(Still) reading Barry Lopez

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

About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez

Here is my third and final reposting of my Barry Lopez Books Can Save a Life writings, in honor of his passing on December 25, 2020:

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.

Crow and Weasel book cover

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.”

Barry Lopez brought us I, Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

“I, SNOW LEOPARD is both a lyric and an elegy. It is easy to imagine its lines being loudly hailed in whatever country the poem finds itself in. It’s publication comes at a time when people everywhere have begun to wonder what a voice like this, suppressed for centuries, wishes to say now, in this moment when the Snow Leopard’s human brothers and sisters find themselves side by side with him. Imperiled.”   Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez

Happy New Year, everyone! In honor of Barry’ Lopez’s passing on Christmas Day, I’m reposting my previous Books Can Save a Life writings about him. I wrote the following post on April 16, 2016, after Lopez visited Rochester, NY:

Barry Lopez came to Rochester this week to receive “The Art of Fact” award for literary nonfiction presented by The College at Brockport Writers Forum and M&T Bank.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Barry Lopez is one of my heroes, not quite at the level of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but close. (See my blog’s header quote.)

Lopez is one of the very best nature writers, and if you love animals and wildlife, you’ll love his nonfiction books, essays, and short stories. He has travelled to 90 countries and has a tremendous respect for the animal world and the many indigenous peoples he’s come to know.

I, Snow Leopard

Lopez came to Rochester to receive his award and to deliver to us the poem “I, Snow Leopard” by Jidi Majia. 

I wasn’t familiar with either the poet or the poem, but Lopez said that when he found out “I, Snow Leopard” had been published in Asia and Europe, but not in the United States, he had to set things right.

He felt that it was vitally important that the American people hear the words of the snow leopard in this poem. So he saw to its publication here, and wrote the foreword to the English edition.

Jidi Majia, a member of the indigenous Nuosu (Yi) people who live in the mountains of southwestern China, has won numerous literary awards.  As far as I could tell from what I found online, few of his poems have been translated into English.

Majia’s poem is written in the words of a snow leopard, which is viewed by the Nuosu as a wisdom keeper, a being with “biological authority,” according to Lopez.

He told us that when he first began traveling the world and exploring, in his thirties, he viewed wild animals in an amateur, superficial, childlike way, until he learned to embrace the much more refined view held by native peoples.

A poem is a door anyone can walk through, Lopez said, and this poem is the mysterious and elusive snow leopard’s expression of grief and a warning to human kind:  “Do not hunt me any longer.”  Human violence toward animals puts everyone in peril, animals and humanity alike.

Before Lopez began, he said he wasn’t worthy to read “I, Snow Leopard,” but he’d try. He said that, as far as he knew, we’d be the very first American audience to hear the poem.

We listened to this exclusive reading in the soaring space that is the chapel in Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh. “I, Snow Leopard” is beautiful, haunting, simply expressed and accessible even to listeners not accustomed to hearing poetry.

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Photo by Bernard Landgraf. CC BY-SA 3.0

After the reading Lopez answered questions and spoke informally and earnestly. As we listened, the audience seemed to be hanging on his words.  Here are some direct quotes I managed to scribble in my notebook:

“Each soul is essential to the warp and weft of the universe.”

“I want to see people come alive.”

“We know what to do and we have to do it now.”

Fixing our world “will take people of great courage. People like you. Because Washington is not doing it.”

“We should be holding hands.”

“The only thing that really matters is to be in love.”

I wrote down the following words, too, but I don’t recall if they are from the poem or if they are Barry Lopez’s words. I believe they are both:

“There is no other place for any of us to go.”

“I, Snow Leopard” is available on Amazon. Barry Lopez told me it is also to be published in a future issue of Orion Magazine.

Of Wolves and Men

If you’d like to read Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, his nonfiction work about the Far North that won the National Book Award, is a great book to start with. I haven’t yet read Of Wolves and Men, but when I saw the mesmerizing cover photo of a wolf on display at the reading, I added it to my to-read list.

Lopez writes fiction, too. I especially liked his subversive collection of short stories, Resistance, which he wrote shortly after 9/11, about surveillance and “parties of interest” to the government.

If you want to know more about the fascinating snow leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s memoir, The Snow Leopard, is a great read.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, is one of my favorite movies. Watch it. You might spot a snow leopard.

