Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

He Was Not Co-Opted

I’m not going to be garrulous and repeat myself. If you missed or have forgotten the reasons I’ve given before for admiring French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), you can find those longer remarks hereIn brief, for today, I'll say only that Bergson is a philosopher I admire not only for his ideas and his beautiful writing but above all because he did not allow himself to be bought. That he was also a man of deep feelings (which you would not guess from his conventional appearance) can also be found in his writings:
How do you become aware of a deep passion, once it has taken hold of you, if not by perceiving that the same objects no longer impress you in the same manner? All your sensations and all your ideas seem to brighten up: it is like childhood back again.
Bergson was born on this day in 1859. He died at the age of 82, but his spirit lives on.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sources of Fatigue

Physical illness, depression, and normal aging can all sap one’s energy, but those sources aren’t the ones on my mind today. I’m thinking about what has come to be called “compassion fatigue” and the more recent tag, “outrage fatigue,” a phrase I only ran across last Friday for the first time but instantly recognized as a diagnosis I could claim. “Compassion fatigue,” I noted on Facebook. “Yep. That about sums it up.”

A friend quickly cautioned that they are counting on our fatigue. (Aren’t these sides fatiguing in themselves? Sadly, they are very real, and that’s discouraging, too.) So, the outragers and their staunch supporters are confident that the rest of us will eventually turn our backs on the struggle for justice: that is my friend’s very important reminder to me.

When I diagnose myself as fatigued by outrage, however, I don’t prescribe for myself or anyone else a permanent flight from reality. Just a break! An evening away from the news, at the very least, because let’s face it – every day there is news to outrage the ideals of civility, decency, and fairness, to use a few simple, old-fashioned terms.

After I’ve had a little break, however, I go back to dig deeper into the idea of compassion and outrage fatigue, and, underneath both, what I find is a despair bred of feelings of helplessness.

If we are called upon, day after day, to feel compassion but feel we can do nothing to ease suffering, we feel helpless, and helplessness is only one step away from despair. If we are outraged, over and over, but feel powerless, we are vulnerable to despair, too. And the horrid thing about despair is that it paralyzes – and when we allow paralysis to get a grip on us, we truly are helpless.

Here’s something else I think I see: a connection between outrage and compassion. If we ourselves are not being personally victimized, why should we feel outrage except for the fact that we also feel compassion for those who are?

So what can we do with our compassion and our outrage?

I took Sunday off from the cares and problems of “the world” and spent hours cleaning floors, catching up on laundry, making soup, filing, recycling, and giving the dog a bath. It felt good to address tasks I could accomplish in a single day, with nothing but determination and raw physical energy. An added benefit (in addition to a clean dog and clean house and clothes) is that taking action to address these ordinary little home jobs also energizes me for larger, more difficult tasks, the kind that can’t be accomplished in a day but require dedication over the long haul. Little successes remind me that I am not powerless.

Neither, of course, am I Superwoman. No one is (and no one is Superman, either). Bigger tasks cannot be resolved in a single day. Family, friendship, community, country – whenever human beings are involved, there’s no shortcut to a long relationship, and I fully expect to leave this world with the struggle for justice still going on. Well, so what? Is that an excuse for shrugging off my own responsibility? I don’t think so.

Other people with good, positive, constructive, feasible ideas are pioneers who break trails for the rest of us. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, and The Revolution Where You Live: Stories From a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, by Sarah van Gelder will be books that help me move forward.

One day at a time? It’s the only option on life’s table.

Monday, October 9, 2017

I Join Sherman Alexie in Recommending This Novel

In addition to being a brilliant writer, Leslie Marmon Silko is an unusually, almost miraculously patient writer. I finished my first reading (it will not be my last) of her novel Ceremony and have to say that Sherman Alexie did not exaggerate a bit when he called Ceremony “one of the greatest novels of any time and place.”

