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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Enduring Nature of the Written Word

My son came up from Kalamazoo for a five-day visit over the Thanksgiving weekend, and somehow on Sunday morning we found ourselves pawing through an old trunk I had not opened for years. Oh, the treasures that emerged from that archive! 

There were letters he had written me from camp when he was a kid and a little stash of hand-made “coupons” he’d given me as a gift, coupons I could redeem for various chores he would do around the house. “And you didn’t use any of them,” he noted. “I didn’t want to give them up!” I told him. “They were too cute!” Another gem was a handwritten note from a girl in his grade school class, asking me for a copy of a snapshot I’d taken of the two of them at Ian’s birthday party. “I want to see how romantic we look,” she wrote. Or rather, she printed. They must have been in third grade then, not yet learning cursive writing. 

Copies of letters my grandmother had written to my mother were there, along with a copy of a letter one of my aunts had written to my mother, all of this fascinating correspondence concerning the revelation of an old family secret. I read the letters aloud to my son, refreshing my own memory with the details. I’ll keep in mind this winter the fact that my mother’s parents were married in February of 1918, making it a century ago three months from now. 

I found a box of color slides from photographs I took during my two years in Cincinnati (1987-88) and will have those made into prints and also stored on DVD very soon. (The architecture of Cincinnati fascinated me, as did the hilly terrain. It was rich territory to explore with a camera.) I also found handful after handful of photographic prints, some dating back fifty years or more. The color was not always the best, but everyone in the pictures was recognizable.

A very modest collection of receipts and tissue wrappings from purchases (e.g., cheese) made in Paris appeared. I could never bear to throw away any scrap of paper that came my way in France, with words printed in French and sometimes a reproduced line drawing of a shop front or of the Eiffel Tower. You must understand that I shivered with pleasure over the phrase “vêtements d’hiver” (winter clothes) scrawled on a box in the closet of the apartment where I first stayed in Paris. Four years of high school French and the smattering I’d picked up before that from my father had not fully prepared me for the wonder of being in a foreign country and actually managing to make my way around in another language, one I felt I’d learned in a way somewhat similar to the way I had learned to read music, another mysterious, magic, “other” language. It worked! I felt like a gifted code-cracker!

But there is plenty of magic in English, and I was thrilled to discover in the trunk a couple of irreplaceable family items I had been afraid I’d lost forever. Before they married, before they had even met, my father and my mother, each separately, collected into little books their favorite poems. In 1974 the two books were given to me. With the exception of one verse my father composed with his high school French, my parents did not themselves write any of the works in their books, but their selections are windows into their youthful sensibilities. 

What did these two young people have in common? What aspects of their personalities were very different? Some overlap between the two collections gives clues, as do the majority of items found in one book but not in another. 

Neither book has either table of contents or index, but my father’s, titled “Favora Quotation Gilberti,” dated1941, begins with an “Indication of general trend…” listing eight attributes: amusing; slightly risqué; cynical philosophy; toward celibacy; satire; truism; good phrasing; and romantic: beautiful and healthy sentiment. Not everything in his book is a poem. Many entries are simply pithy sayings, and many verses and pithy sayings are attributed to “Anon,” for example this ironic observation that gives the lie to my entire thesis today:

Lives of great men all remind us 
As their pages o’er we turn, 
That we’re apt to leave behind us 
Letters that we ought to burn. 

There is no indication which heading he would have assigned here. Cynical, probably. There was more of cynicism and satire in my father’s collection than in my mothers, but both had generous helpings of romantic choices. And both include pieces by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though I note that my father attributes the latter’s words to “Elizabeth Browning,” omitting the poet’s family name, while my mother invariably used all three names.

My mother’s collection includes Sara Teasdale, Eugene Field, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I don’t find as many entries from “Anon.” as my father had, but a few, such as the two lists “Helps for Daily Living” and “Married Wisdom” have no attribution. (Actually, the latter, which is the first piece in her book, says “Author Unknown.” Could it be that favorite of my father, “Anon.”?!) My mother’s collection also has more entries from women, the names often unfamiliar to me. There are also fewer humorous pieces in my mother’s book, so Richard’s Armour’s “A Thousand Times No” stands out: 

Some take great pride in saying No, 
They scorn an easy Yes. 
Assent is sign of weakness, so 
To none will they confess. 

For utterance of No they live,

Nor would they have you doubt it.

They’re very, very negative

And positive about it!

