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found books

Spring was full of reading disappointments.  Either the book I chose had a stupid plot.  Or characters I couldn’t access.  Mystifying edits. Writing that made me feel I wasn’t in very capable authorial hands.  By May I had begun to despair.  I used to read every book to the bitter end,  the least I felt I could do to honor a writer’s hard-won journey to publication.  I don’t do that anymore – there’s too much great literature to read, too many bad books out there, and too little time.  Now I give a narrative 50 pages, and if it’s not working for me, I put it down.

It’s possible my problem this spring was mostly reader error, what with packing and being distracted, but I don’t think so.  Summer’s surprising, random, unexpected reading list broke several months of stories that failed to delight.  One thing I love best about these reads is the way they came to me.

From the “Take Me” shelf at the coffee shop:

When the Killing's Done

While I waited for my latte at the coffee shop, I looked through the “TAKE ME” bookshelf and found a tome about two centuries of opportunists exploiting the natural resources of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The promise of a couple generations of depletion from sheep ranching, a shipwreck that introduced rats to Anacapa, and one very passionate National Park Service conservationist Alma Takesue from the 21st century who wants to eradicate the rats on Anacapa to save a species of shore bird, made me take the novel home.  Always rich and believable, Boyle’s female characters tussle with the natural world and with their lovers.  Boyle is masterful at storytelling with a wide lens on generations and place, but he’s also good at the intimate landscaping that captures the dark forest, as Willa Cather calls it, of the human heart.  And while When the Killing’s Done is far from one of Boyle’s best works – even full as it is of shipwrecks, the sticky wicket of conserving species and how conservation is inextricably linked with destruction, and a very one-dimensional PETA-esque bad guy called Dave LaJoy who gets what’s coming to him on the heels of an act of revenge – in all ways that mattered most to me this summer, it was the perfect read at the right time because I was transported out of my world.

From a rusty wheelbarrow selling used books at a garden shop:

San Miguel

I had T.C. on the brain already.  In the city on my way somewhere else, I walked by a garden shop wheelbarrow and out of the corner of my eye caught the name Boyle. For $2 (sorry, T.C.), I picked up Boyle’s San Miguel, set again in the Channel Islands.  It’s another sheep island story, on a different island this time, and most of it set in the 19th century.  But in both When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel (published less than a year apart), Boyle is scratching an itch about generations of people discovering, exploiting, preserving, and resurrecting the natural resources of the Channel Islands, and the human drama behind such ambitions.  Both books are gritty romances, rife with relationships built upon punishment and power, lust and willful misunderstanding.  He’s fantastic at this emotional geography, map-making a world of tortured souls who often don’t know what they want, or worse, they do know, and their sometimes terrible desires become the gears of the story.  I get it.  An island is an interesting Petri dish for storytelling, with an ecosystem you can manipulate and experiment with, not to mention the outside world sailing over to disrupt the narrative.

I couldn’t put it down, because how could you not careen off the tracks with such characters as these?

From a pile of books a friend gave me:

12731708

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This book had been on my bookshelf for several months, and I’d purposefully avoided it because of the cover, spring green with a bird and stamp on it that screamed of some saccharine story about women finding epistolary love.  While packing, I left out books from my collection that seemed like good summer reads.  Most of them were mysteries.  Another look at the synopsis of Bradley’s book piqued my interest, so it made the cut.  It took me almost the whole first book to realize that though Bradley’s narrator is a precocious, naughty and very determined eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the book isn’t really Young Adult, though on the surface it seems to be.  I liked the book so well I did a quick search to see what else Bradley has written and was gifted with the knowledge that there are FIVE Flavia de Luce books.  Oh boy.

I checked out the next three from the library, in LARGE PRINT, because those were the only versions they had.  And I was desperate.  In each of the books, set in the 1950s English countryside, Flavia works to solve a murder.  A crackpot chemist with her own chemistry lab in the abandoned wing of their ancestral English home, Flavia comes at problem-solving through science; in fact, a reader can learn a thing or two about chemistry from her.  But some of the best scenes are born out of the passages where we see Flavia acting as a child – mourning the death of her mother, plotting revenge against her two older sisters, looking for a way to talk with her father, who is wracked by grief and who deals with the imminent crisis of bankruptcy by losing himself in his stamp collecting.  The cast of characters flanking Flavia is, of course, also delicious – Dogger, her father’s valet, gardener, butler, and right-hand man, and also Flavia’s closest ally; Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, whom Flavia half longs to be adopted by; her bike, Gladys, which used to be her mother’s and which ferries her to crime scenes and various investigations; and in each book, the characters who come through to people the world of the crime.  It’s delicious fiction – witty, smart, backlit by clever capers for which you can suspend disbelief — and the first time I’ve fallen for any books from the mystery section.

