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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Month of Winter, A Month of Reading

We finally had a big snow. Plows were at work for days and days. Is what we are experiencing now simply a late January thaw, to be followed by another couple months of winter? Mother Nature doesn’t seem any surer than we are – and feels as ready as we are to welcome spring. But no ice fishing? No ice boating? Can we call it winter at all? Some are wondering, saying, "It doesn't feel right."

I didn't make a New Year’s resolution, but I did decide that instead of publishing bare lists of books read, either by the year or the quarter-year, in 2024 I will give the lists monthly and annotate lightly. Don’t look for full reviews here (when I have written more elsewhere, I will include a link), just somewhat a little more indication than ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’ of what you can expect to find inside the covers if you look for any of these books. 

So here they are, the books I read this January 2024:

1. Straight, Susan. The Country of Women (nonfiction). I characterized this elsewhere as “a long love letter addressed to her three daughters, telling them everything she knows about previous generations on both sides of the family.” I love this author!

2. Brach, Tara. Radical Compassion (nonfiction). A how-to text for getting below and beyond anger, knowing ourselves better, and loving others better.

3. Mosley, Walter. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (fiction). Of all Mosley’s novels, this is my favorite, a book I consider absolutely perfect. The HBO film version is excellent, too, no doubt thanks to the author’s involvement in the production. 

4. Picoult, Jodi. My Sister’s Keeper (fiction). The only novel of Picoult’s I have read, I found it well written and compelling but was disappointed in the ending, which seemed unnecessarily contrived and over the top.

5. Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (fiction). Johnson was not only a writer but a real VIP: Broadway lyricist, the first Black lawyer admitted to the bar since Reconstruction, consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, university professor, civil rights activist, and head of the NAACP for ten years. This work should be more widely read than it is today.

6. McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (fiction). It was only coincidence that I read this novel, featuring the deaf Mr. Singer, right after reading Johnson’s novel with another fictional Mr. Singer. Both are classic American stories, and both highlight the loneliness often found at the heart of the American Dream.

7. McHugh, Laura. Arrowood (fiction). This semi-Gothic, cold case story was more engaging than I expected, and I am interested now in reading the author’s The Weight of Blood, set deep in the Ozarks, as the first few pages included following the end of Arrowood gave a vivid sense of place that I did not find in the novel I read.


8. Clymer, Eleanor. The Trolley Car Family (fiction – juv.). A charmingly written and illustrated children’s story set in the early post-WWII period, with streetcars, milkmen, and small family subsistence farms. Never didactic, often rough-and-tumble, a summer in the country provides adventures and lessons for the Parker children.

9. Deaton, Angus. Economics in America: An Immigrant Economist Explores the Land of Inequality (nonfiction). Deaton explains what it is that economists do, inside and outside the academy, and explores ways that American systems (such as healthcare) and American expectations and beliefs differ from those in Europe and the U.K.

10. Van Dyke, Henry. Little Rivers (nonfiction). Author, diplomat, educator, and clergyman, Van Dyke appears in these reminiscences as a travel and fly-fishing aficionado. Although he generally has guides and camp cooks and paddlers to do the work out in the wilderness, he keeps them behind the scenes, and he does plenty of tramping himself from place to place.

11. Anselmo, Anthony. The Spirit of the North Wind (fiction – YA). This novel from a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Ojibwe tribe combines, in a thirteen-year-old’s vision quest, both happy modern family life and elements of magic realism.

12. Foster, Elizabeth. Gigi in America (fiction – juv.). No, not the “funny little girl” from Paris. This Gigi, male, began life in Vienna, and he is a merry-go-round horse. Until they grow too big for the horses’ saddles, children who ride the merry-go-round horses can enter into conversation with them, and several children help Gigi return to the first little girl he loved, now grown up with a daughter of her own. World War II intrudes but only in rather vague, subtle ways. Gypsies are for the most part portrayed in a positive light.

13. Hopson, Nasugraq Rainey. Eagle Drums (fiction – YA). Expecting another vision quest, I was taken much further by this retelling of the Inupiaq society creation myth, small family groups learning from golden eagles how to live together in harmony and pass on their history in song and dance. Mesmerizing and important work.