At the end of my mother’s collection, following Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time” and Sarah Dunnings’s “These Things I Love,” comes a list of dated topics for what looks like a music class, “Hints for Song Leaders,” “How to Present a New Song,” and finally a recipe for Helen’s Peanut Butter Cookies, but my mother’s name appears nowhere in her book.  

Besides family memorabilia, I found in the trunk many bundles of letters from friends, a few with literary associations. There were two letters from Jim Harrison, one from Joyce, Jim’s assistant, three from Guy de la Valdene, and one from poet Dan Gerber, all these resulting from typing, proof-reading, and editing I’d done for him and Guy and Dan back in the old days. 

Then there was a xeroxed copy of the wonderful handwritten journal my sister kept on her first trip (with now-husband Bob) to the Boundary Waters, up from Minnesota into Canada, her first wilderness experience, with canoe portages and camp coffee and losing her camera to a black bear! I read aloud from the pages to my son (with David listening from the next room) and especially loved the full page listing of all the sounds of the wilderness, none having anything to do with traffic or phones.

All these memories are priceless to me, despite the mustiness of a trunk that had been closed for years. 

As I held color slides up to the light, exclaiming over the images, my son made a comment about digitizing old media files, and that’s well and good, I suppose. But if hard copies are not kept, if only digital files remain, I worry that those files could become unopenable black boxes to future generations. They are not, after all, human-readable, and as the technology to read digital files advances as breakneck speed, earlier readers become so much junk. There is also the question of “where” the files will be stored. In a “cloud”? As my son noted, “A cloud is just someone else’s computer.” 

I’ve never liked the idea of keeping my photographs or books in a cloud, anyway, and I wouldn’t want to reduce precious old letters from friends and family and photographs of same to someone else's storage black box. My old black trunk has served me well. And I have always been in love with paper and with holding physical objects in my hands. 

Sliding sheets of handwriting from envelopes (first appreciating the beautiful postage stamps), turning pages, shuffling and stacking snapshots and slides are pleasures I have no intention of foregoing, as long as they are available to me, and I hope that will be for the rest of my life.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wild Children in the Woods

[Reminder: Tonight is the tree-lighting in Northport, after a day of merchant open houses and caroling. The horses will be pulling a decorated wagon through town, giving free rides, beginning at 3 p.m. Come and join us all day long!]

When Emily St. John Mandel wrote a post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, she presented readers neither with a totalitarian, police-run urban world nor a barren desert in which gangs of young men, all looking like pirates, miraculously found fuel enough to roar endlessly through empty lands on fantastic vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Instead, when the infrastructure of civilization collapses in Station Eleven (subsequent to a global pandemic), survivors, of necessity, fall back on old ways. A troupe of Shakespearean players, for instance, roves from one isolated rural community to another (cities having become uninhabitable), hunting and foraging and preparing food over open fires. 

In two more recent novels, also by women — one set in England and the other in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — the modern world has not (yet) collapsed but is seen by pivotal characters as something to escape. 

Fiona Mozley’s Elmet tells of a father who moves his two motherless children to the woods, where he builds a house intended to last forever, long after he himself is gone, although they are only squatters on the land. His children are a boyish adolescent girl, given to brooding silences like his own, and a fey, girlish boy, the narrator of the story. 
We kept on with our silly childhood games long after we were much too old. Our copse provided the materials we needed and an undulant terrain in which to run and hide. In another world we might have grown up faster, but this was our strange, sylvan otherworld, so we did not. And that, after all, was why Daddy had moved us here. He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world. He wished to give us a chance of living our own lives, he said. 
Fiona Mosley, Elmet

The father hitherto had made his living with muscles and intimidating size. He fought with bare knuckles in illegal bouts “far from gymnasiums and auditoriums where the money could be big…,” bouts arranged by toughs and travelers (gypsies). The money stakes ran high, and other stakes were even higher: sometimes his opponent did not survive. Thanks to his reputation, he was also hired from time to time by men with great wealth and few scruples to intimidate debtors slow in settling up. But he longs to escape a life of crime and fighting, a life he can live without having to grub for money, and in the woods is the freedom he covets for himself and wants to provide for his children. 

We realize early in the story — not only from the confusing, dreamlike opening scene, from which the rest of the story is told as flashback, but also from interactions between characters and our own knowledge of the greater world — that the father’s hopes for the family’s future are destined to fail. The question is only when and how and how spectacularly the failure will come upon them. 

