“I discovered Hildegard and her medicine…and that is where God’s Hotel starts.”…..Victoria Sweet, MD, author of God’s Hotel
The Hŏtel-Dieu (God’s Hotel) cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Hildegard’s music.
(And it’s All Saints’ Day weekend.)
Photo: Recoleta Cemetary, Buenos Aires
What are the pro’s and con’s of getting genetic testing if your parent has Huntington’s Disease? What about dating and relationships?
A resident in the pediatric intensive care unit wants patient education information about shaken baby syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
A mother whose child has just been diagnosed with epilepsy wants to know if a special diet will help.
At teaching rounds, medical students on their first patient rotations are led through the process of making a diagnosis. “He has weakness in his arm and leg,” says the neurologist. “If his symptoms are on the right side, where is the lesion in the brain?”
These are some of the situations I’ve seen as a medical librarian. Sometimes we forget how precious and fragile are our bodies and minds. We can walk, run, speak, love, laugh, cry, sing, read, write, think, create, make plans, give comfort, enjoy a meal with family and friends. Until one day something changes.
I know from personal experience a mind can become irrevocably altered and an identity can vanish seemingly overnight. Which is probably why I am so fascinated by medicine, especially medicine having to do with the brain and behavior.
Here are some of my favorite books (fiction and nonfiction) about illness, recovery, medicine, the search for cures and miracles, and the people caught up in it all: medical professionals, researchers, patients and families. If you follow my blog, a few of the books will be familiar.
I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb
“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”
This is the best evocation of schizophrenia I’ve ever read. Wally Lamb is my hero.
By the way, Wally’s newest novel, We Are Water, was just published this month. It is on my nightstand in my little stack of books to read.
Saturday, by Ian McEwan
A neurosurgeon. Huntington’s Disease. A home invasion. A poem.
(The poem nestled deep within the plot sparks a crucial turning point. It also happens to be one of my lifelong favorites.)
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
“She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.”
“I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian tradition….Despite any setbacks, we persevere.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
“…I’d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her…..Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply – her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers.”
God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet
Inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century German mystic and medical practitioner), as well as her own instinct for compassionate, attentive care, Dr. Sweet practices “slow medicine” at the last almshouse in the U.S. as it transitions to the modern age. We should all have a physician like Dr. Sweet.
My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank
“…we are each of us temporary depositories of information that has an almost eternal life, and which is passed on and on and on…”
“I am what I do with the beautiful information that has flowed through millions of years through billions of organisms and has, now, finally been entrusted to me.”
When he was a boy attending Mass with his family in Rochester, New York, David fantasized about a blonde, blue-eyed Catholic girl named Caitlin. When he went to the country club swimming pool he pined after Leslie, a brown-haired, amber-eyed beauty who was Protestant and therefore dangerous.
David was obsessed with girls, but he also dreamed of becoming a priest. He’d walk the dark path through the woods behind his house, hoping to hear the voice of God telling him what he should do with his life.
Attending McQuaid Jesuit High School here in Rochester, David’s loyalties were still divided, and they remained so when he went off to college. Needless to say, this greatly complicated his love life.
His newly published memoir, The Dark Path, is about David’s comic, convoluted, and often anguished discernment of whether he should become a celibate priest or forgo all that for another kind of life altogether.
Thursday evening at our local Barnes and Noble, David read excerpts from his book to a standing-room-only crowd that included his family and many of his lifelong friends. After living in New York City for a while, David returned to Rochester several years ago. In addition to his literary writing, he is a screenwriter (co-creator of the TV series Banshee) who commutes to Los Angeles and New York.
Years ago, I’d read and loved his Kissing in Manhattan. It’s a collection of strange and haunting linked stories about young singles in the 1990′s looking for love, living in a beautiful old building on the upper West side loosely based on the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and Rosemary’s Baby was filmed. (I’d been single in New York in the 80′s, which is partly why Kissing drew me in – David captured so well the big city headiness shot through with loneliness.) Last week, when I found out David was about to publish a memoir, I didn’t want to miss the debut.