14. Cott, Jonathan. Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn (nonfiction). Excerpts from Hearn’s own writings are so numerous and so lengthy that he deserves to be called a co-author on this volume, but in the end I have no complaint with either man’s contributions. Cott is sympathetic to his subject, and Hearn so completely himself, that the result is superb.

15. Hesse, Hermann. Autobiographical Writings (nonfiction). The selection takes him through life into old age, and he doesn’t hide his feelings. His likes and loves, agonies and peeves are all expressed. He would not have wanted to meet you or me, but here he is, revealed to us all.

16. Meis, Morgan. Ruins: Selected Essays (nonfiction) Surprising. Meis, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a man of catholic interests and thoughtful opinions on such diverse subjects as art, literature, “ruin porn,” the freedom of private life in formerly Communist East Berlin, and the public commemorations of tragedies. I was particularly fascinated by the essay on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Though I doubt I will ever read that novel, unfinished at the time of the author’s death (I have read Infinite Jest and many of DWF’s essays), I look forward to reading more essays by Morgan Reis. 

17. Campbell, Bonnie Jo. The Waters (fiction). Since this was my second reading and the first was not long ago, I was able to appreciate anew and in much greater depth countless details on almost every page of this novel, some having to do with the setting, others foreshadowing events or, often, borrowing from or echoing familiar myths and fairy tales. The Waters is not a simple “retelling” of any one particular older story but contains timeless worlds within itself, even with a setting that could not be more local to southcentral Michigan. And her characters are true to the bone. So proud that she’s a Michigan writer!

18. Straight, Susan. Aquaboogie (fiction). I’ve already written that Susan Straight and Bonnie Jo Campbell have a lot in common. Both write of real people in real places, such that you are pulled irresistibly into a world you may never have encountered before. This volume of Straight’s, her first published book, is short stories and is the fourth book of hers I’ve read, following two novels and a memoir. Highly recommended author!

19. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (nonfiction). From oil paintings to photography to advertising images, Berger pursues a thesis of the power of wealth and its message to the rest of us. “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy…. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion.” 

Again and again, I echo the words of Christopher Morley’s fictional Roger Mifflin: “Thank God I am a bookseller!” I don’t promise my customers that they will become happy and glamorous, desirable and envied when they buy books from me. Instead I offer them food for thought and hassle-free armchair travel to worlds real and imaginary. 


One last thought for today:


Have others besides me noticed how often businesses “need” our feedback these days? There are no more simple transactions, it seems, in which what we paid for is delivered to us and that's all there is to it, but an ongoing, endless plucking at our sleeves, a kind of needy attempt to establish a “relationship.” I might be inclined to thank salespeople in person (or on the phone) or send a grateful note, but I find these endless requests for e-mail feedback unnecessary and annoying, not only because there are so many of them but also because they ask formulaic questions and provide answers from which I must choose. 


I don’t and won't do that to my customers! When I mess up (which I try not to do very often), I apologize! On the other hand, frequent repeat customers make me very happy, and many have become my friends over the more than 30 years I’ve been in business, and that did not happen because I asked them to "rate their experience” on a scale of 1 to 5 or 6 or 10. 


Do we understand each other? You don’t have to answer that, because yes, I think we understand each other!



Thursday, January 25, 2024

Is Our World Black and White?

On Wednesday morning the outdoor world appeared black and white to my winter-weary eyes. Stark. Empty of color. Warmer air and absence of wind were pleasant, but I found it hard to celebrate what struck me as a morose, monochrome landscape. Sunday's blue sky and sunlight -- so joyous! -- only made the return of grey skies that much harder to bear. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to capture the scene -- but the truth is that I edited today’s opening photograph to bleed out its color. The original looked like this:


Not only the deep green of pines but that subtle, rosy-plummy color of the cherry branches. I had to admit it: there was color in the winter palette. Not exactly a rainbow, but color nonetheless.

I love black-and-white photography and often find b/w images more striking (do we see those images as "timeless" because we associate them with photographs and snapshots predating color processing?), but I’ll go in the other direction today for a rule to live by: Nothing is ever black and white. We can always find color if we look for it. 


