The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

With Some Grace

I chose the title for the next book in my series about the Mikkelsons, Nature’s Stricter Lessons, from something Gary Snyder wrote. This book chronicles the time in which I became aware of him and his earthy, human, ecological writing. In The Practice of the Wild, which he published in 1990, he writes about place, wilderness and people. “Recollecting that we once lived in places is part of our contemporary self-rediscovery. It grounds what it means to be ‘human.’” He writes that gravity and a livable temperature have given us our bodies. “The ‘place’ gave us far-seeing eyes, the streams and breezes gave us versatile tongues and whorly ears. The land gave us a stride, and the lake a dive. The amazement gave us our kind of mind. We should be thankful for that, and take nature’s stricter lessons with some grace.”

For the Mikkelson kids, in the decade roughly between 1979 and 1989, stricter lessons begin to make themselves evident. Line’s kids are growing up and her wildest one, Christopher, remains incorrigible to anyone but her. In her work in a community hospital, she finds death and dying as important as birth. Marty, though she enjoys being a young, upwardly mobile professional, must acknowledge that her marriage has not matured into a partnership, that perhaps it won’t. Paul feels he has finally found the place he should be, but is surprised when family events put more responsibility on him that he ever expected.

As I prepare to write, I am surprised to find that the incidence of both natural and manmade disasters during the decade of the 1980’s is staggering. All over the world! Our awareness of these disasters was intense, though it was well before the internet became available. Mostly it came through newspapers and the occasional television news broadcast. And from each other. It was impossible not to know what was happening if you were out in the world, living and working.

I was at two architectural firms during that time, for approximately five years each. I had a friend who dedicated himself to anti-nuclear activism after the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979. Other friends talked about the ash that lay over northwestern cities as the Mt. St. Helen’s volcano erupted in 1980, and continued to be active, leaving a vast grey landscape. The homeless population was rising, as Reaganomics dictated that social services were too expensive for a wealthy country like ours. I remember walking to work along the Embarcadero every morning, seeing a small population of people who woke up in sleeping bags laid out at the edge of the Bay. I wondered whether living in the open was actually so bad!

During the second half of the decade I worked with many talented architects who were rapidly dying from AIDS. My sister took care of these sufferers at Children’s Hospital, where at first people recognized only the Karposi’s sarcomas and related diseases they were seeing. The breakup of the Challenger Space Shuttle as it rose into orbit cast a pall over all of us, effectively shutting down the space program for several years. The Exxon Valdez spilled 260,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound affecting the habitats of fish, sea mammals and birds for many years to come. And I was at work in 1989 when the earth buckled all along the San Andreas fault during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

We were also aware of the many disasters which didn’t touch us quite so closely: the terrifying loss of life from famine in Ethiopia in which a million people died by the end of 1984; earthquakes in southern Italy, Chile, and Mexico City, which killed thousands and left millions homeless; two different cyclone seasons in the intensely populated Bangladesh in which over 10,000 were killed and more millions homeless; the toll of victims of a toxic gas leak in a chemical plant in Bhopal, India reached 23,000; and in Chernobyl, Russia, a nuclear plant meltdown killed 4,000, while 350,000 had to be resettled. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was first discovered in 1985.

These many disasters, some triggered by men and some not, punctuated the 1980’s. But also, by the end of the decade, the iron curtain which chained in communist countries began to come down and Poland, Estonia, Romania and Czechoslovakia proclaimed their freedom; the Berlin wall came down in Germany; and apartheid, as a policy, failed in South Africa. Even in China, a failed attempt at democracy began with protests by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

It was a tumultuous decade indeed, prompting many of us to think in terms of the “stricter lessons” caused by both men and nature, and reminding us to be grateful for the tenuous net of human life on earth. It is also worth noting that in 1989, a proposal for what was known as the World Wide Web, upon which I am now able to set down these thoughts, was made in Switzerland by Tim Berners-Lee.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lightly Held Adventures

So. The top of the mountain is now in sight. I’ve just uploaded the text for Pulled Into Nazareth, with its fresh ISBN number, which completes the adventure I set for myself this year: to publish the four books I’ve written in the last few years. The books are a series about Line, Marty and Paul, who move from their Midwestern cultural roots toward the wider world. The expedition now looks to be successful and I am surprised and pleased to see it through! In a couple of weeks, all four will be available for purchase on the Amazon website.

