Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ketchikan and Haines

We hiked 1,500 feet up Deer Mountain in the rainforest of Ketchikan, with the sound of dripping water in the background and moss hanging from the trees while we kept a close look out for bears on our climb—at the top we were rewarded with a misty view of the harbor below. We stopped by the Totem Heritage Center, Deer Mountain Salmon Hatchery, and Eagle Center run by Native Americans who are proud of their culture. The peoples of Southeast Alaska are the Tlingits, and when explorers first came upon the shores, they were spooked by the totem poles that rose from the ground like spectors. We enjoyed learning about the totem pole raisings and what the animal carvings represent. The story of the Raven is strong. While wandering the boardwalks of Creek Street, the old red light district (for the sailors and fisherman away from home), a river otter scrambled across our path.

We chose an itinerary that included Haines, and many ships are too large to dock at that port. Haines is reminiscent of Sicily, Alaska, in Northern Exposure, a small town with quirky residents who like to talk a bit. Formerly occupied by Fort Seward, the officer’s quarters are now occupied by restaurants, salmon retailers, B&B’s, and artists. We rode up the Chilkat River through the Bald Eagle Preserve and spotted the white-headed eagles and native clan houses around every bend from our rafts. Our river guide is the local writer and radio personality who could tell some amusing stories. The artist-mayor owns a pretty little house surrounded by the only picket fence in town where his wife works in the massive perennial garden and he sells his art. Just up from the docks is the log cabin gallery occupied by an architecture graduate of Stanford whose talent is displayed in every medium from wood carvings to T-shirts; native dances take place in front of the place in the afternoon. We tried the beer produced by the Haines Brewery, which was served in a Mexican restaurant who used to have a restaurant at the Grand Canyon.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Veendam - Days Two and Three

We boarded The Veendam on June 13. It was our first cruise and the easiest way to get to the ports in the Tongass rainforest in southeast Alaska. Our ports of call were Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Haines, with a stop at Hubbard Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park before disembarkation at Seward. But first, we were at sea for a day and a half.

Vancouver Island is much larger than I imagined it. We coasted along between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia for an entire day until we passed its northernmost rocks and were on open waters. On our second day we entered the Inside Passage and cruised with snow-capped mountains on either side of the ship. The navigator reported that we passed Lions Gate Bridge leaving Vancouver, then sailed through the Straits of Georgia to Seymour Narrows, which can only be transied during "slack tide." We then sailed through Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait. We liked to watch the scenery pass by the windows in one of the beautiful lounges while sipping wine. Once in a while, we saw a whale and birds flew past. We felt mesmerized. Outside temperatures were cool with the wet air and ocassional rain, so it was not comfortable to be on deck.

We became acquainted with our ship while we were shipbound. Our room was in the middle of Deck 4, and at night it was wonderfully dark and quiet as we listened to the engine humming against a gentle rocking of the ship. Above us were four more decks of sleeping quarters--1100 passengers were on board. On Decks 7 and 8, glitzy Ruben's Lounge took over space at the bow and the many-windowed Rotterdam Dining Room rested at the stern. In between were shops, a casino, the library, piano bars, and comfortable lounges with live music.

The captain was amusing with his Dutch accent and the crew was Indonesian and extremely pleasant. Our first night we enjoyed complimentary champagne at the casine after Janine Gardner's comedy show. We avoided gambling and shopping on the ship and were astounded when our second-day program about ports of call was about shopping the jewelry stores at the ports in Ketchikan and Juneau.

We started having room service for breakfast after the second day, but ate lunch at the buffet on the Lido Deck (if we were on the ship), and enjoyed dinner in the dining room. Since we chose "as you wish" dining, we could choose when to eat and generally we were seated with other guests. At the Rotterdam Dining Room, the menus were varied, choices were exceptional, and the food was delicious. One evening I had shrimp cocktail followed by an Alaskan Fishermen's Pot, filet mignon paired with a lobster tail, and Baked Alaska.

We liked being pampered, but by the end of our second day at sea we were looking forward to seeing Ketchikan.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vancouver - The First Part of Our Adventure

Many people believe Vancouver to be one of the most beautiful North American cities. With the way the mountains rise above the water that surrounds the city, the city is not just beautiful, it's soothing to the soul. Even in mid-June, the humid, misty air keeps it cool in temperate Vancouver.

En route to Alaska, we found Vancouver to be a vibrant city with great natural assets. We stayed at the Ramada Express, which was formerly the Niagara Hotel and built in 1918. The hotel resides in the renovated Gastown district with its lovely shops, galleries, and restaurants; it's a great place for strolling. We were especially intrigued by one shop's carved-wood facade and fascinating menagerie of museum-quality Native Tlingit (pronounced "klin kit") art. The historic clock proudly reminds visitors that the Gastown district near the docks was a bustling part of the city in the Victorian era.

From Gastown, we wandered over to Chinatown. Vancouver's Chinatown is supposed to be the second largest Chinese settlement in North America, so I believe we only saw a slice of it. It wasn't as pleasant as San Francisco's welcoming community and we had no sense of elegant white-linen restaurants. But Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's Chinese gardens with its exotic bamboo forests, picturesque waterlily pond, pagoda-roofed hut, and bridges was a tranquil jewel. The Gardens are modeled after a 15th century scholar's garden. The shopkeepers in the adjacent shop graciously introduced us to the Chinese characters for Peace, Love, Happiness, and Wealth, and we sensed the deep commitment in the Chinese culture to living well.

As we do, we walked for a couple of hours before we decided to ride the elevator up into the observation deck above the city. It was worth the money. We could see the whole city and surrounding area from the circle of windows. Captions at our fingertips introduced us to what we saw--the West End, Stanley Park, Georgian Bay, the University of British Columbia, the harbor, and English Bay.

Many recommended restaurants are in Yorktown, a gentrified warehouse neighborhood of bricked and terraced streets. Because raised eight-foot-high docking ports lined one side of each street, one was required to climb steps to reach the patioed elegant restaurants above. A smorgasbord of cuisines and proprietors urged us to join them, but when we spotted the Yorktown Brewing Company on a street-corner directoroy, we chose that less expensive option. The Yorktown Brewing Company satisfied our thirst for some good local brew and hunger for simple pub food before we embarked a cruise ship where we would be served elegant evening meals--my teriyaki-wasabe salmon sandwich served with a caesar salad tasted good after an adventurous day.

