Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Perfect Day Four - Finding a WAY

The Disciple classes were about finding my way, my spiritual path, and I responded to them. Although I sometimes wonder if Christianity has the answers I need, and I recognize that there are other ways of looking at our relationship with God, I need my church. I need to be there with my church family and feel how worship calms my soul, the ritual and readings, the sharing of joys and concerns, the moments of greeting people and feeling their sorrow. In church on Day Four, I cried to hear how a father of fifty died during heart surgery, how one of our members has mixed feelings about moving to be near her daughter, about a couple whose unborn twins have mixed-together blood and one of the children will die. Life is not fair. People are complicated.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Being There for Others - An Artist's Date

Interrupted by phone calls, my Artist’s Date wasn’t perfect. But life gets in the way and one thing I want to get right is being there for other people when they need me. I drove to Huntington Beach, parked by Huntington Playhouse across the street, took a stroll to limber me up. Down the tall stairs and on the beach, I went with the flow and found white, green, and maroon beach glass in all sizes and shapes on the beach, a gift from Lake Erie. It was a huge surprise. Looking out at the lake, I took pictures of the seagulls on the rocks at the end of a breakwall, felt happy about the couple sitting there together, her camera pointed up to capture a flying bird, the rocky shore with its cliffs above and sand between, the blue sky, the Cleveland skyline in the hazy distance, beautiful. I sat on the sand and let the waves calm me like ugi breath in yoga.

Up the stairs I went, under the bridge after passing a couple so obviously enamored with each other that I was surprised they still had their clothes on, emerging in the woods on the path near the playhouse again. I wandered down the meandering path bordered by flowers and tall grasses and flowering bushes. I walked up the stairs to the coffee shop, housed in a Victorian house and entered into a conversation with the barrista and a 65-year-old man about how to store coffee and a New York Times article that interviewed a coffee grower in Guatemala. How do I store my coffee? In the Starbucks bag it came in, next to my coffee maker.

Coffee in hand, I stepped into the gallery and noticed the greeting cards and jewelry and paintings for sale, walked into the gallery showing the juried exhibition and looked at uninspired sketches of bodies and was disappointed enough that I was ready to leave. An artist-volunteer asked me if I had questions and told me a bit about the place and Baycrafters, none of it new, and when she asked me how my day was going, I said, “I’m having a perfect day.” We found common ground when she admitted that The Artist’s Way changed her life and gave her permission to be the artist she is today.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Razor's Edge - A Lesson for Us All

I suggested reading The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham to book group, but they wouldn’t think of it.  Their loss.  The book was narrated by a writer who seemed to have an “in” with everyone who had money, kind of a fly on the wall, watching the rich and connected people he knows and settling on Larry, whose ambition is “The acquisition of knowledge.” Larry’s a sage, the guy with all the answers, and I think that was Maugham’s meaning. But we’re never sure what he’s looking for, sometimes it seems to be God, sometimes something else, while he just says he’s doing nothing. He could be contrasted with Isabel and with her Uncle Elliott who is always introducing people, convinced it’s important. We get a rare soliloquy halfway through the book. “Pascal said that the heart has no reasons that reason takes no account of. If he meant what I think, he meant that when passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that were not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love . . . It may be then that one is faced with the desolation of knowing that one has wasted the years of one’s life, that one’s brought disgrace upon oneself, endured the frightful pan of jealousy, swallowed every bitter mortification, that one’s expended all one’s tenderness, poured out all the riches of one’s soul on a poor drab, a fool, a peg on which one hung one’s dreams, who wasn’t worth a stick of chewing gum” But Isabel isn’t listening.

Larry is thinking of the Absolute. “It is eternal because of its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.” It is not the personal God that mankind usually seeks. “I myself think that the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated. I believe that God is within me or nowhere. If that’s so, whom or what am I to worship—myself?” He’s encountered Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and they’re all the same, the Absolute. He found a Guru who “taught that we are all grater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.” The narrator concludes that “I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature . . . Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world’s confusion, so wishful of good, so cocksure of the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, and so cagey, so mean and so generous, which is the people of the United States." Of all the characters in the book, only Larry achieved happiness. “And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

Letting Go of Worry - Perfect Day Two

It was also hard not to become worried about getting into our seats at the Hannah Theater in time, but we were there ten minutes before the curtain rose. I love the Hannah because it’s so intimate and feels like being in a night club with the bar and cushioned lounge seating in the back of the theater. We were in the second row, and it was fabulous. The first thing I said was, “they’re not dressed in period clothing” because the men were wearing tuxedos from the 19th century, but they managed to pull off Elizabethan garb for the kings and the queen and her maids in waiting. I had to let go of that—the theater company used what they had. And then I let myself be pulled into the magic of Shakespeare’s language expertly delivered.

And I thought about Dr. Tener. He didn’t answer my last letter. He admitted he wasn’t doing well in his last letter, and now . . . silence. Death is the menace that drives us forward and then stops us in our tracks. We are so immortal. It was a sort of worry, me thinking about Dr. Tener. He was so full of life and vibrancy when he paced back and forth in front of the class seated in Satterfield Hall dramatically playing the roles of Macbeth and Hamlet and Rosalind, his cowboy boots and jeans and turtleneck sweaters setting him apart as much as his passion for words. He was a poet, an architect, an actor, a builder, a gardener, but mostly he was a person who I loved for his way of looking at life.

