March 31, 2017
Here are a few of my favorite reads from March, along with my book cover illustrations:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. A 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao, fills a diary with words from her “last days on earth.” She plans to commit suicide, but first wants to tell the story of her 104-year-old grandmother, a Zen nun-writer-anarchist-feminist. As her story unfolds, we learn about how Nao is tortured and bullied at her school, her father’s failed suicide attempts, and her summer of healing at her grandmother’s temple.
Across the ocean, Ruth, a novelist with writer’s block, discovers the diary in a plastic bag washed up on the beach of her British Columbia island home. Also in the bag are letters written in French and a vintage Seiko watch, which turn out to be the effects of Nao’s great uncle, a philosophy student and kamikaze pilot who died on a WWII mission. Ruth and her husband speculate that the diary floated to their shores after Japan’s great earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes concerned about Nao’s fate. Following up clues from the diary pages, Ruth attempts to track down Nao or her family. Is Nao still alive?
The story unfolds in layers that echo with karmic connection. Nao is bullied by some horrific classmates and teachers, and we learn that her great uncle was also bullied in the military. Nao’s father hangs on to life by studying philosophy, and his uncle was also a philosophy student. A kamikaze pilot is a suicide bomber, but we learn that Nao’s great uncle had decided to crash into the waves instead of killing people whom he did not see as enemies. Nao’s father and Nao are both preoccupied with suicide plans, but so far had not succumbed. Lives of “wasting time,” “killing time,” searching for “lost time,” sitting zazen to enter the “now” completely — the novel is a meditation on time and quantum physics and family ties across the years.
Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps by Jonathan Arlan. This book is a travelogue about Arlan’s long-distance hike along Europe’s Grand Randonnee 5 (GR5) from Geneva, Switzerland to Nice, France. This 400+mile trail is familiar to French hikers and Europeans, but is not as well-known to Americans. The trail traverses mountain landscapes and passes through towns and villages, so Arlan stayed in a mix of hotels and remote hiker refuges.
I like to indulge in virtual travels like Arlan’s and imagine myself making a long-distance trek one day. I’ve read several books about hiking the famous Camino de Santiago across Spain, as well as some books about hiking in Japan. Most seem to be journals about people met on the trail, and Arlan’s book follows this pattern. His is not a solitary trek, as he seems to find no shortages of hiking buddies along the trail. He doesn’t really articulate why he has taken this hike; it serves to satisfy his wanderlust — at least temporarily. I am not sure why I am drawn to the idea of a long-distance hiking challenge either, but it seems a worthy endeavor not needing fixed benefits. Arlan says, “It was pleasant to be alone in my own room, half asleep, thinking about how the only thing I needed to do the next day, and the day after, and many days after that, was to wake up, walk, and sleep. Life hadn’t been this simple in ages.”
Birds, Art, Life: A year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
Maclear is a writer living in Toronto. She is caught in a kind of lull, waiting, experiencing anticipatory grief as her elderly father suffers health crises and nears death. In order to help herself stay engaged and connected at this stage of her life, Maclear takes on a project of tagging along with a musician and birder on his urban birdwatching jaunts. This book uses birding as a launching point to find meaning in life.
Here are a sampling of the lessons drawn from Maclean’s year of observing birds:
“Make leeway for chance. Sometimes you don’t want to be driven to a point. Sometimes it is exactly when we lose our bearings or take a detour that life really gets going.”
“Birding is more than an activity. It’s a disposition. Keep your eyes and ears and mind open to beauty. Look for birds in unprecious places, beside fast-food restaurants, and in mall parking lots.”
“Just a nice stroll through a park is enough. Walk everywhere in the city and you will find you don’t need to traipse up Everest or schlep to Kalamazoo to go places.”
My favorite lessons were Maclean’s meditations on small things: “I like smallness,” she says. “I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.” She goes on to say, “In my experience, a work’s external smallness can lead somewhere internally large.”
Remember, “[I]f you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”
Beartown by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith
I liked Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, and so Beartown caught my eye when I was browsing a list of advanced reader copies. The book will be published in late April 2017. A small town’s junior hockey team is on its way to the semi-finals, and it seems that everyone — parents, sponsors, students, and spectators — peg their dreams for a revitalized town on a championship team. The town has suffered economic setbacks, and a winning team would attract investors and maybe even a new hockey academy.
It didn’t hurt that Kevin, a hockey superstar from age 4, was the natural leader of a strong junior team. But what does it mean for a kid to know only winning? He has become what he has been told he is — a star, a winner — and because the town believes they need him, they turn a blind eye to his transgressions.
The old coach wants to develop well-rounded players, but the board is gearing up to replace him with the junior coach who values only winning: “[The old coach,] Sune wanted to keep all the players in their own age group as long as possible, so that they would have time to work on their weaknesses and form rounded, focused teams without any shortcomings. [The younger coach] David thought that attitude only led to the creation of teams where no one was exceptional. Sune believed that a player who was allowed to play with older players would play only to his strengths, and David agreed — he just couldn’t see the problem with that.”
