Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

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“For all its occasional monotony, driving a dogsled never let my mind wander. It was an overwhelmingly physical experience: the cold, the shifting runners, the wandering trail. It made my mind shallower. There was the brushing sound of snow under the sled. There were the dogs, the beautiful dogs, running, and I could spend hours watching the changing, hypnotic rhythms of their back legs punching up and down. Occasionally I talked to them, and then I’d drift off in midsentence and recall the rest of my thoughts minutes later. Or else I’d run up a hill, or fix a tangle, or scooter my feet to keep warm. It didn’t matter. I was still just driving dogs.”

Blair Braverman sent me an advance copy of her just-published memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.

I’m so glad she did, and not just because it was great reading in the middle of a hot July. This is an exquisitely written coming of age story about Blair’s love affair with the North, focusing especially on her stays in Norway, where she set up a small museum, learned to drive sled dogs, and befriended a town; and her stint as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska.

I loved reading about Blair’s adventures, and her depictions of nature and the wild are so well done. But for me the heart of the story was her relationship with the folks in a northern Norwegian town, Mortenhals, especially a sixties-something shopkeeper, Arild, who becomes a beloved friend and Blair’s Norwegian “father.”

There is a dark theme that motivates Blair to make her way in the North that is just as strong as her love of the harsh and beautiful land, but this is not really a memoir about trauma: there is so much more light than shadow.

Raised in California, Blair had a clear calling for the North, but one of her first stays in Norway had an unfortunate twist. As a 16-year-old exchange student, she didn’t feel safe around the strange, sexually threatening father of the family she was placed with. Her subsequent journeys North become, in part, a way for Blair to prove to herself she could be tough and strong in a world where women are often vulnerable to physically threatening men.

If you are a fan of autobiographical writing, you’ll appreciate the quiet, intimate scenes of small town life just as much, if not more, as Blair’s adventures out in the elements. I marveled at the skill with which Blair rendered scene after scene, and found myself deconstructing long passages so I could capture some of her magic in my writing.

Blair is now a dogsledder in northern Wisconsin and training to race the Iditerod in 2019. She’ll have lots more to write about, which is great for us readers who love top-notch memoirs and nature writing.

Here’s a 9-minute look at what it’s like to run a 100-mile dogsled race.

 

My Favorite Things

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Our backyard pond. If you’d like to listen to a story about this special place, please click on this link: “Water Bewitched.”

 

Not long ago, I wrote about podcasts being one of my favorite things and how I was in the midst of creating one myself. My audio essay about home, “Water Bewitched,” is now finished and up on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments.

(Technically, it isn’t a podcast because you can’t subscribe to get new episodes. You can, however, subscribe to Terrain.org, in which case the next essay in my audio series will be emailed to you.)

It’s been a difficult week here in the US, and if the news has been getting to you like it has me, I hope you’ll take a restorative six minutes and listen to my little story. It’s the first in a series called From Where I Stand, in which I’ll explore our connection to the places we call home.

Please let me know what you think in the comments here or on the Terrain.org site, and share the link with your friends.

I’m honored to have my work on Terrain.org, which has great fiction, nonfiction, poetry, videos, interviews, articles, and other fabulous content.

IMG_2983Speaking of podcasts, I recently discovered a great book podcast, WSIRN, which stands for What Should I Read Next, with Anne Bogel. You can subscribe to it on iTunes.  I love this series, especially What Should I Read Next Podcast #28, which features Browsers Bookshop owner Andrea Y. Griffith.

Some of you may recall that I wandered into Andrea’s bookstore when we were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest. Olympia is lucky to have Andrea and such a finely curated bookstore. On the podcast, Andrea talks about how she came to own Browsers Bookshop, what she’s been reading that she loves, what she’s read that she hasn’t loved (I whole-heartedly agree with her choice on the latter), and what’s she’s craving to read.

And last, but certainly not least, there is this. I wish Choir!Choir!Choir! would come to my town.

What are you reading or listening to this summer? Any 5-star recommendations?

Excavating a Life

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About the creative life and writing memoir…

“I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

“What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were.”      – Louise DeSalvo

When I was staying in Port Townsend, I picked up a copy of Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing As a Way of Healing, at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore.

I’d heard DeSalvo speak at a free National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar, and she was fantastic. (The founder of NAMW is my wonderful writing coach, Linda Joy Myers, who does an outstanding job connecting the best memoir writers and teachers with those of us trying to make our way through the wilderness of writing our own memoirs.)