We immortal beings are always trying to beat Death. With my Dad, we’re worried that if we don’t fight this Cancer and beat it, we didn’t love Dad enough. Because we worry about his pain and suffering and what life will be when he’s gone and what it is that he will have left other than the memories we hold dear. We need to do our best, and let go of worry because we have limited control.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Remembering Those We Love

I bought Reba, whose husband just died, a little book she can carry in her purse to write memories in. The saying on the card is that when someone dies you their presence is turned into memories. I love the whole concept of remembering someone after they die, of having them live on in our memories.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Being in the Moment - Perfect Day One

And then we were ten women with ugi breath doing cat and cow rolls rhythmically until we sprang up into downward-facing dog. I felt the pull on my calves, straightened my back, balanced my weight evenly onto my hands and my feet and tried to get my heels to the ground, which never happens. I didn’t fret. I went with the flow as we rolled forward into plough, chataranga-ed to the floor, and brought our hearts up into upward facing dog. I paid attention to my feet that tended to sickle and cause chronic pain. I listened to my breath, the breath of the women around me, the sound of our instructor’s voice, the rhythmic chanting music, and smelled the lemon verbena scent on my skin. I felt how strong my thighs were as I bent my right knee and placed my left foot at a 45-degree angle behind me and rose up into Warrior I and spread out to Warrior II. I felt the lengthening of my back as I bent forward humbly and came back to extended side angle twisting my neck up and my arm near my ear, one long length of body from my foot to the tip of my hand. Before I knew it we were in shavasana and I was listening to the soothing music and the instructor’s voice telling us to not fall asleep, to stay present, to just let go and be in the present.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Cookbook for Life

I love the long blocked-out writing time on the weekends. It has to be kept sacred. One doesn't really tune into the muse when writing a cookbook as one does when writing a novel, but it's satisfying to make the connections between food and where I was at particular points in my life when I started cooking some of my favorites. I discovered quiche at a Christmas Party in 1978 and when Paul and I moved to Pittsburgh and someone bought me the Vegetarian Epicure, quiche became the center of many meals, including those when company came to share our table. I took a picture of the broccoli and mushroom quiche I made for dinner the other day, for the cookbook.

Monday, October 22, 2012

30 Perfect Days

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron asks us to imagine a perfect day. Most of us will dream of a day without work, without worries, without concerns, a day when everything goes perfectly, a day when you can be yourself and do whatever you want to do.

Why not have 30 Perfect Days in a row? What if those days are imperfect? What if the days are as perfect as we can have them be in our lives of having to make money, maintain our property, and care for our loved ones?  How many of us want the perfect life? We think we know what it is, but we somehow make it about living in Tuscany or being a writer or owning a bed and breakfast or being a missionary in Africa. How about if we just embrace the life we have, day by day?

Thirty days is a month, twelve months become a year, and a year becomes a lifetime. Maybe I could have the perfect life. Ten days ago, I woke up at 5:00 AM to go to yoga. I started the first of thirty perfect days. A month of days strung together like a necklace of pearls, perfect in their wisdom, beauty, and possibility. I stayed in the moment, paid attention, responded with joy, and avoided negativity.

Guess what?  I've had ten perfect days so far.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Voice and Poetry

I wrote that I wanted to make my journal into poetry, but then I lose my voice. Or don’t I? Or am I writing poetry by using my voice? Is my voice, and what I write, poetry? I think I hear a rhythm as I write, but do I? Or am I just imagining that at the moment?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Harnessing the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an inspiring story of William Kamkwamba, a boy with no education, reading lots of books in his village library in Malawi and learning how to make windmills. He used discarded motor parts, junkyard refuse, whatever he could hoard in his room that he thought might be helpful, while in search of a dream to bring light to a village that went to sleep at 7PM when the sun went down. They lost hours.

The famine in his land and his family’s struggles, all of Africa’s struggles, were captured in the book, and it opened my eyes to how a country can literally be without food and how it can be controlled by only a few people and how powerless people can feel when the land fails to yield a crop. Entire lives are ruined, time cannot be captured again, a young boy loses years. In this case, he missed 4-5 years and then went to school when he was a young adult. He was one of the lucky ones—he survived while thousands of people, who foraged for what little food they could while the light went out of their eyes, died. He not only survived, but he eventually was admitted to a boarding school so he could study, his sense of possibility still strong, and that’s part of what makes the story so good

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Farms and Foods of Ohio

Marilou Suszko has written about food for years, and in her book Farms & Foods of Ohio, we have a culmination of her love of where she lives and the food it brings to the table. It’s a thoughtful and instructional look at what it’s like to be a farmer in the twenty-first century and a call to all of us to support our local farms. I appreciate her passionate descriptions and her cause. Her recipes are unique—I have never seen a recipe for raspberry cream custard. I didn’t realize she teaches culinary classes and has a connection with the cooking school in Vermilion; that would explain her sidebar for turkey brined in buttermilk: “To brine or not to brine? It comes down to a question of personal taste. Traditional brining is a process that enhances the flavor and increases the moisture content of lean meats without using a salt, sugar, and water solution.” Hmmm, I’ve never thought about brining.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Highest Tide - A Tribute to Marine Life

I just finished The Highest Tide, a novel by Jim Lynch, and I loved it. At the beginning I was thinking about how slow it was going with all the marine-life description, but that was part of the charm of this coming-of-age book about the summer of a 13-year-old boy who discovers a giant squid, a rare starfish, and many other strange things in Puget Sound near his home on Olympia’s coast. We come to love this curious and intelligent boy; Lynch successfully takes us into his head and allows us to feel what it’s like to love nature and be conflicted about growing up. “People usually take decades to sort out their view of the universe, if they bother to sort at all. I did my sorting during one freakish summer in which I was ambushed by science, fame and suggestions of the divine.”

