I'm a huge believer in the puzzle mystery, the Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie classics in which the clues (and red herrings, and all too often, herringbone jackets and half-opened sardine tins) insert themselves into the narrative like so many schooling salmon in a rapidly rolling stream. I like the way that the mental hypnosis of the form permits the experienced reader to solve the mystery with what seems like a subconscious flair.
When I was in eleventh grade, I took my typing classes. This time preceded the personal computer, or at least the personal computer as a workable consumer device.
Nowadays my twelve year old nephew grew up typing, and can achieve a good word count with the natural ease that I might have shown for, say, bicycle riding.
Our typing teacher was Ms. Pace, a large, formidable woman with a kind streak embedded into her psyche like a cool psychedelic stripe. She taught typing well, having realized, at some point, that in order to type well, one should type the right letters in the right way at the right pace. She did not have the theoretical or philosophizing streak that can hamper what is essentially a trade school class.
I mention, in passing, that while I loved the way that law school could be entirely theoretical from time to time, my own school won my heart by operating under the illusion that its graduates intended to practice law and not found schools of Greek philosophy nor foundations which are devoted to the explication of ideas while nourishing themselves from the public trough. Instead, just as Ms. Pace imagined we should type letters onto pages, my professors had the stray notion that we might someday answer the question "Is the plaintiff ready for trial?" with the answer "Plaintiff is ready, your Honor".
In Ms. Pace's class, one began on the manual typewriters, with their clackety-clack keys and ever-fading ribbons. One learned important things, such as the importance of typing on the paper, and not typing when the paper was not in the carriage.
At some point, one progressed to the electric typewriter. My high school did not really have enough electric typewriters to go all the way around. We were about a fifth short of the requisite number. Thus, those twenty percent or so of us who lagged a bit in our dexterity got an extra several weeks on the manual before graduating to the "whizz" and "zing" of the primitive electric typewriter. An electric typewriter, by the way, had no memory. It just had "whizz" and "zing".
Perhaps the hard work it required for me to move up to the electric typewriter provided me with an added apprecation of the importance of discovering the "whizz" and "zing" in life.
I believe that no matter how literal one's mindset, the experience of living so often involves finding the "whizz" and "zing" in the story before one. This progression is not always easy, and it often requires practice to discern. I remember in ninth grade shop class, one had to work one's way out of the woodworking section in order to achieve the haute pleasures of threading pipe in th plumbing section, and only the pure cognoscenti became initiates in the sublime thrills of the welding torch.
So, too, is the pursuit of the thread of the narrative in the stories which appear before one. By "stories", I mean the threads of living which the endless barrage of narratives provides, if one lives in the world of folks around one.
I do not fancy myself a reader of minds, but instead a reader of stories. I sometimes can intuit from the story before me what is told, and what is not told.
I have written before the "the missing fact", the portion of the narrative which is on the page, though unwritten, in the spaces between the words. I have also written of "topic X", the topic that preoccupies the writer, even as the writer writes entirely about something else. So often these facts and topics leap up at me, like so many frogs trying to escape capture by the over-zealous classmates who earned extra credit in tenth grade biology.
They have a saying in north Arkansas, which is not far from where I grew up, and light years from where I grew up. To do something extremely difficult is to go "frog sticking without a light". The term conjures an unfortunate literal image, because the expression refers to the necessity of a flashlight beam to induce bullfrogs to freeze sufficiently still to permit the clamping mechanism attached to a stick (actually, usually a metal contraption) to be utilized to capture the frog.
But as a metaphor, the idea of "frog sticking without a light" is useful. I say it is useful, even though the first time I heard this expression was when a woman I was dating used it to describe her genius/savant backwoods Einstein new boyfriend.
This is loyalty to a metaphor indeed, as you can well imagine.
I think so often that what I want to cultivate in myself is a bit of a light.