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, is a survivalist tale set in motion by violent crime. The father of the narrator has abducted a 14-year-old girl, subsequently his captive for years in wilderness isolation. When she becomes pregnant and gives birth, their daughter is thus a product of rape, and even as the kidnapped adolescent grows older, with a child of her own to protect, fear of her captor’s mercurial temper and sadistic nature keeps her submissive to him. 
I can see now that the reason my mother was indifferent toward me is because she never bonded with me. She was too young, too sick in the days immediately after I was born, too scared and lonely and collapsed in on herself from her own pain and misery to see me. Sometimes when a baby is born in similar circumstances, she gives her mother a reason to keep going. This wasn’t true of me. Thank God I had my father.
- Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter

The daughter’s relationship to her father is complex. She both fears and adores him. She hates his brutality toward her mother (whose small lapses in judgment or skill are rewarded with beatings) and is terrified of the punishments she herself sometimes receives (often when least expected), but at the same time she cannot get enough time outdoors with him, learning wilderness survival skills while her silent, distant cipher of a mother stays in the cabin cooking or sewing. The father is an unpredictable and sometimes punishing idol. Nevertheless, her life depends on what he can teach her, and being with him is an escape from the claustrophobic cabin. 
He’d lay out a trail for me while I was off playing or exploring, and then it would be up to me to find it and follow it while my father walked beside me and showed me all the signs I’d missed. Other times we’d walk wherever our feet took us and he’d point out interesting things as we went along. Drifts of scat. A red squirrel’s distinctive tracks. The entrance to a wood rat’s den littered with feathers and owl pellets. My father would point to a pile of droppings and ask, “Opossum or porcupine?” It’s not easy to tell the difference.

And so, long after she and her mother escape and return to “normal” life, after her father is finally captured and tried and sent to prison, after she changes her last name to escape the curiosity of anyone connecting her old name to her criminal father, and even after she marries, hiding her past from her own husband, and has two little daughters of her own — after all those years in which she realized very clearly what a cruel and crazy man her father truly was all along — when he finally escapes from prison after thirteen years, killing two guards in the process and launching a manhunt along the U.P.’s Seney Stretch, a question in her heart pushes Helena to track him down herself, as much as does her knowledge of the man and her need to keep her own daughters safe. She knows he has only laid a false trail to lead police into the Seney Wildlife Refuge, that he has undoubtedly gone in another direction. But as she tracks she can’t help also looking for signs that her father, for all his evil, loved her all along.  

Three novels by three different women, two with Michigan settings and one with a story spooling out in England, all of them taking place, for different reasons, in wilderness. In Station Eleven and The Marsh King’s Daughter, survivalism has been imposed on the characters, in one case by global apocalypse and in the other by the crime of one man. The wanderers in Station Eleven are not fleeing civilization but hoping to find remnants of it, while Helena in The Marsh King’s Daughter comes to see her U.P. wilderness isolation itself as the trap she would escape, despite her love of the woods and its creatures and the pride she takes in knowing her way around trackless land. Helena tells us that there is plenty in civilization she could live without but that she loves electricity. Characters in Station Eleven also have nostalgia for electricity’s gifts. And yet in both cases the world of nature is described in loving detail, as something not to be entirely left behind, and it is clear that these two authors value both wilderness and civilization, seeing the drawbacks either presents in a “pure” state.

Only Elmet seems to present a desire for off-the-grid living as longing to return to the Garden. If only the world will leave them alone, we want to believe, father and children can be happy in their isolated Eden. But how likely is the world to leave them alone? Is it the very lack of ambivalence in this story that leads to the most hopeless final pages of any of the three novels?

I began writing this post wondering if women writers, if women in general, are more drawn to recreating wilderness lives. While reading The Marsh King’s Daughter, for example, I could not help thinking of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, in which a young girl sets off alone to search for her mother, living off land and water, hunting and foraging — and, again, in Michigan.  Michigan. Its very name, Michigamme, conjures up grandeur and mystery. Among those who long to retire “Up North” (or, in England, “to the country”), is it men who would bring high-tech loud toys and women who would go back to an earlier era, and is that reflected in fiction by men and women? 

Or is that, as I’m sure it is, an overly simplistic binary gender division?

Certain it is, however, that men have produced reams of commentary and analysis on works by those of their gender and have developed countless theories on works written by male writers,  ignoring works of women, as if only a male sensibility could have produced those novels, so why should not women have their turn? Today, on Books in Northport, they do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Grateful for Sunshine!

Bright berries!

