Libraries Foster Connection and Community Resilience: Speaking to Support Portland’s Library Bond

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Today the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to refer a library expansion bond measure to the November 2020 ballot. Along with thirteen other Portland residents, I had the pleasure of participating in a period of public comment before the referral was put to a vote. This is the three-minute statement I spent weeks writing and whittling down.

I wasn’t the only speaker who got a little choked up sharing my story of love for our library system with the very sympathetic board, all of whom seemed ready to vote “aye” even before hearing public comments. The board room was packed with people of all stripes, passionate about supporting and improving the library. One speaker’s family has had five generations use and enjoy the Belmont branch.

Our library system is one of the most-used in the nation, but ranks 102nd in square footage. Officially made a tax-supported public library in 1902, most branches were built in the early 20th century, designed to accommodate an early 20th century population we have since overwhelmingly outpaced. My family has been regularly  turned away from packed event rooms at storytime due to overcrowding, and after one of several such experiences I reached out to the Library Foundation to ask how I might get involved in efforts to fund expansion. They responded with kindness and generosity, and invited me to participate in supporting this bond measure by sharing our story.

What a thrill to participate in this local part of the democratic process. I’ve been hungry for hope and for ways to directly impact decision-making locally, and this morning fed my soul. I can’t wait to vote yes in November.


Chair Kafoury and Commissioners, I am grateful for this chance to speak to you today and ask you to put this bond before voters in November.

I’m a homeowner and the mother of two young children, ages 5 and 2. We live in Lents, one of many neighborhoods in East County experiencing rapid change, not all of it beneficial to the people who live there.

My daughter and I started going to storytime in 2015, when she was 4 months old. Once or twice a week, we walked to the Holgate Library and joined the circle of kids and parents from our neighborhood for stories and songs. Her face lit up whenever we said the word “library.” By preschool, her vocabulary wowed her teachers.

I truly believe we owe her pre-literacy skills to storytime at the library. This free program shaped her because it was easily available to us every week.

Like a good story is more than its plot, and a love of reading is about more than learning letters, storytimes are about more than songs and books. They are about consistency and connection. One of the first names my daughter learned was Juliet, the Holgate children’s librarian who knew her, in turn, by name. These early relationships and exposures matter.

But this magic formula is becoming harder to access at Portland libraries. Since my son was born in 2018, I’ve seen my family and others regularly turned away from storytime due to overcrowding.

One recent morning, after the usual chaos of spilled Cheerios and preschool drop-off, it felt like a minor miracle when my son and I made it to the event room at Holgate— only to find the door closed and a sign saying FULL. As I comforted my son, I was embarrassed to find tears in my own eyes.

But as we walked home that day, I realized I could make this about our small disappointment, or I could see the bigger picture. Over the past few years, I have felt the city changing. Like so many of my neighbors in Lents, I worry for the folks struggling to survive winter in tents and cars. Our city is stretched to capacity, and everywhere we look, we see need.

At the library, though, I see solutions. I see resources made available to people of every age, economic background, race, gender, and ability. I see those resources being heavily, gratefully used.

What if, on that recent day, I had been a first-time library user? A family new to town, curious about storytime? Would I have come back?

I want storytime for EVERYONE. And that’s just one of many library services that Portlanders want and use. The library consistently brings me and my neighbors connection and empowerment. As neighborhoods grow, our library branches need to grow, too.

Give the community a chance to invest in East County libraries like the one my neighbors and I use. Give us a chance to invest in each other.

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Health and Other Worthwhile Things: On The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse

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Photo of Green String Farm byLyle Poulin

A few years after finishing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I apprenticed and worked on small farms, inspired in part by the writing of Wendell Berry. In an interview in one of my favorite magazines at the time, The Sun, Berry had spoken persuasively about the importance of being rooted in community, caring deeply for the land, and cultivating local economies, in an effort to rebuild sustainability for ourselves and our troubled environment. He also gently suggested that the interviewer not get too hung up on the identity of writer, because “there are lots of other worthwhile things you can do.”

This sentence was jarring. It allowed me to admit my frustration in viewing my creative work as my single purpose, and translating that into my sole means of financial support. I felt I wasn’t meant to do just one thing, and yet much of my training and the gist of the popular idea of a “serious” writer pushed me to do just that.

Beyond restlessness and money fears, I also felt hungry for work that would feed me and my neighbors, while addressing some of the dysfunction of modern life that nagged at my consciousness. As I apprenticed at Green String Farm, then worked for non-profit Petaluma Bounty Farm, I got firsthand lessons in growing food using natural process farming.