We get a ton of philosophical views here, including many from Rachel Carson who wrote in The Sea Around Us, “’There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.’ How do you read that sentence, yawn and turn out the lights?” And how do you read his descriptions of life in the sea without being intrigued?" The narrator writes: “Those shells, as unique and timeless as bones, helped me realize that we all die young, that in the life of the earth, we are houseflies, here for one flash of light.” As he grows and synchronicity and the responsive universe happens to him, he writes “It wasn’t that I was starting to feel that I actually had some higher calling, it’s that I’d begun to feel as though I’d received a bigger role than I’d auditioned for.” Miles said people need to pay attention, and then they did. They came out to the Bay and started categorizing all the sea life and found it amazing, all those scientists and people who lived there who thought they knew what was going on but didn’t. “At the end of The Sea Around Us, she [Carson] summed up the entire history and role of the ocean in two sentences: ‘In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.’”

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sharing Our Gifts

So now I’m home again. The weekend swept me into a world of friendship and support and big goals and lots of energy. The Sharing Our Gifts weekends are amazing. They are my sisters, my mothers, my daughters. They are my people I can talk with any time without reserve, without fear, without knowing judgment. They let me do what I want to do and say what I want to say. They tell me everything is going to be okay, something I need to hear and know more than anything. Everything is going to be okay. Why do I need someone to tell me that?
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Envisioning a Dream

Most people I know are aware that my life's dream is to spend my days writing while running a bed and breakfast that hosts retreats and people who come in and out the door with stories to tell. Every time I visit the Idlewyld, I feel that dream strong within me, and I see what Joan and Dan have created over the last 24 years, and I am awed. A friend told me that I need to envision that dream, keep it in my heart constantly, and somehow, someway, the universe will respond. She says the B&B is tied up with my writing, and while I spoke with my friend, I touched on that dream again, the one I've had for almost twenty years, and I wonder if God will provide a way, maybe a different place, a different house, maybe something altogether different from what I envision. So is it a good thing to envision when that vision will inevitably be replaced with something else?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Walking the Path to God Connection

Oftentimes we don’t know why we choose a particular path—certainly it’s that way for me. I sometimes have to go with my gut, and that’s what I did when I chose to be part of Disciple study again. I’m reading about the kings of Judah and their evil and good and God’s turning against them and to them again, and the message is that we should avoid outside influences and focus on the Temple, on our temple, our traditions, our heritage, and walk with the Lord. I go this way and that in my way of thinking, from believing that being with nature and doing yoga and writing from the heart are a way that is just as good as being in church and fellowship with Christians. Is it a selfish seeking to look for other ways to find that God connection? Perhaps, when you look at it from the viewpoint of the chronicler in Chronicles. I am a child of the church, of the United Methodist Church—should I not make that my focus? The Artist’s Way and synchronicity and my God connection have been my way to creativity and salvation, have helped me on my journey. Is it time to turn back? No, it's time to embrace it because it's all part of my journey, part of what I personally need to grow.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Letting Go of Fear

Fear is the door getting ready to open for us if we can let go of fear, it will open to something new. Celtic tradition says that fear is the dragon guarding treasure and that we limit our stories by limited beliefs. When we get close to the truth, our course may be altered. On Wednesday nights, I have the choice of a writing group, an Artist's Way group, or a Christian Spirituality group. Which one do I choose? Am I choosing a path that’s outdated and based on a hidden set of needs? This too takes meditative time, God connection, and making sure that Fear is not in control.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Choices About the Journey

I’ve been carrying around some notes from an audio talk by Betsy Muller, who runs workshops and retreats on enery and creativity and will be at Word Lovers in November. The notes begin with “I'm feeling like I’ve been missing the boat again with what I'm focusing on." I then read some encouraging words, "I believe I can find a way. I am willing to let go of who people think I am. I can make a clear path. Energy causes connections and shows how things fit together. Energy grounds us—it is a refining process. Our connection with each other is sacred." My mission is to help others to love themselves more deeply, help them shift into thinking about what they can have from what they can’t. We make choices with careers and family and how we spend our free time. But all the choices we make should help us toward our life's mission. I find that sometimes I just need to close my eyes and wait for the answers to come.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Taking Your Reader on a Journey

Writer's Center Stage starts up again this month.  I'm looking forward to Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz in November as I think back to what Anne Lamott had to say when she was here last spring.  Her son says that when she speaks, she starts at A, could go to B, C, D and ends up at R while she's trying to convince the audience she was going there all along.  That's sort of how she writes.  When someone asked how she writes illuminating stuff without affecting the privacy of the people she cares about, she said "you own it. Just change the details." You can't be afraid to write what needs to be said. On plot, she advised, “A confused reader is an antagonistic reader,” which is what her writing coach Mary Moran has always told her. When you write, lay lily pads across pond and invite reader to walk with you. How do you get found when you’re so lost? Take them with you on that journey.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Seeking Wisdom

