Western aid to Africa by focusing on one particular British relief worker in Sudan who fell in love both with the country and with one of the commanders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Scroggins hoped that this one woman’s experience "might shed some new light on the entire humanitarian experiment in Africa. Or at least on the experience of people like me. People went there dreaming they might help and came back dumb with disillusionment, yet forever marked."
And no story could illustrate doomed romanticism and self-delusion so vividly as that of Emma McCune. Raised in an atmosphere of shabby and shaky gentility, she learned early to thumb her nose at conventional restraints. Bold and daring by temperament, she once, early in her twenties, flew around the world in a single-engine plane. At Oxford Polytechnic University, she was attracted to the African students who expected to be playing a large part in their various countries' futures. And the attraction was mutual, at least among the men, some of whom became Emma’s lovers. Eventually, Emma ended up in Sudan after finding a Canadian relief agency, Street Kids International, that would give her a job there and validate her presence in Sudan to the government in Khartoum.
She worked first in a refugee camp in Ethiopia feeding people fleeing from Sudan's civil war. Her job with SKI entailed setting up impromptu schools for refugee children in Sudan. Education was highly valued among those aspiring to be the country’s leaders. Despite opposition in the north, Christian missionaries had continued to educate at least a segment of the black population in the southern provinces,
In 1989, while on a mission to set up such a school in rebel-held territory, she met and fell in love with Riek Machar, one of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army commanders. Though Riek already had an educated Sudanese wife and two children living in London, he eventually married Emma, and they lived together in Riek's headquarters in Nasir, a city in Upper Nile province on the Sobat River.
War was not new to Sudan. For so long a vassal province of Egypt and then Britain, it had been an independent nation only since 1956 and had been plagued ever since by military coups and power grabs by various Arab factions. Neighboring countries like Libya also put pressure on an always unstable government. Resistance to the Islamic government in Khartoum was inevitable.
The first civil war lasted for seventeen years, and famine soon propelled it into a second. Led by John Garang, the SPLA controlled most of the southern provinces and a number of larger towns. But what does control mean when applied to a variety of tribes in an equatorial rain forest? Most southern Sudanese were oblivious to what we would call the outside world. Of more immediate concern to them were the ever-shifting boundaries of tribal influence. Where could the Nuer graze their cattle? What land could the farming Dinka safely and profitably cultivate? How much fish could the Uduks, a small forest-dwelling tribe, catch in the rivers?
If factionalism kept the northern government shaky, the coalition of southern rebels was just as vulnerable to division. Garang's position was to insist on establishing a secular government for all of Sudan, north and south. With the National Islamic Front exerting its political muscle in Khartoum, this seemed about as unlikely as it does in Iran today. When Emma McCune first set eyes on Riek Machar, he and several other SPLA commanders willing to settle for independence from the north were already planning to split with Garang.
Neutrality is the cardinal rule for aid workers during civil conflicts. This was especially essential in Sudan. Whether one worked for the United Nations, the French organization Doctors without Borders, or a Christian mission, an aid worker needed Khartoum's approval to move about in the country. Even going from one refugee camp to another required special papers. If you were working in the south, you could not escape the need for protection by whatever faction controlled the area. Thus, maintaining neutrality was a balancing act of enormous delicacy and required infinite patience.
Emma could charm even the clerics of the north, but she had no patience at all with rules and regulations. Her friends, especially the Indian doctor, Bernadette Kumar, warned her about the consequences of her entanglement with Riek Machar. But Emma would have none of it. "In my heart I'm Sudanese," she told her friend, fully expecting that her identification with the black southern Sudanese would gain her acceptance and even grateful appreciation from Riek's fellow guerrillas.
Emma became the virtual minister of education for the portions of southern Sudan he controlled. She worked tirelessly, setting up schools for the "lost boys" orphaned by war and famine. Her commitment to Riek's cause was so profound that she at first refused to believe that some of the schools were also operating as training camps for SPLA boy soldiers. When the evidence became so glaring she could no longer ignore it, Emma defended the practice as necessary and even noble. Like General Gordon before her, she was taking up her version of the “white man's burden.”
Scroggins sees Emma as only a more extreme example of how relief organizations and their workers in the field can delude themselves. “Aid makes itself out to be a practical enterprise, but in Africa, at least, it's romantics who do most of the work. ," she says. "Africa, outside of books and movies, is hard and unromantic." Yet, she observed that even disillusioned aid workers and journalists often could not bring themselves to leave Sudan. "In truth, the average aid worker or journalist lived for the buzz, the intensity of life in the war zone, the heightened sensations brought on by the nearness of death and the determination to do good. We wanted to be there. We were being paid good money to be there, and the Sudanese knew it."
This knowledge infected the Sudanese with their own kind of cynicism. They believed that the aid workers, who actually receive somewhat meager salaries, were in it for the money. But what appears meager in Western eyes looks like a fortune to the Sudanese. And if money wasn’t their motive, the Sudanese reasoned that something must be wrong with these people. Probably they were failures back in their homeland.
Emma's idyll with Riek Machar lasted only a couple of years. Khartoum kept up the pressure on the southern rebels. A 1992 fatwa condemning all who opposed the government declared. “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate, and a non-Muslim is a non-believer, standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam. And Islam has granted the freedom of killing them."
A new prophet calling himself Crocodile Man appeared in Nuer territory. Though otherwise a soft-spoken young man in his twenties, he claimed to have the gift of cursing. Like an African version of John the Baptist, he called sinners, especially thieves to repent or suffer the curse of death. Nuers should stop fighting among themselves and unite against the Dinka. When the Khartoum government heard this part of his message, they were delighted. Since Garang was a Dinka, they could play off the rebel factions against one another. And indeed, the prophet's message set off "an explosion of bloodletting between the Dinka and Nuer" that Scroggins says continues to this day.
Riek began to lose control over his own troops. After one particularly savage Nuer massacre of a Dinka village, Paul, the Christian prophet described earlier, surveyed the smoking ruins and gave forth with his own message. He reminded the Dinka of his earlier warning to divest themselves of their shrines and idols. "You people," he cried, "God spoke and you did not listen. Now he has sent the Nuer and their sorcerer to punish you."
At the same time, Emma was growing increasingly frustrated with her attempts to be accepted by the others in Riek's camp. Though she lived just as they did, suffered the same hardships and deprivations, "they still see me as a white woman," she told her friend Bernadette Kumar, an Indian doctor working in refugee camps. "I try and try and I eat with them and I do everything they do, but they still look at the color of my skin." Her friend tried to comfort her with the truth. "You have the soul of a European. You can't change that."
Not long afterward, Emma was killed in an automobile accident in Nairobi. She had gone there for a medical checkup and had been overjoyed to discover she was five months pregnant.
Auto accidents are a favored mode of assassination in Africa. And there were plenty of people with reason to do away with this meddlesome woman. But then Emma was also a notoriously reckless driver.
My generation sometimes jokes about their mothers prompting them to clean their plates by imploring us to think of the starving children in China. Or Africa. Today, Chinese children presumably have enough to eat. But plenty of Africans still starve. And are sold into slavery. And die of AIDS. And what is that to us? Is that suffering merely a mirror in which to see our generosity and high-mindedness reflected, regardless of the actual effects of our relief efforts? Is it no more than a photo-op for Western cameras?
In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the last and greatest temptation presented to saints is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Or as Samuel Johnson was fond of saying, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” European souls, false paradigms, delusional romanticism, religious competition, greed for oil – what really fuels our attitude toward Africa? How are we to sort out our true motives from this confusing tangle? This is a difficult task for the West, even more difficult for Americans, and perhaps hardest of all for American Christians.