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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yoshiko cherry trees in bloom, University of Washington campus

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:

The floating world; upside down reflections in a rain puddle

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:

Cherry Blossoms by Freer/Sackler Smithsonian Museums

 

“Viewing Cherry Blossoms,” attributed to Katsushika Hokusai

 

“Snow, Moon, and Flowers,” by Takahashi Shotei

 

“Avenue of Cherry Trees,” by Yoshida Hiroshi

 

“Spring in Mount Atago,” by Kawase Hasui

 

“Spring at Kintai Bridge,” by Kawase Hasui

 

“A Courtesan Under a Cherry Tree,” by Katsushika Hokusai

 

“Crow Perched on a Flowering Cherry Branch and Full Moon,” by Ohara Kosan

“What a strange thing!
To be alive
Beneath cherry blossoms.”
— Kobayashi Issa

My watercolor sketch of cherry blossoms

 

 

“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 

Taking notes by hand

Taking notes by hand

Hand-painted letter

Hand-painted letter

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.”

 

 

I have three relatively short trips planned for Oregon in 2017, but I won’t be surprised if a few more opportunities to travel there won’t pop up.  Oregon is one of my neighboring states, and I can cross its border after a three-hour drive south along I-5 from Seattle.  Like my home state of Washington, Oregon offers a selection of diverse geographic destinations — untamed ocean coastlines, mountains, dry lands, vibrant cities, and fertile agricultural valleys.  As I read my way across Oregon for this virtual travel post, I discovered that its literary offerings were as rich and varied as its physical ones.

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

I very much enjoy reading books in this series on armchair travel, but I have a tendency to get greedy and my book lists grow and at some point I begin to feel overwhelmed.  That certainly happened again with my reading about Oregon and by Oregon authors.  It didn’t help that a couple of the authors — William Stafford and Brian Doyle, for example — were such good writers that I wanted to read more deeply from their published works.  I hope this post can do justice to the literary wealth of the state.

Vintage postcard about Oregon

Vintage postcard about Oregon

I asked for recommendations for books that capture the spirit of Oregon from the reference librarians at the Multnomah County Library.  Tara, the librarian who responded to my request, is a native Oregonian, and she offered these suggestions:

  • Fiction (adult/young adult):  Ricochet River by Robin Cody.  This novel is told from the point of view of Wade, a high school senior from a small logging community.  While he is an easy-going guy, finding comfort in just going with the flow, his girlfriend yearns to leave and break free.  “Everything is so predictable,” she says.  “They box people up in tight little packages . . . Your cheerleaders, your farmers, your hoods, your jocks.”  But it is Wade’s friendship with Jesse, a Klamath youth and gifted athlete, that begins to open his eyes to the undercurrents of prejudice and conformity in his town.
  • Fiction (adult/young adult): Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.  Charley is a 15-year-old essentially raising himself.  His father has brought him to Portland and poor parenting leaves Charley struggling to cope on is own.  He shoplifts for food while diligently trying to keep in shape for the upcoming football season.  He takes on a job at a racetrack in order to earn some pocket money, but his boss is a shady character.  In a misguided effort to save the life of a horse destined for the knackers, Charley steals his boss’s truck, trailer, and horse, and sets off to find his aunt in Idaho and a chance for a more secure life.
  • Nonfiction:  Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk.  A tour of Portland showcases the “hipster and weird.”
  • Juvenile:  Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.  What a joy it was to reread this book.  Cleary captures perfectly the trials of being a younger sister, the strange happenings at kindergarten, the perils of being misunderstood.  “Things had such an unexpected way of turning out all wrong.” I remember my ex-Marine, rather reticent brother-in-law reading Ramona and Her Father out loud to his two young sons, and breaking into guffaws over some of the antics in that book.  If you hanker to revisit childhood, I highly recommend all of Clearly’s books about Ramona, her sister Beezus, and neighbor Henry.
  • Poetry:  Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford.
  • Art book: Oregon: A Photographic Journey by Greg Vaughn.

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In addition to Tara’s recommendations, all of which I read, I also read the following books on my “Armchair Travels” to Oregon:

Fiction:  Martin, Martin by Brian Doyle.  This was the first book of Doyle’s that I read, and I liked it so much that I went on to read Mink River, The Plover, and Children and Other Wild Animals.  