Barry Lopez passing, gathering words

The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined.  – Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. You can read a brief, beautiful account of his passing by his wife, Debra Gwartney, on his website. Over the next months, his family will begin the work of restoring their home on the McKenzie River, which was burned in the 2020 wildfires.

During the next week I’ll be featuring some of my past posts about Barry. Here is one, which I wrote in 2013:

When I began this blog I chose for my tagline a quote by Barry Lopez about stories because it rang true for me. But I’d never actually read any of Lopez’s books. So I began with Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award.

If you want to be an armchair traveler of the world, if you love nature, if you crave being transported to another time and place by extraordinary writing, you must read Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams has some of the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.

“The aurora borealis, pale gossamer curtains of light.”

“The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the sun’s or moon’s corona in clouds.”

“The outcry of birds, the bullet-whirr of their passing wings, the splashing of water, is, like the falling light, unending.”

You will find uncommon truths, beautifully expressed. Here is Lopez on the great Arctic explorers of the past: “The day after a little trouble on the ice it is possible to imagine, if but imperfectly, the sort of reach some of these men made into the unknown, day after day.” 

“I think we can hardly reconstruct the terror of it, the single-minded belief in something beyond the self.”

“Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire of spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness.”

“What dreams there must have been that were never written down….that remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.”

If you want to write, how can you move closer to this kind of mastery of language?

old dictionary

As I was reading Lopez, I happened to make a happy discovery in my writing bible, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor:  Lexicon Practice. Lexicon Practice involves looking up words you don’t know and words you want to know better, not in in a pocket dictionary or online, but in a mammoth 600,000-word dictionary, the kind you still see in some libraries. 

(Long advises writers to search online for a dictionary published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) Copy the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy these as well.

I write down the word in its language of origin, too. If it has a Latin, Italian or Spanish root, I can brush up on my foreign language vocabulary. Long instructs you to write out the sentence where you found the word and make up a sentence of your own, preferably a sentence you can use in a piece of writing you’re working on. You can choose a lexicon theme based on the work you are doing at the moment. Since I’m writing a memoir, for example, I have a lexicon with words commonly used in the 1960s – products, types of clothing, etc.

Long believes in Lexicon Practice. Otherwise, our writing derives from the uninspired language of generic, overused words and phrases we find in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and social media. As a teacher of writing, Long knows immediately when a writer doesn’t have a Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, and “…he favors concrete words…that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard. For Lopez, language is a musical instrument…”

Now, Lexicon Practice is a geeky, writerly thing, but it appeals to me. This kind of practice slows you down, teaches you to choose words with care. If you want to write rich, compelling fiction or nonfiction, you need to be in love with words in this way, or allow yourself to fall in love with them by doing work of this nature.

Definitions and drawings

Culling words from Arctic Dreams was an inspiring way to for me to establish a habit of Lexicon Work. A variety of birds populate the first pages of my first lexicon: plover, whimbrel, curlew. There are many boats and nautical references: pinnace, tender, portolano chart.  Geographical terms, too: archipelago, scree, promontory.  (As I write this, my word processor does not recognize a few of these uncommon words and highlights them as misspellings.)

Long advises writers to compose word lists, too. Her examples: every possible synonym for blue (sapphire, smalt, cobalt, woad) and all the parts of a fiddle (peg box, side rib, bridge, button). You can work according to a theme. Chairs and chair parts. Types of roofs. Clothes for people who love the outdoors. Get an L.L. Bean catalog and find words like cargo pants, fleece, sun-washed, twill, seersucker, Mary Janes, wellies.

I found that keeping a lexicon is a good excuse to buy one of those expensive, fancy journals I love. Mine has a silvered filigree cover designed in Germany around 1800. (I haven’t kept up a lexicon practice as of 2020, but I do it from time to time for specific writing projects.)

I am now using the second edition of Pricilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, published in 2018 by the University of New Mexico Press. It has been updated with all new craft models and to reflect changes in the publishing industry.

***

If you want to be uplifted or if you would like encouragement in your life’s work, listen to a few minutes of this conversation between Barry Lopez and Bill Moyers.

Here is a moving and enlightening interview with Barry Lopez on Idaho Public Television from 2019. He talks about his latest book, Horizon, (which is a wonderful and urgent read!!!) and opens up about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on his life, and what he hoped to accomplish by finally writing about it in the New Yorker as an elder. Those of you writing memoir about traumatic events will find it helpful.

Here is a link to the McKenzie River Trust, which is devoted to conservation of the western Oregon region where Barry Lopez lived. Much of the river corridor was destroyed by the fall fires. If you wish, you can make a donation in memory of Barry Lopez.

