New Year’s Meme 2015

(Idea from Notes of an Anesthesioboist .)

1. What did you do in 2014 that you’ve never done before? Became an orphan, when my mother died almost a month ago.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I don’t make them. I’m not that resolved.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? No.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My mother and my uncle.

5. What countries did you visit? Just this one … Jekyll Island GA three times, Savannah GA, Beaufort SC, Myrtle Beach SC, Murrells Inlet, SC, Boothbay Harbor ME, Kennebunk, ME, Portsmouth NH, Richmond VA, Baltimore and Annapolis, MD, Darien, CT, NYC, Boston and Salem, MA, Bath ME, Longwood Gardens in PA.

6. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014? Maybe a French bulldog.

7. What dates from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? None. I have very few dates etched in memory.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Reading a eulogy at my mother’s funeral. Also getting outside at least a few days each week to walk, hike, snowshoe, bird, ramble, garden.

9. What was your biggest failure? Always, a failure to love more, to be compassionate, to be fully aware and appreciative of what I am receiving.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Nothing I can recall.

11. What was the best thing you bought? Vacations.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Journalists around the world in dangerous locations.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? My government’s. Most legislators’. NFL and college football players’ and the commissioner’s.

14. Where did most of your money go? Housing, health insurance, retirement savings, vacations.

15. What did you get really excited about? Trips to Jekyll.

16. What song will always remind you of 2014? Sadly, probably “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. The one I liked best was The Pink & Nate Ruess duet “Just Give Me A Reason.”

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…
-happier or sadder? sadder, I think
-thinner or fatter? a bit fatter
-richer or poorer? richer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Loving. Letting go. Lightening up. Meditation. The usual.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Fretting. Acting out of fear. The usual.

20. How did you spend Christmas? At home with spouse, opening gifts, reading, watching “Fanny and Alexander,” and eating take-out Indian food.

21. Did you fall in love in 2014? Of course. Almost any time I look through the camera lens, I fall in love.

22. What was your favorite TV program? Beachfront Bargain Hunt on HGTV.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? I can’t think of anyone I hate.

24. What was the best book you read? The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq. Also the Regeneration series by Pat Barker, set during the first World War, in England.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery? None. Didn’t listen to much new music this year.

26. What did you want and get? Clean scans for spouse. Time at Jekyll.

27. What did you want and not get? Friends’ bulldogs to live rather than die. World peace. Again.

28. What was your favorite film of this year? “Boyhood.”

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old are you? Hung out at home, early 50s.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Perhaps living closer to the the ocean.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2014? One basic casual outfit for winter, another one for summer, with confusion in fall and spring.

32. What kept you sane? Time alone. Time outside. The camera. The garden. Exercise. Friends. Faith.

33. What celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? I still like Pema Chödrön a lot. The Property Brothers (HGTV) are pretty cute.

34. What political issue stirred you the most? US: gun control reform (please), drone killing, health care reform (more, please). Globally: Scapegoating, witch hunts, and all other forms of mimetic violence. Children being forced to war. The rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment and action in Europe.

35. Whom did you miss? My dog Gretchen. My dad. Friends who go south in the winter.

36. Who was the best new person you met? Maybe Ruth. Enjoyed getting to know Ann, Alison, Mary Anne, Edie and Steven, and Karen better this year, too. Enjoyed spending time with Marie, Robbyn, Brigit, Jack, and Jim after about 10 years or more of not seeing any of them.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014. “In the end what you don’t surrender, /Well, the world just strips away.” — Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

38. Quote a song poem lyric that sums up your year:

You have your eye on a small /elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth / strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

— Eamon Grennan

2014 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2014 stats

average read per month: 4.25 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (March and Sept)
number read in best month: 9 (July)

percentage by male authors: 48% (25)
percentage by female authors: 52% (27)

fiction as percentage of total: 90% ( books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 66% ( of books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 10% ( books)

percentage of total liked: 64% (33 books)
percentage of total so-so: 25% (13 books)
percentage of total disliked: 11% (6 books)

Notes:

The limiting factor in my reading again this year was availability of books I wanted to read. I feel like I spent a lot of time not reading much of anything, waiting for books to come into the library.

As usual, most of my non-fiction reading is online these days, in the form of essays and articles.

My favourite books of the year were The Map and the Territory (2013) by Michel Houellebecq, The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt, the Regeneration series by Pat Barker, and The Caller (2009) by Karin Fossum.  I read more non-crime-fiction fiction this year than in most years, thanks to being in three fiction bookgroups.

Books Read 2014

Once again (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Dark Mirror (2009) by Barry Maitland, in the Kolla-Brock series set in and near London. When PhD student Marion Summers has a seizure in the London Library and dies soon after, everyone is surprised to learn that she was poisoned with arsenic. But how, and why, and by whom? Kathy is the primary investigator in this case, with Brock as her sidekick. Maitland’s crime novels always include information about other topics (stamp collecting, Karl Marx, architecture, Islamists, genetic technology, alternative medicine, the Brixton riots, modern art, etc.; in this one it’s Dante Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. Setting varies in London from St. James Square to Rosslyn Court to Ealing to Notting Hill, with a quick trip to Prague.

Just One Evil Act (2013) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers series. A long book (719 pp) that felt longer because of Havers’ dissembling actions throughout. Plot: Her close friend and neighbour Azhar’s 9-year-old daughter Hadiyyah is kidnapped by her mother, Angelina, and taken to Italy, and from that unfolds more kidnapping, deception, tabloid journalism, family hatred, and death. Set in London and Lucca, Tuscany, with the chief inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco playing an important role in the story. One thing that’s obvious in this book is that Lynley’s and Havers’ ideas of what constitutes helping a friend in trouble differ. Meanwhile, Havers is being investigated unofficially by a coworker who hates her, and Lynley is falling in love with the large animal vet (who plays roller derby) whom he met in Cornwall.

Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson: Fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an older congregationalist pastor in small town Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, dying of a heart condition and intent on leaving some words about his life to his 7-year-old son. Poetic. I  liked the way that he kept repeating scenes, re-remembering them, like seeing his wife for the first time in church. Loved the thoughts on baptism in particular, and the compassionate, humane sensibility of the book.

More Bitter Than Death (2010/2013) by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff: Second in the psychotherapist Siri Bergmann series. Siri and Aina start a self-help group for a few abused women, one of whom has an ex-boyfriend arrested for a brutal murder, which was witnessed by the victim’s 5-year-old daughter. At the same time, Siri is counseling a married couple and having her own issues with her police boyfriend Markus. Good.

The Golden Compass (1995) by Philip Pullman, a fantasy novel of 11-year-old Lyra, an apparently orphaned and fierce, wild, and intuitive little girl who lives in a theological college and is cared for by the staff there. Soon, after hearing her uncle’s presentation to some at the college about the Aurora Borealis and “dust,” she is caught up in an adventure that takes her to the northmost parts of the Earth. Not really my kind of story but I like the idea of the daemons that all humans in her world have, an external animal manifestation of their spirits.

