By Charli Mills
Yanni’s fingers swipe across the ivory keys of his piano and I react. My vision is imaginary, but my senses are real. A mixture of familiarity and adventure, of hope and home, passes through the smallest spaces of my being, as if I could become the warm smell of cookies baking. The song is called Nostalgia. The first time I heard it, I didn’t long for home so much as I did for knowledge.
My imagination is fierce. The larger it grows, the more care and feeding it needs.
Knowledge, however, is a big concept, vague as the word food. If I tell you I want food, it’s something we can all relate to, but doesn’t convey what I hunger for – sweet, savory, comfort, exotic. It doesn’t say if I want food for health, taste, excitement, boredom, fear or all choices. Telling you my imagination has driven me to seek knowledge fails to convey the complexity of the being I am.
Telling you fully would require more pages than you’d really want to read about one person’s drive for knowledge to feed an imagination that believes in a better world full of so much wonder and beauty that the cosmos flash in a single snowflake right before it melts to water on a windowpane.
My son, with his recently minted master’s degree in business psychology, said to me on the phone last we spoke, “We are addicted to simplicity.”
I can’t say he’s right or wrong. I’m still thinking about it. It’s discussions like this that spark my imagination’s hunger when my mind lingers over what was said and what requires pondering like a found rock. It might just be an ordinary stone, or it can be one full of microscopic crystals. Deep discoveries lead to questions I didn’t know I had. Thus the quest for knowledge to satisfy all I can imagine is an endless loop.
When I try to imagine what America is experiencing collectively after a Trump presidential election, I admit to wanting simple answers. I want to know why, to understand. I don’t want to waste my imagination on fear and envisioning a bleak and authoritarian future. Yet, to imagine a world of beauty I need to understand the beast. Even within myself there is both light and darkness.
I turn over this election season like it’s an ugly rock in my palm that holds an answer of sorts. It’s not a rock I’d set out among my prized findings, but it holds clues of the past. Knowledge of the past helps me understand and direct a course into the future. Not everyone thinks that way, which is as it should be. We should think differently, imagine differently and share our different perspectives. My son is right. The world is a complex place made up of complex beings.
To give you my simple take on the state of affairs (and mind you I’m someone easily distracted by snowflakes and potential agates) I think we are seeing the polarization of the knowledge spectrum. On one end we have ignorance and on the other we have elitism. Both are self-serving negatives. One suppresses knowledge to perpetuate beliefs; the other wields knowledge as justification for beliefs. And there’s the complexity – we have beliefs mingling with facts and science and truth and experience. It’s a rock with many minerals.
Education is not necessarily the key. Disavowing or accumulating knowledge won’t bring compromise to a polarized society. It’s more about understanding what drives our knowledge – the imagination that does something with it. Through the imagination we can attempt to understand, to solve mysteries or conundrums, to feel empathy for others, to explore the past to understand the future, to hypothesize about potential outcomes, to see our own selves as expressions of what can be difficult to say in words.
Imagination guides us in critical thinking and envisioning what has been and what can be.
Unlike my son with the complex understanding of psychology and human behavior, I’m simply a bard. I tell the stories I imagine. I tell the stories my imagination creates to help me understand. Before you start questioning my sanity, yes, I can tell the difference between reality and fantasy. That’s not what I’m expressing when I say I tell imaginary stories. My stories are literature, creative fiction, and they are based on what I perceive and try to understand about the past and how people relate, and what that means to us today.
Like Yanni’s Nostalgia, I want my readers to feel something that drives them to seek knowledge. I want to see the spectrum of knowledge develop a third point, like the lead on a triangle, and always be driving forward away from ignorance and elitism. It’s a point unique to each of us as the food we prefer to eat and our reasons why. This point is taking knowledge that drives forward our education and experience regardless of how much or little we have. It’s a quest to find out; think through; understand another perspective not our own.
Here’s where literature can play a significant role. It’s not just a body of classics or academically worthy reads; literary participation involves reading, writing and discourse. Literary craft can be practice, even playful, and still be vital. Literary craft doesn’t have to be moving toward traditional publishing; it can be driving forward that third point on the knowledge spectrum, feeding and inspiring the quests of others to know more.
Literary craft is also exploration and discovery. It doesn’t mean exploring the nuances of transitive verbs or discovering all the uses for a semi-colon; that’s grammar. Literary craft might splice a comma while it also slices your heart open to reveal what it feels like to live as a widow who seeks asylum from a foreign war only to be deported to a holding camp in a desert because she’s different from those who welcomed her a year ago.
You might be imagining a Syrian refugee in a bordering country; I might have imagined a Japanese immigrant to California in 1939. Both ideas might be foreign concepts to a third reader. That’s where discourse allows people to share and explore ideas through discussion of potential meaning. The writer and reader are equally important to meaning found in literature. And I believe we need more literary acts of progressive knowledge. We need to pluck literature from the ivory towers and make it available to all. A literary revolution. Stories for change. Words for people.
Listening to Yanni is an old habit of mine. It’s music that expands my imagination, therefore it has become a standard by which I write literature. Nostalgia was with me when I put my babies to sleep and tried to craft stories from the thoughts I jotted down on a napkin at my waitressing job. I come from ignorance. My parents forbade college and I rebelled only to have them take me back home in humiliation. But I fought back and escaped the dynamic for good, enrolling in college. I experienced elitism first hand: crushed by rejection from my professors because I chose my husband and children over the grad school they thought would define my future.
I press forward making my own point to follow in my quest for knowledge. I pick up rocks, study library books on geology, watch cycles of migrating birds, and listen to the experiences of migrant workers who know more about cherry trees than any corporate company selling America organics. And I write the stories I imagine to try to understand, express and communicate. I support revolutionary acts of literature.
I leave you with a few personal flash fictions (99-word stories) I wrote when I felt scared and lost after the days of the 2016 election. The collection has a working title of In the Days After, and each story is one I imagined based on comments or experiences of people I personally know. Perhaps in the days to come, we can imagine a better outcome, a world as beautiful as piano music shaping a snowflake upon impact.
The Night Trump Won the Election in Montana
“He clocked me in the face, Mom!”
“What? When? Hon, what happened?” Nan wondered if she could drive 900 miles on zero sleep.
“I took Buckshot out to pee. Jay was asleep. It was dark, and Buckshot was doing his business and then, bam!”
“Are you okay? Did you call the police?” Her independent daughter. River rafter, mountain climber, bow hunter. Victim. No, not her daughter, too. She raised strong daughters.
“Gave me a black eye. Bastard.”
“Tell,” was all Nan could say.
“Yeah, I did, Mom. Not much the police can do. They took a report.”
JOYCE: Jim Bob and his gang of skinheads wouldn’t have retreated even if Hillary had won. Hate’s boiled over. We clean the pot or live with the mess.
JAN: U calling me racist? Sick of everyone saying I’m racist cause I voted!!!
JOYCE: I’m not. Just pointing out the hate and anger.
JAN: No kidding! Stupid, violent “not my president” asshole protesters.
Joyce let her cell phone die and didn’t plug back in. The house sat silent, echoing emptiness. She turned off the flat-screen and computer hours ago. Alone, scared and angry, she reached for her Xanax prescription instead.
From riding horses to writing stories, Charli Mills is a born buckaroo wrangling words from her home-office on wheels. She hosts a weekly flash fiction challenge at CarrotRanch.com, teaches writers about platform marketing, and writes stories about women of the American west. Charli lives and works in an RV with her former US Ranger spouse and their German Short-haired pointer.