One of the main tenets of this approach is that to grow truly nutritious food, you need to feed the soil first— and to understand it as a community of microbes, fungi, organic material, and more. Soil health depends on diversity and balance. What a perfect metaphor for my own health! I, too, needed to do a range of “worthwhile things” in order to find balance. In tending the soil, I was tending not just the plants that grew in it, but also my body and spirit. In experiencing the satisfaction of nourishing myself and others, I got a taste of the fulfillment I was looking for.

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Book cover image courtesy of Didi Pershouse

This deeper understanding of the foundations of health is at the heart of a surprising new book: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, by Didi Pershouse (Mycelium Books, 2016). Part memoir and part fact-driven analysis of modern farming and medicine, The Ecology of Care describes Pershouse’s gradual shift from her work in private acupuncture, to community acupuncture and advocacy for soil restoration. It’s a beautifully-written, hope-filled prescription for an embrace of community at every level— perhaps our best shot of surviving our climate crisis.

Pershouse draws connections between the soil degradation wrought by the industrial food system, and the harm done to our bodies by industrial medicine. Since “we are what we eat,” there’s a lot of overlap. Over the past century, we’ve shifted from small, diverse farms to profit-driven mono-cropping, and our guts reflect that change. Stripping the topsoil of micronutrients and microbes, and lacing food crops with pesticides and herbicides, we’ve experienced a corresponding loss of microbial diversity in our bodies, and an increase in disease processes related to the ingestion of chemicals. Likewise, as our systems of care shifted from village doctors, midwives, and herbalists to for-profit hospitals and privatized insurance, the cost of care has skyrocketed while quality has plummeted.

But there’s hope.

A re-invigoration of community-based healthcare can decrease costs and increase quality of care, while reducing the vast carbon footprint of an over-reliance on hospitals for basic care. An embrace of farming practices dedicated to creating a “soil carbon sponge” can help harness the excess carbon driving climate change, while restoring soil health.

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Photo by Lyle Poulin

A born scientist and gifted artist, Pershouse is both methodical in her research and emotionally persuasive in her writing. She brings humor and nuance to her discussion of the complicated history described above. In an era of alarmism, Pershouse’s work is refreshing in its commitment to both honesty and optimism. She moderates her appraisal of each system’s failures by offering tangible alternative frameworks, and allowing for emotional responsiveness. These challenges are significant, and Pershouse’s work is sustained by listening partnerships with friends involved in many different aspects of healing. In adopting such a practice for ourselves, healers of all kinds can avoid burnout. We can listen to one another when each of us inevitably reaches a moment of despair, acknowledging that pain before identifying what is working and what to focus on next.

For me, Pershouse’s work picks up where Berry leaves off. As I enter another surprising twist in my career path, The Ecology of Care helps me see how my seemingly-disparate interests—writing, agriculture, and community health— are in fact needfully interconnected.

“Hope is a discipline,” Pershouse writes toward the end of her book. This worthwhile work of restoring our health must be undertaken together, and everyone is invited.

Summer Reading

There are so many good children’s books that come through our doors, and it’s a great joy to watch our children delight in them. I love everything about reading with our kids: going to the library alone or with them to fill up our book bag; bringing the bag home and dumping it out on the floor where they sit happily turning the pages; discovering which books captivate them most (always a surprise); and reading them together again and again. And then, because our four-year-old loves to look forward to things, there’s the anticipation of returning to the library to start the whole process over again. Every week, she asks me, “Did you get me new books? Is today a library day?”

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of our library’s summer reading program.

I love the different theme the library organizes each year ( space-themed “Explore a World of Stories,” for 2019), and the sweet little game boards each kid gets to take home, which we tape to our wall near the kitchen table. I love the free themed activities throughout the summer. I love the prizes my kids earn, like tickets to the Children’s Museum, OMSI, or a dip in a Parks & Rec pool. I love, most of all, the opportunity to notice and celebrate reading, a habit that has become central to our home and family life.

For now, our kids are little enough that they don’t really understand the game boards. When asked to, Sky likes to color in the squares for each day we read for 15 minutes, but we usually forget. We read all day long. The kids bring books into our bed first thing in the morning, and demand that we read to them on the potty or in the tub or at meals or before bed. Sometimes I find myself actually saying, “No,” (and fighting off the associated mom guilt) because my voice gets tired! So it’s more a matter of remembering to color in the squares and bring the boards to the library on the days when we can pick out prizes. I have to say, I get really excited about the T-shirts. I like collecting them each year, and I wear all of them regularly and proudly.

