Posts Tagged With: nature

on being tender

Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.

I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.

I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.

Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:

“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”

Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.

Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.

I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.

Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.

Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”

Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.

A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.

Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.

In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:

“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”

“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said. 

Indeed.

I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.

Doyle Family Support Fund.

 

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Categories: book review, books, community, family, fiction, nature, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

theft

From time to time I’ll be reviewing books at the Kudzu Vine, the blog associated with Kudzu House Quarterly, where I’m also a reader. This month I had the pleasure of reading and writing about BK Loren’s debut novel Theft.

bkloren.com

bkloren.com

Loren’s a skillful craftsman, a thoughtful environmentalist, a damn good storyteller. She’s also published Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food, and she’s a frequent contributor in the pages of Orion Magazine. You can read her “Dreaming in Dirt” in those pages here.

I’m delighted to occupy the planet with a writer paying attention to the tussle between people and place in all the right ways. The publishing editor of her first book told Loren she wrote like she was “raised by wolves.” Which seems about right.

 

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resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

Categories: book review, fiction, nature, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Categories: family, nature, outdoors, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

bragging post

birdweb.org

birdweb.org

In the foothills I saw my first meadowlark this week.  It was the perfectly orchestrated sighting.  That gorgeous canary yellow breast, embellished with a black chevron, heaving with song from a perch on a stem of sagebrush.  Backlit by the blaze of rising sun, it was crooning its heart out.  There could’ve easily been music, something by Bach or Handel, or maybe Beethoven.

It was pretty thrilling to finally spot one and feel the song was aimed at me, for I was thrilled, too, at witnessing the paling sky surrendering to the bold lines of day.  The half moon was just disappearing across the valley.  I stopped to soak in the privilege of being present at that moment in that place and hoped it wouldn’t startle and fly away.  What with the tilting sky on the threshold between night and day, the full-bodied song, the solitude of the place, I understood the impulse to yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Later I learned male meadowlarks like to squat on “bragging posts” to tell the world all about their fabulous selves, much like roosters, and this certainly seemed to be the case that morning.  The lark was busy with the job of wooing, to be sure, but also, it would seem, saying to any fellas within range, Robert de Niro-style, “You wanna piece of me?”

His serenade must’ve trumped the undersong of pugnacity.  Along came two females – these fellows travel in the world with two mates—and off they flew together.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

Categories: nature, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

winter’s fist

2013 December 009

It’s been in the single digits for days now.  Minnesota cold, John keeps saying.

On the phone with family and friends, I try to describe the frigidity.  Waking up to temperatures below zero and the way it stings your face, lungs, and teeth.  Sheets of  ice crystals on the original windows of our old house.  Remembering youth, when this sort of cold required us to coddle our car batteries, keep them warm enough to start the next morning.  Though we’ve seen some cars in the neighborhood plugged into heaters, our cars get no such attention.  They’re starting right up but registering their complaint through intermittent dash display lights asking to be serviced.

2013 December 025

We finally stacked a pile of firewood, a job we did quickly, a race against too numb fingers.  It’s the best sort of riches, the delicious possibility of all those fires.  Even better, coming inside from this kind of cold to sit next to that warmth.

2013 December 016

Since the weather turned, I’ve carried in my head a poem by Joe Green, one he and Marquita sent to us as a holiday card, hot off their own printing press, a few years ago.

The Longest Night
 
Ice on the sidewalk.  The first dusting
of snow lasting a week on your deck.
Perhaps tonight you’ve even left
 
 
the faucet dripping in your kitchen sink
to keep the pipes from seizing.
Think of this weather as winter’s fist
 
 
adjusting its grip around the hours.
Then go outside and try to collect all the lost
particles of light around your sleeping house.

2013 December 001

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gluttony, thy name is arturo

On Thanksgiving day, Arturo decided to make his move and get to the nougaty center of seeds inside the acorn squash.  He tolerated a few pictures through the glass, so they’re a bit hazy.