(Lately I’ve been dreaming in startlingly vivid hues. One dream segued from soothing, muted tones to garish red and gold. In the dream, I protested the hideous decor, yet that startling scene is the one I remember.)


Children’s books, bright with illustrations, draw us into their pages at an early age, and as adults we can still be seduced by beautiful books of photographs or drawings, but think about black lines of type on the page of an unillustrated book and how easily they disappear when you read, converted to lively, moving images you "see" as if you were amidst them. “Make mind movies,” the grade school teachers now say to their pupils, because just as a movie screen takes over imaginations and erases for a time our immediate physical surroundings, so the room around us can vanish when we let ourselves be captured by a story on pages we turn one by one, barely conscious that we are turning pages. 


And so I’ve been far from Michigan lately, reading two biographical/autobiographical books, a hybrid term I use because the author of Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, Jonathan Cott, intersperses his chronological narration of Hearn’s life with many long excerpts from the subject’s own writing. Hermann Hesse’s Autobiographical Writings, on the other hand, contains short pieces all his own. Although both Hearn and Hesse led interesting lives, Hearn’s to me was fascinating, and his writing much more vivid. His early journalism, in fact, was downright lurid, his appreciation for beauty and simplicity coming to the fore in his years in Japan. But I was saving Wandering Ghost for bedtime reading, so it was the Hesse compilation I took to my neighborhood tavern, the Happy Hour, on Tuesday afternoon, anticipating that my friend would be a few minutes behind me for our rendez-vous.

How much did I read while waiting? Very little, of course! Surrounded by warmth and memories, curious about strangers at the bar and in the other booth, I spent more time soaking in the familiar, well-loved atmosphere than turning pages. How many happy hours did the Artist and I spend at the Happy Hour? And his exceeded ours together, as he often stopped on the way home from Northport while I was still in my bookstore. He was a regular....


Another friend once told me that she studied library science because she loved books, only to discover that her first job as a librarian left her little if any time to read on the job. Such is not the fate of a northern Michigan bookseller in winter. The only problem facing me most days is which book to pick up next, with so many tempting choices within reach, and I am always carrying volumes back and forth between home and bookstore. Soon, though, I will begin my second reading of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s The Waters, because that lushly sensual story is a perfect antidote for winter's silent, superficially monochrome reality. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Long Winter Nights

Little light, except as reflected off snow, and almost no color -- color comes further down.


We are past the winter solstice, so each night is shorter than the night before, but somehow in January it doesn’t feel that way to me. Daylight skies are grey, and cloud cover continuing through the night hides moon and stars, making darkness deeper, colder. Theoretically and no doubt actually, cloud cover would make night warmer if there were warmth to hold in, but that if is a big one. And daylight is not exactly a relief, either, when it means having to bundle up and go out in the cold, one of the few minuses of having a dog in winter. Or maybe it’s a plus, that having to wade through knee-deep snow and breathe cold, clean air, but, like the gradually shortening nights, it’s often hard to feel the positive aspect. 

"Are you putting on your coat?"

Beginning with the end of December and continuing through March come also for me difficult anniversaries. The Artist and I had to say goodbye to a dog we had all too briefly, and only weeks later came the Artist’s first trip to the local ER (we were in Arizona at the time), quickly followed by a jolting ambulance trip to Phoenix and, finally, major surgery. At first, that January two years ago, after successful surgery we thought everything was taken care of and were happily, if briefly (as it turned out), planning the rest of our life together. Respite from worry was short-lived. More trips to the ER, more surgery – and ultimately, the end of our earthly adventures together, March 2, 2022.


Scenes from those emotionally intense five to six weeks of my life are burned into memory, and while I can set them aside during the long, sunny, birdsong-filled days of spring and early summer and the busy, colorful days of late summer and fall, the dead of winter brings them all to the fore again. It isn’t that I reach intentionally for the most difficult remembrances. Hardly! When I wake with those scenes crowding in on me, I try to put myself back to sleep with happier memories, such as September walks in the grassy, hollyhock-lined alleys of Grand Marais, our dreamy travel through France another September, or the most ordinary summer Sunday spent mowing grass and moving cars and boats around the yard here at home. All those scenes and more I would welcome in dreams!


