“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
Adrift, and a timely new edition of a little-known book
One year ago, my husband left for a two-week expedition to Antarctica. He traveled with 90 other tourists aboard a former research vessel and ice breaker. It was the trip of a lifetime, and he was among the sixteen or so tourists who ventured out kayaking. I asked him to bring back some sounds of Antarctica, and he did.
Finally, in November, I created an audio essay, “Adrift,” from some of those recordings, and it was published as part of my “From Where I Stand” series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment. The audio essay is six minutes long, and I hope you’ll take a few moments and listen. I would appreciate comments, thoughts, and feedback here or on Terrain.org. If you’re intrigued, please check out the other poems, articles, letters, and features on Terrain.org, an outstanding online journal.
I gave my audio essay the title “Adrift” for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this past summer a massive iceberg broke off from the Antarctic mainland, alarming climate scientists and environmentalists. The rogue iceberg has since been floating away from mainland Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. “Adrift” also came to mind because our country is more seriously adrift than ever in regards to acknowledging climate change and taking action.
This past Christmas, our older son who is the avid reader brought home the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. I’d been seeing the 50th Anniversary Edition online, but I’d never heard of the book or the author. Curious, I read the novel in an evening. It embodies the lost feeling of being adrift in the worst possible way. It’s difficult to summarize Ice, except to say that it is a singular, dystopian masterpiece that is eerily of our time, even though it was written in the 1960s. Reading it at this particular moment is especially resonant, given the recent bomb cyclone and deep freeze in the eastern half of the United States. In the novel, ice and bone-chilling cold encroach on the world due to an unnamed environmental or nuclear disaster. Iceis, in part, the story of an ecocatastrophe. (This is the apt word of a New York Times reviewer, not mine).
It is also the story of a man searching for a woman; he finds her but then loses her. He finds her again but then is somehow apart from her. And on and on, his search continues, as in a dream from which he can’t awaken. Reviewers say that his endless, obsessive search is in part a metaphor for the author’s struggle with drug addiction.
In the novel’s foreword, Jonathan Lethem writes that Ice has a nightmarish quality, with a disjointed, endless loop of a narrative similar to the style of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I know what he means: the tone and narrative reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s a disturbing novel by a relatively unknown author who has not gotten the attention she deserves, an arresting but bleak story. There is, though, a note of redemption on the last pages.
Books Can Save a Life, 2018
In a sense, my husband and I have been adrift, too, but in a more positive way. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know that in October we left our dear, long-time upstate New York home and embarked on a cross country journey by car and train, stopping at several National Parks and scenic places in search of adventure and a new home.
In November, we landed in Portland, Oregon and in December we found the place that we’ll be calling home, at least for the next year: the high desert of Bend, Oregon. We’ve signed a year’s lease on an adorable bungalow in Bend’s historic district, known as Old Bend. Our intention is to spend the year immersing in nature – a face of nature that is novel and new for us, embodied in the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains.
We’d also like to see if we can learn to live more sustainably, in a more ecologically responsible way.
For example, we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the library, church, coffee shops, and restaurants. At the moment, we own one car, not two. We may take classes in permaculture and we’re looking into Oregon’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs. Joe has signed up to renew his Wilderness First Responder Certification.
On Books Can Save a Life,books will continue to be the unifying thread, but I hope also to write about our lifestyle changes and their challenges. Concurrently, I’ll continue to highlight environmental and nature writers such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry,Terry Tempest Williams,Bill McKibben, and other modern-day prophets who are deeply connected to the natural world.
As always, I hope to feature other important, topical fiction and nonfiction as well. Jaron Lanier was one of the writers new to me in 2017 who impressed me the most, with his vision of a humanitarian information/technology economy. These are challenging times, and I’d like to focus on novelists and nonfiction writers like Lanier who give us visions of a more humane world.
Originally, I began writing Books Can Save a Life to extend my author platform in preparation for publishing a memoir about mental illness in my family. Now, I have a rather ungainly memoir draft that needs cutting and that’s offering me plenty of opportunities for further creativity and deepening. (In other words, it needs revising. :))
As time goes on I’m more convinced that memoirs are making a difference. To that end, on Books Can Save a Life I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about memoirs that I think are exceptional, as well as books and writers concerned with maintaining and deepening creative practices like writing and art.
In the meantime, here are a few glimpses of our new home:
Next up: Our older son recommended Ice, which was my final read of 2017. I’m giving equal time to our younger son, whose Christmas gift to us was Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a tremendously inspiring book (even though I have no interest in starting a business), my first read of 2018, originally meant to be a manual for Patagonia employees. I know that sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s been translated into ten language. A new edition was published in 2016.
Happy New Year to all, and let me know what you’re reading!
I didn’t expect to find this serendipitous connection between the two books on page 3 of The True Secret:
“Writing is for everyone, like eating and sleeping….Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and to write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.