Hope in the Dark

A backyard in San Francisco, September 10, 2020

“This morning was perhaps the most unnatural-feeling and unnerving of my life, with darkness rather than daytime rolling in. People around California reported that the birds that would normally be singing were silent. On some of the days, since the freak lightning storm in the heat wave of mid-August launched this explosive fire season, the sun has been red, and when the moon was full it was also red near the horizon, but this morning there was no sun to be seen through the murk. Ash was falling, the ash of trees, forests, homes, towns, dreams burning up. In the strange light, the world around us looked ghostly, otherworldly, unnatural, unnerving, disturbing.”

Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian, September 10, 2020

There are no words to describe my grief over the fires in Oregon, California, and Washington, so I’ll defer to Rebecca Solnit and her Hope in the Dark:

“I write to give aid and comfort to people who feel overwhelmed by the defeatist perspective, to encourage people to stand up and participate, to look forward at what we can do and back at what we have done. This book was always for them. And if you’ve read this far, for you.”

“….sometimes it’s the most unlikely people who rise up and take power, the housewives who are supposed to be nobody, the prisoners who organize from inside, the people who have an intimate sense of what’s at stake.”

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…”

“To hope is to give yourself the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” 

Exceptional journalism for troubled times

 

fivedays

 

When I was a practicing medical librarian, I read an extraordinary work of medical humanities journalism by Sheri Fink, MD: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. 

Dr. Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her initial coverage of the disaster that played out in a New Orleans hospital serving the poor during Hurricane Katrina, and she is currently doing excellent reporting on the pandemic for The New York Times.

I wrote about Five Days at Memorial on Books Can Save a Life in 2014. I’m including a condensed version of the post below, because in pandemic hot spots around the United States, critical care resources are being stretched to their limits – needlessly so, thanks to the scandalously inadequate national response to COVID-19 – as they were in Hurricane Katrina.

Immersive and meticulously researched journalism like Dr. Fink’s can make these issues real for us in a way that is immediate and clarifying.

Secondly, I’m looking to pass along responsible, innovative journalism in this climate of conspiracy theories and misinformation. For excellent reporting about our current pandemic, for example, read or listen to Ed Yong’s work in The Atlantic, especially his must-read article published today, “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”

Here’s what Yong had to say about the current role of journalism in an interview with CNN: (Thanks to Tom Jones of The Poynter Report for passing this along.)

“I think of the information around the pandemic as rapids, really fast flowing torrential water. It’s so easy to be swept up in it and feel like you’re being carried along, feeling like you’re drowning in it. What I think really good journalism can do is to act as a rock in the middle of that fast flow to give people stable ground where they can stand and observe what is moving past them without being carried along by it.”

Below is a streamlined version of my original post about Five Days at Memorial:

“He would push 10 mg of morphine and 5 mg of the fast-acting sedative drug Versed and go up from there.”  –  Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

Five Days at Memorial is about five days in hell.

After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, staff at Memorial Medical Center thought the facility and everyone in it had survived the storm intact.

Then the levees broke and the water came.

Darkness ensued, air conditioning stopped, and life support equipment shut down. No rescue was forthcoming from federal, state, or local disaster relief agencies or the hospital’s corporate owners. Toilets overflowed. Hospital staff occasionally heard gunshots in the surrounding neighborhood.

Memorial Medical Center had no evacuation plan for a disaster of this type, and staff were not trained in disaster management, even though the hospital had a history of flooding.

To get patients (most of them frail and elderly) to the helipad for the occasional helicopter that eventually did show up, staff had to carry them in sheets down several flights of dark stairs, through a small shaft into the parking garage, and up two more flights. This took well over half an hour for each patient.

By the time Memorial Medical Center was entirely evacuated, 45 patients had died. Twenty-three bodies were found to have high levels of morphine and other drugs.  According to the account Dr. Fink pieced together, it was alleged some patients were going to die anyway – they wouldn’t survive evacuation – and so they were euthanized to prevent suffering.

Dr. Fink covers the legal and political aftermath and discusses the role of families (or lack of it if they are excluded) in making difficult care decisions when resources are scarce. She calls for comprehensive national disaster response requirements for all US hospitals.

Five Days at Memorial will leave you unsettled by the perfect storm of failure on every level, and considerably more informed about the rationing of health care resources and the nearly impossible ethical decisions that must be made in disasters when there are not enough resources to save everyone.

