I Can’t Breathe

A friend up here in the Northwoods slipped me a copy of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I was in her bathroom and saw it on the back of the toilet. My father used to do that—read in the bathroom—but I never have.

Some days later, this friend loaned me her book. It is, as the cover says, The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

For reference, my friend said, “It’s very depressing.”

Walter Cronkite said, “This is can’t-put-it-down history,” which is also on the cover.

Having finished the book last night, I feel authorized to disagree with Walter Cronkite. Like a husband who experiences very real pain in his abdomen when his wife is in labor, so in reading the very personal stories of people breathing in dust for five years, I experienced very real trouble breathing in the here and now. Consequently, I put the book down many times in order to go outside, take my present bearings, and breathe in the fresh air.

It was the individual stories of people and families recounted in the book that got to me. Egan lays out where they came from and why they chose No-Man’s-Land to settle in, then takes the reader through their personal experiences during the Dust Bowl. We get to know what motivates each person so that we come to understand why the farmer, the doctor, the school teacher did not get out, but stayed to endure unbelievable hardship, accepting all of its consequences.

Those consequences led to ruined lungs, thriving lives replaced by barebones existence, loss of livelihoods and land, and for many, death.

In the end, farmers stayed put even as foreclosure pounded at their doors. As one resigned farmer wrote in his diary on December 12, 1936:

“Well, there is not a great deal to report. Winter, in Inavale, is just staying, just living. But I don’t look for or expect anything going on any more.”

I am thankful to be here in the Northwoods with a view of the lake peeking through the trees, breathing clean air, fresh and scented with pine.

The Importance of Siblings, My Cousin, and Old Friends

I have two sisters and two brothers, and each one of them is a part of me. For many years, I lived relatively close to them all. Now I live fifteen hundred miles away. I can’t just get in my car for a quick visit. I have to save $, and plan carefully so that I can see them all.

May 8th I flew to Newport to begin my week east with my cousin Dorothy. I unfolded myself into her life: walks on the beach, yoga, lobster pizza, clam chowder, talks about books, family, health. I am now reading a book that Dorothy’s husband, Jim, recommended: Memories, Dreams, Reflections—C. J. Jung’s telling of his life story. It is an educational experience, filling me up with new ideas, making me think about the formation of individuality and identity.

After a few days, I rented a car in Newport and drove to my older sister Krissie’s house in Connecticut. It rained the whole time I was there, so we didn’t do much other than drive around to see the countryside in the rain, and talk. We got into our sister zone, where we discussed beloved places from our childhoods, memories of our parents, our children, her grandchildren, animals, plants, and books. We went to her local library, where we talked to her friend the librarian. Krissie took home several books that the librarian recommended, two of which I have read: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn, and Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer.

After a couple of days with Krissie, I drove into NYC to drop off my rental car. Once there, I immediately resumed my NY identity, dodging traffic through familiar streets. Yeah, I’m young again! I can manage New York’s vibrancy and complexity. Yes, I can!

I happily walked from the Upper East Side to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I sat on one of the benches in the entryway for an hour enjoying the different mix of people, looking at their clothes, listening to their voices.

I’ll come back tomorrow to experience some art, I thought. Before I left, I decided which exhibition I wanted to see: “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.”

I was treated to dinner and spent the night at the apartment of one of my oldest friends. This friend and her husband have seen me through many different lives. When I looked across the table at them, I still saw the eighteen-year-olds I knew from college. What does each of them see looking at me?

The next day after the Metropolitan, I took my suitcase to Penn Station and placed it in baggage. Then, because I was late, I quickly headed to the Museum of Modern Art to meet my youngest brother, Michael John, for lunch and the Cartier-Bresson exhibit. Although we didn’t really talk about what we each saw, I did go back when my brother said, “Did you see Jung, Capote?” My brother is a writer. He has recently written a treatment and is about to begin work on the screenplay.

I made it to New Jersey Transit in time for the ten to four. My older sister Randi (pronounced Rondi) met me at Princeton Junction. This sister does not really drink wine, but over dinner she sipped a little with me. Her husband cooked and we talked. Listening to her discuss her life, I thought that what she says makes a lot of sense. When I went to bed, she put a little nightlight in the bathroom for me. As a child, she was always my light in the dark, and perhaps I was a little that way for her, too.

Early next morning, my younger brother Stephen picked me up, drove me to his house, and cooked me breakfast. His wife’s chickens had laid the eggs we ate. Warm and yummy! Stephen and I talked about his art projects. He took me to see his wife’s flower shop, then drove me to the airport.