To write is to continue the human lineage. For my grandfather, coming from Russia at seventeen, it was enough to learn the language. Today, it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream. To write, to pass on the dream and tell its truth. Get to work. Nothing fancy. Begin with the ordinary.”
Reading Goldberg’s words – get to work, nothing fancy, begin with the ordinary – I thought of Colum McCann’s writing, and of Lily Duggan, the fictitious Irish housemaid in TransAtlanticwho could not read or write and came penniless to America, whose daughter became an influential journalist and wrote about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland (see this photo of their landing.)
Reading Goldberg’s words – no shackles can ultimately hold you – I thought of the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and what he was able to accomplish thanks to his education.
Reading Goldberg’s words – it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream – I decided to ask my husband’s family if they identified with their Irish ancestry. Do they ever think about it, do they find it relevant to their lives, or do they see themselves as thoroughly American? If it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream (whether we consider ourselves writers or not), what does that mean and how do we do that?
One branch of my husband’s family came from Drummin Parish, Westport in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. They immigrated to America after the English Earl of Aran evicted them and 40 other families from the land where they were tenant farmers. Nearly the entire town came to America, including their local priest, shortly after the Civil War. (Again, I think of TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan and her deep and involuntary involvement in the Civil War.) They settled in Little Falls, New York, where they may have worked on the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Several of the brothers started a construction and masonry company and built the Beechnut Plant in Canajoharie, locks in the Mohawk River, and many buildings in the Mohawk Valley.
In our discussion, my father-in-law said he thought of himself as American, while his sister identified strongly with her Irish Catholic heritage. I wondered why there was such a difference in the same family. My sister-in-law thought it might be that it had been the man’s responsibility to be successful and earn a good living; to do that he had to shed his ethnicity in the workplace and become “American.” The woman had stayed home, preserving family rituals and traditions, passing on family history, perhaps assimilating more slowly.
Someone said she thought it unusual TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan was not religious and not raised Catholic, and that led to a discussion of Catholic identity. My mother-in-law, like my husband’s aunt, strongly identified as Irish Catholic, and said when she was growing up being Catholic was more important than being Irish. She told the story of an uncle who wept bitterly when one of his children married a Protestant. Someone else commented that in the New Jersey town where he grew up, there was an Italian Catholic church, an Irish Catholic church, and a Polish Catholic church.
I wanted to know which TransAtlantic characters made the deepest impression. My father-in-law was especially taken with the brilliance, dedication, and integrity of Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. He did some research and found a fascinating interview with Mitchell after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Almost all of us loved Lily, of course. Some of us didn’t know anything about Frederick Douglass and his connection with Ireland, and we’d never heard of Alcock and Brown or their amazing flight.
There were at least four generations at our family reunion. I’m so glad some of us shared the reading of TransAtlantic. I, for one, could have kept our discussion going longer than we had time for.
I don’t think we answered the question of how to further the immigrant dream or whether that is something we’ll even think about, and I don’t know how strongly the younger generation will identify with their Irish heritage. But I do find it fascinating how McCann weaves fiction and nonfiction together to form a narrative arc that extends through time and across generations. It’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.
I think I see similar through-lines across time in my husband’s family, whether they’re passed down through familial and social influences, or encoded in their DNA, or both: a mechanical and engineering aptitude, keen intelligence, a predilection for risk-taking, an independent spirit, a deep curiosity about the world, and a strong sense of justice. When all of us get together for these reunions that are way too brief, you can see these commonalities.
Have you ever had a book club at your family reunion? If so, what did you read? Tell us about it in the comments.
If you would like to learn more about Natalie Goldberg, her new book, and the true secret of writing (I’m not going to spill the beans), listen to this wonderful 30-minute podcast on Natalie’s website.
Traveling in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, we’ve had marionberry syrup on pancakes at the B & B we’re staying at and huckleberry smoothies at an arts & crafts fair. Peaches, apricots, pears, cherries, strawberries, blueberries and grapes also grow in this land of orchards, vineyards, and farm stands.
I just finished Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, set in early 20th century Washington, where an orchardist takes in two pregnant, runaway teenagers. Amanda’s prose is as lush and beautiful as the land she writes about. The Orchardistis one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Amanda is a major new talent, and she’s young, so we can look forward to more of her books.
We stopped at The Old Trunk Antiques , which has an excellent collection of used and older books. I found a rare edition of Pearl S. Buck’sThe Good Earththat had a book jacket with promotional photos from the 1937 movie. (See a previous post on The Good Earth.)
That was too expensive for me, but I bought Buck’s, Peony,a novel I’m unlikely to encounter in my everyday book browsing.The Old Trunk proprietors are gracious and very knowledgeable about the history of the Hood River area.
Before we head to our family reunion in Cannon Beach, Oregon, we’ve been exploring the high desert east of the Cascades. Of course, I had to find a book indigenous to this place, so I settled on Sarahlee Lawrence’s memoir, River House.