February

The Dinner (2009/2012) by Herman Koch, transl. from Dutch. A dark book about two couples whose sons have been involved in a heinous, gratuitous crime. The two couples come together over an expensive, pretentious dinner to talk about what to do. The narrator, Paul, is the father of one son, Michel, and quite an anithero, as his his wife, Claire. This is a book about scapegoating and how it can be justified by considering other people as “not entirely innocent,” “inhuman,” “subintelligent,” “a piece of trash,” “not civilized like we are.”

The Orphan Choir (2013) by Sophie Hannah. A very creepy novel about a mother,  Louise,  harassed by her neighbour’s loud music in the middle of the night, and who then begins to hear a boys’ choir singing; not coincidentally, her 7-year-old son is in a boys’ choir that requires he live away from home except for holidays. Louise thinks she has found some relief when she is drawn to buy a second home in Swallowfield, an upscale rural housing community an hour or two away. Set in Cambridge, England, and outside it.

The Map and the Territory (2013) by Michel Houellebecq: An amusing, layered postmodern novel about the life of Jed Martin, a contemporary French artist living in Paris, and about his few long- term relationships  — his father, his gallerist, his publicist — and his few other involvements, mainly with woman (particularly beautiful Michelin staffer Olga)  — and the equally friendless author Michel Houellebecq, to whom he is attracted as a friend. The themes of the book are multiple: labour and work (particularly William Morris’s ideas on design and craft, the architecture and organisation of factories and work buildings in general, the dignity and the identity of work); machines (notably cars and boilers); modernity (including celebrity as a concept, air travel and the heterotopias of airports and shopping areas, the ubiquity of information); sex (focus on prostitutes) and death (murder, euthanasia, suicide, funeral rites); and so on. I really enjoyed the book and read most of it in a day.

March

The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt. Almost 800-page novel, spanning almost 15 years, primarily set in New York City, with significant time in Las Vegas and Amsterdam as well.  Theo Decker is visiting a museum with his mother, to get out of the rain one morning, when the unthinkable happens, leaving him essentially a traumatised, desperate, guilt-ridden, 13-year-old orphan. I can’t describe the plot any better than Theo does, near the end: “And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.” Extremely well-written, complex, perhaps a little too narrative towards the end but in beautiful way. (Interestingly, heterotopias figure largely in this book, too: museums, city parks, airports, even most of Las Vegas … places people pass through.)

A Town Like Alice (1950) by Nevil Shute. A young English woman is among other women and children taken prisoner by the Japanese in Malaysia in WWII, and is forced to walk for six months essentially before settling down to grow rice in a small town for 3 years. A few years after her release, she inherits some money from an uncle she didn’t know and decides to use some to give back to the town that allowed the women to stay during the war. She also decides, on receiving some new information there, to find a man she met during the war, who was kind to her and the other women. At the same time, he is trying to find her. The last part of the book takes place in the outback of Australia. The story is told by her 70-year-old estate trustee, who loves and admires her.  The problem with this book is that it’s about 3 moral, conscientious, responsible, hard-working people who act with the best motives in all cases  and who get excellent results. There is no moral ambiguity at all, which makes it predictable and boring. The story is also more told than shown, so that even the dramatic circumstances comes across as rather flat.

April

Ripper (2013) by Isabel Allende: I was surprised how below-average a crime novel this was. Set in modern day San Francisco, it has an OK plot (though one figures out whodunit long before the end). But the characters, their relationships, and the dialogue read like a flailing young adult novel. The main characters are 16-year-old Amanda Jackson, the daughter of San Francisco’s deputy homicide chief, and her mother, Indiana, a gullible, curvy blonde holistic healer that every man desires. Other characters are an ex-NAVY Seal and his war-damaged Belgian Malinois , a well-born but no-longer-rich jealous playboy, an astrologer, a transvestite waiter, a biddable grandfather who is happy playing his granddaughter’s henchman, several misfit kids from around the world, and … you get the picture. Still, it could have worked, had the dialogue been less awkward and the plot not strain incredulity so much.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012) by Peter Bane: Read for discussion group, meeting over several months. I found this book less helpful than many others for learning about and applying permaculture principles and practices. Bane is at once didactic (“you should” appears often) and oddly poetic and idealistic at times, once describing the garden as a lover that you take into your body and learn its signs of arousal, and suggesting that suburbanites (and others) embrace shared living, community labour and mealtimes, a farm stand in one’s front yard, and that we ask the neighbors not to spray biocides on their property (as this request is in line with best practices and “not controversial”). A few chapters are overtly political: sections on genetically modified crops, Monsanto, Big Pharma, the ethics of meat-eating, etc..  There is quite a lot of detail on plant propagation and grafting, seed starting and saving,  how to plant a tree, and the “garden farming pattern language” (of which there are 68 elements), which still mystifies me. I was also very confused by Chapter 11, Soil, which went into the Oxygen-Ethylene Cycle of aerobic and anaerobic plant nutrients in far too much depth. The diagrams and photos, almost all black and white, are unappealing. On the other hand, the four case studies included are detailed, personal, interesting and offer the only colour photos in the book; setting include the Colorado Rockies, Ontario, Harrisonburg VA, and Bloomington IN (his garden farm). His section on animals for the garden farm will be useful to someone considering this, and Chapter 4, Permaculture Principles, is a good overview. I particularly felt that the Living with Wildlife and Trees and Shrubs chapters were the most interesting. I skimmed the last 4 or 5 chapters, as they seemed to repeat what had already been said.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan: Read for a bookgroup and led to a great discussion of our own experiences as women coming of age in the U.S. between 1950 and the late 1980 or so. But the book itself was repetitive, over-the-top in some areas (fear of homosexuals, comparison for WWII concentration camps, etc.), not tightly edited, and a bit boring. Chapters on advertising, gender-based education, housewifery, Freud, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Margaret Mead (whom she really does not like), functionalism (the job of women was to adjust to the status quo so they would be happier), mothers who love too much and absorb their children’s personalities, etc. It felt all over the place to me. And in the end, I felt sort of cheated, as the only spheres Friedan presents as legitimate are wife and mother (she actually says “marriage and motherhood are an essential part of life”), house, and professional, serious career. If you’re a woman with no interest in any of these things, where does that leave you? She also has a strong preference for the future and potential, possibility, growth, and a strong dislike of the present moment, where, she says, schizophrenics reside. I found it all off-putting, though I appreciated learning some of the history of the women’s movement and of the culture in general.

May

Children of the Revolution (2014) by Peter Robinson in the DCI Alan Banks series. An eccentric former college professor is found dead on an abandoned railway line, with £5000 in his pocket. Banks, Annie, Winsome and Gerry Masterson investigate not only his former college colleagues and students but also a woman he went to school with 40 years before, now Lady Chalmers. As usual, a selection of Van Morrison, jazz and classical artists, and other pop music bands and singers are mentioned, as are various alcoholic beverages, in this police procedural cum cozy. The plot of this episode is only so-so.