Dr. Fink’s book could, literally, save lives.

Racism and social justice

Two outstanding, timely works of journalism I’ll be reading and posting about soon are by Pulitzer Prize winning Isabel Wilkerson. 

Wilkerson is an immensely gifted writer who spent decades researching and writing the two books below. In this powerful TED talk, she highlights the theme of her book The Warmth of Other Suns. Her Caste is getting rave reviews, and I expect will be on many a reading list this fall.

CasteCaste: The Origins of our Discontents (just published in the US today)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (See Claire’s excellent post over at Word by Word.)

 

Sacred pauses

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Crisis is always a purification if we understand it correctly. The very word ‘crisis’ comes from a root that means sifting out. Crisis is a separation, a sifting out of that which is viable and can go on from that which is dead and has to be left behind.”David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day   Photo (Rochester, NY) by A. Hallinan.

 

I’ve been wondering how to render my long, isolating, pandemic days so they are meaningful, enjoyable, and conducive to doing the deep writing and other work I’ve been wanting to do.

It just so happens that a friend of mine recently published an essay about her practice of observing sacred pauses throughout the day based on the Benedictine practice of marking the hours. She does so not for religious purposes, but to structure and inspire her days and to be in touch with the cycles of the natural world.

Her essay motivated me to see if this approach might be helpful. Plus, I’ve long been interested in books of hours which, originally, were personalized medieval Christian prayer books that marked the sacred hours of the day.

I tracked down a used copy of a book Louisa recommended by Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day. 

Macrina led me to David Steindl-Rast’s book, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day.

Both books are rich and motivating, a pleasure to read in small bits. You don’t have to be religious to structure your day around these sacred pauses; you can make the practice your own, and I think you’ll find many unexpected benefits.

I’ve been delving into these books of hours and taking sacred pauses while also renewing my mindfulness meditation practice (with the help of an online class offered by the teacher who originally got me into meditation over a dozen years ago.) Mindfulness mediation and marking the sacred hours are both concerned with consciously embracing the present moment. The two pursuits complement each other.

Here are some of my favorite passages from David Steindl-Rast’s book:

“….the hours of their days and nights have turned into couriers for them, each with a distinctive dispatch.” “…each hour had a character and presence infinitely richer and more complex than our sterile clock time.”   “The hours are the inner structure of living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.”

“The original notion of hour is something quite different from a unit of time composed of sixty minutes. It is not a numerical measure; it is a soul measure.”

“…time is not conceived as running out, but as rising like water in a well, rising to that fullness of time that is now. It is to that centered, present living in the now that chant calls us.”

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“The paced hours teach us how to pace our lives.” David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence

 

And these from Macrina’s book:

“God’s angels companion you on your pilgrimage through the day. You are never alone. Pausing to remember such truths changes the hours to gold.”

“Even if you have a lot of work to do, if you think of it as wonderful, and if you feel it as wonderful, it will transform into the energy of joy and fire, instead of becoming a burden.” – Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, as quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses.

 

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A still from the video installation “Visitation” by Bill Viola, in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden. I took this photo on my trip to Sweden last year. “Visitation” is an extraordinary silent work that held me for 20 minutes like it was just twenty seconds. Viola’s subjects are birth, death, transformation and liberation. In this baptism by water, the subject goes from “a life of obscurity to another life where light and color envelop her, perhaps like an inner birth giving her the strength to move on.”  (Quoted from the installation commentary) Some people view our difficult times as a sweeping and necessary transformation. This still photo, a sacred, single moment from the video, seems relevant to me.

 

The sacred pauses:

Matins or Vigils (The Night Watch) “Vigils is a time of exquisite beauty. It is a time for waiting and watching under the mantle of mystery.” DS-R

Lauds or Morning Prayer (Daybreak, The Awakening Hour) “Dawn is like medicine, and morning is a healing drink that I have to brew in my heart just as I brew my coffee.” MW

Prime (About 6 am, Deliberate Beginning)  “…the monastic attitude is to begin deliberately and to do anything we do with an even, stately pace and with whole-hearted attention. This is how master artisans, weavers, experienced farmers, and other sage laborers work. That way even difficult tasks can be done leisurely and with joy, for their own sake. And then they become life-giving.” DS-R

Terce (9 am, The Blessing Hour) “Imagine you are sitting at the dawn of your workday watching your creativity blossom. Rather than trying to grab the first blossom you seek, spend time beholding that blossom and looking at it from all angles. Prayerfully reflecting on the first blossom of your day will awaken other ideas that are in the budding stage.” MW