Meanwhile, in my waking hours, I take refuge in books.


Over the years, the Artist and I put together quite a little collection of books having to do with rivers and boats, and the one in which I sought solace during the season’s first massive storm was Henry Van Dyke’s Little Rivers, a collection of travel and flyfishing essays first copyrighted in 1895 by Charles Scribner’s Sons and first published in 1903. Van Dyke, an American cleric, writes of boyhood fishing and later travels with father, friends, wife, or by himself to various flowing waters in Canada and Europe, always with bamboo rod and “fly-book.”


His fishing was for trout and salmon or grayling. (Here I pause, because I have always thought grayling was a trout, not, as he describes it, some lesser, bottom-feeding fish, and now, looking into the matter, I see it is a salmon and considered very good eating.) But the most prized of all, for Van Dyke, is the ouananiche, “the famous land-locked salmon of Lake St. John” and other Canadian lakes. Don’t you love that name? Ouananiche!


Any fisherman would delight in Van Dyke’s description of waters and fishes and the stalking and hooking and landing – or sometimes losing – of piscatorial prizes. (Piscatorial: that’s the kind of old-fashioned language of this book from over a century ago.) For my own pleasure, I am equally pleased by his knowledge of wildflowers and birds and noting which appear in each season along the rivers he walks and fishes.


Even that is not all, however, as the book is a collection of memories, and as the author looks back on his happiest vacations his thoughts are colored by what Susan Cain calls bittersweetness, sometimes even recalled from the happy times themselves.


And yet, my friend and I confessed to each other, there was a tinge of sadness, an inexplicable regret mingled with our joy. Was it the thought of how few human eyes had even seen that lovely vision? Was it the dim foreboding that we might never see it again? Who can explain the secret pathos of Nature’s loveliness? It is a touch of melancholy inherited from our mother Eve. It is an unconscious memory of the lost Paradise. It is the sense that even if we should find another Eden, we would not be fit to enjoy it perfectly, nor stay in it forever. 


Our Paradise, the Artist’s and mine, encompassed happy hours in a variety of places: A little trout stream in southwest Michigan prosaically known as the Mentha Drain; another unbeautifully named river, the Sucker, in the Upper Peninsula, its mouth meandering an always-changing watery path through woods and wetlands to Lake Superior; Leelanau County’s lovely Crystal River (despite the leeches that clung to us after we waded out); and our own little hidden-away, no-name creek, keeping its secrets until we followed it upstream after a storm to a miniature waterfall. There were the Allier and the Alagnon in France’s Auvergne region, rivers whose names we had never heard until our wandering brought us to their banks. And of course, principally – because of the many times we explored various stretches, never encountering another vessel or explorer – Van Buren County’s Paw Paw River, the “Little River” that gave that name (Little River Cafe) to a restaurant friends of ours had for a while in the town of Paw Paw.


During this lifetime, none of us ever “stays” in Paradise, but if we happen upon it now and then, we can count ourselves fortunate, and those are the memory scenes that I court during these long, dark, cold winter nights. Also, dark eventually gives way to daylight, if not always sunshine, and I have a ever-eager companion in the outdoor cold.

But my dog, while great, isn’t news, and I do have some very good news this week. On Tuesday, (one of my two by-chance-or-appointment days -- BCOA -- along with Monday), I came to the bookstore in hopes of a UPS delivery, and sure enough – my order of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s The Waters came! You can just imagine how happy that made me, and I know it will make many of my customers happy, too. In fact, one local woman walked in just after I had photographed the box of books and said immediately, “I want one!” And we’re off!

The books are here!

First one out the door!

Sunday, January 14, 2024


Early Saturday afternoon, 1/13/24

Winter has finally arrived in northern Michigan. Almost halfway through January, we are having the weather that many years has landed on us as early as November – cold winds, snow squalls, heavy accumulation and blowing and drifting. Lots of horizontal snowing, Friday from the south, Saturday from the north, Sunday morning from the west, as far as I can tell. Everyone, in villages and countryside, is praying we don’t lose electrical power. The power company was busy clearing trees away this past fall, but those of us in the country, on wells and without generators, took the precaution ahead of the storm of filling large containers with water, because this is not our first rodeo.

