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Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: LOVE, SEX & 4-H

It’s practically unthinkable that anyone in northern Michigan would not know the name – and the work – of Anne-Marie Oomen. Her poetry, plays, magazine essays, and especially her books of memoir have long established her as a distinctive northern voice. Her place and time come through in everything she writes, and her writing is both lyrical and accessible.

Elsewhere, a couple years ago, I addressed the question “What were the Sixties (really) like?” I will not repeat what I wrote then, but if you missed the earlier post, you might want to go back and read it, and after you do, you’ll be even more ready to dig into Anne-Marie Oomen’s latest book.

Love, Sex, & 4-H – the title alone spoke to me! Oomen joined 4-H early, at age 8, when her mother became a group leader. The oldest child in her rural farm family, little Anne-Marie sought in 4-H an escape from farm animals! My exclamation mark is very personal, because I joined 4-H in upper elementary school hoping that membership would be Step #1 to horse ownership. It wasn’t. (No one explained to me that ours was an “urban” club rather than a farm club.) The sewing projects through which Oomen progressed over the years, going all the way to fashion modeling at Michigan State University, left me cold. I stopped early on, with the horrid gathered skirt requirement. Ugh! I did not stay with 4-H past grade school. But I loved the Head, Heart, Hands & Health pledge. Anyway, enough about me....

As Oomen tells the story of her adolescent years, political awareness was far from her life. The larger world intruded only with time-stopping events; otherwise, clothes and boys dominated her personal Sixties consciousness. As I have said many times, the Sixties were different for everyone who lived through them.

Here were sex and love dressed in church clothes, shirt collar just starting to unbutton—utterly seductive, surreptitious as snakes. Except for the fierce familial love of my people, I had no authentic understanding of either of those lunatics, love and sex, as they were expressed in that time. But I had 4-H, and, because of that, I knew this much: I knew how love and sex would be dressed.
Oomen’s experience in the Sixties, then, is not the story of a young radical in the making. Questions about love and sex, however, have come to young men and women in every historical decade of American life, regardless of any larger political context, and they always will. Oomen’s story, while hardly remarkable in itself, is told with remarkable frankness, and that, along with her always beautiful writing, is its strength. She neither paints her adolescence in false colors nor glosses over occasional petty, even shameful behavior. It’s all there, from the first stirrings to the slippery “everything but” slope.

Oomen might have subtitled this book A Memoir of the Sixties, since it covers the decade 1959 to 1969, her life from age 8 to age 18, and it is very much a young Michigan farm girl’s coming of age in that decade when ordinary adolescent turbulence took place in a larger national context of social turbulence. Of the three memoir books she has written – the first two were Pulling Down the Barn, stories of her rural northern Michigan family, and House of Fields, telling of her educational journey – Love, Sex, & 4-H does the most to situate one girl’s experience in a larger perspective. Oomen has many readers who did not grow up on farms or attend one-room schools, but all of us either lived through or (for the younger readers) have know from the classroom the major events of the 1960s. We have all, too, lived through teenage confusions, hopes, and fears, trying to redefine in those years our roles as sister, daughter, friend, and girlfriend (or, for boys, obviously, brother, son, friend, and boyfriend).

New readers are still discovering Anne-Marie Oomen’s book for the first time. Two young women came by chance to the bookstore on Tuesday afternoon, and, urged by Anne-Marie and her Northport bookseller, also attended the author’s formal presentation at the Leelanau Township Library the same evening. One of them was about to embark on an M.F.A. program in creative writing; both were excited to be able to meet and “hang out with” such an accomplished book author. They planned to return to their campsite and read Uncoded Woman aloud around the campfire. “You have to read the poems in order,” I cautioned them. “No skipping around, because there is a narrative.” Anne-Marie took over then and told them something about the protagonist of the poems and the maritime signals that name each poem.

Besides memoir, essays, and poetry, Anne-Marie Oomen has written seven plays for the stage, only one of which I have seen performed – and that one much too long ago. It told the story, all in verse, of farm women in the area now part of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The power of the drama, very minimally staged, surprised and moved me. I want to see it again.

What a privilege and joy it was to spend hours on Tuesday with writer Anne-Marie Oomen! Even without paid vacation or sick leave, there are some very tangible benefits to this bookselling gig. I have the pleasure of introducing my writer friends to one another, bringing writers to readers, and, always, enjoying my small place in American literature’s northern territory.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Generosity of Writers

Of several photographs I took on Thursday of Holly Wren Spaulding during her reading at Dog Ears Books, the one above was her favorite. I liked it very much as I was framing the shot and quickly saw that it is not unlike the short forms of poetry Spaulding writes and coached us in writing.

Holly Wren Spaulding, a Michigan native and long-time Leelanau County resident, has made her home in Massachusetts for the last couple of years, earning a living as a self-employed writer, teacher, and writing coach. From that you should understand that Holly’s workshops are not generally free, that people are happy to pay good money to work with a writer of her talent and experience. Because of my own 23 years’ experience as a bookseller, however, I was not completely taken by surprise when Holly generously offered to give a little hands-on workshop on short poetry forms, gratis, following her reading at my bookstore.

So she read first, both poems from her newly published collection, Pilgrim, and poems written since Pilgrim went to press, and shared with us the excitement of working on letterpress projects, setting type by hand for a few short lines of her poetry to be printed and framed as art. The lively, engaged audience had questions about the writing process that Holly was happy to answer.

When we got to the workshop portion of the event, Spaulding began by giving an introduction to the short forms of haiku and tanka and reading a few examples of these and other short poems less rigorous with regard to number of syllables. Then we were given our assignment: Think of a single encounter with the natural world, preferably within the last 24 hours. Try to capture the moment and make a human connection to it. I’m not going to share my “finished” piece (only finished in the sense that time was up), but the encounter I chose was the one pictured below.

At first, looking for words to capture the moment I thought I had to mention the chipmunk’s stripes and its bright beady eyes. With trial after trial, however, what remained in each draft was the prayerful attitude of the tiny paws held to the chest. That for me was really the essence.

As, I think, the image of Holly’s hands at the top of this post, one hand holding a sheaf of poems on paper, the other gesturing to the audience, is the essence of her visit to Northport. 

Holly Wren Spaulding, thank you again for giving us your time. It was lovely having you here. I know the audience members who are also writers are very grateful to have had the opportunity.

Reminder: Next week, on Tuesday, June 30, Anne-Marie Oomen will be at Dog Ears Books from 3 to 5 p.m., signing her new book of memoir essays, Love, Sex, and 4-H. Please stop in and meet another generous Michigan writer making a trip clear up to Northport!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bring Pencil and Paper! (Pen Okay, Too)

My most important news today is reminding everyone about Thursday's author event at Dog Ears Books in Northport. We will be hosting poet Holly Wren Spaulding, with her new collection of poems, Pilgrim. Holly will read her work and take questions from attendees, and we will have a wonderful conversation, as we always do with our visiting writers. 

Then, following all that, Holly is generously offering to lead a free workshop in short poetic forms! This is an opportunity not to be missed, for everyone from professional writers to secret, closet poets. 

Holly Wren Spaulding is a teaching artist, editor and creative coach. She is the founder of Poetry Forge (an incubator for writers and their work) and with her husband, author Matt Rigney, Holly co-directs STORYhouse Partners. Her writing has appeared in The NationMichigan Quarterly ReviewWitnessThe Ecologist, in the book We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism (Verso) and elsewhere. Her most recent collection of poems, Pilgrim, was released in 2014 by Alice Greene & Co. She serves on the faculty of the Interlochen College of Creative Arts and is an advisor to the board of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art & Natural Design.

Please mark your calendar, set your smart phone alarm, or whatever you need to do so you won't forget to come to the bookstore at 4 o'clock on Thursday afternoon

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is It Possible to Steal Time? If So, Is There a Penalty?

Wednesday was busy. With my first author event of the season scheduled for 7 p.m., I was up and out the door early, with many errands to accomplish in Leland, Lake Leelanau, Northport, and back at the old farmhouse. All the silly fretting I’d done about the weather, though, had been so much wasted energy. It was absolutely a glorious day!

With Bruce at the bookstore helm in Northport, I returned home early in the afternoon to tend to cleaning, cooking, dog, and laundry. Then about 2 o’clock I took a deep breath and decided I’d earned a break. Took a book out on our front – what is it? a deck? a walk? – wooden walkway, where a couple of big wooden chairs now invite lounging. Having already opened a cold beer, I sat down and opened my book. How marvelous!

Scolding chipmunks (scolding Sarah, I believe, not me) had me looking up every few minutes, as did birds singing high in the trees, and then I would notice all over again the blooming flowers visited by bees and admire once more my pretty dog lying in the grass and feel a shiver of delight to be sitting there outdoors with book and beer and dog, chipmunks and flowers and sunshine and green things growing all around. It was a distractingly beautiful day. I was not, that is to say, completely focused on my book to the exclusion of the world around me. But then, I didn’t want to be. The experience made a perfect whole.

Were those stolen moments? Was it a stolen hour? I could have been pursuing household cleanliness more thoroughly, but I knew my houseguest, author Ellen Airgood, taking a couple of days out of her very busy life to come to Northport, would understand and condone my indolence. I trust her that much.

Ellen has a hard time finding 10 minutes a day to spend outdoors, so when she arrived her first request was to sit “in the sun,” and accordingly we moved from shaded walk to sunny table, and there we enjoyed a few bites and sips before coming back to Northport for Ellen’s reading and book signing.

What can I say? She is a wonder – wonderful writer, wonderful friend, wonderful worker. “Her books are about real life,” another friend of mine says with deep appreciation.

That appreciative, book-loving friend and others found time at the end of their own busy days to come to Dog Ears Books last night to hear Ellen read (from her new book, The Education of Ivy Blake, and from a personal essay in the new anthology, Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and to ask her questions about her writing, her books, her characters, her life. It was good conversation, relaxed and honest. Afterward, Ellen and I took the long way home via my favorite back roads, and then this morning we had more time for quiet conversation over leisurely breakfast and coffee.

I thought again – actually, several times – how fortunate I am in my rich literary life. Ellen says about her hard work at the West Bay Diner she and her husband own in the U.P. exactly what I feel about Dog Ears Books in Northport: “Without the business, look at all the wonderful people I would never have met!”

Our leisurely morning, time that could be seen as “stolen” for both of us, felt good. I felt rewarded rather than penalized for having stolen that time. I hope Ellen also feels rewarded having seized yesterday.

As we sometimes say here in the Leelanau, “Seize the carp!”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Upper Peninsula Comes South!

Ellen Airgood is coming to town, from the shores of Lake Superior, and I’m so happy and excited my toes are dancing in my boots! Here are Ivy Blake’s boots on the cover of The Education of Ivy Blake, Ellen’s latest novel for young people. Ivy is a 5th-grader, so if you know a 5th-grade girl who would like to meet an accomplished and very welcoming, friendly book author, bring that girl to Dog Ears Books on Wednesday for a memorable evening. Coming by yourself or with friends your own age is fine, too. You won't be sorry.

Who was the first author you met? How old were you? What do you remember of the meeting?

My photo at the top of the page shows several Airgood books. (Not all, because one anthology she appeared in seems to be no longer in print.) South of Superior was her first novel, and Prairie Evers her first novel for a younger audience. Ivy and Prairie become friends in Prairie Evers, so while it is not necessary to have read the first to enjoy the second, anyone who reads The Education of Ivy Blake first will want to go back to read Prairie Evers, too. Read or re-read, I should say. Ellen Airgood’s books are eminently re-readable – and I say this having read South of Superior all the way through four times.

The two anthologies that include Ellen Airgood pieces are excellent, as well. A couple customers just the other day were telling me how much they have been enjoying The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, edited by Ron Riekki. Riekki also edited the new collection, Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which features work from several decades, both poetry and prose. Good stuff, all this!

Wednesday, June 17, 7 p.m., Dog Ears Books, 106 Waukazoo Street, Northport, Michigan: Ellen Airgood, reading from and signing The Education of Ivy Blake

Below is a glimpse of Ellen at a different kind of work. You'll have to ask her how she finds time to write books!

At West Bay Diner, Grand Marais, Michigan

Saturday, June 13, 2015

There Was Music in the Air in Northport

Friday night was the spring concert by the Leelanau Children’s Choir & Leelanau Youth Ensemble. The performance at the Northport Community Arts Center bore the title “Music That Moves You,” and the selections performed lived up to the show’s title. Let me quote from director Margaret Bell’s director’s letter at the front of the program:
Music forms such an incredibly rich backdrop for so many events in our lives. There are the traditional songs played at graduations, weddings, and holidays. There is parade music, memorial music, and music to enhance our movie experience. Some music prompts us to tap our toes, “get up and boogie,” or unabashedly “shake it all about.” Music surely seems to be all around us – everywhere and all the time. 
Some of the most poignant and powerful music is that which evokes a memory or an emotion. The song that takes you back to a summer evening in your youth, the one that takes you back to a beach vacation, the song that played when you first kissed the one you love.

The program’s popular music ran from Irving Berlin to Chuck Berry. American musical theatre was well represented, with songs from “The Music Man,” “Les Miserables,” “West Side Story,” and other shows.

Several students from the choirs came forward between numbers to read essays they had written on the topic “Music That Moves You.” Their words, like the music, were moving.

LCC&LYE concerts are always stirring, happy and also poignant occasions, as former “little ones” grow up and seniors graduate and leave (often coming back to join their successors as alumni  performers). I am always happy to be in the audience, happy to look on the eager, attentive faces of the singers as they make their hard-working director proud. Accompanist Linda Davis came in for special recognition and appreciation this year, also.

But the young voices – those are what the choir and youth ensemble are all about. This spring’s concert included many beautiful solos, duets, and trios I could not capture on camera, entranced to stillness as I was by the singing.

Leelanau County is indeed fortunate (to put it mildly) to have these musical groups for our children and youth. LCC&LYE would not have come into existence without Margaret Bell. With her continued dedication and hard work, the dedication and hard work of her students and their accompanist and all the people who work on costumes and put together the shows and support the groups financially, choral music grows stronger every year in Leelanau County.