A light to read what is in the text and context of what is before me. I do not say that, like Sherlock Holmes, I must always realize that the remarkable thing about the dog was that it did not bark. But I do like to cultivate my intuition so that it becomes a useful tool for me in so many ways.
At one time, I honed this skill as a key pursuit of my life, achieving a sort of near-psychic ability to ferret out the facts which a particular story told me.
In my work now, it is still useful to posit the possible, but it is no longer a fevered pursuit of mine. But I wonder if my life would not be less mysterious if I devoted it more to the solution of mysteries.
I think of a woman I know--bright, down to earth, very attractive, and sharp as a tack. She was practicality personified--a kind of Mary Poppins crossed with a forties "down to earth but gorgeous" fast-talking comic actress. Her fatal failing was in the selection of men in her life. She would hold forth at length and at leisure about how discerning and "picky" she was, but in fact she made some of the worst choices of race horses next to those of naive money at the $ 5,000 claiming race at a third rate track. She regularly picked men whose insincerity and inconstancy was obvious to all but her. Her radar for living missed each UFO, until they had moved from the Area 47 of her private compound to launch a full scale alien invasion of weirdness throughout her life, relieved only by the
triffid-trumping power of the family courts. She had all the answers, and most of the clues, but she was completely unable to solve any mysteries of men.
I am not often snow-blinded by difficult or less than forthright people. I also am not usually very threatened by such people, with a few common sense exceptions.
I do not insist that I respect everyone with whom I share a delightful conversation.
But I fancy that I usually understand where my values leave off, and their approach to life begins. I am very human, and have failings too numerous to list in this particular post. But I tend not to be easily taken in.
It's not that I'm impossible to deceive. I find that I'm perhaps slightly more gullible in the day to day "tell me a story and I'll listen and absorb way" than some. It's that investing my listening has never required me to invest my full trust in the words being said. I sometimes say "never trust anyone", but I don't literally mean live life without trust. I really mean that in everyday situations, one should exercise a healthy skepticism in all things.
It's that puzzle-solving frame of mind I want to contemplate. I believe in mysteries, and red herrings, and herringbone jackets.
I want to bring my sense of deduction and my intuitive sense for the metaphors which arise naturally from situation to "posit the unspoken facts" in more situations.
Sometimes I think that increasing one's understanding of others is the most important first step to connecting with others' needs.
Absorb everything, and let the facts roll around within one. This requires an anchor of one's own values, lest one merely become a breeze of other peoples' lives.
Some people believe, with good reason, that the way to be mindful is to empty all those extraneous bits of judgment from one's experience of things. But my life has never quite functioned in that way.
I think instead that judgment and discernment are but two of the myriad tools one needs to read the story, and understand the imagery beneath the words.
I notice that every poet, at some time or another, tries to write the poem to define "what is poetry?". I have set myself this day a tasks to write a short story, which I have not done in earnest in years. But perhaps my short story should answer the question--what is a short story. What is the mystery the writer tries to solve?
Where is Colonel Mustard? Why such a silly use of a candle stick?
The key thing, I suppose, is to try to "take it all in" and understand the point from which people begin. I think that true compassion is probably accepting people whom one has no earthly idea how to understand. But as a second-rate-mind, I will settle for the solution of trying to understand people as best as I can, in hopes this will make me a better and kinder person.
But it's not just some Clara Barton thing, this wanting to learn the stories of those around me. It's not a matter of bandaging and rolling the ego-laden stretcher of the bruised from the battlefield. It's instead that people are huge grandfather clocks, and it would be so much fun to know the shape of the constellations that show themselves at midnight, noon, and six p.m.
What if my whole perception is miscued, and in fact the only mysteries are within? What if, like a character in an untrustworthy narrator novel, I see nothing of what I imagine and relate that I see? Why, then, I'm the biggest mystery of all, and I'm merely dropping depth charges that never quite explode. I take a curious comfort in that, and comb the deeps for clues.