Creative Non-Fiction, Historical Memoir

Citizen Diplomat

Not everything belongs in a good story, even when the scene was an important one in the dramatic arc. Perhaps that is one service a blog offers a writer, giving her a place to share what will not be in the final version.
Not every title is the final and best one. I began Evil Empire as an exercise in Fiction Writing I at the UW under Scott Driscoll. The assignment was to describe someone getting a surprising bit of news. I chose to fabricate a moment in the trip Don, my first husband, and I took with thirty others to the Soviet Union in 1983. We went as tourists, but our objective was to deliver 3000 letters signed by 30,000 Seattlites to people in our sister city, Tashkent.

In the middle of our Tashkent visit, a large peace rally was staged. Don gets some very bad news just as he is about to deliver our message to the good people assembled to hear us.
That scene is in the middle of the first part of the story.
It turns out that the story Evil Empire had a subplot I needed a couple friendly readers to catch and explain to me. The story is really about the protagonist’s unconscious desire to step out from behind the dynamic leadership of her husband and take her own path. I have renamed the piece, Citizen Diplomat.
Here is the scene that ends up on the cutting room floor.
We checked into a Soviet-style modern hotel outside of central Moscow. Don and I joined an optional bus tour of the city, a Soviet version of the Gray Line tour. I wanted to keep moving while there was daylight, but the slate sky and leafless trees, concrete block buildings and empty streets could not keep me from dozing off. I jarred awake at the mention of the College of the Atlantic by a couple of young students. Their English accents called to mind our goddaughter, Elizabeth Ransome, who was a student in that little-known boarding school in Maine. It had been years since we had seen her, talked with her or written. Elizabeth, the young man informed us, was in Moscow but not on this tour. He gave us the name of their hostel and said she’d be there the next evening. What a coincidence. We told him who we were and to warn her that we would find her the following evening if at all possible. There were no cell phones or other methods of communication in 1983. The official plan for our evening was a performance of the Moscow Opera. How could we excuse ourselves from this event to find Elizabeth?

 
Back at the hotel, most of us caught up on much-needed sleep before a quick supper and bus trip to the Bolshoi Theater. What magnificence. The enormous gold and crystal chandelier sent shimmering light over the elegantly dressed crowd. Sable coats, long black gloves, fur hats and leather boots mingled with tuxedos and evening dress. The music of Russian conversation, strident to my ears, rose and fell. Opera goers spoke in tight groupings in the vast, high-ceilinged hall. The vaulted ceiling with its mosaic patterns, the arched windows with drawn red velvet curtains transported me to the time of Czar Alexander. The revolution and iron-fisted communist regime faded.

 At the intermission, Don and I took all our belongings and left through the great columned entrance to the nearest subway station. The few people on the street hurried along taking no notice of the Americans in their midst. Descending into the underground station was like visiting the catacombs. There was no sound coming from below. To our astonishment, we found the platform thronged with well-dressed people standing in complete silence. Was conversing in public a risk? Or were Russians taciturn and naturally private. We found their silence sinister.
Following the directions Vladimir had given us, we discovered our goddaughter and enjoyed a late night visit with her. After saying goodbye, Don and I stood outside Elizabeth’s hostel waiting for a taxi to take us to our hotel. We marveled at the synchronicity of finding her in Moscow. It got us thinking about the Refuseniks whose families were desperate for exit visas and freedom, the freedom we took for granted. Glancing around in the empty street beneath a cold starless sky, Don remarked that we could talk about them but only there, a solitary place. He wished we could get rid of the letters we carried for them while in Moscow, but he didn’t dare. If those film mailers ended up in the wrong hands and were traced back to our group, we would have risked everything. Marlow would have to keep them hidden and remain above suspicion until our last day in Leningrad. Hard as it was for me to keep a secret, I figured if so many people could keep silence on a crowded subway platform, so could I.
Thanks for reading.
I’d love to hear your stories of diplomacy or chilling experiences when visiting, living or working under totalitarian regimes.
May I live long enough to tell all my stories for then I will die contented.  Betsy

Creative Non-Fiction, Historical Memoir, Memoir

Hope in uncertain times

“…creative intelligence is especially concerned with solving problems of meaning.” Justine Musk, blogger on writing.
Justine’s post on the power of story to find yourself is exactly what I’ve been doing with my urgent desire to write the stories of my life. Turns out that I have been more interested in the movie of the story’s action than in the self I was becoming.

Stories are how we shape and understand our reality.
We create the world we live in by the stories we choose to tell about it.
There’s a Hopi saying: Whoever tells the stories, rules the world. Justine
I’ve written pages describing life events and missed the inner voice, the emerging Betsy Bell who needed to tell these stories to find out who she was/is.
Citizen Diplomacy in Seattle in the 1980s, culminating with the Good Will Games, changed the direction of many people’s lives. They found their peacemaking voices. I’ve written this story from my husband, Aldon Bell’s and my point of view, but only now recognize how deeply held values from childhood pushed me to uncomfortable action. The kind of action Sam Adams took organizing the Boston Tea Party leading to the American Revolution, while his brother John Adams remained the gentleman negotiating with propriety. I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.

