The Shepherd’s Life

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Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And….

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

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

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

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

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

Some new “nature” words I learned:

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

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

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

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

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

The Magic of Memoir

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San Francisco treasures

 

Excavating a Life

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

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Brooke & Linda Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I love all the colorful, artistic touches.

 

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

 

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

Lab Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Excavating a Life

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About the creative life and writing memoir…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Linda Joy.

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

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

 

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

 

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7 a.m.

 

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Shades of pink as sunset approaches

 

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One morning I woke up and saw the Cascades.

 

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A blue and gray day

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

A Common Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NAMI Rochester Streakers take the lead for NAMI Walks.

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

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

 

“We should seek not a world where the black race and white race live in harmony but a world in which black and white have no real political meaning.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is written as a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year-old son.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I read this book together with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, a coming of age memoir about growing up black in West Baltimore, and the two are excellent read back to back. If you want to see what Ta-Nehisi Coates is all about, I recommend reading the memoir first, so you’ll have background about Coates’ childhood and family, and then follow up with Between the World and Me so you have some context.

Fair warning, though, I found neither book an easy read emotionally, and you may not either if you are a white American. (Or, as Coates would say, if you think you are white. Coates believes race is a falsehood.)

“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable reality of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”

There is plenty of uncomfortable truth in these two books, and Coates does not mince words. Between the World and Me, especially, is meant to awaken America from its false Dream.

I grew up in a somewhat racially diverse town outside of Cleveland and attended public school alongside African Americans, but there was de facto segregation, with blacks in their own neighborhood not far from where I lived. In retrospect, and especially after having read Coates, I see how absolutely separate and different our lives actually were.

When I began reading The Beautiful Struggle, I found myself baffled by the words and phrases Coates used and many of his cultural references. I was reading a different language, the language of urban black America. The language is perhaps deliberately exaggerated in the first pages, and not decoded, maybe to act as a kind of culture shock or wake-up call to the reader.

A senior writer at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in one of the toughest, most marginalized and deprived communities in America. His father was a Black Panther who later became a librarian; his employment at the Howard University library enabled his children to attend school there tuition free.

I’m not going to summarize too much about the books, because I can’t do justice to Coates’ eloquent, powerful prose as he describes how the African American body has been violated through slavery, segregation, incarceration, and death at the hands of our criminal justice system. His words are sometimes hard to take, and both books are unfailingly hard to put down. I was especially struck by these aspects:

  • How very terrifying it is to be pulled over or questioned by a police officer if you are black in America. I think the only thing more powerful than Coates’ words are the videos we’ve seen of incidents gone wrong these past few years. I respect the bravery of police officers doing incredibly challenging work, but I’ve also been following the news in Cleveland, where I grew up, and how the police department there has been investigated by the US Department of Justice. My son attends the U. of Cincinnati, where this past year an unarmed black man was killed by a campus security officer for no apparent reason. (The officer has been charged with murder.) When the video went viral, I was chilled by what I saw, frightened for my son and anyone who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Coates recounts the first time he visited Paris, France. Growing up in West Baltimore, he could never have imagined such a gracious and beautiful place or that he would ever go there. It was moving to read Coates’ description of how easy it was for him to walk the streets of Paris, how differently he was treated, and how for the first time he wasn’t afraid.
  • Coates concludes that the fate of all of us is in the hands of those with power who think they are white – he believes many, though not all, African Americans are still too disenfranchised to change the system. But he fears that we as a country will reap what we’ve sown; that our hunger for power has also meant the abuse and destruction of the earth. He fears that in the end the earth will prevail, likely at great cost to humanity.

Here is one more quote from Between the World and Me, an example of his powerful use of language that some may see as divisive or offensive:

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

(And from “Whitey” Tim Kreider, read this. I happened to discover this link on my Facebook page the day I wrote this post.)

Have you read Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle? What do you think of the final quote above? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simply:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”   Paul Kalanithi, in a letter to his daughter.  Excerpt from When Breath Becomes Air

My brother passed away from pancreatic cancer last fall, and I didn’t feel quite ready for When Breath Becomes Air, a Stanford neurosurgery resident’s memoir about his cancer diagnosis. Also, in my work as a clinical librarian, I’d spent time supporting and rounding with clinical staff in neurology/neurosurgery. I had a special affection and respect for the brilliant, hard-working residents, who were about the same age as my sons. So to read about the death of a young resident from lung cancer….

But if you are a living, breathing person who likes to read memoir and nonfiction, and if you consider yourself an engaged participant in our death-denying culture, I would say When Breath Becomes Air is required reading.