The next morning we walked the Sea Wall (a planned urban walkway) through Coal Harbor and Burrey's Inlet along the waterfront until we arrived at Stanley Park. The inlet was lovely with the docked boats and seaplanes landing agaisnt the backdrop of the wooded peninsula, and when we turned around, we saw the magnificent Vancouver skyline to the right and the mountains on the other side of the water to our left. We had a good walk in the park past the lagoon and enjoyed azaleas, rhododendrum, and dogwood, yellow iris and cattails. We ended up on the beach in English Bay before traversing the forest again to walk through the city and back to our hotel.

We're glad we took an extra day before the cruise-tour to see Vancouver.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Word Lover's Retreat in Lakeside

Word Lover’s Retreat participants felt right at home at the Idlewyld Bed and Breakfast, built in 1888 on Walnut Street in Lakeside. A private gated community founded as an independent Chautauqua on Lake Erie’s shores in 1873, Lakeside is one of the few remnants of the adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Innkeepers Dan and Joan Barris ran the kitchen while cooking me, the weekend hostess, who used Joan’s tried-and-true recipes for the event.

True writers write, and many of us spent several hours writing on the front porch on Friday afternoon. After a walking tour of Lakeside and a soup and salad supper, Donna Wilson’s writing-prompt boxes came out and we wrote memories stirred by postcards, linked random words together in essays, and dug deeply by completing phrases like, “A secret dream of mine is to . . .” Surely the results were part of Julia Cameron’s goals when she wrote The Artist’s Way: those who wrote explored their potential for possibilities and what they have to share with the world.

Freelance Writer and Writing Coach John Ettorre shared tips from his book-in-progress during his “Flex Those Writing Muscles” session on Saturday morning. John focused on the craft of writing and the habits and disciplines that produce good writing. The weekend’s mantra became “less is more” as we talked about tight sentences, perfect word choices, listening for cadence and flow, editing, and rewriting. The other theme that emerged is how important it is for a writer to read widely.

John's session segued into the afternoon session entitled “The Book Loving Soul.” Gustave Flaubert said, “Read in order to live,” and that sums up how most writers feel about reading. Most of us became avid readers in childhood, stealing reading moments in the backseat of the family car or on a tree roost or in our beds at night with flashlights. We discussed keeping a writing journal, tracking the books we read, studying good writing to become better writers, listening to books on tape, and taking part in book discussion groups.

Journals, like Katherine Mansfield’s, are a writer’s notebook, a journal of inner life, a spiritual autobiography, and she said her journal was a way “to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious, direct human being.” Our personal journals can be culled for memoir, stories, novels, personal essays, articles, or poetry, or can be worth reading on its own. A journal helps us make connections. The afternoon workshop “Leaving a Trace” was inspired by Alexandra Johnson’s book by the same name and the writing exercises delved into how to cull our life experiences for use in our writing.

Haiku, one breath poetry, is a form of poetry available to everyone. In the Haiku workshop we learned how experimenting with Haiku can teach us how to write succinctly. It also shows us how to show without telling, thereby enriching our writing by allowing the reader to bring his or her experience to the moment encapsulated in the poem. We vowed to write haiku on our own when we returned to the world.

As shadows lengthened in the afternoon, we rocked in bentwood rockers on the front porch of the Idlewyld and discussed Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes and her husband embraced Italy when they bought Bramasole, an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. Roman roads and wells, ancient vineyards, hidden frescoes, vibrant markets, simple food, and big hearts--the book’s a celebration of Italy. The memoir and armchair travel book presents poetic cadence and a lyrical quality worth study. Although we agreed that Mayes challenges us to “surprise” our own lives and not resist the impulse to live fully, the consensus of the group was that the book's language is rich, but meandering, and the author is too reserved and self-centered.

Following after-dinner sunset walks, we returned to the Idlewyld for storytelling and spent a good deal of time laughing before retiring to our Victorian sleeping quarters. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we spent Sunday morning in a circle around the big meeting room critiquing each other’s work. We were productive.

When we took leave of Lakeside with great hesitation, but basked in new friendships and refreshed spirits. The weekend encapsulated my image of what an Igniting Possibilities Event is meant to be.

Monday, May 5, 2008


When I read Hemingway I search for Hemingway’s struggle as a writer, but when I read Steinbeck I am interested in the way he told stories. What a story teller he was . . . so real and true and attentive to the nature of human beings. No rose colored glasses, just life, in Cannery Row. Steinbeck entertains by re-telling obscure details or facts or discovering information. This passage is just interesting: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.” Descriptions are poignant and blunt—Doc stopped at a “big Chicken-in-the-Rough place he knew about.” And he had a beer milkshake along the way.

Cannery Row is a series of chapters and some have nothing at all to do with the story. In the end they all make up the story that is Doc's story, although each chapter is from a different perspective and not always Doc’s. What was the point of all these lives disconnected but intertwined together on Cannery Row, which was a real place Steinbeck knew well?

Doc, like Steinbeck, loves people. He says of the boys “’They could get it . . . they could ruin their lives and make money. Mack has qualities of genius. They’re all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in the wanting." By showing us all these ways of being alive, the writer wove a tapestry that is true to how we live life. Steinbeck's message was that life is real and good and made to be lived fully. Doc says, “Even now, I know that I have savored the hot taste of life lifting green cups and gold at the great feast. Just for a small and a forgotten time I have had full in my eyes from off my girl the whitest pouring of eternal light."

Can anyone but Steinbeck write like that? Hemingway would have thought Steinbeck didn't state things simply enough and Steinbeck would say that Hemingway sure knew how to make life's complications dark.


Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden is sensual and complicated and about Hemingway. The mad girl, the wife of the writer-protagonist David creates puzzles with her words when she says things like, “I’m how you want but I’m how I want too and it isn’t as though it wasn’t for us both.” Of the published clippings he carries, the ones that will eventually destroy them, she says, “I’m frightened by them and all the things they say. How can we be us and have the things we have and do what we do and you be this that’s in the clippings?” The clippings changed him for her, the writing man was different from whom she thought the real man was. David is Hemingway when he thinks, “Be careful, he said to himself, it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.” Quentessential Hemingway.

The couple struggles on and on, too much work, too much love and too much hurt. Too much analysis destroys their love. He escaped into the simpleness of the complicated story he was writing, the one among others that she destroyed and in doing so destroyed him and them. “He was happy to be alone and to have finished his work for the day. Then the loneliness he always had after work started and he began to think about the girls and to miss them; not to miss the one nor the other at first, but to miss them both.” We see into the soul of Hemingway, his own life a struggle between wanting to live life fully and having the time to write, between wanting to be loved but not willing to love well enough. The reader is also entertained with a glimpse of Hemingway's writing life when David says, “There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way that it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how the early sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”

David’s wife is cruel; did he marry her for her beauty, her money, surely not her soul? He looks for his stories and becomes “empty and dead in his heart” because “No one would do that to a fellow human being.” The heartless madwoman thought she owned this writer and could control what he produced, what he had to say. But the stories were part of him. “He found that he knew much more about his father than when he had first written this story and he knew he could measure his progress by the small things which made his father more tactile and to have more dimensions than he had in the story before. He was fortunate, just now, that his father was not a simple man. David wrote steadily and well and the sentences that he made before came back to him complete and entire and he put them down, corrected them and cut them as if he were going over a proof . . . he wrote on a while longer now and there was no sign that any of it would ever cease returning to him intact.” He was victorious. As was Hemingway.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Wisdom

"People read to know they are not alone." C.S.Lewis

Book Burning!