I just finished reading Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. In the novel, Larry is seeking knowledge, truth, something bigger than himself, and he discovers the Absolute, which is eternal because of its completeness and perfection unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom. God is within or nowhere. He finds a Guru who “taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.” Although the writer decries worship of God, we hear similar messages in traditional Christianity--we must be selfish and we must serve, and we're part of the One. Larry discovers selflessness, and he finds happiness.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Journaling to Plan My Day

At last Sunday's WOW (Women of Wisdom) meeting, I told everyone how I journaled in the morning about how my day would look--I would work on my novella and memoir, go to yoga, walk in the park with my husband and the dog, pick up Mom and go to WOW, and organize my studio. By the time I'd gotten to WOW, I'd gone through the list and felt good about having a relaxing and productive day. One of the women in the group said that was a bunch of crock--life gets in the way. It does, but it's nice to have some direction, and some days it works out just the way we envision it, sort of a little miracle.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Time Management

My "to do" list is often impossible to manage, and just thinking about the list can keep me awake at night.  Good thing I have yoga.  It also helps to prioritize.  That starts with goals, as Jim Randel writes in his book The Skinny on Time Management.  He made a number of suggestions to help with time management--have you ever thought about how meditation can be a tool to quiet the noise and clear your head for new ideas? He also suggesting stretching your mind with crossword puzzles because memory is so important to keeping on track. He suggested keeping your goals close at hand and revisiting them frequently; that should help you be on guard for procrastination. The most helpful piece of advice he gave me is to separate tasks on the "To Do" list into Important/Urgent, Important/not Urgent, Urgent/not important, and Not Urgent/Not important.  Do the first two first, and you will have a measure of success towards your goals. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Lost Boys of Sudan

God Grew Tired of Us opens with the author fleeing his Sudanese village which has been attacked by the northern army.  He has no idea where his family is and things he is running away from the fire and killings with his father, but when the air clears, he knows it is a family friend of the Dinka ethnic group to which he belongs. He becomes one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan during the country's second civil war that ended in 2005 and in which over 20,000 boys were displaced or orphaned. The northern forces of the Muslim country sought to subvert the Christian south.  

He walked for days on end without food and in the heat, sometimes with other boys and the men who supervised their safety, sometimes hiding on the tall grasses by the sides of the roads at night. The boys and men who escaped saw much brutality and death, suffered dehydration and exhaustion, and walked thousands of miles over the course of years as they sought asylum. They experienced many physical and emotional setbacks along their way to surrounding African nations where they could stay in refugee camps.

The book was inspirational because of the sheer strength of character it took to survive during that time. The author, John Bul Dau, escaped and eventually ended up in the United States as part of a refugee program for the lost boys whose families were beleived dead.  The heartrending story ends with John becoming reunited with his mother and sister and eventually reconecting with his family in Africa.
 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Gum-Dipped, a Firestone Family

Gum-Dipped, published by University of Akron and written by Joyce Dyer, was a brave book.             The overriding themes were how Firestone , back in the day before Bridgestone, brainwashed people into complete and utter servitude and allegiance to the company.  Where the author lived was a product of the company, built by the company, and she didn’t realize how infectious it was until she started doing research for a book about her father and noticed that the shape of the streets in Firestone Park formed the “F” in Firestone.

Dyer's mother was the daughter of a fierce drunk and one of seven children, and Dyer observes that she tied an apron around her waist when she was ten, and “Maybe she never removed that apron again, as I think about it now.” But her father knew her mother wasn’t a mistake:  “Every day that he looked across our little breakfast table into my mother’s face, I could feel the thing that joined them, as real as the safety bar you pull down on the seat of a carnival ride.” And then Dyer jumps ahead and warns us that there will be betrayals much more extraordinary than a man’s roving eyes.

Harvey Firestone was the family’s hero. Father and daughter sit next to and on his statue. Harbel Manor looked like their house, their house was a much, much smaller version, made from a Sears Roebuck kit, one of the designs approved by Harvey for houses in Firestone Park. Harvey wanted his way of life reflected all around him, that’s how big his ego was. “The light that ushered in my dreams didn’t come from stars but from Firestone.” Firestone eventually closed factories and was bought by Bridgestone. It no longer had the power over its employees that it was had. The company was no longer villified.

Of course her father’s work in the Xylos reclaim factory killed him, all those chemicals gathering in his lungs. I was struck by the scene in which he asked his grandson to clean his genitals, telling him he’d have to do that one day. “My father was showing me what it would take to care for Annabelle Coyne, once he left me alone with her.”  Her father had been taking care of his wife who had Alzheimers.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lots to Say, But It's All Been Said

Kathryn Stockett’s success with The Help has been phenomenal for a first book. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but the book is written from the points of view of a young white woman, Miss Skeeter, whose family always had help in Jackson, Mississippi; by an older maid named Aibeleen, who lives alone and lost her only son in a tragic accident; and by Minnie, a younger woman who is in an abusive marriage and whose anger comes out as talking back. The voices of the maids are extremely well done in deep south black English, Aibeleen’s almost impossible to understand.


When Skeeter comes home and finds the woman who raised her, Constantine, gone, she can’t quite figure it out, and no one’s talking in Jackson, a place where no one says anything bad about someone’s mama and the blacks don’t talk to the white people anyway. Skeeter’s quest to find out what happened with Constantine turns into a desire to write the stories of the maids, and we end up having the story we read while she’s in the act of taking down the maids’ stories. When she starts, Skeeter has no idea how shunned she’ll be or what danger she’s putting the maids in, until a police car stops her as she crosses the bridge from one side of town to the other. “I see open, honest fear on Aibilen’s face.” The book was skillfully written. I can’t imagine writing something as good as this book is.