Snowy Juliet

Sunny Juliet loves the snow and doesn’t seem to mind the cold wind. She will often put her nose and paws to work to unearth (unsnow?) hidden treasure, which could be – and has been more than once -- a mouse nest or a deer leg. I’m relieved when it’s only a windfall apple.

What's under here?

An apple!

You might guess that, besides water, I am prepared with plenty of books for a snowbound siege. On the serious end of things, I’m halfway through Angus Deaton’s Economics in America and should finish it soon, though it isn’t the book I expected. Rather than a unified treatise on how the American economy is put together and how it works overall, the book is a compilation of various shorter pieces written by the Scottish author (who is at now Princeton now and has lived in the U.S. for a couple of decades) over a long period of time, updated and introduced for this volume. There is a lot in it about economic inequality (as well as what he calls “relational” inequality), with closer looks at American health care costs and retirement finances, all of which he is able to contrast with those overseas, usually in the U.K. and Europe. So far my favorite observation is this one: 


Chicago economics gave us a healthy respect for markets, as well as a previously underdeveloped skepticism about the idea that government can do better, but it left economics with too little regard for the defects of markets and what they can and cannot do. Not everything should be traded. The profession bought too far into the idea that money is everything and that everything can be measured in money. Philosophers have never accepted that money is the sole measure of good, or that only individuals matter and society does not, and economists have spent too little time reading and listening to them.


It isn’t often that anyone outside academic philosophy thinks that philosophers deserve a listen, so thank you, Angus! Here’s another bit in the discussion of Chicago economics and Milton Friedman that I found thought-provoking: 


Friedman dismissed much of inequality as natural; some people like to work hard and get rich, while others prefer to enjoy their leisure. Some like to save and build up fortunes for their heirs, while others are more concerned with their own immediate enjoyment. Any attempt to diminish this sort of inequality would penalize virtue and reward vice. 


A couple of thoughts come to mind here. 

Hard work does not necessarily lead to riches. My maternal grandparents were some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known, and I know people today, younger than I am, who labor intensively for hours no rich person would ever consider and who will never be rich. Sometimes their hard work is a choice, while other times it is not choice but necessity. There are plenty of people who work hard, do not get rich, and have little leisure. Friedman’s dismissal (if Deaton has summarized it fairly, and I have no reason to think otherwise) is an oversimplified false dilemma. Life is not that either/or.

For those among the not-rich, whether hard workers or otherwise, if they have chosen a way of life that does not involve hard work and are content with not being wealthy, why should this be seen as “vice”? And why is working to accumulate wealth, apart from other life goals, to be considered “virtuous”?


Economics fascinates me. I have never understood people who hold strong political views, many of them based on economic policies, who have never themselves explored the subject of economics but rest content with a chosen ideology.


My snowbound reading, however, is not all so serious. My own home bookshelves turned up a children’s book I don’t remember ever reading, The Trolley Car Family, by Eleanor Clymer and illustrated by Ursula Koering. Published by David McKay, with a copyright date by the author of 1947, The Trolley Car Family opens with Mr. Jefferson, grouchy next-door neighbor of the Parker family. Mr. Jefferson has to hitch up his horse and wagon in the middle of the night to deliver milk while the rest of the neighborhood is still asleep, and when he comes home to try to sleep, the Parker children are always making noise. 


Mr. Parker is a motorman on a street car, and (unlike Mr. Jefferson) he loves his job. Complications arise when the trolley company decides it is going to transition from trolleys to buses. Buses! 


“Always hated the durned things,” said Mr. Parker. “They won’t stay on a track. You never know what they’ll do, careening all over the street. Now with a street car, you know where you are. But with these buses, the cars are all the time swooping in and out around you. I don’t like it.”


“I don’t blame him,” said Mrs. Parker. “I never did like to see a man do something he didn’t like.” 


Things take what looks like a temporary turn for the better. When Mr. Parker is able to buy his old street car and rent a piece of land five miles from town, and Mr. Jefferson offers the use of his horse and wagon to get the street car from the end of the line to the rented land. The Parkers invite Mr. Jefferson to come along, and he obtains vacation time to do so.