I would say if you are writing a memoir, a novel, or any long-form work of nonfiction, or if you want to write about your life as a form of self-expression, this book is a must-read, a valuable companion to have at your side at all times while you work. DeSalvo’s voice is warm, wise, encouraging, and firm. She’ll help you develop a common sense writing practice that is less of a struggle and more intentional, self-caring, and restorative.

One of DeSalvo’s key points is that writing your story is healing and transformative, but only if you go about it the right way. As a medical librarian, I’m all for looking at what the scientific research has to say before making a claim about anything, and DeSalvo does just that.

We’ve all heard that writing can be healing, but simply venting emotions on the page may cause a writer to get stuck or even set the writer back. On the other hand, telling what happened in a dispassionate way – a mere listing of events – won’t do much, either.

Writers need to do both – honestly tell about events and honestly recount their emotions – and link them in a meaningful way. “A healing narrative links feelings with events.”

Research has shown that only when a person tells what happened with honesty, nuance, and detail that includes not just events, but feelings, and with the intention of unearthing and crafting a true, meaningful story – only then does writing about one’s life hold the possibility of transformation.

This is not easy. It requires honest self-evaluation and facing aspects of yourself you may have kept hidden. It requires putting yourself in the place of others so you can understand why they may have behaved in certain ways.

Vivid characterization, dialogue reconstructed to the best of your ability, movie-like scenes that highlight key events and emotional peaks and valleys, all woven into a narrative, is a lot of work, but it’s a way to re-experience life events that can bring catharsis, insight, and meaning.

DeSalvo points to research that suggests people who recall traumatic events in a vague, general way – without detail or nuance – have not yet begun the healing process. I was amazed when I read this, because my first drafts tend to be frustratingly superficial. As a child and adolescent, I’d numbed out to protect myself and, as an adult, to avoid grappling with painful events. Writing about them now often requires several drafts as I gradually mine through to the essentials of the experience. I thought this was a sign that I was a mediocre writer. DeSalvo helped me understand that this is a normal part of the healing and writing process.

Even though I haven’t finished writing my memoir, I’ve already reaped benefits. Writing about events that are emotionally difficult or that arouse shame indeed lose their repressive power over me once they are on the page.

Honoring people’s privacy is also a concern that can hold writers back, but DeSalvo encourages us to remember we are writing a draft, and that these issues can be carefully considered later, if we want to publish. At that time, we can make revisions to protect privacy.

She reminds us, too, that there is a lot to be said for public testimony (in a way that doesn’t harm others) about trauma and issues that society has pressured many of us to keep silent about. In the case of mental illness, for example, no one is healed and nothing can improve unless long-avoided issues are brought into the light of day and confronted.

For me, DeSalvo’s book is most valuable because she has given me a way to write a memoir without losing my mind. She breaks down the process into phases and walks me through each one: Preparing, Planning, Germinating, Working, Deepening, Shaping, Ordering, and Completing.

Not every phase is pleasurable, and if we have difficulty, we aren’t to blame ourselves, but persist. It’s just part of the process. We learn what we can realistically expect in each phase, which greatly reduces anxiety.

I’m still learning how to integrate writing into my everyday life so it becomes habitual, manageable, and enjoyable. I’m still learning how to care for myself as I write – for example, by writing in short, frequent doses so I’m not overwhelmed emotionally and by judiciously sharing my writing only with those who support my work and have some understanding of the rigors of the process.

I should add that, as I’ve excavated my life and the effects of my mother’s mental illness on our family over the years, I’ve had the help of an excellent therapist. DeSalvo encourages writers to connect with a good therapist if they’re having difficulties. Writing is not a substitute for therapy. She says: “I personally believe it is essential for people wanting to write about extreme situations to have skilled professional support while writing or to attend a reputable support group.”

There is so much more to this book. DeSalvo draws on the wisdom of psychologists, researchers, and well-known writers, integrating their knowledge into a compelling and enormously helpful guide.

Many, many passages in my copy of Writing As a Way of Healing are underlined. Here are a few:

“Sometimes the writer is unsure about precisely what happened because…she or he was in a state of shock or emotional numbness while it was happening. The most basic and important survival tactics often involve blunting the emotions, carefully watching, splitting the consciousness (watching the event as if it’s happening to someone else), even splitting the self (into two or more personae). Finding words, finding literary forms to convey these self-preserving defensive tactics, these superlinguistic layers of meaning, often seems impossible.”

“Virginia Woolf said moments of profound insight that come from writing about our soulful, thoughtful examination of our psychic wounds should be called ‘shocks.’ For they force us into an awareness about ourselves and our relationship to others and our place in the world that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. They realign the essential nature of our being.”