Here are some of our fave picks from this summer.

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Sky, 4 years old

One of Sky’s surprise favorites was Hansel & Gretel, by Bethan Woollvin, which imagines the story in reverse, as if the children were wicked and the witch good. The illustrations are bright and nostalgic and the narrative is fun to read. We both loved Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, by Kyo Maclear, with its “shocking pink” end-papers and floral illustrations. I’ve been enjoying the plethora of new children’s books on female heroines and might make a list post about them. Sky liked the part where the young Elsa tried to plant flower seeds on her face (!) and designed a hat that looked like a shoe. I loved the story of a woman turning disappointment into boldness and embracing her eccentricities. I appreciate a good message in a kids’ book– one that teaches a gentle lesson without being heavy-handed. That’s the case with Oliver: The Second-largest Living Thing on Earth, by Josh Crute, a sweet story of a giant sequoia tree who’s so focused on the fact that he’s not the biggest tree in the forest, he doesn’t notice the other amazing trees around him. I may have gotten the chills. We also found a taped-up copy of Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary, in a neighborhood “little library” box, and we’ve been reading it slowly, chapter by chapter, before bed. This is the first in a series I loved as a kid, and its author wrote many of her books while living in Portland, so it’s fun to see characters named after streets we drive through every day.  Another fun read was The Neighbors, by Einat Tsarfati, a funny story with fantastically-detailed pictures, about a little girl who lives in a building with all kinds of interesting people– circus-performers, an explorer and his pet tiger, even a pirate and his mermaid wife. She thinks her own family and their apartment are boring– but there’s a twist. You’ll have to read it to find out.

 

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Books for Both Kids

It’s been a challenge to figure out how to read to both kids. The real estate of my lap is only so big, and someone always ends up getting pinched or crying. But once we settle in, they will now often sit still together for a while and listen to one book. A Lion is a Lion, by Polly Dunbar was a big hit for several weeks. We read it so much they both memorized parts of it, and would shout together, “No, no, no!” and “Now it’s time to go, go, go!” This book is about two children who befriend a lion, who puts on the charm and seems fun and sweet for a while, but then reveals himself to be a regular old scary dangerous lion. The kids learn to shout “NO!” and tell the lion to get the hell out. A fun and yet unexpectedly serious read, with an important safety message. Another book we could read together is one I’ve mentioned before: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. I’m noticing a theme of rhythmic, easily-memorized text paired with animals. Which brings me to that standby, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, a book we now own and that gets daily attention in our house. They love to find the goldbug.

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Robin, 18 months

This busy little boy is into anything with wheels. A favorite this summer was Go, Bikes, Go! by Addie K Boswell, with a really well-done rhyme scheme and lots of fun pictures of different bikes. Robin loves to point and shout, “Bike!” any time he sees one out in the real world, so you can imagine the thrill of this book. Another book we’ve had to renew several times is Fiona’s Feelings, by John Hutton, with cute photos of the baby hippo at the Cincinnati zoo, with a surprisingly wide range of expressions. Robin loves this book about the “bippo” and it’s a nice variation on the common “how does baby feel” theme.
Libby Babbott-Klein’s Baby Feminists has lift-the-flap illustrations of famous feminists as babies, all structured on the same refrain: “Before she was a supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a…. baby!” Robin was delighted that he could always supply the right answer. He’d bring us this book, climb into our laps, and start shouting, “beebee!”

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Grown-up Books

We kicked off our summer with The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, by Karen Newcombe, which has been a great resource as we’ve built and tended to three small plots in our neighborhood. This is the first year since our kids were born that we’ve had the bandwidth to start gardening again, and it’s been a challenge to learn how to do so, successfully, in small spaces. This book gives you layout ideas, companion planting guides, rotation plans, and an alphabetized guide to each popular vegetable. I’m singing its praises as we harvest big salads, zucchini, and greens for dinner. Lyle and I both read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, a sobering look at how the internet, social media and video games have altered both our cultural and psychological landscapes. I’d already been leaning toward completely deleting my social media accounts, and this was the final shove I was looking for. (More on this another time.) It took me all summer, but I finally finished An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, by Matt Richtel. By far one of the best books I’ve read in a long while, this was the book I was looking for when I was researching and writing this essay. I’ve long been interested in immunity, and I appreciate science writing that tells a story, connecting the complexities of human systems to actual living humans. Now I’m on to The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, for the anti-racism book club I attend once a month. This is a book that takes a hard look at mass incarceration as the new racial caste system it is. I attempted to read this years ago, when it was first published, and I’m grateful for the chance to try again, in the company of others looking for change.

