Exceptional journalism for troubled times

 

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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.)

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.”

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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.

 

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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.

 

A Paradise Built in Hell, Redux

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I thought this would be a good time to repost my thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster as we take on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading this post, and Rebecca’s Paradise, which highlights how strong, healing communities spontaneously arise in disaster, is mind-boggling, because now we are challenged to build community in isolation.

Can this be done? Will disaster utopias arise even as we remain apart?

I haven’t begun to unpack these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think about community in this time of pandemic? Do Solnit’s thoughts and research hold true now?

(I will say one thing: listening to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings has been extraordinarily bolstering. This growing community of virtual listeners has quickly come to extend well beyond the boundaries of New York State.)

Here is what I wrote a year ago:

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.

In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.

Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.

We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.

We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.

Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”

Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:

“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’

She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’

All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)

In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….

In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”

So what do you think? Does this hold true even as we stay home, communicating not face to face, but via screens and smartphones? Tell us what you think in the comments.

If you are looking for a new nonfiction author to read during the pandemic’s long hours, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit. Her other titles include:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

 

Books Can Save a Life

 

“When you’re in a place that is not your own among people not like you, your first impulse has to be respect. Even if you don’t understand, you have to show respect for what is technically called another epistemology, another way of knowing the world.”Barry Lopez

After nearly eight years of blogging at Books Can Save a Life, I’ll be taking a break to work on other writing projects and bookish activities. I’ll be back from time to time, though, when extraordinary books and literary happenings come along.

When I started Books Can Save a Life, I was thinking primarily about books saving lives personally and individually. Over the years, my reading has come to include books that I believe save lives in a much broader sense. Books have always been a way for me to understand the world, and I believe books can help us save value systems, democracies, species, and perhaps even humanity.

Bill McKibben, Barry Lopez, Richard Powers, Kim Stafford, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Mary Oliver are among the writers I’ve come to trust deeply. In his newest book, Falter, McKibben says we may have begun humanity’s endgame because of climate change, staggering inequality, and artificial intelligence. (Google has just announced it has achieved “quantum supremacy,” whatever that means.)

We don’t really know, of course. Barry Lopez recently said there is no place for despair and pessimism if we are to have the energy and wisdom for a massive course correction:

“The whole thing is on the line now. The entire meaning of the evolution of homo sapiens. We either show that our power of invention is tremendous or we show that the development of the imagination in the hominid line was maladaptive.” 

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“The whole book is about arriving at a position of impassioned embrace of all human beings.” – Barry Lopez

Barry’s latest book, Horizon, a culmination of his life as a world traveller and seeker, is a handful at over 500 pages. If you don’t want to take on the book, I encourage you to listen to this 15-minute interview with Lopez at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth. It is filled with transcendent words of wisdom I wish everyone could hear.

All of us can work toward a more humanitarian culture and learn to take better better care of the earth. We’ve reached an inflection point in human history, and it’s our destiny to do the important work we’re each called to do. Reading can fortify us.

I’ve enjoyed sharing my reading journey with you.

“You can call it global climate change, you can call it the disintegration of democratic forms of government….the need to attack this issue, to me, is like one of the great voyages that we now have to choose to make, to move into unknown territory, into uncharted lands….My hope is that people will say, ‘We’re in trouble. What is going to be the vessel on which we sail?’  And, maybe more importantly, ‘Who is going to be the navigator?'” Barry Lopez

 

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Oregon coast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisters Festival of Books

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The poster for the inaugural Sisters Festival of Books reminds me of our backyard view of the full moon peeking through ponderosa pine. (We even have a hammock.) Until we moved to central Oregon, I never knew how big the sky could be, nor how magnificently a rising moon could command the landscape. Or how good it feels to sit on a big lava rock reading while the high desert sun warms you deep in your bones.

 

A village lost in bookish revelry….

That’s what I did this weekend in this quirky little town we moved to the year before last. I indulged in bookish revelry with other like-minded book-lovers, in the first ever book festival to be held in Sisters, Oregon, thanks to hard-working volunteers, generous sponsors, and Paulina Springs Books. 

Outside, the weather was bone-chilling and windy, with rain bordering on sleet. Inside, there were stacks of brand new books to choose from, a bake sale, writers reading aloud their latest work, and meandering lines where you could get your book autographed and have a long chat with the author.

Over forty writers came to Sisters, representing a mix of genres: historical fiction, romance, mystery, nature, memoir, literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, food writing, children’s and young adult literature, and more.