The Sixth Hour (Noon, The Hour of Illumination; Fervor and Commitment) “The hour is rousing us to summon the courage to stay the course, to remain true to our ideals through the rest of the day.” DS-R

None (3 pm, The Wisdom Hour) “Our doing flows out of our being, and that is why it is necessary for us to learn to pause.”  MW

Vespers or Evensong (Early evening, The Twilight Hour) “The way that we can actively bring the spirit of Vespers into everyday life is to light whatever lights we can in this dark world.” DS-R

Compline: (Just before retiring, Entering the Great Silence)  “Preparing for the night, for going into the realm of dreams, we pray for good dreams: nourishing dreams, teaching dreams.”  DS-R

 

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As we explored Uppsala Cathedral, the organist was practicing, and we were lucky to hear Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach several times. The chandeliers (ljuskrona, or “light crown” in Swedish) are common in Swedish churches. Delving into the sacred hours and reading Kristin Lavransdatter reminded me of my visit to this 13th century cathedral.

 

Christ Church in Rochester, NY, which draws upon many fine musicians, singers and composers from the Eastman School of Music, has been streaming great music during the pandemic. I like the description of this short Bach piece and its moods by organist David Higgs almost as much as I like the piece itself:

 

A Letter from the virus

The powerful, poignant video letter from the coronavirus at the link below is pure poetry. Please listen: our troubled times could be viewed as one gigantic pause imposed on us by the virus for the most sacred of purposes. This version is narrated in beautiful Italian with English subtitles – as the poet I’m linking to suggests, the Italian version has more urgency and poetry than the English version:

https://www.jhwriter.com/a-letter-from-the-virus-italian-with-english-subtitles/

“We have a right to feel at home here in the universe.” David Steindl-Rast

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life: A luscious, luscious newly published book. (Think: flowers; floral masterpieces; color; design; creativity; art; literature; deep ecology; learning how to see; things of the spirit.)

Pandemic Reading: Kristin Lavransdatter

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“An older woman sitting by me on the subway, or waiting beside me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.”  – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter.

 

“He was well, but had cast himself into a wild life, just as many young people, out of despair, had done. They said that whoever was afraid would be sure to die, and so they blunted their fear with carousing and drinking, playing cards, dancing, and carrying on with women.” – Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

 

Historical fiction is what I’ve been immersed in lately, what with watching the Outlander series and reading the remarkable 14th century Norwegian trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.  I first read The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross by Sigrid Undset when I was in my twenties, thanks to my college roommate, Kathy, (of Norwegian descent) who highly recommended it. I vowed to read it again someday from the perspective of a good portion of life lived. A few weeks ago I ordered it; the time was right, I thought, especially because the Black Plague has a part to play in Kristin’s story and we’re living through our own time’s pandemic.

The story centers around the life of Kristin from childhood to elderhood, and her sexual, emotional, familial and spiritual pilgrimage across the span of life. I see many similarities between Kristin and Claire Fraser, the protagonist of Outlander.

Published in 1920, 1921, and 1922, Kristin Lavransdatter was a worldwide literary sensation. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.

Here is something about Sigrid’s singular protagonist from the Introduction to the edition I’m reading:

IMG_2179“In the annals of literary ‘fallen women,’ Kristin Lavransdatter, the twentieth-century/fourteenth-century literary figure, occupies a curious and fascinating place. After they fell, a number of Kristin’s nineteenth-century counterparts were whisked offstage, often to meet a premature end. In the latter part of the twentieth century, many of Kristin’s successors were sexual adventuresses whose exploits were pure and liberated triumphs. Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Undset chose a middle path for her heroine. Kristin never doubts that she has covertly sinned, and the pain of her deceptions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life. Throughout the trilogy, Kristin is an indomitable presence in every role she undertakes….”

At age seven Kristin gazes at the view from her home:

“There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains. On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds. But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes…

She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves, and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were, but there were certainly many more of them than of Christian people.”  

Kristian Lavransdatter seemed to fall out of favor for a time, but it is having something of a resurgence. My son and his girlfriend are waiting eagerly in line to read it once I’m finished. (My son lives in the heart of the US Covid outbreak in Brooklyn, and we were glad when he was able to stay temporarily near to us. Yesterday was a fine, warm day, and he and his girlfriend came for a socially distanced visit. They brought a blanket and sat on the grass while I picked weeds. We talked about the books we’re reading.)

