Turning Homeward

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Blossoms from a gardening class, “Flowers to Feed Your Soul,” alongside a small gem of a memoir by Adrienne Ross Scanlan.

 

“Sockeye. Chum. Coho. Chinook. Pink. Steelhead. When I moved to Seattle in the late 1980s, people talked of fish once seen in creeks that had long since been forced under strip malls and parking lots; they spoke of how many salmon they used to catch and how big those sockeye or Chinook were. The anadromous Pacific salmon and trout that had once dominated the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California, British Columbia, and reaching into Alaska – seemed to be everywhere yet nowhere, appearing and then disappearing like an old family ghost, spoken of often but usually in the past tense. Like ghosts fading from human memory, the salmon’s return to their ancestral home seemed to become more tenuous with each passing year.” Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

Several readers of my post about the memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me were moved by Sherman Alexie imagining the last salmon trying (and failing) to make its way past the newly built Grand Coulee Dam. Without wild salmon, he wrote, his Native American parents and his people had become spiritual orphans.

Here is another memoir haunted by salmon, written by a woman who moved from upstate New York to Seattle and wanted to cultivate a sense of belonging in her new surroundings. Adrienne Ross Scanlan sought connections with nature in order to form bonds with her new home.

As a citizen scientist, Scanlan ventured to hidden places in Seattle where streams and waterways had been diverted by urbanization – on the edge of McMansion housing developments and golf courses, underneath overpasses and inner city bridges – so she could help monitor salmon runs. Along with other volunteers, she restored habitats by salvaging native plants and removing invasive species.

She writes:

“Time and again, I would see this coming together of strangers engaged in restoring some small and often overlooked place. Time and again, my notions of how to save the world expanded beyond protests and boycotts, citizen lobbying, and picketing to also include these quieter sustained actions of repair. There was little time to talk before splitting off to our physical tasks, yet I still met bearded fish geeks and stout-bellied businessmen, veterans and vegetarians, Native Americans, recreational and commercial fishermen and fisherwomen, high school students needing community service credits, and parents and grandparents introducing their younger children to a world beyond electronic screens.”

Scanlan’s deepening connections to the natural world and to like-minded volunteer citizens bring her out of herself and offer solace as she copes with the death of her father. The salmon’s epic struggle to move upstream against all odds in order to procreate resonates as Adrienne meets the man she’ll spend her life with and they contemplate starting a family.

“…I’d have my new home, the one created when Jim and I moved in together. It wasn’t lost on me that now that I was finally ready to create a permanent home, Jim and I couldn’t afford to buy a house in Seattle’s hot, if not inflamed, real estate market. So we rented. We turned over soil in a backyard planting box long ignored by former tenants and an absentee landlord, put in compost, and planted seedlings of broccoli and tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries; we unpacked boxes, compared housewares, and cruised Ikea and Goodwill and yard sales for bookcases and bric-a-brac; we discussed whether one day we could afford to put an offer on our rented house with its double lot, incense cedar, wildly overgrown laurel and holly, and close proximity to good public schools. Then we compared our health insurance policies, and we realized that the window for adding me to Jim’s policy at the University of Washington would close in November. So we got a marriage license, called our best friends to be best man and matron of honor, and had a rushed wedding in our living room with a ceremony performed by a justice of the peace whom we never saw before and will never see again. And we waited to see if we’d been successful in creating the family we both want, just as I waited for another fish to head upstream…”

 

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Reading Turning Homeward was partly what inspired me to enroll in Oregon’s Master Naturalist Program, as a way to connect with our new home in central Oregon. For homework, we research and write short essays about endangered or “sensitive” critters like sagebrush sparrows, great grey owls, and western pond turtles. Now, I wonder about their well being whenever my husband and I are outdoors.  Here, a small herd of deer keeps an eye on me as I explore a piece of land that may become our new home. (By the way, many states have master naturalist programs.)

 

Through a difficult pregnancy and the premature birth of her daughter, Scanlan watches the salmon and learns resiliency.

“Her first spring, Arielle lay snuggled in fleece blankets in her incubator. Her second spring, I wheeled Arielle in her stroller around Green Lake to show her turtles. Turtles, cattails, red-winged blackbirds, daffodils – it was all the same to Arielle, all part of a big world she had yet to discover.

As Orwell wrote, ” …Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

 

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Turning Homeward cover illustration by Linda Feltner.  Adrienne Ross Scanlan writes, “My hope is that Turning Homeward contributes to a growing literature of what the historian William Cronon calls ‘care taking tales – tales of love and respect, of belonging and responsibility,’ created when humans are knowledgeable about and committed to the places they care about, whether the faraway wilderness or the nearby neighborhood. Some of my tales are of success, others of failure; some are of lessons learned, others of questions that linger. I hope that each one is a cairn along the trail toward home.”

 

Sherman Alexie writes of his family and his people becoming spiritual orphans without the wild salmon. In her memoir, Pacific salmon seem to be Adrienne Ross Scanlan’s spirit animal.

As wildlife becomes threatened and disappears, do we humans risk becoming spiritual orphans? Do you think we realize, as we go about our daily lives, the magnitude of what we stand to lose? Going forward, what do you think will happen?

Delancey

Delancey book cover“There were many moments early on when I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to be eaten alive by a wild animal than to show up for work. But in the midst of those hours, there was one that I always loved. It begins around 3:30 pm, when the servers set up the dining room. They set the tables, light the votives, and fill the water glasses. On the surface, it seems pretty mundane….But…for that hour, the room has this calm, consistent thrum to it, a sort of potential energy that feels peaceful and reassuring. I looked forward to it every day, and I still do.” Delancey

Delancey is a funny, beautifully written memoir about the founding of a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Seattle. It would make an excellent holiday present for readers who appreciate good food and frank, inspiring accounts of what it takes to start a business from scratch.