It’s also a place of such deep mores that Skeeter shouldn’t be talking to the help. Skeeter has changed while in college, and now she’s at odd with the bridge club and junior league, and she can’t imagine how Hilly, a woman as set in her prejudices and the Old South ways as anyone, was her best friend. In one of the first chapters, Skeeter says, “I was hurt by how easily my friend would be willing to cast me aside.”

The story isn’t just Skeeter’s. Aibeleen’s raised lots of children over the years, and she loves Mae Mobley as much as any other. She can’t believe how the mother, Elizabeth, casts her daughter aside. When the child is being potty trained, her mother won’t set an example, “I was fixing to tell her how manykids I raised in my lifeitime and ask her what number she on, but I ended up salying alrihgt like I always do,” and so she take the child to her outside-the-house garage bathroom and demonstrates for the child herself. The people in the south in 1963 are just starting to understand there’s a Civil Rights movement. At the Community Concerns Meeting at church, “Lately the meetings is more about civil rights than keeping the streets clean and who gone work at the clothing exchange.” It started off quietly, as a prayer concern, but racial issues are heating up with black people being shot and losing their jobs over nothing. One of the maids was sent to the penitentiary because she stole some silverware and for Miss Hilly, it was a vendetta and a way of keeping people in their place.

It works. The "Help" win.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Matters Most--A Good Story

Yes, it was a beach book, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Luanne Rice’s What Matters Most on tape. Nora chose the book, and I could tell she liked it, but she gave in to the chatter of it being a bit of fluff. I didn’t think it was that fluffy; I always take books at face value without the benefit of reviews and other peoples’ opinions, and that gives me an honest look at the book. Once again, I’m confronted by the genre thing, the what’s literature and what’s not thing, and I’m reluctant to cast a book as a certain type of book. The book had some good metaphor and a strong story line. The characters were believable and their stories rang true. There was lots of emotion, and I felt it. What did the writer intend to do? Did she achieve it? She intended to entertain and look into the human heart, and yes, she achieved what she set out to do. I suspect that’s why she has fans that are legion and why she’s written 24 books.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Imperfect Birds is a heartbreaking account of one family’s struggle with their daughter’s addiction. The interesting thing about the story is that the parents had no idea the daughter had a drug problem and the girl lived a stellar productive life, for most of the book. We saw her dependency growing, and we were taken inside Rosie’s head and how she saw her drug use, and that was very real and believable. I had a problem understanding how mother Elizabeth didn’t really see it, but it was probably denial, and the blindness she had was drawn in a way that would make every parent look more closely at their child’s behavior. That was probably the point.


The conflicts are painful, as is the blindness. The reader knows all in this book in which we get into the heads of all the characters. We know the conflict inside Rosie’s head as she sometimes wonders why she’s behaving the way she does. We see the conflict between the parents and the child, and between parents. We see the enabling and control, the doubt and the sureness. We see the characters struggle out of the darkness they’ve chosen into the light of understanding. We feel the pain of parents who finally have to put their daughter into rehabilitation because they have to do something to save her. There are lots of parenting lessons here; James says, “Listen: Every time you draw the boundary way outside of what we’ve agreed on, she has to come back that much farther, to even meet us halfway.”

As the jacket cover says, “Slowly and painfully, Elizabeth and James are forced to confront the fact that Rosie has been lying to them—and that her deceptions have profound consequences for them all.” This is also accurate—“Imperfect Birds is Anne Lamott’s most honest and heartrending novel, exploring our human quest for connection and salvations it exposes the traps that life—and we—set for ourselves.”

There were many take-aways for me. I suspect others found they connected with the marital conflict, the parent-child issues, the struggle for self, the loss that comes from realizing life isn’t as good as we thought it was. But in the end, there was hope, and uncertainty, as Elizabeth and James left Rosie at the wilderness rehab lodge. “The doors slammed one by one, and the engine started up, but Elizabeth and James did not see the lights of the van up here, only the dim reading lamp by the bedside and the thin quartered light of the moon through the ox-eye window, and they listened to the van pull away in the night.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alice Hoffman, Making Connections Again and Again

Alice Hoffman is one writer whose books I always look for and always read. When I saw The Red Garden, I had to pick it up. This book was better than some of her more recent books, but not as good as her earlier ones. I agree with Entertainment Weekly—“She is a born storyteller.” Because she was a born storyteller, she’s published 29 works of fiction and her work has been translated into 20 languages. That’s impressive. Few fiction writers today achieve that.


As usual, the scene is a small town in New England. The book takes us through 300 years of time, moving chronologically from one person’s view to another’s, the tales intersecting in family lines and community connections. We read about “passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions.: We start with the town’s founder Hallie Brady, who slept with bears and the “mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look,” the place where the bear that Harry shot was buried, causing Hallie to run off and never be seen again. But I had trouble finding the common thread or understanding what Hoffman was doing, even though the writing was beautiful and we always had the sense of the mysterious and magical.

In “Eight Nights of Love, 1792,” John says to Minette, “’You have no idea what’s inside of you,’” and Minette realizes “There was some sort of spark between them that had to do with questions and answers. But there was also something more. Minette felt a if she were opening, as if what was bruised insider her was in his hands. She wondered if this is what an angel did to you.”