I just finished re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and it spoke to me on the power of books and the importance of authenticity. In this book, the firemen burn books to keep society from thinking, so people can have fun and get lost in their entertainment wall panels and made-up “families.” Some of the best quotes in the book are things the fire chief Faber says, as for example, when he describes books that have quality: “To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features . . . the more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are . . . the good writers touch life often.”

In the Afterward, Ray Bradbury discusses making the book into a play and some of the things that changed from the novel. The Fire Chief, Faber, says “Why, life happened to me . . . the love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father . . . nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge.” The books offered “no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.”

Bradbury discusses, in Coda, how he found that his editors were shortening his stories as well as others for anthologies. They aimed at “Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquite--out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch--gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer--lost!” And Bradbury then fired the whole lot, “By sending rejection slips to each and every one.” As he goes on to say, “The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Another comment, worthy of mention: “For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winder would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer--he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Hours--A Movie based on Michael Cunningham's Book

The Cleveland International Film Festival showed "The Hours" and honored Michael Cunningham for the success of a book made into a movie. When I found out the book was inspired by Virginia Wolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," I had to see it.

Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf, a fictional character and and the creator, are intelligently and thoughtfully interwoven in the movie “The Hours.” Add another element--the effect of a work of art on the vulnerable psyche--and the movie becomes a rich, moving, and sad tapestry of the lives of three women.

The book of the same name, written by acclaimed writer Michael Cunningham, bears the working title of “The Hours.” The hours drip by for Woolf’s protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway, during a life of boredom and inconsequence.

The tortured life of the mentally ill but artistically solid Virginia Woolf, as brilliantly portrayed by Nicole Kidman, is the story of the writer. The second story spotlights a 1950s Mrs. Dalloway (portrayed by Julianne Moore) who lives a doll’s existence under the constant vigilance of her sentry son with a husband who sees her as a beautiful object; the sad tale ends when she fails to commit suicide even while knowing life will be unbearable. The third plot line opens on Clarissa's day while she plans a party for her former poet lover, to whom she’s devoted and who is dying of AIDs—she’s the modern-day Mrs. Dalloway who finally figures out her own life has been on hold. Ed Harris is also wonderful as Clarissa’s ex-lover and best friend.

The dialogue between Virginia and Leonard Woolf and between Clarissa and Richard is wrenching and deeply real. Michael Cunningham wrote a novel based on Virginia Woolf’s book and in doing so explored the inner life of a troubled story master, the effects of the storyteller’s work on others, and how Mrs. Dalloway's day would unfold in today’s New York City. The movie does the book justice, and is probably better than the book.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Needing a Vacation

Long weekends are great, but there's no substitute for extended time away. My parents are in Fort Lauderdale, just off a cruise ship to the Caribbean, and when I listened to my mother talk about sitting by the pool last night, I was jealous. I'm itching to go somewhere, will even consider a weekend on Put-in-Bay until we can embark on our long-anticipated (and paid for) cruise tour of Alaska in June. The last extensive vacation we took was last June, when we explored Northern California.

One would think a tour of California would hold one over for a year. Especially when there were weekend trips in-between: we even drove to the Outer Banks for a five-day break in the fall. I NEEDED to be by the water again. Now, in late March, I need to be by the ocean again. The ebb and flow of the tides and the sound of the waves, walks on the beach to pick up shells and see the dolphins dipping in and out of the surf, and days beginning with sunrises shadowing pelicans fishing the surface of the water and ending with the colors of the sunset over a glassy sea call to me.

Travel magazines help but don't help. As an armchair traveler, I can explore Jamaica or Costa Rica or Sarajevo and appreciate a diversity of nature, culture, and people. A good writer can even take me there for an hour. But it's just not the same as being there . . . I wonder if I can hold out.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I lust after wandering around in new places. I’d long been intrigued by the monthly Loganberry Books newsletters and wanted to explore it and write about the experience, so I headed over to find Larchmere Boulevard in Shaker Heights. I found Harriett Logan’s spunky space possesses an old-fashioned literary quirkiness that is a welcome respite for book lovers. I kept saying “wow!” because the bookstore is as comfortable as a library in an old manse and the sheer number of used and rare books in the nooks and crannies and filling the floor-to-ceiling shelves is intoxicating. Loganberry Books is much more than a bookstore.

Since I was on a rare visit to the East Side (and yes, western Cuyahoga County has many wonderful restaurants and shops and cool places to explore), I couldn’t be stopped. My wanderlust is not just about new places, but about experiencing places. My car took me to Coventry, which awaited me with Mac’s Back Books and its aging posters announcing poetry readings and events; I wondered where the head shops with incense and paraphernalia ended up—do we now have to go to Bangkok? Then I wandered over to Little Italy where I heard Frank Sinatra crooning the entire time I was on Mayfield Road, and with Presti’s open and still selling cannoli, I was glad some things remain.

Driving down Chester towards Cleveland’s downtown skyline and on over the Cuyahoga River, I was disappointed to be going home. The experience was similar to what I felt when I left Rome to go to Venice, yet knew Venice would be just as good. There’s always another place to explore, even if it’s in my own backyard. My wanderlust is not easily quenched.

Monday, March 24, 2008


When I was a child, I slept on a cot on a sleeping porch of a Victorian cottage in Lakeside while crickets serenaded me. Rows upon rows of cottages with postage-sized front lawns and comfortable front porches cozied up to the quiet narrow streets. I sunned on the dock that stretches into the Lake, played miniature golf in the afternoons in Central Park, licked ice cream that ran down a cone on a hot day, and paid $.50 to see last season’s movie.

So when I first starting going to Artist’s Way Retreats in Lakeside six years ago, it felt like I was going home. I love to walk the streets. Suncatchers hang in windows, cats sit on steps, wicker furniture adorns porches, and perennial gardens thrive between stoop and street. I admire the variety of cottages, from showboat-shaped homes with gingerbread trim to painted ladies three stories high to miniature-sized bungalows with window boxes.