Stormy Weather (1995) by Carl Hiassen: Another insane crime novel, sort of, set in southern Florida (Miami and the Keys) entirely during a hurricane. A couple on their honeymoon, a couple pulling an insurance scam. some corrupted housing inspectors, heir to an exotic animal farm, and the Skink all converge. A bit of one paragraph gives a flavour: “Max Lamb was unnerved by the wall of grinning skulls, but said nothing as he made his way down the hall to the shower. Augustine got on the telephone to sort out what had happened with his dead uncle’s Cape buffalo. Bonnie fixed a pot of coffee and took it to the guest room, where the governor was recovering from the animal dart.” Lots of violence and lots of fun.

Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (2013) by Howard Mansfield: Nonfiction meditations of a theme, which is how do we dwell — and dwell well — in the modern world when we know that our homes can be destroyed in an instant by bombs or natural disaster? The book is divided into 3 sections: the first is about houses, homes, clutter, what makes a house a home; the second is about Word War II and the Vietnam War and the policy of “dehousing;” and the third is about “sheds,” of which all new England homes and buildings are a variation, according to the New Hampshire author.  Read it for a bookgroup, and most of the members found it disjointed, fragmented, disappointing after an interesting start; I liked it precisely for this, the loose connection of the parts of the book to the whole.

Where the Monsters Dwell (2011/2014) by Jørgen Brekke: Set mainly in modern day Trondheim, Norway, and a bit in Richmond, VA, this gristly crime novel introduces Trondheim police inspector Odd Singsaker (who, like Finnish police detective Kari Vaara in the series by James Thompson, has recently undergone surgery for a brain tumour) and Richmond homicide detective Felicia Stone; he remembers too little and she too much. They are investigating several murders that involve skin-flaying and beheading, and harken back to the 16th century, that seem related. I’d give it a B-. The writing and characters are OK but something is missing.

June

The Lowland (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri. Starts with two brothers, 15 months apart in age — Udayan impulsive, Subhash dutiful — living in Calcutta in the 1960s, during a time of political upheaval. Soon, though, their own choices and consequent events separate them, and for most of the story we follow Sudhash, a scientist living in Rhode Island. This is a book about time, memory, how events in life line up to create a story, how the echo of a single action can reverberate for decades, for a lifetime, and over generations, and most of all, how it feels to live inside the yesterdays of our lives. I liked it more than I thought I would. Well-written, poetic in places.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (2013) by Ben Falk. An especially important book for New England homesteaders, gardeners, and small-scale farmers. Falk’s Whole Systems Research Farm above the Mad River in central Vermont has a climate and topography similar to what many of us in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and parts of Massachusetts and New York experience. Falk goes into some depth concerning rice-growing, pond- and swale-making and earthworks in general, fertility harvesting (urine and humanure, cover cropping, scything, fungi), perennial crops, animals such as ducks and chickens, maintaining and harvesting a firewood crop, and resilient systems for emergencies. Many enlightening diagrams, appendices and photos. Recommended for permaculturists.

Vertigo 42 (2014) by Martha Grimes, in the Richard Jury series, with Sergeant Wiggins and Melrose Plant. A friend of a friend, Tom Williamson, believes his wife’s death from a fall seventeen years ago at their Devon country house was not an accident, and he asks Jury to investigate. In the course of his investigation, a 22-year-old murder is solved, and two more people are murdered, one from another fall. Very readable but not enough Melrose Plant for my taste, and the plot not as tight-feeling somehow as others; the ending was a bit of a let-down. The plot of the Hitchcock movie Vertigo is invoked several times.

Cockroaches (1998, English transl. 2014) by Jo Nesbo, second in the Harry Hole series, this one set entirely in Thailand. Took a long time for this to be translated to English, so it’s been published far out of order in the series. Harry is sent to cover up or screw up, or both, a murder investigation of a Norwegian ambassador found murdered in a brothel. It’s gruesome and harrowing, not my favourite of the series.

Skinny Dip (2004) by Carl Hiassen. One of the funniest of his books, featuring Mick Stranahan, set in Biscayne Bay, Miami, the Everglades. Chaz Perrone, a hapless “marine scientist” on the take, throw his wife, a former champion diver, overboard on an anniversary cruise, and from there his life takes a very bad turn. Hilarious.

July

Star Island (2010) by Carl Hiassen, featuring weed-whacking bodyguard Chemo and with an appearance by Skink. Bang Abbott is a celebrity paparazzo who tangles himself up with both Cherry Pie — celebrity singer and drug addict — and her much smarter and more grounded double, Ann DeLusia. Not one of his best but still a fun romp.

Bad Monkey (2013) by Carl Hiassen, set in Miami and the Bahamas. Two similar stories intersect: demoted police officer, now restaurant health inspector, Andrew Yancy bemoans and works to sabotage the oversized McMansion going up on the lot next to his, while in the Bahamas, fisherman (and bad money owner) Neville Stafford’s home has been sold out from under him by his sister to an American Medicaid fraudster cum developer, whose arm has turned up in the waters near Key West.  Bony sex-crazed voodoo practitioner Dragon Queen, hulking bodyguard Egg, obsessed ex-girlfriend and FBI fugitive Bonnie, and of course the bad monkey, Driggs, round out the cast of this amusing crime novel.

Basket Case (2002) by Carl Hiassen, set in south Florida and featuring obituary writer Jack Tagger, a 46-year-old man obsessed with dying young. He’s also a former rocker, so recognises the name James Bradley Stomarti (aka Jimmy Stoma, lead man of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies) in a police report. After interviewing Stoma’s wife, pop singer Cleo Rio, about his “diving accident”  in the Bahamas, and learning that the “autopsy” didn’t include any dissection of the body, he begins to have suspicions about the accidental nature of the death. Stoma’s sister, Janet, has similar concerns. Rounding out the cast are Jack’s editor, Emma; the newspaper’s aged owner and its editor; his best friend, sports writer Juan Rodriguez; and Jack’s former girlfriend’s daughter, Carla.  Some interesting allusions noted at Wikipedia.

Lucky You (1997) by Carl Hiassen. Imparts Hiassen’s usual environmental values, employing his usual zany cast of characters, while skewering racism and the white supremacy mindset. Set in fictional Grange, Florida (apparently based on the real town of Cassadaga), rampant with religious miracles like road-stain Jesus and a crying plastic Madonna statue, this very funny novel follows African-American vet assistant JoLayne Lucks, who has just won half of a $28 million lottery prize, with which she wants to buy a piece of wild land to preserve; journalist Tom Krome, sent there to interview her; white supremacist thugs Bode Gazzer and Chub — winners of the other half of the lottery prize — who beat up JoLayne and steal her ticket too (they are soon joined by Shiner, a young convenience store clerk enchanted with the ideas of power, guns, babes, etc.); Amber, a Hooters waitress in tiny orange shorts, whom all the rednecks fall for; Tom’s almost-ex-wife Mary Andrea, his married girlfriend Katie and her vengeful judge husband, and his burned-out editor at the paper, Sinclair; JoLayne’s ATF buddy and admirer, Moffitt; and some of the religious miracle workers.