Winter Reading, 2018 + 2019

I’m re-posting a round-up from last year (on my now-obsolete blog A Patch of Earth) about winter reading with my daughter Sky. I wrote quite a few reading round-ups on that blog and had a lot of fun reflecting on the books my daughter especially liked at her current age, because there are SO many incredible children’s books. It’s a practice I’d like to do more of here on my professional website, because as writers we are truly shaped and formed by the books we read, from childhood on up.

I’ve enjoyed getting to immerse myself in reading with my kids– but it’s not always easy to find books that resonate with your child. We have a wonderful children’s librarian at our local branch who consistently chooses exceptional books to feature in the children’s section. Now that I’m wrangling a wiggly 1-year-old while keeping tabs on my 3.5 year-old as she free ranges through the stacks, I have even greater appreciation for the easy-to-grab books available on the top of the main shelves. (THANK you, Jeanie.)

But even then, books that I love for Sky aren’t necessarily the ones that she loves– especially as she gets older and more independent– so I’m happy to share her favorites here, at 2.5 (2018) and 3.5 (2019). I share my own favorite reads as well.

2018

After nearly ten years in the rainy Pacific Northwest, there is nothing I look forward to quite so much as spring. Whether because of the sharp contrast with the long gray days of winter, or because of the wide variety of flowering plants in yards and parks, spring in Portland is outrageously beautiful. Cherry trees lay down carpets of pink on city streets, and renegade daffodils and crocuses disrupt tidy lawns, even the narrow edges of used car lots. It’s warmer out and there are those lovely, sudden downpours through big shifting clouds. It comes at exactly the right time, when most of us are starting to feel blue and impatient, with just enough color and unpredictability to get us through the remaining two months of rain.

Sky and I planted some sweet peas the other day– one of those surprising days of pure sunshine. Somehow I always end up planting them several weeks too late, but they bloom anyway.

So in honor of spring and in celebration of a relatively warm, easy winter, here’s a look at some of our favorite books from last season.

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Sky (2.5 years old)

Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, Megan Maynor
Do friends have to like exactly the same things in order to get along? Maybe not. This sweet book teaches the importance of being true to yourself in friendship, in a subtle and humorous story that preschoolers can grasp. Sky liked how the penguin wore his pants as a hat. This was a repeat request at bedtime in our house. Happily, there are several in a series about Ella and Penguin.

Fire! Fuego! Brave Bomberos, Susan Middleton Elya
A catchy rhyme with Spanish words mixed in, and a glossary in back for pronunciation. The fire crew suits up and heads out to put out a house fire and rescue a cat, with just the right blend of realism and play for little ones, so it’s not too scary. This was the perfect book for Sky, who attends a bilingual preschool and has an apparently typical preschooler obsession with firetrucks. I think these obsessions have their roots in fear. Just as with her fascination with the car wash, haircuts, and doctors, Sky is working out her fear of firetrucks through play and repetition. The sound of sirens was initially really frightening for Sky, but after we visited a fire station and talked to the firefighters, the sound became something she was excited about and interested in.

Busy Builders, Busy Week, Jean Reidy
This was one of those books I wasn’t particularly crazy about, but Sky absolutely LOVED. It’s a great two-for-one: lots of construction verbs (dig it, doze it, dispose it!) paired with a lesson in the days of the week. Each day, a construction crew of animals moves onto the next phase of construction on a mystery project. (Spoiler alert: it’s a whimsical animal-themed playground.) This is another story told in rhyme, and Lyle and I were both shocked when we realized Sky could recite huge portions of the book after less than a week of reading it. Little ones’  minds never cease to amaze us.

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
I discovered this book in a funny way. I had just gotten Robin down for a nap when Sky woke up from hers, so I grabbed my iPad and hunted for a short cartoon on Amazon for us to watch together, because she pretty much never uses an “indoor voice.” I was searching for Winnie the Pooh and found this beautiful little film instead. Watch the film and read the book: it’s fun to see how they animated the watercolor illustrations, and expanded on the story to give it a little more depth. We renewed this book several times and had lots of fun acting out “going on a bear hunt.” It even helped once when I needed to encourage her to keep walking. “Oh no, it’s a doorway! We can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. We’ve got to go through it!”

