Lately, I have been looking at trees with renewed awareness and appreciation-the tips of spruce trees traveling miles in little circles when brushed by the wind; the clone communities of aspen, connected underground in secret companionship; the shade and shelter from blazing mountain sunshine; home to countless wild birds who wake us at first light with their songs; source of fuel, of energy, of life for the rest of the world’s systems.
Have you ever listened to hear a tree’s gentle message? Weeks now after completing my first read of Richard Powers’ The Overstory, I am practically at a loss to describe the novel’s impact.
“…the word tree and the word truth come from the same root,” Powers writes more than once in the pages of The Overstory. I looked them up. He’s right.
Toward the end, Nick (a character whose family history was wrapped up with American Chestnuts) gestured toward a stand of conifers where he was involved in creating artwork on a scale to be seen from orbiting satellites. “It amazes me how much they say, when you let them. They’re not hard to hear.”
To which his anonymous companion chuckled. “We’ve been trying to tell you that since 1492.”
My own journey with trees in particular and plants in general goes back decades to my own childhood. I had numerous pet plants and I named some of them. There was Katrina, the pea plant, and Elizabeth Mames, a wandering Jew given to me by my 5th grade teacher. Elizabeth Mames fills my summer flower boxes still, purple foliage with small tri-petal blossoms.
No stranger to aloneness that is often chosen but sometimes enforced, it never failed to fill me with peace when I worked with plants. I shied away from human crowds. Still do. But I felt at home under the trees. Did they speak to me? Not in words, exactly. Maybe with sensuality.
Here’s a poem I wrote as a young college student.
The Lonely Pine
Alone and lonely I met the Ponderosa pine,
Relaxed beneath its radial limbs,
Savored, in my loneliness, the sigh of wind
Through its thousands of fingers,
Pondered the cylindrical split of each
Cluster of three needles fallen to Earth,
Savored again the lonely whine of each live needle
Brushed by the strong south wind,
And I loved that tree.
None but me had ever noticed
—really noticed—that Ponderosa,
and we were companions in loneliness.
At that moment I sensed
All grasses of the prairies,
All trees of the forests,
All birds of the air,
All fish of the sea,
And all creatures of Earth
Were engulfed in the loneliness I knew.
Then, too, I sensed
That though all life may receive
And respond to love,
Only we humans initiate
The silting in of canyons of loneliness.
And then I loved
The Earth and its life,
So all things might be free of loneliness
After reading The Overstory, I’m not sure any longer that only humans can make the first move toward reconciliation and community. Maybe the botanical world is trying to tell us something. If you can hear them, listen.
A week ago I received notification that Sundrop Sonata has been awarded a Medallion by indieBRAG (Book Readers Appreciation Group) with consistent “very good” marks in all the reviewed categories, and some encouraging comments by readers. The event was even more meaningful when I looked up the BRAGmedallion website and learned that “April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and World Autism Awareness Month,” an uncanny coincidence since Sundrop Sonata contains elements of both. The conflicts revolve around saving an autistic child from a life of unspeakable abuse.
My evolution as a writer continues. Having aspired and dreamed of writing books since my grade school days, I was convinced the only acceptable way was the traditional way, through an agent and a publishing house. Self-publishing (indie books) has historically received a bad reputation, reserved for those who don’t make the grade. Mediocre quality at best.
Returning to writing after raising a family, as well as years spent polishing a different trade, I began again under the same illusion about indie books. I wrote seriously, studied with successful authors, revised, trimmed, polished the work. And I ended up with products that attracted the attention of some small to mid-level publishing houses. Rather than signing with them, I ended up revising my opinion of indie books. I sought professional formatting guidance and uploaded my work to the e-book industry, where one can also order a print-on-demand copy, if preferred.
Why the change of heart? I learned that the world of publishing has changed drastically with advances in technology. The big houses have to compete with easy access to online books. There are thousands of people writing books, and for publishers what counts is the return on their investment. Since I’m a nobody out in the boonies, the chances that any major publisher would accept my writing are slim to none.
Even when smaller publishers show interest, their contracts reflect expectations that their writers provide a lion’s share of the work for a fraction of any profit. They expect a lot, but offer little in return. If that is the case, why bother? Throw in the recent awareness that any request for me to speak may be channeled through a publisher who insists on high fees. Who needs that? Why make yourself unapproachable to enthusiastic readers? How much of those exorbitant fees are shared with the writer? I can only guess.
Everything revolves around money.
But that’s not why I write. I write because I have stories in me begging for release. I do my best to prepare them for others to enjoy, and to receive those sweet nuggets of appreciation when someone has enjoyed my work. I derive much pleasure from speaking to fellow writers and readers—often for nothing more than the comradery.
