Elie Axelroth sat down with SLO New Times Arts Editor Ryah Cooley to talk about her novel, Thin Places, her recent National Indie Excellence Award, her writing process, and what she’s working on now.
It’s Sunday night and Gertrude is glued to the presidential debates. She refuses to cede control of the remote, captivated by all that mean-spirited, third grade bathroom talk and name calling. “It’s turning your mind into a cesspool,” I tell her. Gertrude nods, acknowledging a certain truth to my anguish. But still, she’s adamant. She’s studying grandiosity, she tells me, schooling herself on narcissism. She’s even got her notebook out, making a list. “Listen up,” she says. “You’ll learn a lot about how to be successful.”
This current state of affairs keeps me up at night, agonizing over the lessons we’re absorbing through the airwaves about success and how to get along in the world.
Like many, I’m drawn to the news—whether it’s the primary campaign or other so-called newsworthy items. The drama is compelling, often entertaining, capable of instantly subverting our attention from anything else that might be worthy of our consideration.
It reminds me of a Zen story I heard some years ago. Two monks are walking along the road. It is raining and the path is muddy. The monks come upon a watery crossing and a young woman who is unable to continue on her way without getting her long cloak muddy. The older monk offers to carry the woman across the channel. On the other side of the rivulet, the woman and the monks go their separate ways and the monks walk on in silence. Some miles down the road, the younger monk erupts in anger. “How could you have lifted her up? You know that touching women is forbidden.” The older monk turns to him and says, “Yes, but I put her down on the other side of the river.”
Like the young monk, it seems decidedly easier to cling to the past, and point out others’ imperfections, expending futile energy turning those thoughts over and over in our minds, basking in a false claim to superiority. I, too, find myself committing the same pointless exercise. Deep hurts from long ago, perceived slights reenacted. Often with a misplaced sense of satisfaction.
Kindness, on the other hand, requires an inward gaze, and the willingness to evaluate our missteps, the moments we were thoughtless or arrogant or insensitive. It means leaving ourselves open and vulnerable, admitting our faults, letting go of a facade of correctness. Kindness requires vigilance and never-ending practice.
Maya Angelou once said, “It takes courage to be kind.”
If only Ms. Angelou had run for office. Think of the lessons we could have learned.
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