as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground. (Shakespeare)
What does it take to grow up, to become a real person? Line, who wants to right wrongs; Marty, who loves beauty; and Paul, who is focused on science and truth, explore these questions in a series of novels with the overarching title "So Are You To My Thoughts".
The great writing of my generation does not always appear in
novels or poems. It’s mostly been spent on songs, which, in performance or
recorded, had a lot more audience. The great opening out of American culture in
the 1960’s and 1970’s absorbed amazing lyricists. Especially if you count the
Canadians among them! It is hard to write about the music of this time in a
short blog post, but also impossible not to mention how much we lived, and
learned, from the messages in songs.
Civil rights marches and the protests against the Vietnam
war were powered by song. I’ve read how the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama,
starting point for all of the civil rights marches out of Selma, reverberated
with songs and spirituals. All of the marches I was on began and ended with
speakers and singers. A friend of mine was in love with Phil Ochs, whose songs
were very much to the point at the time.
I bought a cheap record player to be able to buy and listen
to albums. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell albums were the first two, and after
playing them over and over, I knew the songs by heart. This became a pattern. I
didn’t listen to the radio or buy pop singles. I bought the albums of
songwriters for whom the lyrics were as important as the music. That doesn’t
mean I didn’t love a good rocking beat. I remember how we danced! But the
albums I knew best were about the words.
Bob Dylan and John Lennon were perhaps the most influential
songwriters. We had The White Album and George Harrison’s triple album All
Things Must Pass.We waited for
Dylan’s albums: Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks. I
loved Kris Kristofferson, for both his writing and his acting. He wrote some of
the anthems of our lives, such as “Me and Bobby McGee.” I knew all of the songs
on Music for Big Pink, many written by Robbie Robertson. The title of my
current book, Pulled Into Nazareth, comes from one of his songs.
Buffy St. Marie’s voice and her lyrics as well were
mesmerizing. They are still wonderful. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics grew tiresome pretty
early for me, and Carole King was way too poppy. Carly Simon was everywhere,
and therefore uninteresting, though I got to love some of her work later. We
all hoped for a lot from Phoebe Snow, but we only got one album. Linda Ronstadt
covered Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s wonderful songs, though I didn’t know them
until later either.
I resonated to the words of John Prine and John David
Souther, as sung by Linda Ronstadt. Sad songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and
“Silver Blue.” But also I loved Boz Scaggs, who was from our town (San
Francisco) and wrote his own unique music. I had Moments and Silk
Degrees, his best selling albums. I cut photos of him dancing out of The
Rolling Stone and taped them to the walls of my office! I also loved Ray
Charles, who was a little older, but actively writing and performing during
By this time I wasn’t in much control of the stereo. These
were the days that, unless you put on headphones and shut everyone else out,
everyone in the house (and maybe the apartments above and below you!) listened
to the same music. I loved Bob Marley, but only got to know him thoroughly
later. Same with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne, whose work I find amazing.
These are only a few of the many wonderful songwriters whose lyrics and music
soared through our lives.
Recently, Neil McCormick wrote of a 2010 performance by Kris
Kristofferson at Cadogan Hall: “At 74, standing tall and straight at the centre
of an otherwise empty stage, he held a London audience completely spellbound by
the magical power of an open spirit and truly great songs … Now that Cash, his
first public champion, has passed away, Kristofferson provides a rare link to
an old idea of a mythic, honourable America. His English audience responded
with generosity and respect.”
My character Paul is a reasonably good folk guitarist. He is
often made welcome because of it and the number of songs that he knows. I can’t
help but quote some of these songs in the stories I am writing, and I hope that
the songwriters will be happy with my declaration of “fair use” as commentary
and criticism, as noted in copyright law. Their great work united us and
expressed what we were thinking. Literature may have been the poorer, but
public life was enriched.
Public education in Alaska took a radical turn in the mid
1970’s. Previous to this time, kids who wanted a high school education, and
even some younger kids, could only get it at large boarding schools. High
school was not available in the villages strung out across Alaska. Kids were
sent far from home to schools run by the Board of Indian Affairs or to schools
in the larger cities. Kids from different native Indian, Eskimo and Aleut
cultures were mixed together and speaking their native languages was forbidden.
My aunt Helen Frost established a Lutheran Center for native
students attending the Mt. Edgecumbe School, a boarding school run by the BIA
in 1955. She especially worked with the students who came from the towns where she had been a missionary: Igloo, Teller, Shishmaref and Nome. “They were far from their
home villages and enjoyed having someone they knew to visit and worship with on
Sundays,” she writes in Frost
Among the Eskimos, a memoir of her time in Alaska from 1926 to 1961.