Connie, by Don Starnes, 2011
When Don and I first got together in 1999, we promised to hold each other lightly, allowing each other to be who we actually are. Lightly Held Films became the name of the production company we put together and when I turned to books, for me they were Lightly Held Books. Readers of this blog know all about the “making of” the series, which has the overall title of So Are You To My Thoughts.

Of course I’m using a “disruptive technology,” self-publishing, so I get what I deserve! I.e., so far not much in the way of reviews or attention. But also, as Don says, I am working “against story.” It may seem that I am naïve, or misunderstand the business of writing. But that is not the case. These books are exactly what I intend. Unpretentious characters, an atmosphere informed by my own life and what I know to have happened, an organic unfolding unlike what anyone could have predicted. This results in a vivid liveliness which contrived plots cannot match. A few readers have grown to love the characters and cannot wait to hear more about them.

And there is more. The currently written books leave off in about 1979. Line has a house full of kids, but wants work of her own, Marty’s marriage appears precarious and Paul is about to begin a new life in a new place. Where will their fortunes take them? Next year I will be working on their further lives in Nature’s Stricter Lessons. If all goes well, there will be three more books.

There is one other area in which I may be “disruptive.” One of my friends worried that perhaps I ought to have the permission of the Lenny Bruce estate, since the poster of him we had on our wall in Ann Arbor, Michigan, appears in a cover photograph. In fact, throughout the books, I quote snippets of the songs which so affected everyone I knew. The book titles themselves come from well-known songs. I believe that I use this material in the context of “fair use” of copyrighted material. Where songs are not well-known, I note the songwriter’s names in the text.

In the front of each book we state: "The author believes that all quotations in this book have been used under the 'commentary and criticism' fair use of copyrighted materials." The “fair use” doctrines, as they continue to be litigated, are based on the purpose of one’s use, the amount used and the effect of use on the value of the copyrighted work. As Ed Black, president of Computer and Communications Industry Association, says, “Fair use is the foundation of the digital age and a cornerstone of our economy.” Don too says, "If we want to have a culture, we must be able to quote from each other freely." In general, I believe that my quotes will enhance the use of copyrighted material, reminding people of its existence!

Books exist somewhere in the space between the reader and the writer. A book must leave space for the reader to become involved. The writer cannot, and should not, do all the work. If you read reviews, which are everywhere now, you will note that each tells quite a bit about the reviewer. Even professional reviewers, if not telling much about themselves, often reveal where their bread is buttered! The conversation is endless. It is what makes up a culture. What writers want is to be part of the conversation. It is certainly why we write.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mentored by Writers

Not uncommonly, I think, for a young person who moved around a lot, I chose books and their writers as my chief window on the outside world. Narrative writers to begin with, though these writers were profoundly involved with reality. Later they were poets, essayists, those who told their own story. Using strict criteria, including having read most of their books, being involved with each over a long period of time and continuing interest in their work, I’ve come up with a very odd list of six writers. It surprises even me! Each of them commands my continuing attention, though there is little about their lives I do not already know.

From the time I was seven and Wilder’s “Little House” books were coming out with the Garth Williams illustrations, her prose has sounded in my head. The family she described closely mirrored my own, with a father and mother and four girls (soon to be more), as did their life on the plains, though Wilder described a pioneer girlhood 80 years previous to mine. Pa’s quest for a life lived in nature and Ma’s desire for education and civilization have been the twin sides of my own family’s values. The Ingalls family, even now, is as real to me as any I knew.