Considering the returns on my personal investment in time and effort, the priceless rewards connected with building new friendships, and my innate tendency to shy away from the spotlight, indie publishing makes a lot of sense. It does not have the negative stigma it once carried. Indeed, some best-selling books are indie books. What is important in reaching readers is to write quality books that readers will tell their friends about. Polish, revise, trim, and seek critical readings until you have the best piece of work you are able to provide. Offer it to the world and get started on your next book.
In promoting and spreading the word about Sundrop Sonata, I have found the growing network of readers and writers to be extremely important. One of my respected colleagues suggested I contact BRAG medallion, the Book Readers Appreciation Group. I took her advice. Sundrop Sonata was offered to a group of test readers around the globe. And they liked it. Now I can say I have been awarded the medallion. If you are looking for good books to read, note those adorned with this seal:
A few comments from Sundrop Sonata’s indieBRAG readers:
“This might be my favorite indieBRAG book I’ve reviewed so far! Title: intriguing and right for the story line. Cover: Makes me want to read the back cover. Plot: The plot and sub-plots were creative, elaborate, well-structured, and unpredictable. The fast pace kept me turning the pages, wondering where this was going. Characters: Multi-dimensional, believable, easy to picture, unique. . .”
“. . . I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s fluent writing style. Intriguing opening chapter. Minimal back story. Excellent flow. No information dumps. The change in POV worked well and was easy to follow. Loved the fast pace. . .”
“I really did like this story and it was well-told.”
“Have you ever wondered what would happen if you crossed Indiana Jones with a piano tuner? Neither had I—until I read this thrilling suspense book. . .When she shows up to tune Nola’s piano, Isabel finds herself urgently asked to take Nola’s autistic daughter and protect her from her father. With great uncertainty she agrees, thus beginning a cross country race against time that combines a bit of Indiana Jones, Deliverance, and international terrorism with a healthy dose of music, compassion, and love. I found myself literally unable to put this book down once I began. It was a joy to read and I highly recommend it.”
I am deeply grateful to the indieBRAG organization whose purpose is to highlight quality independent literature. And I feel energized to renew my efforts to wrap up the next story.
At the women’s rally in Wichita Saturday, a lot of people carried signs that said, “I’m with her” (arrows in all directions); “I March for my Daughter” (granddaughters, sisters); “I March for Her” (picture of the Earth). My mind returned over and over to my mother. I marched for her. Though she’s been gone nearly fifteen years, I’m sure she would have been there in spirit.
Mother was born a hundred years ago today. Speakers at the Wichita rally often made historical references, and I pondered the social changes of the last century.
Helen Peterson, the fourth and last daughter of Frank and Mary Peterson, arrived on this earth January 22, 1918. When she was born the War to End All Wars was raging but would end ten months later on November 11, 1918. At the time of her birth, women had no voting rights, or property rights. The women’s suffrage movement was going strong. The 19th Amendment was ratified two years later, when young Helen was learning to speak her first sentences.
In April 1923, when she was barely five years old, her father Frank died after an emergency surgery to treat a bleeding ulcer. The operation was performed on the kitchen table of their farm house, and that is where he died. Helen’s widowed mother was left with four young daughters, ages 5 to 13. With no rights of inheritance to the farm her husband owned, Mary Peterson was evicted. She moved her girls to town and returned to her pre-nuptial career as a school teacher.
Helen remembered little of her pre-school days when Frank was around. But she had lots to say about growing up with her mother who struggled to keep those girls warm and fed. In the 1920s and 1930s, working mothers were social outcasts. Mothers were supposed to stay home and raise their children. Mary Peterson had no choice, however.
Tutored by her mother, Helen excelled in school. She graduated high school at age 15, went on to college, and had earned a master’s degree in physics before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Helen found employment in the east, as a physicist developing technology that would benefit the war effort. She possibly would have settled in the east.
Her mother, however, developed severe hearing loss and was dismissed from employment. She sank into an inconsolable depression and Helen returned to Kansas to take care of Mary. Working at KSU in the department of Physics, Helen met the man she would marry. She settled into a new role as supporting wife, and a few years later, mother to three daughters of her own. Having missed out in childhood watching her own mother handle the role of wife, she blazed her own trail and devoted herself totally to the care and nurture of her husband and daughters.
However, Mother never forgot her roots.
A lifelong Republican of the Eisenhower camp, she was never shy of voicing her skepticism in regards to Roosevelt, or Kennedy, or Carter. But she proudly proclaimed herself, “a women’s libber,” and was an active member of the League of Women Voters. She had a big heart and wanted to help those who faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in life, but recognized how easily folks fell into a sense of entitlement with the public welfare system of the 70s and 80s.