By calling her patient, I refer to the way she never rushes through a scene but takes time to note each shifting detail of the natural surroundings, along with details of the main character’s thoughts and memories and feelings and imaginings. She backtracks at least as often as she takes her story patiently forward -- backtracks and circles around and circles back again and again, in wider and wider narrative orbits. Thus the story expands and grows deeper it proceeds, and we acquire background as we gradually get to know the main character.

The main character is Tayo. That his mother “went with white men” and that his own unknown father was white is the earliest burden of his life, compounded when she leaves him with relatives and disappears from his life. Even before she dies, he knows he will never see her again.

Tayo’s Uncle Josiah and cousin Rocky accept him from the beginning, but his Auntie never lets him forget that he is not really Rocky’s brother, not her own child, and that his mother brought shame on the family, shame made visible to their village in his very existence.

Then – I am telling this chronologically, not in the order of the novel’s recounting of events – Tayo and Rocky enlist to fight in World War II. In the Pacific, they are captured by the Japanese, and the horrors of that time haunt Tayo on his return, disturbing not only his sleep but also his waking life. Nightmares, flashbacks, and disturbing visions cripple his spirit. Civil and military authorities, as well as his own people, doubt Tayo’s sanity, and he doubts it himself.

To return from the horrors of war to a previous life of normality – can it ever be easily accomplished? Tayo’s fellow veterans seek relief from their wartime memories in alcohol. Periodically Tayo does also, but he wants more of life than a haze of oblivion. He has inherited, in the time before the war, a dream from his Uncle Josiah. Materially, the dream consists of a herd of cattle -- not helpless Herefords, waiting to be brought food and water in time of scarcity and drought, but rangy Mexican cattle that can fend for themselves, like antelope, in an arid land. As Josiah explained the matter to Tayo:
“Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something. Their stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and dry alfalfa. When you turn them loose again, they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar, and they are lost. They don’t stop being scared either, even when they look quiet and they quit running. Scared animals die off easily.”
Josiah reads books on the raising and breeding of cattle but is dubious about the practices recommended in  the books. He asks Tayo and Rocky to read them and see what they think.
The problem was the books were written by white people who did not think about drought or winter blizzards or dry thistles, which the cattle had to live with.
The books treated cattle as an abstraction, something apart from the land on which they were to live.

To deal with the effects of postwar trauma, Tayo’s family and Tayo himself turn to traditional medicine men. These ceremonies, both specific and metaphorical, form much of the book’s bedrock. I have emphasized the role of the cattle because that dream and that reality dovetail with the ceremonies. It is the land itself – and the cattle, that belong to the land – grounding those who would not fall victim to the destroyers’ sickness.

Spiritual connections, history, and ideas all have their place in the story, and while many of the themes are universal (“one of the greatest novels of any time and place,” to quote Sherman Alexie once again), the physical features of place are present in loving detail, so clear that someone who has never been to the Southwest might almost see and feel and smell it when reading certain passages. I open the book at random and easily fall on a paragraph of place:
He tied the mare in a clearing surrounded by a thicket of scrub oak. He sat under a scrub oak and picked up acorns from the ground around him. The oak leaves were already fading from dark green to light yellow, and within the week they would turn gold and bright red. The acorns were losing their green color too, and the hulls were beginning to dry out. By the time the leaves fell and the acorns dropped, he would be home with the cattle.
And there is so much more. For instance, almost offhandedly, in a single sentence, Silko gives one of the most original and beautiful analogies of lovemaking I have ever encountered in literature.
He eased himself deeper within her and felt the warmth close around him like river sand, softly giving way under foot, then closing firmly around the ankle in cloudy warm water.

I finished my first reading of Ceremony on Saturday morning, and later that day in my bookstore a customer saw it on the counter and said that he was reading it but was afraid of how it might end. I felt the same way as I saw the remaining pages grow fewer in my hand. And as Sherman Alexie said later in his words of praise for the novel, violence is part of the story, from beginning to end. But “You will be surprised” was all I told the apprehensive reader, and it’s all I’m going to tell you.

Neither, here, am I going to get into the issues of race and racism and brown vs. white and how blame is allocated (if you think it is) by the author. I’ll only tell all readers not to be afraid but to keep reading to the end.