“In time, I learned how Zen artists and writers devote themselves to an orderly, contemplative way of life that prepares them for their work. But how doing their work, too, becomes a form of meditation. Work and life are deeply integrated.”

A quote by Henry Miller:“[Writing] lifts the sufferer out of his obsessions and frees him for the rhythm and movement of life by joining him to the great universal stream in which we all have our being.”

Note: After reading this post, my dear writing coach, Linda Joy, tried to leave a comment, but either WordPress or my comment settings didn’t allow her to. So I’m putting her words here, which I greatly appreciate:

What a wonderful essay about the essentials in writing memoir and narrating our truths. I have loved Louise DeSalvo’s book for years and was so happy when she joined us for two NAMW presentations last year! I also got the other books, Jane Eyre’s Sisters thanks to you Valorie, and love it. It offers a more accurate template for the heroine’s story, which is necessarily an internal journey, not just an external one. Thank you for illuminating these gems and what you find valuable in your lovely blog! – Linda Joy Myers

Thank you, Linda Joy.

Below are photos of Port Townsend, where I did some writing and read Louise DeSalvo’s book. Nature is a wonderful restorative when you’re writing memoir.

(By the way, the photo above shows Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which I also picked up at The Writer’s Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore. I’m still making my way through it. Jane Eyre has a role to play in my memoir.)

 

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My airbnb had a secret garden with a view of Puget Sound, which has many moods…

 

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7 a.m.

 

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Shades of pink as sunset approaches

 

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One morning I woke up and saw the Cascades.

 

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A blue and gray day

 

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I zoomed in with my iPhone so the photo is grainy, but this day was exceptionally crisp and clear.

 

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Port Townsend has many fascinating and unusual shops where you just want to linger. (Note the reflection of the bay in the window.)

 

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I bought this luscious Australian mohair in another color at Bazaar Girls Yarn Shop & Fibre Emporium on Quincy Street for my sister-in-law. They are a crafting community, crafting community. Don’t you love their tagline?

 

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The Port Townsend Farmer’s Market is lots of fun, and a good place to meet people because everyone there loves to talk about the wonders of living on the Olympic Peninsula. The musicians below are Ranger & the Re-Arrangers, a Gypsy jazz band from Seattle.

 

 

 

Becoming Wise

A quick post today….

IMG_2995In my last post I told you about the wonderful Browsers Bookshop I visited in Olympia. In addition to The Eagle Tree, by Ned Hayes, I picked up a copy of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett, who hosts and produces one of my favorite public radio programs/podcasts, On Being.

This book is a bit hard to describe, but I think you will like it if you wonder about the great spiritual and ethical questions of our time and enjoy hearing from some of our greatest contemporary thinkers – scientists, physicians, psychologists, poets, theologians, activists, etc.

This is essentially what Krista Tippett does on her radio program – engage in the art of conversation with them as they probe the meaning of life together – and in Becoming Wise she’s included highlights of some of these intriguing interviews, organized around the themes of Words, Flesh, Love, Faith and Hope.

The book jacket calls Becoming Wise a master class in living, curated by Krista Tippett. It left me feeling uplifted and hopeful, and I think it will leave you the same way.

Here are selected passages:

“I’m stretching my point only a bit when I say that in American life, every vision must begin and end in an economic argument in order to be heard, on urgent matters of human life: education, immigration, refugees, prisons, poverty, health care…

…we are bigger and wilder and more precious than numbers, more complex than any economic outcome or political prescription can describe.”  Krista Tippett

“Centering prayer, spiritual direction, retreats, and meditation sat quiet for centuries, largely reserved for “experts,” the cloistered, monks or nuns or dedicated oblates and pilgrims deep inside all of our traditions. Now, even as many Western monastic communities in their traditional forms are growing smaller…..their physical spaces for prayer and retreat are bursting to the seams with modern people retreating for rest and silence and centering. They are learning arts of contemplation to take back into their families and workplaces and communities and schools.” Krista Tippett

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“…there is something deeply built into us that needs story itself. Story is such a source of nurture that we cannot become really true human beings for ourselves and for each other without story – and without finding ways in which to tell it, to share it, to create it…

Do we exist for some reason other than competing with China or finding the best possible technological advances? Are there some things that are even deeper that we are meant for, meant to be, meant to do, meant to achieve?” Vincent Harding

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“We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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“…anybody who travels know that you’re not really doing so in order to move around – you’re traveling in order to be moved. And what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life.”  Pico Iyer

 

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An enticing sign in front of Browers Bookshop.

 

This post and my last have been a tribute to independent bookstores like Browers Bookshop. Many thanks to Browers for putting Becoming Wise where I could find it.