I thought the scene sounded a lot like how it must have been when my husband’s family got ready for Mass when he was a boy. I’d brought my husband along with me to the reading – he’s not an obsessed reader like I – and he was immensely entertained, as were all the men in the audience. David is a natural stand-up comic, a down-to-earth, regular guy who appeals to other regular guys. Women love him, too, of course. Look at his photo and you’ll see why.
Let me say a few words about Kissing in Manhattan before I tell you more about David’s memoir. I’ve never forgotten one particular story in Kissing, about a rich, handsome, deeply wounded stockbroker with a dark side. (Christian Grey comes to mind, but with a twist, and Schickler’s writing is orders of magnitude better.) Patrick Rigg can have any woman he wants, but instead of making love to them, he – well, he does something else. It falls to a priest, Father Thomas Merchant, to see if he can save Patrick from himself.
When Kissing was first published, it was an immediate sensation. David achieved literary stardom overnight. But when his father, a devout Catholic, read an early version of the manuscript, he’d been horrified.
“You think women will read your perverted stuff and let you baptize their babies?”
“But what about Andrew Greeley?” David asked. “He’s a priest and an author.”
David’s father pointed out that Greeley was a priest for 25 years before he began to write bodice-rippers.
In The Dark Path, David writes about the publication of Kissing. Yes, he became an overnight success, but there was fallout in his personal life. The Dark Path is about David’s crisis of faith; as well, it’s about what, exactly, a writer is supposed to write about. Truthful, authentic writers write about their obsessions, but what if you’re drawn to the dark stuff?
For that matter, to be a priest who truly ministers to those in need, don’t you have to acknowledge darkness (both inside ourselves and in the world) and help people grapple with it?
I think, for writers, it’s the stance you take. Parts of Kissing in Manhattan startled me, but I admired how David played out the tragic elements of his story. It was clear to me he wasn’t sugar-coating reality or condoning the grimmer, inexplicable aspects of human behavior. In my view, he offered readers glimmers of hope, a pathway to the light.
David doesn’t hold back in The Dark Path. He’s blazingly honest about his failings, vulnerabilities, struggles, and relationships with women. He’s hilarious, too. During his reading, he said he doesn’t write for therapy, he writes to entertain people.
The Dark Path is definitely book club material. In fact, it would be interesting to read Kissing in Manhattan and The Dark Path together. I believe these stories have something to say to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to those of other faiths, to agnostics and atheists as well. To anyone who’s grappled with the absurdities of life and their place in the world.
For more memoirs of the spiritual journey, see my little book list below.
MEMOIRS OF FAITH
The Dark Path, by David Schickler
The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong
The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris
Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
The Crosswicks Journals, by Madeline L’Engle
Wild was one of the first books I wrote about on Books Can Save a Life.
Strayed’s memoir has turned out to be not just a bestseller, but a transformational story that has given many women the courage to take enormous risks.
The other day I was reading an essay by Barry Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative.” He tells of visiting a small village in the Brooks Range of Alaska and listening to stories about animals and hunting. He says:
“The stories had renewed in me a sense of the purpose of my life. This feeling, an inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm after storytelling, is familiar to many people. It does not seem to matter greatly what the subject is, as long as the context is intimate and the story is told for its own sake.”
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild has that kind of magic.
This summer Heather Anderson broke a record by backpacking the length of the Pacific Coast Trail, alone and without support, in 61 days. It’s good to see women taking risks and feeling more at home in the world.
Lopez quote: “Landscape and Narrative” in Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, 1989.
Before we head to our family reunion in Cannon Beach, Oregon, we’ve been exploring the high desert east of the Cascades. Of course, I had to find a book indigenous to this place, so I settled on Sarahlee Lawrence’s memoir, River House.
Sarahlee is a kind of modern-day superwoman: an expert river runner who navigated the most dangerous rivers in South America and Africa by the time she was 21, a rancher who built from scratch her own log cabin with the help of her father, and a talented young writer who gives us an honest, unromantic vision of what it is like to live off the land here.
After her almost unbelievably dangerous river adventures, Sarahlee decided to return to the ranch where she grew up with her parents and grandparents, to reconnect to the land and build her own log cabin.
River House chronicles the building of the cabin, Sarahlee’s struggle to reconcile her love of river running with the land-locked life of the ranch, and her fraught relationship with her father, a former surfer (riding wild water is in their blood) who has ranched for thirty years and is worn out by the land and the unrelenting physical labor.