Book clubs and discussion groups interested in exploring American history and issues of race in our country’s literature should not neglect this beautiful novel. Lovers of fiction, give yourself a gift. Read this book.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Strangers Bearing Gifts – and Becoming Friends

After nearly a quarter-century in business, I have a pretty good idea who appreciates my bookstore. The appreciative may be regular local browsers or people from far away who visit once or twice a year but never leave empty-handed. (“This is the high point of our trip,” one such customer-friend said to me this past summer.) They may ask me to order something for them when I don’t have in stock what they need, rather than ordering it themselves online. We share news of family and friends and pets and travel. Selling books to my staunch supporters is a lot more than a series of “business transactions.” I don’t take any of this for granted – it still feels quite wonderful, after all these years – but the phenomenon has become familiar to me.

More surprising are first-time visitors who come bearing gifts of appreciation. Why would they? Well, sometimes there is a chain of connections linking my bookstore to strangers coming through the door. That’s what happened last week when Tom Corbett and his wife, Beverly, from Ann Arbor came in with big smiles.

It was a mention of Jim Harrison books in an area magazine that brought the Corbetts to my bookstore in Northport. A poet friend of theirs had known Harrison in Lake Leelanau. I asked their friend’s name and didn’t recognize it, but Tom explained that he, Tom, and his friend, Red Shuttleworth, had both received Western Heritage awards for their work.

“How long did you know Jim Harrison?” one of them asked, and my mind reached back to my first meeting with Jim and Linda. David, wanting to introduce me to them, had taken me over to their old French Road farmhouse (the house’s future remodeling not even a plan back then) when I was up from Kalamazoo on vacation. I remember it as late enough in the summer evening –it would have been August – that the porch light was on. We stumbled in on an unusual scene in the Harrison house, where few dared to stop by without calling first: a traveling poet had come on pilgrimage to meet Jim, accompanied by his wife, their baby, and a very large dog. I described the scene to the Corbetts. “It was an Irish wolfhound,” I recalled. “I’d never seen such a tall dog in my life, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

The faces of my new acquaintance lit up, and they exclaimed excitedly, “That was him! That’s Red Shuttleworth! He’s always has Irish wolfhounds!”

They wanted to show me a picture of Red, but I shook my head and said I had no memory of what the man looked like. I only remembered the dog.

“I think he was teaching high school English,” I offered, and they nodded. Yes, Red had taught English in high school and community college for years.

What were the odds? The Corbetts had never met Jim Harrison themselves, and I had met Red Shuttleworth only once and remembered only his dog, but because of the dog I remembered the incident, and that connected the Tom and Beverly and me. We were all delighted.

“So you’re a poet, too?” I said to Tom, recalling what he’d said about a book award. No, he was a physician, but he and Beverly had lived for a while on a reservation in New Mexico, and Tom had collaborated on a project that extended over many years with Native American photographer Lee Marmon to produce their prize-winning book, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History.

Tom went out to their car and returned with a copy of the beautiful book and inscribed a copy to me. Could I buy it? No, it was a gift. I was overwhelmed.

That meeting was over a week ago, and now I have finished reading the text of Marmon and Corbett’s book and have gazed long and carefully at the photographs, and it’s plain to see why the book received a Western Heritage Award. Besides the photographer's stunning images taken over several decades, there are also historical and family photographs, stories taken from written archival records, and recorded oral histories, all documenting life at Laguna Pueblo and how it has changed over the years but also held onto many important traditional ways. 

An additional bonus from my meeting with Tom and Beverly was learning about Lee Marmon’s daughter, Leslie Marmon Silko. Sherman Alexie says of her best-known work:
Ceremony is the greatest novel in Native American literature. It is one of the greatest novels of any time and place. I have read this book so many times that I probably have it memorized. I teach it and I learn from it and I am continually in awe of its power, beauty, rage, vision, and violence.
I’m excited about reading the work of this writer and searching out additional Native American voices in our country’s literature. 

