Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Winter of Our Mild Content

Be still.

The still small voice.

Lately I've feasted mightily from high fictional drama like hyenas dine on the still-warm carcass of a felled antelope. My recent reading and TV viewing past is littered with homages to melodrama, even as I work to convince myself that it's all very believable and convincing.

From the Game of Thrones books and show to The Walking Dead or The Road, from Justified to The Sisters Brothers, I've always been captivated by the notion of (seemingly) ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, often horrific, circumstances. For me, the most compelling stories involve characters who are not, on the basic level of humanity, not all that different than ourselves.

But a precious corner of my attention is preserved for those who can make art out of seemingly ordinary people living seemingly ordinary lives. That is, people who can remind us that the lives we live have their own merit, their own beauty, their own purpose. My favorite author, Richard Russo, excels at reminding us that the everyday is full of plenty of drama.

And lately, it seems my life has been surrounded by plenty of intense drama, with acquaintances and coworkers, family and those a degree or two away from me being stricken, one after the other, with lethal, or life-threatening illnesses. Nothing like the threats you see in Westeros or from the world of zombies, but rather invisible threats coursing unseen and too-long undetected in their bodies. Their lives have become vicious battles as we move through our unassuming days.

The book I recently finished, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, took me back to that place or regular lives, of stillness, of small, quiet voices and their capacity for comfort or distress.

It's a near-perfect book about our normal imperfections. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment (Warning: Almost spoiler alert here) is to remind us, over and over, that most of the dramas that come to a head in our lives end without melodrama. They build up to a nerve-tightening crecendo and then, because most normal people usually remain sane and cling to some measure of common sense, they resolve as they should, as we ought to hope they should.

Plainsong tells the story of a year in the life of Holt, Colorado, a fictional small town. Good luck telling exactly when this story takes place, because it doesn't so much matter. It is out of time, beyond it's limiting hour and minute hands. In even the smallest towns, an author must still limit the focus on a sampling of souls, and Haruf chooses to focus on people who are, or who yearn to be, decent.

When did "decent" become an insult? When did being a "decent" person become an almost-backhanded compliment, a synonym for boring, for Not Great And Not Awful?

Might we be better off, as people, as communities, if we celebrated decency a little more intentionally, more intensely? Decency is what a man like Dean Smith sought, where people aren't rewarded merely for doing the right thing, because the reward is waking up the next day knowing you did the right thing.

In Plainsong, the number of times I found my breaths stuttering with emotional build-up, where I was moved so close to tears that the words got a little blurry, numbered over a dozen. I doubt it will move all readers so regularly, but it did me. Time and again, in the smallest of ways, characters step up in ways that make you feel, when you really think about what they're doing and how often we expect so little of people, a little more whole, a little more alive.

Most of us are blessed with an undercurrent of grace that flows so strong under our feet, that carries us through our lives, often so gently we forget or fail to notice. This isn't to say bad things don't happen, because bad things always do. But the grace remains, and it continues to flow.

Being decent ain't so bad after all. But it takes an amazing book to remind us.

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