I picked up an interesting little booklet of two reprinted articles by Ann Patchett with an appendix listing of some of her favorite books, called The Care and Feeding of an Independent Bookstore. In it she writes of her own bookstore, Parnassus Books and, by extension, all good bookstores.

“All my life I’ve been telling people what to read. Ask my family, ask my friends. It’s the habit of all passionate readers. When you read a book you love, the experience is not complete until you can turn around and say to someone else, ‘You have to read this book. You will love this book.'”

“Book by book, our customers vote against free overnight shipping in favor of a community of book lovers.”    Ann Patchett, The Care and Feeding of an Independent Bookstore

 

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My temporary secret garden on the Olympic Peninsula. The Strait is beyond the fence.

 

Do you have a favorite bookstore? Tell us about it.

The Eagle Tree

 

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Browsers Bookshop in Olympia.

We spent part of our recent Pacific Northwest vacation in Olympia.

I know exactly one person who lives there, but she doesn’t know me – the artist Nikki McClure, whose work I admire.

We were exploring the center of town, when I spotted Browsers Bookshop, and of course we had to go in. About three minutes later, Nikki McClure walked in. She was there to sign copies of her most recent book, Waiting for High Tide.

But it gets weirder than that. After I finished browsing and had chosen a couple of books, I introduced myself to the bookstore owner, Andrea Y. Griffith. Turns out, Andrea knew my name. We are both former medical librarians, and apparently a few years back I edited an article she wrote for a Medical Library Association conference.

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Nikki McClure’s latest book

I love Andrea’s bookstore, which has been in business since 1935. Andrea and her husband recently bought the shop and are reviving it. She’s doing a terrific job. I enjoyed browsing the store; I saw many new and intriguing titles I’m unfamiliar with, and she had an excellent selection of titles about the Pacific Northwest and nature, as well as other categories. I could tell immediately that the book selections are carefully curated – that’s of course what you can expect from a librarian.

I encourage you to read a bit about what Browers Bookshop is all about here.

IMG_2994I purchased the young adult book The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes, who is from Olympia, as well as another book I’ll tell you about in my next post. The artwork on the cover of The Eagle Tree pulled me in, and since I’d been awed by the massive and venerable old trees we were seeing in Olympic National Park, I thought the book would be a good traveling companion.

It’s about a 14-year-old boy, March Wong, who is on the autism spectrum and obsessed with trees. Written in first person from the viewpoint of March, the novel often reads like encyclopedia entries because that is how March expresses himself, so you have to be fascinated by trees to bond with this book. I took to it immediately, as have many other readers, although there are some readers on Goodreads who disliked it for this reason.

I loved learning about the ecosystem of trees and watching March become willing and able to connect to other people as he tries to save the Eagle Tree, a monolithic Ponderosa Pine, from being cut down. Even though the tone can be factual and didactic, it’s really more expressive and lyrical than anything else, which is a tribute to Ned Hayes’ fine writing. I highly recommend this book to young adults, and their parents.

I was impressed when I saw that an author’s talk sponsored by Browsers Bookshop featured local actors performing scenes from The Eagle Tree. This is an independent bookstore that goes above and beyond to enrich the community and promote local authors.

Here is some of what March Wong has to say:

“I do not like this idea that we have begun to kill off—at great velocity and accelerating speed—all of the things that sustain us. I didn’t like it at all when I first thought of it, but most people around me do not seem that disturbed by it, even though the knowledge of this is obvious and readily available to anyone who looks up trees on the Internet. At least, no one seems bothered, because no one has taken action to amend it. So they must not care. That is the only explanation I can think of for the lack of reaction to this fact.”

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In Olympic National Forest

“Most of the trees are already dying. All across North America from Mexico to Alaska, forests are dying. Seventy thousand square miles of forest—that’s as much land as all of the state of Washington—that much forest has died since I was born. What if I am growing up in a world that will not have trees anymore by the time I am my grandfather’s age?”

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This is a nurse log. March Wong in The Eagle Tree will tell you what that is.

“There is an ocean of light around us. We are surrounded by it, we swim in it, we move through it every day.”

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Reminds me of the flowing creek nearby

 

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Nature’s sculpture. Dungeness Spit is littered with driftwood.

 

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What you can make from a tree. This is in Sequim, Washington.

My Favorite Things

….on the Olympic Peninsula….

We’re on vacation exploring the magnificent beauty of the Olympic Peninsula and getting to know Port Townsend, Sequim, Port Angeles, and Olympic National Park.

The airbnb  where we’re staying is on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The octagonal structure in the photo below is where I’m writing this blog post.

