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21 posts categorized "Recommended Books"

September 11, 2006

Still Life with Chickens: A Recommended Book

I like books that name the concrete things—the resources—it takes to make a life. I also like books about starting over. Thus, The Boxcar Children. And, a more grown-up version of starting over: Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea. The memoir, written by Catherine Goldhammer, and published this past May, describes Goldhammer’s move, newly divorced, with her 12-year-old daughter, from a spacious house in an upscale neighborhood to a small cottage on a pond near the ocean.

She did not, she tells us at the outset, have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. What she had was her cottage in a town on a peninsula wedged between the Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, a town she describes thus—

Once the home of a large amusement park with a famous roller coaster, it had developed haphazardly, with recreation rather than posterity in mind. Big houses sat cheek by jowl with tiny ones, shoehorned together on tiny streets. Some of them were beautiful and some of them were decidedly not. The seaside lawns tried valiantly to be green, but they were small, and some of them had remnants of the amusement park in them: an oversized pink teacup with bench seats, a faded turquoise bumper car.
Goldhammer’s memoir is filled with vivid tangible named things:

That oversized pink teacup

A large salt pond

A new coat of off-white paint

Wood floors


And, of course, chickens

Specific chickens—

Rhode Island Reds

A Silver Laced Wyandotte

A Light Brahma called Big Yellow

And then all the supplies needed to take care of those chickens—

A brooder light

A rope



A refrigerator box

Duct tape

A utility knife

Hardware cloth

A handsaw. . .

Here’s something else I like about Still Life with Chickens—Catherine Goldhammer is as resourceful as those boxcar children. She makes do. She does not, for instance, have that year in Provence. Nor does she have a table saw. At one point in her story, she sets out to make a particular kind of chicken run—a triangular structure called an ark. Before she builds the ark she names what she needs: a table saw, an electric miter saw, and sawhorses. Then she acknowledges that she has none of these things. What she does have: a dull handsaw, a right angle, a pair of green plastic chairs. She makes do. All in the company of six chickens who cause her at times to question her sanity.

But then—the eggs. Page 112.

Eventually we got blue eggs and green eggs, pink eggs and brown eggs. We got whitish eggs, speckled eggs, freckled eggs, and eggs with white patches. We had one enormous egg with two yolks, and a wide variety of other sizes: small and oval, big and round, tall and thin. Sometimes I found eggs that had just been laid, warm and slightly damp. Finding a warm egg felt miraculous. Putting a warm egg into someone’s suspecting hand was like handing them the moon.
Ah, the eggs.

Unlike The Boxcar Children, there’s no rich grandfather who steps in at the end and makes everything easier. That’s one of the things I like about Still Life with Chickens. It’s one of the things that makes it a grown-up book. And ah—those eggs.

September 26, 2006


In Frederick, the children’s book by Leo Lionni, a chatty family of field mice live in an old stone wall. Winter approaches. All the mice set to work, gathering corn and nuts and wheat, except for Frederick, who sits apart from the others, doing nothing, or at least he appears to be doing nothing. He’s the daydreaming mouse. The lazy mouse? The other mice scold him. Why isn’t he working? He tells them he is working. He tells them he’s gathering sun rays for the winter days. Yeah, right. How does one gather sun rays? They ask him again. Why aren’t you working? He tells them he’s gathering colors. Right. Sure. Finally, Frederick tells them he’s gathering words.

Winter comes. The mice hole up in the stone wall. At first all goes as well as can be expected in winter. The mice are well-fed and content. But the time comes when they have used up all their provisions. It’s cold. They’re feeling a bit less chatty. Finally they turn to Frederick. They ask him about his supplies.

He tells them to close their eyes. When their eyes are closed he begins:

‘Now I send you the rays of the sun.
Do you feel how their golden glow. . .’
And as Frederick spoke of the sun
the four little mice
began to feel warmer.
Was it Frederick’s voice?
Was it magic?

Next he conjures colors. Blue periwinkles. Red poppies. Yellow wheat.

And what happens? “. . . they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.” And they were nourished by them.

Sometimes we forget what nourishes us. The winter comes and we forget. Words are a way to remember. We can write them on index cards, or on the palms of our hands. We can write them on the back page of a notebook, or the front page. We can write them in fall on those days when the harvest feels especially plentiful. We can store them like Frederick, and pull them out on flat winter days when we are most in need.

October 22, 2006

Healing Circle: A Recommended Book

I’ve read Healing Circle more than once since I first got it several years ago. More than twice. How best to introduce it? It’s such a vast book. Two editors. Fifteen contributors. Fifteen separate and distinct experiences of illness and the recovery from illness. Crohn’s disease becomes material for one essay. Also HIV. Fibromyalgia. Cancer. Migraine headache. Lupus. Rheumatoid arthritis. OCD. Depression. A broken leg. A ruptured cervical disc. Diabetes. Fifteen separate and distinct essays, and within these essays so many telling details. So many of the kinds of details that illuminate not just illness and the process of healing, but well—life.

Here is one such detail. In “Back in the Body” by Kris Vervaecke, she describes the room in a cottage in Oregon where she first began to recuperate from a severe flare of rheumatoid arthritis that occurred in the wake of childbirth. p. 130:

My hospital bed was in the living room next to the woodstove, where I could look out the double-paned glass at the sparkling river, and when I was too tired to be propped up and turn my head, I lay on my back and watched ripples of light undulating across the shiny ivory painted ceiling, reflecting the river’s surface.

Here’s another detail taken from Richard Solly’s “The World Inside,” an account of his recovery from a surgical procedure for Crohn’s disease that left him with an open abdominal wound. This passage begins his description of his work with Annie, the home-care nurse who assisted him in his recovery. p. 92:

Annie was not into New Age healing through prayers, meditation, visualization, or even acupuncture. For her, healing would be accomplished only by putting on surgical gloves, cutting bandages, peeling away the soiled gauzes, letting air into the wound, rinsing the wound with saline solution, inserting six-inch Q-tips into abdominal holes. . . Each morning, promptly at nine, she rang the front doorbell and then let herself in. I often left the door unlocked for her. . .”