Everyone is happy except for reminders that this summer idyll is not a permanent solution. Sally, the oldest Parker child, reads the writing on the wall.


…The boys could hardly wait to be grown up. They were going to do such wonderful things! But Sally had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be so easy. When you were little, you thought that grownups could do whatever they liked. But lying there in the twilight, listening to their voices, she knew that they couldn’t.


Pa and Mr. Jefferson just wanted to stay out here, milking the cows, or weeding the garden. But Mr. Jefferson had to go back to his job, and Pa would have to find a job soon, and they would all have to go back to town and leave this nice place. And Ma knew that Pa liked farming, and felt sorry that he would have to stop. But they couldn’t do as they liked. They had to think of the children. The children had to go to school, and have meals and clothes. So the grownups had to work.


Sally felt like waking the boys up and telling them what she had discovered. But she knew it wouldn’t be any use. They were too young. 


Of course, this is a book for children, a mostly happy book, where all ends charmingly for everyone, so I managed to enjoy it without thinking too much about Earl Butz coming along with his “Get big or get out!” policy for small farmers, but what a coincidence that a bit of this mid-century children’s book should echo some of my thoughts while reading Angus Deaton on economics….

I have also started Eagle Drums, by Nasugraq Rainey Hopson, and want to get back to Henry Van Dyke’s Little Rivers, and then there is a beautiful little antique volume I received as a Christmas present, Le marquis de Grignan, a book about Madame de Sévigne’s grandson by Frédéric Masson. 

– Oh, oh, oh!!! And it’s about time I start re-reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s The Waters, too! Plenty to occupy me for as long as this winter storm lasts!

Watching from indoors...

...with my girl by my side.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

What We Feel and What We Do About It

Sunny isn't angry but caught in rapid motion she looks a little crazed, doesn't she?



Things were not going well for me on Monday and Tuesday, from a business point of view, and I don’t mean the expected post-holiday “cooling” (which is more like a solid freeze), but the fact that books I ordered from my national distributor in early December, with a back order in place, so I would be sure to have them by the book’s January 9 release date, had not even been shipped by January 9. They should have been shipped the previous Friday to get to me in time. On Monday I called customer service and spoke with a very pleasant young man about the situation, but he was too low on the hierarchy (bottom rung) and too far offshore (the Philippines) to be able to do anything for me. It’s Wednesday now, the book was released to the public yesterday, and my two orders are still not on their way to me.


In retrospect, I see that I should have ordered directly from the publisher. Hindsight. It never occurred to me that an order from my usual source of new books would not be honored in a timely fashion.


The online behemoth is sold out, on the first day of sales! They got their books! Are mine now being shipped to them? I am seriously and impotently pissed off.


…Sit with the anger. How does it feel? I feel disrespected. Invisible. Treated as valueless. Totally without power.


Yesterday I posted a question on Facebook in second person: “What would you lose if you gave up your anger?” One friend’s answer, which another echoed, was: “Stress, headaches, and more.” Okay, I’ll buy that. But when I put the question in first-person form, “What would I lose if I gave up my anger?” the question took on a different tone, because who would want to hang onto stress and headaches? No, I must be hanging onto something else, something important to me. 


Angry that my book order was not filled in time to have books by the on-sale date, what am I getting out of anger? What’s in it for me? If I can’t have the books, I’ll have instead -- .


Oh, yeah: Self-righteousness! If I’m powerless, I’m a victim. If I have been wronged, someone else is to blame. And I can feel, oh-so-right!


But.…  Does that feel good? Does it make me happy? Does it get me anything I really want – not only the books but visibility and respect?


(Do you recognize rhetorical questions when you encounter them?)


It isn’t even third prize. 


In this instance, there is no specific person to single out for blame -- which didn’t stop me from becoming very pissed off -- but what if, hypothetically, an individual could be identified? Let’s imagine some snotty Higher Up looking down at tiny little me (how likely is that? Ha!) and saying, “Don’t fill that order! Let her wait. Who cares about a little one-person bookshop in Northport, Michigan?” If that unlikely scenario were true, would blaming that HU get me my books any sooner? Make me feel respected and happy?