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Our temporary home is a former barn that has been beautifully converted into a comfortable dwelling filled with Native American, Mexican, and Americana art, quilts, and rugs. I spent more than a few hours on airbnb looking for a place to stay, and my research paid off.

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There are lush gardens on the property and a tree farm across the road along with a view of the magnificent snow-covered Olympic Mountains. Sea in the backyard, mountains in the front yard.

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I love the weathered colors and textures of this old structure. It is a workshop/studio filled with fabrics – I believe one of the owners is a textile artist, and several of her quilts grace the walls where we’re staying.

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Below is the interior of the little octagonal retreat, which comes equipped with a heater and bookshelves. All you need is a mug of hot coffee or tea to feel right at home. You can see a reflection of the view in the top half of the photo.

Early this morning my husband saw two bald eagles perched on a tall, dead tree nearby. It had rained in the night, and the pond visible in the first photo was filled to overflowing.

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I’d started reading Braiding Sweetgrass back home, and I’m continuing to read it slowly, a chapter at a time. A good companion is Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle, who writes of the extensive logging that has stripped the Willapa Hills of southwestern Washington, where he has lived for thirty years.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at the Wild Arts festival in Portland last fall. Note that there is an introduction by David Guterson in this edition. Robert Michael Pyle is a generous Santa Claus of a man who teaches every year at Fishtrap, a retreat for writers who are passionate about the West.

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More later. I’ll tell you about a wonderful indie bookshop I visited, its dynamic owner, the person I happened to run into there in a moment of serendipity, and the books I bought.

Have you been to the Olympic Peninsula? If so, what are your favorite spots? Can you recommend books or authors connected with this part of the world?

 

 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass cover

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair… Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.”   Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve been working on my first podcast in a nature series, and as part of my research I visited Ganondagan, a cultural center and historic site that was the home of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It has an intriguing array of programs, from animal tracking to music to meditation to dance. Last Sunday, I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer speak about her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares about nature, the land, and saving the earth.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer leads us in a song to save the earth at Ganondagan

I first heard of Kimmerer via Elizabeth Gilbert, who found the inspiration for her book, The Signature of All Things, when she read Gathering Moss by Kimmerer.

I’m about a quarter of the way through Braiding Sweetgrass. I’m loving the poetry of her writing as I take in the simple but profound indigenous wisdom Kimmerer is eager to pass on. It’s wisdom we as a culture have long overlooked and which may save us all, if we pay attention. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book to read slowly and savor.

Kimmerer is a botanist, a professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is descended from the Anishinabekwe of the New England region; in the forced Native American migration her people settled in Oklahoma.

There, her grandfather, by law, had to leave the reservation when he was nine years old to attend public school. At that point, their language and most of their indigenous wisdom was lost.

Kimmerer has spent a good part of her adulthood reclaiming both as she also pursues the life of a botanist and university professor.

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Making sweet grass medicine. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Here Kimmerer expresses what she aimed for in writing Braiding Sweetgrass:

“I offer…a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” 

I’ve still many pages to go, so I’ll write more once I finish the book. I’ll leave you with this:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us….It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be sold.”

Indigenous Peoples

My Favorite Things

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Our backyard water garden, where I’ve been hanging out making a podcast.

 

Podcasting!

I’ve been dusting off my out-of-date media production skills and taking a podcasting class online with Creative Nonfiction magazine. It’s been fun, aggravating and, at times, all-consuming. Last night I put the finishing touches on “Water Bewitched,” the first in my nature series entitled “From Where I Stand.”

Fingers crossed, there is an eco-literary site interested in my series. (I think I maybe made up the term eco-literary. Don’t know. There is something called eco-fiction, so…) We’ll see if they like my first one.

Quite some time has passed since I did media production for Kodak, and decades ago I received a master’s degree from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Since then, technology has reinvented itself. Now, anyone can be creative with media, but the learning curve can be steep and complex, at first.

There are about eight of us in the class from around the country and Australia who have been immersed in scripting and audio production, under the guidance of a devoted and patient reporter/teacher who works for an NPR affiliate. It’s been fascinating to see everyone’s projects as they progress. Occasionally, we meet together via Google Hangout to learn the audio editing software, trouble shoot technical difficulties, and give each other creative support.

During this, our final week, we’ll work on finishing touches and draft pitch letters for placing the podcasts.

Podcasting has taken off these past few years to become a HUGELY popular medium. The debut of the NPR podcast, Serial, was groundbreaking. This free podcast tells a true story in weekly installments. My friends and my son who listened to the first season became so hooked, they could hardly wait for each Thursday’s new episode. Sarah Koenig, the writer/producer, pioneered this new way of telling a story through sound. She’s immensely talented.