Housed in the local middle school and at Paulina Springs Books, the festival was special because the venues were intimate and the writers so entirely approachable.

Here are three writers and a sampling of memoir, history, and poetry:

I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

IAmAStrangerGwartney held us spellbound reading a passage about the day 20-year-old Debra shopped for a wedding dress (for a marriage that sounded doomed), and the November, 1847 day the Cayuse tribes killed missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, her husband, and eleven others.

You might wonder what the Whitman massacre and Debra’s wedding plans have in common. Gwartney reflected on how she had always been fascinated by Narcissa Whitman; somehow, this historical figure spoke to Debra’s own identity, and those of her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, who had long lived in the West. It took seven years of research and draft writing for Debra to discover the connective tissue between her own life and Narcissa’s, resulting in this fine book that combines memoir with an important part of American Western history.

I appreciated Debra’s honesty about her extended writing process and how patient she was in letting her story incubate. I Am A Stranger Here Myself is especially timely in light of how our culture is re-examining racism, indigenous culture, sexism, and the role of women in America.

Here is an excerpt:

“Something about Narcissa Whitman drew me in when I saw the book on my grandmother’s shelf this time. She was the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert – her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West….

….She was shaping up to be my ideal nemesis in the way she believed the land was hers to take, in her insistence that she alone held the one and only path to God. Putting an end to an entire culture was justified in Narcissa’s mind as long as it was done in the name of Progress and Providence. I would let myself despise her for that squirt of narrow-mindedness and her proclivity to judge, even while managing to ignore my own such propensities. So what if she was trapped in others’ expectations – her mother’s, and later her husband’s, and also her time’s and her church’s? I wouldn’t forgive her for building a good part of her cage.” – I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

 

 

BookofHelpThe Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold

“And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.

….I have just picked him up….We had started driving south on I-5 to get his car. After he’d directed me to keep driving past the route home, I’d asked, ‘I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?’

There was that vast silence. My stomach dropped.

“Let’s just wait to talk about it when we get home,” he’d said.    The Book of Help, by Megan Griswold

Megan’s life life was never the same after the unfolding of a personal debacle in her marriage. To cope, Megan, a true New Age child of the West Coast, experimented with and/or recalled her history with these and other remedies:

  • EST Children’s Training
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Camping with the Chilean Military
  • International Wilderness Training Course
  • Classical Five Element Licentiate (Acupuncture School)
  • Doula Certification
  • Rolfing
  • Therapist Shopping
  • Psychic Reading
  • Vipassana Meditation Retreat (I’ve done this!)
  • Tarot Cards
  • A Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
  • Drinking Hoasca with the União do Vegetal
  • Classical Homeopathy

Megan’s voice in The Book of Help is comic, over-the-top, vulnerable, and honest. She doesn’t hold back, at all. I think you’ll either love her writing, or you’ll put the book down after the first chapter or two – she’s not for everyone.

I stuck it out and became quite taken by her story.

The following excerpt is near the memoir’s conclusion. Megan’s mother is losing her memory and approaching the end of her life; Megan is calmer, more mature, and has attained a measure of peace. I love this particular passage because it evokes a favorite Mary Oliver poem:

“I close each night by reading Mary Oliver. Mom’s favorite poet. Because of her memory, she won’t remember that I read “Wild Geese” last night or the night before that or the night before that. But I have. And I will read this poem again tomorrow. We will read of the geese and their skyward return. Of all the landscapes we must move through to reach home.

I board the plane. As it takes off, we lift out of Seattle’s gray cloud bank and hover far above the city’s clouds, now flooded in sunshine. I can’t really explain it, but amid the sunshine, I feel somehow turned toward life in a way I don’t remember ever feeling. None of what happened here is good news, but I feel touched by the fleeting nature of what I hold dear. I just want to eat up everything I can while I am still here. I want to eat big meals, run long distances, and have a really good laugh. I act on the urge to ring up people I haven’t spoken to in ages. Life is calling to me stronger than ever. Like wild geese.”

 

Wild Honey, Tough Salt, by Kim Stafford

WildHoneyOregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, knows how to gather kindred spirits together to celebrate poetry and life, and he has a devoted following in Sisters.

Kim read to us from his new collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt.  I found “Citizen of Dark Times,” especially resonant given all that has been in the news lately. (Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer’s Almanac recently – follow the link in my previous sentence and scroll to the second half of the recording.)

Given these dark times, we can “live as if in the early days of a better nation,” Stafford advised.