And here’s an image of recovery that Mary Swander offers from a time when she was in recuperating from a ruptured cervical disc and case of myelitis. p. 125:

I fixated on the small, the tiny seeds. In my case, the literal seeds of my literal garden. Lying awake in bed at night, I’d worried how I would ever prepare the soil, plant, weed, dig, and harvest. I contemplated making raised beds. I contemplated making trellises. I contemplated not having a garden at all. . . . Finally, I got up one morning, clomped down to the basement with my walker, and started my garden seedlings. Two little seeds in each pot.

In this anthology, edited by Patricia Foster and the aforementioned Mary Swander, illness and recovery become material. Not by denying the discomfort and fear and sometimes tedium of it. But by using it—attending to it—the true and actual details of it—and then paying close attention to where those details lead. Paying attention to the images that emerge. The light undulating across the ceiling. The nurse at the door with bandages. And those seeds—two tiny seeds in each pot.

I think I just realized one of the reasons I like these essays. The language, yes. The vivid detail. But, more, it’s because these essays feel to me as if they tell something of the truth about illness and healing. They don’t pretend or preach or gloss over. For me at least these essays have the ring of truth, as if they were told from the inside by someone bent on getting the details of it right—

October 29, 2006

Poemcrazy: A Recommended Book

This book, by Susan G. Wooldridge, is one I recommend when someone tells me that they’d like for their writing to become more creative, more playful—or when someone tells me that their writing is a bit stuck. Wooldridge is a teacher. She’s worked for many years with CPITS, the California Poets in the Schools. She’s a teacher, but, as she says in her introduction, she doesn’t believe it’s possible to teach someone to write a poem. Instead, she says, “. . . we can set up circumstances in which poems are likely to happen. We can create a field in and around us that’s fertile territory for poems.”

Poemcrazy is that fertile territory. Sixty short chapters. You can read the chapters in order—or not. Many of the chapters contain ideas for writing practice. And each chapter holds out the possibility of replenishing and rejuvenating language. Language for poetry, yes. But also for sentences, paragraphs, journal entries, letters, stories, myths—and perhaps for healing—

Much of the inspiration for Poemcrazy comes from children—both Wooldridge’s own children and the children she’s worked with in the schools. She’s particularly adept at hearing and noticing those moments—those words—and combinations of words—in which language illuminates. She writes of a Cherokee child in Thermalito, California who can’t stop raising his hand during one of her workshops and then breaks out in a Cherokee song which he subsequently translates (p. 119): “I am one with the magnificent sun forever forever forever.” She writes of an image of “smelling sunlight,” that emerges from a Hmong child who knows very little English. And she writes of the images that she hears emerge in her own children’s language—

Her son, Daniel, saw his newborn sister, swaddled, with only her head visible, and thought she looked “yike a hotdog”. Cows on a hillside looked “yike popcorn”. And, my own personal favorite, Daniel’s observation after they’d transplanted a small tree from its pot to a hole in the ground: “The world will be its new pants.”

“Sometimes,” Wooldridge writes (p. 32), “part of writing a poem is as simple as looking carefully and bringing things together through simile and metaphor. This bit of moon looks like a canoe. The moon is a cradle, a wolf’s tooth, a fingernail, snow on a curved leaf or milk in the bottom of a tipped glass.”

Yes. And those connections she makes—right there—the moon looks like a canoe—the moon is a cradle—a wolf’s tooth—this strikes me as the kind of fertile territory a person might want to visit in order to rejuvenate language for writing----

November 13, 2006

When Things Fall Apart: A Recommended Book

Pema Chodron is the first American woman to receive full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist priest. She is now director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for westerners. And, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, she tells, among other things, how she first got started on the Buddhist path. It began, she says, on a day in early spring; she was standing out in front of her house in New Mexico when her then-husband drove up, got out of the car, shut the door, and proceeded to tell her that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce.

She describes the next moment this way (p. 10):

I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.

I love it that she tells us about the stone. She writes about the profound, limitless stillness. But she also writes about the stone. This makes her more human. And it’s from this very human place that she writes about how to take moments of disappointment and sorrow and loss and anger and discomfort and use them as opportunities for becoming fully awake. Not by turning away from these moments but, rather, to do something that goes a bit against the grain: turn towards them.

She writes (p. 10):

The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation. . . To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—

The most natural and ordinary thing in the world is to want to turn away from pain—or anger—or chaos—or a rumbling stomach—certainly I myself find it natural and ordinary—but when I’m reading Pema Chodron or listening to one of her tapes I feel, sometimes just for a few minutes at a time, or even a few seconds, that she’s onto something—this turning toward rather than turning away.

She’s so kind. She seems to understand how difficult it can be to turn towards discomfort. And she suggests that the way to do this—what can make it possible—is to practice something she calls maitri—this a Sanskrit word for loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. She suggests that we practice this unconditional friendliness, first, toward ourselves. And she offers practical suggestions for how to do this in a variety of ways, including through the practice of meditation.

She writes (p. 21):

Sometimes we feel guilty, sometimes arrogant. Sometimes our thoughts and memories terrify us and make us feel totally miserable. Thoughts go through our minds all the time, and when we sit, we are providing a lot of space for all of them to arise. Like clouds in a big sky or waves in a vast sea, all our thoughts are given the space to appear.

Sometimes, when I’m reading Pema Chodron, I get a sense of that big sky, that vast sea. I get a sense that no matter what is falling apart—no matter what has fallen apart in the past—no matter what will surely fall apart in the future——I get a sense that it is all held by that big sky—that vast sea—

November 19, 2006

Broken Vessels: A Recommended Book

I have, for a long time now, loved the way that Andre Dubus writes. I love the clarity of his writing, the specificity, the rhythm of his prose, and something else too—this sense in everything he writes as if he knows something about loss—knows that all of this—everything—is impermanent—but he’s writing lovingly about it anyway. I could recommend any one of his books. His early story collections. His selected stories. His second book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. His last book of stories, Dancing After Dark, which was published in 1997, two years before his death from a heart attack. But it’s this book—Broken Vessels—his first book of essays—that speaks, in a very personal way, to falling apart.

In July of 1986, Dubus stopped one night at the side of the highway to help a motorist in distress. While standing on the side of the road he was hit by a car. The impact cost him one of his legs and much of the use of his second leg, landing him in a wheel chair. Broken Vessels is a book of essays he published in the wake of that impact. The title essay, “Broken Vessels,” which is also the final essay in the book, begins this way:

On the twenty-third of June, a Thursday afternoon in 1988, I lay on my bed and looked out the sliding glass doors at blue sky and green poplars and I wanted to die. . .