Bones of the Lost (2013) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan series. Thankfully, almost no Brennan-Ryan interaction in this one, set mostly in the Charlotte, NC area, and also near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Her main partner is homicide police detective Skinny Slidell. Tempe is asked to look at a likely hit-and-run victim, a teenaged girl, and quickly realises that her death was no accident. A check for Customs and Immigration of some old dog bones and a favour for her almost-ex, Pete, requiring her to analyze gun shot wounds to local nationals by a Marine in Afghanistan, all come together into one single, somewhat complex, coincidental and unbelievable plot. Fast reading but not her best (not her worst, either).

Black Lies, Red Blood (2014) by Kjell Eriksson, 5th in the Ann Lindell series set in Uppsala, Sweden. When Ann’s new boyfriend, journalist Anders Brant, takes off after a homeless man is found murdered, Ann fears the worst and busies herself with a cold case, that of a teenage girl who disappeared on her 16th birthday. Much more of Ann’s personal life (and lots of sex) in this one than in the others. There is a certain measured and philosophical way of speaking that most of the characters have that appeals to me in this series.

The Photograph (2003) by Penelope Lively, a novel for a book group. Quite a while after his wife, Kath, dies, Glyn comes upon a photograph that implicates her with another man, her sister Elaine’s husband Nick. Glyn’s obsession with learning more — about her involvement with Nick, about her possible involvement with other men, about Kath’s life, which he now realises he was quite unaware of — changes not only his own view of Kath but that of Elaine, Nick, their daughter Polly, and their friend and one-time business partner Oliver, who took the photo. None of the characters is likable; in fact, except Polly, all seem evasive, defensive, self-centered, manoeuvring, and ready to run at the slightest emotional provocation. Kath, who is the focus of everyone’s thoughts, in the end seems to have hardly been there at all.

The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) by Colin Cotterill, first in the Dr. Siri series, read for a bookgroup. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a reluctant coroner in the newly formed communist republic of Laos in 1976. He’s also a reluctant comrade to whom dead spirits appear with clues to their demise. In this novel, he investigates the suspicious death at a lady’s lunch of Senior Comrade Kham’s wife as well as the obvious murders of some Vietnamese. The book is wryly amusing, the plot so-so, and the insight into Indochina (particularly the politics, culture, and inter-relationships of the Laos, Thais, Hmongs, and Vietnamese) in this time period worthwhile.

A Dark & Twisted Tide (2014) by Sharon (SJ) Bolton, in the Lacey Flint series. Bolton’s books are imbued with a sense of place and this one doesn’t disappoint on that score, set primarily in southeast London on the Thames River near Deptford Creek. Lacey is not only living on a small riverboat but is working with the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit; she is out for a swim on the Thames (not recommended) when she finds the deteriorated body of a young woman wrapped in linen floating in the water, the first of several. The book’s plotting is fairly complex, with chapters about Lacey, her former boss Dana Tulloch, the killer (“the swimmer”), and each of the woman who dies in the river, as well as interactions between Lacey and would-be boyfriend Mark Joesbury (on an undercover mission) and with her new friends, Alex and Thessa, who live on Deptford Creek. The book is set so firmly on and in the water that I felt a bit soggy when I finished it. Quite good.

August

In Paradise (2014) by Peter Matthiessen. A novel (which reads like very prosaic non-fiction) set in the 1990s at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz (in Poland). American academic and poet Clements Olin travels here to learn about his past, and meets others who are there for their own reasons: nuns, priests, a female academic from Israel, Poles, Norwegians, Germans, and a “brutish loudmouth named Earwig.” The Guardian review captures it well: “Feelings and opinions about the Holocaust turn out to be raw and unpredictable; everyone responds to the immediacy of the slaughter in ways they had not expected, and it becomes evident that, whatever the purpose of the retreat, reconciliation is not a likely outcome. The retreat does not just open them up; it dangles them over an abyss of evil that most cannot understand or process.”  What’s not even mentioned in the Guardian review is how much of the book is taken up with middle-aged Olin’s drooling over a young nun, which seemed silly and detracted from the book for me. The novel felt plodding; I expected a lot more. (Read for bookgroup.)

Sick Puppy (2000) by Carl Hiaasen. One of my favourites and a re-read. Amoral lobbyist Palmer Stoat comes to the attention of independently wealthy environmentalist Twilly Spree when he throws litter out his car window, and from that moment the die is cast. After a few of Spree’s pranks have no deterring effect on the heedless Stoat, Spree kidnaps his black labrador dog and pretty soon Stoat’s wife, Desi, comes along, too. Meanwhile the lobbying machinations of corrupt Florida governor Dick Artemus, one of his major contributors developer Robert Clapley (who has a Barbie fetish), Florida representative Willie Vasquez-Washington, and Stoat continue unabated, with Artemus eventually making the mistake of blackmailing ex-governor Clinton Tyree (Skink, Captain) into capturing Spree. The major action of the book begins and ends with a private canned hunt, where Stoat et al. go to shoot “wild” game animals trucked in from circuses, zoos, etc., for the purpose.

Regeneration (1992) by Pat Barker, first in the Regeneration trilogy about World War I.  Excellent. So many things to think about after reading this novel about a military psychiatrist/anthropologist, Williams Rivers, and the patients he’s treating for shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, including Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated soldier (and poet) who has written a published declaration disavowing the war, and Wilfred Owens, another poet and soldier.  Craiglockhart, Rivers, Sassoon, and Owens are all real people and their time at the hospital is the basis for the book.

The Eye in the Door (1993) by Pat Barker, the second in the Regeneration series. Focuses mostly on Lt. Billy Prior, though Rivers and to a lesser extent Sassoon are also in the book, as is Charles Manning, a married but bisexual military officer also under Rivers’ care. Homosexuality and pacifism are both targeted by the government and the public as social sins that must be dealt with by prosecution, persecution, imprisonment, and oppression. Prior, working for the Ministry of Munitions, investigates a childhood friend, Beattie, a pacifist in prison for plotting to kill Lloyd George. Eventually, as Prior represses parts of himself and events that have happened to him, his personality splits. Interesting but not quite as satisfying as the first book, in my opinion.