Martin, Martin is about 14-year-old Dave and his loving family who live in a cabin on Mount Hood, and Martin, one of a litter of four martens born to a a single mother.  The lives of the two Martins cross paths from time to time, each watching the other with curiosity and interest.  Here the martens emerge from safety of their hidden home:  “And so it was the five marten made their way to the river through an astonishing new world of trees and rocks, songs and whistles, bushes and scents, mud and flowers, all bathed in the high thin light of a mountain afternoon in spring.”  And this is Dave’s first glimpse of the marten:  “. . . and then Dave saw, one after another in a line like hikers on a narrow trail, five small lustrous golden brown animals slip out of the woods on the other side of the river.  Four were smaller than the leader, who was clearly in charge, probably a parent, and the last one in line looked for all the world like he or she was the trusted deputy, bringing up the rear as a precaution against stragglers and mischief.”

The book is brimming with observations that evoke the lush Pacific Northwest forests and rivers landscape.  “We sit on park benches and beaches and couches and hilltops, listening and dreaming seemingly to no particular purpose.  But isn’t it often the case the when we cease to move and think, we see and hear and understand a great deal?”

You can tell that Doyle is a writer who just loves words and the sounds of words and the play of the tongue:  “By now, almost June, the snow was gone, this far down the mountain, but the river was still crammed with melt, and it raced and thrummed and braided in endlessly riveting ways.  You could, as Dave many times had, just sit there in the sun with your back against a tree and watch and listen to the river sprint and thurble and trip and thumble . . .”

You sense that Dave’s dad embodies some of Doyle:  “That is how Dave’s dad talks, with words like donnybrook and vainglorious and epistolary and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore’s lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave’s mom works in laundry services.”

I just savored Doyle’s exquisite and apt descriptions:  “Dave’s dad knew that it was going to snow.  He could tell.  The clouds were pregnant, it was too cold for rain, and there was a sort of glower in the air . . . A sort of chilled expectation or premonition — like the air was grimacing, and soon it would begin to cough relentlessly.”

Doyle says, “People are stories, aren’t they?  And their stories keep changing and opening and closing and braiding and weaving and stitching and slamming to a halt and finding new doors and windows through which to tell themselves, isn’t that so? . . . You find that your story keeps changing in thrilling and painful ways, and it’s never in one place.  Maybe each of us is a sort of village, with lots of different beings living together under one head of hair, around the river of your pulse, the crossroads of who you were and who you wish to be.”

Mink River by Brian Doyle.  The protagonists of this novel are two guys in their 60s — Worried Man and Cedar — who are co-managers of the Department of Public Works in the small town of Neawanaka, where the Mink River meets the Pacific Ocean.  Their mission is “Brains against pain” in this town of 500 souls.

This is how Doyle describes Neawanaka as seen through the eyes of Worried Man’s wife, the town’s teacher:  ” . . . her town, the poetry and pain and poverty and plainness of it, the bravery and belly laughs, the stunning volume of rain, the sadness of winter, the petty crime, the smell of manure, the squelch of mud, the smell of skunk cabbage, the burble and babble and bubble of the children in her classroom, the endless fleeing of children to the city as soon as possible, the sticky smell of cottonwood buds opening, the prevalence of mold and mildew, the gargling snarl of chain saws, the violet green sheen of a swallow, the hollow eyes of retarded children, the stunning sunlight after rain, the prevalence of car parts in yards, the mustiness of basements, the prevalence of divorce, the slam of screen doors, the paucity of voters, the night oratorio of tree frogs, the smell of fish like a wall near the co-op, the smell of beer like an aura around the pub night and day, the thrill of thrushes, the smell of a crate of new school books, the riotous vegetation, the patient heartless brooding watchful sea.”

Doyle’s litanies are a signature characteristic of his writings.  Here he describes the Pacific Ocean:  “The sea is green and blue and gray and white and purple.  He stares at it for a long time.  It shimmies and shivers and shines and shudders and shimmers and twitches and glitters and trembles and gleams.  It stutters and whispers and moans and sighs.  It snarls and roars and hammers the patient shore.  It tosses its hair and rolls its shoulders an shuffles its feet.” Yes!