Three blocks up Walnut from Lake Erie is the Idlewyld Bed and Breakfast, a large rambling vintage inn of 14 rooms. Its wraparound porch with hickory rockers surrounded by lush gardens looks like the perfect place to unwind. It is. Entering the house is a step back in time to an era of charm and simplicity where one can be authentic and true while mingling in the gathering room or sitting on the upstairs porch where I feel like I’m in the big tree. Hosts Dan and Joan Barris serve an English sideboard breakfast amid cottage d├ęcor.

For ten years, women have gathered at the Idlewyld for a tour of the community followed by dinner and a creative opening activity like creating a collage that tells the story of a life. The next two days were filled with breakout sessions to explore journaling, storytelling, photography, reiki, or yoga to inspire and give us a sense of possibility. We were entertained by a comedian or a drum circle on Saturday night, and Sunday was the winding down, a time to stand on the pier for reflection and hugs.

The Artist’s Way Retreat refuels our fires. This year we will again be inspired and reconnect at the Sharing Our Gifts retreat. I’m already looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Inspired to Write about Moments--Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson’s first book, Astrid & Veronika , was crafted within the cocoon of a writing program. Every word counted, every moment was worth the time spent. It was an excellent book, tight and pregnant with sensations and meaning. It left me more with a feeling than a story, the preciousness of thoughtful and deep friendship stays with me. Olsson explores the passing of time and importance of love, and what it means to live life well. I knew the author as a mature person and a young writer.

There were passages in this book that deserve reflection. The quality of life's moments are what is left in its waning years, as reflected in Astrid's statement, “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” Astrid, an old woman living in isolation in a small northern Sweden town, opened to the gift of Veronika’s presence and willingness to listen in the last year of her life. The reader experiences her life in snippets, as when she took Veronika to a hidden overgrown strawberry patch that was at one time nurtured, “’Like memories. You can make yourself believe that they have been erased. But they are there, if you look closely. If you have a wish to uncover them.’” The fruit from that uncovered patch was later celebrated by the women, who enjoyed a luscious strawberry liquor made by Astrid and kept for special ocassions, symbol of memories hidden and now brought to life. Astrid drives the point home when she explores, “’My life now consists of fragments where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. What shall I do with these glittering shards? There is no pattern; I can’t make them fit . . . I know there is more—there are less intense fragments that I need to make it whole . . . face the truth of what is really there.’” Slowly, as the fragments are strewn together to make a life, we learn that Astrid killed her own child in her desire to keep her close.

Veronika, isolated on purpose to get on with her writing, accompanies Astrid to the nursing home where Astrid’s estranged husband lay dying, and a nurse asks whether Veronika is the daughter, when the only daughter died within her first year. Surely this mean man whom Astrid had been made to marry didn’t mention a daughter. Or did he? That part of the story, his side of things, was never told, and there were many things left out—all those years were not told, just the bright highlights and the deepest truths. One cannot tell a whole life. That’s the lesson I take with me. Like Virginia Woolf, writing for her memoir club, who said she had to just pick one thing, and she chose, “Am I a Snob?”

I paid attention to what was eaten in Sweden where this book was set. On Veronika’s birthday, at a restaurant, “There was homemade rye bread, dried as well as fresh, and butter. A small juniper-wood bowl with pale brown soft whey-cheese, a bowl with fried chanterelles, a mixed salad of a variety of leaves and flower petals. Egg halves and a small bowl of whitefish roe. Two varieties of marinated herring. Small new potatoes sprinkled with dill.” For dessert: “a plate with one piece of dark soft cake.” Another celebration produced “a serving plate with thinly sliced gravlax [salmon] and a small bowl with mustard sauce. A basket with dark rye bread stood to one side, and two champagne flutes next to a chilled bottle of fine French champagne.” I served those foods when I hosted our book discussion of the book.

The reader hears the stories of Astrid being married in a traditional wedding costume and life in a small town near the Arctic Circle. We absorb the slow day-by-day rhythm of the lives of Astrid and Veronika. “They had adopted a comfortable routine that involved daily walks and dinner once or twice a week, alternating the hosting. Life has taken on a gentle, predictable rhythm. Veronica felt at peace, resting in the moment.” Here is where the preciousness of their unlikely friendship is born, in the sharing, in the resting in the moment, together. While Astrid told her story, she was allowing Veronika to embrace her own and go on to live fully. In the end, theirs was the friendship of a lifetime, and Astrid left her home to Veronika. Astrid's last words to Veronika were in a letter where her voice resonated on paper: “Love comes to us with no forewarning and once given to us it can never be taken away. We must remember that. It can never be lost. Love is not measurable. It cannot be counted in years, minutes or seconds, kilos or grams. It cannot be quantified in any way. Nor can it be compared, one with the other. It simply is. The briefest brush with real love can sustain you for a lifetime. You must always remember that.” Astrid’s story became the story Veronika needed to hear to write her book and once told, it inspired the story I needed to tell. In the forward to Daffodils and Fireflies I write:

The form of this book was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being and Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace. I was reading Linda Olsson’s Astrid & Veronika when I found my voice for the moments of being descriptions of daffodils and fireflies I wrote months earlier; I credit her with reminding me that much feeling can be felt within 250 small pages. But this passage, from Astrid & Veronika made me think Olsson and I are kindred spirits who read the same books before writing our novels: “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” This was precisely what Woolf spoke of in her memoirs and exactly why Johnson chose to call her book Leaving a Trace. The spirit of these writers and their work lives in Daffodils and Fireflies.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our Book Group Predicts Movies

My friend Gayle just presented our decades-old book group with a list of books we read that became movies. Our ability to choose movie-worthy books is uncanny. I will not be surprised if our most recent choice--Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen--appears on a movie screen. It has all the right elements--intrigue, romance, and a colorful setting.

People ask me "Which one was better, the book or the movie?" Sometimes the two can't be compared--the resemblance of the Wicked musical to the book was the difference between immersed entertainment and worrisome effort. The Harry Potter movies liven the books with great acting, scenery, and special effects, and although I'm surprised when the way I imagined scenes or characters differs from those of the director, I love the movies. The Other Boleyn Girl, The Horse Whisperer, and Under the Tuscan Sun were relatively dissembled when put into the film medium, and although the authors became richer by ticket sales, the transformation of their words onto the screen weakened their good work. The love stories told in The Notebook and The Bridges of Madison County became richer under the glow of photography and attractive actors; contrary to popular opinion, those books, as well as Tuesdays with Morrie, are marginally well-written.

