“We can find ways to believe in survival and to live for the children….In our tribal and indigenous cultures, which have endured for thousands of years, every decision must leave no one behind. ‘Progress’ has caused us to miss love and reciprocity… these can be restored through narrative. Can you tell us a story that helps?” Barry Lopez, Portland Festival of Books, 2019
On the very last day of 2019, my husband and I concluded our two-year and three-month grand adventure in central Oregon. We left the delightful, quirky little town on the edge of the wilderness that has been our home, and returned to the place on the Erie Canal in upstate New York where we’d raised our family.
Our plane landed just a few hours before the New Year at Greater Rochester International Airport.
We were sad to leave Sisters, Oregon, but happy to come back to the town we think of as home. In December, I made it my mission to soak up as much Sisters holiday joy and central Oregon natural beauty as I could.
For the winter solstice, we did something special. Dozens of townspeople and visitors gathered in the diminishing light to silently walk the Sisters Community Labyrinth at the edge of the Deschutes National Forest. Each person carried a natural object – the husk of an acorn, a bone fragment, a pine cone – and threw it into a fire that symbolized transformation. Each object represented something the bearer was releasing, or something new arising in the flames.
We walked single file, each walker on his own journey in companionship with other souls on their journeys. We walked with our two sons, my meditation friends from the amazing Sisters Sangha, and many others – members of the community and visitors from afar who came to enjoy Sisters at winter’s portal. This communion is part of the beauty of the labyrinth.
Attending the Portland Festival of Books in November was a meaningful way to conclude my in-person Oregon literary explorations. My husband and I listened to the American author Barry Lopez and the Russian author Anna Badkhen converse about the role of the writer as explorer, seeker, and witness. Both have traveled the world many times over: Anna has written in depth about civilians in war zones, and Barry has reported in award-winning prose on flora, fauna and indigenous cultures across the globe.
They touched on how a writer finds meaning in her work and the moral and ethical responsibilities that come with bearing witness. There wasn’t a single empty seat in the auditorium, and the audience seemed to hang upon every word. I had the sense that we all knew what a privilege it was to hear the words of these great contemporary writers.
Barry Lopez asked this question:
“How are we going to take care of each other?
The storyteller recognizes when there is a disturbance … and has an ethical responsibility to take care of those in a culture living in disarray.”
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
Five memoirs by five women with superpowers
Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read, by a beloved Oregon writer
That’s what I did this weekend in this quirky little town we moved to the year before last. I indulged in bookish revelry with other like-minded book-lovers, in the first ever book festival to be held in Sisters, Oregon, thanks to hard-working volunteers, generous sponsors, and Paulina Springs Books.
Outside, the weather was bone-chilling and windy, with rain bordering on sleet. Inside, there were stacks of brand new books to choose from, a bake sale, writers reading aloud their latest work, and meandering lines where you could get your book autographed and have a long chat with the author.
Over forty writers came to Sisters, representing a mix of genres: historical fiction, romance, mystery, nature, memoir, literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, food writing, children’s and young adult literature, and more.
Housed in the local middle school and at Paulina Springs Books, the festival was special because the venues were intimate and the writers so entirely approachable.
Here are three writers and a sampling of memoir, history, and poetry:
Gwartney held us spellbound reading a passage about the day 20-year-old Debra shopped for a wedding dress (for a marriage that sounded doomed), and the November, 1847 day the Cayuse tribes killed missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, her husband, and eleven others.
You might wonder what the Whitman massacre and Debra’s wedding plans have in common. Gwartney reflected on how she had always been fascinated by Narcissa Whitman; somehow, this historical figure spoke to Debra’s own identity, and those of her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, who had long lived in the West. It took seven years of research and draft writing for Debra to discover the connective tissue between her own life and Narcissa’s, resulting in this fine book that combines memoir with an important part of American Western history.
I appreciated Debra’s honesty about her extended writing process and how patient she was in letting her story incubate. I Am A Stranger Here Myselfis especially timely in light of how our culture is re-examining racism, indigenous culture, sexism, and the role of women in America.