The truth is that I have no power here in this situation (I’ve done all I can do with phone calls and e-mails) and that life, as my father told me so often when I was growing up, is often not fair. And, honestly, this is one book release. If I don’t get first printings when my order finally arrives (assuming it does!), there’s nothing I can do about it, and although I’ll be disappointed (I’m already disappointed not to have the books on time), it won’t be the end of the world. It won’t even be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. My husband died. That was the worst thing that’s happened in my life – and I’m still alive, still engaged enough with life to get all upset about a late book order! What foolishness! Cool it!




What I was thinking about most recently related to the brain stuff (see here, where I wrote about my top nonfiction picks for 2023) is the question of altruism. Psychologists and philosophers and others argue back and forth on this. Some claim that if apparently other-regarding acts benefit the giver (and studies show that they do: here is a whole list), then they are egoistic rather than altruistic. Freud saw altruism as neurotic, and Nietzsche saw it as antithetical to full human flourishing, while others point out that altruism, even extreme self-sacrifice, is not limited to the human species but can be seen exemplified in other animals, that we naturally care for each other, not only for ourselves, and that we would never survive otherwise.


(Does this remind anyone else of the nature vs. nurture question?)


I was thinking of the Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners I took to our old friend. Why did I perform those apparently Good Samaritan acts? If it made me feel good, was it for his sake or really for myself?


Then dawn suddenly broke! What a completely left-brain question!!! The whole either/or, can’t-be-both manner of carving up the world is totally left brain! The need to have everything clearly categorized, right or wrong, yes or no. “Bullocks!” as Buck Mulligan said so often to Steven Dedalus. That isn’t life. That is a poor, thin imitation, not worth the bother of an algorithm creator. Life is much messier. It is both/and, paradox and ambiguity and mystery and enchantment. No one is an isolated, self-sufficient individual. And without the theoretical assumption of radical individualism, the question of whether or not altruism exists would never arise.


No more lights, but a magic wand remains.




When I wrote about Christmas Eve, I said our old friend had been having a good day. He recognized me, remembered my name, etc. When he walked me to my car after the dinner we shared, he looked around at his yard and 40 acres and said, “We’re so lucky!” “Yes, we are,” I agreed.


Nine days later, on January 2, our friend was in the ER in Traverse City, and it’s pretty clear he won’t ever be able to return to his long-time home. Everyone saw it coming. We had just hoped it was going to be further down the road.


I’ll admit here to a selfish satisfaction -- in having what may well be my last memory of that old friend being a good time. We shared mutual memories, the sun was shining, he knew who I was and remembered my husband. He felt fortunate and expressed that feeling. “We’re so lucky,” he said in a heartfelt tone. Yes, we were. I hope his change in circumstances won’t be too hard on him.


Another friend of mine, who lost his beloved life partner some years ago, finds meaning in living as her “chief rememberer.” I feel some of that, too, although many remember the Artist. I remember not only him, my beloved, though, but many friends of years and decades past. The old Bluebird, the old Happy Hour. Winters when Sugar Loaf pulled in families of skiiers in the winter, and the Bird and HH did great weekend business. Jim and Linda, Fred and Molly, Les and Marina, Cy, Lisle, Marsha, Betsy, Hooper, Benny – oh, the names! I remember them all, even when the names elude me!


Today I am remembering many happy times shared. The snow is coming down hard tonight, but we had harder snows in the old days. Deeper snows. Longer, colder winters. You’ve heard it all before. Oldtimers’ recollections….


I don’t care. I’m glad I was there. I wouldn’t trade those times for quids.

Closing thought:


Somewhere recently (and to be quite honest, it was probably someone’s Facebook post) I read that we shouldn’t put beautiful things aside and save them for a “special occasion,” because every day we’re alive is a special occasion. So, sister Deborah, I took that Zabar’s babka out of the freezer, though I wasn’t having company, and let me tell you, it is delicious! Thank you! Another day of life! Another special occasion! 

Saturday, January 6, 2024

What will I practice this year?

"What's up, Momma?"

 Whatever you practice

grows stronger.


Those five words stopped me in my mental tracks. They’re from a little book called Radical Compassion, by Tara Brach. A practice is intentional, whereas a habit is often unconscious, but in either case repetition creates a groove.