This boarding school still exists and is known for its science programs.
It was very difficult for young kids to leave home, but also
for the villages to say goodbye to their children during the school year.
Debby Dahl Edwardson chronicles the experiences of her husband in boarding
school in My
Name Is Not Easy. One of her husband’s siblings was sent to school in
Oklahoma without the knowledge of their parents. One was killed when,
desperately homesick, he left for home in bad weather and was lost in a small
plane crash. The kids learned to stick together during their difficulties, and,
according to Edwardson, became the generation which created the Alaskan
Federation of Natives. This organization, still a powerful force in Alaskan
politics, originally worked on negotiation and implementation of the Alaska
Native Claims Settlement Act, passed in 1971.
In 1974, a class-action suit, charging discriminatory
practice on the part of the state, was filed on behalf of rural secondary-aged
students, for not providing local high school facilities for predominantly
native communities when it did for same-size, predominantly non-native,
communities. The suit became known by the name of Molly Hootch, a Yup’ik Eskimo
student from Emmonak whose family was among those filing. Molly was no longer in
school by the time the suit was settled out of court in 1976, with the Tobeluk
Consent Decree. It declared the state would establish a high school in every
community where there was an elementary school, unless the community declined
The settlement fell at a time when social, political and
economic factors were favorable to the success of the program. Alaskan native
peoples were becoming more involved in political and social aspects of their
lives and Alaska was suddenly wealthy due to pipeline revenues from the oil
discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Schools built in small villages across the state
quickly became community centers.
As Nick Jans describes in The
Last Light Breaking, a record of his years teaching in Ambler, these
schools faced enormous challenges. One unexpected result was the prevalence of
basketball! Ambler residents “specified that a gym was first on the list, and
they got what they asked for: a basketball floor with cramped classrooms tacked
on as an apparent afterthought.” Cultural renaissance also came about, with locally-controlled
school districts mandating that local language and culture be taught to every
Paul sees all of these changes. When he begins teaching at
Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, he is especially sensitive to the Eskimo and
Indian kids who are boarders, sometimes treated like servants in the houses
where they live. During pipeline construction, double shifts are instituted to
accommodate all the students. Paul assists in building local schools during the
summers after the Molly Hootch agreement is put into effect. In 1976, he moves
to the burgeoning West Valley High School out near the university when it
opens, behind schedule and with 250 more students than it was built for.
Fairbanks is the city Paul hoped for, diverse, complex, but at the edge of a
The 1970’s was the decade in which airline travel became normal for
us. Aisf Siddiqi confirms this here,
describing how advances in jet engine construction led to new social habits for
the middle class: “students were now
traveling to Europe for summers, and families were now vacationing in far-off
places for a single weekend. By the 1970s, the convenience of jet travel made
vast international cultural exchanges a norm.”
The United States is
a very large place. Line, Marty and Paul, take up residence far from their
parents in California and Alaska. Mother and Dad still have young children at
home and do all of their vacationing at their cabin on a northern Minnesota
lake. They hardly travel at all. But affordable airline travel allows Line,
Marty and Paul to travel to Minnesota to visit every once in a while.
Travel set off all kinds of innovation in luggage and gear
to make it possible. Researching questions such as “when did roller bags come
into use?” or “when were baby backpacks first used?” reminded me that many of
the things we now take for granted were new, or didn’t exist at the time I am
Ann Moore with her daughter
You could find the first Snugli in the 1970’s. It was
patented by Ann Moore in 1969. She had noticed how peaceful babies carried on their mother’s
backs were, in Togo where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. With her
mother’s help, she crafted a backpack so she could “wear” her daughter
and have her hands free. There was no advertisement. People just kept asking
Ann, “where can I get one of those?” Ann sent the orders back to her mother in
Ohio, who sewed them with the help of her friends. It was then featured in the Whole
Earth Catalog, and became a cottage industry for the little town in Ohio
where Ann grew up.
About the same time, Owen Maclaren, an aeronautical
engineer, heard his daughter complaining about the difficulties of traveling
with a baby carriage. Maclaren came up with the idea of a lightweight, safe
stroller that could be folded up like an umbrella, getting a US patent for it
in 1968. With a strong, aluminum frame the stroller weighed six pounds and took
up very little space. Maclaren products, manufactured near Rugby, England, and exported
everywhere, led the innovation in strollers that continued throughout the 1970s
You did not see many suitcases on wheels in the 1970s, much
less the colorful little roller bags kids all have now. Bernard Sadow had
trouble selling the idea when he first had it in 1970. Mr. Sadow was frequently
told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho
thing,” he said. He did begin to sell them, but big suitcases tipped and
wobbled, pulled on a strap on their little wheels. In 1987 Robert Plath, a
Northwest Airlines pilot, put two wheels and a long handle on his bag, calling
it the Rollaboard. He sold it to his fellow crew members. When travelers in
airports saw flight attendants striding briskly through airports with their Rollaboards
in tow, everyone wanted one.