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Little Fires Everywhere
, Celeste Ng
I’ve had a surprising amount of time to read during this fourth trimester, mostly while Robin is nursing or napping. I loved this novel and tore through it in just a few days– a beautifully written, interlocking narrative about two families in a seemingly-perfect, manicured Ohio suburb. One of the main characters is an artist and I loved reading about her creative process, as much for the story as for the way Ng carried it off. I feel like writing about art is one of those tricky things, like writing about sex: it’s really easy to do it badly. Ng does it well. This book also explores powerful themes of race, class, and motherhood and surprised me with its emotional punch.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Got about halfway through this before I had to return it to the library, where there are about a thousand holds on the waiting list. I jumped right back on the waiting list so I can finish the rest. His essays and notes are dense and thought-provoking and well worth the time to read slowly. I appreciate how he goes to the center of the issues surrounding white supremacy in the US, then goes even further, shedding light on complexity and resisting any easy answers. His notes show his writer’s mind at work: he writes about what he thinks went well and what he didn’t quite accomplish in each essay, and that gives me hope. It means he’s not done writing yet, not for a long time I hope, and it’s refreshing to hear a writer grappling “out loud” with the struggle to master one’s craft. Especially one as gifted as Coates.

The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen
Another dense read, worthy of time and reflection– but much shorter. This book was published around the time I was born, in response to an era of “yuppies” bent on upward mobility and a level of materialism our country had never seen before. I never thought about the connection between my struggle to address consumption and materialism in my life with the year I was born. In a sense, I’ve been steeped since birth in a culture of more-more-more, and my generation is arguably the first to grow up seeing upward mobility and material wealth as natural, valid aspirations. (This is a huge assumption, but it’s my feeling that previous generations grew up with a much stronger sense of civic duty and communalism than mine did.) There’s so much to think through in this book, a look at the gospel through the lens of modern consumerism. I keep returning to the big three temptations Nouwen highlights– the temptation to be spectacular, relevant, and powerful– as drivers of consumer culture.

2019

I just discovered that we’ve read almost 900 books together since we started tracking our checkouts at the library in July 2017. That’s a lot, but it doesn’t surprise me too much since Sky tends to tear through books pretty quickly. We go to the library once or twice a week, and she checks out a lot of early readers featuring Disney characters and super heroes, while I scan the stacks for educational books on things she’s curious about, plus slower-paced picture books with beautiful illustrations. I recently implemented a 20-item limit on her card because we were having trouble keeping track of all the library books scattered around our home. Some books don’t interest Sky much; we will read them once and then set them aside for our next library trip. She tends to read and reread the early readers (either looking at the pictures or having us read them aloud to her.) I don’t push her to read them herself. If she shows an interest, I will help her sound out a word here or there, then have her be in charge of reading the word again when it shows up in the text. If she gets annoyed with it, I drop it and just read to her. To me it’s more important to nurture the great joy she takes in the experience of reading and stories. I know she will read at her own time, when she is ready.

Here are the books we returned to quite a lot this winter (and spring.) Plus two bonus books for our newest reader.

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Robin, 16 months

Robin has been a very busy guy since he started walking at 13 months. Unlike his sister, he did not show any interest in sitting to read a book until very recently. Then suddenly, it was like he “got” that reading was a special activity he could do. Now he loves to run and get his books from the shelf, bring them over, and sit in our laps to listen to the story. He always chooses the same two books: Five Little Monkeys by Eileen Christelow,  and Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. He likes to turn the pages and join in reading, as these books have a heavy, repetitive rhyme scheme. He shakes his little finger and says, “Mo-mo MUN-kee dump da DEH,” his version of “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Or he will very insistently “Vroooom!” as we read through the story of the friendly blue truck.

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Two books that stand out for me from the past six months are Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings, by Francie Latour, and Under the Christmas Tree, by Nikki Grimes. Both made an impression on me because Sky fell asleep while we read them– several times. Not out of boredom, but because these books share a winning combination of beautiful illustrations and lyric, vivid language. I really enjoyed reading them aloud– can you remember the last time you said that about a children’s book, and meant it? Grimes’ book is a collection of simple, evocative poems about the Christmas season from a child’s perspective, while Latour’s in the story of a young girl’s visit to her painter aunt in Haiti, where she sits to have her portrait done and learns about her country’s history.

Similarly, Thunder Horse, by Eve Bunting combines dream-like paintings with a magical story about a tiny horse given to the speaker by her aunt, which grows up to be a mysterious, full-sized pegasus. The pegasus eventually has to go, and so it’s a story of loss told gently enough for a young reader. (Spoiler: the pegasus does eventually return to visit the little girl.)