All these connections, of course, came about by way of years spent in Leelanau County, besides getting to know people through my bookstore. And really, it was Jim who was the catalyst in bringing the rest of us together now, in 2017, reminding me once again that community is more than people living at the same time in the same place. It is many ties that link us over time and across space, sometimes over great distances and in surprising ways.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Memory's Garden

Given a benevolent fortune that lets us keep them, the older we get, the more memories we have. And so I have to confess to laying up treasures on earth – not gold or gems or even a stock portfolio, but memories attached of family and friends, attached to particular places on earth. When I hear anyone say, by way of condolence, that the deceased is “in a better place,” I have to make an effort not to shake my head. This imperfect world of ours, with all its often tragic flaws (most of them our own creation, I’d say), still strikes me as infinitely miraculous.

Even if I limit my review of memories to a couple of years in the village of Northport, there is plenty of treasure to gladden my heart – for instance, the little building on the corner of Mill and Nagonaba was the second Northport home of Dog Ears Books. A simple, seasonal abode, it had neither plumbing nor heat. Insulation? Nope. Storm windows? Ha! It did have electricity, however, and I had a phone line put in.

Closer to my heart’s memories was the garden I created there on the corner, first digging out sod and grass and weeds, then installing plants (with a narrow pinestraw path so I could get in to weed and prune and deadhead), and finally commissioning David Chrobak to build a trellis against the side of the building.

The trellis lasted for years, though not forever. My beloved viburnum was not beloved of the most recent occupant, so it was cut down (but I notice it struggles to reassert itself). What I always called my “lipstick” roses -- rescued from a garden whose owner wanted to replace them with hybrid teas – those are still blooming.

One summer on the corner I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the public, and anyone who has worked in retail or waited tables or tended bar will be familiar with the phenomenon I called hitting the wall. I hit the wall hard that summer. The impact itself is not a happy memory. I do, however, feel good about what came next, because I gave myself a stern talking-to. Self, I said, you either need to turn this around or get out of the business! You can’t keep going in this direction. Since then, while I am occasionally annoyed by a prying question or a cheapskate who wants a treasure for nothing, such occasions are relatively rare. More importantly, I have learned in general to enjoy people more and more as time goes by.

Owning a small, independent bookstore in a seasonal town at the end of a peninsula is not the easiest way to make a living. Turns out, though, it’s been a good path to making a satisfying life.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Where the Past Never Dies

In a recent issue of the e-mail book world newsletter “Shelf Awareness,” the “Quotation of the Day” came from a bookseller opening a new shop on September 1, who said he thought of a bookstore as a “cultural anachronism.” He meant it (as one would have hoped) in the best possible way:
... A place where time itself seems to slow. People linger. Few are ever in much of a rush or put out by a line. We've all made a decision about what we value more than a discount.

Maybe this is what people really mean when they talk about their love of the smell of a bookstore. The anachronism of ink and pulp amidst the daily sterility of point and click.

If you are interested in more of what Brad had to say, follow this link.

My own experience (24+ years of running my own indie bookstore in northern Michigan) tells me that many people my age who deserted print books are coming back to them and, moreover, that much younger people, who grew up with electronics and take them for granted, are discovering physical books with wonder and awe. One lovely day near the end of summer three girls in their early teens were combing my shelves for the oldest books they could find that would fit their budgets. Their eager questions about copyright and printing dates or lack thereof led me to point out differences in paper quality, binding, and illustration. They could not have been more attentive. They purchased their treasures and came back in the afternoon for Round 2, eagerly shopping the past. A couple of weeks before that a young father had earnestly impressed on his child that “This book was published when Thomas Jefferson was alive!” Yes, he bought that book, too.

Some scholars and commentators have remarked, in loving, neutral, or derogatory language, depending on their own perspectives and purposes, on books as “fetish objects.” (Here is a sampling of articles—x, y, z—and you can easily find more yourself.) I would remind those who look down on our love for physical books that we ourselves are physical creatures, not immaterial angels but living, breathing animals, borne of earth, mortal, gravity-bound, and conscious of our ultimate earthly destiny, death. Is it any wonder, facing our own time limits, that we are fascinated by objects that predated our births and can easily live far beyond us? The added attraction of these artifacts, of course, is that they contain thoughts – dreams – ideas – memories – which means that human minds can outlive human bodies and speak beyond the grave to later generations.