Death at the Château Bremont (2011) by Mary Lou Longworth, the first in the Verlaque and Bonnet mystery series. So-so novel set in Aix-en-Provence involving the death of Étienne de Bremont, who falls from a window. Later, elements of the Russian mafia and their trade in supermodels/prostitutes come into play, and throughout runs the story of Antoine Verlaque (the chief magistrate – i.e. detective — in Aix) and his former girlfriend, law professor Marine Bonnet, as well as ample commentary on food, wine, cigars, and the French countryside and customs. I enjoyed that last bit but not the romance, and the plot was thin. I actually don’t know, after finishing the book, who killed one of the victims, but I don’t really care. I may read another for the pleasant French immersion.

September

The Ghost Road (1995) by Pat Barker, the third in the Regeneration trilogy, set in Britain and France in WWI. This one focuses more than the others on actual battle, with Prior and Owen back in the war, and on Rivers’ experiences (remembered in his dreamy flu-induced state) some years ago with a tribe of thwarted headhunters on Eddystone Island in the South Seas. Some themes that emerge are healing of soul and body, sacrifice and community, societal taboos, the seeming need for war and killing of others to maintain the health of a society.

Terminal City (2014) by Linda Fairstein, in the Alex Cooper series, this one set entirely in New York City, almost entirely at Grand Central Station/Terminal. Disappointing read. Serious fans of New York City history, train history, and Grand Central Station history will find a lot of information here, but the crime novel aspect falls short and gets muddied both by the didactic history lessons and by discussion of international terrorism. The relationships among Alex, Mike, Mercer and the more ancillary characters are given less attention in this book than usual, as well.

October

To Dwell in Darkness (2014) by Deborah Crombie, in the Kincaid/James series. Kincaid has been transferred (as punishment, it seems) to the Camden borough of London and is investigating a fatal bombing in the St. Pancras International Station mall, in which a small group of ragtag Crossrail protestors is involved. Duncan calls on the help of both Melody and Doug (neither of whom works for him now) to help him identify the bomber/victim. I guessed the killer more than 100 pp before the end of the book but the plot wasn’t bad. The rest of the book focuses on the ordinary life-with-children-and-pets of Gemma (working on her own case, a rape and murder, with Melody … and yet home with the kids most of the time?) and Duncan, which gets a bit tiresome.

The Long Way Home (2014) by Louise Penny, an Inspector Gamache novel. Clara Morris is worried when her estranged husband, Peter, hasn’t returned after a year, as promised, and asks Gamache — now retired and living in Three Pines with his wife and dog — to help her find him. His son-in-law and second-in-command at the Sûreté, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Clara’s best friend, Myrna Landers, come along too, as they trace Peter’s steps finally back to Canada. As all in the series, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships, the reality of deep psychic wounds and how they heal or don’t, and the power of love. Many who like the series didn’t like this book; I felt that while there is not as much focused action — and it’s not a crime novel per se — there is just as much mystery, humanity, and complexity of motivation as in her other books.

Murder in the Rue Dumas (2012) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence and in the Umbria region of Italy. When theology department doyen (dean) and art collector Georges Moutte is murdered after announcing at a party that he won’t retire as planned, suspicion focuses on the three professors hoping for his position (and the spacious house-for-life that goes with it) as well as on students vying for the prestigious Dumas Award, and soon, the net widens to include art collectors and sellers. The usual discussion of food, wine, and Verlaque’s and Bonnet’s relationship. The plot is so-so, as in the first book, with a strange bit in the middle introducing a character (Marcel Dubly) who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this book. Despite investigations by Verlaque and others in the police force, these are more cozy than police procedural.

Euphoria (2014) by Lily King, a sort of historical fiction novel about four anthropologists: Margaret Mead (called Nell in the book), her second husband, Reo Fortune (Fen), and her third husband, Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson), as well as her close friend, mentor, and probable lover, Ruth Benedict (Helen Benjamin). Not only are the names changed, but the outcome of the story is drastically altered as well. The book focuses on a few months in New Guinea, during the intersection of Nell’s, Fen’s, and Bankson’s fevered time together among the Tam (the Tam were the Tchambuli/Chambri) and the Kiona (the Kiona were the Baining tribe). The book felt a bit light-weight and silly, though elements of the plot were intriguing, like their development of The Grid (based on Mead’s and Bateson’s theory of squares, developed at this time), a way of classifying all people as South/North/East/West types, later used by the Nazis; the descriptions of how Nell interacted with the native people (vs. the way the men did); and Bankson’s thoughts on the subjectivity of the observer.

Death in the Vines (2013) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence, in the L’Aubrac region, and near Narbonne. The plot, concerning two younger women who are raped (and die) and an older woman who is murdered, holds together better than in the previous two books. There was a glaring typo on page 126, though, with the name “Sophie” (who is not a character in the book) instead of “Marine.” Much of the plot involves vineyards and wineries, and of course enjoyment and discussion of food (including gargouillou at Michel Bras) is central as always.

November

Number9Dream (2001) by David Mitchell. Wikipedia says it’s “the search of 19-year-old Eiji Miyake for his father, whom he has never met. Told in the first person by Eiji, it is a coming of age/perception story that breaks convention by juxtaposing Eiji Miyake’s actual journey toward identity and understanding with his imaginative journey.” That gives you some idea, but it’s actually more complex than that. Besides the coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about grief and coming to terms with loss. There are elements of a gristly crime novel here, a nerdy romance, a post-modern fable, a family saga. The linear plot line is enhanced by a fantastic set of stories about a goat, a hen and a hominid; letters; journals of a Japanese submariner from World War II; a movie about a man who insists he is god; and a boatload of dreams. Characters include a pothead pizza delivery guy who does magic tricks, a witch, a video store owner, a classical piano player, several sadistic yazuka underworld figures, a wealthy playboy law student, a computer hacker, a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, Eiji’s daredevil sister Anju, and the city of Tokyo itself. Satisfying.

The Soul Catcher (2002) by Alex Kava in the FBI agent Maggie O’Dell series. I really like this series, whose books are hard to find locally. In this one, Maggie and her partner Tully are assigned to investigate the strangulation of a US Senator’s daughter near the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, as well as the mass suicide of several young men who are part of the Rev. Joseph Everett’s religious sect — of which Maggie’s estranged mother is also a member.

Nature Girl (2006) by Carl Hiaasen, another “caper drama satire” (as Wikipedia terms it) set in Florida. The Wikipedia plot summary nails it: “Honey Santana becomes irritated by telemarketers and invites … one to a phony real estate promotion – which she describes as an eco-tour – in the Ten Thousand Islands in order to teach him a lesson.” He arrives with his mistress, and they, Honey’s perverted ex-employer stalker, Honey’s son and her ex-husband, and “a young half-Seminole man named Sammy Tigertail and his very willing captive, Gillian, a sex-obsessed, warmhearted Florida State coed” all end up on one very small island. Not one of my favourites; really too over-the-top, even for Hiaasen, in terms of sex, drama, and character eccentricities.

Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline: (Re-read for another bookgroup.) YA or adult novel about two orphans: Vivian, one who was on the National Orphan Train in 1929, from New York to Minnesota (and her life in Minnesota and later, as an aged woman, in Spruce Harbor, Maine), and Molly, a 17-year-old living in Spruce Harbor. The book is simple in plot and simply written, another gentle story told with humanity.

