The Shepherd’s Life

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Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

On enemies of the people, William Stafford, and writing

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I was not happy when the President tweeted that our nation’s news media is the enemy of the people.

AmericanaseriesI am not a practicing enemy of the people, but as an undergraduate, my minor area of study was how to be an enemy of the people. I liked it so much I studied it in grad school, too. I have a brother whose previous job at a major newspaper was to help oversee the printing of work by enemies of the people for distribution to an entire city. When I was a librarian, my colleagues and I taught how to tell the difference between authentic enemies of the people and fake enemies of the people.

Given the President’s careless and disrespectful words, it was a comfort to be taking an online class with like-minded people, “Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford,” taught by his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

A poet and pacifist, William Stafford was amazingly prolific, having written some 22,000 poems during his lifetime.

WilliamStaffordHe had an early morning writing practice, and he never missed a day. Kim Stafford introduced us to his father’s writing process, gleaned from the stacks of journals William Stafford left behind. Kim encouraged us to relax into our writing, to be seekers as William Stafford was, to experiment and explore.

Our only requirement in this five-week class was to maintain a daily writing practice and share one day’s unedited writing with the class once a week. As you can imagine, the daily post-election drama weighed heavily on many of us and showed up often in our writing.

I chose not to work on my memoir during the 30 – 60 minute daily writing practice I began in connection with this class. Kim Stafford believes that, though writing can be hard work, it can be a pleasure, too, something to look forward to. When the writing isn’t easy, Kim looks for ways to make it more easeful. Since working on the memoir is goal-driven and often difficult or stressful, I decided to see if I could make my early morning writing time something separate and satisfying.

It did become that, and I now have the beginnings of several writing projects that I could develop further if I choose to:

  • An essay on whether the President has a mental illness, drawing on my experience of mental illness in the family
  • an essay on dystopias – whether we’re in one now and how each of us is a kind of “hero” character with a role to play
  • a personal essay in which I remember a disastrous first-grade art class and contrast it with a watercolor class I’m taking now, my first art class in decades
  • a sample first entry for my next book project, in which I observe, moment by moment, the sunrise outside my window.

I met some wonderful people, writers of all levels, including: a poet who is also a traditional letterpress printer and bookbinder in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; a professor of psychology and education with a background similar to my own (she also had a mother with schizophrenia) who developed a psychological tool to measure levels of humiliation that is used around the world; and another poet whose dream is to establish a retreat for artists and writers at her home on Whidbey Island.

If you are a writer and would like to know more about Kim Stafford’s approach to writing, you might enjoy his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and the Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. My copy is marked up with several favorite passages.

This quote is on the Northwest Writing Institute website:

“The problems of our time are political, ecological, economic—but the solutions are cultural. How do people speak their truth? How do we listen eloquently? If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?”  Kim Stafford

For a time, twenty of us enjoyed communally “the daily bread of language,” as my new poet/printer friend would say.

Here is a link to William Stafford reading “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

You might enjoy these wise words:

 

It just so happened that at the close of our class, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Natural and Built Environment featured a fascinating interview with the Stafford family, “Talking Recklessly.”

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A poem by printer Emily Hancock of St. Brigid Press. Emily refers to “the daily bread of language,” and that is what we enjoyed in Kim Stafford’s class.

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Visit the St. Brigid Press website, where you’ll see stunning photos of hand-set type, hand-carved illustrations, foot-powered presses, and hand-sewn books. If you frequently contact your representatives, consider ordering “The People’s Post Cards.” And be sure to see “This Is a Printing Office.”

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

2016 Favorite Books & Posts

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Under the tree this year

 

Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS, 2016

#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS OF ALL TIME

Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

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A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

The Magic of Memoir

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San Francisco treasures

 

Excavating a Life

I’ll be taking a break from Books Can Save a Life until December so I can finish a draft of my memoir and get a good start on the revision. Before I go, I wanted to share highlights of my trip to San Francisco, where I attended the 2016 Magic of Memoir conference and spent some time with my son.

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Brooke & Linda Joy

The conference was fabulous, and left me with more than enough inspiration to see me through to the finish line of my current memoir draft. It was hosted and led by She Writes Press co-founder Brooke Warner and National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) founder Linda Joy Myers, who also happens to be my writing coach.

