Roseate Spoonbill, S. American variety, Pantanal, Brazil, 2006
I’ll tell you right off — I am a fanboy of Sherman Alexie, our nation’s pre-eminent Native American author. And while I don’t think I’ve read everything he’s written, I think I’m pretty close. I was introduced to Alexie kind of randomly through his book Reservation Blues, and connected instantly as a child from Appalachia. In that book, Alexie, who writes mostly from a Native American perspective, makes the acerbic point that “white people want all the good parts of a being an Indian, but none of the bad parts.” He talks about the reservation store and Wonder Bread, and crafts a truly integrated perspective on his own experience throughout his novels. Alexis is at the top of the literary game, and has also made a movie, Smoke Signals. For a first movie, I thought Smoke Signals was pure genius. His portrait of an Indian nerd rings true for any kid growing up in a tough background in a depressed area.
He’s got a new book out now, that I haven’t read, but it’s on the top of my stack. Called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, it’s the story of Alexie’s childhood and relationship with his parents on the Spokane Indian reservation. Alexie’s father was a well-meaning, likable, but fundamentally worthless alcoholic, and his mother was a cruel, and violent, but materially pragmatic matriarch. I’ve gone to listen to Alexie speak many times, and his message is about as pan-cultural, leavened and holistic as it gets.
One of the things that’s already self-evident, just by listening to his interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Aire, is the pathway that Alexie followed to his own enlightenment. He himself is bipolar, and has worked to process the crazy vicissitudes of the illness his whole life. The interview is awesome, and I highly recommend it. The link is below.
Why does Alexie’s story matter? If you follow my relational empathy take on how one becomes Global Holistic, it clearly demonstrates one potential path to becoming an enlightened master, removed from the solely self-improvement, meditative path that folks like to trot out as moving toward higher v-Memes. When you have parents that are seriously disturbed, and you are raised in a climate of constant violence, the first challenge in your own development is to realize that spending a lot of time in the lower v-Memes doesn’t help. If your mother has a disordered personality, then all the beliefs about how great Moms are that society tells you to believe aren’t going to help you much. And if your father throws parties allowing access to pedophiles to the house, you quickly realize that if you don’t become data-driven and acutely empathetic in your relational mapping, things aren’t going to go well. You don’t get to believe in Santa Claus for long, because you’re going to end up getting beat at Christmas.
What childhoods of abuse can do, as Alexie so clearly demonstrates in even this brief interview, is throw you rapidly up the Spiral. No luxuriating down for too long in the Tribal/Magical v-Meme. And if you listen to the designated Authorities, or follow the Rules, you’re more than likely to end up dead. So you become data-driven at a very young age. The problem with being young and rational is that, well, your brain is not designed for it. Rational means merely using data to make time-dependent decisions. And no matter how quickly a seven-year-old can intuitively learn some of these lessons, they still can’t discriminate between good data and bad data. Scaffolding — and appropriate authority, and legalism matters, as well as creation myths that make sense, and some basic needs at the Survival v-Meme always being attended to. At least for a less trauma-laden path to greater social evolution.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t appreciate Alexie’s enlightened, far-seeing perspective. I absolutely do. But I think it’s also important, especially as we grow our own emotional empathy, to remember that wisdom usually comes with a price. The lower v-Memes are places to grow emotional empathy so that they more fully express themselves in the rational place-taking that one must learn from the exigencies of one’s trauma situation. Alexie, in the NPR interview, talks about one of the last negative aspects of his personality that fell away in his most recent brain surgery (he was born hydrocephalic and has had multiple operations) was blind rage.
Yet the depth of his self-knowledge exhibit in the interview makes this a must-listen. Evolving to a Global Holistic v-Meme doesn’t mean you are a holy man, or the as-yet-unannounced messiah. Or even, necessarily, a pleasant person to be around. What it means is that one’s mind has coupled deep reflection and their own experience with a connected honesty and grounding about the world around him. Alexie has done that in spades. I’m really looking forward to reading his book.
For those interested in the song by Dusty Springfield that Alexie named his book after, it’s below:
Postscript — Alexie is a graduate of my own university, Washington State University, and was likely saved through his connection to creative writing professor, Alex Kuo. Good teachers can still make a difference in turbulent lives. I believe it was Viktor Frankl who said all that one needed to get through the Holocaust was one sane person as your anchor. Thank you, Dr. Kuo. When we ponder what gets lost when we don’t invest in education, your example is tremendous.