I loved Delancey because I grew up in our family’s floral shop, and the book is an authentic depiction of what it takes to establish and run a small business – the successes as well as the moments of despair when you question whether all the effort and sacrifice is worth it. Molly Wizenberg is frank and honest about the good and the bad. She is the author of the hugely popular blog Orangette, as well as another memoir, A Homemade Life. Orangette is one of my favorite blogs; Molly depicts her everyday life of cooking at home (recipes included), raising a daughter, and running Delancey with her husband, Brandon.

In the memoir, I especially enjoyed Molly’s descriptions of how Brandon developed and perfected their pizza recipes and the day-in, day-out routines and rituals of running a restaurant. They reminded me of days in the flower shop that began at the crack of dawn and sometimes ended after midnight, especially during the holidays.

Molly writes about the behind-the-scenes drama in the life of Delancey, but she also beautifully depicts her search for meaning in what she and Brandon are building. After the adrenaline of inspiration began to wear off, Molly got off the treadmill for a bit to take stock.

Here is one of my favorite parts, when Molly travels to London, dines with friends at the River Cafe and has an epiphany:

“…we watched the lunch crew set up their staff meal, a buffet along the bar. They filled their plates and began to stream past us to a lawn next to the patio, where they sat together, at least twenty of them, to eat. They smiled and gestured and leaned into each other, and the whole scene was eminently civilized, idyllic, the kind of vignette you find in an MFK Fisher essay about a restaurant in the French countryside in the first half of the last century. I couldn’t stop staring at them, watching the way they were with each other, the way they clearly enjoyed being there…These people, I thought, are making something here. ….These people know, and they care, that what they’re making is beautiful. They aren’t just going through the motions; they’re going after it. It was spectacular to watch: calm, precise, quietly exuberant.”

Oh, and, by the way, Molly includes twenty recipes for simple, homemade food she, Brandon, and their daughter June eat at home. This is a yummy, inspiring memoir.

The most important thing

Prayer wheel

For three days I’ve been thinking about the families of the children who died in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be a parent.

Our first child was born prematurely on a bright, crisp autumn day. One minute I was lying in bed planning how I’d spend my Sunday, the next my husband and I were racing to the hospital. Our wee one seemed determined to make his appearance on planet earth right then and there on Interstate 90.

A few hours later – after a very short labor – we had a son.

I looked at him sleeping on his tummy in his isolette in the NICU. A scrunched-up bundle in a baby blanket with his little bottom in the air and a head of black Irish/Sicilian hair. Suddenly I knew I would sacrifice anything, even my life, for this new little person. It was like when you look at someone you’ve seen before and realize you’re in love – except it was much, much more than that.  For a moment my ego dissolved. I was no longer the center of my own little universe.

Book cover, Some Assembly Required

As displayed in Queen Anne Books, Seattle

A few years later, when I read Anne Lamott’s words in Operating Instructions, I thought: she has it exactly right. Last week, I came across the same passage again on one of my favorite blogs, and I planned to share the post and add my thoughts. Then Friday happened and Lamott’s words took on a greater urgency for me as I shopped at the market for Christmas cookies and decorations.

Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could happen that would utterly destroy me. . . . Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam. I look down into his staggeringly lovely little face, and I can hardly breathe sometimes. He is all I have ever wanted, and my heart is so huge with love that I feel like it is about to go off. At the same time, I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I didn’t used to care all that much.

I think that moments of great joy and great tragedy shock us out of the ordinary and awaken within us a singular intensity of compassion, good will, and love. The boundaries between us and them, between the self and the other, fall away, if only temporarily.

There will be plenty of time later to ask why and bicker and debate the meaning of Newtown and what can be done to stop it from happening again.

The most important thing now is to ride the great wave of love and compassion this tragedy has released into the world – for as long as it lasts –  and take care of our children, 27 heartbroken families, and each other.

Quote: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott. Fawcett Columbine, New York: 1993.

Please excuse my language (Blame it on Dear Sugar)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, is otherwise known as Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online culture and literary magazine.

Cheryl had been writing the column anonymously until this past Valentine’s Day, when she “came out” just as her newly published memoir was rising to the top of the bestseller list.

The Rumpus is a clever, intelligent magazine. I’m a bit too old for it, or it’s a bit young for me, so I’m not a regular reader, nor do I follow Cheryl’s advice column (which is not your ordinary, everyday kind of advice column). But somewhere along the line, I came across a piece of wisdom I liked that Cheryl gave to a struggling young writer who’d sent a letter to Dear Sugar.

This bit of wisdom went viral and the people over at The Rumpus decided to put it on a mug. I ordered the mug and it came in the mail yesterday.

I’ve read all kinds of books about creativity and writing to keep my own writing going and because I’m fascinated by the creative process. A couple of pages on this site are devoted to books about writing and creativity, and I’ll be featuring some of these on Books Can Save a Life as time goes by.

But sometimes just a short, pithy, to-the-point kick in the pants is all I need.

So I’ve got my new mug sitting on my writing desk, ready to be filled with coffee or tea on a moment’s notice.

Write like a m*****f***** mug

I would say this is Cheryl’s approach to writing, to walking, to life.

Wild is to be made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

There is a fabulous interview with Cheryl over at Bookslut, but beware of spoilers. You may want to finish Wild first, before you read it.

Hey, is anyone reading Wild? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.

I’m heading off to the land of Wild (the Pacific Northwest) later this week to attend a medical librarian conference with some of my colleagues (profoundly intelligent readers, all of them). Then some vacation time with family, where I’ll be reading other books with a Pacific Northwest theme, exploring Seattle (including The Elliott Bay Book Company), and the surrounding terrain. Watch for posts and pictures!

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