I’ve been working with Linda Joy for well over a year, and I had the chance to meet her in person for the first time. We had lunch together and talked memoir, of course. I was fascinated to hear about behind-the-scenes research she did for her second memoir, Song of the Plains, which will be published in 2017 – a delving into family history that took her to Oklahoma, Iowa, and Scotland. (Linda Joy’s first memoir is Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.)

Linda gave me a whirlwind tour of Berkeley, too, whisking me past Chez Panisse, a restaurant I’ve long admired, and other famous spots like Telegraph Avenue, the UC Berkeley campus, the Campanile, People’s Park, and the Berkeley Hills with their incredible views.

At the conference, I met many other writers who have memoirs in progress, which is one of the most valuable aspects of a conference like this. Memoir writing can be lonely, and it’s tremendously inspiring to meet others making the same journey.

We shared our writing with each other as we worked through the exercises and activities concocted by Brooke and Linda Joy to supplement their excellent instruction on the craft of memoir and developing an effective author platform.

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Several brave souls shared their work in progress during an open mic session hosted by Laurel Bookstore.

 

Brooke and Linda Joy are top-notch, experienced teachers in the art of memoir. Their discussions of memoir craft cover the important elements of theme, scene, narration, characterization, and takeaway. They demonstrate these elements with excerpts and examples from memoir classics, such as H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Also cited were some newer memoirs and others I haven’t yet read that you might want to check out if you enjoy the genre, including Body 2.0 by Krista Haapala, Drinking by Caroline Knapp, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Dog Medicine by Julie Barton, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.

Here, for example, is takeaway – the heart of a good memoir, a big-picture message or moment of shared connection with the reader, from Body 2.0:

“Endurance pain will not relent with change, as indeed this flavor of pain has changed  you. Loved ones may find you unrecognizable. You will see life through different eyes. In fact, endurance pain affords us the incredible opportunity to shed many useless cultural constructs like superficial success, unfulfilling relationships, and external validation.”

To this list I would add another excellent, just-published memoir, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which I wrote about in my last post.

With that, I’m off to write. I plan to finish my draft in conjunction with NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November. Since I’m not working on a novel, I guess that makes me a NaNoWriMo rebel. I’ll see you all back here in December, when I hope to have plenty of books to recommend for holiday giving and receiving.

Do you enjoy reading memoir? If so, can you recommend some of your favorites?

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I stayed in Bernal Heights and made it nearly to the top of Bernal Heights Park, where I was treated to this view of the city.

 

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I love all the colorful, artistic touches.

 

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I explored Golden Gate Park with my son. This is Stowe Lake.

 

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At my airbnb, I found this wonderful surprise, a beautifully designed backyard retreat.

Lab Girl

lab-girl “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory.”

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Lab Girl is an extraordinary memoir, and Hope Jahren is an important new voice who breaks new ground in literary autobiography. We just don’t hear from enough scientists and researchers, and certainly we don’t hear from enough women in science who have struggled and prevailed at making careers in difficult, often male-dominated fields.

Lab Girl is for the lay person who loves plants, trees, and nature, and for the lay person who thinks plants, trees, and nature are boring and who wants to be dazzled, moved, changed, and reconnected with the holiness and mystery of life.

hopeLab Girl is for women in science and research, and women thinking of careers in science and research. But men in science and research will love the book, too.

Lab Girl is for anyone making a career and building a family in the face of a serious mental illness, and for those who want to better understand people with mental illness.

Lab Girl is for those who care about the environment and climate change, and who want to connect with someone of like mind whose passion and energy are contagious. Because, as Hope says, we won’t have any trees left in six hundred years if we keep on our current path.

Lab Girl is for anyone who has important work to do and wants to be inspired and emboldened by someone not afraid to be different and go her own way.

I have Katie at Doing Dewey to thank for letting me know about this book. I’ve included several passages from the memoir because I couldn’t decide between them. They make me want to read Lab Girl all over again. I’m sure I will, since I’m working on a memoir of my own. For those of you who are memoir writers, this one is both inspiring and a great memoir model.

Women, and men, doing important work in science simply don’t get enough attention in our culture, which is especially saturated by superficial drivel at the moment. Lab Girl is the antidote. When I was a clinical librarian at UR Medicine, I was always impressed and mystified by the grad students and faculty, the women especially, who had lives so different from mine, who spent hours and hours in labs and out in the field researching esoteric topics that had the potential to change lives.

