Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book #8: The Curve of Time

For years, Roger has recommended this book every time I am casting about trying to decide what to read.

This week I finally took him up on it.

The Curve of Time is a beautifully written memoir of the summers a mom, her five children, and sometimes a dog, spent in the 1920s and 30s exploring the waterways between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia by boat.

Because I come from sailing stock on both sides of my family--maybe even Vikings going back in my maternal grandfather's line--it was not hard for me to be drawn into their happy adventures and narrow escapes.

I started reading the book Monday morning as we set out on an expedition of our own in our Jeep. My dad is visiting from out of town, and the rest of us all had a holiday from work and school.

The foreword began with a detailed description of the cramped sleeping quarters on the boat. I could immediately relate. Roger and Dad were riding in front; Jack and I were cozy together in the back, nestled between the cooler on one side of us and a backpack on the other, our feet penned in by the handle of a shovel (carried in case we ever have to dig ourselves out of something).

I didn't marry a sailor. I married a boy who lives between mountains and loves the desert. I married a boy who loves to drive off the beaten path.

So, I realized, as we bounced over rocks instead of waves, our Jeep is our boat. Our desert is our ocean. Our canyons are our inlets. Our sagebrush is our seaweed. Our dust we kick up is our wake. We breathe deep and we live. Our wind is our wind and our sky is our sky.

All week as I read, I dreamed of heading up to Seattle over spring break to explore the San Juan Islands by ferry. Maybe we'd even have time to go all the way to British Columbia.

This may have been a risky book for Roger to recommend to me. Because he married a girl who comes from sailing stock on both sides and loves the sea.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book #7: Black Like Me

In 1959, the same year my parents got married, writer John Howard Griffin changed the pigment of his skin, shaved his head and spent nearly two months traveling through the southern United States as a black man.

I knew this memoir was a classic, but I still went into it with some trepidation. Would it be superficial? Would it be exploitative? What were Griffin's intentions?

What I found was a deeply insightful book that brought out the multi-faceted complexities of racial identity, injustice, cultural barriers, humanity and inhumanity.

While we are far beyond that Jim Crow era, Griffin's observations are still meaningful today. We are clearly not done untangling the threads that have been a knotted mess through many, many generations.

Yesterday, my friend Loki, who is dedicated to untangling those threads, wondered about a couple of white kids he saw walking down the sidewalk carrying .22 rifles with total impunity. Where are the police? "Oh yeah," he wrote, "they didn't fit the profile." A couple of people pushed back on him, not engaging him on the specific point he was trying to make, but criticizing his negativity. They wanted him to look on the positive side (the kids were just out having fun!), and to be his usual inspirational self.

Shortly after I read that exchange, I read a passage in Griffin's book about a friend of his who ran a local paper. "For the first year," he wrote, his friend "managed to please everyone and offend no one. The paper had prospered . . . [He] had fence-straddled all major issues, if he mentioned them at all." Eventually he "entered into a battle with his conscience, his sense of decency. It became clear to him that though he wrote in his paper what his readers wanted to see, this was not always the truth. . . . As the situation in the South degenerated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation [Brown v. Board of Education], he was faced with a choice--either he must continue more and more to alter truth to make it conform to people's comfort, or he must write the truth in the dim hope that people would alter their comfort to conform to it."

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to face the truth that Loki was trying to get at: in our society, white people are far more likely to be able to walk down the street carrying .22 rifles with impunity than are people of color.

I can already hear the arguments defending that reality. They are the same arguments Griffin dispelled in Black Like Me more than 50 years ago.

We still have work to do.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book #6: The Bean Trees

This week's selection falls into the category of "books people probably think I've already read but I actually haven't."

Unexpectedly, reading this book was exactly what my soul needed this week.

In The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, people are lost, people connect, and people are healed.

"I can't even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that."

"You live in that world," [Estevan] said quietly, and I knew this but I didn't want to.

From time to time, the balance between trying to make a difference and preserving my own mental health gets precarious. Lately, I've been slipping down the wrong slope, and it's overwhelming to even think about climbing back up again to get to a place that is right.

Says Estevan near the end of the book, before we know how things will work out, and giving me fresh perspective, "Mi'ija, in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can."

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book #5: Death Coming Up the Hill

This week's book is a YA novel written by a friend of mine, Chris Crowe, and set in 1968, a pivotal year on so many levels. The main character grapples with the Vietnam War, the hard realities of racism, and the breakup of his parent's marriage. The story is told entirely in 976 haiku. Here's why:

There's something tidy
in seventeen syllables,
a haiku neatness

that leaves craters of 
meaning between the lines but
still communicates

what matters most. I 
don't have the time or the space
to write more, so I'll

write what needs to be
remembered and leave it to
you to fill in the 

gaps if you feel like 
it. In 1968
sixteen thousand five

hundred ninety-two
American soldiers died
in Vietnam, and

I'm dedicating
one syllable to each soul
as I record my

own losses suffered
in 1968, a 
year like no other.

Honestly, it was an emotional read.

This in part because we are still going around and around and around with essentially the same things that divided us back then. Civil rights. Enemies both real and perceived. Militarization. Profiteering. I can't breathe. War and unrest. Marriage equality. Je suis Charlie. Controversy over the film American Sniper.

But let's not forget we survived 1968.

Well, some of us did. Among others, the book reminded me, sixteen thousand five hundred ninety-two American soldiers, three black youth in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and untold numbers of Southeast Asians didn't.

Still. We do survive.