(1)       Only yesterday I was looking at the pages of my very first sketchbook, given to me by the Artist Christmas of 2004. It came in a wooden box (with carrying handle) that also contained pencils of all kinds, watercolors, brushes, and pastels. Trying out the pencils that first morning took courage on my part, but even in this first book, before any classes, there are a few drawings made as time went by that I see now as “not awful.” (Many, admittedly, are pretty lame.) Much more importantly, for each one I see, I recall the place, the day, the circumstances, such that together they constitute a kind of visual diary stretching from 2005 to 2010, many entries from winter months in Florida. More than does a photo album – because a drawing takes so much longer to produce – they bring the past back to me and give me pleasure. And so I inch slowly, in thought and preparation, back into my once-daily practice of drawing, a way of recording the ordinary stuff of my everyday life.



Big jump here. 



(2)       Giving and loving, in thought and action, is a practice for which my marriage was a school, and now that the Artist is no longer with me, I have been consciously and intentionally expanding outward that small,  personal world. How far can my loving intentions reach?This thought will connect to others (perhaps) in what follows.


(3)       In general, over my lifetime, humor has not usually been my first response to anything (and I can be obtusely literal at times), but lately I’m finding it a better response than my habitual reactions to a lot of situations. Instead of leaping to argue or withdrawing to brood, my slower response (because I am not a fast thinker) is gentle and often leads me to laugh at myself. Because whether or not another person intends to say or do something cruel or dismissive or presumptuous – and often they don’t intend that! – if I don’t feel I deserve it, why would I want to take it on and feel bad and launch an angry exchange? Or silently hold a grudge? If the other is speaking or acting from such a negative space, isn’t that just sad? Don’t they need, maybe, reassurance? At least a smile! – I don’t know. I’m just today beginning to work through these thoughts. (Note: Snippy or smart-ass humor would only be anger in disguise. Not what I’m talking about.)


Back to the drawing board

Drawing, giving and loving, laughing are all practices I’ve chosen to focus on in this new year. The last one on my list, (4) forgiveness, is the biggest challenge of all for me, but I am hoping that the others will help me get there. BLTN. Better Late Than Never. Mieux tard que jamais.


My bookstore Christmas tree dropped almost all its needles at once, making procrastination not an option for taking the tree down and putting away the ornaments, and that in turn cleared space in the front window to showcase other green plants, living plants, which received a much-needed beauty treatment, ridding them of dead leaves and cutting back where needed. Having live things indoors with me helps on these gloomy-skied January days.

Window greens

Because yes, the sky is grey, and the days are dreary and cold. “Do you miss Arizona?” someone asked. Mornings in the mountains of the Southwest aren’t much warmer than northern Michigan mornings, but I do miss the almost daily appearance of the Arizona sun and the way it brought the temperature up considerably by afternoon. So, the sun. And the mountains. I miss the mountains.

“When you were in Arizona, did you miss Michigan?” No, I said, because I knew I would be coming back to Leelanau in May. I didn’t have to miss Arizona in summers past, either, when I could count on returning to the mountains in winter. Life is different now. But it’s okay. I am not unhappy about where I am. This is my beautiful home, and when we finally get more snow, it will be even more beautiful. Update: It's Saturday, and it's snowing!


Only the beginning -'

There are exciting aspects to 2024 Michigan winter bookstore life, too. For one thing, the long-awaited release date for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel, The Waters, draws near! As the buzz builds, my impatience grows! Meanwhile, in addition to the Tara Brach book quoted at the top of this post, I am rereading one of my favorite Walter Mosley novels, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (a book I find absolutely perfect) and have read William L. Andrews, the editor’s, introduction to a paperback edition of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, a novel (yes) by James Weldon Johnson that I will jump into as soon as I reach the last page of Mosley. Finally, from the Grath collection of river books, I most recently chose to read (or re-read? I don’t remember) a book titled Little Rivers: A Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, by Henry van Dyke. Obviously, a book with such a title is not one to race through, so I read the preface and first chapter and then slid it back in its place, to pull out again perhaps on Sunday afternoon. 


Many more thoughts percolating about enchantment and right and left brain stuff, but I will keep those for another day. 

To be continued....