As part of my year end review, I always make a list of all the books I’ve read during the year and then determine my favorite ten books. I was just planning to publish a list as I did in 2009 (and I will—see below, if you’re impatient). Then I realized I wanted to write more about each of these books and what they mean to me.
I’m making a commitment to blog more frequently in 2010 and I plan to blog each week about a book I am currently reading. I could post these reviews on Library Thing or Good Reads, the sites my friends are using to keep track of books they’ve read and are reading, and I probably will post there as well.
But I don’t want to review every book I read. I hate writing bad reviews (I was a book reviewer for a short time and hated it: both reading and writing about bad books) and I didn’t finish a lot of the books I started last year. I follow famous librarian Nancy Pearl’s rule. She says that up to the age of 50, you should read 50 pages of any book before deciding if it is worthwhile or not. After the age of 50, you can subtract one year for every year you age, so that by the time you are 90 you only have to read 10 pages. Life is too short to waste time reading bad books!
Most of the books on my Top Ten list this year were non-fiction. Only two novelists made it onto my list. That got me thinking. I realized I go to novels for entertainment and story-telling and these days, I get a lot of those desires satisfied by watching TV. Yes, I am about to come out of the closet about my plebian tastes!
When I want short stories featuring a character with a problem, some conflict and a resolution, I turn to court TV and get two or three of these stories in an hour. If I want to experience a longer journey–about a character on a quest, struggling against obstacles, finding allies and mentors, learning lessons and eventually achieving a goal–I watch reality TV shows, like Survivor or America’s Next Top Model or Top Chef. And finally if I want a really good dramatic show, something with the density of a Dickens novel with complex characters, multiple plot lines and layers of theme, I can watch dramatic series like Mad Men or True Blood or Big Love. So maybe next year I will have to write a top ten list of my favorite TV shows. I didn’t even keep track of them this year.
Most of the books on my top ten list are books that changed the way I live or the way I think. I also notice that three out of ten have the word “home” in the title. Not sure about the significance of that but it was a year when I stayed home a lot.
Here’s my list. I’ll do a countdown starting with #10 and working my way up to #1, in the tradition of all Top Ten Lists, over the next ten weeks. By then I should have read enough good books to keep me posting reviews every week all year long.
The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn: Dog Gone It, Thereby Hangs a Tale and To Catch a Thief
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding and the Art of Making Cheese by Brad Kessler
The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter by Linda Grant
Reading the Mountains of Home by John Elder
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell
Circumference of Home: One’s Man Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life by Kurt Hoelting
Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien
I’ve seen many spiderwebs in the last few weeks. At first, I thought I was just noticing them more, perhaps because of a trick of the autumn light. But when I went to my garden, there were webs all over my bay tree. One spider had a striped grub all wrapped up in the middle of the web. I tried to trim the tree without disturbing the spider’s web but I accidentally tore one of the threads and watched the spider scuttle to safety on the topmost twig of the tree. I think it was an orb weaver: a big, round golden spider. It looked very healthy.
A little bit of web research (none of it definitive) suggests that many spiders only live for a year. The orb weavers I am seeing are probably females who are waiting for males to find them so they can mate and lay eggs. The males will die shortly after mating while the females will survive until the first frost. Other spiders, like hobo spiders, hibernate in the winter.
It took me a while to recognize that I had just posted a message to subscribers to my weekly Calendar Companion suggesting they look for an animal ally. So I wondered if I was noticing the spiders because they had a message for me. In Medicine Cards, Jamie Sams and David Carson say that Spider’s message is to create, create, create. That makes sense as I’m currently working on revising a novel, revising one flower essay and creating another one. So I’m definitely in the throes of creative chaos.
Sams and Carson also say the appearance of a spider might remind you to look at what you’ve caught in your web. That makes sense to me as I just learned I was awarded an Artist Trust grant to write the final essay for my book of essays on flowers. It’s the first time I’ve ever received a grant after many applications and I’m delighted.
I got this great photo from Wikipedia. I haven’t been able to achieve a good spiderweb photo yet myself.
