My Books

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The One and Only

Drummer Reggie Brisbane, of the Claude Jones band, performs at Earth Day 1971 in Washington, D.C.

Drummer Reggie Brisbane performs with the Claude Jones band on Earth Day 1971 in Washington, D.C.. (Photo by Phil Geyelin)

So another Earth Day is upon us.

Earth Day is a sacred concept to me. I was, and still remain, a flower child, albeit a grey-haired one these days. However, almost fifty years ago, when the first Earth Day concert and rally took place on the grounds of the Washington Monument, we gathered to listen to the music and the speeches, energized by our passion for the cause, which was nothing less than saving the Earth.

The Claude Jones band was among those on the Sylvan Theater stage singing songs of hope and courage that day. We may have been naive, but we were sincere as all get out. The Age of Irony hadn’t yet dawned.

Before the Earth Day movement began in 1970, there was no Environmental Protection Agency. Unregulated toxic chemicals were part of the landscape. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, “Silent Spring” helped spread awareness of the dangers of reckless pesticide use.

In the decades since those tumultuous times, the entire world has become more conscious of the need to protect the resources on which all life depends. Clean air, water, and fertile soil — the fundamentals. You might think this is so obvious that you wouldn’t have to make laws to ensure that some greedy developer or thoughtless tycoon won’t poison the Great Lakes or bulldoze the redwoods. Yet, as we have learned, not everyone gives a hoot about redwoods.

Thus, here we are again. Another Earth Day, still just the one Earth.

Recycling is great. Organic farming is good. Planting trees is helpful. But now the current administration is disabling protective measures put in place in the past few decades. They claim the problems are solved, and they want to revive outdated destructive practices rather than support creative scientifically proven new technologies for producing clean energy.

Sigh.

Okay, young people. Charge up your devices and prepare yourselves. It’s not going to be easy. But nothing worth doing is. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not to win the Super Bowl, or the World Series, or even the next rigged election. No, the mission, is the same as it ever was.

Love one another. Take care of the Earth. It’s the only one we have.

In Pursuit

Sign of the times.

                                                              Sign of the times.

Now that I’m closer to being 70 than I am to the ‘70s, I find my enthusiasm for the hectic skirmish of modern life is tempered by the cold shower of perspective.

In January, as I joined thousands of women thronging the streets outside the Capitol rallying for justice and civil rights for all citizens of this still young country, I couldn’t help noticing how many of my fellow marchers were too young to have experienced the  protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was encouraging to see their passion and conviction that right must prevail over might. However, having witnessed more than a few wrong turns in the journey of this rough and tumble democracy, I’ve come to feel that flashy speeches and flag waving are just smoke and mirrors. The nitty gritty work of democracy is accomplished in the quiet dedication of scholars and the unflinching courage of soldiers.

Real heroes have no need for boasting and threats. They simply do their jobs.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the scholars and soldiers who helped establish this democracy of ours. We hear the stories of George Washington and the lore of Jefferson in school. But how many of us have the time and energy to dig deeper into the complexities of the characters who shaped our national heritage?

I am no scholar. I’m more of a cultural mayfly, skimming the surface of the mysteries of life. Recently I read with delight “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” Maira Kalman’s illustrated journal, published in 2008, a moment of historic optimism. Her piquant drawings and dry observations offer a refreshing mix of offbeat humor and  admiration for our history and democracy itself.

She covers so much territory, from Leif Ericson to Herman Melville, from Dolley Madison to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And in each case, Kalman delivers surprising insights into the past and what we can learn from it.

I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Thomas Jefferson. Having spent most of my life in Virginia, I thought I knew all there was to know about our third president, the one who wrote, “I cannot live without books.” He also wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was 33 when he wrote it. He owned hundreds of slaves, even though he was against slavery. As Kalman puts it, “The monumental man had monumental flaws.”

It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of “so-called” statesmen measuring up to the achievements of the early men and women who dedicated their lives to the ideals of this democracy. But in addition to the sketches of famous patriots, Kalman also offers vignettes of lesser known men and women working then and now to keep the democratic dream alive.

I was heartened to learn of the Thomas Jefferson quote engraved above the door to the women’s room in the Capitol Building. “Enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Read on!

Seize the Days

The marmot, like its cousin the groundhog, is a shy retiring type, eluding autograph seekers by hiding in a burrow.

The marmot, a member of the groundhog family, is a shy retiring type, eluding autograph seekers by hiding in a burrow.

Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday which will forever be linked in my mind with Bill Murray.

Maybe I’ve watched the movie too many times. What can I say? It resonates with me.