He suggested we write about daily happenings. Stafford’s writing practice makes him more optimistic, because “something is growing.” A writing practice is restorative, he says. “The spirit of what you want will come to you.”

Write a draft with promise. Then, your second genius will come as you revise.

A few days after the Sisters Festival of Books, this brand new poem appeared on Kim’s Facebook page:

Sisters Book Festival

Writer, rise from your writing desk,

and step forth from your solitary cell.

Reader, rise from your reading chair,

to throng in grand reunion.

 

It’s really a festival of shining eyes,

a story fire we gather round.

It’s a voice as pure as a mountain spring,

a stanza landmark we reckon by.

 

How is this magic done? Page by page,

we season summer into fall, and

word by word we bud

winter into spring.

 

Books winnow trouble into truth,

and distill sorrow into song. So come,

friends, and be a village lost

in bookish revelry.

 

I think the Sisters Festival of Books has made a fine beginning.

 

Here are some images from a central Oregon autumn:

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Classic Three Sisters silhouette, with newly mown hay. I drive past these mountains several times a week, and they always look different. Now that they are snow-covered, they appear closer and bigger.

 

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Sky and Riata, guests who came to stay with us for a while. The aspen leaves turned golden shortly after this photo was taken.

 

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Sky in the morning

 

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Black Butte, a volcanic cinder cone, is a primal, arresting shape in the Sisters landscape. Three-Fingered Jack, a Cascade mountain, hovers in the background.

 

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Black Butte from another angle, nightfall.

 

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Moonrise over Whychus Canyon Reserve meadow

 

Birds of the West by Molly Hashimoto

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Short-eared owl, block print by Molly Hashimoto

“….there’s nothing quite as inspiring as a bird in its habitat – the ecosystem and the bird belong together in a coherent and necessary way.”  Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto

This summer I was thrilled to find on my doorstep the exquisite Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide by Molly Hashimoto, sent to me by her publisher Skipstone, the sustainable lifestyle imprint of Mountaineers Books.

 

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American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) block print . “…I attempted to express how moving it was to see the vivid colors of the male goldfinches visiting at the height of color in the garden, in May, with blooming poppies and clematis…In winter, the males are drab brown with a few yellow streaks on the wings – you may not even know you’re looking at the same bird.”

 

I became a fan of Molly’s when I discovered her Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette in one of the national park bookstores my husband and I visited on our trip West two years ago. Molly is accomplished in watercolor, block printing, etching and egg tempera – the media she features in Birds of the West – informed by decades spent exploring the landscapes, flora, and fauna of the West. Her art combines a naturalist’s expertise with a deep love of nature.

Molly is a dedicated art teacher as well, based in Seattle. I’m sorry I missed her last year at Roundabout Books in Bend when she spoke and demonstrated techniques from Colors of the West. She teaches regularly in her local community and at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the North Cascades Institute, the Wenatchee River Institute, and the Yellowstone Forever Institute. 

Her love of teaching and her passion for birds shine through in this luminous new collection of nearly 100 bird species and more than 130 sketches, aimed for seasoned artists, beginner artists, and non-artists alike.

 

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Birds of the West is organized by habitat: Backyard and City; Wetland and Pond; Shoreline and Beach; Meadow and Grassland; Desert and Sagebrush Steppe (that’s us!); Forest and Woodland; and Alpine and Tundra. Each chapter includes an inspiring, even poetic, list of nature terms.

 

Exploring Molly’s new book was a bittersweet delight because, as I did so, the journal Science published a study revealing that one third of the birds in North America have died since I was in high school in the 1970s. A “staggering decline,” the authors of this study wrote.

Perhaps this sad development only affirms that the good work of Molly Hashimoto and other fine artists, writers, and humanists is more necessary than ever. We can hope that their love of art and nature will continue to be contagious – and more of us will be moved to observe birds and other wildlife with love and attention and become activists for and caretakers of the earth.

 

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Stellar’s jay and ruby-crowned kinglet, forest and woodland habitat, block prints (I took this photo underneath our ponderosa pine, which is why it is mottled with shadows. I love the dramatic PNW setting of the stellar’s jay habitat, on the left.)

 

Molly writes eloquently, honestly, and tenderly – her background as an English literature major shows – in Birds of the West about the ethic of stewardship she seeks to inspire in the world:

“I don’t belong to the art for art’s sake camp. I want to make art about birds that is accurate about the ecosystem and true to the bird’s anatomy, characteristic gestures, and plumage colors. … I want my art to be in the service of the living, existing bird. That’s not to say that mere representation is all I aim for – photorealism can drain the life out of a subject. There’s a place somewhere between the representational and the conceptual that expresses all the meaning that I’ve found in watching birds. I also make art for the sake of connection and to inspire an ethic of stewardship.”