I asked the students in my current Slow Time class to take a version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a test which categorizes people based on certain personality traits, because I was curious about how these traits might affect a person’s relationship with time. (As far as I know the MBTI must be administered by someone who is certified in the method; the test I suggested to my students is a free variation which I found at this web site).
I’ve always enjoyed personality tests and have used my understanding of the MBTI for many years, primarily as a way to understand differences between my approach (I’m an INFJ) and that of those around me. Wikipedia has a lengthy article on the MBTI which describes its development and provides charts showing the percentages of types in the general population and the labels associated with the various types.
There are two traits that I’m pretty sure affect tempo, if not approach to time. One is the measure of introversion/extraversion. I’ve been reading a lot about Introverts recently (including Networking for People who Hate Networking by Devora Zack) and the article “Revenge of the Introverts” by Laurie Helgoe in Psychology Today (Sept/Oct 2010)). Introverts need more alone time than extroverts. Zack also encourages introverts to pace themselves, allowing for plenty of quiet time after intensely social activities. (I’ve found that my introversion has increased as I grow older. I used to be able to sustain the extended extroversion of a writers’ conference for a whole weekend. Now I’m a TV-watching-vegetable after one full day.) So introverts would want to plan for solitary time in their schedules.
But those two words—plan and schedule—are problematic for the P’s among us. This is another trait that is expressed in the Myers-Briggs test as P (perceptive) or J (judgmental). The labels are unfortunate as they are often misunderstood. P’s are impulsive and spontaneous, they like things open-ended. I always use the example of cupboard doors. P’s leave them open; J’s close them. J’s love making schedules; they probably love routine as well (I do). But P’s don’t like having things locked down; a full schedule makes them feel hemmed in. They want to be able to choose an activity based on how they feel at the moment.
J’s love calendars and deadlines, schedules and plans. That’s how they get things done. But P’s want to accomplish things as well. I always recommend they use a more intuitive approach to goal-setting, like mind-mapping. You would put the desired goal in the center of a page, then branch out from it, writing in tasks, outcomes and qualities. A P could then feel free (I imagine) to tackle any of the steps in any order.
The other two traits identified in the Myers-Briggs type come from Jung’s four personality types. He believed people had a preference for either Thinking or Feeling (that is acting from logic or acting from the heart) and a preference for either Sensing (practical, hands-on experience) or Intuiting (a more mental, future-oriented approach to the world). I’m not as sure how these traits might affect your relationship with time.
This website which uses the types to discuss dealing with work issues suggests that Sensing types will be more rigid about sticking to a time schedule. I’m not so sure about that. That assumes that time is actually measurable and quantifiable. I would think a Sensing type would be just as likely to eat when hungry (they would sense that it’s meal time) as to eat when the clock says noon. This web site also believes that Thinking types will plan their day rationally while Feeling types would plan their day according to the personal encounters they want to have. Again, I think that’s probably reductive. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say a Thinking type might be more motivated to achieve certain outcomes while a Feeling type would be trying to cultivate a certain quality of experience while moving through time.
What do you think? Can you make any correlations between your MBTI type and your relationship to time?
For years, my holiday calendar contained a reference to the silent, gliding dances of the Bon Odori perfomed during the O-Bon festival in Japan. The image always seemed marvelous to me, and even more so, when I read this fantastic description of the dances written by Lafcadio Hearn, in 1894:
And at another tap of the drum begins a performance impossible to picture in words, something unimaginable, phantasmal—a dance, an astonishment.
All together glide the right foot forward one pace, without lifting the sandal from the ground, and extend both hands to the right, with a strange, floating motion and a smiling, mysterious obeisance. Then the right foot is drawn back with a repetition of the waving of hands and the mysterious bow. Then all advance the left foot and repeat the previous movements, half-turning to the left. Then all take two gliding paces forward, with a single simultaneous soft clap of the hands, and the first performance is reiterated, alternately to right and left; all the sandaled feet gliding together, all the supple hands waving together, all the pliant bodies bowing and swaying together. And so slowly, weirdly, the processional movement changes into a great round, circling about the moonlit court and around the voiceless crowd of spectators.