“Broken Vessels” is an essay saturated with loss. The loss of running. The loss of walking. The loss of his wife and children. (He underwent a separation after the accident.) The loss of writing—which happened after he’d lost his family.

But the essay is not only about loss. The essay points to what is possible when one can find the right place to express this loss in some way. p. 171:

The best person for a crippled man to cry with is a good female physical therapist, and the best place to do that crying is in the area where she works. One morning in August of 1987, shuffling with my right leg and the walker, with Mrs. T in front of me and her kind younger assistants, Kathy and Betty, beside me, I began to cry. Moving across the long therapy room with beds, machines, parallel bars, and exercise bicycles, I said through my weeping: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either. Kathy and Betty gently told me I was fine. Mrs. T said nothing, backing ahead of me, watching my leg, my face, my body. We kept working. I cried and talked all the way into the small room with two beds that are actually leather-cushioned tables with a sheet and pillow on each, and the women helped me onto my table, and Mrs. T went to the end of it, to my foot, and began working on my ankle and toes and calf with her gentle strong hands. Then she looked up at me. Her voice has much peace whose resonance is her own pain she has moved through and beyond. It’s in Jeremiah, she said. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of broken one. It’s time to find the real you.

The cab-driver in Chekhov’s story needed to tell what clothes his son was wearing when he died. Dubus had his own story that he needed to tell: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either.

And, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about his essay, this story is heard. Mrs. T. does not interrupt. She does not offer false reassurance. She does not even try to argue with him, though she could, certainly, have made a number of legitimate arguments. (By whose definition is a crippled man not a man? By what rules? Who is it that gets to define what a man is?) Mrs. T’s genius is in her initial silence. And it’s only after Dubus has finished speaking that she offers not an argument, but, simply, an image: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus is entirely free to reject the image or accept it. The image is simply put out there. Image as invitation rather than argument: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus begins in June looking out at those poplars, unable to write—and wanting to die. We know, because he has written this essay, that he became a man who could write again. It would seem that Mrs. T. had something to do with that. A woman who was able to hear—and help him hold—his grief. And that image she offers: that smashed pot. That new vessel.

December 08, 2006

A New Path to the Waterfall: A Recommended Book

This book is the most beautiful example I know of a written mosaic or collage. It began, as near as I can tell, in September of 1987 when Raymond Carver, a gifted writer of both short stories and poems, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The following March the cancer metastasized to his brain, and, then in June, lung tumors recurred. These are the facts that initiated his illness and which Tess_Gallagher, his wife, and a gifted poet herself, describes in the introduction to this, Carver’s last book: A New Path to the Waterfall. Tess Gallagher also describes in her introduction the literal making of narrative in the grip of these facts.

First, there are the poems—the elemental pieces of the narrative. Some of these poems Carver had written before the onset of his illness. Many, like “What the Doctor Said,” and “Gravy” and “Late Fragment,” were written and revised during the illness itself. Also during his illness, Tess Gallagher began reading stories by Anton Chekhov and then she began sharing the stories with Carver. During this same time, Carver was reading a book, Unattainable Earth, by Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet and Nobel laureate. Milosz’s book is a kind of patchwork quilt which incorporates passages from other poets, and this book, according to Gallagher, was key in inspiring Carver to want to find for his own book “a more spacious form”. Then, at some point, something clicked. A new path? First Gallagher, and then Carver, began to see how certain passages in the Chekhov stories could be reconfigured as poems and how these pieces, as well as pieces from other writers, could serve as elements in the narrative that he was trying to make.

Finally, the last step: taking all of these pieces and putting them together to make a narrative. In the introduction to Carver’s book, Gallagher describes spreading poems out on the floor of their living room and literally crawling among them on hands and knees and beginning to arrange them into a pattern: “reading and sensing what should come next, moving by intuition and story and emotion.” It’s a vivid and tactile description of finding a pattern—finding a form. And the result—this book—illustrates (among other things) that a narrative does not have to be linear in order to be beautiful. The gaps become part of its beauty. The breaks. The fault lines. The juxtapositions. The pieces reflecting and refracting, one off of another. And all of that white space around and between.

December 22, 2006

Whatever Leads to Joy

The book, What the Living Do, was written by Marie Howe in the wake of her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s a book that, perhaps better than any other book I know, walks that delicate balance between making memorial—remembering who and what has been lost—and choosing life in the wake of such loss—figuring out, day by day, what it is that the living do (after). There’s joy in the book—and in the poem—but it’s that bittersweet kind of joy—

The poem, “My Dead Friends,” can be found here.

The poem consists of only thirteen lines. Here are six of them:

I have begun,

when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear. . .

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer. . .

March 04, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller (Part One)--The Restitution Narrative

There are certain books that I can remember where I was when I first began to read them. Perhaps something like this has happened for you. I found this book in the Wake Forest Library, and I took the book and began reading it on a low stone wall near a creek not far from the library. This was several years ago now. As I read I had a feeling as if thoughts and stories inside my head were literally rearranging and falling into new patterns. It was as if the author, Arthur Frank, had taken the thousands of stories of illness and loss I’d heard in my life—many of these told to me by patients—and he’d placed them into a kind of new and pleasing order, one that made an inordinate sense.

Arthur Frank is a medical sociologist and a survivor of testicular cancer. He opens The Wounded Storyteller by quoting a woman, Judith Zaruches, with chronic fatigue syndrome. He quotes from a letter that she wrote to him:

The destination and map I had used before were no longer useful.

The Wounded Storyteller speaks to the stories people tell (and write) when the old story—the one used prior to illness or loss—no longer suffices. The book is a dense book—it contains many things. The part I have found most useful—most illuminating—is in the middle chapters of the book, where Arthur Frank names three kinds of stories that people tend to make in the wake of illness and suffering. He acknowledges, at the outset, the fluid nature of these stories. People move back and forth among the three kinds of stories—the stories intersect and overlap. Still, he points to the value of naming the kind of story one is tending to tell. (It’s a bit like beginning to know where one is on the map—or perhaps knowing which map one is using.)