In “The Truth About My Mother, 1903,” we learn about a schoolteacher who arrived mysteriously to teach the children of Blackwell (originally called Bearsville), who created a tale about who she was. “When she first arrived, she would stand outside in the garden late at night, when everyone else was in bed. People thought they were hearing coyotes, or one of the dozens of panthers that remained in the woods, but it was my mother, standing in the yard, crying.”

“King of the Bees,” the last chapter, ends with bees chasing James and Arthur. “When he had no choice and the steep riverbank was before them, James leapt into the Eel River, the boy in his arms. They went into the cold water, then resurfaced, sputtering and safe from harm. James thought about the garden, with soil so red it seemed to have a bloody, beating heart. He thought about where it was people went when they died, and how when he squinted he oculd see Cody, racing back and forth, barking, how his father seemed to stand right there on the riverbank, turning back the bees, closer than he’d ever been before.”

We’re all connected and there’s more to know than what we see, and that bear buried in the garden is symbolic of need and love and loss. As Jodi Picoult said, “When it comes to blending magic and the mundane routines of life, there’s no finder writer than Alice Hoffman . . . [She] reminds us with every sentence that words have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, to heal a broken heart, and to tie us irrevocably to the people we love.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Living Above It All

Second Story Woman by Carole Calladine was worthwhile, but wouldn’t have been a commercial success even if published by a national publishing company. I have a great deal of respect for Carole for writing the personal account of having diabetes, sneaking food, not exercising, a body like a melon, and all the other things that happen to people when their weight increases.


Carole takes off for Vegas by herself and learns to look at life differently. She starts writing and taking pictures and gives into it. She starts bicycling and gives into it. She learns about life’s possibilities. She gives up her job that has lots of status for a quieter one. She embraces her life. “A new world opened up. Wings against a blue sky fluttered inside of me singing words of thanksgiving. The freezing robin clinging to the branch had thawed and been freed by the fires lit from within.”

And then she takes care of her weight because she sees life differently. “For my sixtieth birthday, Andy presented me with a new bike with good brakes and two saddlebags. I was excited as any six-year-old with a new set of wheels to ride. The saddlebags have been filled with camera, pens, and paper. The views from my studio, in my journal, from my friends, and from my bike seat would nourish me pulling me out of life’s tight places when I was a cantankerous, old bear. I’d continue to ride, play, and sing my hosannas. The Emerald Necklace beckoned.” Husband Andy wanted to lease part of it but she loved the upstairs’ view of the park. So she lives upstairs and he lives down. She's a second story woman.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No Writer's Block Here--Ask Me for Ideas

Ideas . . . they're too numerous to follow.  I'm working on my memoir, trying to sell my novel and always changing it, and yet, there are ideas--a book on my spirtiual journey, a collection of short stories on working in Cleveland, another wineries book, the stories of my ancestors.  And yet, I had another one at dinner with other writers. My idea is to take a black girl who grew up in the black ghetto in the 1960s and have her have a white boyfriend and somehow she ends up being sterilized because of fear she’d make wrong choices, but she doesn’t find out until it’s 1980 and she’s 25 and married that she was sterilized. She’s struggled to be part of white society and it hasn’t been easy, and now she hates them and can’t believe she ever loved one. Her best friend is white, the boyfriend’s sister, and she remembers her girlfriend’s role in the event that led to her sterilization. The thing is, can I be black? My initial idea had been to take it from a white girl’s perspective and have all the same things happen, but would a white girl be sterilized? Maybe, in the KKK times. I think it would be hard for me to write as the black girl.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

If You Want to be a Writer, Write

That column by Plain Dealer's Regina Brett was next to my computer for years, and it appeared in a compilation of Regina Brett's quotes in  God Never Blinks.
Brett has important things to say about real things that happen to people, to everyone, and things that change people’s lives, like getting abused or raped—she says “your sexual identity is stolen. You don’t get to gradually come of age. When someone else’s sexuality is forced on you, it stunts your own growth. I spent my adult life trying to please a man by doing all the things I guessed he wanted, but I didn’t have a clue as to what made me feel good.” I can use that in my book, I think.

At the end of chapter 10, which made me cry because her Uncle Paul had a sad life and raised a child who was disabled and died young, she said “He’d be the first to say God never gives us more than we were designed to carry. Some of us were designed for more, some for less. No matter what, even if we are asked to carry a portion of sky, it is beyond bearable. It is gift.”

In the chapter “Make Peace with Your Past so it Doesn’t Screw up the Present,” Brett talks about how to get unstuck. First you have to know you’re stuck She said for her, if her “emotions don’t match what just happened, it’s about my childhood. I’ve learned to freeze the moment, just like you would pause a movie, and ask: Wait. Is this reaction about the present moment? Or is it about the past? I can’t change the past. But by changing my response to its leftovers, I can change the present.”

Then there are the sage thoughts in Lesson 29, “What Other People Think of You is none of Your Business,” when she wrote about what readers had to say about her, and her boss at the Beacon Journal asked her if she would be upset if someone called her a chair and she said she’s not a chair and he asked her if she knew whether she was a whore (which someone called her). She goes on to say “Perpetual quietness of the heart. That’s what I truly want underneath all those things I think I want. To be at rest when nobody praises me. That is true freedom.”