We should know more about them, the important work they are doing, and how they navigate the challenge of carving out rich, fulfilling personal lives as well. There is a deep vein of fascinating life stories in science that appeal to experts and lay people alike, and I hope Lab Girl will inspire many more memoirs of this kind.

The excerpt below is a good example of the organizing metaphor in Lab Girl: the rich and evocative parallels between plant life and human life. Hope alternates between chapters about plant life and her own life, which makes for a satisfying structure:

“Every species on Earth – past or present – from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people – must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself….It seemed outrageous to hope that fertility, resources, time, desire, and love could all come together in the right way, and yet most women did eventually walk that path.”

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

“On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

The boldface in the next quote is mine; I think it is an important point:

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.” 

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

Have you read Lab Girl? Do you have memoir favorites to recommend?

My Favorite Things

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Asja and Sebree. If you’d like to hear a story about them, click on this link.

I’m all over the map with this My Favorite Things post – literally. Here are a few of my favorite things you might enjoy reading, watching, or listening to:

Orcas and making audio essays: This one is my own creation, I confess. “The Ancient Ones” is a new audio essay  in my From Where I Stand series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Have a listen – I’d love to share six and a half minutes of my fabulous Olympic Peninsula vacation with you, where I fell in love with Asja and Sebree. I’d appreciate comments and feedback here or on the Terrain.org site.

Books about famous bookstores: I’ve only been to Paris once, and I regret that I didn’t stop by the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I don’t know what I was thinking! Someday, I’ll have to remedy that. Now, there is a book about this famous shop, where some of the greatest writers of the 20th century spent their days, and even slept. See Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, by Jeanette Winterson.

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Chunksters, or Giant Translated Novels: I love this LitHub article, “Ten Giant Translated Novels that Make a Mockery of Subway Reading.”   Many thanks to my blogging friend Vishy for letting us know about this.

It’s a great little list if you want to take on some ambitious reading, which I like to do from time to time. Do any of these over-the-top books appeal to you? Which one(s)?

I want to begin Knausgaard’s My Struggle series one of these days (my son loves it), that’s what I keep saying, but I’m dismayed to find his last volume in the series is 900 pages!

a-true-novelI’m fascinated by the sound of A True Novel by Minae Mizumura set in postwar Japan because it has been compared to Wuthering Heights.

Giacomo Leopardi’s 2500-page Zibaldone may be worth dipping into, though not reading straight through, because of my Italian heritage. “Zibaldone” is what this great poet and thinker called his gigantic notebook, and these are his collected writings. I’m curious about it – there are SEVEN translators, including Ann Goldstein, who translated Elena Ferrante’s novels.

Several of the others appeal to me, too. Do any appeal to you enough to take one on?

Geeky things like an old video about the first Kodak Colorama made from a photo taken under water: For years and years, a giant Kodak photograph, known as a Colorama, hung over the crowds passing through Grand Central Station in New York. I was in those crowds; little did I know that in a few years I’d be living upstate in Rochester and working for Kodak.

Rochester is still steeped in the mythology, lore, and beauty of photography, despite Kodak’s decline. The Rochester Institute of Technology, where my son studied photography, is one of the top photo schools in the country. Fabulous photographers and photography teachers are plentiful here, as are photo galleries, photo equipment retailers, and photography experts. The George Eastman House is one of the world’s largest repositories of photos and films.

Neil Montanus was one of the elite Kodak photographers who documented America and baby boomers coming of age for Kodak advertising. I found this vintage video on the site of Jim Montanus, his son. If you’re fascinated by how things are invented and how they work, you might enjoy this.

 

People who make things: I think the trend of calling people “makers” is a little weird and pretentious, but I do love the movement back to “old soul crafts and lost arts,” in the words of one of the artisans in this delightful little video. I guarantee it will lift your spirits, especially your creative spirit. The With Love Project will soon be made into a book – I would buy it. After you watch this, tell us in the comments who your favorite maker is in the video. I’m partial to the shoe maker/designer, myself.

 

 

What do you think about anything on this list? Might you read any of the chunksters on the LitHub list? Are you especially enchanted by any of the makers in the With Love Project? 