The remaining books appealed to the classic prechooler obsession with underpants and barf. I can’t count the number of times we read and renewed Sometimes You Barf, by Nancy Carlson, and Underpants Dance, by Marlena Zapf. Sky had her first experience with the stomach flu this year, and it was a bewildering experience that left her with a lot of questions. The book is a semi-humorous explanation of what happens, and what the people around you tend to do, when you barf. Meanwhile, Underpants Dance helped us talk about why we don’t show our underpants outside the home, through the silly story of a wild 3-year-old’s stubborn dance.

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This winter, I’ve been deeply engrossed in biology, taking prerequisite courses in microbiology and anatomy and physiology as I prepare to begin my acupuncture program in September. My reading energy and time has been redirected to my textbooks, but I’ve still made time to read for pleasure. I just can’t seem to go for long without a good read. I savored the e-book Punking: The Praxis of Community Acupuncture, by Lisa Rohleder (free! but please donate to POCA!), with tons of great links to outside resources on the science, sociology, and psychology behind the effectiveness of community acupuncture for pain management and addiction.

Lisa’s book led me to a curiosity about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker in the 1940s, a radical hospitality organization in New York City that sparked a national movement, and turned the idea of charity on its head. I read Day’s grandaughter’s new memoir of her grandmother, a personal look at Day’s relationship with her daughter Tamar, and ultimately the web of relationship binding Day’s extended family to the larger Catholic Worker movement. I appreciated Hennessy’s eloquence and candor, as she took on the daunting task of humanizing a woman variously condemned or subjected to hagiographic awe– neither of which fully illuminate the remarkable legacy of a woman who was, finally, as gifted and flawed as anyone else. Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy, was an engrossing read.

Likewise, I enjoyed The Gifts we Keep, by Kate Grindeland, the 2015 winner of Multnomah County Library’s Writer Project, for its portrait of a family wrestling loss and painful truths about themselves. Grindeland writes in the alternating perspectives of five characters, giving each a unique and moving voice. I found myself in awe of her ability to unravel the knot of tightly-held family secrets through each character’s thoughts and actions, taking her time doing so and never seeming burdened by plot. Thanks to a recent collaboration with PSU’s Ooligan Press, this book is now available in both print and e-reader editions. I’m so impressed with our library system. Love this new venue for independent publishing and fresh voices.

Finally, I’m finishing up Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, which is confirming a lot of what I’ve felt for some time about social media. I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it up for good soon. I get that there’s benefit, but I’ve personally continued to find it more harmful than helpful. I’d like to return to more direct, simple ways of connecting with others, and reclaim my capacity to reflect and process information offline.  The final 1/3 of Alter’s book offers some simple, effective strategies to do that, though his ultimate takeaway is not to give up on social media entirely, but rather to find a balance.

Slow Summer Reading: A Review of Relief Journal

Summer went by quickly for me this year.

With a wiggly baby and active preschooler, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from the park to swim class, back home for the baby’s nap, and out again for another fun summer activity from our bucket list.

By day’s end I was tired, but I’d try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before falling asleep. Reading has been a huge part of summer for me since I was a kid, and I’m continuing that tradition with my own children. We all participated in our library’s summer reading program. While my kids and I tore through almost 100 picture books, it took me all summer to finish my small stack of non-fiction books.

I felt energized by all of this activity, and engaged in my reading, and I also had to consciously create time to slow down– to plan days with nothing on the schedule, put away all screens for a few days here and there, go barefoot in the backyard grass and dirt with my preschooler, and just sit on the back porch with my husband after the kids’ bedtime.

So I was grateful when the most recent issue of Relief Journal landed on my porch, smack in the middle of a heat wave in the middle of July. It had been a while since I’d made the time to sit down with this or any other print journal and just enjoy reading new work from a range of writers. I really loved this issue (spring 2018) and I wanted to share my reflections on some of my favorite pieces.

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Susanna Childress’s essay “Age Appropriate” absolutely floored me. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and I continue to think about not just its content, but the way in which Childress weaves together political commentary, personal narrative, and even a bit of nature writing, all with a poet’s ear for rhythm and eye for image.

She writes about the challenge of talking about difficult subjects with her young son. How should she tell him about the loss of babies who would have been his younger siblings? How does she explain police brutality, and the shooting of black parishioners during a bible study, and why his black friend’s mom has to have completely different conversations with her son about playing outside? In some ways, there is no “age appropriate” language for the territories of grief and injustice. Childress does a breathtaking job of taking the reader with her through a maze of questions– her own and her son’s– that ultimately have no easy answer.

