(Still) reading Barry Lopez

Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. Barry Lopez

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

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

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out –  artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.

I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.”  An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln.  Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.

Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.

Crow and Weasel book cover

Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.

Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,”  in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.

I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?

If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our best interests to see that no one among us is silenced.

So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.

“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

Barry Lopez brought us I, Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

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

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

Barry Lopez

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

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

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

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

I, Snow Leopard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Bernard Landgraf. CC BY-SA 3.0

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

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

“I want to see people come alive.”

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

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

“We should be holding hands.”

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

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

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

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

Of Wolves and Men

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

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

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

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

Barry Lopez passing, gathering words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

old dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

Definitions and drawings

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Hope in the Dark

A backyard in San Francisco, September 10, 2020

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

Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian, September 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Exceptional journalism for troubled times

 

fivedays

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Days at Memorial is about five days in hell.

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

Then the levees broke and the water came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism and social justice

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

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

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

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

 

Sacred pauses

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And these from Macrina’s book:

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

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

 

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

 

The sacred pauses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Letter from the virus

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

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

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

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

One Long River of Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

****

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

MinkRiverMink River

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

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

****

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

****

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

****

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

****

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

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

Can I ask you a question? says Nicholas.

No.

Do you miss your dad?

No.

Is your mom dead?

No.

Should we bait up again?

Yes. 

Am I bugging you?

Yes.

I’ll stop talking.

No.”

****

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

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

 

Columbia River

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

 

Birdsong on the trolley trail, Easter Sunday, 2020.

 

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

Late Migrations

Late Migrations

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

B6DA7256-6AD8-40ED-8670-9E2A721CE8FA

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

 

A Paradise Built in Hell, Redux

ParadiseBuilt

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.” 

Horizon.jpg

“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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