When I became aware of Ernest Hemingway’s direct, sensuous prose, I read as much of it as I could get my hands on. Even during the long period after his death when he was denigrated and I understood some of the damage he had caused, I never wholly let go of my fascination with Hemingway’s writing, his desire to be great. Lately this has been somewhat vindicated by reading the comic True At First Light, the book his son Patrick was able to carve from the “Africa book” Hemingway was working on. And, in the wonderful Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Henrickson quotes Archibald MacLeish as saying Hemingway was “the most profoundly human and spiritually powerful creature I have ever known.”

I read Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in the summer of 1966 in the very first room I ever had of my own. I was struggling to get past Christianity, and this story of a poet at odds with Russia’s Bolshevik revolution helped. He wrote to his cousin in 1946, “The atmosphere of the work is my Christianity, slightly different in its breadth from Quaker or Tolstoyan belief, deriving from other aspects of the Gospel in addition to the moral.” I spent years reading everything Pasternak had ever written, as well as many biographies. As John Bayley writes, “Pasternak shares with Tolstoy the power of transforming and humanizing the actual and the terrible, not by shutting himself away from it but by remaining unexcited by it.” I have still not penetrated all that Pasternak was able to say about 20th century life.

Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
In the 1970’s, biographies, diaries and letters began to come out by and about Virginia Woolf. I have not read all of them, but I read a great deal, and was especially moved by her great novels To the Lighthouse and The Years. I loved learning how The Pargiters, an attempt to set social history essays against a narrative, became, finally, The Years. Her life, the gritty details of it, is no less interesting than the novels. Records of Woolf’s unusual family, her partnership with her husband Leonard, the creation of the Hogarth Press and the lively life she lived among her Bloomsbury contemporaries are all chronicled and published by this time. In March 1941, having retreated to the house she shared with Leonard in East Sussex as their London house had been bombed, she wrote: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.” Of course I agree with her.

James Salter by Joe Tabacca, 1997
I must have picked James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime off a bookstore’s shelves some time in the early 1980’s. Quickly reading the other novels I could find, especially Light Years, he is a mentor for me in insisting on the beauty in real life. In 1990 he said, “My ideal is a book that is perfect on every page, that gives you tremendous aesthetic joy.” Somewhat hampered by his class (in my eyes), I don’t find his work consistently wonderful but I understand him and re-read him often. When I saw him speak (at least twice), I was impressed by his reserve and his dignity, though I believe, to a California audience, it looked like pretension. He died in June this year. I look forward to the biographies that will follow.

Gary Snyder is the most important living writer I know. I read all of his early collections of essays, took a workshop with him and enjoyed his attempts in poetry to put down “the flat, concrete surface of things, without bringing anything of imagination or intellect to bear on it.” Like Salter, he has never been at the center of the American stage, perhaps because he has never seen people as the epitome of creation. But wherever his words or his presence appear, the authority of his life and work is in no doubt. Peter Coyote quotes Snyder in The Rainman’s Third Cure: “Today the bourgeoisie is sociopathic, overindulged, distracted, spoiled beyond measure, and unable to restrain its gluttony, even in the face of pending planetary destruction. In the face of such a threat, it has, by necessity, become the responsibility of the artist to model health and sanity.”

I have had many other mentors along the way. It is hard to know where to draw the lines, but the influence of these writers continues.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Life Writing

At least one friend has wondered how I could write a book in a year, as I have been doing the past four years. And have it be any good, as I’m sure she wondered silently. I might wonder this myself if I hadn’t essentially been writing these books my entire life.

A writer writes. As a reader and a writer, words sieved through my consciousness. As a little girl I could not walk three blocks to the grocery store without making up a story which my poor mother had to listen to when I got home.

When I arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for graduate school in 1967, a stipend of perhaps $250 per month seemed to me untold riches. Almost immediately I went out and bought an Olympia typewriter which I enshrined on a tiny desk. I knew that I wanted to write, but I was not yet 22 and I said firmly to myself, “You are not going to write anything until you are 40. Right now you need to live.” Which is pretty much what I proceeded to do.