The Bon Odori dances are part of the O-Bon festival honoring the dead, who return to visit their families at this time of the year. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in Japan (July 15; although in some parts of Japan it’s celebrated on August 15), but it used to be celebrated on the full moon of the seventh lunation in the Chinese calendar, which would be the full moon of August in 2013). Like our Western festival of the dead, Halloween, this holiday mingles several elements: the traditional end of the summer retreat for Buddhist monks, the Full Moon of the Hungry Ghosts, and a midsummer lantern festival. The dances were designed to welcome and honor the spirits of the ancestors; one can see that reverent and otherworldly aspect of the dances in Hearn’s description.
A few years ago, my friend, Susan told me about the O-Bon festival held at the Betusin Buddhist Temple in Seattle. And I finally got a chance to see the dances. My first impression was that they were not particularly gliding. And they are not silent: each is accompanied by recorded music, which is played on a loudspeaker, accompanied by a drummer. The crowd gathers in the street and makes a long shuffling circle around the yagura, a temporary stage set in the middle of the street, from which the dances are announced and where the drum is placed. In Seattle, everyone is invited to participate, even if you don’t know the dances, and so the crowd is diverse, with people dressed in traditional summer kimonos and people in jeans and flipflops, some who perform the dance elegantly, others who look lost and are always off the beat.
Some of the dances are quite playful and whimsical. The Wikipedia article on Bon Odori describes some the various dances, some of which are quite old and others which come from popular culture, for instsance, the Pokemon ondo. Another website, which calls the Bon Odori dances, the spiritual dance in the midsummer night (I love that phrase), describes and provides videos of several types of bon odori dances.
I was a little disappointed in my first Bon Odori, although I enjoyed the friendly crowd, the camaraderie of the dancers, and the generosity of the Buddhist temple which opens its doors to make this festival possible. It has the atmosphere of any small community event, complete with princesses (beautiful young women wearing tiaras and kimonos), food booths, a beer garden, a display of crafts (including ikebana arrangements and bonsai trees), and little kids sitting on the curb to watch the dancers lining the street.
But this year, I attended the festival again with my niece, Shayla, and this time I really did see the gliding dances of my fantasy. Perhaps this was because the temple sponsored practice sessions during the weeks before the event (you can see one in this You Tube video) and more of the dancers knew what they were doing ahead of time. Perhaps it was because of the elegant grace of the dance leaders, women in pink kimonos who walked alongside the dancers, demonstrating the movements.
But suddenly, I could see how the gestures were intended to welcome and honor the spirits. I watched the dancers move slowly along the street, in a gliding, undulating line. And I saw all the elements Hearn saw in 1895: the swaying, the supple hands, and most of all, that sense of otherworldliness. No silence, but the beat of the drum and the repetition of the movements that began to have a trance-like, hypnotic effect. I even got up and danced to one song and felt I had truly honored the ancestors.
This video was not taken in Seattle but at the Bon Odori at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. I think it gives you the feel of the dancing. In LA, they were dancing in concentric circles, which creates an interesting effect. Several of the dancers are very elegant and attentive to what they are doing; others have that dazed look of people just trying to keep up. And from time to time, passers by, oblivious to the camera wander by, making you feel like you are there.
To honor the sixth new moon in the Chinese calendar, the Lotus Moon, I’m posting a photo I took of the water lilies in a pond at Volunteer Park.
I had just been to see “Fleeting Beauties,” an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints (including the famous Hokusai “The Wave” which I sometimes claim as my logo because of my name) at the nearby Seattle Asian Art Museum. I imagine I was influenced by those designs when I composed this photo.
I always spend at least one day during the month of the Lotus Moon, on the lake, in a rowboat or kayak, admiring the water lilies that thrive in Lake Washington.
If you want to learn more about water lilies and lotuses and the distinctions between them, read the article I wrote on the lotus as the flower of July.