One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who owns a bookstore that practices the art of making personal recommendations to readers based on their interests, says, “This is one of the handful of books I consider to be a universal donor – I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.” 

On publication, When Breath Becomes Air shot to number 1 on the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List. So when I saw Paul Kalanithi’s memoir on our library’s “Most Wanted Book” shelf, I decided to grab it.

Paul Kalanithi set out to be a writer and then switched to medicine and neurosurgery, one of the most challenging and consuming of all clinical disciplines. He believed that a person’s brain determines his identity, which is inseparable from his values and sense of life’s meaning.

Finding meaning was all-important to Kalanithi. During his residency, Paul came to see it was his responsibility to do his best to give his patients the quality of life that would allow them to live according to their most precious values.

We need more doctors who have both the time and desire to get to know and serve their patients in this way, wouldn’t you say?

In his memoir, Kalanithi says the twin pursuits of caring for patients with brain illnesses and writing as a way to explore the meaning of life’s joys and traumas was his perfect calling.

It’s just that he hadn’t planned on doing the writing part until much later in his career. Many months after his diagnosis, when he could no longer work as a neurosurgeon, Paul chose to use his remaining time to write a memoir that, among other things, explores living and dying from the unique perspective of someone who is both a patient and healer.

He and his wife decided to have a child, too. Paul writes of becoming a father with great joy. It reminded me of last summer, when my brother (and our extended family) lived with end-of-life illness, even as we celebrated his daughter’s wedding.

As you can see from the memoir excerpt above, Paul was an extraordinary writer. Medical humanities literature, also known as narrative medicine, written by patients, doctors, nurses, and clinicians, is really coming into its own, and I think When Breath Becomes Air will become a classic.

Paul Kalanithi stands right alongside Anthony Verghese, Danielle Ofri, Sherwin B. Nuland, Tilda Shalof, Theresa Brown, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sachs, and others as one of the best. Really, his memoir is not to be missed.

“The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi

Below is the trailer for When Breath Becomes Air.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air, and what did you think? Have you read another medical humanities or health related memoir, novel, or essay that you have especially liked? Please share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments.

 

Remembering Judith Kitchen

Excavating a Life

Queen of the Fall book coverQueen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, is a collection of linked essays by Sonja Livingston and the If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book selection for 2016.

For the next few weeks, Sonja will be here for readings, signings and discussions at Writers & Books, local libraries, schools, colleges and bookstores.

Sonja is from the Rochester area, and divides her time between Rochester and the University of Memphis, where she teaches writing. The daughter of a single mother and one of seven children (with five different fathers), Sonya has also written a memoir, Ghostbread, about growing up in poverty in the Rochester slums and on the Tonawanda Reservation.

When I read the dedication page of Queen of the Fall, I was surprised and delighted to see this: “For my mothers, actual and acquired, and In memory of Judith Kitchen.

I wondered: Does Sonja look upon Judith as a mother figure, a kind of midwife who helped Sonja give birth to her own writing?

Yes, she does. So do I, and so do many in the Rochester community. I know Sonja does because, flipping through her essays, I found “Flight,” about the personal essay writing class taught by Judith that Sonja enrolled in many times.

I took the same class from Judith years ago, when I first began writing memoir and essay. Poet, novelist and essayist Judith Kitchen was a professor at SUNY Brockport at the time. She was married to the poet Stan Rubin, also on the Brockport faculty. Both were master teachers beloved by students and the literary community here.

I’d had to wait a semester to get a spot in Judith’s class. She generously added a slot or two beyond the designated maximum enrollment of twenty to accommodate those of us at the top of the waiting list. Judith didn’t have to let us non-matriculated students in, but she did. I think that she welcomed the diversity of backgrounds and generations, because it made for lively, rich discussion and, ultimately, more learning and better writing.

Our class was made up mostly of young people enrolled in the Creative Writing MA program. There were a few women getting mid-life master’s degrees in the class, too. I was in the small group of moms with kids and/or jobs, taking the course as continuing ed, trying to squeeze in the class time, plus the hours of writing and preparing critiques.

Oddly, I sat next to another mom with young children who also happened to be writing about having a mother with schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure I liked that so much, but on the other hand we “got” each other. We were of the same tribe and found our own experiences validated in each other’s writing.

HouseOnEcclesI remember those three-hour sessions every Tuesday evening, all of us crowded around a large conference table in an undersized room. Usually, two people were in the hot seat: the writer whose essay we were critiquing, and the student moderator leading the critique.