2013 November 032

Although a gallery of his henchmen, four of them, sat on the fence, drooling in anticipation of finishing what he did not eat, none dared interrupt the Godfather’s meal.  Zora couldn’t photobomb the event because she was out on a walk. He sat for almost a half hour and ate more than his body weight.

2013 November 031

I still can’t figure out how he crammed that much into his being.  He only stopped once to shake his fist and beat his chest at those fellas on the fence.  Or maybe they were ladies.  It’s hard to say.  But there was for sure some kind of exchange that involved threats and cussing, after which the gallery on the fence sat skulking, perhaps plotting their revenge.

2013 November 040

Unfortunately, his girth, jewels, and gold chain are mostly hidden.

2013 November 042

We were getting along so well, I tried to open the door and join him on the deck.  His mouth is closed here, but he had just told me to step the (*&^%$ off.  The next step, I’m pretty sure, was to pick up that blue broom handle and beat me.  So much for all that nonsense about the hand that feeds.

2013 November 049

Arturo seems to have a good handle on what Thanksgiving is all about.  After he ate, he waddled off the deck and managed to climb the big oak in the backyard.  I can’t imagine he could do anything else but sleep off his binge.  This is what he left for the fence-squatters, who gave themselves several minutes before coming down to brave the leftovers without getting their asses kicked.

By the time we finished our own Thanksgiving feast and went out to see what was left, the whole thing was gone.  There wasn’t so much as a seed left.

Arturo’s bar is officially closed for this year.  He’s going to have to go back to foraging for nuts as nature intended.  But it makes me wonder, if he can make such quick work of a little squash, what could he do with something much bigger, like a butternut or turban? Maybe next year I’ll go for broke, leave out a pumpkin the size of Arkansas, and see what kind of tomfoolery will come of that.

Categories: gardening, nature, outdoors | Tags: , | 2 Comments

it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

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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.

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

Earth. Wind. Fire

2013 Matches for Blog Post 005

Many years ago, when we lived in the Eastern Sierra, John and I were nearly evacuated from our home.  That summer, the Rainbow Fire brought firefighters from all over the West to our small mountain town.  Whether and how we’d have to leave was all people could talk about.  For over a week, the sky was heavy with blood-red smoke that occluded the sun.  We kept our truck packed with a few essentials, those we couldn’t bear to lose.  Just in case.  Firefighters saved the day then, as they will soon, I hope, in the hundreds of fires that rage now in the West.

Years away from that proximity to wildfire have made me forget how fire worry cloaks dry places in summer.  When we lived in Pennsylvania, I can’t remember one fire scare that didn’t involve a structure.  Floods were that region’s menace.  In our seven years there, the shed in our backyard flooded three times.  Next to a culvert which backed up every spring from heavy rain and idiotically designed drainage from a nearby golf course, the shed was full of things we’d carried from move to move.  Memorabilia, furniture, yard tools. One March evening John and I forged through our backyard in chest-high water and hacked a section of fencing away so the water could drain instead of flooding the house.

In the Pacific Northwest, late summer means smoke from fires east and south. My favorite woods are closed down by the timber company in August and September.  Just in case.  But in general, for many years, I have spoken of fires as not that near to us.  They are over there.

This year, fire has been on my mind pretty much since spring, when we decided to move.  It is a story both short and long, too tedious to report here, and is also the reason for the radio silence in this blog space.

John and I have moved a lot in our together life, each time purposefully, each time surprised we’re doing it again, each time mystified about the way our belongings have multiplied like those gremlins in that awful 80s film.  Moving means limbo and heartache, straddling the line between the love of one place and the hope about the next place.  It’s exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, terrifying.  The cleansing power of fire – a proper burn of most of our things and the party that would accompany it – was a solution I thought about more than I should have.

Before we moved, I ended up burning only a few things I’m not at liberty to report here, but suffice it to say there was (probably) too much beer involved.  Not as a retardant but as liquid encouragement.