Ladies Night at the Dreamland

Ladies Night“…she listens to reports of war in Europe…people lean in to discuss FDR, the Lindbergh baby, Amelia Earhart’s final flight…Audrey stands in line, overhearing news of the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower, and Nixon…she watches anchormen speak of Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, start to finish…Satellites, astronauts, and the moon landing. Martin Luther King and Kennedy, their eventual assassinations, until talk is replaced by Three Mile Island. Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez…She’s there for all of it: Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky. The invention of the automatic coffeemaker, the atomic bomb, personal computers. The years fall like spent leaves…Audrey remains at the Saint Lawrence State Hospital from 1931 to 1996.”  — Ladies Night at the Dreamland, by Sonja Livingston

I recently wrote about Sonja Livingston’s first essay collection, Queen of the Fall, which was the 2016 choice for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book, and her memoir, Ghostbread.  

Now she has a new collection just published, a strange and haunting meditation on the lives of women and girls from the past. Some of these women were accomplished and briefly famous, some were trail-blazers and rule-breakers, others were unremarkable on the surface but heroic in their strength and endurance, and some were outright victims.

Sonja is from Rochester, and several of the women she writes about have connections with upstate New York where I live.

It’s difficult to describe these essays, they’re so clever, beautiful, and unusual. Ladies Night at the Dreamland is a great read if you want something very different. Using detailed, thorough research and brilliant conjecture, Sonja sheds light on women who were largely ignored and gives them a dignity they never had in life. Often, Sonja inserts herself in the stories she tells in moving and provocative ways.

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The Carousel at Charlotte Beach in Rochester, NY

The collection of essays is framed by two imaginary scenes in 1920 that take place at the Charlotte Beach carousel on Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York, and at the dance hall that once stood there, known as the Dreamland.  (It burned to the ground in 1923.) My husband and I visit the carousel on hot summer nights when we want to walk by the lake and cool off. Charlotte Beach was once known as the Coney Island of the West.

In the last of the two scenes, Susan B. Anthony, who is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery, which is across the street from the medical center where I used to work, makes an appearance and speaks with Sonja. The author dresses Susan in the flapper get-up of the day, and tells her that the Nineteenth Amendment has passed. Thanks to Susan’s hard work, finally women have the right to vote.

One after the other, the women Sonja has written about gather around Susan B. Anthony to speak with her and thank her.

Sonja Livingston wrote these essays with love. Here are a few of them:

“Some Names and What They Mean” Carmen, Wanda, and Michelle were young girls strangled, raped, and killed in the early 1970s in Rochester by a serial killer known as the Alphabet Murderer.

Carmen managed to escape from the killer, and was seen by drivers running along 490 West, but no one stopped to help, and her abductor caught up with her. Sonja imagines herself back in 1971, driving on 490; she sees Carmen and rescues her. They drive on and encounter Wanda and Michelle, and rescue them, too. Together in the car, Sonja asks them who they’d like to become and helps them choose new names.

“Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie” In 1892, a society girl from Memphis, Alice Mitchell, murdered her female lover, Freda Ward. Sonja tells their story, imagining what Alice thought and felt.

“Human Curiosity: A Circular Concordance” Krao Farini, known as “The Human Monkey,” was a carnival attraction loved by no one who eventually became the bearded lady at Coney Island.

“The Goddess of Ogdensburg: A Rise and Fall in Seventeen Poses” – Audrey Munson was an artist’s model for the greatest sculptors in the early 1900s. Her naked body is on the Pulitzer Fountain in Central Park and the Manhattan Bridge; in Penn Station; and atop the Municipal Building in Manhattan and other municipal buildings across the country. She died in a state mental institution in Point Airy, New York.

“The Opposite of Fear” Maria Spelterini crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1876.

“Freeze-Frame” Valaida Snow was an African American jazz trumpet player of enormous talent known as “Queen of the Horn” from east Tennessee. She played in Harlem, then Paris, then Germany, where she was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II.

It’s especially gratifying to read these essays about women as Hillary Clinton runs for president. I imagine Sonja telling Susan B. Anthony all about it.

Do you read creative nonfiction? Any recommendations? Are there books that you love that are extra meaningful because they take place in the region where you live?

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Charlotte Beach on Lake Ontario

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