I’ve taken airline travel pretty much for granted ever since
I took an Icelandic flight from New York to London in 1966. The most
hair-raising flight for me was on an ancient airplane upholstered with ruffled
green cushions from Chengdu to Chongqing, China, in October, 1990. I didn’t
find out what the vintage of the propeller-driven airplane was. It
clanked and bumped down the runway, but it did have cabin pressure and cheerful
uniformed stewardesses. My heart was in my mouth, as they say, but I reasoned
with myself that all of the other perhaps 100 passengers expected to arrive
safely, and indeed we did!
I’ve never been in an airline emergency, or even lost a
suitcase in all these years. I
suspect my experience of the airlines is common, though I travel a lot less
these days. One’s suitcase, as it comes bumping out of the
baggage handlers and around the moving belt, will always be a welcome sight! And, like the character in Love Actually, I find the meetings of friends and relations in airports forever thrilling.
This year’s book in the series about the Mikkelsons, Pulled
Into Nazareth, was slow getting started. I was doing more research for the
book, as some of it is set in places I’ve never been. And also, things just
seemed to get in the way of writing. In May I started worrying. The previous
year I had been much further ahead. Would I finish half the book by the end of
June? I began to put writing first, and yesterday I uploaded chapter 14 to the
location where my first readers can find it, reaching the half way mark.
As I walked through San Rafael yesterday I noticed that the
majestic old jacaranda which grows in a street park near the reconstructed
Mission was blooming. The mysterious, spicey scent of the blue trumpet-flowers
opened up in the hot, sunny afternoon, but the thick branches made a heavy
shade and under the tree fallen blue flowers carpeted the grass.
I haven’t lived with many jacarandas, so each has been
special. The first was in North Oakland, in a residential neighborhood which I passed
through each day on my way to work. I struggled with the name jacaranda, which
was pronounced with the ‘j’ sounding more like an ‘h.’ Its origins are lost in
time, but is believed to be from a Guarani (an indigenous
language of South America) word meaning ‘fragrant’. I especially enjoyed the
few weeks in early summer when it bloomed.
Toward the end of those years, I talked to the owner of the
tree. She threatened to cut it down as its roots were upending the concrete
sidewalk. She was older and had no money to pay for insurance claims. So sad, I
thought. Then I worked in Los Angeles for a few weeks in spring and found
little ornamental forests of jacarandas on the plaza levels above the downtown
Place is so important to all of us. Jacarandas don’t grow
everywhere. Here the coastal morning fog cools us each night and clear, bright
days are leaving us a very dry summer. But we are listening to the predictions
of an El Niño which scientists perceive developing off the Pacific coast and
hopeful that winter rains will alleviate our drought. I have long felt much
more related to the rim of the Pacific than to Europe. Does this affect my
writing, I ask myself.
When a Japanese-born friend tells me she is reading a lot of
the Shishōsetsu, or I-novels written in Japanese, I research these and find
that they are a particular genre in which writers used the events of their own
lives for their subjects. Beginning in the early 20th century, the
writers wished to portray a realistic view of the world involving real
experiences, often showing the darker side of society. Except for the realism
involved, this did not sound like my work.
But then I found that Gish Jen, a contemporary American-born
Chinese writer, has written a book entitled Tiger Writing, about the
“profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived
between East and West.” She believes that the novel is essentially a Western
form that values originality, authenticity and the truth of individual
experience, while Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity,
the everyday, the recurrent.
I’ve had trouble thinking of the stories about the Mikkelson
kids as a series of novels, though by some definitions, the novel is such a big
envelope it can contain almost any kind of fiction. My work is certainly about
“cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.” It’s about family and how
our personal and public lives interact, with emphasis on the private aspects.
In the end, of course, I am not the one to say what the books become. I must
just write them and hope that they eventually find their audience.
The University of California at Santa Cruz opened in 1965.
It had a number of experimental ideas, including pass/fail grades, residential
colleges, and the innovative cross-disciplinary history of consciousness
program. For Paul Lee, however, the university’s first few years, before it
hardened into a research institution, were crystallized by the presence of Alan
Chadwick and the gardens he made there. Lee taught philosophy and religious
studies at Crown College until he was denied tenure. Lee had the idea that a
student garden on the beautiful, open campus would be a good addition to
interdisciplinary study. Within weeks of a walk Lee organized to look for a
possible garden site, Alan Chadwick turned up.