If you want to steep yourself in the physical terrain and culture of central Oregon’s high desert, if you want a vicarious taste of backbreaking labor as told by a young woman with a strong spiritual connection to the land, River House is the book for you.
If your aim is to build a luxury McMansion with all the creature comforts and a picture window view of Three Sisters, this memoir will probably make you uncomfortable.
I found River House to be a great read. As we drove around the hot, dry land and hiked in the stunning forests along the ice-cold Metolius River and around the secluded Suttle Lake, I was very conscious of being a tourist, a stranger in this unusual place.
There is a vast divide between those of us who live a sedentary life behind computer screens and plugged into social media and those who work the land every single day of the year.
MEMOIRS OF LAND AND PLACE
River House, Sarahlee Lawrence
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris
A Country Year, Sue Hubbell
Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir
Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes
The Forest House
Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.
Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”
She quotes Wendell Barry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”
This reminds me of Lone Frank’s book, My Beautiful Genome, and her fascination with the genetic “coding” we inherit from our ancestors.
We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.
Family letters from Sweden
In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.
July 31, 1938
Dear Hulda and Family,
I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.
Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.
We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….
Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,
Skrea, February 19, 1969
Dear Sister Hulda,
Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..
Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..
The kindest regards,
Stockholm, November 5, 1971
Dear Sister Hulda,
We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..
Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…
You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…
Signa and Carl
Dikesgård, December 1
Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.
Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….
I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.
With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.
MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS
The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser
My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank
Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg
The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon
If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.
If you told your siblings you wanted to interview them on camera for several hours about the most private family matters, do you think they would do it?
And do you think anyone else would find it interesting?
Filmmaker Sara Polley’s family pulled this off brilliantly, maybe because many of them have acted on the stage and screen. They are all wickedly funny and not at all shy about saying just about anything.
I wanted to write about Stories We Tell even though it’s not a book, because I enjoy memoir and, to me, this documentary is a kind of family memoir on screen, expertly told.
If you watch the trailer, you might think you know what Stories We Tell is about (I did), but you won’t know the half of it. There is a mystery at the heart of this story and Sarah knows how to reveal the truth, or as close as she can get to it, layer by layer. When you least expect it, someone drops a little bombshell and the picture you’ve formed in your mind of Sarah’s family and her mother, a woman with secrets, changes dramatically.
You will like the Polley family. They are beautiful, funny, brave people. It’s interesting to me that Sarah is at the heart of this family mystery yet she keeps herself largely off stage and lets others tell the story.
There are so many memoirs being published now, many with themes that are quite bleak. Memoirs don’t have to be sad and filled with suffering. And having an unusual or tragic experience doesn’t necessarily warrant a book. A good memoir has a distinctive voice, an unusual, startling, or fresh perspective, and a compelling story.
Just like the story of Sarah and her family.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITE MEMOIRS:
Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Irrational Season, by Madeleine L’Engle
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr
The Mistress’s Daughter, by A.M. Homes
A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg
I was curious about how Judith so successfully conquered new territory by authoring a memoir, having spent her career writing for academic audiences. My background as a marketing communications writer has been both a help and a hindrance when it comes to memoir and other personally expressive writing.
If you are a writer who wants to try new forms or reach new audiences, you may find Judith’s insights helpful. And if you simply want to read more fine food memoir collections, Judith has some excellent suggestions.
In your acknowledgements you mention having to transition from writing academic texts to writing memoir. Can you comment about some of these challenges and how you overcame them?
When you write as an academic, you are writing defensively. It’s customary to begin a book by outlining the arguments of other works on the subject. You then situate your own argument in relation to those of other works and point out how your own says something better or new. You’re always aware of how others might criticize your argument and you’re careful to defend yourself against that. It’s a competitive culture and some people are downright mean.
Writing a memoir requires a different emotional orientation. The idea is to open yourself up, to share private stories with your public, and to engage with readers on an emotional level. I had to imagine a non-academic audience to write like that and, even then, writing the memoir sometimes felt like jumping into free fall off a cliff. Taking classes was helpful with this. I often imagined my audience as the other people in the class.