At 21 I had no idea what I thought or felt. I had begun to realize that I was a craven little person who had mostly done what others suggested. I embarked on a program of doing only what appealed to me, in order to find out who I might be. With my material needs met, at least for the coming year, I was free to do that. It didn’t stop me from typing, of course, letters, journals and the papers and bibliography which resulted in a degree in Library Science.

Years of work in administration followed. Administrative work was perfect, mostly form, a tea ceremony which I enjoyed. It was a time of increased automation in offices, another aspect of form. I helped, moving from the use of one digital media to another, learning to do “word processing,” develop databases and spreadsheets. I filled in the form, did what was needed, saving my free time to sort out content for myself. I remember a database programmer telling us once that language was a linear string. “Oh, no,” I said to myself. “Language is a deep well, each word an action and able to trigger unknown depths.”

Cultural change was all around us. I was part of it, but also removed. I let it flow through me. I refused to get jobs in which I would have to write for money, except for some minor policy or technical writing. I was afraid such writing would take over. I saved my words so they could finally, in the end, be used only for my own thoughts and feelings.

In this quest of authenticity and integrity, I wanted to say only what I meant. But I did have to learn that things change. Words and selves are not eternal, but rather fluid, dynamic. They are bound to a time period. We make them up as we go along. At the same time, some core of ourselves and our words stands firm, is related to the ground of our being. The actions and words we utter become the selves that others see.

I probably was around 40 when I began to write my first novel, An Implicate Order. It is complete but kind of thin, has never been published. I wrote two more novels as well. Using iUniverse, years after they were written, I published these two novels which are theoretically available. (iUniverse has the content but I’ve been told that when people order a copy, it can’t be had.) Publishing them did help me see what could be done and, at least initially, people read them.

Which brings me to now and CreateSpace, a division of Amazon, which happily makes available anything a writer puts together and publishes. I even get to order an ISBN number under my own imprint, Lightly Held Books. The books can’t be sold in bookstores or put into libraries. But someday, if they get enough attention, they may be picked up by a more established publisher.

For now, it is enough that the work I am doing is available, that it sees the light of day. It comes from all those years of sitting with myself, as I think of the process now. It isn’t expression or writing in the sense of polishing sentences. It is bringing up to the light all the things I have thought over my life.

This morning I read a chapter from Fit Company for Oneself to my sister in England (on Skype). We’ve been reading this book together, though half a world away. In the chapter, we see Line at Wittenberg College, making of her education what she would. “Oh yes,” said Solveig. “You’ve gotten it down.” It is fiction to be sure, but it has in it what we experienced.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Worms

The cricket chorus began last month and is growing stronger. We’ve just seen our blue moon for the year (maybe the next three years). And the August lull has begun, an interesting time when plants don’t change very much. They are just hanging in there to see what develops. (Hopefully some rainfall. The ground is awfully dry.) The agapanthus have started to fade, but the oleander are still in intense flower. I’ve been noticing lots of butterflies, small ones usually, but lovely oranges and light colors.

Here in San Rafael, I am working on the final pass on my book With One Hand Waving Free. It’s the most adventurous so far, set in the late 1960’s, in which Line has her first child and finds herself forced out of Chicago by a growing trend toward violence. Marty goes first to Oxford, England, and then to California, trying to dig deeper into the self she wants to become. And Paul finishes college, deciding that teaching in Fairbanks, Alaska, should be his future.

Outside of editing, a bit of tai chi and housekeeping, I must admit that I’ve reverted to that bookworm I was as a small girl in North Dakota. So many books, so little time? I do have more time now, and more books, aided by the Marin County Free Library which is a ten minute walk from home and where I work two nights a week shelving books.

Book copied by Poggio Bracciolini
So last week I pulled off the shelf an amazing book. Usually I order the books I want through the extensive library system which includes two academic institutions, as I’m not fond of popular fiction. But every once in a while, especially in the biography and history sections, something insists! This one was Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern [published 2011], which tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a Florentine scribe and book hunter, who found a copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, which had not been seen for a thousand years. Greenblatt describes the contents of the book, which Lucretius wrote about 50 BC, why it was incendiary and how it influenced the Renaissance.

