I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

Going where time doesn’t exist with M. Wylie Blanchet

“Her voice, forty years after her death, is timeless. In the end, I did not want to get off the boat, or let her go.” Timothy Egan, in his introduction to The Curve of Time: The Classic Memoir of a Woman and Her Children Who Explored the Coastal Waters of the Pacific Northwest, by M. Wylie Blanchet

Whidbey IslandIf you want to read this treasure of a memoir you’ll have to do a bit of work. It’s out of print, so I ordered it from a used bookstore listed on Amazon. I love finding small packages on my doorstep from faraway bookstores. Blanchet and her five (FIVE!) children spent many summers on their 25-foot boat, the Caprice, exploring the British Columbia coast. This, after Blanchet’s husband had been lost at sea on the Caprice – only the boat was found. Driftwood

Often, Blanchet followed the route of Captain Vancouver, who explored the waters in 1792. She read a copy of Vancouver’s diary to her children, and they tried to identify landmarks the sea captain had written about.

They followed no particular schedule except for being mindful of tides and weather, stopping when they pleased to explore little islands, hidden coves and beaches, and secluded inlets and bays that often didn’t show up on the map.

“We were very comfortable in the daytime with everything stowed away. The cockpit was covered, and had heavy canvas curtains that fastened down or could be rolled up. There was a folding table whose legs jammed tightly between the two bunks to steady it….We washed our dishes (one plate, one mug each) over the side of the boat; there was a little rope ladder that could be hung over the stern, and we used that when we went swimming.” Whidby Island

Her stories remind me of our many trips over the years rediscovering nature through the eyes of our children. This is the kind of book you’ll want to read aloud with children and grandchildren. Blanchet’s children were amazingly hardy and brave, often finding themselves with their intrepid mother doing things I couldn’t imagine doing with my children: crawling on a log suspended over rapids, exploring Native American burial grounds (in which bodies were “buried” dangling from trees in nets), making their way along a cliff in fog on a slippery, snowy mountaintop.

Few children today will have these kinds of adventures. Much of the wild, pristine country Blanchet wrote about in The Curve of Time has been developed. “I lighted a fire [on the beach] and piled it up with bark…We always carried a rack for broiling fish. Soon they were spluttering and browning over a perfect fire, which I raked over between two flat stones. We built it up with more driftwood…The Northern Lights were edging this way…and that way…across the northern sky – reaching above us – white and elusive, then retreating hurriedly down to the horizon.”

Langley Public Library, Whidby Island All photos were taken on Whidbey Island.

The quotes are from: The Curve of Time: The Classic Memoir of a Woman and Her Children Who Explored the Coastal Waters of the Pacific Northwest, M. Wylie Blanchet, Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968.

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Bald Eagle, Whidby Island

Facing your heart of darkness for love: State of Wonder

StateofWonder.jpg

“She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.”

 

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is about a life severely, intentionally curtailed.

Marina Singh is a successful scientist conducting important research at a pharmaceutical company. Only she knows that long ago she’d bailed out of her own life.

When Marina was a chief resident in obstetrics, she performed a complicated delivery that ended badly. There was a lawsuit. Her marriage to a fellow resident dissolved. She wasn’t asked to leave the residency program, but she felt compelled to punish herself and leave on her own.

That way, she never had to face her classmates, or patients, or the brilliant, intimidating Dr. Swenson, again.  Anick Swenson had been the attending physician on call the day of the crisis. All the medical students both revered and feared her.

“She was harder on the women…She would tell them stories of her own days in medical school and how when she came along the men knit their arms together to keep her out. They made a human barricade against her, they kicked at her when she climbed over them, and now all the women were just walking through, no understanding or appreciation for the work that had been done for them.”

Marina never told her mother why she abruptly decided not to become a doctor. She never told her lover, Mr. Fox, who is president of the pharmaceutical company she works for. She never told her close friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, who has just died of fever in the Amazon jungle.

Now, Anders’ wife has begged Marina to find out what she can about Anders’ death and retrieve his body. And Mr. Fox has asked her to check on the progress of a top secret research project being conducted by none other than Dr. Swenson, who makes it a practice of remaining incommunicado.

Marina doesn’t want to set foot in the jungle, and she doesn’t want to see Dr. Swenson. But she goes, because she cares deeply for Anders, who has left behind a wife and three young boys.

Here is the particular nugget of the story I keep coming back to:

“The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life had shifted, stretched.”

Marina has suffered and continues to suffer deeply, even though her suffering is hidden away. She knows what she’s lost. She was a bright, capable young woman who wanted to devote herself to caring for women and helping them bring new life into the world. Yet in the space of a few hours she walked away from it all. She’d spent the greater part of her adult life only half alive, using a fraction of her potential. She seems to be very much alone; she holds the other people in her life at a distance, and she settles for a less than fulfilling relationship with Mr. Fox.

Marina has never gotten over her past. She locked it away in a dark corner of her mind and got on with life. Facing her demons is the psychological story within the story of Marina’s journey into the Amazon jungle. It turns a plot driven novel into something more urgent and real for the reader, even if the reader is only half aware of it.

This fusing of outward adventure and inner journey is what ultimately made it impossible not to follow Marina into the darkness. I revisited some of my own life issues as Marina revisited hers.

I admire Marina, but not all of the decisions she makes as her story unfolds, and that’s as it should be when reading about a character who is real, alive.

The essential story in this book, for me, is the reclaiming of a life. By the end of the story, I was different.  Not in a dramatic way, but nonetheless something had shifted.  A truly great book such as this one stays with me and continues to wield its power. And I can’t begin to measure the impact of many books read over a lifetime.

Some people say the book is in danger of disappearing. But in a recent essay, Timothy Egan writes that people are actually reading more and buying more books. I think we will always hunger for the power of story and the collective wisdom of the great writers and thinkers.

 

 

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