The first story is one he calls the restitution narrative. At its simplest it goes like this: I was sick and then I recovered and now I am my old self again. Or, perhaps: I am sick now but I will recover and then I know I will be my old self. This is the narrative that arises most naturally in the wake of an acute illness—after the flu, or ordinary pneumonia, or a broken bone. It can occur in the wake of certain kinds of cancer, when, for instance, the surgeon comes back with the report that he or she got it all, that the margins are clear. It can also occur in the wake of a replaceable loss. A tree falls on a house and the roof is crushed—but then the roof gets fixed.

I tend to picture this first narrative like a simple algebraic equation. If I was X before my illness, then I know the story has come to an end—and a good end—when I am recovered to X again. I am back at work. I’m running again, or swimming, or driving, or dancing, or whatever it is that makes me feel like I am my old and familiar self.

X = X.

This is a very useful narrative, I think. It’s a very comforting narrative. It works for many things, including many illnesses. In fact, I don't know that I know anyone who gives up this narrative unless they absolutely have to.

The second kind of narrative--the chaos narrative--can be found here.

And the third kind of narrative--the quest narrative--can be found here.

March 06, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part 2 of 3)--The Chaos Narrative

The first kind of narrative Arthur Frank writes about in The Wounded Storyteller is the restitution narrative. That’s the one where a person goes through some kind of illness or trouble and then becomes restored to one’s old self. (X = X.) The second kind of narrative possible in the wake of illness or loss is much less tidy. I can’t think of a simple equation that could represent it. The second narrative is the chaos narrative. It’s the kind of narrative that results, often, when the restitution narrative breaks down.

Frank writes:

Chaos is the opposite of restitution: its plot imagines life never getting better.

An example Frank uses here is that of a woman with chronic illness trying to take care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s. She’s trying to tell something of what it’s like—a glimpse of the chaos in the kitchen—as she’s trying to make dinner:

And if I’m trying to get dinner ready and I’m already feeling bad, she’s in front of the refrigerator. Then she goes to put her hand on the stove and I got the fire on. And then she’s in front of the microwave and then she’s in front of the silverware drawer. And—and if I send her out she gets mad at me. And then it’s awful. That’s when I have a really, really bad time.

Chaos stories can feel really, really bad.

They’re hard to experience.
They’re hard to tell.
They can also be hard to hear.

But, Frank argues, it’s necessary that they be heard. He writes:

The need to honor chaos stories is both moral and clinical. Until the chaos narrative can be honored, the world in all its possibilities is being denied. To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for. People whose reality is denied can remain recipients of treatments and services, but they cannot be participants in empathic relations of care.

To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for.

He’s saying a lot here, and I’m quite sure not everyone would agree with him, but I think he’s onto something. He continues:

Those living chaotic stories certainly need help, but the immediate impulse of most would-be helpers is first to drag the teller out of this story, that dragging called some version of ‘therapy’. Getting out of chaos is to be desired, but people can only be helped out when those who care are first willing to become witnesses to the story. Chaos is never transcended but must be accepted before new lives can be built and new stories told. Those who care for lives emerging from chaos have to accept that chaos always remains the story’s background and will continually fade into the foreground.

He’s walking, I think, a delicate balance here. Getting out of chaos is desirable. But you can’t get out without first honoring it somehow.

So how is a person to honor chaos?
And how do you eventually find your way out?
Can writing help?

I’ve found it can sometimes help during chaos just to begin to name it as chaos.
Oh, this is chaos.
A person could write just that line, I suppose. Oh, so this is chaos.
Oh, I see.
X is no longer going to be X.

[to be continued. . .]

March 11, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part Three of Three)—The Quest Narrative

I’m returning now (finally) to The Wounded Storyteller, and to the third and final kind of narrative Arthur Frank suggests a person can make in the wake of illness and suffering—the quest narrative.

He defines this narrative thus:

Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it.

He outlines a structure for this quest story, borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. He describes three key stages of a quest, which I’m including here with a few comments. (These stages may already be quite familiar to many of you.):

Departure: This begins with some kind of call. In a mythic hero or heroine story this call might be that moment when something or someone entirely new appears and sets an adventure in motion—say, for instance, a stranger appears with a rumor about a holy grail that needs to be located. In an illness story the call can be a symptom—a call from the body itself. Or it can be that moment when a doctor gives a name to the symptom. Included in this first stage is the typical response to this call—for most heroes and heroines as well as ordinary folks—“the refusal of the call.” No, this can’t be. No, I must have heard wrong. No. “Eventually,” Frank writes, “the call can no longer be refused—symptoms are unmistakable, diagnoses are made—and what Campbell calls ‘the first threshold’ is crossed.” Crossing this first threshold ushers in the second stage of the quest.

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March 25, 2007

Swimming to Antarctica: A Recommended Book

Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, strikes me as a kind of ideal heroine for this month in which I’m writing about quest. There’s a kind of purity—a single-mindedness—to her narrative that has a certain appeal. She’s one of those rare people who discovered her own personal quest—her purpose in life—at the age of nine. And then she had the good fortune, and the good sense, and the persistence, to be able to carry this out.

One summer morning, as she tells it, and when she was only nine years old, she found herself in an icy-cold swimming pool in Manchester, New Hampshire, swimming laps in the middle of a storm. She was there by choice. All the other swimmers in her club had begged the coach to get out of the water, leaping at his alternative proposal of two hours of calisthenics in the locker room. This was a serious swim club. Those children who had fled the cold water for the locker room could look forward to upwards of 500 sit-ups, 200 push-ups, and 500 leg extensions.

Lynne Cox stayed in the water. When it began to hail, she stopped her laps and crouched in a corner next to the steps and covered her face with her hands. When the hail changed over to heavy rain she went back to swimming laps, entirely alone in the pool, hailstones floating around her in what she describes as a “giant bowl of icy tapioca.” She wasn’t one of the fastest swimmers on the team. She was, by her own description, chubby, and because she was slower than many of the others, she rarely got a chance to pause at the wall of the pool for breaks the way the others did. What she had was endurance. And a love of the water that was nothing short of extreme. She was nine years old, swimming through ice-water that everyone else had fled, and, rather than being frightened of the storm, she was exhilarated by it:

The pool was no longer a flat, boring rectangle of blue; it was now a place of constant change. . . . That day, I realized that nature was strong, beautiful, dramatic, and wonderful, and being out in the water during that storm made me feel somehow a part of it, somehow connected to it.