The second night in our new town, which is in the high desert, we were jolted awake by a thunderstorm and a fire raging in the hills above town.  It was three o’clock in the morning.  The seven fire trucks worth of sirens I counted were ultimately eclipsed by the din of thunder above us, which boomed so loud it rattled the glasses in the cabinets and made the dog hide behind the toilet (I’m not sure why this was a safe zone, but she felt that it was).  The kids climbed into bed with us, and it would’ve felt like a scene from The Sound of Music, except that ash blasted into the house through the open windows until it occurred to us to close them.

The next morning we found all the surfaces in the house covered with chunky silt.  Parked on the street, our car looked like it had been in a ticker tape parade.

This.  Our new life.  We’ve moved from the one of the rainiest places in the West to one of the driest, a climate John and I haven’t lived in for fifteen years.  In the months that led up to being here, I made a habit of turning to John and telling him all our moving troubles and expenses could be solved by one thing.

“Oh yeah?,” he’d say, “What’s that?  A brigade of leprechaun movers?”

His ideas were different every time.  A team of furniture-hungry zombies.  The world’s biggest yard sale with a complimentary deep-fried bar – Oreos, pickles, butter.  A Dumptruck Demolition Derby, all the contestants loaded down with our household goods.  The crowd could trash-pick our stuff when the event was over.  The list was endless.

“Nothing so theatrical,” I’d say.  “I was thinking a book of matches.”

“Your solution lacks imagination.”

Maybe.

I didn’t think we’d move again, at least not this far away.  For months, while I packed up our belongings, I cursed the weight of them, the knickknacks and kitchen crap, the books (oh dear, I DO have a problem), the clothes and shoes and yard stuff and furniture.  I fantasized about using this life change as an opportunity to become a family of ascetics.  We could retrofit our trailer and practice micro living, everything we owned having more than one purpose.  Downsizing!  The next frontier!

With my truck:  Eleven trips of donated goods, one trip to give away items to family members, several more trips to deliver plants in pots and those dug up from the yard to friends, one trip to the food bank.  A massive neighborhood yard sale.  And still, we had too much crap.

I mean, what do we really NEED my high school lettergirl jacket for?  Or the skis John lost in an avalanche twenty years ago that we found the next spring?  Or the newspapers from 1875 wrapped in wax paper my great aunt gave me?

It turns out downsizing is a tricky business.  Even though we gave away so much, we still have too much to fit into our new house.  (I’m mostly sure we’re not hoarders). So we did what all good Americans do and put the overage of our lives in a storage unit.  Boxes upon boxes of it, where it will probably mold overwinter in the rainy Northwest, the plywood walls of the unit wet with condensation as so often happens, and then we’ll probably have to get rid of it anyway.  Maybe we’ll learn our lesson this time.

Now that the world is burning all around us, the thought of lighting matches doesn’t bring me much joy.  Each morning we wake to see what our day will bring.  Some days it is a “red flag warning” (a trifecta of wind, lightning and plenty of tinder).  Others it is an AQI (Air Quality Index) level Orange or Red (UNHEALTHY).  Above Red are Purple and Maroon, levels that are “HAZARDOUS.” We plan our time outdoors accordingly.  Morning is best.  In the afternoon it’s hot as balls, and the air reeks of fire and burns our lungs.

The kids have begun to ask what would make the world reach Purple or Maroon, and I don’t trust myself to answer, because of course I’ve imagined something apocalyptic already that involves much more than wildfires.  As a family, we keep our fingers crossed that fire will not be the thing to get us into those foreboding AQI colors.

Truthfully, now that I’m a high desert dweller again, I can’t make the joke about needing a book of matches without thinking about the loss of life and property this year’s fire season has already cost.

But at some point we’ll have to face the music with the rest of our things, and I’m pretty sure the leprechauns are not going to help us out.  I guess I’ll stow my matches for another time.  Just in case.  For when the rains come (I hear they do here), for when there’s not such a constant reminder of how nature is the boss of us.  For our next move.

Or maybe I’ll put my matches away for good.  Now that I’m thinking about it, John’s Dumptruck Demolition Derby idea isn’t half bad.  We DO have a county fair here…

Categories: demolition derby, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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