Flesh and Blood (2014) by Patricia Cornwell, 22nd in the Scarpetta series. A sniper seems to be efficiently taking out unrelated victims in New Jersey and Massachusetts, a Twitter message and odd items left in their yard imply a threat to Kay and her family,  and Lucy and Benton seem to be keeping secrets from Kay. (AND, the word “and” is used far too much in the dialogue, as always in this series.) This episode focuses more on Lucy and Benton and less on Marino and others in Kay’s life; it will help to have read some previous books in this series to understand the complexity of the plot twists. Kay notes (this book is first-person Kay again) several times that she has become more of an activist medical examiner, more angry with the violence in the world. Book ends in Florida with a cliffhanger.

December

An Officer and A Spy (2013) by Robert Harris. Novel about the Dreyfus Affair, in which Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy in turn-of the-19th-century France. The novel is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, recently appointed chief of the head of the statistical division (counter-espionage) for the army, and is well-written, detailed, and just a bit boring. Still, I was glad to know more about this important event in history, when prejudices and other foibles of human nature (like loathing of being proved wrong and a desire to go along to get along) set and kept in motion grave injustices.

The Holistic Orchard: Trees, Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2011) by Michael Phillips. I can cut to the chase and tell you to spray 100% pure neem oil on all your fruits and you’ve just learned half of what’s in the book. The rest is trying to convince us to orchard in a way that allows the shrubs, thickets and trees to ward off disease and insect damage by maintaining a healthy, natural plant ecosystem, plus there’s information on specific diseases and pests of each fruit, the best varieties of fruits to plant (especially if you live in northern New England, as Phillips does), and how and when to prune each of them. Permaculture principles are mentioned and are inherent in his suggestions.

Murder on the Île Sordou (2014) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series. This one is set on the fictional island of Sourdou, 15 miles fro Marseille, at the opening of a new grand hotel. Guests besides Verlaque and Bonnet and Marine’s friend Sylvie include an American couple, a fading film star and his wife and stepson, a poet, and a Parisian couple. The murder doesn’t occur until at least halfway into the book; the focus as usual, maybe more than usual, is on food and drink and being French. The series is pleasant enough.

The Caller (2009) by Karin Fossum, 10th in the Inspector Sejer series, set in a small town in Norway, looks at the motivations for and consequences of a teen’s sinister pranks, wrought on strangers to cause havoc and insecurity. Some may find the book too emotionally wrenching (especially those who abhor harm to animals and children) but it’s also a serious and calm investigation of parenting, the complexity of human motivations, and diversity of behaviours in within one individual.

Proust Questionnaire updated

I think the last time I thought about this was in 2009; five years later, both parents and my dog having died in the meantime, seems a good place to update.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Still: walking on the beach at Jekyll Island, and photographing outdoors. Also: Expecting nothing other than that the rug will be pulled out.

2. What is your greatest fear?
Pretty much the same as five years ago: Violent death for me, my dog, other loved ones. Having the choice of killing someone else or being killed.  Rape. Dental work.

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. These lead to most violent actions.

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Contempt. Flattery. Manipulation. Sureness of one’s rightness. Inability to move beyond the past. Victimhood.

5. Which living person do you most admire?
No one in particular comes to mind. Someone with balance, grace, who listens fully and without expectation. Someone without preconceptions even about that with which they are most familiar. Someone with clarity of heart and mind.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?
The same as five years ago: Not having to work for money.

7. What is your current state of mind?
Calm, open.

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Still: Being busy, efficient, productive.

9. On what occasion do you lie?
To spare feelings, to avoid consequences.

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Still: My stomach, since I was a child.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
Still: No one. There are behaviours and attitudes I wish were extinct: anything deriving from groupthink and mob behaviour, animal cruelty and neglect, the urge to revenge, appropriated grief, manufactured drama.

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Knows how to fix things. Resourceful. Resilient.  Makes me laugh. Lacks bitterness. Gentle.

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Listens well. Makes me laugh. Gentle. Affectionate.

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I complain too much, using various words and phrases.

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The natural world, ocean, beach, sun, sky. …”Start seeing everything as God, / But keep it a secret.” – Hafiz

16. When and where were you happiest?
One instance: With two friends (c. 2005) having dinner and talking, so simpatico, one long evening in Maine.

17. Which talent would you most like to have?
The talent to put people at their ease, to ease suffering and anxiety.

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be more loving. I would be able to fly. I would be able to understand all animal languages, including human ones. I would be able to narrow selections down to “one thing” instead of a handful (not).

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
This: “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” — Brenda Ueland

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Still: I hope this won’t happen, but if it does, maybe a grain of sand.

21. Where would you most like to live?
Near the beach and ocean. In a small house that’s just big enough.

22. What is your most treasured possession?
Health, true friends.

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
To witness an animal harmed. To see one’s own violence (rivalry, mimesis, envy, hatred, desire) in someone else without recognising it.

24. What is your favorite occupation?
Looking and recording.

25. What is your most marked characteristic?
Curiosity.

26. What do you most value in your friends?
Casual affection, not easily offended or hurt, forgiveness, attentiveness, benign and steadfast interest in others, few complaints, silliness. Wholeheartedness. Insight.

27. Who are your favorite writers?
Mostly poets. “When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.” — Andrei Tarkovsky

28. Who is your hero of fiction?
Maybe (anti-hero) Greg House from the TV show House MD. Or maybe his friend James Wilson.

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I don’t know much about historical figures. Probably a writer or poet, maybe Virginia Woolf.

30. Who are your heroes in real life?
Heroes don’t appeal to me.

31. What are your favorite names?
Sallie, Lucy, Zoe, Gemma, Pippa.

32. What is it that you most dislike?
Driving in snow and ice. Talking on the phone. Finding hidden meat in restaurant fish or vegetable dishes.

33. What is your greatest regret?
Not buying spouse’s parents’ condo on Jekyll Island when we could have.

34. How would you like to die?
Still: Painlessly, happily, with a feeling of peace and well-being. Or: “I’d rather die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers.”

35. What is your motto?
“I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.” — from “Detail,” by Eamon Grennan

The Nature of Dreams, or, Dreams about Nature

My dreams lately have been beyond vivid (which is their usual style). They have been vivid, persistent, disturbing (unusual for me), and nature-focused.

