The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

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 horrified 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

Curiosity

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 mailto:lightlyheldbooks@gmail.com.) 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!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Covers!

Nothing makes a book seem more like a reality than it being given a cover! Don, in charge of all things visual, has now designed four covers for the books Lightly Held Books will publish this year, using photographs which give a sense of the times to these fictional works.

When you put out books for sale, you must have the rights to any photographs or text you use in them. I was lucky to have not only great photographs, but also great friends who authorized their use. Susan Korn, a friend from Ann Arbor and Chicago days, took two of the photos, the one of Marshall Tate, and the one of my sister Solveig and me. Susan graciously allowed their use, and Marshall, writing from Puebla, Mexico, said “Of course you can use my photo. It would be an honor.” I love the eyes of Lenny Bruce staring down from the poster on the wall, and Marshall’s eyes looking intensely at the photographer.

When I first saw it, I minded the bare feet sticking out at the base of the photo of Solveig, my sister, and myself. We are sitting on the concrete structure along the beach in San Francisco. But what better representation of the 1970’s than bare, sandy feet and long, stringy hair!

The other two photos are from my family archive. When I look at them, I see a lot of back-story. For instance, in the photo taken in the canoe, I am sick, one of my eyes ulcerated and aching. But, we got through that one, in time.

I believe the photograph of my parents with their first four children was taken by a Canadian friend named Gus Cherland. We are out in the yard beside the Buxton, North Dakota, parsonage and behind us you can see the hollyhocks which we learned to make into dolls with long, colorful skirts in the summer. The photograph is spread out across the front and back of the book and only shows Dad on the cover, but if you want to see the whole thing now, go to the website and click on the cover. You will get the WHOLE photograph, and a brief description of the book.

 I keep telling people that Don can do anything, from constructing furniture, machining parts for camera equipment, coding websites and designing book covers to what he really likes to do, filming and directing movies! In addition to the book covers, Don has set all of my work in a new, clean and simple website which allows the reader to sample the books and buy them! The new ones will be available in the coming months. A thank you, to Don, for all his work. And one to you, Gentle Reader, for your attention.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"A Truly Humble Cottage"

I finished the first draft of Pulled Into Nazareth today. Finishing a draft is always a memorable occasion. I will spend the rest of the year editing it, but at least some of the suspense of is over. Five years ago I laid out the over-arching scenario of the series of books I am writing. But the details! I never know how the details are going to go until I write each chapter for the first time.

As I write, I keep in mind my desire to be “truly humble.” Christopher Alexander writes: “I say that even humble buildings cannot be made, because the infection which comes from our mechanistic cosmology is mainly one of arbitrariness – and the arbitrariness breeds pretension. In the presence of pretentiousness, true humility is almost impossible. A truly humble cottage even, seems beyond the reach of most builders today.” [Footnote, p. 24, The Luminous Ground, volume 4 of  The Nature of Order]

This small paragraph, an aspect of Alexander’s research and attempt to get beyond a mechanical world view to one in which value has an objective place, strikes me as getting to the heart of the problem writers have as well. Much of current literature certainly seems arbitrary to me, the corollary being that pretension is required to insist on its importance. But pretension doesn’t get you very far.

Of course striving for humility too can also be a dangerous. I keep in mind Neil Innes’ (of Monty Python fame) “Protest Song,” which he introduces by saying “I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” As Don says, “When you give people something it should be a gift, not an invoice.” I certainly don’t suffer as I write, and I do hope my work is a gift to others, and not a demand for attention.

This month also, through the heroic efforts of my brother and sisters, nieces and nephews, the small beach house my Dad built at the edge of a Minnesota lake was reconstructed. The little one-room beach house was a blessed retreat for many of us, but it had become uninhabitable for the last few years due to rot and foundation problems. It is no longer possible to build so close to a lake in Minnesota, but existing buildings are exempted from the rule.

My sister Naomi wrote of her stay in the beach house in 1981, “Never having had a chance to stay down there by the water before, I was overwhelmed by its magic. A small square room with a bed, a rocking chair and a lamp, it perches above the shore. The only thing you can see out of any of the windows is trees and sky and lake. At the head of the bed there is a low window so you can lie on your stomach and look out at the stars over the lake at night. The effect is rather like living in a treehouse – the breeze blows in and out the windows and sings in the branches. And at night if it’s rough you can hear the sounds of water lapping the shore as you lie in bed – or if its quiet, sometimes there’s the eerie cry of a loon echoing across the still space.”

The beach house is indeed “a truly humble cottage.” It of course plays a part in my fictional writing, as do many other aspects of my extended family.