A Mrs. Milligan saw the tail end of this three-hour swim from her car in the parking lot. She was the mother of another girl on the team, a fast girl who had already qualified for nationals. When Lynne Cox finally climbed out of the pool, Mrs. Milligan met her with a large towel. She rubbed Lynne’s back with the towel, at the same time speaking into her ear: “Someday, Lynne, you’re going to swim across the English Channel.”

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May 03, 2007

Green Apple Soap: An Image of Healing Conversation from White Oleander

White Oleander, the novel by Janet Fitch, is a lovely and often heartbreaking story of a girl, Astrid, in search of a mother. Perhaps you’ve read it. (Or seen the movie—Michelle Pfeiffer plays Astrid’s birth mother, Ingrid.)

The first thirty-eight pages of the book depict scenes of Astrid with her mother—a poet, extremely gifted, very beautiful, and also exceptionally self-absorbed—a woman who requires her daughter to serve as a kind of audience for her own life. Eventually, Astrid becomes a reluctant and then bewildered audience as her mother plots the murder of an ex-lover, carries out the murder, and then is sent away to prison. This leaves thirteen-year-old Astrid an orphan, a child whose name becomes, in her own words, Nobody’s Daughter.

The remainder of the novel is a story of Astrid’s odyssey through the foster care system, her quest to become Somebody’s Daughter.

In Astrid’s fourth foster home she finds herself under the care of a woman by the name of Claire. This woman, Claire, is the first foster parent to actually see Astrid as a person separate from herself. She is, at the same time, the first mother who helps Astrid begin to see herself. There’s one particular conversation, very simple, and especially poignant in that it’s the first conversation of its kind that Astrid has ever experienced. Claire asks Astrid if she likes coconut soap or green apple.

Astrid finds the question baffling-----

She wanted to know all about me, what I was like, who I was. I worried, there really wasn’t much to tell. I had no preferences. I ate anything, wore anything, sat where you told me, slept where you said. I was infinitely adaptable.

Astrid goes on to tell Claire that she doesn’t know if she prefers coconut soap or green apple but Claire will not allow equivocation. She presses her to decide.

So I became a user of green apple soap, of chamomile shampoo. I preferred to have the window open when I slept. I liked my meat rare. I had a favorite color, ultramarine blue, a favorite number, nine.

May 06, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef: A Recommended Book [Part One]

One of the things I like about our public library here is that it offers several shelves of advance reading copies—uncorrected proofs of books released before their publication date. Not only are the books new and clean but they offer an opportunity to read a book before hearing anything at all about it. Often, I’ll put three or four of these in my bag when I go to the library. Sometimes I’ll only end up reading the first page of one of these books, or a few pages. But this novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, I savored right through to the end. It’s a book that made me want to learn the Chinese language, take up Chinese cooking, or, better yet, travel to China, and visit the city of Hangzhou, a city centered around a manmade lake described thus:

Then their street ended at a T intersection, beyond which stretched a dreamy blue mirror of water dotted by islands and double-reflected pagodas. Hills covered with timeless green forest ringed the opposite shore. Small, one-man passenger boats sculled the surface, their black canopies making them seem from a distance to be random slow-moving water bugs. As far as she could see around the lake, between the boulevard and the shore, there stretched a shady park filled with promenading people. The noises of the city swallowed themselves somehow into silence behind her. She felt a sense of calm spreading inside, blue, like water.

The woman feeling this sense of calm in Hangzhou is Maggie McElroy, a forty-year old woman, an American, a food writer, a woman who’s lost her husband in a sudden accident, and who begins the novel, a year following his death, still absorbed by grief. She lives on a small boat at a marina in Los Angeles. She refuses invitations from friends. Her life has “shrunk to a pinpoint.” Then, p. 3, she receives a phone call from Beijing that sets the novel in motion. A former colleague of her husband’s, from his Beijing office, calls to tell her that a woman there has filed a paternity suit against her husband’s estate.

Maggie flies to Beijing. A food writer, she also manages to land an assignment for the trip: writing a feature on Sam Liang, a young chef vying for a spot on the Chinese national cooking team, a team preparing to compete in a cultural competition that is set to coincide with the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. In Beijing, and later in Hangzhou, the two plot lines of the novel unfold—the story of the paternity suit against Maggie’s husband and her growing relationship with the young chef, Sam Liang. In a sense though, these plot lines are pretext—a way to keep us reading as Nicole Mones, a food writer herself, offers elaborate and loving and gorgeous descriptions of the food and culture of China.

Healing place and healing food and a series of healing conversations—that’s what Nicole Mones is offering here----

[You can read part 2 of this piece here.]

May 07, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef [Part Two]: Food for the Soul

[This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on the novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, which has just been released.]

There’s one passage in particular—a conversation between Maggie and Sam Liang, the chef, that I think fits in especially well during this month in which I’m writing about healing conversation. This particular conversation occurs as one of a series of conversations that they have while Sam is cooking and Maggie is watching him cook. Sam has prepared a chicken, Chinese-style, and he offers some of the chicken to Maggie and she begins to eat the chicken and, as she does so, feels herself begin to “melt with comfort.”

She speaks:

”Are you going to make this for the banquet?”

“No,” he said. “This I made for you.”

She looked up quickly.

“These are flavors for you, right now,” he explained, “to benefit you. Ginger and cilantro and chives; they’re very powerful. Very healing.”

“Healing of what?” she said, and put her chopsticks down. . .

“Grief,” he said.

”Grief?” The unpleasant nest of everything she felt pressed up against the surface, sadness, shame, anger. . . Her voice, when it came out, sounded bewildered. “You’re treating me for grief?”

“No,” he insisted, “I’m cooking for you. There’s a difference.”

She tried to master the upheavals inside her. She would not cry in front of him. “Maybe you should have asked me first.”


“It’s a bit difficult for me.”

“Well, for that I’m sorry. Forgive me. You’re American and I should have thought of that. Here, this is how we’re trained—to know the diner, perceive the diner, and cook accordingly. Feed the body, but that’s only the beginning. Also feed the mind and the soul.”