I confess I have not listened to Serial, which is in its third season, because I know I’d be hooked too, and I didn’t want it to take up lots of my time. That said, now that I’ve produced my first humble 6-minute podcast, I’ll be listening to Serial, out of curiosity and for inspiration. I highly recommend you check out Serial if you want to hear the powerful storytelling potential of podcasting.

Here are more noteworthy podcasts that I like. There are literally thousands, though, so if you’re interested, see what you can find by simply exploring online:

  • I highly recommend StoryCorps, if you haven’t heard it already. It is a public service dedicated to sharing and preserving humanity’s stories. These unscripted conversations are fascinating. If you live in certain big cities, like San Francisco or Chicago, you can reserve time in the StoryCorps booth to record your own conversation with a friend or loved one.
  • Radiolab is another high quality podcast that evolves around curiosity. These are longer programs that explore something fascinating or mysterious about…just about anything. Heady and intellectual.
  • This American Life is currently the most popular podcast in the US – that’s what they say, anyway. This is fine journalism. You can hear This American Life on your local NPR radio station, and you can subscribe to the shortened version as a podcast.
  • You can post your own podcast on SoundCloud, or you can browse to find podcasts of interest.
  • On Being with Krista Tippett is one of my favorite, favorite podcasts. It’s on public radio, too, in addition to being a syndicated podcast. A spiritual conversation that explores what it is to be human.
  • If you have a creative practice or you’re interested in the creative process, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the excellent book Big Magic, produces a series I love, called Magic Lessons.
  • Check out The Moth Podcast, based on the fine Moth Radio Hour on public radio.
  • Oops, almost forgot Tiny Desk Concerts, another NPR creation.  Fabulous, and we are lucky to know one of the talented co-producers!

There are lots more!

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Water irises in our backyard pond

A Common Struggle

A Common Struggle image

A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction

“‘I have never seen a case worse than you, Patrick. You’ve been at this for so long, and the fact that you’ve survived and you’re still doing it almost makes you more dangerous. You’re able to manage it, just like your father managed it….’

He [Chris Lawford, Patrick Kennedy’s cousin] said he knew that at any given moment, I could say I wanted to go off to Australia with all my money and drink and drug myself to death. What he didn’t know, and neither did Amy, was that I had considered such a plan.”   Patrick J. Kennedy, A Common Struggle

I never thought I’d read a Kennedy memoir, we’ve been so saturated through the years with media coverage about the Kennedy family. Usually, I read literary memoirs, and this one isn’t. But I knew I had to read A Common Struggle, given my interest in mental health issues and wanting to see things change for the better, for once, rather than for the worse.

Patrick Kennedy has bipolar disorder, severe anxiety disorder, and has struggled with addiction to alcohol and prescription medication most of his life. His memoir, A Common Struggle, co-written with Stephen Fried, describes in excruciating detail how Ted Kennedy’s son managed somehow to keep this a secret (more or less) even as he served as Congressman from Rhode Island for many years.

In fact, Patrick’s entire nuclear family struggled with addiction, and all of them went through rehab at least once, if not multiple times – all except for Ted Kennedy. Not that he didn’t need it – Ted Kennedy’s family staged an intervention once, but Kennedy refused to acknowledge or accept that he had an addiction to alcohol.

This is a fascinating read. The Kennedys have a remarkable record of public service and, despite his debilitating mental health and addiction issues, Patrick Kennedy led the fight for successful passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Given our complex and often dysfunctional political system, this is truly an achievement, even though the act, which requires insurance coverage of mental illness and addiction equal to coverage of physical illnesses, hasn’t yet been fully implemented.

Patrick Kennedy and others had to fight hard to make sure that addiction was included along with mental health. This was an enlightened step. It’s about time, since there is an epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction and overdose in the US. Only now are attitudes beginning to change so that addiction is increasingly viewed as a health problem, not a crime or a personal weakness.

Patrick ultimately decided that he couldn’t sustain his lifestyle as a Congressman and handle his addiction and mental health issues, so he eventually left Congress. He is currently the leading advocate in the US for mental health and substance abuse care, research and policy.

I’ve sometimes been dismissive of the Kennedys and their privilege, but Patrick’s memoir made me realize how devoted the extended family is to public service and what a difference they’ve made on many fronts. If you are interested in mental health and substance abuse issues, and/or if you want to become an advocate for better mental health care and research, I think you’ll get a lot out of Kennedy’s memoir. He weaves into his personal story a detailed history of mental health legislation in this country – legislation that is woefully lacking.

There are fantastic appendices, too, that summarize the many issues we need to advocate for and change, and that list the most prominent mental health and substance abuse support groups and organizations in the US.