I have no doubt Mother would be aghast at events of the past year, with hard-won rights being stripped from some of the most vulnerable citizens, including women. The last thing we need is to regress toward the conditions her mother experienced as a young widow in the 1920s. Helen would have been at the women’s rally chanting with the rest, “Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes!”
And she’d say, with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s time to get creative!”
Mother’s childhood was undoubtedly filled with the necessity of using what was available in new and unexpected ways. True creativity functions well when faced with limitations. Take what you have (or what you are allowed) and from that create, construct, or devise what you need. It’s a skill that comes in handy in many of life’s endeavors, and one we should nurture in our children.
The nullification of many progressive steps over the last year is like a tornado of denials. Our limitations seem to grow daily. We are falling backwards in the progress toward liberty and justice for all. I can almost hear my mother say, “It is time to get creative,” the little suggestion she repeated often when my sisters and I found ourselves run up against limits, absences or lack of resources.
In today’s world, she might even suggest, “It is far past time to get creative.”
When today’s youth express their heart’s deepest desire to be “Make Lots of Money,” I am concerned. When our whole culture revolves around piling up numbers, when violence erupts after one person’s numbers don’t measure up to another’s, there is cause for grave concern.
Money is, after all, an invention of humans. It is a tool to facilitate transfer or acquisition of things a person needs. What are needs? Food, shelter, clothing, companionship, a sense of purpose. When a tool becomes not just the means to an end, but the end itself, it is being utterly misused. Beyond meeting basic needs, the accumulation of personal wealth seems to have become the only measuring stick we value. We measure our lives with something totally artificial.
What about things money can’t buy?
Chris Hedges wrote in Empire of Illusion (2009), “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power. . .which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization.”
We are regressing to an age that predated civilization.
What would happen if the bulk of us simply quit? Quit craving money for money’s sake. Quit worshipping the power allotted to those with the largest bank accounts. After all, power is proportional to the extent that we covet what others have.
Let’s just quit.
What if, instead, we honor leaders who demonstrate the mature attributes of civilization? Things like compassion, courtesy, kindness, encouragement, respect for others. Things like integrity.
Several of my elders who still breathe, read, and think have expressed grave concerns for the direction we’re heading, unlike anything they’ve ever known. They are truly afraid for our future. When we experience the limitations that nullify programs and institutions which served to provide personal security for generations past, it’s high time to get creative. Let’s think of new ways to care for each other. Let’s re-invent our culture and re-build our government of-the-people, by-the-people, and for-the-people.
The year 2017 started for me in Japan. I read on my Kindle during the long flights and the first book of my year was Burt Rashbaum’s Tears for my Mother. It is a vividly graphic account of a family struggling with their mother’s encroaching dementia. Alzheimer’s remains a dreaded word for many families. It spares no group the horrors of mind disintegration.
Rashbaum’s account was deeply personal. The characters were patterned after some in his own family. He tapped vividly into the reality of what it could be like to watch your own self slipping away. Significantly for me, the author is part of my own family, the Jewish cousin who married into one side of my husband’s family. I enjoyed a few days in this cousin’s Nederland, Colorado home last summer, rewarding myself with a writing retreat in the artsy mountain community. Before I left, Burt and I had swapped books and I came home with another novel of his, the 2015 release of The Ones That I Know.
Like Tears, this story is based significantly on events in Rashbaum’s life. One of the characters resembles him a great deal, and another resembles his wife. Through the pages of this book, I again found myself immersed in post-holocaust Jewish reality, which unless you’ve been there is hard to imagine. It tells the story of a group of neighborhood friends, who grew up together in NYC and lost touch as adults. They reunite when one of them publishes a book about their youthful adventures. The book examines how connections of family and friends possibly go beyond the grave and revisit the same group in a fresh incarnation. It explores life’s purpose, as well as its challenges. It is a snapshot view of a variety of contemporary issues that have a basis in historical drama.
At the end, after reading these books, I felt I knew and loved my newly found cousins much better.
The year 2017 was ushered in for me by Rashbaum’s novel Tears for my Mother. It is fitting to conclude this book journey series with The Ones That I Know. Through my reading adventures in 2017, I felt my family expand. My circle of friends has grown as well, and that’s no small matter in today’s uncertain world. We hear much about alternative facts, conspiracy theories, rigged elections, international threats and climate change. The news media is under fire. Our courts are being stacked by extremists. Our constitution itself is on shaky ground. If one thing is clear, I believe that “the ones that I know” have something to say. As long as our constitution stands we need to exercise our right to write, to share our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our memories and fears.