There. That’s it. I think that's what Nicole Mones is doing especially well in this book. She’s touched that aspect of culture--of Chinese culture in this case--that feeds the soul. And she’s found a way to translate that into the writing itself—into this novel—

There’s a sense in which, in her grief, Maggie, the central character, is longing for a kind of food, a kind of conversation, that she doesn’t even quite know that she’s longing for—until it appears—and then she is able to be comforted by it. Here is how Nicole Mones describes the feeling of comfort that blooms inside Maggie after she eats that chicken: “It put a roof over her head and a patterned warmth around her so that even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.”

. . . even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.

At its best, I think this is what healing conversation--and sometimes healing books--and healing poems--can do.

May 20, 2007

An Unwinding Ball of String: An Image for Writing and Healing

Consider this conversation, one which takes place on a porch in Los Feliz, California inside the novel, Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven. The conversation takes place between a young woman, Alice, and a Unitarian minister, Helen, who is in the neighborhood passing out fliers for a lecture series. Alice offers Helen a glass of Red Zinger tea and the two of them sit on Alice’s porch. They talk, one thing and another. At one point, Alice finds herself beginning to tell Helen, the minister, about a deer that wandered into her house in the middle of the night.

Helen, the minister, interrupts.

‘Hold on.’ Helen held up her hand like a traffic cop. ‘A deer came into your house? I’m sorry, but you’re going too fast. And please move your hand away from your mouth so I can hear you. Please, start at the beginning, and take your time.’
. . . Now that she had a willing ear, Alice’s story of the deer unwound like a ball of string rolling down a street. This was the first time she’d been able to tell it all the way through, without interruption, and nothing she said seemed to invite dismay or contradiction. Helen nodded and sometimes narrowed her eyes as if listening to a familiar piano sonata or poem. . .
Encouraged, Alice gave all but the most lunatic details—she left out the fight with her married boyfriend, her raising-the-fawn fantasy, that the deer had seemed to desire pursuit. Hypnosis, she’d heard, was like this: perfect recall with no self-incrimination.

Take your time, the minister says. How often these days does any one of us get to hear those words when we’re on the brink of telling a story? Once a week? Once a month? Once in a lifetime?

No rush. No impatience. No contradiction. No self-incrimination. None of the ordinary obstacles. A full suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. And, in this place of suspension—a ball of string unwinding.

And what (again) might writing have to do with it?

Writing, I think, can augment the unwinding.

Writing and then—perhaps—putting a piece of writing out into the world, and then getting news back that the writing is heard—received—can be a powerful way to encourage the ball of string to unwind, down through one layer, and the next, ever closer to the center.

Writing can take us deep. Putting writing out into the world—and receiving a response—can take us yet deeper.

This can happen anywhere.

It can happen on a porch. For a year or two after I first moved to North Carolina, I helped form and then met with a writing group. The group eventually fell apart, but before it fell apart, for that year or two, one evening every other week, it provided a structure that allowed something to happen—the sharing of stories and a response to those stories. We always met at the same house. Her name was Alice actually, like in the book. We met at Alice’s house. And I remember a particular evening on her screened porch, this in the summer, at twilight, that certain quality of evening summer light, a dog barking somewhere down the street, a child being called inside for supper. This was in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was sitting on the swing, idly pushing it back and forth. Sylvia was sitting on the glider. It was time for the group to end, but I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet. I wasn’t quite ready to leave that pool of light and stillness on the porch.

May 29, 2007

How to Find a Good Writing Group

First----a good writing group is hard to find. Even a good group of two. It is harder to find than a good grocery store, or a good bakery, and probably harder than finding a good yoga class. Finding a good writing group is probably more on a par with finding a great job—or the right house. Now and then a fabulous house or job lands in your lap. But more often this is the kind of thing you have to prepare for, and search for, and be willing to invest some time in.

How to prepare?

A few words of advice (to be used as you wish):
If and when you feel like a writing group is something you’d like to explore, and, assuming the fabulous writing group or workshop has not already landed in your lap, I’d recommend reading Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers and/or Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. The two books complement each other well. Elbow’s book is the older of the two. It was first published in 1973 and is a classic in the field of teaching writing. Two chapters—“The Teacherless Writing Class,” and “Thoughts on the Teacherless Writing Class”—are good preparation for both recognizing a good writing group when you come across one, or, perhaps, starting a new one of your own. Elbow’s emphasis is on the importance of getting honest authentic feedback from readers—and how this process of feedback can grow one’s writing.

Schneider’s book, published in 2003, is the newer book. It’s a longer book than Elbow’s, chattier, with more stories and examples drawn from her classes. One of its particular strengths is in its advice on how to recognize and help create a healthy workshop.

And Ms. Schneider offers this advice [p. 199] on recognizing a good writing class:

After being with your teacher, do you feel more like writing or less like writing? You should never be made to feel embarrassment or shame in the classroom. If that happens, there is something wrong with the way writing is being taught. Drop the class. Take auto mechanics or geometry! Then write about fixing cars, or about the perfect problem.

It’s the right question I think: After being with your teacher do you feel more like writing or less like writing?

It’s the kind of question one could ask about a writing teacher or a writing class or a writing group or perhaps anything that one seeks out in order to foster one’s writing.

After being with __________, do you feel more like writing or less like writing?

June 07, 2007

Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”: A Radical Revision

When I think about revision—when it comes to writing or healing—I tend to think about it in radical ways. I’m not thinking so much here about rereading a paper or a story and fixing a few grammar or spelling mistakes. Those kinds of surface changes are important in late stages of the writing process, but I tend to think of those kinds of changes as editing or proofreading. When I think about revision I think of something that goes beneath the surface—and nearer to the root.

Looking again—and seeing something that one has never seen before.
Looking again—and seeing where the gaps are----
Looking again—and changing the plot.

The story that comes to mind when I think about this kind of radical revision is Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” in his incomparable collection, The Things They Carried.