Divergent coaching styles are not the only source of tensions in this town. The general manager is reluctant to implement the hockey board’s wishes, some of the best players on the team bully other students, kids keep secrets from their parents, there are class differences among citizens. How much wrong-doing do you accept “for the good of the team”?
The tensions rise to the breaking point when Kevin is accused of raping a younger student just hours before the semi-final game. Kevin misses the game. The townspeople are livid. “Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world become much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”
This seemingly simple story about hockey is well nuanced and layered. How does a culture of winning foster a culture of silence? What makes a team? Who is a “good” team player? What is demanded of parents in raising children despite fears, dreams, and expectations? What is important in life?
“What can the sport give us? We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best? A few moments . . . a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re . . . immortal. And it’s a lie. It really isn’t important.”
“Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moment of transcendence. That’s all.
But what the hell else is life made of?”
I was impressed with how this story about a hockey town addresses the big questions about life.
March 30, 2017
A Prayer in Spring
by Robert Frost
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees. . . .
Finally! The cherry blossoms are in full bloom at the University of Washington. I took these photos on the Quad this morning:
Some people travel all the way to Japan to view cherry blossoms, but we in Seattle are fortunate to be able to experience hanami in our own city. Another way to see them is via books. I saw this book of Japanese prints with cherry blossoms at the library:
“What a strange thing!
To be alive
Beneath cherry blossoms.”
— Kobayashi Issa
March 2, 2017
“In a virtual world becoming even more paperless, the sound of pencil on paper is a vanishing sensual delight.”
— William Least Heat-Moon, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened
One of the things about being old is that we have lived through the extinction and obsolescence of so many things. I took a few moments to jot down some of those things that I grew up with that are no longer part of my landscape:
- the ticking of clocks
- winding watches
- the smell of mimeographed paper (and purple ink)
- rotary phones
- card catalogues in libraries
- film cameras
- the slam and ding of typewriter carriages
- the dying dot when we turn our television off
And here are a few more that are on the endangered list:
- tying shoelaces
- legible signatures
- cursive writing
- balancing checkbooks
- writing checks
- public telephone booths
- button boxes, needles and thread, mending
- hand-written letters
- clothes lines, clothes pins, and line-dried laundry
I’m happy with many of the advances in technology and medicine, but I am not always pleased when a well-working technology is upgraded against my wishes. The incremental improvements are often not things I need nor want, and I have to spend time figuring out how to accomplish favorite tasks with new keystrokes and procedures — and they are almost never intuitive to me. I can empathize with Calvin Trillin when he wrote that the most dreaded word in the English language for him is “upgrade.”
One of the big challenges for my future will be keeping up with the accelerated pace of technological changes. I worry about the proportionate increases in screen time everyone is experiencing, especially young children. I still get such joy from physical work and playing with my hands — cooking, writing, painting, housecleaning, holding books I’m reading . . . The passive pleasures delivered through screens seem shallow and less soulful.
David Sax, in Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, writes optimistically about a return to things analog. He says, “Surrounded by digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric. We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.” And, “. . . if you want vibe, warmth, soulfulness, things like that, you will always be drawn back to analog.”
Yes, we can build an artful, well-lived life through our conscious choices. But we are often bucking the tide. Sax quotes Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage: “We assume that anyone who rejects a new tool in favor of an older one is guilty of nostalgia, of making choices sentimentally rather than rationally. . . . But the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited for our purposes and intentions than the old thing. That’s the view of a child, naive and pliable. What makes one tool superior to another has nothing to do with how new it is. What matters is how it enlarges us or diminishes us, how it shapes our experience of nature and culture and one another.”
January 31, 2017
I mentioned in my January 4th blog post about The Book of Joy that I would paint copies of the book covers from some of my favorite reads in 2017. Some of my paintings are adaptations rather than true copies. Here are the covers from the best books from among those I read in January:
Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren. I wrote about this book in my January 5th blog post and how it heightened my anticipation for the total solar eclipse on August 21st of this year.
Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. I liked this book of essays and Neely’s musings about collecting and collections. He says, “. . . I had the collection bug: the impulse to hold, and possibly hoard, the world.” His objects are familiar to my landscape — salmon, madrone trees, beaches, rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Mink River by Brian Doyle. I liked this novel so much that I am reading more of his works.
Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. The photos of Tasha Tudor in her garden are luscious. I love the little watercolor vignettes, too. This book takes us through the four seasons of the year.
One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer. I love this book because one of the protagonists is 62-year-old Aunt Edna who for the past twenty years was the live-in caregiver for her ill mother and an elementary lunch lady AND an artist. She painted only one subject over and over — chairs. “She was still painting chairs and only chairs . . .” She painted for herself: “Painting isn’t for bill paying. Painting is for painting.”
The story takes place after the death of Edna’s mother. The clan gathers and her niece Sarah — who is experiencing a life crisis of her own — decides to stay on with Edna while she closes up her mother’s estate. Sarah is a successful commercial artist of Christmas ornaments, but she regrets not following her dream to become a fine artist. Edna’s advice to Sarah is, “It’s the only important thing, the work itself. I want you to stop worrying about what your pictures look like for now. You should just enjoy holding the brush or pencil in your hand, the time spent. . . . you have to like the moment of working or your work will become valueless.”