There’s no denying that Sunday was a gloomy November day, grey and chill and forbidding. We went out into the world for a while, but before long I was more than ready to get back home again and curl up with a book, a cup of cocoa, and fire in the fireplace until dinner time. Monday, however, the postponed errands could no longer be shirked, and so it was with a glad heart that I greeted a sunny morning sky. Even if the clouds were to roll back in before noon, seeing blue sky and shadows on the ground had chased my Sunday blues away, and when David said he would join me on my far-flung rounds, we invited Sarah along and set off down the road, all three of us looking happily out the windows at the sunlit scene.

First stop, Leland: bank, post office, library. NJ’s Grocery in Lake Leelanau was next, and another post office stop in that little village before we swung over to Suttons Bay so I could visit Radio Shack and add minutes to my little flip phone. Loaded up with minutes, I took the opportunity to check out the Michigan products shop next door, where I bought Zingy Creamy Tahini Vinaigrette from the Redheads and fresh farm chestnuts that came from my Leelanau Township friend Margo Ammons and her husband. Before leaving town, we stopped to visit a horse on one of the back streets.

A new horse along the way
On the way to Cedar, where I had arranged to purchase rabbit meat from a local grower, we took one of my favorite back roads in hopes (my hope) the draft horses would be out this trip, and there they were. Then — lagniappe! — farther down the road a horse I’ve seen many times before was now joined by three new horses! We stopped to admire them, and I felt my day was already made, whatever happened from then on. And the sun was still shining….

The Bunny Hop Ranch would be worth a whole photo story. It’s a custom butchering operation out in the country, and since it’s the middle of firearm deer season Julius Bugai and his helpers had been very busy dressing out deer, along with getting started on Thanksgiving turkeys. “We’re falling behind,” I was told cheerfully. My rabbit meat came out of the freezer in neat little packages put together earlier in the season, but one of the guys offered to add me to to the crew. “We’ll give you an apron,” he told me, “and then all you need is a knife. We’ll teach you everything you have to know.” Maybe next year I should hire on, but this was my day off, the sun was shining, and David and Sarah and I were having a few hours of what felt like vacation, so I thanked the butchers and went on my way. 

Pegtown Station in Maple City is closed on Mondays, so we went back to the Cedar Tavern for lunch and shared a big plate of nachos, and then — back into the sunshine and through Maple City to detour past a major horse operation, because this, you see, is my idea of a drive in the country: seeing as many horses as possible. 

Unlike Sunday’s gloom, Monday was an inviting and cheerful day all over Leelanau County. No more bright reds and oranges and yellows of maples and popples, but somehow in the sunshine the browns of oak leaves looked very rich and warm and beautiful, so when David stopped to look over a car for sale, I strolled down the road a way with my camera. Staghorn sumac berries glowed in the light, which illuminated even nearly colorless grasses so that they looked ethereal.

We stopped once again at the library in Leland, this time for movies, and I made a quick dash into the Merc (Leland Mercantile, Leland’s grocery store since forever) for a bottle of hard cider from Tandem and some good organic carrots, picking up parsnips too for good measure, and then we were ready to go home. 

What a day! Looking and laughing, playing the radio or talking to each other, stopping to visit horses in three or four different places along the way, and going out for lunch, it really did feel as if we were on vacation all day long, and I was grateful for the sunshine, for the company of my darling and our dog, for the beauty of the countryside, and for the hard work of all the people providing good local food, not only for the holidays but throughout the year.

How strange that 24 hours can bring on such different attitudes to life! Sunday, I wanted only to huddle in my burrow. Monday, and my cup runneth over!

Oh, and I forgot to begin at the beginning. I’d been out first thing that day (well, second thing — after Sarah’s initial morning walk) to cut down a little tree in a crowded corner of our back meadow. But you will be seeing more of that in days to come, so I won't show it to you today....

This post is dedicated to Joanne Sahs in Northport, because she was disappointed I had not uploaded a new post on Saturday, and to all my friends and readers -- of books and blogs! -- in the Leelanau and Leland township libraries.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

“What Have You Read Lately?”

Back in 2009 I started keeping a list of books I’d read. I did not assign myself reading and generally picked up books at random, as I still do (except for reading circle choices). My only rule was that I had to read the entire book: if I didn’t finish it, it couldn’t go on the list. Now my old lists are a bit like old diaries, because I remember in glancing at the titles where I was (at home, away for the winter, on vacation in the U.P.) and what was happening in my life when I read a particular book. I didn’t start the lists to remember my life, however, but simply to remember the titles and authors of books I’d read. 