Approximately thirty of the books we've read for book group have been made into movies. I haven't figured out if we pick good books or popular books or the books we choose just lend themselves well to film. Books like Snow Falling on Cedars and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are chosen because someone read a positive review or it was highly recommended, or our group loved the way the writer put words together. I like to think we know good writing and good writing is rewarded by becoming mass produced, but that would be naive. I don't like to admit it, but it turns out that the books we read are those everyone else reads as well. Despite my classical literature education and the how intimately I'm affected by the words of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, I choose to be influenced by popular culture. It's pretty stimulating.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hoffman's Writing Magic

Alice Hoffman tells a great story, and the story of the Sparrow women and the rest of Unity in The Probable Future is a good yarn. I admit to listening to it on audiotape read by Susan Ericksen, but I could have sworn it was the author reading it in her wonderfully descriptive prose. The thing about Alice is, when I hear her words, I’m impressed by the vivid descriptions. She creates a world that’s real but not real because there’s always an otherworldly quality to the lives the people lead, like the Sparrow Women in this story.

Rebecca Sparrow, who mysteriously appeared in the forest on the outskirts of Unity (a town outside Boston) a few hundred years ago, was given the last name Sparrow because she would stand still on the edge of a pond and the birds alighted on her. She became a washerwoman, and the story becomes tragic when the boys in town figured out she couldn’t feel pain. The Sparrow women living in Cake House, the house that looks like a wedding cake and was built in layers, keep a cabinet in a corner of the parlor to showcase, shrouded by an old tapestry. Inside, hidden and hopefully forgotten are the blood-tipped arrows that pierced Rebecca’s skin and the long black braid cut from her head when the townsfolk determined she was a witch and drowned her in the pond. It was that same pond that her lover’s horse, with her lover on its back, was frightened into and drowned soon after. This background is always at the forefront of the Sparrow Women’s story, and their lineage follows the female line, not the male line. Each woman in each generation has a gift and all had black hair except for the very last one: Stella.

Teenaged Stella's dreaded gift is the ability to see how people will die. Stella and her marriage-embittered but husband-hopeful mother, Jenny, aren’t getting along so well. Jenny had been sure she was destined to marry her ex-husband, after all she knew his dreams. Jenny’s life with Stella’s father had been turbulent: the man philandered and drank too much, and so Jenny struggled with how her gift could mess her up so much. Jenny’s mother Elinor, who lives in Cake House and has been grieving for her husband ever since he died in a car accident and she found out immediately afterwards that he’d been unfaithful, warned Jenny about the man she chose for a husband. The two women have been estranged ever since Jenny ran off with Will. Elinor, too, wonders about the power of her gift; hers was to know falsehood, but she hadn’t recognized the falsehood in her own husband.

Stella’s vision of a young woman getting her throat slashed gets the story moving. Will is accused of murder after the woman does die, because he reported the crime his daughter foresaw. With all the hullabaloo in Boston after Will’s arrest, Jenny takes Stella to stay with her mother Elinor, where Stella promptly falls in love with Unity and embarks on the adventure of learning about the Sparrow women, whose renowned past has been kept from her. When Jenny’s life is turned topsy turvy upon Will’s return to their Boston apartment, Jenny is forced to move into Cakehouse as well, and she and Elinor embrace past mistakes.

The book is a treat to read. I was wrapped up in the stories of all the characters in the book, from Elinor who knows a steadfast love with the town doctor who places her on a pedestal and is there when she needs him to Stella who is infatuated by one boy but drawn to another for his friendship. The most fascinating story of all is that of Jenny, who discovers it wasn’t Will’s dream but his brother Matt’s that she knew all those years before—Matt was her true love. Although endowed with supernatural gifts, all the gifts the Sparrow women had forsook them, all the way back to Rebecca who felt no pain and was drowned because of it.

The jacket cover calls the book a “tour de force, this vivid and intriguing cast of characters confronts a haunting past—and a very current murder—against the evocative backdrop of small-town New England. By turns chilling and enchanting, it chronicles the Sparrows’ legacy as young Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance.” The novel may have been a tour de force, but I took what was happening to the characters quite seriously while I was immersed in it. As always, Hoffman takes real life and braids it with the supernatural, and the result is magical.

For that, Hoffman is my favorite author. Her storytelling techniques wow me. Alice Hoffman’s novel Blue Diary was so good I bought it as an example of caressingly accurate good writing. At the time I wrote “Hoffman’s words weave together the beauty of nature and the feelings of her characters in a magic-like way. She’s the only writer whose work I await with expectation.” Like Practical Magic, transformed for the screen and whose characters were both believable and astonishingly bizarre, the themes of magic, the paranormal, and the dysfunctional repeat with regularity in the stories and expand the reader’s reality. A few years ago, when I read White Horses, I wrote “It’s a wonderful escape, reading Hoffman. She draws the reader in and makes us know the people and their stories and we relate to them and feel for them. They’re imprinted into us. We take them with us ever after and we don’t want the story to end because they end and don’t go on, those real live characters so magically brought to life from ink on paper.” As the San Francisco Chronicle said, “White Horses will reverberate in readers’ imaginations for a long time.” People magazine says her books are “Full of wonderful moments.” Hoffman reaches deep and brings the stuff of life forth in such a sensual and of the moment way, it’s like weaving a spell over us.

Over the years, I’ve also read Skylight Confessions, The Ice Queen, The Foretelling, Blackbird House (short stories), and The River King. From the time I read Turtle Moon, I knew that whenever I want to become lost in another reality, Hoffman’s books are guaranteed to satisfy that hunger. Two books were disappointing: Angel Landing and Here on Earth. Unfortunately, it was Here on Earth that my book discussion read, so Hoffman missed out on some hearty fans. About Angel Landing I wrote that I was disappointed I bought the book. When Hoffman fails, she flops—she must get distracted or hurried and the writing process fails her. But even then, her stories of love and regret, of finding self, woven into the practical and the magical and all the twists and turns a life can take, are still inspiring for a writer.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

My Authentic Self

While in Lakeside at the Artist’s Way Retreat this past fall, we were called upon to reflect on influential people in our lives and how they molded our authentic selves. Our influences begin with our parents. Early on, my father gave me the freedom to dream and the drive to change the world. My mother gave me the need to care for others and the reserve to hold back. Despite struggles with responsibility versus dreams, Paul and I have grown into a loving nurturing of each other, and we are good companions who share a love of nature and travel and pursuit of our individual passions.

There's no doubt that books are among my influences. I first read "Little Women" in the crabapple tree of our parsonage in Akron, and my hunger for books became unrelenting. I was influenced by writer after writer, and in college it was Hemingway (sparing word use) and Woolf (meandering searching) that I villified. I found I was drawn to people who were excessively involved in the journey of life. Robert Tener, poet and professor of Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, could make me weep with his passionate recitation of 16th century sonnets. Storyteller Alice Hoffman weaves the stories of relationships and connection that are woven into the tapestry that is my view of the world.