I fell in love with the human and humane, struggling, flawed, yet loving characters in this fictional town.  “Sometimes I think the all people in all times must have had the same joys and sorrows, says Nora.  Everyone thinks that the old days were better, or that they were harder, and that modern times are chaotic and complex, or easier all around, but I think people’s hearts have always been the same, happy and sad, and that hasn’t changed at all.  It’s just the shape of lives that change, not lives themselves.”

“. . . each of us, man and woman alike, is a seething sea of desires and shadows, of illusions and dreams, of courage and cowardice, and we arrive in peaceful harbors only by sailing ourselves true, by finding and wielding our talents and tools to help others.”

The town doctor says, “We make our holy gestures, we conduct our intricate and complicated rituals, we apply salves and poultices, elixirs and potions, and people remain broken and torn.  The best I can do it just witness the pain.”

The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick.  My sister, who lives in Oregon, recommended Kirkpatrick to me.  She writes historical fiction.  The Road We Traveled was inspired by the life of Tabitha Moffat Brown, a widow and grandmother, who came west along the Oregon Trail when she was in her 60s.  She made the trip against the wishes and advice of her family, who wanted her to stay behind.  The novel imagines what the move might have been like — what to shed and leave behind, the nature of attachments, the courage to live true to one’s convictions, the tendency to second guess decisions.  Here is how Kirkpatrick describes Brown’s arrival in the Salem area:  “An afternoon of balm with shafts of sunlight through a pewter-colored sky greeted them.  The world here looked green and the Willamette River ran blue, unlike the brown Platte and Missouri they’d left behind.  Every shade of green covered the ground around them; fields, riverbanks, the centers of the trails they rose marked by sturdy grass.   Even tree trunks had moss, as did the shingle of the ferryman’s shelter.  The landscape promised spring even in December with a sky as gray as the bottom of a duck.”

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Nonfiction:  Coastal Range:  A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely.  This is a collection of essays about Oregon’s Rogue River valley and other landscapes.  Neely writes about the journey of salmon to their hatchery where they spawned, free gold mining by suction dredging along the Rogue River, madrone trees, and his experiences on a six-month writing residency off the grid in the backcountry of southern Oregon, among other things quintessential northwest.

Neely is a good writer.  Here’s how he describes salmon:  “fifteen or twenty pounds of sauntering muscle wrapped in silver” and “sleek torpedoes with jaws, speckled and scarred.”  And of the Pacific Coast he says,” This layer of continent is now disappearing: Sea stacks stand as pillars to a former coastline, and the basalt of the shore is riddled with coves and inlets the funnel waves furiously into blowholes, as if in homage to a volcanic past and the migrating gray whales.”  And, “. . . the sound of stones being tumbled by the waves is remarkable.  It is a thousand knuckles rapping softly at a door.”

“As we drove along the Oregon Coast, we were absorbed by the bands of the landscape:  The blue and white waves.  The slick and dry stretches of sand.  The quiet back pools reflecting the fast clouds off the Pacific.  Swaths of tidal marsh.  Bluffs and chasms.  The pavement the thinnest of lines.”

The love of this landscape permeates Neely’s writings.  “To become at home in a place, I think, is mainly to discover the words for things.  The names.”

Poetry:  I am drawn to the poetry of William Stafford, and have featured some of my favorites of his in past blog posts.  You can revisit them here: “Watching Sandhill Cranes,”  “Ask,” “What’s in My Journal,” “Things the Wind Says,” “The Dream of Now,” “Yes,” and “An Afternoon in the Stacks.”  Stafford was born in Kansas, but he lived and taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland for many years.

I don’t have a favorite among the several collections of Stafford’s poems that I read and reread for this blog post.  I did copy out many poems and quotes that I am sure I will be sharing with you in future posts.  For now, I leave you with this William Stafford poem:

“You Reading This, Be Ready” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect the you carry
wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found, carry into evening
all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

 

 

 

The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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:

Tyler Norgren's new book about the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse

Tyler Nordgren’s new book about the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse

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

Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely

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

Mink River by Brian Doyle

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

Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown

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 Toomer

One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer

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.

 

 

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

Path of totality on August 21, 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

“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

Tyler Norgren's new book about the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse

Tyler Nordgren’s new book about the August 21, 2017 

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.

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

 

Path of totality in Oregon (from Great American Eclipse website)

Path of totality in Oregon (from Great American Eclipse website)

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