 

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Lewis’s woodpecker, block print, and acorn woodpecker, watercolor, meadow and grassland habitat.

 

You don’t have to be an artist (I’m not) or a birder (I’m not) to fall in love with this fine collection. Molly shares inspiring nature poetry, quotes that capture the wisdom of famous artists and nature writers, and her own thoughts about great artists who have influenced her work.  Here is one example:

“Georgia O’Keeffe believed that we want to make art of things that have moved us deeply, even if we don’t know exactly why or understand the meaning of what we feel. It is only by recording it, writing about it, or making art about it that it becomes clearer to us what it all means and why it is so important to us. I have found this many times, with every medium.”

 

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Nest in an oak sapling in winter. “On that gray, drizzly day, the nest was a poignant memory as well as a sweet anticipation of the life-bringing season of spring.”

 

In fact, you don’t even have to live in the West to benefit from Birds of the West. I can imagine artists and nature lovers and birders in other parts of the country using this as a model for exploring and rendering birds in their own regions.

Since I’m a writer, not an artist, I found myself looking at Birds of the West through my own idiosyncratic lens. Molly’s beautiful text taught me specific ways to observe birds in my own wanderings, and modeled how I might capture what I see on the page, via the written word. I don’t know if this was Molly’s intention, but like all good works of art, I think that her book is larger and more resonant than its creator originally intended.

 

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Song sparrow on tall grasses, Union Bay Natural Area, Washington

 

I love Molly’s thoughts about how she chooses particular media to depict particular birds; I imagine that working artists especially will appreciate her insights:

“Every medium has a way of revealing distinct aspects of the birds. Etching utilizes fine lines that can precisely describe the elegant contours and feather groups of birds; watercolor, with its wide-ranging hues and many technical options of indicating trees, shrubs, grasses, rocks and all the components of an ecosystem, displays the manner in which they live and make use of their habitats. Sketches in pencil or pen, with and without added watercolor, convey, through their gestural quality, the attitude, demeanor, and movement of birds. Egg tempera, a centuries-old medium used in icons and altarpieces, can express the reverence I feel for birds and other animals. Relief or block prints, with their dramatic values, contrasts, and bright colors, help me share the surprise – sometimes even the shock – of encountering a new species.  As composers work with many different types of instrumentation, with widely varying timbres and colors, such as full orchestras, smaller string groups, or choral ensembles, I use different media to express a range of moods and ideas.”

 

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Red-breasted sapsucker. There were so many gorgeous bird scenes in Birds of the West it was hard to choose which ones to show you!

 

Molly includes a For Further Reading section that is especially rich, with field guides and books about natural history, ornithology, birds in art, and art techniques.

She has a helpful resources list too, with stores, supplies, and Pacific Northwest printmaking co-ops and studios that offer classes, workshops and press time.

 

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Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus Buccinators) Skagit Valley, etching. I love the simplicity.

 

I hope someday I have the opportunity to attend one of Molly Hashimoto’s art workshops or book signings. I’d love to meet her, wouldn’t you? The next best thing would be to get your hands on the lovingly created Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide.

 

 

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Western sandpiper, egg tempera. “I set up a still life with a piece of driftwood and some weather-beaten beach pebbles and added the sandpiper by looking at one of my photos from the Oregon coast. The arched enclosure evokes the framing devices used in late medieval and Early Renaissance altarpieces, as well as the small diptychs and triptychs used for private devotions.” 

 

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Hairy woodpecker, sketch with marker and watercolor, and carved block

 

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Red-naped sapsucker, block print. “I used my imagination to situate the sapsucker on an aspen trunk, since I actually saw it in a birch tree near my home in Seattle. This bird is quite rare west of the Cascades….”

 

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Calififornia quail, block print, desert and sagebrush steppe habitat. “…I thought it would be perfect to combine the quail with the California poppies that put on such a show in springtime on the dry hillsides of Northern California. I felt I could take these liberties because of the bird’s very wide range. The combination of the paisley-shaped markings on the breast with the bright colors of the poppies made for a dramatic print.”