She says we should have a personal mission statement upon which you would truly base your life. She concludes that “I am simply a child of God, as valuable and treasured as every other child of God. Not the best, not the worst, and it doesn’t matter a whit what anyone thinks of me.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Blue Shoe

Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe was so much fun to listen to on tape because it was clearly written and well read. I’m a huge Anne Lamott fan, and it was really cool that we watched the documentary about her when we were in Lakeside last weekend. Her story of dealing with single motherhood and alcoholism is one of finding strength within and becoming a good and peaceful person. That’s what Mattie Ryder’s story is about too. Mattie is the newly-divorced mother of two living in her mother’s home with lots of unanswered questions about her life—in fact, it’s not too much different than my own Daffodils and Fireflies, there’s so many questions. It’s a “quiet” book, the kind I’m drawn to, like Sarah Willis’ novels. A new guy in her life doesn’t cause her to go crazy with passion—she’s too reluctant to go there.


As in my novel, clues emerge, in the form of a blue shoe and a key from a paint can. Now she knows why her aging mother is so crazy and why her father was so mysterious. What Mattie needs is honesty and intimacy, which she’s always lacked, and she finds that when she falls in love with Daniel. The blue shoe resides with each person in the story at different times. It was like the piece of bread social workers gave to orphans: “piece of bread was just to hold on to, to reassure the children through the night that they were safe now, that there would be bread to eat in the morning."

Mattie’s mother was good to everyone else but her own children, most likely because of her husband’s philandering, which made affection difficult. This was the direct result of knowing her husband loved another woman. Mattie does sort of the same thing, sleeping with her ex-husband Nicky even after he married someone else—this seemed to come from a need for love, not from a desire to get together with him, and her disgust for herself was the first step in the right direction. The reason she and Daniel fall in love is because of her honesty with him, and he falls away from his own wife because of a lack of intimacy. It was surprising to me that Mattie took pride in winning Daniel away from Pauline, sort of like she did better than her mother in winning her man and it somehow vindicated her father’s lying to them. Mattie’s faith is tested, but not so much the “religious” part, but her own God connection. By the end of the book, she’s at peace with who she is and the decisions she’s made, and has made her God connection.

Father Candy Book by Les Roberts

Retreating Again . . . at River's Edge

On the second day of the Skyline Retreat at River's Edge, I woke to think about when to go to breakfast and the heated therapeutic pool and when to do yoga and take pictures. It’s my nature to know there’s not enough time to do all those things and to make that my concern. I know, though, that morning time is writing time, and that’s what I’m here to do; everything else will fall into place. I dressed, then went into the chapel to say my prayers and meditate on carved Christ on the wall, then I made my way slowly down the halls to get a cup of coffee, reading about the programs and looking at the art on the walls. A watercolorists’ framed originals and prints are along the main hallway, and some are good, some not, and I think about how I should get out my paints and about Joan’s upcoming watercolor program at the Idlewyld. There’s a spiritual retreat coming up near my birthday that seems to be right up my alley, and I’m thinking about going to it. All these thoughts flittered in my head as I made my way to the dining room for coffee, which I’m sipping and noticing how different the flavor is, coffee that’s much better than Maxwell House and mellower than Starbucks, with a hint of cinnamon, which doesn’t bother me. Then I noticed a display about human slavery all over the world, which we talked about yesterday because I just finished the book “A Cup of Friendship,” and I thought about how I want to help with that cause, especially when I read that the CIA thinks 50,000 people are either brought to or through the US every year to become prostitutes, domestic slaves, field hands, etc., and they’re kept like prisoners.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cleveland's East Ohio Gas Blow-Up

Don Robertson’s book The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread was fun to read. He has these terribly long run-on sentences that I love. Those run-on sentences are one of the reasons why I need to get a new writing group. They don’t get that they’re all right.


I have to admit that I skipped around in this book, read the first 30 pages and skipped to the middle of the book, and I read the last half of the book in about two hours or less. I had to have it done for book group, and Ms. Roberta did a wonderful job of showing us where Morris Bird III walked and what the places that were blown up look like today. She even did a trifold board with photos she collected from the internet and took herself. We met at Lynn’s place, her comfy little haven, and had chicken salad with rosemary bread and rosemary butter, chocolate covered strawberries and shortbread cookies, and bread pudding. Very well done.

Don Robertson wrote 18 novels during his lifetime and he was from Cleveland. He took the night shift at his newspapermen’s job (he wrote for both the PD and the Press) so he could write novels. This book was written in 1965 when he would have been around 36 years old, and there are two other books with Morris Bird III in them. The New York Times said, “Delightful . . . universal enough to send a twinge of nostalgia through any ex-boy.”

The best part of the book was the end when Robertson captured what it was like to be in the Hough area when the gas tanks blew—I couldn’t put it down. We like this kid described in third person and always by his full name—Morris Bird III. “He had never seen Suzanne Wysocki cry. Veronica Lake had revealed herself to him. Suzanne Wysocki had never revealed a thing—except, of course, her interest in babies and death and all that sort of beeswax.” He loves a real girl and he loves Veronica Lake and Robertson says things like “beeswax,” which cracks me up. He keeps a picture of Veronica Lake hidden in a copy of a book about baseball, a picture he crooked from Woolworth’s. People tell him he has a good mind, and there are a whole mess of items in his head like “When you pitched baseball gum cards against a walk you got two for leaners” and “Republicans were terrible people. Everyone said o. Or anyway, almost everyone” (this one I particularly loved.) How about the word “tiddlelump”? The time is 1944, and we’re there with Morris and his little sister Sandra and a wagon with the words “NOSMIRC KAERTS” on it “hauling Sandra and the alarmclock (what’s with the combining of words like that?) and the jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter.”