My need to connect with others caused me to write my first novel when I was ten; most kids want a TV, but I wanted my own typewriter. David Majesky, a high school Honors English teacher who sometimes stood on his desk and roared at us to write deeply, taught me about paying attention to details in my writing, and so I added to my plot and dialogue all the little details that make up a good yarn. Lloyd Mills, poet and Romanticism scholar, supported me in the writing of my memoir as my senior project at Kent State when I was 21; he likened my work to that of Doctorow and acknowledged my meandering writing as like Virginia Woolf. He helped me find my “voice.” In "Bird by Bird," Anne Lamott wrote, “Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth,” which sums up how I feel about reading and writing; Anne cautions us to take it one bird at a time and get it right, a lesson I take to heart.

Julia Cameron woke my passion and sense of possibility. But before that I was grounded in theology and knowledge through Disciple Bible Study and the spiritual leadership of Reverend Roger Talbott, who made it clear I needed to find my own spiritual haven and feel comfortable with what I chose from the dogma of religious teachings. I add to my life’s collage the long rich relationships and the short friendships where a magical moment was shared and a soul connection made. The people most important on my journey have taught me about companionship, have encouraged me to accept who I am, and believes my path is larger than the small one I’ve chosen. Friends, family, and steady supporters who call upon me to walk or have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to share moments of our lives are my guiding light. My fellow book discussion group and critique group seekers are the choir behind me as I speak out.

The essence of who I am is a bi-product of reading and writing and the relationships I have had. I love people and connections and have a festering need to share and communicate who I am with the world. I seem destined to be a spontaneous wanderer and explorer with endless creative energy despite low-level dissatisfaction. These things define me, but who am I, really? What is the authentic self? What is my own north star? The authentic self will show me the way and allow me to make the decisions that are truly where I am on my journey. Staying true to who I am, I will always be wise in a God-connected way.

I feel most alive during traveling and exploring opportunities and any event that brings together people in a meaningful and connective soul-fulfilling way. I must live in the moment to be truly me. The moments gather meaning when I am able to reflectively write about the experience later. I draw upon the true self moments and the people who have been part of the meandering journey of life that has made up my own unique self. I am a river digging deep along the bottom and stirring truth to the surface by connecting moments of being and putting them on paper.

I wonder about the authentic selves of others, like that of the stranger next to me on the bus who stares straight ahead having thoughts different from my own as I sit and tap out words on my laptop. I wonder about the man sitting on the park bench holding out a cup, the mother who is overwhelmed with life, the child who endures his parents’ bitterness, and the lonely old woman who waits for her days to end. What inner life do they entertain? What is their authentic self? How do they reach it? In living day by day and hoping for the best. In being in the moment, enlightened, and true to who they are. We all have our different realities and also our own truth.

Each person has an authentic self, a personal design made from a meandering journey through the thickets and fields of the world and relationships. These authentic selves are ours to embrace or resist. I believe many resist their authentic selves and don't truly live as they should. Wanting to live truly, I embrace my authentic self.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Tribute to a War-Torn Land

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini is an eloquent story about women abused and frightened and with no hope, about the terrible wars in Afghanistan, about the juxtaposition between what was and what became, and about the landscape of the country the author was born in. Again, I have read a book about the Middle East, with Pakistan again in the background, the place to which Afghan refugees flee. Published in May 2007, this book has gone back to press almost daily since its first week on sale, and over 1,400,000 copies were sold in the first six weeks. It was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for four straight weeks.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the superior book, but Hosseini's "The Kite Runner", a fictionalized autobiography all the way down to his friendship with a Hazara servant whom he taught to read, made me think. "The Kite Runner" movie was true to the book because Hosseini's soul was poured into the film as much as it's poured into is books.

Miriam, the bastard child of a maid and a rich man, is introduced as a young girl living in a hidden hovel created by her father on the outskirts of a city in Afghanistan. Her mother commits suicide when Miriam leaves on an adventure and the 15-year-old girl (without as much guilt as one would think she'd have) is taken to her father’s house until her father’s wives find her a suitable husband. In the car, with her father’s arm draped over her shoulder, “For the first time, Miriam could hear him with Nana’s ears. She could hear so clearly now the insincerity that had always lurked beneath, the hollow, false assurances.” This is the moment when Miriam grew up--her father showed her she was essentially alone and he wasn't going to be there for her. She is quickly married to an unsavory middle-aged shoemaker from Kabul.

Laila, a young girl with an educated father who no longer teaches during the reign of the Communist regime, and her friend Tariq, beloved son of an older couple, a boy who lost a leg to a bomb and wears a prosthetic leg, are soulmates. When the Taliban come into town and Tariq’s family makes plans to leave, Tariq confesses his love for Laila, but she cannot leave her father. As Laila says, “the irony crushed her.” Contemplating their own move some time later, Laila's beloved father says, “It’s strange to think that I’ll be sleeping beneath another city’s skies soon.” Laila response is, “Oh, Babi. We’ll come back.” but Laila is left bereft when her home is blown up in a bombing.

Rasheed, motivated by wanting an heir, brings Laila into his home with Miriam, and after a stranger tells her about Tariq’s death, the choiceless Laila agrees to marry Rasheed. Laila’s secret is that she’s already pregnant with Tariq’s baby, but for a time, Laila is the favored wife because Rasheed wants a child. It’s difficult to be the favored wife when the first wife Miriam shoots her “a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and strimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Miriam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.” When the baby is born, Rasheed’s incensed that Laila bears a girl-child and Laila then falls prey to the mistreatment and abuse Miriam has born for twenty years. The two women become unlikely friends in the horrible situation they find themselves in. They live in a country where women cannot go into the streets showing their faces and they cannot go anywhere alone, and when Laila tries to escape to Pakistan with Miriam and Aziza, they are found out and taken back to Rasheed, who beats them.

The Taliban make it difficult for people to work and Rasheed loses his business to a bomb, although on the morning of September 27, 1996, Laila felt that the Taliban coming into Kabul would be their salvation. It soon becomes clear that the Taliban will make the life of women more restrictive than it already is. Trusting Laila tells Rasheed that the Taliban cannot treat people as they do and Rasheed replies, “spoken like the arrogant daughter of a poetry-reading university man that you are. How urbane, how Tajik, of you. You think this is some new, radical idea the Taliban are bringing?” He tells her the Taliban are taking them back to their roots, their tribal history.