(It was too embarrassing — not only as a reader, but as a bookseller — to be forever fumbling around when asked what I had recently read and enjoyed. The other morning, for instance, without my current list, it took me a minute or two to come up with the name Colum McCann and then another five or ten minutes to recall the title Let the Great World Spin — and that’s a book that knocked my socks off!)

Today’s post, rather than being an in-depth review of one particular book, will go back over the last few books in this year’s random reading, giving a bit more detail than you’ll find in the bare list. Think of it as today’s smorgasbord. I’ll go back as far as Grandfather Stories, by Samuel Hopkins Adams, because that’s a book I haven’t written anything about yet on this blog and come forward to the last book finished on Tuesday morning. 

I started reading Grandfather Stories because it promised stories about the old Erie Canal, and as someone who grew up not far from the old Illinois-Michigan canal and had to cross serious bridges over the Chicago Sanitary Canal to get from home to downtown or high school, I’ve always taken an interest in canals and their history. I come from a railroad family and have always loved riding trains, but I’m sure the leisurely pace of canal boat or river boat travel would have suited me to a T. 

Adams recounts stories heard at his grandfather’s knee in the late 1880s, but the grandfather’s stories themselves date to an even earlier time in the nineteenth century, back before the Civil War to the construction and first days of the Erie Canal. He had other stories besides that had little or nothing to do with “Clinton’s Ditch.” I loved the ingenious ways the grandchildren learned to prime the pump to get their grandfather’s story-telling started. And many of the stories were a timely reminder that truly nothing is new under the sun. For instance, back in the early days of American organized sports — the first local baseball teams or a sculling race on the river — there was no end of gambling and cheating and rigging and fixing and thieving. Also, a big sporting event — perhaps between two champions who had agreed ahead of time which way to throw the match and split the difference — would bring crowds of spectators to town, straining accommodations and raising prices for those grumbling locals who would make no money from the inconvenience.

Reading Grandfather Stories was such a delightful escape from the 21st century that as soon as I finished it I passed it along to a friend recovering from surgery.

Each taking several parts (except for the star of the performance), we read Saint Joan aloud when our reading circle met the first Wednesday of November. Reading an entire work aloud, even a drama without long, descriptive paragraphs, took much more time than we usually spend discussing a novel (say, 2-3 hours), and it was almost midnight when I got home, but we all agreed it had been a worthwhile and pleasurable evening.

Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes let me slip back to France for a couple of evenings, a trip I always enjoy making. It was also the source of inspiration for a Thanksgiving plan that will depart wildly from tradition, but I’ll save that story (tease!) until after the holiday.

The Search Warrant, by Patrick Modiano, was also set in Paris but was hardly escape reading. Titled Dora Bruder in the original (before translation), this is the story of the author’s attempt to fill in details of the all-too-brief life of one young Jewish girl, daughter of poor immigrants, in occupied France, and the book is a literary monument to this life that would otherwise have vanished without a trace. Sobering reading, that was.

My experiences with Cora Sandel’s trilogy I’ve already described in part so will not go into further here. 

Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, is rather a paradox, short and sweet while managing to be deep at the same time. I recommend it. The price is so modest that you can buy it, read it in an evening, and pass it along to a friend the next day. 

Joanne Harris’s Coastliners was a change of pace for me, a light interlude. It’s a novel with plenty of twists and surprises in the plot, the story set on a small island off the coast of France. I couldn’t help wondering why the author didn’t title it Islanders and still think that would have been the better title. Besides the story, though, I couldn’t help looking for parallels between the French Island and Leelanau County. 

While Leelanau County coastal villages are no longer dependent on fishing, they are still quite dependent on tourism, as were the two villages on the French island. Rivalry between the two fictional island villages is depicted as much more serious and hostile than that we here feel between high school sports teams, but there was also the familiar tale (as seems to be true many places in the world) of friction between “insiders” and “outsiders,” the debated question of who should be considered “inside,” and agonizing questions over environmental protection and preservation and economic and commercial development, everything woven into an entertaining story.