Americans consider free speech to be a birthright. It is guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech serves to hold the powerful accountable and for that reason we must defend it fiercely. Our freedoms and rights will exist only as long as we keep using them.
For all my writing friends and cousins scattered across the country—“the ones that I know”—I say, “Write on!” And may the force be with us all.
There’s nothing like a book of poetry to offer nuggets for your mind during quiet moments. Kansas is home to many gifted poets. I admire their skill in selection of the perfect words. Weaving those words into meaningful verse is a talent I don’t claim.
I have discovered poets who write for almost any occasion. There are those who have written light verse that can make me chuckle. (Max Yoho.) Others possess the vision of a trained photographer and the knack for painting word pictures. (Roy Beckemeyer) There are those who can analyze life and offer its lessons in verse (Ronda Miller), those who search history for clues to the future (Duane Johnson), and those skilled at sharing life in fresh language (April Pameticky).
There is a certain technique to proper reading of poetry. I’m still learning, but here’s what I suggest.
How to read poetry. . .
Find a quiet corner.
Choose a random poem.
Read, perhaps aloud.
Read the verse again.
Hats off to the poets of Kansas.
Up next to conclude my book journey of 2017: Burt Rashbaum
Sara Davidson’s the december project is a treatise on how to navigate the December of life and “not freak out about dying”. It is a joint endeavor by Davidson and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wherein “An extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.”
Having the distinct privilege to meet some cousins of my husband’s during the summer of 2016, I came home with the realization that there are Jewish people in my own family. Not only that, but Jewish writers and kindred souls who appreciate the counter-culture of my youth more deeply than I do myself. And, though I do not personally know Reb Zalman, my cousins do. That made the book intensely more personal. Cousin Burt explained, “Reb Zalman was the closest I’ve ever come to meeting/knowing a true ‘holy man.’ It seemed every breath he took, and every word he spoke, was holy.”
Returning home from our 2016 visit with some reading recommendations from cousin Sharon, it was early 2017 before I got around to reading them. the december project was one of those books.
I was enthralled with Rabbi Zalman’s story. He had escaped the Nazis in Europe during the Holocaust years, and struggled with his faith upon arrival in his new country, America. Years later, after personal audience with the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton, among other notable events, he became a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
I read the book because my cousin recommended it, and because I figured I was on the verge of my own life’s December phase. The book concludes with several exercises to help folks prepare for their check out. I found many of them to be good tips for any stage of life. Among them:
Begin each day with a thankful heart. Give thanks often.
Practice forgiveness. Forgive others who have wronged you. Ask forgiveness for your own mistakes. And perhaps the toughest, Learn to forgive yourself.
Review your life. Explore your purpose. Claim the life that is yet yours to live. What is urgent and needs to be done before you feel complete?
And one that speaks to my introvert’s craving for personal space: Make friends with solitude. Create an inner sanctuary—a place to go where you can feel the spark of the divine within you.
Solitude and sanctuary are concepts that are fast becoming archaic among the younger generations. Yet, I crave the space to find myself. And I wonder, if we can’t stand to be alone with our own selves, how can we expect others to find solace in our company? We came into this world alone, and most certainly we will leave it in a solitary experience as well. Get to know and love yourself.
Up next: About contemplation, or Discovering a few Kansas poets
To be honest, I didn’t expect to get much from Wisdom Chaser: Finding my Father at 14,000 Feet by Nathan Foster. A loose page labeled “Disclaimer” had been inserted inside. It fell from the book the first time I opened it. I don’t know who wrote the disclaimer, nor how I even came to have the book. One paragraph of the disclaimer stated, “If you are easily offended or would presume that a Christian should never use coarse language—DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.” (Emphasis mine.)
Okay. Why not? Are there truly people so sheltered as to be offended by coarse language? How could a Christian book include such language?
I truly don’t recall any offensive language in the book, just the honest personal struggles of a young man as he strove to find his niche in the shadow of a great father. Some of those struggles resonated with me. I could feel the emotions Nathan described since similar ones had visited my heart at various times.
Turns out, Nathan Foster actually grew up in Wichita—another book with a Kansas connection. However I’ve never personally met either him or his father. His father, Richard Foster, wrote the afterword in the book and affirms his son, Nathan. “Nate’s skills in wilderness survival are exceptional. He has. . .led groups of at-risk teenagers into the wilderness. . .and back again.” Survival in the wilderness is a topic close to my heart.
Some of Nathan Foster’s points resonated with me:
“Pace yourself. Move slowly. Don’t stop.” Good advice as we head into another marathon year of resistance.