Last week, right after my mother died (I think … it’s possible it was right before) I dreamed I had mushrooms growing out of my body. I noticed raised patches on my legs first, like small skin lesions, then on my torso, and as I discovered them, they grew. Then I noticed a very large one, without the stem, above my right breast. They were pretty at first but also disturbing, especially the speed with which they spread. I couldn’t understand how it happened so fast, and I was wondering how to remove them without damaging my skin.

underside of Amanita flavoconia mushroom (Kezar Lake, Aug 2014)
underside of Amanita flavoconia mushroom (Kezar Lake, Aug 2014)

Of course, I googled it. Dreaming of fungi or mushrooms growing from the body has many meanings, surprisingly, since it seems like such a specific symbol:

  • “When there is a fungus on the skin or protruding from it, there is emotional distress or physical distress, or your body is literally trying to fight off an infection.”
  • “To see fungus in your dream represents negative emotions that are expanding and growing in your unconscious. You need to find a productive way to express them before it grows out of control.”
  • “Mushroom – soon you will do something that will surprise everyone around.”
  • “Represent a short-term positive eroticism.”
  • “To see mushrooms in your dreams, denotes unhealthy desires, and unwise haste in amassing wealth, as it may vanish in law suits and vain pleasures.”
  • “See mushrooms in a dream – to long life and good fortune.”
  • “Mushrooms can grow anywhere, on anything, in any condition and in any climate. If the mushrooms in your dream appeared by surprise, or were given as a gift, this may indicate some exciting changes in your near future. If your psyche is alerting you to some changes, you might want to keep in mind that change also requires us to be versatile. If you are uprooted you can easily plant yourself somewhere else. Mushrooms can also represent our soul in this way and may mean that someone is ready to expose their soul to you or adversely you may be ready to share that part of yourself with someone else. In the way that that mushroom represents a soul, it also represents longevity and rebirth.”

Additionally, we talk quite a bit about fungus in my permaculture group, as mycorrhizal fungi networks are key to soil and plant health in a complicated, complex way that amounts to: fungi is necessary for most plant growth.

maybe Hypholoma capnoides (conifer tuft) fungi in moss (Kezar Lake, Oct 2014)
maybe Hypholoma capnoides (conifer tuft) fungi in moss (Kezar Lake, Oct 2014)

And this year, I have been obsessively focused on fungi every time I’m outside, taking hundreds of photos of them. Though I don’t eat them, I am enchanted by their beauty and variety.

So, who knows?

This morning, I awoke from an involved dream in which I was teaching my first adult ed class on insects. Unfortunately, I knew very little about insects (even less than in waking life) and apparently had not researched the topic or made a class syllabus. Some of the class members knew much more, including a man who raised roses and spent a large part of the class — which was a field trip, outdoors, to find insects — talking about aphids and how to control them. Some in the class grew yellow or pink roses, while others didn’t grow roses; all were obviously disappointed that I didn’t lead the class better. One man left within 15 mins of our field trip beginning. I was carrying an insect reference book and trying to keep up with what others were saying and what I was supposed to be teaching. I thought we might check under rocks and logs for some insects, but then I doubted I could identify them or say much about them beyond an ID.

greenaphidsonaweed2Oct2013I’m not even sure what to google for this dream. It was about teaching, badly, or generally being prepared and not knowing what one is expected to know, but the insect and aphid aspects also seems important to me. I do spend a lot of time in waking life trying to get various insects identified from photos (via books and online expert sources),  though less at this time of year than in spring and summer. I don’t grow roses but have consistently had small yellow aphids on asclepias (milkweed) plants.

“Bugs” obviously connote feeling bugged, annoyed, but this dream didn’t feature a bug per se … more the absence of bugs. Instead, we merely talked about them, and particularly about aphids  — “If you dream a lot of aphids, in the near future you will meet on your way a dishonest person, which at first will seem honest and trustworthy” and “Aphid teaches the importance of nourishment; spiritual, emotional and physical. Are your basic needs being met? Is it time to jumpstart your metabolism?” for two interpretations. And I think at one point I told those who were there to hear about butterflies that we would talk about them but that other insects (and I was unsure in the dream, but not in waking life, if a butterfly was even an insect, which shows how little I knew) would also be discussed.

Connecting the two dreams, perhaps, I found this interpretation of “aphid,” which seems like it could apply equally well to fungi, which uses waste products to facilitate growth and which is resourceful in an ever-changing environment:

“Part of Aphid’s medicine is about self-empowerment. You have all that is needed within and it’s time to seek and find. She demonstrates resourcefulness, riding the winds of change and making the absolute best of the situation. Use what is considered a “waste product” to your sweetest advantage.”

Not sure where that leaves me, though. Except instead of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, there are fungi and aphids up there. Ho ho ho.

A lot like yesterday, a lot like never

Last night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed thinking about my father, who died almost 5 years ago, but it often feels he’s been gone for half my life. That led me down the path of time-thinking, with these stops along the way:

  • The ideas of chronos and kairos, the first meaning clock time, tick tock, and the second meaning a quality of right timing, of being entirely in the (un-timed) moment.
  • How time and emotion are intertwined, because time affects our sense of memory, nostalgia, anticipation, anxiety, and other calculations of grief, fear, wonder, happiness, hope, regret.
  • And e.e. cummings’ astute concoction, in a sonnet: “colossal hoax of clocks and calendars.”

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“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” ― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

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me, 1994 or 1995
me, 1994 or 1995

I thought about myself 5 years ago (we had just moved to NH, so it’s easy to find some chronological touchstones). I thought about who I was or thought I was, and how long-gone that person seems to me now. And so too with the person I was 10 or 30 or 50 years ago. In fact, sometimes I look at photos of myself from a month or a year ago, or read what I wrote then, and while I recognise that I have seen her before or read her words before, still the face, posture, body, words, syntax don’t seem attached to “me” anymore. She has receded into the mists of time, as they say. She seems a bit of a stranger for whom I feel an unaccountable sympathy and affection.

In the same way that my father feels long gone — though he existed on earth for about 90% of my life so far and thus is relatively, chronologically, only shortly gone — I also feel long gone. I don’t miss myself in the same way as I miss my dad’s presence. I don’t feel a sense of loss for the long-gone me at all. Instead, I feel a sense of wonder and curiosity about who lived in my body before today. She is mysterious to me, and I yearn to know her even as I forget just how she existed, what motivated her, how her spirit felt.

This is not entirely true. Sometimes I re-read a poem I wrote when I was 15 and I know just what I was saying, how I felt, how it feels to be that girl. She doesn’t seem so far gone. But for the most part, there is an absence of that sort of resonance when I glance back, and even when I look closely.

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“A lot like yesterday, a lot like never.” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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meantimeThe way I’ve arranged my life — the way it’s been able to be arranged by good fortune, luck, the support of others, my own intention and actions or inactions — means I have few labels for me or others to hang our hats on, to keep a solid identity intact. I don’t have kids, a paid or volunteer job, a pet (at the moment). I don’t have a schedule. I don’t have goals or a plan. I’m pretty free-floating, which suits me for now, but then I wonder, maybe if I had those things (kids, job, direction), I would be another person — I’m sure I would be another person — and would I feel so long-gone then? Is this fleeting sense of self part-and-parcel of the way I live, or is it, in itself, a defining and pervasive characteristic of me, part of my enduring identity through time?