Sarahlee is a kind of modern-day superwoman: an expert river runner who navigated the most dangerous rivers in South America and Africa by the time she was 21, a rancher who built from scratch her own log cabin with the help of her father, and a talented young writer who gives us an honest, unromantic vision of what it is like to live off the land here.
After her almost unbelievably dangerous river adventures, Sarahlee decided to return to the ranch where she grew up with her parents and grandparents, to reconnect to the land and build her own log cabin.
River Housechronicles the building of the cabin, Sarahlee’s struggle to reconcile her love of river running with the land-locked life of the ranch, and her fraught relationship with her father, a former surfer (riding wild water is in their blood) who has ranched for thirty years and is worn out by the land and the unrelenting physical labor.
If you want to steep yourself in the physical terrain and culture of central Oregon’s high desert, if you want a vicarious taste of backbreaking labor as told by a young woman with a strong spiritual connection to the land, River House is the book for you.
If your aim is to build a luxury McMansion with all the creature comforts and a picture window view of Three Sisters, this memoir will probably make you uncomfortable.
I found River House to be a great read. As we drove around the hot, dry land and hiked in the stunning forests along the ice-cold Metolius River and around the secluded Suttle Lake, I was very conscious of being a tourist, a stranger in this unusual place.
There is a vast divide between those of us who live a sedentary life behind computer screens and plugged into social media and those who work the land every single day of the year.
I write this on the night of the supermoon, high in the sky outside my dining room window.
In her journal, Cheryl Strayed kept a list of the books she burned as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail: Dubliners by James Joyce; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Novel by James Michener; The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington; plus a few more.
Every evening she’d make a campfire, tear out the pages she’d read that day, and feed them to the flames to lighten the load in her over-stuffed pack. I imagine her performing her nightly ritual, the words on paper turning to ash.
Cheryl carried one book the length of her trip: The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich.
Reading Wild, I remember this stray fact: In college, I wrote my senior seminar English paper on Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. I’d like to find that old English paper so I can read it after all these years and see what I had to say about Rich’s poetry.
Reading Wild, I remember a vacation in Portland, Oregon to visit family. Our boys were six and nine at the time.
We decided to hike with my sister-in-law and her family along the lower elevations of Mount Hood in search of a waterfall whose name I can’t remember. The map posted at the trail head indicated the hike was a couple of miles. A manageable trip for young children, we thought. The day was hot and sunny, but we walked in the shade of a beautiful pine forest along an easy, well-cleared path.
When Cheryl began walking, her pack was so heavy she couldn’t lift it, and her brand new REI hiking boots were too small. Along the way, she shed many layers of skin from the pads of her feet and several toenails as well.
She’d walk a week without seeing anyone. She’d go days with a handful of change to her name until she reached a town where a supply pack (mailed by a friend) awaited, with necessities and two ten dollar bills to tide her over for the next couple hundred miles.
The day of our hike we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Until it got to be not so much fun anymore. Until the children were dragging, and the teenage cousin and her friend decided to go on ahead.
One of our boys (who shall remain nameless) grew cranky. The heat was intense and our water was running low. But we figured we were almost to the waterfall, so we kept going.
We walked another half hour, and then in a full meltdown, the thoroughly overheated and tired boy refused to go any further. We’d stopped next to a creek, and my husband took his handkerchief, dipped it in the ice-cold mountain water, and we took turns bathing our faces with it.
My in-laws decided to keep going with their children while we cooled off at the stream. Before long, I was ready to move on. My husband stayed behind with the tired one, cajoling him to take off his shoes and socks and wade in the stream.
Our original group had now split into four groups, which made me uneasy. Walking along holding my son’s hand, I hoped the path wouldn’t split off. What if we went the wrong way and got lost? We saw an older couple approaching as they headed back down the trail.
“Are we close to the waterfall?” I asked.
“You’re getting there. But you’ve a ways to go,” the man said. Not what I wanted to hear.
At the age of 26, with little preparation and no extreme hiking experience, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was grieving for her mother, who had died in her early forties a month after a cancer diagnosis, and Cheryl had been making a mess of her life ever since. She hoped the trip would save her in some way.
My son and I heard rushing water and felt a million invisible, blessedly cool droplets on our skin before we saw the waterfall. In the clearing ahead, ribbons of spray curved and tumbled down a wall of solid rock, like a bridal veil fluttering in a breeze. Instantly, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We were like parched plants coming back to life after a generous watering.
Everyone had arrived except for my husband and the tired one; they came along a few minutes later. In this peaceful and secluded Shangri La we stretched ourselves out on large, flat rocks and talked as the kids splashed about the stream looking for tadpoles.
Having walked 1100 miles, Cheryl ended her journey at the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River, which lay between Oregon and Washington.