I made it back to Lawrence without any travel hitches. Paul bounded toward me at the airport, as happy to see me as a joyful puppy. I am filled to the brim with my love for sisters, brothers, a cousin, friends, husband, and, not mentioned in this blog, my adult children, and adult stepchildren.

About Happy Times in Norway

In a telephone conversation with my older sister, Krissie, two weeks ago, she asked me if I had ever read Sigrid Undset’s Happy Times in Norway.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said.

“Well, if you haven’t, you must. It’s kind of a memoir, and she tells all about Christmas, the 17th of May, and summer in the mountains.”

As if Krissie were talking food, I drooled. Then I took action. Quick to Amazon.com. I found an old copy for $10. When it came in the mail, I tore open the padded mailer.

That night I read the first section–Merry Christmas. Oh, oh, oh, the old Norwegian Christmases Mom used to tell us about: The nipping white snow right outside the front door offset by cozy interiors featuring weeks baking to serve drop-by guests, preparing special cured meats for the early morning family feast after Christmas Eve, the beckoning glamour and warmth of the candle-lit table. In a country with so many mountains, a long cold dark winter, and few people, the Christmas gathering and rejoicing created sparks of nourishing “light,” pointing the human spirit towards spring.

And in spring came the next holiday, the celebration of the creation of Norway’s independence from Denmark and Sweden, which occurred on May 17, 1814. On this day, in the town of Eidsvold, a constitution was signed to protect “the rights and justice, the dignity and honor of the Norwegian people….to live under laws ‘sewn’ to meet their own requirements.” Celebrated with fireworks, parades, speeches, and song, Undset’s book recounts Norway’s pride in freedom.

And, lastly, Summer Vacation, Undset’s third section in Happy Times in Norway, which is a descriptive piece about life lived simply and richly at a saeter (cabin) in the mountains during the brief Norwegian summer when Unsets tells of the goats and cows who eat grass from the meadows in the valleys and produce milk for butter and cheeses, where hikes give the eyes a visual bath of moss and lichen, heather and huckleberry bushes, monkshood, and “flats of juicy grass,” blueberries, and cloudberries.

Ah, some of the wonders of three important Norwegian traditions in one little red book.

Innocence Lost

Two minutes ago, I closed the last page of When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer and sighed. My thoughts went to a wood sculpture of a young nude woman in my living room titled “Innocence.” When I bought the 2 1/2 foot high hewn piece of wood in 2004, it already had a crack from the side of the head, down the neck, across the heart to the pubic bone. The sculptor said the piece was fragile and needed special care. “Innocence,” with a crack in the object, seemed a fitting title. It still does.

Innocence always ends and is replaced by the experience of reality. This is why I sighed on completing Laurie Wagner Buyer’s book. The author’s memoir of arriving, all twenty year-old innocence, at a remote cabin in Montana to live with a mountain man she only knows through letters, is a situation the reader intuits from the outset will not work out. But, we do want to know all the details of her loss of innocence, and what she learns along the way. We want to know how deep the cracks go. We want to know what form the cracks take. We want to know what’s on the other side of innocence.

Following the author’s narrative, the reader learns about the ingenuity, work, and grit of the mountain man in his daily existence. A clear picture emerges of Little Fawn (Laurie) trying desperately to adapt from her previous suburban lifestyle to this spartan, rugged, harsh existence on the bank of the Northfork of the Flathead River in Montana. Laurie’s acute young sensibilities lap up the wild beauty of this wilderness, and cling to the inside of her and won’t let go.

As I first imagined, I found out that reality meant:

The mountain man needed… separateness… more than he could take togetherness.

The innocent young girl needed… connection…so that she could enjoy her separateness.

CLASH!

I understand why Oklahoma University Press has published this book. It is full of authentic details of what living successfully in the wilderness in the 1970’s actually entailed. It is a piece of the West’s history.

By the end of reading When I Came West, I knew how and why Little Fawn’s innocence ended and what took innocence’s place. Who wouldn’t sigh with a little regret about a beautiful young girl with no money, who hops on a train to go live with a mountain man she’s never met in the remote wilderness of Montana, her dreams pulling her along beckoning, soft and alluring?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed; A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed; A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage arrived at my bookstore on January12. I had pre-ordered my copy, so all I had to do was drive down there and pick it up. Having read Eat Pray Love twice, because there we so many messages inside the book for me, I was now eager to see whether there were pertinent messages about marriage I could relate to. There were. There definitely were, but I have to say there might have been a few too many. Committed is so jam full of historical references, and so many personal anecdotes, that for me, the memoir veered in too many different directions to give the reader a satisfied feeling of being all-of-a piece. I think Gilbert struggled with too many competing voices. I also think she struggled with the competing disciplines of sociology, psychology, pop culture, while trying as much as possible to interject her own conversational, engaging narrative voice throughout.