I get discouraged about the lack of funding and services for people who suffer from mental illness and addiction and the long road it has been over the years to see improvement. Seems like common sense that we’d want to make changes for the better, but sadly our priorities are elsewhere. This is a shame, because these issues affect one out of five families – so is there anyone among us who hasn’t been touched in some way by mental illness or addiction?

Last weekend my husband and I took part in NAMI Walks in Rochester, an annual May is Mental Health Month fund-raiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Over a thousand people walked. (There is still time to donate, go to the NAMI Walks link!)

I’m also proud to report that NAMI Rochester has such an extensive and devoted cadre of family members and volunteers working on behalf of mental health education and advocacy, they have been named the TOP NAMI affiliate in the country for 2016. They will be honored at the NAMI National Convention in July.

NAMI Walks

NAMI Rochester Streakers take the lead for NAMI Walks.

NAMI Walks On the March

NAMI Walks leaving the Village Gate in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts.

When Memoir and History Collide

67 Shots

“…Kent State on that early afternoon of May 4 is where all the raging waters of the 1960s, bad and good, evil and sublime, flowed together for one brief, horrible moment.”

“…the Guardsmen turned back toward the parking lot, went down on one knee or crouched, and raised their M1s to their shoulders.”     –     Howard Means, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence

Excavating a Life

May 4, 2016 is the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine injured by the National Guard during campus protests of US involvement in the Vietnam War.

I was fifteen at the time and lived about 40 minutes away from the Kent State campus. That tragic day has a part to play in the memoir I’m writing, but at first I didn’t realize it. In early memoir drafts, I mentioned May 4 only briefly. In my view it was someone else’s story, and I was having a hard time remembering how I felt about this tragedy that happened so long ago. 

But the more I wrote, the more Kent State haunted me. I began to realize May 4 had been a turning point in my political consciousness. It’s probably more accurate to say that Kent State was the birth of my political consciousness. 

I began to think about the role of the tumultuous 1960s in the life of my family. I had two younger brothers, and I didn’t realize back then how much my father worried about them being drafted. Years later, he told me he’d happily have given them some cash and urged them off to Canada. A World War II veteran with a Purple Heart and an active member of AMVETS, my dad kept his anti-war opinions to himself because he’d have been viewed as unpatriotic by most of his friends.

My father was badly wounded during World War II, and in retrospect I think he may have had a form of PTSD. In the days after May 4, it was common to hear angry locals say the National Guard should have shot all of the student protesters. I don’t recall talking with my father about Kent, but he must have been horrified by the military takeover of the campus and the fact that students had been killed.

As for me, up until May 4, 1970, I’d been just an interested onlooker while the 1960s played out on the nightly news. I had my hands full maneuvering my teen years with a mentally ill mother, and I hadn’t given much thought to social causes. But suddenly the older brothers and sisters of my friends were hitchhiking home, refugees from Kent State, Ohio State, and other local colleges that had been shut down amid protests, tear gassing, and riots. I recall plenty of arguing about who did what to whom and who was at fault.

To me, it seemed clear: the National Guard had bullets, and the students didn’t.

For decades, people have been trying to piece together the sequence of events that led to the Kent State tragedy on May 4, with only partial success. No one directly or indirectly involved has the big picture, and it’s unlikely anyone ever will. My Spanish teacher took a leave for a couple of months to serve on the federal grand jury that investigated the shootings. Later, she told us that she remained baffled. No one admitted to giving the order to fire on the students, and no one was held accountable.

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means was published in April, and I bought the book as soon as it was available. It’s a fascinating read that has given me a much clearer picture of the fraught atmosphere in my part of the world and in the nation in 1970. This historical context will be invaluable as I continue to work on my memoir.

I think Means has done a good job of even-handedly summarizing what is known about May 4, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath. His book is a page-turner, packed with many first-person accounts from all sides: student onlookers, student protesters, Guardsmen, Kent faculty and administration, and many others.

Now I understand that there was no focused planning by the students protesting the war in the days before May 4 and on that fateful afternoon. In fact, the hard-core protesters were only a small group among many thousands of students who were curious onlookers or simply passing by on their way to class. Nor did the Kent State administration, the office of Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, or the National Guard have a rational plan for diffusing the situation.

Instead, as Means clearly depicts, there was only monumental incompetence and mismanagement on the part of just about everyone.

Ultimately, Means takes the view that the students had a right to peacefully assemble and protest, and this right was violated by a vast over-reaction that turned deadly when the military became involved.