Characters are well drawn and they all run together in paragraphs, like on page 135 when we get “Mrs. Barbara Sternad sat down and had a cigarette . . . So what if she did sort of baby herself? . . . The Bernstein neighbor again telephoned Casimir Redlich. No, no sign yet of Irving . . . Mrs. Imogene Brookes gently soaped herself in her tub. She always was gentle with her body. Its measurements were 35-22-35, and she didn’t want to disturb anything. She was humming, and her head was full of visions of her passionate optician, her wonderful G. Henderson LeFevre . . . Now she was entrapped in a dreadful situation, and the awful part of it was—she was enjoying it. It was uncomfortable and it was preposterous, but she’d never enjoyed anything more. Never.” Later, on page 138, she reflects “But she wasn’t in her right mind. He was quite tall and think, and his shoulders were rounded, and he wore rimless spectacles that in no way concealed the fact that he blinked too much, but oh dear, appearances were so deceiving. She loved him. Truly she did. She had to. If she didn’t, what did that make her? Oh dear. Such a dreadful thought.”

The descriptions are as horrible as how horrible it must have been. And I didn’t even know this true East Ohio Gas event of blown tanks of natural gas that caused 5000-degree temperatures even happened. The places where the houses were is now owned by East Ohio Gas, Roberta reports.

Why did nine-year-old Morris do all this? Why take his sister in a wagon across town? "Selfrespect." And when he gets home, he’s going to get it.



Wednesday, January 4, 2012

North East Wine Country

On my last day at Mount St. Benedictine's, I drove east along the lake. Vineyards stretched out to the south of Lake Road as far as I could see, and to the north of me until the Lake stopped their March. It felt bountiful. At Courtyard Winery, owned by 4th generation growers, I had quite a long talk with the winery owner, who knows the Lake Erie Region in Ohio pretty well and has been all over the country learning about wines. He lived in California for a while and he highly recommends we go to Washington State and drive along the Joaquin River and loop around to the Columbia Valley and into Portland. He says it’s a beautiful drive and we’ll see some 500 wineries. He hoped I’d buy a case, but he understood me when I said my husband wouldn’t be happy if I did that without him—I purchased a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Courette hybrid wine, which were both good, but young, so they'll stay in the rack for a while.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Another Milan Jacovitch Book by Les Roberts

I want a cigarette because Milan smokes then so real in The Cleveland Creep. The book is tight, with no extra words at all. We immediately liked Milan and are drawn into the story from page 1: “A couple came into the bar and sat down next to me. They both had that kind of unremarkable, unmemorable face that you couldn’t identify ten minutes later, and the only reason I noticed them at all was that his head got in the way between me and the TV set at the far end of the bar.” There’s something about the way he talks that is very much Les’s voice, and I love it. I hear Les all the way through the book, and because I love Les, I love reading the story.

We learn about Milan gradually, but at the beginning of chapter two, we get “Maybe it’s the empty-bed syndrome after a lifelong marriage; maybe it’s just that I’m pushing forty and not terribly pleased with where my life has taken me,” which is followed by two paragraphs of his life story, his entire life summed up just like that and very naturally in the conversational tone that this first-person past-tense book does. While this is a book about solving a crime, it’s mostly about Milan, and I suppose that’s why people like it Les’ books so much. He has absurd conversations with people because he doesn’t hold back, doesn’t care much about what people think of him.

I find it interesting that he goes into discourses about art and places and it doesn’t bother me. For example, he gives a description of A Streetcar Named Desire and a critique of the actress’s performance, and it sounds like he’s just telling a story. On Cleveland locations, we recognize them: Sammy’s becomes Danny’s, and the Watermark becomes the Watershed. I’m glad Milan too Mary to the Watermark instead of to Sammy’s, which was always a bit obnoxious.

Descriptions. Get a load of this: “his face got tight like a woman’s leather clutch purse that had been stuffed too full with makeup and cigarettes and tampons and address books.” Since Milan is narrating this, that’s Milan’s description. Milan is smart. Some of the things he says, like “I’ll bet your dictionary of American clich├ęs is falling apart from overuse” are gems.

The plot is easy to follow and intriguing. I want to find out what happened to the guy who was murdered, and I want to find out what is behind it all. What are the reasons human beings do these things to each other? Greed, hate, jealousy, anger, all those negative things that make us human are the things capable of turning us to murder.
At the end of the book we’re in Milan’s personal life, and his relationship with Mary and his thoughts on the whole matter, which is exactly where the book should go to at the end because the book is about Milan and not about the murder he solved. There’s a long sentence there, but I like long sentences. “And afterward, after we had moved into the adjoining room for reasons of comfort and greater maneuverability, and we were each smoking a cigarette and sharing a Stroh’s, I couldn’t help reflecting on the nature of the universe, and how from death comes life, from destruction comes rebirth, and from a particularly messy and brutal case that had pretty much destroyed my faith in human nature came my first moment of real peace and happiness in a long time.”

He struggles with having chosen the private investigator line of work, and he ends the book with “And maybe, just maybe, it might not have happened to a greengrocer or a rack jobber or the guy who sells ads on the phone for the Plain Dealer. And that made it all okay.”