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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.