Part of my life-long fascination with Modern Library books is their hand-friendly size, and there is something quite endearing about books that size or smaller to many book-lovers, so you can easily see how this tiny volume, printed in Glasgow in 1836, charms me for its size and its binding. The ninth edition of The National Minstrel: A Collection of Popular Songs, containing only lyrics, no music, you might expect as I did to find numerous copies available, but I found the work only in libraries. (All the photos in today's post are of this little book.) Doubtless because it was so common and widely printed and purchased, the little book was not considered valuable in its time and so was not carefully preserved. As with those once-ubiquitous Dick-and-Jane readers, however, its survival intact is what today gives value to The National Minstrel. Its rarity – and its charm.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We Came Back Early

A week or so before we left, we thought of going somewhere different this September, but when the time came we were too tired for adventures, and it seemed the wiser course to steer for the Mackinac Bridge, as usual, and “do the things we always do,” as David put it. 

And so our first stop was Bentley’s Cafe in St. Ignace. Nothing has changed at Bentley’s, thank heaven! The malts are as thick and delicious as ever and still served in the tall chrome container in which they’re mixed, and our Finnish waitress is as teasing and funny as the last time we were there. In a world of rapid, mind-bending, swirling storms of novelty and obsolescence, it’s reassuring to find an anchor here and there.

Another reassuring anchor over near Brevort is friend Mary Carney’s bookstore on Worth Road, First Edition, but the shop was locked, and Mary and Warren nowhere in sight. I left a note. They’d only gone out for tacos, we learned the next day, but they could have been in Petoskey, appraising a private library, for all we knew, so we missed visiting Mary’s shelves this trip.

But we stayed on Worth Road, angling back northeast (wrong direction) until an intersection presented itself and then wandered and zig-zagged pleasantly along back roads, happy to be away from truck traffic on U.S. 2, until we reached M28, the other main east-west highway, and soon we were in Seney and turning north to Grand Marais.

A friend of mine took her children to the U.P. once, many years ago (a trip they never repeated), and reported to me in exasperation that it was “nothing but trees!” I see it very differently, terrain and plant life changing from mile to mile, with stretches so beautiful they break my heart. Also, after decades on these same roads, David and I “see” numerous milestones along the way that are invisible to other travelers: There is the place where that beautiful trailer was for sale. Remember? There’s the shack that once had a yard sale where I bought a pair of boots. Another yard sale, there where the old motel used to be, produced a cool pair of vintage sunglasses. We spent a long, claustrophobic but memorable hour or so tucked into a two-track, right there, during a rain so hard we couldn’t see to drive -- and it was just lucky that my old truck did not break down then but waited until we reached Grand Marais! A tiny river explored with the old dog ... another river captured in one of David’s dreamlike paintings ... the rest stop where the chatty ranger held us captive with tales of his life ... another yard sale, the one where I bought a pair of bookends the old man had made himself back in high school shop class ... the two-track leading off to an old pond (dam and pond no longer there), the only place we’ve ever seen a lynx ... the stretch of road where I spotted the bear -- and would never tell the guys around the coffee table in G.M. where I’d seen it. We “see” all these memories along the way, and so the road is rich and full, and time goes quickly.

Every year we find a few changes in Grand Marais but never – so far – too many. Rick G. and Ellen are still at the West Bay Diner, and Rick C. and Mary have taken over the Superior Hotel since Bessie’s passing, and the Dunes Saloon rocks on under its new name, Lake Superior Brewing Company (but always and forever the Dunes Saloon to us). The grocery store and hardware store are still in business, bank and post office still going strong, and our picnic table out on Coast Guard Point is right where we left it, though it was too windy there for the picnic we planned the next day, and we decamped to the more sheltered shore of Grand Sable Lake, where I did not this year, emerging from a terrible head cold, go for my usual September swim. Also, the pair of birds we wanted to see as loons turned out to be cormorants. But we were not complaining. Everything that was, was as it should be.