It’s an extraordinary story, which I am tempted to tell right now, except that it would be better if you, Dear Reader, went out and got a copy of Greenblatt's book yourself. One of the things it describes is how important books have been throughout history, how they were copied and disseminated, and what happens to books in the end. There were actual book worms which contributed to the demise of books. Moisture, fire, neglect. The best way to preserve the early codexes, it turned out, was simply to use them and, when they finally wore out, to make more copies.

Libraries too have always been at risk. Not just from bookworms, fire and fanaticism, but neglect. The library at Alexandria, which had tried to collect the accumulated knowledge of the whole world, simply ceased to be mentioned after about 415 AD when an angry crowd murdered Hypatia, one of Alexandria’s most visible intellectual figures. Rome had many libraries, but when the empire finally collapsed a few decades later, “the Germanic tribes that seized one province after another had no tradition of literacy.” As Greenblatt says, Poggio Bracciolini and his fellow book hunters of the 1400’s were lucky to find anything al all.

The book prompts me to study De Rerum Natura, Lucretius beautiful poem which describes the philosophy of Epicurus. I believe that if I had read it earlier, I would not have been so tempted to look toward Eastern philosophies. Greenblatt imagines that Lucretius was trying to “wrest the truth away from illusion-mongerers. Why should the tellers of fables, he thought, possess a monopoly on the means that humans have invented to express the pleasure and beauty of the world? Without those means, the world we inhabit runs the risk of seeming inhospitable, and for their comfort people will prefer to embrace fantasies, even if those fantasies are destructive. With the aid of poetry, however, the actual nature of things … can be depicted in its true splendor.”

I’ve hoped that the tendency to make art objects out of books, which I see a lot lately, speaks more to our abundance than to their disfavor. But I did go to the Bay Area bookfair this year, at which there was an installation of 50,000 books placed on shelves outdoors free for the taking. Inside their covers, most of them showed the imprint of the Boston Public Library, which had donated the books on all kinds of subjects in favor of digital holdings. Perhaps it is true that “information wants to be free and digital,” but there will always be a place for books.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

No Ideas But in Things

A brilliant American doctor, William Carlos Williams, writing poetry in his office as he waited for his next patient, pulled us back from intellectual idealism and romanticism, by stating as a maxim for his work: “No ideas but in things.” Colloquial English, the panorama of reality in his native New Jersey captured Dr. Williams and influenced many who came after him. The bits of language which have nourished me tell people’s stories. In literature, I learn who characters are and how they embody ideas, what causes them to come to grief, or ecstasy, before they die. 

It was Elizabeth Bishop who pointed me to Darwin. Elizabeth, who lived near Rio de Janiero for almost 15 years, read Darwin all her life. Bishop had a perilous childhood, but it resulted in poems in which the power lay in what was not said. Precise observation, often of animals or natural phenomena, and a modesty of expression are her hallmarks. Her spare, elegant poetry hits heavy where it lands. No ideas but in things.

Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle [1845] is the adventure story of a young man in his twenties, who trained himself to be an excellent field biologist along the coasts of South America and then retired to his home near London to spend the rest of his life writing about what he had found. In The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen says it isn’t the idea that we all have a common evolutionary background that horrifies people. It is that natural selection accomplishes it. No divine spark, no hand of providence watching over its precious creation. And certainly no special demi-god status for man. Evolution is relentless, out of chaos and uncertainty, toward survival. No ideas but in things.

Christopher Alexander, a British architect who spent most of his life working in Berkeley, California, states that our current problems are a result of our certainty that matter is value-free. We treat matter as a mechanism and act as if nothing we do matters. But if we were to accept the living character of space and matter, everything matters. “It paves the way to an ultimately personal view of the world. Matter is personal. We then treat all creation – of buildings, gardens, roads – as the protection of the personal which resides in matter, and which, through our actions, may see the light of day.” [The Nature of Order, Book Four, The Luminous Ground, 2004] No ideas but in things.