 

 

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At over 1100 pages, the trilogy I have is the beautifully produced, deckle edged Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, with smooth, cream-colored paper, translated by Tiina Nunnally. Helpful footnotes – not too many – explain aspects of medieval Norwegian life.

 

This line in particular, which refers to the time of the Black Death, spoke to me as something that could be said about our current pandemic:

“Now it almost seemed as if all people were equally close and distant to each other at this time of great need.”

Kristin was skilled in herbal and healing remedies:

“They now had to do the milking and chores in the cowshed themselves; they cooked their own food, and they brought back juniper and fresh evergreen branches for the cleansing smoke. Everyone did whatever task needed doing. They nursed the sick as best they could and handed out healing remedies: their supplies of theriac and calamus root were gone, but they doled out ginger, pepper, saffron, and vinegar against the sickness, along with milk and food. When the bread ran out, they baked at night; when the spices were gone, people had to chew on juniper berries and pine needles against the sickness.” 

 

 

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One of the murals in Älekulla Church, Sweden, where my great, great, great grandfather lived. Christian morality and the medieval church have central roles in the life of Kristin Lavransdatter. Reading it, I’ve been reminded of the rural churches I visited last spring in the Swedish towns where my grandparents lived.

 

SwedishBible

In a distant century, my ancestor donated this Bible to his church in Älekulla. (In his handwritten dedication, he calls the Bible “his greatest treasure.”) I’d hoped to return to Sweden to do more family research this summer, but I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon.

 

My dear friend Kathy of Blueberry Hills Art first introduced me to Kristin Lavransdatter. Please follow the link and check out her gorgeous website, which just made its debut. She’s on Instagram, too. Here is one of her woodcut prints, which reminds me of the nature that infuses Kristin’s world:

 

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Fritsla Church, Sweden

 

Kristin Lavransdatter is wonderful reading, especially if you’re spending hours at home. Have you read it? What are you reading these days? I have some special books to share with you in my next post; they are making my pandemic days richer.

Station Eleven (for real this time (almost))

StationEleven

 

“Couldn’t put it down,” my son says, leaving Station Eleven on a chair outside my door, which is propped open a few inches with – what else – a book. A friend sent him the novel, urging him to read it. We talk about it through the glass door for a few minutes, but it’s cold outside and my son returns to the apartment he’s living in, temporarily, in the complex next to ours.

His being here has given my life a small, gratifying purpose during the pandemic; I enjoy cooking hot meals for him, which we leave in a paper bag on our front stoop or deliver to his doorstep.

Look, I’m a mom. I’d hoped our son would choose to take a break from the NYC borough and neighborhood he’s loyal to – a place that still has obscene daily death tolls. But it was up to him. We were lucky to find a place in Rochester where he could land (and quarantine for a couple of weeks in case he’s a carrier.)

“Think of it as an artist’s residency,” I’d said. “You can work on your photo editing.”

I pick up the copy of Station Eleven, wipe it down even though it’s a paperback. What’s great about having had Books Can Save a Life for over eight years is, I can go back to see what I wrote about a book years ago. Some books shine the more time passes. Below is what I wrote about Station Eleven in 2014: I’d choose different excerpts now, and in fact have added one at the end that is a bit of a spoiler, but which has remained emblazoned in my memory over the years.

I get that some of you can’t bear to read about a pandemic now. One reason you might choose to is Emily’s transcendent concluding chapter that celebrates youth and a vision for a different, hopefully better, world. But of course I understand if pandemic books are not the thing for you at the moment!

I do urge you, though, to listen to six minutes of the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin below. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but her words resonate in 2020. She passed away in 2018.

Here’s the post I wrote in 2014:

“On Day Seven the networks began to blink off the air, one by one. ‘So that all of our employees may be with their families,’ a CNN anchor said, ashen and glassy-eyed after forty-eight hours without sleep, ‘we are temporarily suspending broadcast operations.’ ‘Good night,’ NBC said an hour later, ‘and good luck.’ CBS switched without comment to reruns of America’s Got Talent. This was at five in the morning, and everyone who was awake watched for a few hours – it was nice to take a quick break from the end of the world – and then in the early afternoon the lights went out.”     Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been reading dystopian fiction lately and looking forward to the third installment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Just as I dipped into pandemic-ridden Station Eleven, Ebola was front and center in the news. Reality and fiction are getting too close for comfort.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist, portrays a flu pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population in a matter of days. We see the end of advanced civilization through the eyes of five characters, and the first decades after the collapse.