I’ve written this story from my husband, Aldon Bell’s and my point of view, but only now recognize how deeply held values from childhood pushed me to uncomfortable action. The kind of action Sam Adams took organizing the Boston Tea Party leading to the American Revolution, while his brother John Adams remained the gentleman negotiating with propriety.I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.

I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.
Back in 1976, our family returned from a year in South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, Eygpt, Greece, France, Italy and England to Boston. Boston was in the throes of the bicentenial celebration. One exhibit invited the viewer to participate vicariously in various events leading up to declaring our independence from English rule. At each event, we had the opportunity to line up with the actions of the various colonists. Don and I went through the exhibit together and we not surprised to read the computer printout at the end. Who was I most like among the New Englanders of the pre-war period? Sam Adams. I laughed when Don came out the spitting image of Ben Franklin, known for shmoozing on all sides of the issues, sewing seeds in favor of independence without warfare.

Who was I most like among the New Englanders of the pre-war period? Sam Adams. I laughed when Don came out the spitting image of Ben Franklin, known for schmoozing on all sides of the issues, planting seeds in favor of independence without warfare.
My story about Citizen Diplomacy in 1983-4 was more overtly revolutionary than Don’s. I struggled with wanting to play the traditional1950s role of supportive wife and the fire in my belly that called for direct action. This is the central struggle of the narrative, not the Target Seattle trip itself. Many of the original pages have hit the waste basket.

The reader of the final version of my story will resonate (or not) with the struggle we face today in a world lining up US adversaries on all sides against Trump’s American First agenda. Do we give up with the pessimistic view that nothing can be done? Disaster is inevitable. Or do we say it will all be fine while looking through our rose colored glasses?
Neither pessimism nor optimism are helpful. My story is about finding hope in an uncertain world, keeping on with no attachment to outcome. Action breeds hope.

Political Activist

My world first, then the inciting incident

Hello, Readers,

I’m back in class with Scott Driscoll and two of his writerly friends. The first evening’s topic was “Inciting Incident”, that event in the narrative that disturbs the protagonist’s world and from which all action ensues. My story, Evil Empire, which I referenced in my last post was now in its 4th iteration. I thought it was pretty good, about ready for publishing. I have copies out to be read by other people who were on the trip.

What slammed me against the wall was this: an inciting incident has to show up in the world of the protagonist that the reader can recognize as sudden, different and disturbing. That means that the “world” has to be described sufficiently to contrast the “new” thing that introduces the disturbance. I hadn’t done that at all in my story.

Stewing around with the problem of painting the life of Betsy Bell at the time of the trip to the Soviet Union in 1983, I came to an amazing realization. I have not owned my character in this or any of my stories. I have painted my character, my historical self, as meek, subservient, timid and deferential. Not who I was at all. ;http://patnabeats.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/who-am-i.jpg

My personal narrative has painted me in reference to the dominant people in my life, my parents, my husband, my bosses. I have failed to “see” and claim the adventurous, challenging person I have been at every step of my life.

Back to the drawing board. Dare greatly.

Here are the new opening paragraphs:

Preparing for our departure for Moscow added layers of details to my usual bustle of work as adult education director for Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. I had articles to write for the Rubric, our monthly newsletter, classes to arrange for the youth, and adult forums on the church’s response to government war mongering. I’d arranged for a performance of 4 Minutes to Midnight. The actors skulked in white masks and skeletal costumes pantomiming the horrors of nuclear war. The show brought the reality of Seattle’s nuclear submarine base and our surrounding area getting wiped out by a nuclear bomb into my gut, eighteen inches below my head where I lived ninety percent of the time.
My husband, Aldon Bell, known as Don, had added chairing a ten day series of events called Target Seattle to his teaching and administrative duties at the University of Washington. The noon-day lectures in the Methodist Church in center city and the evening programs in Kane Hall on the University’s campus demanded so much of his time, we’d wave goodbye in the morning with a cheery “See you between the sheets!”
I knew he was working with a big committee including lawyers, doctors–members of Physicians for Social Responsibility, former Peace Corps volunteers, executives from the YMCA, teachers, citizen activists like Kay Bullitt and Ann Stadler, other faculty and people from King TV’s channel 5.

The academic year had been a blur of anti-nuclear activity and now it was spring break, March 1983, and we were off to Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). We were traveling as tourists with the specific intent of re-affirming our strong ties with our Sister City in Uzbekistan, Tashkent. Each of the thirty-three travelers carried a packet of one hundred plus letters of peace signed by 30,000 people during the Target Seattle events. All over town suitcases were being zipped with the packets on top.