Bradley’s got another installment in the wings, Book Six, due out January 2014, and I’ll wait, mostly patiently, to continue the saga.

Also, there’s going to be a television series.  Oh dear.  Mixed feelings.

In the mail from a friend, because she knows I adore him:

Benediction

Kent Haruf’s Benediction.  A master at impaling his characters on the prongs of their foibles and choices, Haruf’s stories teem with regret and redemption.  His characters labor under the aftermath of failing to act, or emotionally sealing themselves against the world, and the reckoning that comes as a result of hiding from themselves.

His latest, Benediction, is again set in Holt, Colorado.  It’s more ambitious in some ways than his previous novels, in that it braids the lives of five or six sets of characters.  At the center of the narrative are Reverend Lyle, a newcomer from Denver who’s been transferred to Holt for some transgression we can only guess at, and Dad Lewis, dying of cancer, owner of the town’s hardware store, father of two children — one estranged son and one daughter who’s come back to care for him as he’s dying.  Writers are generally advised not to scaffold a story around cancer, a character dying from cancer, so I was skeptical such a seasoned writer would take this plunge.  But the presence of Lyle, a man of God, works to offset Dad’s life of harsh mistakes and complicates one of Haruf’s central questions about what it means to live an upright life.

Readers know, of course, that Dad Lewis is going to die from cancer.  Haruf establishes this on the first page.  We know his wife Mary is there to take care of him, that he’s agitated by regret.  While he waits to die, we see Dad’s life in flashback, which is to say we are transported to times for which Dad feels he must make amends – the firing of an employee and that man’s ultimate suicide, the way Dad alienated his son Frank.  The big question pulling a reader through the narrative is whether and how Dad’s going to see Frank again before he dies.  Except through morphined hallucinations, he never does see his son again, which is inevitable and heartbreaking and earned.  Dad’s absentee and sometimes harsh parenting and his tender care of others instead of his own family have brought him to this place of being alienated from his son, and it hurts like hell.

Readers also know that Reverend Lyle will do something to alter his path — he must have agency where Dad can only recollect his version of it from his deathbed, after all – but we don’t understand why Lyle doesn’t have a better relationship with his son, and what makes him fall away from the church, though it seems admirable enough after a life of passivity.  Still, I’m not sure he’s working to his potential as a character.

The heart of the story, then, is the disconnect between fathers and sons, the bond between mothers and daughters (Haruf has an affinity for stoic women; Benediction is rich in pairs of two generations of women holding what crumbles together), and the way, as in all of Haruf’s work, people quilt family out of the dust of loss and need.

I’ll forgive Haruf for the left turn at the end and its half-hitched deus ex machina with Alice and her bike, since I can see he was grappling with how to deliver the point home.  I was already crying my eyes out about Dad’s death, about Reverend Lyle’s inability to make a relationship with his son, even there in that dark garage.

We have to work for grace however we can, but there’s never enough time, which I guess is largely the point.

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Categories: books, community, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Harvest of People

Each new year I engage in the secret, irrational hope of making resolutions.  My good intentions usually last until about March, although each year I hope will be the exception, when I make it all the way to December.  Maybe 2013 will be it.  I hope so.  This year the list looks like it generally does, a collection of rusted resolves from previous years and some new ones too. They’re written on post-its that have already lost their sticky-power; I keep finding them on the floor or attached to the bottoms of my socks.  Probably, there should be fewer than ten and I should keep them to myself, but I’m still in the honeymoon period, encouraged by the way sharing them might help them to survive:

  1. practice the Zora way = more wag & less bark
  2. learn to play guitar
  3. run a marathon
  4. do at least 10 minutes of core per day (before you stick your head inside the computer; how hard can it be?)
  5. write
  6. write
  7. finish a draft of a novel
  8. be grateful
  9. be humble
  10. be centered

Now, almost at the end of January, I have resolve still in the tank, though the guitar has been swapped out for a ukulele.  I’m awful at it.  I watch You-Tube videos to keep myself motivated.  Maybe by spring I’ll be able to strum something that sounds like a song.