The author claims to have had difficulty getting into the heads of his female characters until he let go and just let them be human beings, but I feel he did a great job at letting us feel how Laila felt. He also comes to understand Miriam, who fights for Laila in the god-forsaken woman's hospital set up by the Taliban and where Laila must give birth: “Miriam saw now the sacrifices a mother made. Decency was but one. She thought ruefully of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made . . . Miriam wished she’d understood then what she understood now about motherhood.” War-ravaged Afghanistan, with its political troubles, religious fanaticism, crumbling infrastructure, desperate and suffering population, confused moral fabric, and fractured womanhood is graphically and honestly displayed.

The home the threesome inhabit becomes a living hell even though Laila evenutally bears Rasheed a son upon whom Rasheed rains affection. The family begins to starve under the Taliban. Eventually Aziza, Laila's first-born who Rasheed now knows as Tariq’s child, is put into an orphanage which Laila visits despite severe restrictions. This was the saddest and most tragic of passages in the book, the time when the entire family was starving and they had to give up one of the children. Unfortunately, the situation is not uncommon in Afghanistan.

On the day Tariq shows up in their doorway, alive, their love for each other thrives even though hard living had worn them down. In the climax of the book, Rasheed tries to choke Laila to death after finding out about the visit from Tariq. In the Muslim world, pride is man’s #1 treasure and a wife spending time alone with a man uncovered is a terrible thing. One wonders why Tariq put Laila into harm’s way in that way, but it may have been because he’d been in a refugee camp and then in prison and had no idea how mistreatment of women had become part of the culture of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Miriam, stronger than life, saves Miriam by killing Rasheed with a shovel to the head. The women are faced with what to do—they put Rasheed’s body in the shed, but they know full well one or both of them will die for the murder. Miriam does not convince Laila that Laila’s life means more than hers, but in the end Laila agrees that she should take the opportunity to flee with Tariq and the children. Miriam is willing to die if it can give Laila and her children a better life.

Tariq and Laila and the children end up in peaceful Murree, Pakistan. On their wedding night, Laila remembers the “ease with which they would crowd the air between them with words” when they were young, and now, “it was blessing enough to know that he was here.” In the middle of the night, she found their hands “still clamped together, in the white-knuckle, anxious way of children clutching balloon strings.” Laila thinks about Miriam’s death and wonders about the life she and Tariq have made as hotel workers and asks “Did she sacrifice herself so she, Laila, could be a maid in a foreign land?” And her father had always said she would do great things. It is time to go home, but only after she makes a pilgrimage to Herat, where Miriam was born, to find Miriam, and to find herself.

Laila finds Mullah Faizullah’s home and his son Hamza welcomes her and wants to hear the story of Miriam, so Laila tells him everything she knows about Miriam’s life after she left her native land. When Laila is done, the son says his father was very fond of Miriam and he sometimes joined his father on his weekly visits to Miriam. Laila is led to the tiny kolba where Miriam spent her first fifteen years and sits and listens to the wind filtering through the willows; she closes her eyes and soaks up the feel of the place. She sees Miriam, feels her moving and reciting verses from the Koran, and then imagines a young Miriam sitting at the table making a doll by the glow of an oil lamp, and the vision is so real, she hears Miriam’s voice say, “Laila jo?” Startled, the moment ends, and Hamza announces has something for her. He gives her a box that Jalil gave to Faizullah before he died, for Miriam. Inside is a letter expressing a father’s love and regret as well as a sack of money.

The phrase “a thousand splendid sons” is from a poem by 17th-century Saib-e-Tabrizi to describe leaving behind a beloved city, and is quoted when Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It’s mentioned at the end of the book, “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” The phrase is an affectionate nod to Hosseini’s own Kabul and to the feelings Laila has for Miriam, who has become a mother to her, despite the fact that they shared a husband. Laila is without knowledge of Miriam's ultimate fate, but in jail during her final days, she returns to her self, the self that had been lost over her adult life, and dreams of being with those she loved, her father, her beloved Mullah Faizullah, and Nana, and in her childhood home. It is a prayerful time, a quiet end to a troubled life.

Laila, Tariq, and the children return to Kabul and work with the kind-hearted administrator of the orphanage, Zaman, to improve the orphanage. When Laila sees their pictures in a newspaper article reporting the renovations at the orphanage, she remembers her friend Hasina’s words, “You’re going to be somebody. I know one day I’ll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page.” In Kabul they make a difference in the lives of children whose lives have been torn apart, quite literally. And Miriam is there in everything they’ve done, but mostly, Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965 to an Afghan Foreign Ministry diplomat and high school teacher. During his childhood they lived a few years in Tehran and a few years in Paris. They planned to return to Kabul in 1980, but Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and invasion of the Soviet army. They were granted political asylum in the United States and settled in San Jose, living through several years of hardship for a period of time. Hosseini earned a degree in biology in 1988 from Santa Clara University and entered medical school at University of California in 1993. He completed his residency in Los Angeles. He was an internist between 1996 and 2004. He began writing "The King Runner" in 2001 and it was published in 2003. It was an international best seller and published in 38 countries; after 120 weeks, it’s still #4 on The New York Times Bestseller List. In 2006 he was named a goodwill envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency. He says “I have been on an extended sabbatical from medicine, and have spent the last two years focusing on my writing, something that had long been a dream of mine. My days are shaped now around the creation of stories.” That young boy, Amir, in Hosseini’s first novel was unmistakably the writer.

On his blog, Hosseini says “the struggle of Afghan women was simply too compelling, too tragic, and too important and relevant a story, and both as an Afghan and as a writer, I knew that I couldn’t resist writing about it.” He goes on to explain how he went back to Kabul in 2003 and he heard story after story about women who had been raped, beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, women who had seen their husbands blown to pieces, seen their kids starve to death. He said, “I came away humbled by the enormity of the suffering that these women had endured. And I came away humbled by the fight that these women had in them, by their resilience and their courage.” The character Miriam’s mother instructs her “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”

Hosseini also writes about visiting Afghan refugees who were being forced to return to their homeland from Pakistan and Iran, and their homeland is not equipped to handle the influx of people; Afghanistan is still in need of international support. Touring Afghanistan was like Amir said, “I feel like a tourist in my own country . . . But the most striking thing to me was that despite the atrocities, the unspeakable brutalities, and the hardships Afghans had endured, they had not lost their humility, their grace, their hospitality, or their sense of hope.” While "The Kite Runner" was being filmed, in Afghanistan and China, Participant Productions and Paramount Vantage started partnering with various NGOs to train 1000 Afghan teachers over the next two years and built fifty rural libraries in Afghanistan.

