Thank you to everyone who joined for this session!
Twenty people from Canada and the USA zoomed together to close read a short excerpt from Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977). We carefully entered the text with participants finding there way in a “mysterious” or “liminal” space wondering if the protagonist, the unnamed “he” in the text, had a visual impairment. Attending to the first sentence “For a long time he had been white smoke,” had us considering the past that brings the reader into the present of the paragraph we just read. We noted images of green leaves (the only color in this white and gray world) pressed against a barred window and “elk mountain in the distance” with bones as boundaries. Is this surrealism or “a real place” like a sanatorium or a prison, we asked. Was the man suffering mental and emotional difficulties? Did the white smoke, which was “sucked away” indicate a loss of spirit that left the protagonist inhabiting a nether world, a purgatory or limbo?
We began to associate to other texts and images such as Pixar’s “Souls” (where images are outlines) and the poem “The Death of Fred Clifton”, the description of an internal experience:
there was all around not the shapes of things but oh, at last, the things themselves.
In this fogged-in place, the sense of smell was still available. Mention of walking down “floors that smelled of old wax and disinfectant” intensified the idea that this was life in an institutional setting, a life lived on the edges. Is the person living this life seen or unseen? Was the blurring of vision internal or external? Was there “othering” going on?
Pieces of the puzzle began to come together but, as always, we had less than an hour to discuss the text, write to a prompt, and listen to one another in this VGS session, and so a facilitator offered a bit of background information: “He” is half Native American and half white and suffers PTSD following his time as a soldier. With this, participants were confirmed in their sense that “he” felt ‘’soul-less” detached from those around him, even “dissociated.” We began to understand better the filtering of “white smoke” into this story: smoke as signals, a form of communication; smoke and peace as byproducts of a shared pipe; smoke as an essential in healing ceremonies.
The prompt, “Write about being white smoke,” produced: a piece recounting a NYTimes article about drumming as a form of shared mourning and the author’s desire both to mourn and to go on remembering those who were lost;
a reflection on identity beginning, “I am old, overlooked…undervalued…invisible” followed by a strong rebuttal and reminder of the experience, sanity, and wisdom elders offer;
and a list of the possibilities of white smoke (Eg. “to announce a new pope”), which narrows to memories of a father’s smoking Lucky Strikes, quitting (thankfully) when he learned it caused cancer, and dying many years later of the “white smoke” of Alzheimer’s Disease.
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Please join us for our next session Wednesday September 15th at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
For a long time he had been white smoke. He did not realize that until he left the hospital, because white smoke had no consciousness of itself. It faded into the white world of their bed sheets and walls; it was sucked away by the words of doctors who tried to talk to the invisible scattered smoke. He had seen outlines of gray steel tables, outlines of the food they pushed into his mouth, which was only an outline too, like all the outlines he saw. They saw his outline but they did not realize it was hollow inside. He walked down floors that smelled of old wax and disinfectant, watching the outlines of his feet; as he walked, the days and seasons disappeared into a twilight he could catch only with a sudden motion, jerking his head to one side for a glimpse of green leaves pressed against the bars of the window. He inhabited a gray winter fog on a distant elk mountain where hunters are lost indefinitely and their own bones mark the boundaries.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. (2006). First published in 1977. New York: Penguin.