Now the reader has a picture of the life of these two people, Betsy and Don Bell. In the fifth paragraph, the inciting incident shows up.

Stay tuned.

Betsy

 

 

Political Activist, Uncategorized

Evil Empire

Dear Fellow Reader,

In the fall of 2017 the Museum of history in Tacoma will open an exhibit about Citizen Diplomacy in the Pacific Northwest. The timing marks the 25th anniversary of the Goodwill Games held in Seattle. Many Russian athletes competed in 1990.

My own part in the effort to de-escalate nuclear build up and Mutual Assured Destruction was two-fold. My husband Aldon Duane Bell was the chair of a series of educational events and community discussions about this nuclear threat called Target Seattle. I provided emotional and physical support to his and the large committee’s efforts leading up to and during those events in 1982-84.

The catalyst to my own leadership was the trip to the USSR in the spring of 1983 to deliver 10,000 letters with 30,000 signatures to their recipients in our sister city, Tashkent in Uzbekistan. My story is written as a piece of literary non-fiction. I hope it will be part of a collection of personal essays and stories by other individuals whose lives were changed through their stepping into leadership roles to shape our collective futures. As Margaret Meade said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Here’s is the opening segment:

Before you is a piece of literary non-fiction. Thirty-two other fellow travelers would have their own version of the story of the City to City, People to People trip to Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand and Leningrad in the spring of 1983. Each of us chose for personal reasons to enter the “Evil Empire” against our government’s wishes.
    I will presume to speak for all of us when I say we were united in a belief that behind the Iron Curtain lived good people who loved and lived with passion and hope for their futures. We wanted to get to know them and invite them to know us.
    I will tell you how it was for me, a forty-four-year-old wife of a university history professor and mother of four daughters aged 15 – 20. I was working as director of adult education at Saint Mark’s Episcopal cathedral.
    I was terrified for our future and the future of our planet. What happened in the spring of 1983 turned my terror into action. My story begins in the middle of an awakening in Seattle. The nuclear arms build up between the USSR and the USA followed a path to total mutual destruction. Some people refused to be cowed by their fear. They began wondering together how ordinary citizens might change this destructive course of events.
    Target Seattle: Preventing Nuclear War was Seattle’s answer. This ten-day long series of teaching events and discussions intended to explore the truth behind the official bombast hurled from both sides of the ocean. The organizers wanted to discover what tools were available to us in our remote corner of the North American continent. What paths could we take toward de-escalation? In the fall of 1983, a second ten-day series of teaching events and discussions took place, this time exploring the reality of the Soviet intentions and actions. Target Seattle: What about the Russians involved even more people, all hungry to learn all they could and to find a place for themselves in the effort to turn the tide of self-destruction. The story of Target Seattle has been told by others.
    My husband, Aldon Duane Bell—we called him Don—, was the chair of these events. That first year, I quietly kept the household functioning in the wake of hours and days of planning, organizing, phone calls, letter writing and meetings. My task was to support the many events that took place in our home including feeding large groups of traveling Russians, visiting Uzbeks and guests from around the country. Nothing more.
  

For me, the letters  changed everything.

        I watched Don from across Kay Bullitt’s living room, its simple furnishings and folding chairs holding upwards of fifteen to eighteen people. I watched the others eying the papers stacked on a low round coffee table in the middle of the room. The meeting was called after the events of Target Seattle. Don often attended these meetings without me. I went that night with a sense of dread and excitement.
The task that October evening was to decide what to do with the letters, several hundred 8 1/2 x 14 sheets of paper printed in two colors, many rumpled and smoothed by hand. Each contained a single message of hope and longing to the citizens of Tashkent, Seattle’s sister city in Uzbekistan.  The letter was printed in English and Russian, the Cyrillic in a bold and slightly smaller font ran beneath the English words. The early damp of Seattle’s autumn put a chill in the room. These letters, spread out in the hundreds gave off heat which nothing could cool. I picked up the fervor.
Target Seattle events and dramas like 4 Minutes to Midnight impassioned many people to use their particular skills and take action. They created groups like the Peace chorus, Peace Table (chefs here and in the USSR), Amputee Soccer tournaments, the creation of a Peace Park and ultimately the Goodwill Games in 1990. But no one reckoned with these letters sitting here begging to be read by their intended recipients. These letters with so many signature—30,000 in all—had to reach the people to whom they were written. The signators were terrified Seattlites who feared our planet would be blown to smithereens by the Soviets or the Americans; children who watched the news with their parents and practiced bomb drills, crawling under their desks together; teachers, businessmen, lawyers, former Peace Corps volunteers, labor union members and aging folk who’d lived through WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Each person had read the letter at the events, in their schools and churches and signed their names. With their signature, they pinned their hopes on reaching a person, someone like themselves with the same fears, the same hopes. Anne, one of the authors of the letter, took the lead saying it was our obligation as organizers of the Target Seattle events to get these letters to real people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

Betsy