Alan Chadwick had been a British naval officer and a
Shakespearean actor but it was as a master gardener for the many gardens he
began up and down the coast of California that he made his mark. He used a
French intensive biodynamic gardening system which has its roots in Rudolf
Steiner and Goethe. When Lee asked whether Chadwick would make a garden for the
university, Chadwick went out, bought a spade and started digging without any
discussion of contracts, salary or where it should be done!
Chadwick hated industrial farming and gardening, the
tractors which had compacted the soil and the profit motive that set them in
motion. He preached biological diversity instead of mono-cropping and used
companion planting and other techniques to guard against pests. His theme was
working with nature, learning its rhythms and mysteries. He was as Paul Lee
writes, “the Pied Piper of the reaffirmation of the integrity of organic nature
and its carefree abundance, and the lifestyle that went with it.”
Photo copyright by Gregory Haynes
As a person, Chadwick was flamboyant and imperious. Students
who became his apprentices never forgot him. Beth Benjamin writes: “He had
flaming temper tantrums, told tales, gave us dinner parties, fed us with his
own bread and ham and cheese, threw dirt clods at us and laughed as he hid
behind the compost piles. He taught us the joy of work, the discipline to
persevere in order to make a dream come true, even when we were hot and tired,
and the deliciousness of resting and drinking tea after such monumental
The high point of Chadwick’s residence at Santa Cruz was a
series of lectures he gave which had the quality of a revivalist meeting.
Chadwick called people back to their own nature and the nature around them, which, he pointed out, was
under radical attack. But after about five years of working on the gardens,
Chadwick was finished at the university. Paul Lee was told by a colleague, “do
you know that [Chadwick’s] garden has done more to ruin the cause of science on
this campus than anything else?” Chadwick packed his bags and went on to
Saratoga and Green Gulch.
This story and much more is told in Paul Lee’s rambling
book, There Is a Garden in the Mind. His insistence that the California
organic movement began at UC Santa Cruz with Alan Chadwick is further described
on his website. Peter Jorris and Greg Haynes have
put together a rich website including many video memories of his dynamic
personality and teaching at Alan-Chadwick.org.
Alan Chadwick also appears in Wendy Johnson’s book Gardening at the Dragon’s
Gate, in which she describes Chadwick’s contributions to the gardens at
Green Gulch Zen Center just north of the Golden Gate. Chadwick died at Green
Gulch in 1980.
For the purposes of my current novel, Pulled Into
Nazareth, Chadwick impacts Line’s story when she and her husband move to
Santa Cruz. Stephen is getting his doctorate in history and Line, though she
has a small child in tow, works in the Chadwick garden before Chadwick leaves
in 1972. Line is, of course, part of the choir. Alan has no need to preach to her! I first learned about Chadwick from my sister Solveig, a natural
gardener who now does her gardening and birding in Yorkshire, England.
My character Line has been interested in the birth process
since her earliest days in high school when a friend allows her to be present
when his sow farrows. Even then, she is impressed with the transcendent
atmosphere in the barn where her friend has spent the night with the newborn
pigs and their mother.
Women in the 1970’s were exploring all kinds of ways to take
back power they felt they had abdicated. By this time Line has moved to Santa
Cruz where her husband is getting a doctorate in history at the University of
California. Of course, when she is pregnant, she finds the Santa Cruz Birth
Center that Raven Lang and other courageous women began.
Raven Lang's Birth Book, 1972
Raven Lang was unhappy with birth as she
experienced it at Stanford Hospital. In Raven’s case, the delivery room was
“urgently needed,” so her doctor enlarged the episiotomy he had already done
and in his haste cut through her anal sphincter. When she left the hospital she
could not straighten up to walk or carry her own baby. She knew something had
gone terribly wrong, though no one would tell her what. She questioned all
hospital practices related to pregnancy, labor and delivery.
Raven began to provide classes in natural
childbirth and attend local home births. Public health nurses pressured Raven
to find out whether she was certified to teach as she did. She gathered
together other women she knew who were teaching childbirth preparation and
attending home births as midwives. They began to meet and share their education
and experiences. They started the Birth Center which was entirely supported by
the Santa Cruz community. They kept statistics on all of the births they
monitored. Eventually they shared medical knowledge with others up and down the
coast, becoming a kind of irregular school, and then the California Association
In March, 1974, Linda Bennett and Jeanine Walker were
requested to assist in a home birth. They were entrapped by undercover agents
(one of them pregnant) who confiscated their kit of birth tools, arrested both
women and drove them to jail. At the same time officials from the DA’s office,
the sheriff’s office, the state police converged on the Birth Center. Raven and
Kate Coleman inside the center alerted radio stations and newspapers. Instead
of violating laws about practicing without licenses, the women at the Birth
Center believed the real issue was one of human rights.