Robert Pirsig upends the concept of value further. Value is not a property of matter, he says. Matter is really a subspecies of value. “The metaphysics of quality says that if moral judgments are essentially assertions of value and if value is the fundamental ground-stuff of the world, then moral judgments are the fundamental ground-stuff of the world.” [Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, 1991] Pirsig shows us how, grounded in the world, life migrates toward freedom. No ideas but in things.

We look ever toward the point at which matter and spirit meet, where, often briefly to our heavy, everyday perception, matter is illumined by the light within. It can happen anywhere, any time. There is as much chaos and uncertainty in spiritual evolution as there is in physical evolution. Physical evolution looks toward success in being alive, but the evolution of the spirit looks toward value. Spirituality is flat-out value. No ideas but in things.

And finally from Pasternak – my mentor since earliest days: “So that there shall be no dead branches in the soul, so that its growth shall not be retarded, so that man shall be incapable of mingling his narrow mind with the creation of his immortal essence, there exists a number of things to turn his vulgar curiosity away from life, which does not wish to work in his presence and in every way avoids him. … Hence all respectable religions, all generalizations, all prejudices and the most amusing and brilliant of them all – psychology.” [From The Childhood of Luvers, 1918, translated by Robert Payne]

No ideas but in things.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Fit Company" Published

Yesterday I ordered an ISBN number and uploaded the interior .pdf file of Fit Company for Oneself, the second book in my series about Line, Marty and Paul. Don prepared the cover months ago on Photoshop. Now I can tell him the number of pages in the interior file so he can re-size the spine of the book to match. The process is exciting and I am thrilled to put the work I’ve been doing out into the world, letting the chips fall where they may. You can order a copy here.

Washington Square, New York, 1969
For my own part, every chapter I’ve written was begun with the same simple Word template. For the book as a whole, I found a template which set up the pages with an alternating margin, the thin on the outside and a thicker one on the binding edge. I set all the type to Garamond, except for our “trademarked” Bernhard Modern Roman for the titles. I justified the margins and put a few points of space beneath each paragraph, checking for widow and orphan lines. This gives the reader’s eyes enough white space to relax, I believe. Because I’m working exclusively with text, it was easy to add each chapter to the book document and check it as I went along. With patience, it comes right!

Hundreds of decisions go into such a project. I like the cream colored pages, for instance, which are a little thicker. I think they give off less glare and are easier to read. The photographs for the covers are of the period, but suggest, rather than illustrate, what is in each story. They are un-retouched, in keeping with realistic fiction which is true to the spirit, if not the letter of the times.

Given Don’s and my abilities, I believe the books exhibit a high degree of professionalism. I have had no money to give to this project other than the time it takes to write the books. In culling and editing, I’ve been helped by my brother and sisters, particularly Naomi and David, but the errors in the text are solely my own. I haven’t felt I had the time to continue to push for a commercial publication, but if enough copies are sold through Amazon, I understand a commercial publisher may eventually approach us.

Nara, Japan, Commuters, 1968
Does my bias for real books show? A Kindle file is always available as part of the publication process, but for me, it is kind of an afterthought. What I love, and always have, is books! Especially paperbacks! You can read a book in the sun, in the bathtub, dog-ear it and underscore it. You can actually digest a book. It hangs around, a relic of your thoughts at a particular time. You can pass it around, tuck it in a backpack, take it to bed, read it on the bus or in jury duty. I know, you can do many of these things with your phone or a Kindle. But books are so low-tech, so comforting, so intimate.

My idea for marketing is simply photos of people reading the books. People get into all kinds of positions when they are reading. Their thinking faces are so interesting. The Hungarian photographer André Kertész made a habit of photographing people reading. I include a couple of his photographs here. I am hoping to thrust my books as they come out into people’s hands and beg them to allow a photo to be taken. This may mean you, Gentle Reader. I thank you for your attention, your patience and your affection.