Hosseini says his mission in writing his books was not about the good that came out of the books. He just wanted to tell a good story. “I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others about it. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there.”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mountains Beyond Mountains


By Claudia J. Taller

Although lofty thoughts and contemplation will not solve the world’s problems, being reminded of world issues and possible solutions can spur us to make our own contribution. Paul Farmer, MD, speaks on “Global Health Equity” on February 7 at Cleveland's Palace Theater on Playhouse Square. I read reporter Tracy Kidder’s book on Farmer, entitled "Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World" with my book discussion group this past year. Dr. Farmer is admirable and deserves to be heard.

The energetic and passionate Farmer insists on making a difference in the world. In doing so, he inspires us to be better people. Paul Farmer is the Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology at Harvard University and Co-founder of Partners in Health which is his project in Haiti begun when he was a young medical student at Harvard. He’s an advocate for and provider of free healthcare for the world’s poor and he oversees healthcare projects in such far flung places as Russia, Rwanda and Peru, in addition to Haiti.

Farmer came from humble beginnings. His salesman father uprooted the family from Birmingham to teach in Brooksville, a small town north of Tampa, where they lived in the Bluebird Inn, an old school bus, at a campground. Later the large family lived on a houseboat. To avoid onerous houseboat chores, the children in the family became busy in extracurricular activities, and Farmer was popular with the girls in school because, his mother said, “’He listened to them.” And one of his main priorities was maternal mortality because the deaths of mothers led to catastrophes in families. He escaped to Duke and then to Harvard, going to medical school while working in Haiti, the beginning of his double life in Boston and Haiti. He wrote his senior anthropology thesis on gender inequality and depression, and his mentor as Rudolf Virchow who was “’the principal architect of the foundations of scientific medicine,’ the first to propose that basic units of biological life were self-producing cells, and that the study of disease should focus on changes in the cell.”

Farmer grew up Catholic, but he had a problem with “the cult of resignation” in which people were to accept their lot patiently, waiting for the afterlife. His religion was that the world was wrong for screwing over the poor and God was keeping score. He was drawn back to Catholicism as an act of solidarity. And when Aristide won the election, nothing ever moved Farmer so deeply, because it was the first time the people could choose and “at last, after centuries of misery, of slavery and subsequent misrule and foreign interference, the people of Haiti had claimed their country.” Soon after, Farmer wrote “The Uses of Haiti” while in a Quebec hotel room for ten days. But Farmer never felt he’d done enough, and lived his whole life in what he called “the long defeat,” never quite making it all happen.

Farmer is the kind of guy who can write a book on a plane during a fit of an obsessive need to make a point. He has published more than 200 articles, chapters and books and supports a “preferential option for the poor.” He’s been tireless in his mission to change the way healthcare is delivered to the poor. After reading Kidder’s book about Farmer, the audience is left with the true feeling that we should all be doing more.

Kidder portrays Farmer as relentless and untiring in striving to cure the world of TB and AIDS and any other infectious disease that comes along and ruins entire communities of poor people. Kidder did a fantastic job detailing Farmer’s world—we had a real sense of urgency and driven energy in the combat against both disease and poverty, for Farmer believes there’s not a lot of point in curing someone from TB if he’s just going to go back to a hut with a roof that leaks. He believes he should replace the banana leaves with tile and the dirt floor with cement and get the kids into school and the mothers healthy. Whenever he’s forced to make a choice between taking action on one thing or taking action on another, he’s failed because he wasn’t able to attend to both. In the midst of economic limitations, he forges ahead, having faith it will turn out all right. For the number one thing on Dr. Farmer’s agenda is saving his patients.

Kidder’s a great writer, a champion for causes, and is to be admired because he followed Farmer to Haiti and on flights to Peru and Paris and back to Boston. Kidder trailed Farmer as he stopped at the bedsides of the sickest and poorest of humanity. He lived Farmer’s life with him. The writing in the 300-page book is excellent; it’s trim but multi-layered with meaning. It gives us a lot of detailed information about battling cells and what the administered medicines do to the cells, but it’s not so dense that the lay reader decides to put the book down with a big sigh.

Tracy Kidder first came upon Farmer when he was in Haiti writing a story about the soldiers in Haiti. Farmer uncomfortably confronted Kidder about his belief system. Later, Kidder took Farmer to dinner in Boston and was intriqued that Farmer, with all his education and talent, seemed to like living amongst peasants in Haiti and in a church rectory in Haiti.

If a patient doesn’t show up for treatment, “this was one of the rules—someone had to go and find him . . . Farmer said, ‘the only noncompliant people are physicians. If the patient doesn’t get better, it’s your own fault. Fix it.’” There you go—it was all on him. How many doctors take on that kind of responsibility? How many human beings? The proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains” purely describes this searching out of patients; the title of the book reflects Farmer’s way of looking at life—you just do it. Paul Farmer said, “The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.”

When Farmer talked about medicine, he said he didn’t know why people don’t get excited about it, and then, Kidder said, “He smiled at me, and his face turned bright, not red so much as glowing a luminescent smile. It affected me quite strongly, like a welcome gladly given, one you didn’t have to earn.” And that’s who Farmer was, what he passed on to the peasants who loved him. If a patient didn’t show up for treatment, “So—this was one of the rules—someone had to go and find him . . . Farmer said, ‘the only noncompliant people are physicians. If the patient doesn’t get better, it’s your own fault. Fix it.’” There you go—it was all on him. How many doctors take on that kind of responsibility? How many human beings? The proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains” purely describes this searching out of patients; the title of the book reflects Farmer’s way of looking at life—you just do it.

The United States, like the World Health Organization, attempts to help the poor in ways that sometimes does more harm than good, like building a dam in the name of improvement only to leave people without fertile farmland. “Families had hurried away, carrying whatever they could save of their former lives, turning back now and then to watch the water drown their gardens and rise up the trunks of their mango trees . . . For most, there was nothing to do but settle in the steep surrounding hills, where farming meant erosion and widespread malnutrition, tending nearer every year toward famine.” Farmer had problems with white liberals, WL’s, with their ‘they’re poor but they’re happy’ line. “’But WL’s think all the world’s problems can e fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.’”

Kidder describes a walk with Farmer to find a noncompliant patient and they were surrounded by women who talked. “One woman was telling him that they needed an additional community health worker up here, but mostly they were just passing the time. Is there a more widespread notion than the one that rural people are laconic, and is there a rural place anywhere in the world whose people really are?” Then, later, “I felt as if I could fall asleep, and as if I already had, enfolded in femininity.” One thing I like about Tracy Kidder is that he’s in there, and we’re experiencing his subject matter with him. Kind of like my own “walks” pieces.

When I told a friend about Paul Farmer, his response was, “he sounds like a saint.” That’s exactly what my book group thought. Paul Farmer would say he’s just a guy doing what needs to be done. That selfless attitude is what makes him a saint.