In some years past, we have made lengthy forays out from our base camp at the Superior Hotel, sometimes as far west as the Keweenaw or north all the way to Wawa, Ontario. Not this year. David was coming down with the cold from which I was emerging, and R&R was our self-prescription -- not Rest & Recreation, either, this time around so much as Rest & Recuperation. As darkness fell, David could be found taking in the Ken Burns special on Vietnam down in the hotel parlor, while I stretched out upstairs with my book.

We did make one small expedition over to Munising, after fortifying ourselves with biscuits and gravy at the Diner. In the old days, before H58 was paved, taking the shoreline road to Munising was an exciting and somewhat hair-raising safari. Blowing and windblown sand between the dunes on Lake Superior and Grand Sable Lake were only the beginning. Farther into the forest, wide, rain-filled potholes awaited, sometimes stretching the width of the road, with no indication how deep they might be. Reaching the paved stretch beginning around Melstrand felt like hard-won victory!

Now the road is paved all the way, and it’s smooth cruising. David loves it. My own feelings are mixed. I appreciate it, and I realize how important it is for those living and working along the Big Lake and needing to make regular trips back and forth, and yet I miss the adventure of the old road, too. Well, okay. I’m glad I have the memories of the way it used to be. Regardless of road surface, H58 still goes to Munising by way of beautiful Kingston Lake and my beloved Kingston Plains (above), and that makes me happy.

One year we took the boat cruise along the Pictured Rocks, and I always recommend it to others traveling north from Leelanau County, but our own sight-seeing in Munising this year was tamer, and it began with the post office. I thought I remembered a big W.P.A. mural. Apparently I was thinking of a different U.P. post office, but it was a happy error, because by going inside we were able to visit another W.P.A.-era instance of public art, a relief sculpture by Ohio-born artist Hugo Robus. The pleasant woman behind the counter sold me postcard stamps and gave us an information handout on the art.

Familiar with the artist’s name, David hoped to learn more about the material and process, but the handout said nothing of that. There was one brief paragraph about the artist’s background, and the rest of the two pages explained the legend that had inspired Mr. Robus.

The main figure in the sculpture is the Nanabozsho, “scattering the mud which the beaver has brought up from the bottom of the lake” to create the three offshore islands, of which Grand Island, or Gitche Menesing (as Robert Wright spelled it), is the most important. Since my vacation reading was Windigo Moon, with many chapters set on Kitchi-Minissing (as Robert Downes spells it), I appreciated the art work all the more on that account, while David speculated that the material used was probably Portland cement, sealed with wax. We both liked very much the explanation of the most important animal depicted: “The beaver who succeeded in his attempt to bring mud from the lake’s bottom lies upon his side exhausted.” That beaver did look worn out!

Another bit of sight-seeing perhaps peculiar to us was the roofless remains of an old building stretching back to a quiet alley. What did it used to be? What could it become? A patio restaurant and outdoor sculpture gallery? Our fevered imaginations could readily see it transformed. 

As always, for me, the little details were captivating. But, as the old Greek said, We came, we saw, we went away again.

And I was happy to get back to Grand Marais before the West Bay Diner closed at 6 o’clock for a piece of Ellen’s raspberry pie and visit with her. Friday we enjoyed our third morning coffee with Rick at the hotel but agreed it felt like time to go home. A couple of pasties from Lehto’s before the Bridge made a satisfying lunch, and a quick stop to cool our traveling feet at Elk Rapids reminded us how beautiful our own home corner of Michigan is, too.

A migraine hit me that evening at home and kept me laid low all the next day, but I think it was Nature’s way of telling me, Oh, no! You are still on vacation! No going back to work this weekend! David’s cold was telling him the same thing, and the unseasonably warm temperatures underlined the warning. Okay, we’ll rest some more! We did work hard all summer, and it’s going to be a busy fall, too.