“. . . we should recognize that the genre of creative nonfiction – with its emphasis on stories – is perfectly suited to deal with contested terrain, both in the past and present. We’ll get tangled up, that’s certain. But it can’t be any other way.” — Laura Wexler

On a shelf above the desk where I now write, there is a philodendron. She (and yes, she is a “she”) is simple. All leaves and stems, a green pot, some soil. She is also immensely full of more – the amazing recovery she made from a frost on my second-story deck in northeastern Maryland. The one-leafed existence she honed out for herself in Baltimore and then in the D.C. suburbs. The days she tolerated being dug to bare roots by my cat Aslan in Cleveland. Her upturned leaves all straining for this window where she began life over twenty years ago when this was my bedroom.

Phil, Age 20

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

When I sit down with a tiny handful of facts about a person who was enslaved on this farm, it would be simple to set out those facts, maybe use bullet points or a basic time-line with vertical hyphens jutting up to mark birth, marriage, death. But there is so much more in those facts – relationships and meals missed, stories whispered and those screamed across the moon-clad night. Loss. Love. Fear. Great hope.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Sometimes when we sit down to write, it’s so tempting to think that our “facts” – those things we cull from our memories, from our research, from history – are the end of the story. They never are. Was there a war in Cambodia? Had her father just left for good that morning? Did something his grandfather said about “those people” come to mind at that moment? Those things all color our “facts,” just as the same things shade the experience of the other people who might have been there or who watched the story unfold two years or two hundred years later on a piece of paper.

Nothing is ever as simple as it may seem.

I’m glad of that. . . it’s the tangles that are interesting- painful perhaps, hard to work out, vexing and tiring to work out maybe – but oh so engaging . . . the tangles of our experience. Not just leaves and stems, but stories, enwrapped, tied up, beautiful stories. Reaching for the light.