Here is an excerpt:
“Something about Narcissa Whitman drew me in when I saw the book on my grandmother’s shelf this time. She was the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert – her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West….
….She was shaping up to be my ideal nemesis in the way she believed the land was hers to take, in her insistence that she alone held the one and only path to God. Putting an end to an entire culture was justified in Narcissa’s mind as long as it was done in the name of Progress and Providence. I would let myself despise her for that squirt of narrow-mindedness and her proclivity to judge, even while managing to ignore my own such propensities. So what if she was trapped in others’ expectations – her mother’s, and later her husband’s, and also her time’s and her church’s? I wouldn’t forgive her for building a good part of her cage.” – I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney
The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies,by Megan Griswold
“And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.
….I have just picked him up….We had started driving south on I-5 to get his car. After he’d directed me to keep driving past the route home, I’d asked, ‘I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?’
Megan’s life life was never the same after the unfolding of a personal debacle in her marriage. To cope, Megan, a true New Age child of the West Coast, experimented with and/or recalled her history with these and other remedies:
EST Children’s Training
Camping with the Chilean Military
International Wilderness Training Course
Classical Five Element Licentiate (Acupuncture School)
Vipassana Meditation Retreat (I’ve done this!)
A Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
Drinking Hoasca with the União do Vegetal
Megan’s voice in The Book of Help is comic, over-the-top, vulnerable, and honest. She doesn’t hold back, at all. I think you’ll either love her writing, or you’ll put the book down after the first chapter or two – she’s not for everyone.
I stuck it out and became quite taken by her story.
The following excerpt is near the memoir’s conclusion. Megan’s mother is losing her memory and approaching the end of her life; Megan is calmer, more mature, and has attained a measure of peace. I love this particular passage because it evokes a favorite Mary Oliver poem:
“I close each night by reading Mary Oliver. Mom’s favorite poet. Because of her memory, she won’t remember that I read “Wild Geese” last night or the night before that or the night before that. But I have. And I will read this poem again tomorrow. We will read of the geese and their skyward return. Of all the landscapes we must move through to reach home.
I board the plane. As it takes off, we lift out of Seattle’s gray cloud bank and hover far above the city’s clouds, now flooded in sunshine. I can’t really explain it, but amid the sunshine, I feel somehow turned toward life in a way I don’t remember ever feeling. None of what happened here is good news, but I feel touched by the fleeting nature of what I hold dear. I just want to eat up everything I can while I am still here. I want to eat big meals, run long distances, and have a really good laugh. I act on the urge to ring up people I haven’t spoken to in ages. Life is calling to me stronger than ever. Like wild geese.”
Wild Honey, Tough Salt, by Kim Stafford
Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, knows how to gather kindred spirits together to celebrate poetry and life, and he has a devoted following in Sisters.
Kim read to us from his new collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt. I found “Citizen of Dark Times,” especially resonant given all that has been in the news lately. (Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer’s Almanac recently – follow the link in my previous sentence and scroll to the second half of the recording.)
Given these dark times, we can “live as if in the early days of a better nation,” Stafford advised.
He suggested we write about daily happenings. Stafford’s writing practice makes him more optimistic, because “something is growing.” A writing practice is restorative, he says. “The spirit of what you want will come to you.”
Write a draft with promise. Then, your second genius will come as you revise.
A few days after the Sisters Festival of Books, this brand new poem appeared on Kim’s Facebook page:
Sisters Book Festival
Writer, rise from your writing desk,
and step forth from your solitary cell.
Reader, rise from your reading chair,
to throng in grand reunion.
It’s really a festival of shining eyes,
a story fire we gather round.
It’s a voice as pure as a mountain spring,
a stanza landmark we reckon by.
How is this magic done? Page by page,
we season summer into fall, and
word by word we bud
winter into spring.
Books winnow trouble into truth,
and distill sorrow into song. So come,
friends, and be a village lost
in bookish revelry.
I think the Sisters Festival of Books has made a fine beginning.
Here are some images from a central Oregon autumn: