|Quiet moment, Lake Leelanau Narrows|
The hard thing about living anywhere, I decide, and traveling in general, is that one can never live long enough or see enough of the world to fully understand the long arc of the universe and make any sense of it. Little bits are all we get, and it’s never enough to see the big picture.
- Kathleen Stocking, The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale (2016)
Kathleen Stocking’s written arc soared high in 1990, with the publication of her first book of essays, Letters from the Leelanau. That book, published by the University of Michigan Press, was reviewed in the New York Times under a headline reading, “Notes From a More Real World.” Interesting, no?
Is Leelanau County more real than New York City? Was it then?
What reviewer Peter Leschak actually had in mind was the way Stocking gave her readers so much more than just stories of the “vivid lives of ... rural folk.” He was saluting the way the author connected the lives in her essays (in portraits he called “touching,” “authentic,” and “sometimes quirky”) to the rest of the world, to history and to human and cultural evolution. He called her a “seer.” Poet Jim Harrison said then, of Stocking’s writing on the Leelanau peninsula and its inhabitants, “I don’t think anyone does it better.”
Three years later the University of Michigan Press published Stocking’s Lake Country (1994), new essays that took readers from the U.P. in the north of the state to Ann Arbor in the southeast corner (where the author attended her daughter’s graduation, having skipped her own in the Sixties). Here is a sentence I love from the preface to Lake Country:
Michigan is a state where it seems one can travel almost indefinitely and never come to the end of the journey.
Stocking also wrote in that preface that she needed in her second book to get beyond the Leelanau peninsula, “to understand herself in relation to something larger....” A series of travels throughout Michigan gave her that larger context.
The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale (2016), Stocking’s third collection of essays, completing her nonfiction trilogy, again combines memoir with travel, history, and social commentary. Again the author starts out from the small northern village of Lake Leelanau to explore a world she has realized is no longer separate from her sheltered country life, and between travels she comes back again and again to her familiar home territory.
As I continued to come and go from my village of Lake Leelanau, to and from villages overseas, the whole world was becoming an Internet-connected village. Computers changed everything. It happened so fast and spread so far, it was hard to take in.
But why did she go at all, and why so far this time? What possessed her? What inspired a woman her age (you should excuse me: she and I are of the same era) to venture away from the beautiful, peaceful place she calls home, or, as she puts it in her introduction “to leave Paradise and visit Hell”?
In response to the question in conversation, Stocking says she thinks we all have a natural curiosity about the larger world. “When I worked summers at the Totem Shoppe in Glen Arbor when I was a kid, if I heard a foreign accent, I always wanted to know where that person was from and what it was like in their country.” Fair enough. Maybe all of us have the curiosity. But Kathleen has, in addition, the guts to take her curiosity to countries most of the rest of us don’t want to visit even as tourists (I’m speaking for myself here), and she has the strength to rise to challenge after challenge, a probing mind never content with easy answers, and relentless honesty in describing whatever she finds. Horrors as well as delights. Beauty, kindness, in strange and unexpected places -- but also, at times, the stuff of nightmares.
How did she survive it all? By keeping her wits about her -- and with natural camouflage:
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending, but fortunately in this case, my looks are deceiving. I look like the most spaced-out, uncoordinated, naturally physically awkward, sheltered, poetry-loving, middle class, not-a-thought-in-my-head, straight-laced and inattentive person in the world. It's just the way I come across....
Of course, if you know Kathleen at all (or even as you will come to know her in this book, if it's your first introduction), you realize that she has more thoughts in her head at any given moment than some people have all day. That's what I mean by "camouflage."
My temptation when I am excited about a book is to quote at length, choosing passage after passage, but I'm not going to do that with this book. Readers deserve a chance to discover it for themselves. My job here is simply to assure you that it's more than worth the admission price, and I’m not going to cheat you out of the pleasure of discovering your own favorite lines and moments and episodes. But please do not cheat yourself, either! The Long Arc of the Universe is as deliberately structured as a good novel, structured to be read from beginning to end, and the effect of the whole would be lost by random sampling.
From Soledad Prison and the San Francisco jail to a private school for children of the wealthy elite in San Salvador to Peace Corps assignments in Thailand and Romania (those assignments bookends to an interval spent as a park ranger at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore), The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale is a head-spinning, mind-bending series of journeys, and wherever she finds herself, whether in Empire, Michigan, or Istanbul, Kathleen Stocking’s keen mind, clear eye, and determined questioning, both of herself and her world, enlarge and enlighten the all-too-brief experience available to us in our short time on earth.
We are very fortunate to have this gifted seer among us, writing our world, near and distant.
Kathleen Stocking will sign her new book for bookstore customers at Dog Ears Books, 106 Waukazoo Street, on Sunday, July 3, from noon to 1 p.m. I will also be happy to hold prepaid orders for the author’s signature if you cannot attend on the day she will be here.