Is this how most everyone feels? I don’t think it is, as I have heard many coherent narratives when people talk about their lives, but maybe those are made up on the fly, one of many narratives that a person could choose to describe or explain her life as an integral whole.

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“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.” ― Jorge Luis Borges

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with good friends, 2010
with good friends, 2010

Back to time and its cunning. Sometimes, I spend a week socialising, seeing friends, being part of fun groups, and then the next week, when I’m not doing those things, it will feel like months since I have done them. I will think, “I must not have any friends. I’m just sitting in my house, or working in my yard, or hiking alone, and there’s no one with me.” It can feel like so long since I hung out with friends, yet it’s been three days.

Conversely, there are periods when I feel, honestly, seriously, that I haven’t had a moment alone in ages and it’s been a day. Or a few hours.

I’ve heard other people voice a similar sense of this time distortion when it comes to finding a balance between and among good moments. Having fun with family and friends feels good, and so does being alone; why do I sometimes feel a lack of time spent in one situation or the other when both are abundant in my life?

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“Time can be a greedy thing — sometimes it steals the details for itself.”
― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

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Similarly, the time vagaries of travelling. Clock and calendar time loses meaning for me when I’m on the train, a bit odd since timetables and hurried connections can be key. But as the scenery goes by, and the sense of place is blurred and no-where, so my sense of time is predominantly of being out-of-time, timeless, both timeless and placeless, existing only here, and “here” is moving at 60 mph, and now, which is moving at some speed of its own, too.

Feb. 2007
Feb. 2007

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The flower that you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are.  ― Antonio Porchia, Voces (trans. W.S. Merwin)

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Sometimes I think dogs aren’t the only animals who live in dog years. On average, they say that for a dog one of our years feels like seven to a dog. So one day feels like a week. When it comes to thinking about my dad, though he’s been gone almost 5 years, it feels closer to 35 to me. Or let’s say 15. And when I try to estimate how long ago other things occurred, I am usually off by a factor of at least three, remembering recent events (e.g., when I heard a programme from the last week on the radio) as even more recent and longer-ago events as long long gone.

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Why won’t they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant, can’t they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping — rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year’s and Easter and Christmas — But, goodness, why need they do it? ― John Dos Passos, diary, 31 Dec 1917

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I think most of us have a sense of time expanding and contracting at rates not strictly correlated to the clock or the calendar. Most of us would not say, after 20 minutes of making love, for example, “That sure took forever.” (Or I hope we wouldn’t.) Just as most of us would not say after after 20 minutes of intense dental work, “It went by so fast!” We often try to hang onto what feel like good times, pleasurable moments, fun, happiness, joy, but we never can, and time carries us through the good times with the speed of a bullet train. And we often try to avoid what feel like bad times, painful moments, agony, despair, even boredom, but we never can, and time becomes a donkey ride up a steep slope.

And time spent waiting seems especially susceptible to this expansion and contraction house of mirrors: when we want something to happen, time plods, and when we don’t want it to happen, time zips by, in both cases heedless to our desires.

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sunlightandiceonOtterCreekTAMOtterCreekTrailMiddleburyVT29Nov2013“You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.”  ― J.M. Barrie in Courage

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These are not new thoughts. What strikes me is how hard it is to hold onto any sense of a solid and permanent, if ever-changing, identity as time plays its tricks with our minds.

Which is fine with me. I like the feeling that we are who we are in the moment. We live, whether we want to or not, at the edge of past and future, that busy, vital space where boundaries meet and jut and strive and give way to each other.

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“Love easily confuses us because it is always in flux between illusion and substance, between memory and wish, between contentment and need.”
― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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(And it’s not only love in flux between memory and wish — past and future — and contentment and need — present and future — but emotional states in general seem to move freely between then, now, when: happiness, sadness, anger, grief, disappointment, envy, pride, relief, surprise …)

(And of course, our experience in the past, and our experience of the past — that is, the way we remember it, which isn’t what actually happened — can’t help but be part of the mix of who we are now, this moment. My experience, e.g., of not feeling that I am the me of yesteryear (or yesterday) is partly an illusion, because somehow those past moments, relationships, and actions led me to exactly where I am now.)

pcbwoodspathwithyellowferns3Oct2012But, back to the edge: At that edge, that vital space in time where the boundaries meet, there is a whole life going on, just in that moment. There is energy, dynamism, disorder, and in each moment, a sort of magical recreation of self, whoever that is. I like being here.

Or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it:

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

Reconciliation in Action

joshuaandwillisjohnsonfergusonMOAug2014Yesterday, All Things Considered’s Melissa Block interviewed the Rev Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, MO, a town where what’s apparently been simmering for a while has come to the boil this week with the police killing of a teenager named Michael Brown there last weekend.

I hadn’t really been following all the details of the shooting and aftermath, but that made the impact on me of Johnson’s comments and actions no less powerful. I consider his embracing of 18-year-old Joshua Wilson a deeply heroic, Christian, Buddhist, human act . And I use all those words to describe it because his actions and reflections on it reveal:

recognition of himself in another person, including when the other person is shaking with anger, about to do what he thinks is a mistake. And that awareness comes to him as a human, living a particular human experience in time and place (“I’ve been Joshua before”), and because “I do understand what it means to be that angry.” This reminds me of tonglen practice in the Buddhist tradition, where we bring up our own experience of emotion to tap into compassion for others feeling the same way. We all know what strong emotion feels like and knowing that, we can understand “the other” at a deep level even when we don’t fully understand. I think this is good action in and of itself (this heightening our awareness of the sameness of self and other), but Johnson takes it further when he

risks self, by touching, speaking, holding the other person in the midst of chaos, and accepting into himself the other’s pain and his desire to harm: “I’d rather you, if you gonna fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear.” This is the essence of being a hero and of being a Christian, to my mind: being willing to carry and bear another’s pain, regardless of potential cost to self. Not in a martyr sense, not in a belief that ‘I’m strong enough to bear your weakness,’ but in a clear

realisation of interconnecteness, a felt sense that my being willing to carry your pain is not only for your benefit but for my benefit, too: “We kept each other from harm’s way.” Johnson realised he needed affirmation, embracing, and being held back as much as Joshua did. I see this sense of interconnectness as a particular facet of the Buddhist tradition as well as of the Girardian Christian tradition, where we are all seen as interdividuals, our identity constructed not in and of the self but in the relationships between and among us.

Finally: Johnson speaks several times in this 7-minute piece of “human nature,” what makes us human, including empathy for others as well as feeling deeply the pain of the human condition: “If it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.”

Co-mingled with his words about being human are the tears when he talks about being a black man in America today: his father’s fears for him, his own fears for his teenaged son, feeling like a scared kid when he’s pulled over by cops.  He speaks of a need for “reconciliation, resolution and resurrection.” I see actions and reflections like Johnson’s as enacting reconciliation and resurrection here on earth.