In case there’s anyone living under a rock, or in a groundhog burrow, who hasn’t seen the film, the plot centers on a flawed character (Murray) who finds himself stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same 24-hour period. He goes through the usual stages of grief, denial, anger, etc., before he realizes the silver lining of his predicament — by changing his own behavior he gradually becomes the master of the rewind cycle, and finally gets it right.

It’s a brilliant conceit. In its own weird way, the film Groundhog Day sheds light on the value of second chances. As a writer I appreciate the process of self-editing that Murray’s character undergoes. When I’m writing, characters sometimes arrive in my mind fully-formed. Other times they come with a lot of unnecessary baggage that does nothing to enrich the story. I’m learning to trust my instincts.

When I first began writing, I was reluctant to eliminate a single word from my precious prose. Now, older, and I hope, a bit wiser, I’ve come to enjoy the process of revision. In writing, as in life, less is sometimes more.

With this in mind, at the beginning of 2016 I decided to republish my 2011 urban fantasy The Goddess of Green Lake under my own imprint. This second edition offered me the chance to eliminate clutter and cut to the chase. It remains the story of a musician whose life gets complicated after he falls for a passionate environmental activist and helps her liberate an orphaned baby otter from a public aquarium. There’s also a bit of Green Man magic and a mermaid backstory which ties in with the underlying “save the oceans” theme.

But in a broader sense, the story is about finding the courage to live your own life, to work your way through the dark times without giving up on the things that matter. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort.

I feel for the groundhog. Any creature that hides from its own shadow doesn’t have much of a chance in this life. But maybe it just takes practice. A little shadow boxing can help you hone your skills before you take on more substantial foes. Carpe diem.

Never Say Die

Buffy and Spike. Fangs for the memories.

Buffy and Spike. Fangs for the memories.

In these fractious times it’s tempting to climb back into the cave, turn on the device of your choice, and let the Great Spin roll for a few turns. I need to sit this dance out.

I could say I’m just getting too old for this, the clash of ideas and the roar of emotions. But I don’t think it’s that. It’s the grim clang of broadswords ringing in the cold November air while the blood of the fallen is still flowing. Kind of takes the stuffing out of me.

When I was young and I first realized that very, very few humans are granted that happily ever after lifestyle that seems like a promise in all too many books written for young impressionable minds, I felt betrayed. Really. Everywhere I looked in the world I saw terrible things happening and nobody rushing in to save the day, unless you count John Wayne in all those movies. But even as a child I figured out that real life and movies were two different things.

These days the line between reality and fiction seems paper-thin. However, I do not despair. If we are indeed approaching some sort of end-game scenario, it’s not the first time. Apocalypses recur.

I learned this from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Go ahead, sneer if you must. But trust me, I didn’t jump on the vampire bandwagon for the fangs and the gore. I didn’t even start watching the show until it went into reruns. At that point in my life my mother had just died and my children had all left home. I was alone with my thoughts a lot. I happened on the show one afternoon, and suddenly I saw it as a metaphor for the human struggle to grow up and survive in a world where monsters come in all flavors and the end of the world is always just around the corner.

What made the show great was its irrepressible tone of optimism and the undercurrent of compassion for humanity’s many weaknesses. The original premise upended the usual horror trope of the beautiful helpless female victim. Buffy Summers kicked ass. As a heroine, Buffy was not infallible, but she always bounced back, and often with a quip. The humor was what really sold me on the show. Yeah, there was romance, and sweetness, and lighter episodes to leaven the darker themes, but as the seasons went on, the show began to deal with real-life issues that resonated with me, in particular, (spoiler alert) in the season when Buffy’s mother dies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old when it happens. When your mother dies, your world breaks apart for a while.

I credit Joss Whedon, the creator and driving force behind the show, with producing a story that not only entertains, but illustrates the way humans can work together to overcome their fears and learn to help one another to get through tough times.

I love this world. I don’t know if humanity has the sense and sensibility to keep it together for another millennium. But I’m rooting for the righteous babes to prevail and save us all.

A Path All Her Own

Who knows where the path ends?

Who knows where the path ends?

I’ve been binge reading throughout this seemingly endless heat wave, and, as even the most diehard fans of Jane Austen know, there comes a time when you simply can’t reread all her books more than once a year, and the search to find novels of a similar caliber is an exercise in frustration.

So many novels are embellished with blurbs and quotes hailing this or that young darling as the “new Jane Austen,” yet, in spite of my sincere desire to find even one who comes close to that droll tone of refined humor, I’ve yet to find a writer who can walk a mile in Jane’s shoes. Or write a page with her pen, whatever.