“Time, my most valuable possession, is quite possibly my only real possession.” And thus, to share time with another person is quite possibly, “the pinnacle of human sacrifice.”
“Capitalism depends on materialism to survive.”
“Building and cultivating relationships is the most important thing I will ever do.”
Like Foster, I often feel “immobilized by choices.”
And, “Lost potential is the byproduct of every evil in this world.”
Can we begin to measure choices by the extent to which they influence lost potential in ourselves and others?
An inspirational and thought-provoking book, I can recommend Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster.
Learning to Live With It by Kevin Olson, was another inspirational book that has already been mentioned in an earlier post. (“Considering Heroes” December 7, 2017) I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it again. I am full of admiration for Kevin and others who don’t let the poor hand they’ve been dealt stop them from making a positive impact in this needy world. They are our unsung heroes.
Speaking of comedy, I’ll put in another vote for a historical novel set in prohibition days in southeast Kansas. Topekan Max Yoho spun a good yarn about a boy coming of age during the later years of the prohibition era. The Moon Butter Route follows 12-year-old Wally Gant as he enters his teen years in the 1940’s. His first job was to assist with deliveries for the Strang Dairy, a place that didn’t just deliver milk, but also some of the finest moonshine (Moon Butter) packaged in painted milk bottles.
His adventures amongst the moonshiners and bootleggers—some lovable and some not—follow Wally as he finds love and fortune in a rough part of the state and of history. Told with good humor from Wally’s point-of-view, some of the shenanigans he describes are downright hilarious, which reminds me again how laughter can truly be good medicine for the ills of my soul.
Early in the year, a soft-spoken gentleman in the Wichita author’s group requested volunteers to test-drive a book he’d finished. I signed up, and promptly got distracted by daily life. The year was half over and I was thoroughly disheartened by the accrued crises before I downloaded a Kindle copy and started reading. I admit, I was dubious about a book titled I Rode for the Wigglin’ W. Some kind of western perhaps? Not exactly my cup-o-tea. But I wanted to support my fellow writer.
It wasn’t long before I wondered why I’d waited so long. Wigglin’ is not just a western, it’s a romantic comedy to boot. Loren Harder (as Flynn McGuin) soon had me laughing out loud—just the lift I needed amongst all the sour news and dire predictions of the year.
I Rode for the Wigglin’ W is good, clean fun, a modern tall-tale that you have to read to understand. I’m not going to give away any of its secrets since I don’t want to spoil it for you. But I will say it’s well-written (not a grammatical hiccup anywhere that I recall) and fast-paced. It’s written for folks of my generation, with sentimental clues from our coming-of-age years, but it’s clean enough to share with youngsters. And, it’s hilarious. Thank you, Loren.
American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges
A third book recommended by a friend proved even more horrifying. Written more than a decade ago, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges was more than an eye-opener. Hedges described settings and scenes I’d never dare to experience personally, but they illuminated and explained phenomena I’ve noticed in the growing rigidity and prejudice of many conservative friends and family members. Anyone paying the slightest attention to matters of faith can attest to the truth of his detailed observations.
Today’s most recognized “Christian” community, the right-wing conservatives, are often a far cry from living the teachings of Jesus. When matters of faith fail to uplift and support those most vulnerable among us, but instead attack the differences that make us unique, something has gone very wrong. When those who embrace atheism demonstrate greater generosity and compassion to world inhabitants who are powerless, religion has failed its basic purpose.
A Pascal quote used as the introduction for Hedges’ book put it simply, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
None of these wake-up books were written by authors I know personally, nor do they include specific mention of Kansas, but they impacted my personal life and growth in 2017. Each was recommended by vastly different friends and acquaintances. They remain relevant today and I pass them along as worthy books to read.
A comment on an internet article I skimmed recently caught my eye. “For the first time in history, an American president has declared war on the American people.” There are many sides to this complex issue, many concerns. How we respond to the challenge of resisting our leader will determine the course of our future. A logical first step would include defining what America has been in its almost 250 year history, and what America stands for in our own hearts. What would we preserve for the generations to come?
I cherish the beloved words learned in our daily pledge of allegiance when I was a grade school student years ago, a pledge still recited daily in my local schools. The most important thought, and one I think defines what America should be, is its conclusion, “with liberty and justice for all.” We have a long way to go to realize this kind of society, but I cling to the dream these words paint. Liberty and justice for all.
All means “all”.
Not just the 1%. Not white Americans. Not men only. Not only straight people. Not just right-wing Christians.
All means all. And in our diversity, may we find strength.