So would I recommend Committed to a friend? Definitely. It is enlightening. There is a lot to learn from the book. It’s a must read for people thinking of getting married, and for people who want to see how women in other cultures view marriage, or simply for women to think about their own marriage. My favorite part was the description of how a healthy and lasting marriage works: The marriage has windows and doors that the married couple put into place. They agree on the windows–how, where, and when they will let family members and friends in. They also agree on what doors to close to protect their intimacy. Having failed at several marriages, and been successful at one, I would say Gilbert’s analogy is spot on.

Passed Away

I never read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea until now. Rhys’s book is a prequel to Jane Eyre, a beloved book I have read many times. Every five years or so I pick it off the shelf and read it again. So it blows my mind that a different viewpoint has been available since 1966 that, with one read, would forever change my thinking and feelings about Jane and Mr. Rochester and Thornfield Hall. Until now, the mad woman in the attic was simply the mad woman in the attic, even after I learned she was Mr. Rochester’s wife. The twenty-one years it took Jean Rhys to produce her 112 page novella is worth all the labor of her research and writing. It gives us an authentic point of view of the hows and whys of a nineteenth century white Creole heiress, Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, essentially auctioned to the youngest and therefore disinherited son of a wealthy English aristocrat, Mr. Rochester. Through Wide Sargasso Sea we come to see the cruelty of Mr. Rochester as a young dispossessed man. He marries a beautiful Creole woman, rejects her physically, owns and uses her money, then imprisons her. Antoinette cannot hold onto her vibrant sexuality and spirituality in such a vacuum; she loses her mind.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the mad woman sets fire to Thornfield Hall and jumps off the roof. I did not feel sorry for her. I felt sorry for Mr. Rochester and the lied-to Jane. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Mason Rochester sets fire to Thornfield Hall and jumps off the roof. I felt infinitely sorry for her and understand why she did it. I felt Mr. Rochester had his comeuppance. And Jane, Oh Jane, so feisty, but so naïve. Who would have thought you had so much in common with the first Mrs. Rochester?

The best friend of my cousin Dorothy’s husband, Jim, passed away on Saturday. “He was larger than life. He lived big. He loved life. He was loud, but underneath the kindest, sweetest person you could imagine. He had global significance as an artist, although he was not a celebrity. He greatly influenced and was a consistent encourager of my own work as an artist.” Jim’s words have set me to thinking, what remains after a person has died? Small life, big life, unknown life, known life; what does it all mean? Is the importance of someone’s life determined by how that person lives on in minds and/or hearts after he’s gone? Why can some people simply move on from death of a loved one, or react for one day to the loss of a person of national significance, such as a president, and then say and mean it’s time for the next?

My mother lives on in my mind and heart, larger than life. Our lives as women have inevitable historical differences. Her take on life was not the same as mine. She had a different emotional make-up. But there is a thread of strength in both of us and it has something to do with being a woman. In addition, her viewpoint informs my viewpoint.

I am glad Rhys reclaimed the real Antoinette and allowed her to have a sympathic place in my memory. I trust Jim’s best friend will live on in his memory. My mother will always be in mine.

The Fallen Leaves of Books

Turning the last page of Judith Thurman’s biography, Isak Dinesen, it falls gently to the ground like the descent from a cliff in a dream. The Dane’s life story grips, yanks, pulls, twists at the branches of the mind and heart, then tears loose and floats into the soul of one’s being. She’s lost inside her bourgeois family, leaves them for unknown east Africa, finds her secret self among the animals, the vast open land, the accepting spirituality of the Kikuyu and her prominent role on the coffee farm. She loses this whole life, but carries her new self back to her original home Rungstedlund in Denmark to tell this story, and others. What if her story had not been told? What if we had never had the privilege of being swept into her first words from Out of Africa?

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills.”

The myrtle wound around the base of trees below my window is flaked with layers of leaves: ocher, tarnished-gold, buckskin-brown, with a hint of barn-red. Fall books cover the floor to make way for winter: Olive Kitteridge, The Portable Nietzsche, Half-Broke Horses, Gilead, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Anything from Anna Quindlen coming soon, I hope?