The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

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.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


I love the places writing and research take me. In particular, since working on a book set in California and Alaska in the 1970’s, I’ve been thrilled to learn more about the extraordinary place Santa Cruz was and is. Paul Lee, whose boots on the ground had an enormous impact, writes of the times in his book There Is a Garden in the Mind and tells stories on his website.

Despite my quite wonderful liberal education, some of it was lost on me. Names and dates got lodged somewhere in memory, but didn’t tie to things in my limited experience. Now, as I grow older, I am enjoying going back and putting things together, my curiosity about people and history not only intense, but more able to be satisfied than ever, since a quick internet search can provide, if not perspective, at least references and directions in which to look.

There Is a Garden in the Mind, though frustratingly circular, has sent me exploring in several different directions! Not surprisingly, Paul Lee, who has a Lutheran background like my own, has a point of view. His thesis is that what currently counts for knowledge in Western civilization, the moment in which “the hard sciences lined up against the soft ones no longer deserving the name science,” was the moment Friedrich Woehler artificially synthesized urea in 1828. At this point ‘organic’ chemistry was born, a “swindle which was the beginning of all confusion,” since it was said that the chemistry of the living organism is fundamentally identical with that synthesized in the laboratory.

Lee watched as the University of California at Santa Cruz became a research facility, where the laboratory superseded the organic garden he and Alan Chadwick tried to establish as a teaching tool. Lee names the opponents in science physicalism and vitalism and traces the lineage of vitalism from Chadwick, to Rudolf Steiner (whose name was so incendiary it could not even be mentioned!), to Goethe. Lee believes that “the plight of human existence in industrial society is wedded to the plight of organic nature. Both are at risk together.” This is quite the point of view of my character Line, a dedicated gardener and mother.

I wanted to look back at this background to controversies around the concept of “organic.” Which is why I have just finished a biography of Goethe, a holistic thinker who lived from 1749 to 1832. Though I may have encountered him in college, Goethe seemed to me one of those musty writers whose lengthy works I would never read. (Randy Newman’s delightfully wicked album Faust is about as close as I have come!)

In Love, Life, Goethe, John Armstrong [published 2006] sets out to show us Goethe’s relevance to our time. Though Goethe lived at the behest of his aristocratic patron Carl August, the young duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and had some administrative tasks, he remained free to write and even travel for almost two years to Italy. Accepting his gifts as well as his limitations, Goethe reminds me of my favorite Chinese administrator/poet Su Tungpo, who accomplished a great deal while remaining personally incorrigible!

Goethe did take issue with Isaac Newton. He felt that normal observation of phenomena should suffice, rather than creating special circumstances, as Newton did in the case of putting light through a prism to reveal its inner nature. Of course, there is nothing about one method which precludes the other. But it is true, as Paul Lee says, that “botany would lose out to the onslaught of mathematical physics over what counts for knowledge … I like to think that Goethe understood the consequences of the triumph of mathematical physics in the form of Newtonian determined science and that he threw his weight toward botany.”

Goethe was a grownup. While he had no illusions about the depths of misery people could sink to, he also felt that happiness was the sane and normal goal of existence. He felt that people must be disciplined and have goals, while remaining open to pleasure and joy. About art he was unequivocal: “Most modern productions are romantic, not because they are new, but because they are weak, morbid and sickly. And the antique is not classic because it is old, but because it is strong, fresh, joyous and healthy.”

“Goethe occupies a position whose time has never come, but whose time is always,” writes Armstrong. “Idealists, progressivists and socialists have never liked Goethe’s acknowledgement of the conservative, material basis of happiness – which the majority of people have always taken seriously. But Goethe is, at the same time, intensely rich in his awareness of the complexities of the human heart – our desperate longing for love, our folly and confusion, our sexual depths, our craving to make sense of life. Thus he is unsettling to complacent, conventional or reactionary readers.”

Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but I am delighted that it led me back to Goethe. I must say that I agree with his views on life and art. Goethe wrote the defining “bildungs-roman,” or story of education and development of an individual, Wilhelm Meister. To some extent the series So Are You To My Thoughts has this intent as well, in showing how the lives of Line, Marty and Paul unfold.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reality Hunger

In a press release which I put out about the publication of The Pastor’s Kids (to which I got no response; apparently newspapers are inundated by this kind of thing), I contrasted people’s desire to read fantasy fiction with the opening to wonder that good realistic fiction can bring. I have always preferred realism and have not taken the time to read many of the great fantasy classics.

Perhaps there are truths suggested by fantasy, or magical realism in its many forms, and certainly every writer of fiction embellishes his perception, to make his work even more ‘true.’ But the work I am trying to do is realistic, describing a world which loosely holds my characters together, while showing how their perceptions of it interlace and enrich each other’s evolution into the adults they seek to become.