I admired the clarity and directness of Chris Anderson’s poems “Transfigurations” and “You Never Know,” which tackle mystery in different but complimentary ways. What really happens to the bread and the wine in communion? How do we comprehend the paradox of Christ? What happens when we die? I liked how conversational these poems were, how apparently simple because of ordinary syntax, ordinary diction. This is the kind of poetry that really get to me, the kind that is able to say something essential yet utterly new, in language that feels as worn and familiar as a kitchen cutting board.

I love Marjorie Stelmach’s work, and her poem “Salt” in this issue is no exception, with its cascade of vivid imagery and precise sound spilling into sudden revelations like, “Somedays, it feels right to be weathered,” and “I know/ I’ve taken safety for granted, as if it were earned.” In “Vinegar,” she writes about Christ’s death on the cross and the mystery of faith as reflections of our own reality– we are spiritual and physical beings, needing both the concrete goodness of earth and confirmation that this isn’t all we are. I love how this poem begins with “If it’s true,” which seems to me is the ongoing dialogue of faith.

Then there’s Laura Arciniega’s strange speculative world in “The Shell,” which made me deeply uncomfortable in a good way. A mother is baking bread for her young son, and later a young couple visits the family, and they walk on the beach. It’s a seemingly simple story. But there is something different about the mother, the bread, the son, and the beach. The father tells the son a story: “Far away, there is a place where the day passes so slowly that a hen knows she’s about to lay an egg before she lays it…” We learn that in this world, a lifetime takes only a few weeks. To me, this story is about the strange weight and flexibility of time, which is so relevant to me in this phase of early motherhood.

There are many, many other poems, essays, stories, and even a comic diary in this issue that challenged me and got me thinking. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Relief, this issue would be a wonderful introduction.

Overall, I was left with deep gratitude when I finished this issue. It took some time– a month and a half!– to read and absorb each piece in here. Yes, part of that is because I’m the mother of two small children. And another part is that this is a carefully, lovingly crafted journal, filled with work that does not shy away from the full range of human experience. I read and thoroughly enjoyed each piece in this issue, and that’s something I don’t often experience in a literary journal.

I felt impressed by the work of this work, the generosity of time and effort the writers poured into these essays and poems, so that I as a reader could be changed. I felt impressed by the work of the students at Taylor University who put this journal together under the leadership of editor Dan Bowman, a fellow SPU MFA alum.

It was an encouragement to me as a writer to continue my own work, and a reminder that good writing takes time, in the making and in the receiving. In the end, it is so worth it.

 

Five Read-Aloud Books for Grown-ups

When we first started dating, Lyle and I used to read aloud to each other. Dating seems like a funny word for it. We met in a trailer park in the redwoods at UC Santa Cruz, without cell phones or wifi (this was 2004), and spent a lot of time hiking, hanging out in the community hammock (I know), looking for mushrooms, and talking for hours over tea or wine. And sometimes studying. It was pretty magical.

I think we must have started with poems– probably Robinson Jeffers, whose paperback Selected Poems we were each secretly astounded to find dog-eared on the other’s shelf.

Twelve years later, we’ve just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and reading aloud remains one of my favorite ways to reconnect with him and to those early days, when life was a lot simpler.

Here are five of our favorite read-aloud books from over the years.

monkeywrenchgang

The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey

He had a red Tacoma truck with a lumber rack, and I still remember how my heart pounded when he picked me up for a daytrip– just us, to a beach near Pescadero, for a sandy, cold picnic that turned into sunset-watching. It’s the same truck we took a few years later up to Portland, to check out a city we both thought we’d be happy in… That was a lot of miles to cover, so I brought along a paperback of Abbey’s classic novel about a group of saboteurs in the southwest, taking apart machines that threaten environmentally vulnerable places. However you feel about that, the book is incredible as a read-aloud, with plenty of dialogue and action and intrigue. I think I read this until my voice was hoarse and I couldn’t see. Later in life we discovered audiobooks.

Into the Wild
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

We read this aloud to each other in a tent in the rain, while camping along the Canal d’Ile-et-Rance in early January 2008. I was teaching English in St Malo, France, and we were on a serious budget. We took a train to Rennes for the new year, then bought second-hand bikes and a tent and rode back to St Malo along the canal, camping along the way. Sounds great, except it’s FREEZING in northwestern France in January. (We were 24 and naive. I mean, resilient.) We parked our bikes in dark orchards after midnight, huddled in our thin sleeping bags, and ate cold bread and cheese and drank cheap cognac to feign warmth. Reading Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated decision to leave civilization for the wilds of Alaska, we were distracted from the cold in our own bodies, and transported by Krakauer’s seemingly effortless prose.