However, last week a friend loaned me his copy of an out-of-print book by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It hit me like a cool breeze in this stifling August.

I had completely forgotten about Warner, though her name rang a distant bell. She was an English poet, born in 1893, and her writing reflects something of the constraints of her time. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, starts out in the mold of many Victorian novels, as the story of a young woman forced to abandon her dreams of independence. When she is unwilling to marry, she’s condemned to a life of familial servitude in her brother’s household. For twenty years. Right? Twenty years down the tube, minding the nieces and nephews and helping out around the house in the name of propriety. I was reading this feeling the sort of bitchy twentieth century irritation and hoping for some sort of improbable romantic twist, but what happens took me by surprise.

Spoiler alert. She sells her soul to the devil to gain her freedom to live her own life. Yeah. I know. I didn’t see it coming either. But what makes it great, what makes it funny, what makes the story such a breath of fresh air, is that the devil isn’t some badass guy with a pitchfork and an evil agenda. No sirree. He’s just a genial character doing business, like his competition on the top floor. He’s out to capture the soul market, and he’s willing to make a deal.

The conceit here is classical, but the writing is so deadpan, so finely tuned to the fierce passion of this plucky spinster, that you can’t help but cheer for her. Okay, so maybe she’s a little bit nuts. But who isn’t?

Anyway. The underlying issues of women’s rights and the mystery of life in general set the novel apart. The writing dances on the borderline between fantasy and philosophy, an area Warner continued to explore in her second novel, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which upends the trope of the missionary who goes to a remote tropical paradise and attempts to convert the natives. He is spectacularly unsuccessful at this, but, to his astonishment, he is utterly transformed by the friendship of one charming native boy. Laced with gentle satire and wisdom, the story further illustrates Warner’s wit and compassion.

I was surprised to learn that Lolly Willowes was chosen as the first selection of the Book of the Month Club, newly formed in 1926. Somehow I would have expected them to launch with a more conventional story. Yet I guess they knew what they were doing. Nothing sells like controversy with a hint of scandal. It was true in 1926. Still true today.

Deep Rooted Soul

Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.

Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.

If you fly into Seattle and head north on I-5 to the city, you will not see The Kubota Garden on the way. Even if you notice the modest sign for the turnoff, you may be in too much of a hurry to reach other destinations to visit this gem hidden in plain sight.

When I lived in Seattle I always assumed I would one day visit the garden, but somehow the time flew. I wasted my opportunities.

Last week I finally got there.

Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.

Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.

This extraordinary garden began as the work of one man, Fujitaro Kubota, who immigrated to America in 1907. He worked on the railroad before establishing his own gardening company in Seattle in 1923. In 1927 he began planting the garden on five acres of swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. By 1930 the core of the Japanese Garden was complete.

Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.

Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.

However, as anyone who gardens knows, a garden is not a static creation. Its life and health and beauty depend upon the persistent care and vision of the gardener. The Kubota Garden suffered an unusual setback during World War II, when, like tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent, the Kubota family was incarcerated at an internment camp in Idaho for four years.

When the Kubotas were allowed to return to Seattle, Mr. Kubota and his sons set to work to restore and expand the garden. The result of their labors is a stunning testimony to the power of gardening to foster peace and generate goodwill.

Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.

Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.

In these fractious modern times the calm voice of reason is too often lost in rabble-rousing and the vicious spin cycle of media rivals. It’s worth remembering that this great country of ours has been built in large part by the immigrants who arrived here from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most arrived with little but hope and ambition, and most endured resistance from the folks who got here “first.” Yet, with the exception of the original citizens of this nation, who were nearly wiped out by the early pioneers and now are compelled to fight for the most basic human rights, here in the United States of America we are all immigrants. We all wave the same little flags on the Fourth of July and during electoral seasons. But flags mean nothing if we forget what they stand for.

At The Kubota Garden, the meaning of good citizenship is embedded in rocks and roots. It flows freely in the waterfalls, stands tall in the evergreens. It tells us: work hard, grow strong, and remember where you came from.

Under Cover Escape

You could easily lose yourself in The Last Bookstore's Labyrinth.

You could easily lose yourself in The Last Bookstore’s Labyrinth.

It’s that time of year again. Too hot to move, too tired to care, too many mosquitoes in the steamy air.

Summer in the Capital City. The limousine crowd have their serene getaways, their island cottages, their lakeside cabins. But once they get to their secluded vistas I wonder if they really spend much time drinking in the scenery. Or do they, like so many ordinary folks, pack a book or two to escape from the quiet boredom that sometimes lurks behind too much perfect scenery?