One thing I would like to see is more Northport involvement. Having the spring concert in my little village thrills me, and I would love to see more young Northport faces onstage and more Northport families and other residents in the audience.

If you want to be moved by music, there’s no better way than to go to a concert presented by the Leelanau Children’s Choir & Leelanau Youth Ensemble! Better yet, besides attending you can be part of the group by sponsoring. Because it's all about the kids.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Revisiting “Affordable” in a Larger Context: Is There a “Common Good”?

Before the leaves, before the boats

Some thoughts are like perennial itches: you can scratch and scratch away at them for years, and they never go away. One such thought, for me, is that of the common good, a venerable idea in Western philosophy but seemingly in decline in our day.

For instance, the original idea of public schools in the United States of America was that it is for the public good that all citizens of a republic be educated. Self-government demands general education for all. (The words chiseled over the proscenium of my high school auditorium were from Diogenes: “The Education of Every State is the Education of Its Youth.”) In the current American climate, parents are much more likely to see education as something they want their children to have as a competitive edge over other kids in the country. In this new discussion, I don’t hear concern for the future lives of those educated, successful children and their children in a country of increasing inequality. If this sounds like an accusation, I suppose it is, in part, but another important part is that I simply don’t understand. I don’t understand wanting that kind of world. It isn’t what I want for my kids and grandkids.

As Leelanau County tackles  the difficult and thorny issue of affordable housing (see previous post), schools are part of the discussion, but what is at stake in our little villages is not keeping poor kids out of our public schools but keeping enough kids in school to keep the schools open! What is a community without a school?

It’s probably more than coincidence  that NPR last night had a feature on a proposed affordable housing project in Marin County, California, since northern Michigan communities are far from the only ones faced with the issue. (Interesting that the headline reads “debate against [sic] affordable housing.”  A debate presents opposing arguments, not the arguments of a single side, and in fact the Californians in the story fell onto both sides of the issue, not always on the basis of who was in the boat and who was in the water.) On my way to Northport this morning, headed for my little, 23-year-old, independent bookstore, a particular word in one Marin County man’s complaint about the proposed project kept bouncing around in my head, unable to settle in a comfortable resting place. The word was sacrifices.
“I made great sacrifices to be here,” he says. “I think it's selfish to expect that someone else should be able to acquire (it) for little or next to nothing.”  
That’s only a snippet, and it doesn’t tell me much, but I can’t help wondering what the man means. I can understand parents sacrificing for their children. I can understand soldiers sacrificing for their country. But if I give up something to gain something I want more, how is that a sacrifice? Isn’t it simply a question of priorities, of knowing what is most important to me? Isn't a sacrifice something given up?

What of another household in which the homeowners’ inherited wealth enabled them to buy into the neighborhood? They could not be said to have sacrificed, could they? Do we want to say their parents made the sacrifices? Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. Who knows? And how many generations back do we want to go -- until we reach unscrupulous ancestors?

To believe that everyone with wealth earned every single penny by the sheer sweat of his or her own brow, with no help from anyone and no advantages of upbringing, and that every poor person is poor merely because he or she does not work hard is nothing but self-serving myth. No one has more than 24 hours a day in which to live, and not all those hours can be devoted to work. Sleep has to figure in. Do people with 100 times as much money work 100 times as many hours a day? I’d say not.

Back to my original thought-itch, that of the idea of the common good? What is it? A Santa Clara University site defines it as “social systems, institutions and environments on which we all depend” working in such a way as to “benefit all people,” which would surely include public safety, schools, and conservation of natural resources, at a minimum. The Santa Clara site is worth visiting for discussion of problems associated with the very idea of the common good. In a pluralistic society, individuals hold different values have different priorities. Moreover, a “common good,” by definition, is one in which everyone benefits, while some will have contributed more than others.

Some people might make an entirely different objection, not to practical problems but with the theoretical object itself. Like Socrates, questioning his friends, shredding their definitions, and deconstructing social practices to everything we believe in unreal (perfect “forms” existing only in some other realm), a Platonist would show you that the common good on earth is nonexistent. Have you ever seen it? Can you point to an instance of perfect benefit to all?

Some work harder, some not as hard, and some pay more dearly than others. That’s all true. It’s also true, I’d say, that all of us in this country have the advantage of certain unearned benefits, beginning with being here at all. Working toward the common good, then, toward an ideal (what else is “liberty and justice for all” but an ideal?) can be seen as making payments for what we have already received. Credit was extended to us. We need to earn, after the fact, what we received without having prepaid.

It is not individuals we are rewarding (whether “deserving” or not) but society we are paying back by ensuring its continuity. We are building a better world. And it we can only make our payments one person, one action at a time.