Means makes clear that the students weren’t blameless. A small group of them burned down the ROTC building on the Friday evening before the Monday shootings, and a crowd of drunk students vandalized businesses in downtown Kent, badly frightening the residents. (ROTC buildings on many a campus across the nation were destroyed.) Just before the shootings, the hard-core war protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at the Guardsmen. But Means says that videotapes show these students weren’t close enough to the Guardsmen to seriously hurt them, and in the end only one Guardsman was taken to the hospital, for hyperventilation.

Here are a few excerpts that I found enlightening but disturbing. I hadn’t realized the depth of the hostility between Kent State and the larger community back then:

“’The town hated the students, and the town hated the faculty,’ recalled Lew Fried, who joined the English faculty in the fall of 1969 and would remain at Kent State for the rest of his career. ‘This was a very conservative, right-wing-to-reactionary town. I was told that after the shootings, when students were being forced to leave campus, the majority of the town, which had grown fat on student-generated income, refused to sell them food, refused to sell them gas.'”

And this:

“Janice Marie Wascko was sitting with her roommates on the front lawn of their house in downtown Kent that evening when a patrolling police cruiser noticed antiwar slogans chalked on the sidewalk and a low retaining wall. The cruiser, she said, had no license plates. Badge numbers were taped over. ‘They had a sawed-off shotgun and pulled it on us. And they got out of the cruiser and stood there, pulled the guns on us, and said, ‘Wipe it up, scum,’ and made us get down on our hands and knees and wipe it off, the slogans off the wall and the sidewalk. [They were] saying, ‘We should have killed you all,’ and laughing at us. A short time later…they caught somebody down by what is Pufferbelly’s [restaurant] now and beat the crap out of him against a wall.’”

I’ve been selective in the excerpts I’ve included, based on my own stance and bias. I want to emphasize that Means provides a more balanced, nuanced view in 67 Shots.

Here are additional points from the book that I found noteworthy:

  • Over 1300 National Guardsmen, 17 helicopters, and 250 half tracks, full tracks and armored personnel carriers, including three mortar launchers, were sent to the Kent State campus. On Saturday and Sunday before the shootings, helicopters hovered 24/7 over the campus and town, lighting the sky with searchlights throughout the night. This greatly fueled paranoia, suspicion, and fear among the students and townspeople.
  • After initial media stories mistakenly reported that National Guard soldiers had been killed, some residents of Kent were armed and ready in the streets and on rooftops for the hordes of students they feared were about to raid their town. Rumors circulated that student radicals had poisoned the water supply with LSD.
  • The vast majority of Kent State students were interested onlookers, not war protestors, but some became instantly radicalized by the overwhelming military presence. Most students and faculty assumed that the National Guardsmen’s M1 rifles were not loaded. Many of the Guardsmen were young, inexperienced, and poorly led – local boys who were the same age as the students.
  • President Nixon was frustrated when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his COINTELPRO program of spying on war protestors, black activists, and women’s rights and lesbian/gay groups found no evidence of communist involvement in the protests at Kent and other universities. Some historians believe Kent State was the beginning of Nixon’s downfall – his obsession with spying eventually ended in the Watergate scandal.
  • Some say Kent State helped stopped the Vietnam War. Others believe the military response had a chilling effect on protests; in the 1970s social movements died out and people turned inward.

There’s lots more I could say about 67 Shots and its impact on my own story. I also worry about how ripe we are here in the US again for protests to become violent. But for now, I’ll leave you with this:

My dad often told stories about World War II, which I now realize he censored quite heavily. One day when our sons, Andrew and Matt, were just old enough to appreciate that their grandfather had once been a young man with interesting experiences, we’d been talking about the war in Iraq. My father reminisced about being drafted in World War II and boarding the train with his cousin, bound for basic training, and how the extended family saw them off. He talked about the Battle of Metz, where he was wounded and many were killed.

“I think about the war every single day of my life.” Turning to Andrew and Matt, my father said, “War is a terrible thing. Just because someone tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

The song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young captures the tenor of the times. There is a video with Kent State photos and an “Ohio” soundtrack uploaded by Mars Daniels on YouTube you might want to check out. Daniels claims fair use, but I have my doubts about copyright legality, so I’m not linking to it directly.

Note: Ten days after the Kent State shootings, two African American students were killed and many were wounded by police and state troopers at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The students were protesting racial intimidation as well as the killings at Kent State. The tragedy at Jackson State received little media coverage, whereas the deaths of white students at Kent was all over the news.

If you lived through the 1960s, are there events that resonate for you on a personal level? If you’re younger, do your parents have memories of that time that they find especially meaningful? If you write memoir, have you used historical sources to shed light on your own formative experiences?

 

 

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