This story is told in Immaculate Deception, by
Suzanne Arms. I got the 1975 version from the library, because I am working
with a 1970’s point of view. In this first version of the book, Suzanne, who
also had a bad birthing experience in a hospital, does not mince words! “I
realized an entire system of medical procedures and interferences had been
established to treat normal birth as a risky, dangerous, painful and abnormal
process in which pregnant women have no choice other than to submit
As a result of women questioning the over-technologized
procedures of hospital births and obstetricians’ care, birth practices began to
change. When my sister gave birth in the mid 1980’s, she chose one of two midwives practicing in San Francisco. They assisted her in
the natural process in birthing rooms provided at Mount Zion Hospital in San
Francisco. Her husband was in attendance and her new baby was not taken away
Birthing is a cultural, as well as a deeply personal event and there is now a wide array
of choices. But it does sound as if many women are again trusting birth to
technology. In 2011 the national percentage of cesarean sections was 32.8%. Dr.
Martin Blaser in Missing Microbes questions whether babies who don’t
come down the birth canal are getting the immunities they need. I doubt I need
to tell you where my character Line’s proclivities lie.
Looking back at the 1970’s in San Francisco, the Scandia
Bakery on Powell Street looms large for me. Crowded with small tables which
threw its patrons into amenable groups, it served good coffee and an array of
delectable pastries and cakes. Most weeks, if I went down town at all, I
stopped in at the Scandia. My sisters and I used it as a meeting place, and on
one magic occasion, I arrived to find my mother, who had not been in San
Francisco in my memory, calmly sitting at one of the little tables.
A Swedish baker and his family owned the coffee shop. (Try
as I might, I cannot find any reference to their name on the web.) While you
sat drinking coffee, you might hear the pounding and rolling of dough on the
balcony above you and smell the sweet and yeasty smells wafting out of the oven. The
baker was grey-haired, older; his wife was behind the counter most of the time.
Once I arrived to find their daughter, dark-haired and vivacious, holding court
over a circle of admirers who filled up the tables in front. Dark-complected
Eastern Europeans, they looked incredibly full of life to me.
I had a hard time choosing between my two favorite pastries,
a cherry or a prune Danish, lightly glazed with sugar icing. The dough for
Danish is similar to puff paste, rolled, folded and interleaved with butter.
Making it is hard, heroic work. I didn’t try to make it myself more than once.
I understand it comes from Austria, though it became wildly popular in
Scandinavia. Wonderful Princess cakes of vanilla sponge, jam, and cream topped
with a pale green marzipan frosting, and other cakes and puffs filled with
pastry cream, as well as cookies were also served at Scandia.
The place was always full of exotic people. European
tourists found it quickly. I loved listening to the many different languages at
every crowded table. But there were also the regulars. I remember a
well-dressed older woman, in hat and gloves, who I often saw there, or the
concierge of a nearby hotel whom I talked to several times. I often saw Marian
and Vivian Brown, the San Francisco twins, dressed to the nines and happily
talking to people around them.
Tame as it sounds, I have a lot of wild associations with
this bakery, partly because it was on Powell Street. The rows of sycamores at
the base of the street cast light and shade on fair and foul alike, making it
look like a European avenue. Those of us who lived in the city were not
deceived, however! The street was just north of the Tenderloin, where many of
the city’s most unfortunate lived. On Powell Street in the 1970’s you might
walk past a derelict person lying face down in the street or see a wasted
person who no longer cared that their rags barely covered them.
Because it is here that the cable car drivers push the cars
onto a turntable, then turn them around and catch the cable under the street
north, long lines of tourists waiting to go to Fishermans’ Wharf attract street
musicians and entertainers. An indelible image for me was a thin, long-legged
girl wearing woodsy material dancing in the center of a ruffian gypsy band.
Tall dark men with long unkempt hair, brown faces and sinewy limbs, wearing
ragged accretions of leather and cloth surrounded her. Wild, enchanted, gypsy
fiddles made the music. The girl whirled as though possessed with a joy unequaled
in the civilized city. They looked as though they had wandered out of a fairy
Beside the bakery was a bookstore, a deep room infinitely
filled with shelves and tables graced with books and stationery. I spent long
hours there, sifting through the art books, hunting down new writers and
decrying the fact that my favorites weren’t in print. The city changes
constantly, but for my first years there a few blocks surrounding the Scandia
Bakery was its cultural center.