 

“The silence of the desert, the sound of wind through the high branches in a coniferous forest, the complex patterns of reflected color in ripples on a pond, the crashing surf, the austere beauty of alpine heights – all of these contribute to the great pleasure that comes with watching birds. In these locales and moments, we are sharing an environment with the birds, which gives us, earthbound as we are, a deeper connection with our fellow creatures.” – Molly Hashimoto

Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto

 

 

Sicilian Wedding

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Segesta, a view from the wedding reception. As the sun set, we could see the temple illuminated on the hillside. It stood silent and mysterious at 1 am as we boarded the bus back to Carini. Are there important historical sites in the land of your ancestors?

 

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”Linda Hogan, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web, by Sandra Easter

In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.

Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.

One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.

Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.

Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.

(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)

At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.

 

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Carini, Sicily, where my father was born. “We need to see where we have been before we see where we should go, we need to know how to get there and we need to have help on our journey.”Vine Deloria, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors.

 

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Carini has its own castle and a scandalous story connected with it. The Baroness of Carini was murdered at the age of 34 by her father in 1563 for committing adultery. Her story has become part of Italian poetry and literature.  My son, who was learning to play the violin on our first trip to Sicily, composed a musical score inspired by the castle.  If you look at the literature of your ancestry, you’re sure to find intriguing and inspiring stories.

 

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My cousin has this drawing of the Baroness Laura Lanza with her lover, Lodovico, who was also murdered, by either Laura’s father or her husband. Many years ago, my cousin showed us Laura Lanza’s death certificate, preserved in the town’s historical records.

 

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From the castle, a view of Carini and the sea beyond

 

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Our first visit to Sicily, in April, 2001. 9/11 happened five months later.

 

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Angel’s trumpets in Angelo and Piera’s garden.

 

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This is thought to be my father’s birthplace in Carini.

 

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Portrait of an ancestor, Katarina (my grandfather’s sister)

 

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I was thrilled to meet a beautiful family brand new to me on la mia nonna’s side. Here we are on a picnic in Carini. Concetta, third from left, corresponded with my grandmother for many years. Rosaria, second from right, is a teacher and an avid reader. I loved discussing literature with her. She has fond memories of the Easter baskets filled with chocolate kisses my grandma sent from America every year.

 

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I was so surprised when I met the twins, Alessia and Erica, who look like my niece in America. They are about the same age, too! I hope the three of them can meet one day –  that Malena, my niece, can travel to Sicily and that we can welcome the twins to America.

 

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We had a wonderful time in Palermo with Concetta, Rosaria, and their family. Here is Teatro Politeama, home of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. The bronze quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses) depicts the Triumph of Apollo (the god of music and dance) and Euterpe (the muse of lyric poetry).

 

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I loved the church in Palermo where Giuseppe and Eloisa were married, Basilica della Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, “La Magione” (the mansion).

 

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Giuseppe and Eloisa, our future! She is a journalist, he an interpreter and translator. They currently live in Palermo. (Giuseppe has tirelessly interpreted for us on our visits with family – his English far exceeds our Italian.)

 

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Angela and Pepino, my father’s cousin.

 

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Rosalia and Enzo, my father’s cousin. Pepino, Enzo, and Angelo (see Angelo in photo below) have passed down to us so many family stories. Thanks to Enzo, I know that when my grandparents went back to visit Sicily, my grandfather’s family made rice pudding for his birthday celebration, his favorite dessert. An entire wheelbarrow filled with rice pudding. In the telling of this story, a heated argument ensued as to whether the pudding was made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk.

 

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Amate e bella famiglia, celebrating a 60th birthday. (l. to r: Eloisa, Giuseppe, Pino, Vita, Piera, and Angelo, my father’s second cousin.)  A beautiful evening, just like the wedding reception.

 

This is what I read when I was in Sicily:

 

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I figured if Elena Ferrante liked it, I would too, and I did.  “’I don’t feel like seeing Procida grow distant and indistinct…I’d rather pretend it didn’t exist. So until the moment you can’t see it anymore, it’ll be better if I don’t look…’
And I remained with my face against my arm…until Silvestro shook me gently and said: ‘Arturo, come, you can wake up.’
Around our ship the sea was uniform, endless as an ocean. The island could no longer be seen.”

 

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If I ever get back to learning Italian, I’ll read this collection of essays by Elena Ferrante I bought in Palermo. The essays are about a page each, manageable for a language learner.

 

Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:

 

 

We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands.  I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.

 

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Grandma and me, Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1960.

 

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Sicilian sunset

 

“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow…..  –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors

What I found in Sweden, Part 3

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“Ray of Sunlight” by Norwegian artist Erik Werenskiold, Gothenburg Museum of Art. The landscape in this painting reminds me of the little forest behind Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school. I hope my grandfather had a good friend there as this boy does in the painting.