Then came River of Sand, by James Still. What a lovely, lovely book! Set in the Appalachian hills where the author grew up, this novel of a poor family moving back and forth between starvation farming and insecure coal mining is one you might expect to be depressing, but somehow, despite the poverty and hardships, it was not at all. For one thing, Still’s descriptions of the natural surroundings are detailed and beautiful, and I felt I could see and hear the life of the hills and streams he was exploring. Also, the enduring closeness of the family and its individuals gave warmth to the bleakest episodes. 
The flat fruit of the locust fell, lying like curved blades in the grass. August ripened the sedge clumps. Father began to come home from the mines in middle afternoon, no longer trudging the creek road at the edge of dark with a carbide lamp burning on his cap. He came now before the guineas settled to roost in the black birch. We watched the elder thicket at the hill turn and plunged down to meet him as he came into sight. The heifer ran after us. - James Still, River of Sand
Also, Still lived and wrote decades before today’s dismal opioid addiction epidemic. His people lived and died without electricity and usually without medical care, but were their lives worse for that?

More modern in tone was the Canadian novel Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis. Once a reader accepts the impossible premise, that of Greek gods granting human intelligence to an assortment of dogs in a veterinary clinic, the rest of the story feels quite realistic. It offers nothing saccharine, nothing cute. If you want cuddly puppy stories, look elsewhere. My philosopher friends will appreciate the wager the gods have made, which turns on the question of whether another species besides humans, granted human intelligence, would be more or less miserable than humans, and they will smile over the gods’ agreement as to what will constitute the final decision.

It was Monday morning when I came to the last page of Fifteen Dogs, and that evening found me glued to the stories in Horses Never Lie, by Mark Rashid, a horse training book different from any other I’ve read. A good book on horse training is something I can never resist, and this one more than lived up to to the words in a foreword by someone who had interviewed the author:
This is not a book for skimming. You’ll want to keep it on your nightstand, savor every word, and dream sweet, horsey dreams. Who knows? You may wake up a better horseman, and a better person. - Rick Lamb

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the book. On the second page, the author writes about a Sunday afternoon drive in the family car when he was just a kid, when out there in the country appeared a ranch with horses in the pasture.
All my short life I had loved horses. I’m not even sure why. After all, I had never actually been around real horses. …I have no good explanation as to why I was smitten by them. But like so many other boys and girls my age, I just was. - Mark Rashid, Horses Never Lie
I stopped reading aloud to exclaim to David, “That’s how it is!” And really, isn’t it mysterious? Why would a little girl lisping her first words, as I was, be transported by joy at the sight of what she named “fersies”? Or, I should say, “Fersies!” My parents finally had to threaten not to point out horses to me if I couldn’t keep from screaming when I saw them!

But back to the book….

In so many current books on training either dogs or horses, the basic assumption underlying all else is that the owner or rider must be the alpha, the dog or horse submissive. In observing herds of horses interacting, however, Rashid noticed that the alpha horse, the one humans usually assume is the herd leader, was not always the horse the others followed. While the alpha maintained his or her position by intimidation (the alpha in a herd, it may surprise you to know, may be a mare), others in the herd tended to stay away from this bully figure. The alpha horse bossed the others around, but they looked elsewhere for true leadership.

The horse Rashid came to call a “passive” leader — the term, he admits is confusing, but he had to invent something to call this horse, since there was nothing about the role in horse training literature — was calm and dependable rather than bullying and intimidating. This horse was chosen by the herd rather than violently imposing leadership on the others. The word “passive,” as Rashid uses it, has to do with how the horse comes into a leadership position, i.e., not by seeking dominance over the herd but by the herd deciding it would be the horse to follow. This is the leader chosen by the herd, the one they trust and follow.

In this book, Mark Rashid lays out his own method of training in a series of stories, telling of horses and riders and trainers he has known, problems presented, and solutions found. He does not preach new techniques. He simply offers, for those who desire and choose to be in partnership with horses, advice about how to listen and pay attention and give the horse a chance to “have his say” so the horse has an opportunity, rather than being forced to submit, to choose the rider as leader. His method, he acknowledges, may not be for everyone. He believes “it comes down to the type of relationship you’re looking for with your horse.”

(What kind of relationship do you want with your dog? Sarah is pretty well behaved, but I’ve always given her a degree of latitude, too, recognizing that she “has a mind of her own.” I reasoned that herding breeds, while trained to commands, often have to make decisions of their own, and so Sarah, with her Aussie-border collie background, was only being herself when she took a moment to think about what I asked her to do. I don’t see her as needing a whole lot of bossing around. She is my constant companion, and we’re both comfortable with that. We’re attuned to one another.)