Clark is a corporate consultant who specializes in coaching problematic executives and CEOs to change their behavior. Days before the outbreak of the Georgia flu, Clark interviews an especially perceptive employee to see what others think of a particular manager. I love this exchange:

“‘….it’s like the corporate world is full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.'”

“‘I’m talking about these people who have ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that….but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep?

“…you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing.

“Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”

Clark, of course, is jolted awake in a very big way when his flight to Toronto is diverted to a small Michigan airport after the pandemic explodes. He and his fellow passengers, untouched by the flu, watch the end of life as they know it on television. They never leave the airport – it becomes their settlement, their home. Eventually, Clark establishes a Museum of Civilization, where people donate iPads and smart phones and other remnants of their now-lost advanced culture.

“Like educated children everywhere, the children in the airport school memorized abstractions: the airplanes outside once flew through the air. You could use an airplane to travel to the other side of the world, but….when you were on an airplane you had to turn off your electronic devices before takeoff and landing, devices such as the tiny flat machines that played music and the larger machines that opened up like books and had screens that hadn’t always been dark, the insides brimming with circuitry, and these machines were the portals into a worldwide network. Satellites beamed information down to Earth. Goods traveled in ships and airplanes across the world. There was no place on earth that was too far away to get to.”

Meanwhile, a roving theater troupe travels from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare for groups of survivors living in abandoned Walmarts and gas stations. In this troupe are characters we’ve met earlier in the novel.  The younger members only dimly remember a world with electricity and other marvels, and some were born after the collapse. One day, they arrive at Clark’s airport settlement, and there is a poignant reunion of sorts for Clark.

Station Eleven, among other things, asks whether art can save and redeem humanity. I can’t help but think of this outpouring of dystopian literature as the proverbial canary in the mine. A wake-up call for those of us who, like the characters in Station Eleven, may need it.

Here is another excerpt I’m adding to this post in 2020 (beware the spoiler):

“Miranda woke at four in the morning with a fever. She fought it off with three aspirin, but her joints were knots of pain, her legs weak, her skin hurt where her clothes touched her. It was difficult to cross the room to the desk. She read the latest news on the laptop, her eyes aching from the light of the screen, and understood…. 

It took a long time and considerable concentration to put on her shoes…..

Outside the air was heavy and still. A greenish light on the horizon, the beginnings of sunrise….She was thinking about the container ship on the horizon. The crew out there wouldn’t have been exposed to the flu. Too late to get to a ship herself now, but she smiled at the thought that there were people in this reeling world who were safe.”

*****

Ursula Le Guin, in her stirring National Book Award acceptance speech, said we will need more writers like Emily St. John Mandel who can imagine a different way of being. Six minutes well worth listening to.

 

 

Have you read Station Eleven? Do you have other pandemic literature to recommend? Stay well, everyone!

One Long River of Song

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“So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart…..You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.” – One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder for the Spiritual and Nonspiritual Alike by Brian Doyle

Easter Sunday, 2020 in the time of COVID-19: Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.

In my last post I wrote that I discovered two favorite, amazing, new-to-me authors in my 2019 reading. Margaret Renkl is one; Brian Doyle is the other.

During the first month of our time in Oregon, we lived in Lake Oswego. The first time I entered the public library, I saw a Christmas tree decorated with hand-written tributes to Brian Doyle, who had made his home in Lake Oswego and who had recently died.

I ended up reading a collection of his essays and his most famous novel. If you are looking for joy in the midst of this pandemic, Brian Doyle would be the writer to read.

Here is what Margaret Renkl had to say about One Long River of Song:

“If you are in love with language, here is how you will read Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays: by underlining sentences and double-underlining other sentences….by marking whole astonishing paragraphs with a squiggly line in the margin, and by highlighting many of those squiggle-marked sections with a star to identify the best of the astonishing lines therein…. and, finally, by dog-earing whole pages, and then whole essays, because there is not enough ink in the world to do justice to such annotations, slim as this book is and so full of white space, too.” – Margaret Renkl in The New York Times

Below are some excerpts. By the way, Brian was a devout Catholic, but you do not have to be a Catholic, or a Christian, or religious or spiritual in any way to sip from the wellspring of joy that runs like a river through all of Brian’s writing.

“But you cannot control everything…All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference…You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow…That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling.”