 

…And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance

grew the Iceberg too.

– Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain

 

Morfar – Life, death and the Titanic

Every individual born to the Dagara [an African ethnic group] is mentored and supported into maturing into an adult who fulfills their purpose. From the moment a person is born, others within the community had a responsibility to assist that person in delivering their gift to the world. Everyone in the community is responsible for and has an integral role in insuring that each person’s genius is awakened, nurtured, and mentored. If this is not done, the person as well as their genius dies. If any individual’s gift is not delivered it then falls to that person’s descendants to do so.”   –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web

 

I had goosebumps three times on our trip to research family history in Sweden: when our cousin, Jan, showed us the Bible my great, great, great grandfather gave to Älekulla Church; when Louise led us to my grandmother’s house on the North Sea; and when my son and I were invited to Gunvor and Irene’s home in Fritsla to see what we could find out about my grandfather’s family. This is the story of our time in lovely Fritsla, the ancestral town that embraced Andrew and me.

Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson, my grandfather, was born in Fritsla in 1892 and lived there the first few years of his life. Of my four grandparents, I knew the least about him. Grandpa (or Morfar, as we called him when we were children) had been a loner, a hard worker but a solitary man who liked his drink. By the time I knew him, he rarely spoke. Morfar had no family back in Sweden with whom he kept in touch, unlike my grandmother, who exchanged letters with her Swedish siblings over the years. When I began my trip to Sweden, I knew only that Morfar had apparently been orphaned in a flu epidemic and sent to live with his maternal aunt and uncle in another Swedish town, Orby, at a young age.

I had mixed feelings as Andrew and I approached Fritsla, a small, quiet town nestled in the countryside. My Swedish friend, Amelie, whom I’d met on the plane, and her father, Pär, had done some research about my grandfather’s family, and they emailed biographical information to me when I was in Stockholm. I’d learned my grandfather’s childhood had been filled with more grief and loss than I’d expected.

They had discovered that Morfar’s family lived in an area of Fritsla known as Aratorp, where my great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, had been a farm hand. Using Google Maps, Andrew and I headed to that area first. We couldn’t find a specific house or farm, but there was a street with the word Aratorp in it, and we followed that until it became a dirt road ending in meadows and woods. Perhaps my grandfather had been born on a farm or in a tenant home that had once stood nearby.

 

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We couldn’t find the specific place in Fritsla where my grandfather lived – but this is the general area.

 

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Fritsla, where my grandfather was born, is a lovely rural town with well-kept, classic Swedish farmhouses.

 

Next, we went to Fritsla Church near the center of town, where Morfar had probably been baptized. It was closed, so we walked around the cemetery, reading the old Swedish names on the headstones. If one or both of my grandfather’s parents had died in Fritsla, they were probably buried here.

 

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On our first visit to Fritsla Church, it was closed.

 

By this time, it was noon. Andrew and I decided to stop at the café in the village for lunch, and that is when we got our lucky break.

Centralkafét is an old-fashioned café attached to a gorgeous little floral shop, Fritsla Blomsteraffär. While Andrew and I picked out what we wanted from the sandwiches and salads in the plate glass display case, I mentioned that my grandfather had been born in Fritsla, and we were researching family history.

After we finished eating, our waitress, Camilla, introduced herself, as did Ulrika, the baker and florist. They wanted to know more about my grandfather. Before we knew it, they’d called the church, and they’d called someone else.

“The church is open for cleaning this afternoon,” Camilla said. “You can go in and see it.”

“And you should meet Gunvor,” Ulrika added. “She’s our local history expert. She said you can head over now if you’d like.”

 

FritslaFlorist

We wandered into Centralkafét, attached to a floral shop in Fritsla. Here, we met Camilla and Ulrika, who connected us with Irene and Gunvor.

 

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In Centralkafét. A Google translation: “Lovely hometown, we love you, we who in Sweden build and bridge.”

 

Gunvor’s home turned out to be one of the quaint older homes Andrew and I had admired while driving around. She and her daughter, Irene, were gracious and welcoming, and I felt an immediate connection. Gunvor, especially, had the strong, patrician bearing and the lilting Nordic accent I remembered from the ladies who attended our Swedish Lutheran church when I was growing up near Cleveland, Ohio.

Gunvor soon realized we needed a true expert’s help and so she called Jan-Åke Stensson, the local genealogist who, believe it or not, came right over with his laptop and his extensive knowledge of Swedish ancestral records. Gunvor, Irene, Jan-Åke, Andrew, and I sat at the kitchen table and talked for a couple of hours.