This is one of those stories better read in its entirety than described, but here is an excerpt to give some sense of it if you’ve not before come across it:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

The story is, at one level, about the death of Curt Lemon. It’s a story about a soldier, home from the war, trying to tell, among other things, about the death of his friend, Curt Lemon. The story is told in fragments—pieces—and at the center is Curt Lemon stepping on a booby-trapped 105 round and the explosion blowing him up into a tree. Curt Lemon’s best friend, Rat Kiley, another soldier, goes mad with grief, after. He shoots at a baby water buffalo in his grief. Over and over. And then he writes Curt Lemon’s sister and he tells her that Curt Lemon was a tremendous human being, that he loved him, the guy was his best friend in the world, his soulmate. And the sister never writes back.

The story continues.

The speaker of the story is home from the war, he’s telling the story, it’s twenty years later, he’s still telling this story, and then he’s telling what it’s like to try and tell it—and that too is all part of the story:

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of a kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

And then---it happens -----that point of radical revision:

. . . she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

(She wasn’t listening. She didn’t understand why this was such an important story to tell—and why the teller needs to tell it over and over. She wants him to stop telling the story—find new stories—different stories.)

(Maybe---just maybe----he’s telling the story over and over so that he can change the plot. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. He needs to change the plot----and he needs someone to hear that the plot has been changed.)

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

The plot has changed.

And then----the final paragraph of the story. It’s been twenty years and the teller has told the story over and over and now it’s a written story. The plot points are the same—Curt Lemon still steps on the booby-trapped round. The baby water buffalo still dies. The sister still doesn’t write back. But at the same time, this deep and radical revision has taken place:

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

June 21, 2007

Speak the Language of Healing: A Book for Making Peace with the Body When the Body Has Cancer

Writing earlier this week about making peace with the body prompted me to pull out a book that I haven’t looked at in a while. Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War. It’s an intriguing title. An intriguing book. And one I was introduced to a few years ago now by a patient, Norah, who found the book during a time when she was trying to figure out how to live with metastatic breast cancer.

I’d known Norah two years before she got her diagnosis of cancer. She was a patient of mine, had seen me on and off for some stress-related symptoms and had been doing quite well. She’d suffered an enormous amount of pain in her early life, and she’d found a way to work through some of her grief about that time, and she’d begun to feel a sense of freedom—and possibility. She was preparing to move away from North Carolina and take a new job in a large city. She was excited about the move. She’d just made a trip to look at housing. And then one evening, not long after she’d made this trip to look at her new city, she came in to see me, and she was carrying a large brown grocery bag. She sat down, and she proceeded to take from the bag a bottle of wine—and then two glasses. And she handed one of the glasses to me. This was entirely unlike anything she’d ever done. In fact I can’t say I’ve ever had a patient bring wine and glasses to an appointment—not before or since. She opened the wine. She asked me if I’d take some. Sure, I told her. Sure. She poured a bit of wine in my glass, and then a bit more in hers. I waited. And then I asked. What are we toasting?

To breast cancer, she said. I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

And so we toasted breast cancer.

She’d found a lump. She’d been in to see her internist a month before and at that time everything—her exam—including her breast exam—all was normal. And then she’d found this lump. And she’d gone in for an evaluation—a biopsy—the lump was cancerous.

Sometimes patients go through a phase of denial where they believe a serious condition is not going to affect their lives. And, sometimes, it would seem that physicians go through this. In this particular case, I was the one who stayed in denial for a bit. I thought—she’s doing so well, she’s just taken this new job, she’s excited, she has a breast tumor, she’ll get treatment, maybe it will delay her move, she’ll still get to go. Norah suspected it was going to be a bigger deal. Norah was right. Further evaluation revealed that she had disease in her liver and her bones. Stage four disease. She changed her plans. She began chemotherapy.

And as she went through her treatment—and her illness—and all the changes that this brought—and as she began to write about some of this, well, Speak the Language of Healing was the kind of book that she needed to find.

The book is authored by four women—Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Each of the women has a different stage of breast cancer. And the thread that brings them together is a sense—in each of them—that the language of war—the language of winners and losers—no longer serves as a useful language for them when it comes to thinking about their cancer.

Carol Matzkin Orsborn, a woman with Stage II breast cancer, is the woman who brought the four of them together. She found herself leaving a fund-raiser for breast cancer one day—“a fund-raiser exhorting us to lead the charge in the war against cancer,” and she made four phone calls. She made one phone call each to the three other authors of this book and one to a literary agent, Linda Roghaar.

What I like most about this book is that it does not require one to be “cured” of one’s cancer in order to experience healing. Nor does it equate metastatic or Stage IV cancer with losing—or with failure.

Orsborn writes:

The urgency of my mission picked up tempo as I increasingly encountered the ‘cancer culture’: a world in which people who die are ‘losers,’ and the ‘winners’ are those who emerge from illness unchanged. I knew that this attitude was useful in that it heightened emotions around our illness in order to raise funds for research more effectively, but it came at the expense of our spirits. As a seasoned author of spiritual books, I had long ago given up the idea of being a master of the universe. I’d learned to stop thinking of my inner world and outer challenges as enemies to be conquered, and learned to recognize the potential for true greatness in acceptance and compassion for myself and for others, regardless of the obstacles I faced. To create the optimum environment for my healing—body, mind, and spirit—what I most needed was not a mighty sword but rather a mighty heart: a heart that could hope, love, love and remain faithful in the shadow of mysteries that were beyond my comprehension.

The shadow of mysteries beyond comprehension.

I wonder now if that’s not one of the reasons Norah brought in the wine—and the glasses. Norah was Catholic and so for her drinking wine carried a sense of sacrament. Sacraments, as I understand it, are always pointing to mystery.

Perhaps, in some sense that I don’t fully understand and that I suspect Norah understood better than me--perhaps that’s what we were toasting: Cancer not as a failure but as a mystery.

July 08, 2007

Stronger than Dirt: A Recommended Book [Part One]

This is a book about a flower farm. It’s written in two voices, that of Kim Schaye and Chris Losee, a married couple in Brooklyn who moved out of the city to upstate New York to realize a dream—a vision. I’m quite sure that one reason I’ve enjoyed this book so much is because I get a kind of vicarious pleasure out of reading about someone—anyone—cultivating acres of flowers. But I also like the way this book begins at the beginning—when the flower farm was no more than a notion—and it proceeds to articulate the process of going from nothing—from scratch—into the realization of a vision.