I did read other memoir writers. M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me was a big influence because it conveyed a great deal about the emotional hungers that are fed in cooking for, and dining with, others. Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate implicitly connects food to politics, which is something I wanted to do. In Like Water cooking for, and eating with, others is what sustains women and men, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well. Mollie Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which, among other food memoirs, combines personal vignettes with recipes, supplied a model for the form.
I had to learn how to write differently as well. Although I made a habit of including personal stories in my academic writing, those stories were an addition to, or comment on, the argument I was advancing. I had to learn how to sustain a personal story for the length of a book, how to give it a narrative arc, how to write scenes, develop characters, write dialogue, use imagery and all the rest. I took classes to do this (at U.C. Extension and Osher Lifelong Learning), and I really believe in classes for the instruction and for the community they give you. I needed that community support. (I also loved being a student rather than the teacher!) I made a conscious decision to go into my classes feeling open to criticism because insightful criticism is a writer’s gold. I wanted to experience, in a full way, whatever the class brought.
I can remember feeling that Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird was incredibly liberating and comforting. Two other really helpful books were Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story and Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. I especially like Rainer’s book and think that people who write screenplays have a lot to teach us.
If there are food memoirs and cookbooks you’ve especially enjoyed, let us know in the comments below.
Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.
“…cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery – from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear, even as an adult, that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life, and I’d succeeded.”
In her newly published memoir, writer and historian Judith Newton looks at her own life and the culture of her time, from the 1940s to the 2000s. Along the way she writes of the cookbooks and cuisine that fed her in body and spirit.
I can’t say enough good things about Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen - I just loved it. Judith writes of her difficult early childhood in Compton, California, of coming of age at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1960s, and of her beautiful and haunting relationship with her husband, Dick. I found Judith to be especially eloquent in describing her intellectual and spiritual awakening and continual growth.
As a young girl, I watched the 1960s unfold mostly on television and in newspapers and magazines. Reading Judith’s memoir, for me, was like hearing stories from an older sister who actually lived those events.
And the food! Judith includes childhood recipes inherited from her parents and the land they lived on (Death Valley Date Nut Bread, for example) and recipes from influential and groundbreaking cookbooks of the day, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al., and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. (Moosewood Cookbook is another classic Judith knows well. See a previous post with an excerpt from Tasting Home.) Throughout her memoir, Judith speaks of the joy, fulfillment, and healing power of cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.
Here is part 1 of an interview with Judith. Watch for part 2 in my next post. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts with us, Judith!
When I read your comment about cookbooks being an agent of your recovery, I realized I view books and music in the same way. I’m sure many of your readers have had a beloved pastime that got them through tough times. Has reader response to Tasting Home borne this out? Did this theme resonate with those who supported you during the writing process?
Yes, it did! One woman in my writing group found release in jazz and in singing and dancing. Another reader, Linda Joy Myers, who is herself a memoirist, writes of how she was sustained by the warmth of a music teacher, by the beauty of music, art, and the Midwestern plains. Several of my old colleagues at Davis found refuge in cooking and understood very well how a kitchen table can lay the groundwork for political community.
How did you come to believe the personal affects the political and society?
My years of teaching women’s studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children, and the old. This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other.
In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I think of myself as carrying on a feminist project—that of giving value to a traditionally female, often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang, in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.
Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work. The sociologist Belinda Robnett, for example, in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relations of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group as well, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.
Do you feel this healing through cooking helped you make a more meaningful contribution through your work?
Absolutely! I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement, that a committed political life could and should involve “sensuality.” “To be sensual,” Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
For me sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food. Being able to access this joy in a daily way kept me going in every facet of my life and work, making it possible for me to retain the optimism that has informed my politics and my writing. If I didn’t feel that optimism, I wouldn’t write at all.
Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.
The Stories We Tell
Speaking of memoir, this just-released family documentary directed by Sarah Polley looks so tantalizing, and it’s gotten rave reviews. There are a few trailers floating around but I like this one the best: The Stories We Tell.
Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer`s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. Barry Lopez
In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:
She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.
She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.
Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”
Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.
Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out - artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.
I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.” An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln. Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.
Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.
Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.
Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,” in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.
I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?
If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our bests interests to see that no one among us is silenced.
So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.
“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
Quotes from: About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1998.