Jan-Åke told us about Swedish history – how a quarter to a third of the Swedish population immigrated to America. My grandfather, though, had not been part of this great migration, according to Jan-Åke. He left Sweden later, during a time of greater prosperity. (Given my grandfather’s situation – as you’ll see below – I understand why he wanted a fresh start in America.) Jan-Åke also explained Sweden’s confusing surname conventions before 1900, which makes doing Swedish ancestral research challenging.  We talked about the many Swedes of my grandfather’s time who owned no land of their own, but were farm hands and tenant farmers.

We learned about Irene and Gunvor’s relatives, too, and how the great exodus from Sweden split their family tree. Irene told us her grandfather (or possibly her great grandfather – I don’t recall) had an enormous number of siblings – well over a dozen. Every single one of them – except for her (great) grandfather – came to America. Because of this, a loneliness haunted him all of his life. I’d never really thought about the personal losses incurred by those who stayed behind. As Irene told us this story, I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides. Sitting next to my son, I was moved by the idea that, over a hundred years later, we were reconnecting with our lost culture and ancestry.

Before we departed, Irene gave us a tour of her mother’s gardens and their rustic outdoor dining room. I wanted very much to linger and deepen our new friendships – I told myself I’d return one day. Andrew and I prolonged our Fritsla stay a bit by returning to the café for fika (Swedish dessert and coffee) and to tell Camilla and Ulrika about our visit with Gunvor and Irene.

 

I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides.

 

A week or so later, Jan-Åke sent me the biographical information below, confirmed independently by Amelie and her father, as well as by my cousin, Jan.

When we’d visited Älekulla with Cousin Jan, where my grandfather’s ancestors went back several generations, I’d sensed a deep connection to the land, church, and community.

But my grandfather’s family, headed by his father, Häkan Nilsson, was buffeted by illness, uprootedness, and, likely, poverty. My great grandfather, Häkan, moved from job to job to job (mostly as a tenant farmer and a farm hand) and from town to town, trying to support the family.

I hadn’t known that my grandfather had so many siblings. Morfar was the youngest of seven children – and by the time he was nine years old, all of his brothers and sisters and both of his parents would be dead.

Eight years before Morfar was born, Häkan and his wife, Edela (or Edla) Brita Lardsdotter, lost a son, Karl, at age 7 months, when they were living in the town of Orby.

They moved to Fritsla in February of 1892 with at least five of their six children, and my grandfather was born on June 5.

Morfar’s oldest brother – Häkan and Edela’s  firstborn, Johannes – died at age 19 in Orby (cause unknown) when Morfar was two years old. I do not know if Johannes was emotionally close to my grandfather, or if they barely knew each other.

When my grandfather was four years old, his father, Häkan, died of tuberculosis, on June 14, 1896 in Fritsla – a few months after he had started a new job as a farm hand, and a week after my grandfather’s birthday. Eleven days after Häkan died, my grandfather’s brother, Linus, died of tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. Three weeks after that, on July 16, my grandfather’s sister, Anna Eleanora, died of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen. (As I write this, it is the 123rd anniversary of her death.)

Three years later, my grandfather moved to Orby with his two sisters, Hilda and Josefina, and his widowed mother, Edela. His mother died of an unknown cause six months later on April 9, 1900. Perhaps she died in the flu epidemic my grandfather spoke of.

Morfar, now 8, and Josefina, 11, were sent to live with their maternal aunt and her husband, Lotta and Johan August Svensson. Morfar’s sister, Hilda, age 15, was sent to be a maid for a local tenant farmer, where she died of an unknown cause a little over a year later.

According to local historical records, Morfar’s uncle, August, was well liked by the neighborhood children, and he once helped save a girl who was drowning in a bog. He had only one arm, and had been a railway builder and night guard at the local power plant. When Morfar and his sister, Josefina lived with him, he was a tenant farmer, owning no land, with children of his own to raise. Who knows what my grandfather’s uncle was really like, because Morfar had always said his uncle was mean.

On May 11, 1902, Josefina died at age 13 of an unknown cause, and my grandfather lost his last living family member. Pär and Amelie found this quote by the pastor in the local history records: “The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!” (“Flickans båda föräldrar äro döda, och själv är hon utfattig!”) 

My grandfather turned nine a few weeks later.

 

FritslaChurch

We returned a second time that afternoon to Fritsla Church and it was open. I found it to be much more austere than the church in Älekulla, which had extensive, almost primitive religious murals and paintings. Many of these old churches have been rebuilt, remodeled, and/or extensively restored, and so have changed in appearance over the centuries.