So I got up early on Tuesday, eager to read further in Horses Never Lie, and as I reached the final page and gathered myself together to go out into the world, to stop at the bank and post office and library, to get out into the sunshine so Sarah could have another run before our long bookstore day, I felt happier than I had felt facing the world for many days. The world isn’t all something that begs to be escaped, which the morning news sometimes makes me feel and I was happy to feel eager again to go out into it. 

After all, there are horses in the world, and there are dogs, and there are good friends and neighbors and strangers and acquaintances who might become friends if we can only stop fighting one another for dominance. And if we can stop that infernal struggle to “come out on top” in situation after situation, hold still and listen to each other — not just to the words but to all the cues in the situation — maybe there is hope yet for our species. The “passive leader” horse Mark Rashid describes is not a pushover for the alpha, by any means!

So why should our human predicament be hopeless? If we can learn to communicate with (not just to) horses and dogs, who don’t even share our language, let alone our value systems, why can we not learn to communicate with each other?

P.S. 11/17: Continuation of thoughts on Rashid's work and related topics on one of my other blogs -- here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Norwegian Women

For December our little reading circle chose to read the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath. Unset was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was the reason given by a horrid little man in my bookstore years ago why I should be ashamed of myself — he actually shook a finger at me and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” —for not having read it. His angry, scolding tone put me off the book for years. Note to others: Telling someone to be ashamed of not having read something does not encourage that person to pick up the book. More to the point is to say, as my friend Trudy did when Kristin Lavransdatter came up in conversation, “For me that book was transformational!” Trudy made me want to read (rather than avoid) the work!

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is set in fourteenth-century Norway, so that’s where I’ll be going a little later this month. Meanwhile, by chance, I happened upon another fictional work by a Norwegian woman, Cora Sandel. Coincidentally, Alberta & Jacob, Alberta & Freedom, and Alberta Alone also form a trilogySandel was born in 1880, and much in these novels is autobiographical, set just after the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century.

The first volume is set in a small town in the far north of Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, where we find young Alberta feeling trapped in almost every way imaginable — by a stultifying home life, her parents’ unhappy marriage, family financial worries that necessitated her leaving school, bourgeois expectations facing her, the perpetually cold climate (accentuating her mother’s coldness), and the long darkness of the Arctic winter. Cora is considered unattractive and considers herself such, as well; although her parents and brother keep assuring her that she might be presentable if she would only make a little effort, she avoids social situations whenever possible and welcomes the returning light of spring that allows her to run out into the countryside and be alone.  

As winter approaches in northern Michigan, Alberta & Jacob is not the cheeriest of reading. The only time Alberta is not cold in winter is when she first wakes in the morning. After that, from the time she gets out of bed until the wonderful warmth of morning in bed, she is miserably cold.
At night she would lie huddled and trembling beneath the blanket for hours, chilled to the marrow. She made herself as small as she could, drawing her legs up under her and hugging herself. The cold would sit between her shoulder-blades gnawing like pain. She carried it in her body all day, and it accompanied her to bed. Her feet, like blocks of ice, seemed not to belong to her, and she became cramped and sore from her huddled position. 
Summer brings light, warmth, and hours of freedom but also tourists and visits of those fortunate enough to have escaped to life in Kristiana or study in Paris. Picnic expeditions to the mountains last all through the night, taking advantage of summer’s midnight sun, and yet this is a painful time too for Alberta, who is not pretty, does not have pretty clothes, blushes too easily, cannot bring herself to speak her thoughts, and compares herself unfavorably to the carefree seasonal visitors. 

In her immediate family, only her brother Jacob has managed to escape. In spite of parental disappointment, he managed to gain his father’s permission to go to sea. 
It occurred to Alberta that ultimately Jacob was the only one who turned his true face out to the world, a face full of undaunted confidence in his own two strong arms.
And at the end of this first book, with this realization in mind, Alberta trudges up to her cold bedroom, with hope of nothing but “another day” on the morrow. Another day without her mother’s approval or understanding, another day of being trapped by bitter cold and hateful expectations.

So what a surprise to begin the second volume, Alberta & Freedom, and find Alberta living in Paris! With little if any idea what to do with her “freedom,” she is modeling for a dilettante painter in order to buy food and pay rent. Winter continues to be a time of terrible cold for her, and now summer is a season of unbearable heat. But she is in Paris, free to roam and explore, to drift aimlessly and take in the city’s sights and sounds and smells, to scribble and throw her scribbles in a trunk to be retrieved later and perhaps made into something.