Jean Renoir, the great humanist filmmaker and son of Pierre Renoir, in the Christmas issue of Cahiers du cinema in 1957, wrote: “I love reality, and I’m happy to love it because it brings me infinite joy. But it happens that many people hate it, and most human beings, whether or not they make films, whether they’re workers, store owners, or dramatists, create a kind of veil between reality and themselves. … If we live simply and make our living in any profession – say as an employee in a business – we can still try to break through the kinds of veils that surround us and to see things as they are, since they’re so beautiful, so enchanting. People say, ‘If only film brought us more enchantment and put us in a pleasant dream!’ But instead, it’s reality that’s the pleasant dream.”

I will admit that representations of reality in the current culture are degraded beyond any recognition. In a highly acclaimed recent television series, the hero is a high school chemistry teacher who produces and sells crystal meth to make money before he dies of cancer. Really? In politics, the right and the left struggle to tell a story about our country which includes a majority of the people, while insisting that the other side is “totally out of touch with reality.” Who wins in this scenario? Don tells the story of the Kendrick Lamar video he shot at Christmas in Compton in which an angelic chorus of six to ten-year-olds behind him sang along with the lyrics: “Pussy and Patron will make you feel alright, Pussy and Patron, that’s some great advice.”

Lately, I’ve been looking backward to nonfiction and biography, in which reality is the aim, though recreated from historical papers and documents. I just finished Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, the wonderful work of Paul Hendrickson. It’s a biography in which Hendrickson participates, reporting and imagining how it was for Hemingway in his real life, especially as it was in Key West, Cuba and on the Gulf Stream. Hendrickson doesn’t stint on the cruelty of the man, but sees him in his complexity with his own large heart. Hendrickson cuts through some of the veils which have obscured Hemingway, who sat down almost every day and tried to put down one 'true' sentence, followed by another.

Jesse Starnes at the Roosevelt Apartments
Don and I drove to Spokane, Washington, last week. We rolled through gorgeous spring landscapes, full of mists and rain, while listening to an audio book: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In almost 2,000 miles, we didn’t finish the book! We loved the story of how Teddy Roosevelt developed a progressive agenda, using the unique collection of journalists at McClure’s Magazine to connect to the American people. It is also the story of Roosevelt’s friendship with his successor, William Howard Taft, and how it ran aground. So many details were wrapped into these chapters, including the stories of wives, daughters and sons, giving us a picture of a time quite unlike ours. We arrived to find Jesse, Don’s son, living in his first-ever apartment! Now that’s an awesome reality!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

An Interdependent Family

After almost five years of planning, The Pastor’s Kids, the first book in the series So Are You to My Thoughts, is out, published and available! (You can buy it here or direct from I’m amazed at how long it is. 270 pages, given the white space that I like to see on the page. It’s a journey, for those who are willing. I’ve been struck recently by the lost world described in the book, in which inner aspiration is more important than material riches. And words are actions, so real they must be used carefully.

The Pastor’s Kids breaks all the current marketing rules. It is a coming-of-age story, narrative fiction, but has no fixed age group for which it is intended. And, its only plot is an unfolding, like life. As my brother Dave wrote, “The reader has no idea where (s)he is going, or why (s)he should go there,  but finds him(her)self curious about how these little lives will unfold. This absence of a ‘central driver’ to the stories is very refreshing. Unfortunately, however, I think it may make it less likely to be attractive to some readers, who are addicted to the captivating quality of a problem thread to be resolved, a question to be answered. Loved the book.”

The Mikkelsons grow up in an interdependent family, as Gish Jen uses the term in her book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self. Jen believes that in Asian narratives individuality is subsumed in family and culture. I maintain that many family cultures foster this sense of interdependence, in which each member contributes to the survival, the health and the joy of the others. Line, Marty and Paul are deeply aware of each other and their Norwegian Christian culture. Each chapter is told in the point of view of one of these three narrators, and in this first book in the series, we see the bedrock of the family’s story.

And there are things to resolve. One question is Paul’s bout with polio. He is sequestered in clinics for part of the book, then has two major surgeries to try to undue the damage polio has done to his muscles and tendons. Will Paul get to have the life he wants? Another question is what is going on with Ellie, the oldest Mikkelson sister. She lives alongside her active siblings, but seems to have a secret life. What is she thinking?

Overall, the series So Are You to My Thoughts shows that growing up in a powerful family structure allows the kind of individuation in which a person can become the self they were meant to be, to align their inner and outer worlds over time. And it does take time. Line, Marty and Paul are very different people and love and work happen for each of them differently. Their ideas and desires take them far from home and force them to make their own lives, as people of their generation did. But the circle of family their parents generated is very strong, and they never lose the sense of being in touch.

So! The Pastor’s Kids unfolds in a particular place and time, the Eisenhower years between 1952 and 1960, in the upper Midwest. Though post-war optimism and a growing awareness of diversity affected everyone, I am still amazed as I look back, at how the Scandinavians managed to maintain an isolated, unique culture for so long. Line, Marty and Paul begin to push against this in subsequent books in the series, developing their own individual stories. But The Pastor’s Kids, true to its time, reminds us that dignity once had value. Words and actions expressed it. I guarantee you will not be ashamed to read it to your kids!