 

FritslaCemetery

My great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, and my grandfather’s brother and sister, Linus and Anna Eleanora, were probably buried in this cemetery within weeks of each other after dying of tuberculosis.

 

“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”

 

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Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school, now a museum. My son and I were given a private tour by Adam, one of the museum’s caretakers.

 

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My grandfather and his mother and siblings moved to Orby, Sweden after TB took three in the family. He was confirmed at Orby Church on March 6, 1907, long after his mother died.

 

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When he was fifteen, Grandpa went to work as a farm hand on this property in Kinna, Sweden. He was here for four years, then went to work on a farm in Orby a few months before he left for America.

 

Morfar left Sweden forever on April 4, 1912 when he was nineteen, bound for America. He’d always said he was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but he was delayed, possibly by a strike in England. He sailed on the Mauretania instead, a few days behind the Titanic, probably third class. His ticket would have cost about $17.

I’m still checking dates, but the Mauretania left Liverpool, England on April 10, bound for New York a few days behind the Titanic. The Mauretania happened to be carrying the Titanic’s cargo manifest. It was docked in Queensland, Ireland when word came that the Titanic was sinking. First-class passengers held a vigil for the Titanic’s victims and raised $500 for the families. Second-class passengers held their own vigil.

I wonder if word came down to the third-class passengers in steerage about the Titanic. If somehow it did, I can only imagine what Morfar must have thought. Maybe he’d always had survivor’s guilt for being the only one in his family still alive. Perhaps he’d always expected the other shoe to drop – that, inevitably, he’d lose his life, too.

In 1997 or 1998 near Cleveland, Ohio, some of Morfar’s many great grandchildren gathered in their pajamas in front of the TV to watch The Titanic. While Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hoped desperately for a lifeboat in those icy waters, I can now imagine another scene – a nineteen-year-old Swedish boy, somewhere below deck on another boat far away. Maybe, upon finding out about the Titanic, Morfar looked upon his having sailed on the Mauretania instead as a sign, a gigantic, long-awaited affirmation from the universe. Yes, he was supposed to live. A whole new life awaited him in America.

 

JungAncestors“Each individual life matters. From the perspective of the ancestors, each descendent is the whole reason they have existed at all. We are each individual ‘historic fragments’ whose lives are interwoven into the lives of our ancestors reaching back to the beginning of creating. Knowing where one comes from in the broadest and deepest sense informs who one is and the direction of one’s life. Within these connections, as one finds oneself in the crowd of ancestral spirits, the meaning of our suffering is revealed in ways that assist us in embracing our fate and embodying and fulfilling our destiny. Simply said – the ancestors, as part of our larger community, support and guide us in living the life we were born to live. This work connects us in ever widening circles to our origins, has the potential to reconnect us with the soul of the world and ultimately leads us back to ourselves and our individual, unique and necessary life.” – Jung and the Ancestors

 

***

 

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Me (in 1956 or so) napping on Grandma’s lap during one of our visits to Grandpa when he was in the hospital for what my mother later told me was tuberculosis. I wonder if the TB had been latent for years, perhaps contracted in Sweden when members of his family had it. Seems a coincidence he would contract the disease so many years later in America. He was cured of the TB with antibiotics, as far as I know. He lived another 15 years or so and passed away from other causes.

 

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Children were not allowed to visit patients. I thought I remembered seeing Grandpa wave to us when we went to see him. He is the figure in the upper left window. Considering how young I am in the other photo, perhaps this is a false memory, and I’m recalling these photos. Memory can be a shadowy, indistinct realm.

 

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In Fritsla Church

 

Darlingside recently came to central Oregon and they are wonderful. Some of their lyrics inspired me to imagine what Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson might have been thinking as he left Sweden forever, made his way by train to England, and boarded the Mauretania for America. Are there stories in your own family history you are perhaps meant to unearth?

 

 

Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan-Åke Stensson, Jan Andersson, Camilla Haglund, Ulrika Söderhagen, Gunvor Johansson, Irene Svensson, Adam Nyman, and all the kind Swedes we met. The few hours we spent together were too short. Thank you to Sandra Adamson Easter for writing Jung and the Ancestors, a treasure I’m still unpacking.

 

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Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson

 

Next up, in my final post about exploring our ancestry, I’ll write about our trip to Sicily (my father’s ancestral land), my cousin’s Sicilian wedding, and what my son and I gained from our family heritage search in Sweden.

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