I don’t do a lot of traveling, but wherever I am, whatever the season, I’m lost without a book to read.

With all the thousands of books in stores and libraries, to say nothing of the continually expanding ebook universe, you’d think it would be easy to always have a book or two on hand. Yet, reading is such a very personal experience. One person’s “timeless classic” is another person’s dreary yawnfest. Like many chronic readers, I have my short-list of go-to authors whose works I’ve read and reread over the years. But there is still the thrill of the hunt, the hope of finding some new or old previously undiscovered voice in a book.

While it’s not hard to find lists, hundreds, nay thousands, of lists assembled by enthusiastic readers eager to share their opinions about various authors, I’ve found such lists to be of little value. Nor am I swayed by the gushing blurbs on book covers, the ringing endorsements of superb authors, or the bludgeoning force of best seller statistics. For me, it all comes down to the writing. Either it speaks to me or not. One word at a time, one sentence after another. A tone of voice, a touch of humor, perhaps a pinch of mad romance or helpless folly, and I’m in.

I freely confess I enjoy the hunt almost as much as the discoveries. In the pursuit of engaging stories I’ve spent many happy hours wandering in bookstores, but not the big chains with full-court marketing strategies. The bookstores I seek out are the independent champions of the written word, where all books, especially ones with pages you can turn with your hot little hands, are beloved.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, a city where traditionally spectacle has overshadowed text, I was thrilled to visit The Last Bookstore. The name itself sounds like a good title for a story. Inside, it unfolds like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. Thousands of books, new and used, aren’t simply displayed on shelves in the ordinary manner. Venture beyond the ground floor to the Labyrinth above where whimsical arrangements offer a kind of meta commentary on the delights of getting lost in a good book. You won’t want to leave in hurry.

The dizzying displays call to mind the magical library of Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where books contain spells so powerful they must be chained to the shelves to keep them from flying free.

That’s what I’m talking about. Hard core literary magic. It’s good for what ails you.

The Wonder of it All

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman's "1.8."

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman’s “1.8.”

Sometimes one look is not enough.

I returned to the Renwick this week to see if the crowds had diminished at “Wonder,” the first show since the museum’s reopening last fall following a two-year renovation.

The first time I tried to see the show the place was so thronged that you could hardly take in the scope of the art, much less enjoy it. It was like trying to stand hip-deep in a rushing river. It can be done, but it’s distracting.

It was quieter this time. Perhaps the flashy tulips blooming in front of the White House had encouraged the tourists to stay outside. For whatever reason, I was grateful to get a chance to experience the show at a more contemplative pace. The Renwick I remember from the 1970’s, when it was saved from demolition by the efforts of Jackie Kennedy, was already something outside the usual in the District. Back then it was the first national museum to showcase the studio craft movement.

In the current exhibition nine visionary artists were each given a whole room in which to present a work on the theme of “Wonder.” The results are thought-provoking, surprising, and strangely enchanting. I enjoyed Maya Lin’s luminous glass marble “unfolded map” of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was mesmerized by the magical harp of light playing across Gabriel Dawe’s miles of embroidery thread. And of course, Jennifer Angus’s Day of the Dead-ish bugs on the wall. Who could resist?

But for me the siren’s song is Janet Echelman‘s stunning “1.8.” The first time I wandered through this, the largest room in the show, I was unable to take it all in. The constantly shifting light above, the people sitting around on the carpet in the semi-darkness — the ambience reminded me of a crowd waiting for a rock concert. I failed to read the explanatory note on the wall.

This time I read the note, and learned that Echelman’s work reflects a map of the energy released by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “The event was so powerful it shifted the earth on its axis and shortened the day, March 11, 2011, by 1.8 millionths of a second.”

In these fractious modern times doomsayers enjoy speculating on how it will all end, and who, or what, may survive to tell the tale. Yet doesn’t it seem altogether possible that, in spite of, or who knows, maybe because of, all our apocalyptic posturing, we won’t see it coming?

At the Renwick I sat on the carpet with a friend and watched the light shift above while we lost track of time and talked of the past and futures possible. Great art has the power to release us from self-absorbed dithering and wasteful anxiety. We have problems in this world. If we can’t work together to solve them we could be washed up in no time at all. Say, 1.8 millionths of a second.

Think about it.

The View From Here

The Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain can be seen for miles in all directions.

The Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain can be seen for miles in all directions.