Her life goes from difficult to desperate, both financially and emotionally. An unexpected August relationship, begun when other friends were all out of town on vacation, blossoms and unaccountably dies, for reasons she will only learn much later. But throughout hardship and heartache, there is the life in her Paris neighborhood and in the streets and in the parks, and by the end of this second volume, along with an extremely challenging development in her life, Alberta has an epiphany.
And something dawned on her. All the pain, all the vain longing, all the disappointed hope, all the anxiety and privation, the sudden numbing blows that result in years going by before one understands what happened — all this was knowledge of life. Bitter and difficult, exhausting to live through, but the only way to knowledge of herself and others. … It was painful, but a kind of liberation all the same; a rent in my ignorance, a membrane split before my eyes.
Where will the third volume take Alberta, and what kind of life will she put together? The author left her home in Norway in 1905 and lived in Paris for 15 years. She married there in 1913 and had a son with her husband, a Swedish sculptor, from whom she was divorced in 1926. A Swedish citizen by marriage, she settled and lived the rest of her life in Sweden, first with a friend and then finally, at the age of 65, for the first time in an apartment of her own. Will Alberta’s years alone mirror those of Cora Sandel?

When Sandel’s novels appeared, critics acclaimed Alberta “one of the truly great characters in contemporary Scandinavian fiction,” and near the end of Alberta & Freedom there is the strong suggestion that Alberta is seeing a way to do with her “scraps” of writing what she tells her lover, a painter, what she would attempt on canvas if she were a visual artist, to paint life.
“I would put in people I knew, Alphonsine and Madame Boudarias and you, Sivert, painting artichokes.” 

And so I will read Alberta Alone (not pictured above) before turning to The Bridal Wreath, which in turn will probably lead me into the second and third books of yet another fictional trilogy by a Norwegian woman author. It is only fitting, with so many Norwegian families having settled in and around Northport one hundred and more years ago. And what with winter coming on and all....

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Late Fall Harvest

This year’s long, extended summery autumn has given way at last to what Edgar Allan Poe justifiably called “bleak November.” Two weeks ago friends (a few brave souls) were swimming in Lake Michigan under blue sky. Since then cold winds and rains have moved in – heavy wet snow one morning, but it didn’t last long this close to the lakeshore – so that, on Sunday morning, with temperatures in the 40s rather than 30s and the wind died down for a few hours, I hurried out in the quiet stillness to harvest the remaining apples from my two little trees. Good, big, lovely red apples they are, and I’m peeling and slicing and drying fruit for winter but will keep cold apples in their skins, too. Paradigmatic fruit of temperate climates, apples keep well in any form.

In the kitchen I fall back on familiar, cold weather favorites: hearty oatmeal with apples and raisins for breakfast, muffins to go with afternoon tea, thick bean soup, polenta, and stews for lunches and suppers. At the end of the day I set aside my no-sugar resolution and chase the damp chill of outdoors away with thick mugs of dark cocoa. I leaf through cookbooks, contemplate replacing turkey with rabbit for Thanksgiving dinner, and wonder if there’s the slightest chance I could get away with it.

Time cannot be saved and stored in the pantry like apples. Still, with yard work season coming to an end, along with porch living, the edges of my world after each day’s light fades draw in closer to the fire. No more bookstore events to plan, no more summer visitors. Drying laundry with electricity instead of sun and wind gains in time what it loses in delight. I stockpile books and jealously hoard reading time. Two Norwegian women authors are on my table this month – but more of those books another time.

It can be difficult to muster up energy for a trip to town when home is so cozy and evenings so dark, but we resolutely made a recent expedition for a concert of Cajun music by BeauSoleil, led by the incomparable Michael Doucet. We had front row center seats, and I was in heaven! All these years I’ve wanted to see and hear this group, since at least as far back as the late 1980s, and as I had the wonderful good fortune of speaking to Michael Doucet himself after the performance, I told him I had not been disappointed.  Pas déçue! It was more than worth the wait.

Heading back out into the wet dark, on the way to the parking lot, we were not the only audience members exclaiming over the band’s energy. Energized was another word I kept hearing: it’s what we all felt. And here’s something else I loved about the evening: the sound was not ear-shatteringly loud, and there was nothing of spectacle in the staging or in the musicians’ dress. It was all about the music. My face hurt from smiling helplessly, and I am still humming the songs, days later.

Together for over 40 years, those musicians shared their harvest of work with all of us on Saturday night. Merci mille fois, BeauSoleil! Je vous salue!