Being the moderator was nearly as stressful as having 20+ people deconstruct and critique your writing. Judith wanted us to practice and learn the art of critical reading and the art of leading a successful writing workshop. She knew the value of writers in community and that the best way to learn how to write is to learn from one other. So, in addition to our writing assignments, we were required to come to class prepared to intelligently discuss our classmates’ essays, having read them thoroughly and marked them with comments.

Judith was strict in her expectations, but she was also kind and nonjudgmental. This is crucial in a writing teacher, especially in a college setting where you have new, young writers grappling with their innermost secrets and shames and confessing them on the page, perhaps for the first time.

We wrote and shared funny essays, of course, and happy ones and contemplative ones. But in Judith’s class, I learned what it was like to be young and beautiful and anorexic in a dorm full of women with anorexia. I learned what it was like to have your dearest, life-long friend, the one who knew you better than anyone else, commit suicide. I learned what it was like to be secretly lesbian and have a Vietnam war veteran with undiagnosed PTSD for a father.

I wrote a couple of essays about my family, my mother, schizophrenia, and the boy I loved. I shared with the class stories I’d never told before and listened to their comments.

One classmate’s essay in particular has stayed with me all these years. He wrote about a long night of partying. Beer after beer, shot after shot. The girl he was madly in love with. (Who he was still madly in love with; it was all over every page and you could see it in his eyes as he listened to our comments.) The girl who didn’t know he was alive. The girl whose long blonde hair he pulled back and held as she vomited into a toilet.

I don’t think he was confident of his own potential and, for sure, he knew before we said anything that he hadn’t nailed it, this unrequited love he was trying to write about. I think this boy and his essay got to me because I had two sons on the young side of their teen years. I realized that I was old enough to be this writer’s mother, old enough to be the mother of all the young writers in the class. I knew that I would never hear about my own sons’ loves in this searing detail, because that is not what sons tell their mothers. I knew this boy’s mother would likely never hear the story her son was trying to tell us.

I wanted to offer him something helpful and constructive, but I was mystified. I, too, was finding that, when it came to writing about my own first love, I was at a loss. How do you write about love in a way that is not sentimental or cliche, but authentic, vivid, new?

In autobiographical writing, you need to learn how to methodically unearth your personal land mines without letting yourself go crazy all over again. Then, with focus, presence of mind, patience, and persistence, you teach yourself the craft of writing. Draft after draft, you learn how to spin your most intense life experiences and emotions into storytelling gold. It becomes not about you anymore. Your exquisitely cut but imperfect gem of a story (it will never be perfect), the only one like it in the world, is ultimately for the reader.

Maternal is the word I think of now to describe Judith Kitchen. The way she created a safe, nurturing, supportive place for new writers to learn how to do this.

In class, my comment to the boy writing about the girl he loved was only to say something that would help him feel some kinship in his struggle. I said I thought writing about love was one of the hardest things and I was trying to figure out how to do it, too. I told him his writing was, for me, authentic and deeply felt, and that I thought if he kept writing but didn’t try to force it, eventually it would become what it was supposed to be.

A few years after I took her class, Judith and her husband moved to Port Townsend, Washington, where they founded the Rainier Writing Workshop. It is a unique, 3-year low-residency program. Its focus is not on achieving heights of literary prowess or publication or prizes, but on helping students find for themselves a sustainable, lifelong writing practice. A worthy goal.

Judith passed away in 2014. Years after Judith left Rochester, there are a handful of writing groups that originated from her classes that are still going strong.

Next week: Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall and Ghostbread.

Have you had a writing teacher or artistic mentor who has influenced you and helped you along on your creative path?

 

Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)

Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

Why We Write About Ourselves book coverA few days after I wrote my blog post Why I Write Memoir (one of my most shared and commented on posts ever – many thanks to those of you who did so), I was intrigued to see at our local Barnes & Noble Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, who is herself a memoirist.

Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”

Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.

Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.

You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.

As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.

And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.

Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:

The Great Santini book coverPat Conroy (The Great Santini): “Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”

Cheryl Strayed (Wild): “I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped): “The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)

The Mistress's DaughterA.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”   

(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)

Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, and Still Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…

…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”

James McBride (The Color of Water“The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”

“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”

(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)

Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:

In Other WordsIn Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman

A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

Beautiful Affliction, Lene Fogelberg

The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Salitis

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Just Kids; M Train, Patti Smith

Life From Scratch, Sasha MartinWelcome

Shepherd, Richard Gilbert

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler

I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.

 

 

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