Yay! A fresh crispy New Year to spend on whatever mad caprice strikes our fancy! Buy something random! Go somewhere undiscovered (good luck with that). Or begin that brave new adventure, quick before Winter remembers where it left the blizzard.

Some people find inspiration climbing great heights, or diving deep into oceans. Me, I’m more of an armchair adventurer. But every now and then, lured by the promise of restorative vistas and therapeutic exercise, I venture beyond the gravitational pull of my own inertia.

Such was the case not long ago when I hiked up Pilot Mountain, near Pinnacle, North Carolina. The mountain has been a landmark for centuries. The Saura Indians, who once lived in the region, called it Jomeokee, which, I’m told, means Great Guide or Pilot. Since the name must have been given long before the days of air travel, I’m guessing Great Guide is truer to the original moniker.

Call it what you will, it’s an impressive pile of rock, and one that draws legions of intrepid climbers in these thrill-seeking times. While I prefer my thrills without rope burns and terror, I empathize with the desire to set goals for yourself.

Each New Year I look back at the list I made at the start of the previous season cycle. The list never gets shorter. Usually when I manage to check something off, two or three eager ideas push their way onto the new list and clamor for attention, even as some of the older projects complain about my neglect. It’s hard to please everyone, even when they’re all inside your own head.

Up on Pilot Mountain I enjoyed a brief respite from the nagging demands. Up there, the air is clear and cool. You can see for miles. The problems of a few fictional characters hardly seem to matter. Which is good, because I’m giving a couple of them some time out to work on their issues while I attend to other business. The Goddess of Green Lake, for example, will be off on a spirit quest for a few months. But I’m confident that when she returns she’ll be stronger, bolder, and more magical than ever.

Sometimes we all need a fresh start, even if it’s only fictional. Onward and upward.

Blowing in the Wind

"Cake? For me?" I was a happy camper at age four.

“Cake? For me?” I was a happy camper at age four.

When your birthday falls on or around Christmas, people tend to offer you sympathy, as if it must be your loss, being overshadowed, and most likely overlooked, by the grander celebrations taking place worldwide.

I was never bothered. For me, the lights, the music, the cookies, the hint of magic in the frosty air, all lent a festive note to the annual observation of my entry into this particular life, which has outlasted my childish dream of happy endings for us all. I now know far too much to put my weight on that flimsy branch. At this point in the narrative I am high up on the tree, and avoid looking down whenever possible.

However, during that brief golden age when I still tried to twist the facts as they entered my precocious mind, wanting to believe in such a character as Santa Claus, for instance, while preferring not to believe that my parents were liars, I had a few Christmases that imprinted on my emotional retina as firmly as any snowy Currier and Ives print.

Christmas only happened in one place back then: my grandparents house in Erie, Pennsylvania. Even after my father moved our family down to Virginia, we still drove over the river and through the Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels to the deep snow and cousin-rich comfort of Erie, a town whose hey-day was over long before I was born there. I didn’t know this then, and wouldn’t have cared. It was the one place where I felt safe from the mockery of my peers.

One of the most disorienting things about moving to Virginia was the not-so subtle shift in what qualified as humor among the children my age. Whether it was my sheltered nerdiness that drew their attention, or simply their instinct to rough up newcomers, whatever. I was shy to begin with; after a few months of southern “hospitality” I was disinclined to open up to anyone. It took me years to learn the system, and to develop my own protective shell of tough humor.

In our current climate of paranoia and aggression, a sense of safety seems more elusive than ever. I feel for parents who send their kids to public school, and I have nothing but the highest respect for the teachers brave enough to keep trying to bring light into this modern dark age.

It’s tempting to draw the wagons and lock down in full defensive mode. But if we give up on all the things that make life worth living, then the lunatics have won.

Humor is an essential part of humanity. When people lose the ability to laugh, especially at themselves, they risk losing their ability to empathize, and without empathy there can be no compassion. And without compassion … Right.

So here we are. Another Christmas season. Songs of joy and peace, etc. And, as usual, the world seems poised on the brink of another apocalyptic finale. Well, if we’ve learned anything from Hollywood it’s that nothing is ever final. There’s always a sequel, a prequel or a remake. In real life we’re fascinated by makeovers. We’re told there are no do overs.

But who really knows? Maybe life is like those trick candles on the birthday cake that keep relighting themselves. Maybe we get to keep blowing our chances until we get it right, like in Kate Atkinson’s weirdly compelling novel Life After Life.

Seems like a lot of work, if you ask me. But you didn’t. So I’ll just get back to blowing out these candles. Time’s a wastin’.