All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

We read this while I was pregnant with our daughter, taking turns reading each chapter. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, and had to pee about every ten minutes, so the short, memorable chapters were just right. This book lends itself to reading aloud because it is a novel in two voices. Set in St Malo, France during the German occupation, it tells the intertwined stories of a blind French girl and German boy through luminous language. It was interesting to imagine the story happening in a city we’d lived in and explored for the better part of a year. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this book, and it’s a must-read whether aloud or silently.

intothinairInto Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

Something about early parenting pitched us into a string of mountaineering books and movies. Maybe there are similarities: intensity, extreme discomfort, and marathon exertion on thin reserves of sleep and food. Whatever it is, Krakauer’s book got us hooked– so much so that on our first date night post-birth, we went to see Meru. Then we started watching the First Ascent series, and every Everest documentary we could find online. Most recently it was Sherpa, the story of the Everest industry from the perspective of the indigenous Nepalese, who do the bulk of the mountaineering work, face the greatest danger, and receive the least benefit. Into Thin Air tells Krakauer’s side of the 1996 Everest disaster– which he experienced first-hand– and was written in grief and shock in less than a year. We knew we wanted a read-aloud book, and we knew we loved Krakauer, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The book is gripping, informative, terrifying, controversial, and so well-written.

The Curve of Time
The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet

This is our most recent read, and I’m laughing as I realize we’ve been reading it since early June! It could be a quick read, with its short, fascinating chapters, but we are tired parents and sometimes we just want to watch Colbert and go to sleep. (ha!) It’s the story of a family’s many summers spent exploring the coast of British Columbia by boat in the 1920s and 30s. And by family, I mean a widow and her five children. And by boat, I mean a 25-foot cruiser. On days when I feel uncertain about heading out in the rain with my toddler, I think about this incredibly brave woman who taught her children to read maps, pick huckleberries, and hike to freshwater streams to wash their salt-stiff clothes. But the most refreshing part of this book is its style and voice. Blanchet focuses on action scenes, keenly observant depictions of wild places long-since settled, and detached philosophical musings on the nature of time. It’s a nice change from the more introspective, highly personal memoir we’re so used to now.

General Thoughts and Less-Successful Picks
I notice a few themes: we like books about outdoor adventure, and fast-paced novels with risk and a strong narrative voice. But I’ve learned to be wary of narratives that hit too close to home, and I try to steer clear of lush literary styles that lend themselves more to silent reading.

Doerr’s book deviates from the outdoor theme a bit, but I think it worked because of the alternating short chapters told in different voices. Picking up on this thread, we joined our county library’s Everybody Reads program last winter and tried out The Book of Unknown Americans, which also has alternating chapters. In hindsight, it’s a better book for solo reading, and because it centers around a mother’s guilt over an accident that injured her daughter, it also created a lot of extra anxiety for me as a new mom often visited by worst-case-scenario visions. Not the best choice for pre-bedtime reading, for me.

We also attempted and abandoned Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a gorgeous book that would have been a perfect read-aloud when we were younger. We tried to read it when our baby was a newborn, and we were both way too exhausted to focus on the prose. I think it’s one I’d like to read alone, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great read-aloud for you.

What are your favorite read-aloud books for grown-ups?

 

“I don’t know this but I do know that”

from Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

“It turns out you don’t have to be that smart to be a writer.

What you do need, however, is a tone of assertion.

I sometimes think you can make the reader accept almost anything if you back it up with strong-enough conviction. Take these lines by Pablo Neruda, from his poem “There Is No Forgetfulness”:

If you ask me where I have been
I have to say, “It so happens…,”
I have to talk about the earth turned dark with stones,
and the river which ruins itself by keeping alive;
I only know about objects that birds lose,
the sea far behind us, or my sister crying.

Or this passage from Neruda’s poem “Nothing But Death”:

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green…
Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses.

Neruda is always saying, in effect, I don’t know this but I do know that, and I have seen with my own eyes x and y and z. So what if many of the facts he purports to swear by are fantastic? He has learned to season his surreal images with the plausible verbal formulae of someone bearing witness; it is these rhetorical assertions of the limits of his knowledge that make his metaphoric visions easier to accept. Neruda comes straight out of Whitman, who boldly asserted, “I was the man… I suffered… I was there.” ”