I’m trying not to spend too much time looking ahead, but it’s dark and cold and gray.  Blessedly, the days are getting longer.  It’s time to start mapping out the garden, order seeds, and calculate what my soil will grow.   With spring in the wings, it’s a little hard to practice living centered in the now, especially when a whole lot of the now, honestly, is pretty painful.  Having to explain to my kids why friends lose their jobs, or get cancer, or decide to divorce, what the hell the deal is with Twitter, or why bullies have such power, or why there are all those empty desks in Connecticut, leaves me feeling inadequate to the task.  We must learn to rub along with people of all kinds, I say to them.  Some relationships are for business, others are toxic and teach you about boundaries and knowing yourself.  Some relationships are for friendship, some are for love, some fall away.  It’s all part of the deal, I tell them.  Our job is to acknowledge that we can’t control other people or their responses to the world, we can only be in charge of ourselves.  But they’re kids; they think I’m not hearing them well enough.  They want life to be decipherable, literal, with rules they can anticipate and apply.

I try, always, to end these hard conversations with what we are grateful for –the winter wren; books and chocolate; our chickens, who press themselves in a heap against the glass of the slider doors, asking to come inside and be with us when it’s cold; the woods; the tangle of people we hold dear in our lives, for whom we have fierce love.  But some days, when the world feels bleak, and when my advice is cold comfort for kids working to make sense of the world, digging for gratitude is damn hard.

Before the new year a poem by Max Coots arrived in the mail from a friend.   Max is someone I’d never heard of, but his words — grounded, grateful, funny– made me want to invite him over for dinner or a glass of wine.   I asked Uncle Google about him and discovered he died in 2009 after a long, rich life as a Renaissance Man.  A Unitarian Universalist minister, a sculptor of gargoyles (this, alone, is enough to make me half fall in love with him), a poet, and a gardener, Reverend Max was the kind of guy who spent his life working to embody my resolutions.  Maybe not the ukulele or the ten minutes of core, but it seems to me he was the kind of spirit I aim to be.

Anyway, here’s to Max, to the journey resolutions bring, to sowing seeds — real and metaphoric–with kids, to a garden of friends, and to gratitude:

A HARVEST OF PEOPLE

Max Coots

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For generous friends, with smiles as bright as their blossoms.

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them.

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn; and the others as plain as potatoes and as good for you.

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter.

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time.

For young friends, who wind around like tendrils and hold us.

We give thanks for friends now gone, like gardens past that have been

harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might live.

 

Categories: community, gardening, writing | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

thanks, gospodor

Often, when I decide to write a story or plant a garden and turn inspiration into artifact, I think about Dominic Gospodor.  He’s not my muse exactly.  And he’s not related to me.  In fact, I’ve never met him.  An eccentric millionaire devoted to creating sculptures in honor of the oppressed or forgotten, Gospodor is maybe best known for Gospodor’s Monument, his field of strange art along I-5.  He built it despite criticism for his art form, sure to be an eyesore, and for creating a potential traffic hazard.  From the beginning, people haven’t been able to help themselves when they drive by.  They slow down.  They veer.  They take pictures, sometimes while still driving.

The place lights up at night.  It’s fantastically bizarre.

The first time I drove by it, which was at night, I almost crashed my car trying to figure out what the hell was going on in that space.  Here’s a picture:

I’m not sure I’d want one of Gospodor’s pieces in my own field.  But for me, his sculptures serve as a reminder of how mysterious and passionate an engine the journey from inspiration to creation is.  He spent close to a million dollars to bring to life three 20-foot gold-painted wooden sculptures atop copper-colored steel towers (the highest one is 100-feet).  The sculptures pay homage to Native Americans, Mother Teresa and victims of the Holocaust.  There’s also what Gospodor claimed to be the world’s largest weather vane with its giant Alaskan flag paying tribute to William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.  Gospodor had big plans for more creations to honor victims of drunk driving and slavery, as well as smaller monuments for Susan B. Anthony and Jonas Salk, but he died before those could be realized.

I’m a big fan of any Roadside America attraction, but Gospodor’s field, one I drive by a few times a year, has a special place in my heart.  When he died in 2010 at 86, he gave what money he had left to the homeless and the poor, so the question of stewardship of his unusual monument has been up in the air until recently.  A few weeks ago, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe agreed to oversee the land and work to preserve it as a cultural and historical site.

I’ll never get the chance to meet Gospodor, but I’m grateful his art will stay alive in the world, odd as it is.  We should all be so lucky to create outside the din of mainstream expectations.

So thanks, Gospodor, wherever you are.

Categories: community, writing | 2 Comments

how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

Categories: community, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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