Interestingly, the story of the farm begins in failure. Chris, the husband, had been running his father’s construction business in New York for several years, business was booming, when in 1994, and rather abruptly, the construction boom busted and he found himself running the business out of his home and without the benefit of an income. In July of that year a concerned friend took him out to the tip of Staten Island to visit a place called Gericke Farm, a tiny farm which had once been a working farm and was now preserved as a demonstration farm inside a state park. They walked among the rows of crops. They picked tomatoes and zucchini and large bunches of flowers, and his friend told him he could show him how to make ten thousand dollars a year working part-time and on half an acre. The seed was planted.

Between July and October of that year, and with a stack of books about small farming growing on his nightstand, Chris became convinced that he had stumbled upon their next venture. Of note, writing played a key role in moving what began as an idea—a dream—a vision—to a thriving farm.

Chris writes:

I’m not actually sure what made up my mind, but it might have had something to do with all the paperwork I was creating. I still have a time line, printed in choppy type on my old Apple dot-matrix printer from this period. It shows the months July 1994 through December 1996, and for each quarter of the year there’s a two- or three-sentence plan of action and a one-sentence goal. My wife says that I’m an obsessive list maker. But for me there is a quality of lists that is something like magic. Items on lists can acquire a certain inevitability. These are things that are supposed to happen, that will happen if given time and effort. And perhaps the gradual accumulation of books and lists had reached some critical mass that made the decision inevitable: write something down enough times and it becomes a fact.

With writing as a catalyst, the facts begin to accrue for this couple. They find and then purchase thirty acres in the Hudson Valley with a stream running through it. Chris begins building them a house. He pores over seed catalogs. He orders seeds. He rigs up a system of plywood benches and grow lights—and a watering system no less—in the attic of their row house, and, after a decision to grow some vegetables along with the flowers, proceeds to start over three thousand tomato and pepper plants. They put up a fence at the farm, hire someone to plow. They begin laying down plastic for mulch. They plant by hand, setting individual flower seeds into holes they punch in the plastic mulch, and then, after they tire of mulching, they transplant their three thousand tomato and pepper plants into the un-mulched rows.

Then—in mid-July—now two years after Chris had visited the demonstration farm on Staten Island—he reports matter-of-factly, “we lost the crops.”

This is one of the things I like about Chris and Kim’s story. It has a plot. It has complications. It does not describe a straight line of points headed directly toward a desirable future. The story swerves. Chris and Kim are both new to farming. They stumble. Things happen. They’d planted the tomatoes and peppers in the rows without mulch and by mid-July weeds had engulfed them. They in fact lost the tomato and pepper plants because they literally couldn’t see them any longer. They also had bugs. Squash bugs and blister beetles. Mexican bean beetles. Colorado potato beetles. Luckily, at this point, Kim still had a steady income, as a journalist. And Chris was philosophic: “I was consciously trying not to have great expectations for the farm the first year, and I’ve found that if your expectations are low enough, it’s hard to be really disappointed.”

[You can continue reading--Part 2--here.]

July 10, 2007

Stronger than Dirt: A Recommended Book [Part Two]

In early August, in spite of obstacles, Chris Losee and Kim Schaye harvest at their flower farm for the first time. They cut zinnias and cosmos along with a scattering of wildflowers from the roadside, and they drive down to the city in a van loaded with five-gallon buckets of cut flowers and zucchini. They’re headed for a market in Greenwich Village where they’ve reserved a space. They’re optimistic. They don’t think they’ve harvested quite enough to make the one thousand dollars they’d hoped for from a first market, but they figure they’re probably carrying eight hundred dollars worth of produce, give or take. They arrive in Greenwich Village at the greenmarket, set up a card table, put out their sign and they begin making and selling bouquets of flowers. And people buy them. Things seem to be moving. They’re a little thrilled—understandably. Then, at the end of the day they count their money. 160 dollars. That’s their gross take. They subtract the day’s expenses—the market fee and gas and the money they paid a friend to help out—and their net take is zero.

Zero. Their expectations have been confounded. Which provides yet another plot point in their story, and is yet one more reason why I like this book.

Chris’s stated vision all along has been “to create a situation in which the land could support us.” They’d borrowed from Kim’s retirement fund to make a downpayment on the farm. They’d grown those three thousand tomato and pepper plants in their bedroom. They’d invested two years of their lives, and a fair chunk of their savings. And the net take on their first market day: zero. Kim admits, in the book, to some panic after this first market. Perhaps Chris was panicking too, inwardly. But what he also does is to make another meticulous notebook entry. In this entry, “First Greenmarket,” which he includes as in illustration in their book, he lists the date of the market, the location, the contents of the buckets, the market conditions, the gross take, the expenses—in other words, the data of the first market. Then, at the very bottom of the entry, beneath the data, he writes a terse reflection: “Conclusion: Bring more good flowers.”

At the next market they take in three hundred and twenty dollars. By September a few cherry tomatoes have managed to ripen, and a variety of wildflowers had come into bloom around their cultivated crops. One Saturday in September they manage to take in six hundred. At the end of the season, after the first frost, Chris makes a final tally: a total gross for the first year of 4435 dollars. Before expenses. Chris’s first response? “. . . you can’t support a family of hamsters for a year on that sum of money.” His second response? He begins figuring out a plan for the next season.

This is what I like about this book—the way they keep reflecting on their data—and revising their plan—and the way they’re able to make this process so transparent in their book.

They build a greenhouse so they can start crops earlier. They choose flowers and vegetables that they know now will grow well and sell well. They become more skilled at cutting and arranging flowers. The second year they take in a net of 7000 dollars—a significant improvement but still not enough to support a family. And there’s a new wrinkle. Kim is trying to become pregnant and she’s come to suspect that the stress of her job at the newspaper might be contributing to her infertility. She’s seriously considering quitting. And with only seven thousand dollars in annual income from the farm in its second season, and with expenses cut to the bone, Chris writes of having to take a hard look at the dream he’d had for the farm. His initial vision had been that they would support themselves—and possibly children—entirely from the land. But four years from the time he’d first conceived the notion of the farm, and with two arduous growing seasons behind them, he realizes he’s going to have to amend their original vision: “I had to face the possibility that the farm alone could not support us.”

And so they continue. They revise their vision a bit. And they keep going. If I continue writing now I’m going to end up telling you the rest of the book. So I won’t do that. I’ll simply say that they keep going----