****

“A 5.56-millimeter bullet can punch nearly half an inch into steel, and punch right through a bulletproof vest, and punch right through a human being of any size and shape and age and nationality and gender and religion and sexual orientation and combatant status, or not….

Dear outraged shrieking lunatic, you who are about to lecture me on how this was just an accident, and how it’s a necessary part of the capitalist system, and how I am clearly a yellow liberal pansy: Are you only stupid, or are you insane?”

****

[On hummingbirds} “Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backward. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold and they cease to be.”

****

“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

MinkRiverMink River

This novel is about the quirky people who make up a quirky “little green cup of a town” on the Oregon coast.

“On a clear day the Oregon coast is the most beautiful place on earth—clear and crisp and clean, a rich green in the land and a bright blue in the sky, the air fat and salty and bracing, the ocean spreading like a grin. Brown pelicans rise and fall in their chorus lines in the wells of the waves, cormorants arrow, an eagle kingly queenly floats south high above the water line.”

****

“Rained gently last night, just enough to wash the town clean, and then today a clean crisp fat spring day, the air redolent, the kind of green minty succulent air you’d bottle if you could and snort greedily on bleak, wet January evenings when the streetlights hzzzt on at four in the afternoon and all existence seems hopeless and sad.”

****

“She’ll be a fierce woman, that one. It’ll take a hell of a man to love her right. Be like living with a thunderstorm. Same as her mother. A fierce woman. Force of nature. The kind of woman you just hand on for the ride. The most exciting and the most heartbreaking woman you could ever meet. They don’t know their own minds most of the time, but their hearts are so damn big it hurts em inside.”

****

“Dawn. A pregnant green moist silence everywhere: and the robins start, and then starlings, and the jays, and the juncos, and the barred owl closing up shop for the night, and a hound howling in the hills which starts a couple other dogs going, which sets a guy to shouting at the dogs to shut up for chrissake, and someone tries to get a recalcitrant truck going, and the truck just can’t get going, it gasps and gasps and gasps, which sets the owl going again….and then the truck finally starts but then immediately dies, which sets the driver to cursing steadily feck feck feck which sets his passenger to giggling and the passenger’s giggle is so infectious that the driver can’t help but laugh either, so they are laughing…”

****

“They pull in the lines and up come three small halibut, a vermilion rockfish that is the reddest thing Nicholas has ever seen, and a ling cod with a gaping mouth the size of China. They clean and ice the fish. Gulls wheel and dive at the offal flung into the water.

See? No snot, no shit, and birds clean up after you, says Grace.

Can I ask you a question? says Nicholas.

No.

Do you miss your dad?

No.

Is your mom dead?

No.

Should we bait up again?

Yes. 

Am I bugging you?

Yes.

I’ll stop talking.

No.”

****

“These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way the hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries salalberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in the signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, back rubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. …..Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and gray as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and gray as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.”

Brian Doyle passed away from complications of a brain tumor in 2017.

 

Columbia River

Columbia River, view from Amtrak train heading for Portland, 2018.

 

Birdsong on the trolley trail, Easter Sunday, 2020.

 

We come from Joy; we are sustained in Joy, and to Joy we will return. – The Upanishads

Late Migrations

Late Migrations

 

“Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.” – Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.

Last year I encountered two new-to-me writers who bowled me over.

I would say that one of them, Margaret Renkl, is a kindred spirit; she cares deeply about family, the natural world, and the fate of our earth. I never fail to read her opinion pieces in The New York Times.

I’d like to press her memoir into the hands of every reader I know. Late Migrations is a meditation in short, interlocking essays about family, love, loss and backyard nature, destined to become a classic.

It won the 2020 Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was named a 2020 Notable Book by the American Library Association.

You couldn’t find a better book at a time like this. It’s written in short, exquisite essays of a page or two, so you can read it in small bits if you’d like.

There is grief – for lost family and a wounded natural world – but mostly her writing is a celebration of the natural cycles of life and death, and the wildlife accessible outside our windows and in our backyards.

In lieu of saying more, here is a 9-minute video trailer featuring Renkl, who calls her memoir “a love letter to my family and to the natural world.” The video is like a mini-retreat. Enjoy!

 

 

Have you read Late Migrations? Or another memoir about family and nature that is comparable?

Next on Books Can Save a Life: The other writer who bowled me over – just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.

 

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Happy Easter Week! From the 2020 Dutch Connection at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY.

 

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