I love how art-related musings and philosophy intermingle with the story. And how the subject of a painting, like a chair, can evoke metaphors about life. The characters are quirky and flawed, family dynamics are stressed, and yet this is a warm-hearted novel.
January 17, 2017
My close friends and family know that I love reading about and researching places I will be visiting on upcoming trips. For me, this process of discovery whets my anticipation and clues me in to things I might look for when I am actually on the ground at my destination. I don’t want to over plan, and I do want to stay open to serendipitous encounters. But I very much enjoy the planning stages.
So with my calendar pencilled in to drive to the Oregon Coat to see the total eclipse of the sun on August 21st, I was thrilled to come across an essay, “Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard about her experiences watching the 1979 total solar eclipse in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. Her descriptions were so vivid that I modified some of the things I had been imagining about seeing the sun disappear. For example:
- I might not actually see the moon as I normally picture it in the sky in those moments leading up to the eclipse. Dillard says, “You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day.”
- The eclipsed sun might appear as a very small circle in the sky, not as the big, overwhelming orb I had in my mind’s eye for such an extraordinary event: “The hole where the sky belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. . . . the ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese . . . The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.”
- I hadn’t thought about how swiftly the dark shadow of the moon would come at the moment of total eclipse, and how terrifying this approaching darkness might be. Dillard and the people watching on the hillside where she stood screamed involuntarily. Here is how she describes it: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed — 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight — you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it.”
- I am now prepared for the draining of color from my surroundings in the sudden darkness. With the absence of light, objects apparently take on an unearthly silver cast: “The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. . . . The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. . . . The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”
I sensed that Dillard’s experience of watching the total solar eclipse was so alien and disorienting that she was at a loss for words to describe it until time passed and she had some distance from it. She says, “I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.”
She says, “The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky.”
The total eclipse “began with no ado.” The moon, when it exactly covered the sphere of the sun was “an abrupt black body out of nowhere.” The time of the sun’s absence was short — about 2 minutes, and then it was over.
Witnessing a total eclipse of the sun promises top be one of those experiences that one remembers for their entire lives. One comes face-to-face with the implacable movements of the planets, moons, and stars, something so immense and out-of-our control that it must make one feel insubstantial and unnecessary to the workings of the universe. It is hard to anticipate how I will feel if I am fortunate enough to watch the 2017 eclipse. I am praying for clear skies!
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
— all quotes from Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk
January 5, 2017
“It is a spectacle pure and simple, the most magnificent free show that nature presents to man. . . . [N]ot to view the coming one would be literally to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.”
— “On the Solar Eclipse of 1925,” The New York Times
To witness a total solar eclipse total solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon. The last time one touched the mainland United States was in 1979. But on August 21, 2017 some of us in the United States will have a chance to see one without traveling too far. A continent-spanning eclipse like the one this year hasn’t occurred in the United States since 1918.
Total solar eclipses happen when our Moon is exactly the right distance from the Earth to cover the sun completely. For a couple of minutes, the Earth is fully in the shadow of the Moon.
Eclipses actually happen fairly frequently, but sometimes the Moon’s shadow is cast in the endless reaches of space. Imperfect alignments happen, too, and those are partial eclipses. To experience a total solar eclipse in one particular point on Earth more than once is very rare indeed. Astronomer and physics professor Tyler Nordgren, in his new book, Sun, Moon, Earth, says, “Though eclipses happen roughly twice each year, each one follows a different path across our planet. The patterns repeat in shape every eighteen years, but each time, the path is positioned one-third of the way around the planet and a little farther north or south than before. . . . eventually any spot on Earth can expect, on average, to see totality every 375 years.”
The path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse cuts a swath across the entire United States. You can find maps at http://www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com. It will start at 10:26 PDT on the Oregon coast and 93 minutes later will move away from the Atlantic coast.
I have made camping reservations on the Oregon coast for a few days overlapping the day of the eclipse. That morning, I will have to drive about 2 hours south to be in the path of totality. Barring clouds (always a possibility on the coast), I should experience one of Nature’s most awesome shows.
The descriptions in Nordgren’s book have primed me to expect a wondrous and multi sensory few minutes: “. . . the temperature drops, birds grow quiet, shadows sharpen, and colors become muted and fade. Then, all at once, the Sun turns black and the stars come out. Overhead a ghostly aura steams outwards around the Sun’s dark disk.”
And, “The corona, a ring of immense pearly tendrils, envelopes the darkness and stretches off into the sky in all directions. It is unimaginably beautiful and only visible during these few precious minutes of totality. All around it are the brighter stars and planets, invisible until now; it is a day that has become night at noon, with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars overhead all at once.”
You don’t want to miss this year’s eclipse because you will have a long wait for another one. The next total solar eclipses on American soil will happen in 2024, 2044, 2045, and 2052.
I wonder how I will be affected by seeing a day with two dawns and midnight at noon?
“. . .[T]he great lesson of the eclipse to the masses who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shores.”
— The New York Times, January 25, 1925