Like many historical holidays, Fourth of July seems to have co-opted many of the symbols of the earlier celebrations at this time of year. For centuries at Summer Solstice, people stayed up all night, dancing around bonfires and rolling burning wheels down the hillsides, to honor the sun. On Fourth of July, we set off pinwheels in the street (evoking the circle, the symbol of the sun), wave sparklers around in the darkness (they look like the embers dancing up from a bonfire) and gaze at fireworks blazing overhead late into the night.
Many families spend the daytime hours on Fourth of July, at parks and lakes, enjoying a picnic lunch and eagerly waiting for the sun to set on the longest day of the year. We worship the sun and may pay for our devotion with sunburns.
Both Midsummer and Fourth of July are associated with heavy drinking. In fact, Fourth of July is one of the deadliest holidays in America due to alcohol-related traffic accidents. The traditional Fourth of July BBQ combines many of these elements: drinking and fire and spending hours outdoors with friends and family.
Midsummer has always been a time of revelry and romance. A Swedish proverb says “Midsummer’s night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” The Fourth of July places a little more emphasis on family than on coupling, but there’s no denying the romance involved in lying in your lover’s arms in a grassy park while watching fireworks burst overhead.
Of course, there are many differences between Fourth of July and Midsummer. Midsummer festivals also celebrate flowers and herbs, and often include the element of water (which we acknowledge here in Seattle by setting our fireworks off over Lake Union). Still, when I’m annoyed by the drunken crowds or frightened by the sound of firecrackers exploding, I remind myself this is just the traditional way to celebrate the height of Summer and the glory of the Sun.
In my latest newsletter, I mentioned that I was overwhelmed by the prospect of writing eight or nine articles every month for my Living in Season magazine, and all sorts of readers have stepped forward, offering to share with me their ideas and writing. I am slowly making my way through the responses, and learning so much as I go.
For instance, Debra Redalia sent me a link to her blog, Rooted in Nature, and I loved her last blog entry about a new web site she discovered, Gaisma, (the name is Latvian for “light”)which provides stunning graphs showing the amount of sunlight at different times of the year. I’ve found this information on other web sites but not with such clear visuals.
I played around with several scenarios, including my location (Seattle) and Costa Rica near the equator. In Costa Rica, the difference between the amount of sunlight at Midsummer and Midwinter is 1 minute. In Seattle, it’s 7 and 1/2 hours. I like sunshine but I’m not sure I would like living in a place where the amount of light was so even all year around.
Photo of Golden Gate Park taken during my recent trip to San Francisco.
I took the train to San Francisco to take a one-day workshop on distilling essential oils from plants with legendary herbalist, Jeanne Rose. And I chose the train for two reasons: 1) taking the Coast Starlight is on my list of things I want to do in my lifetime and 2) I hate air travel and I wanted to find an alternative mode of transportation.
Before I left I envisioned the train as a sort of coffee shop where I could sit with my laptop in front of me and read and write, while gazing out the window at stunning scenery. The stunning scenery was there (except for half of the 22 hours it was dark so no scenery whatsoever) but I couldn’t really plug in my laptop and use it at my seat because I had an aisle seat and I didn’t want to drape the cord over my seat mate. And there was no wifi on the train.
My seatmate was a guy named Ted who’s on his way to meet his wife with whom he’s going to drive a semi trailer full of cooking equipment across country for Amma’s summer tour. We chatted for hours. He was as distracting as the scenery. And over dinner I met a man who was born in the same hospital as I was, in the same year, and grew up about a mile from where I grew up. He kept all of us (you’re seated at communal tables in the dining car, unless you’re a party of four) captivated telling stories about the five years he lived in the woods with his wife and kids after he got back from Vietnam, building a log cabin by hand, going out every day to forage and hunt for their food.
But I do have several complaints about the train, besides these pleasant distractions and beautiful scenery (waking up at dawn to see the silhouettes of palm trees against the golden sky—enchanting!). There is no privacy—every conversation you have—by cell phone (which is frowned upon) and with your seat mates or table mates, is overheard. It is impossible to sleep in a coach seat (perhaps it is possible in a window seat but I couldn’t get the conductor to assign me one despite the fact there were plenty in my car).Of course, there are sleeping cars but they are very pricey, especially for a single person.
In fact, the train discriminates against single people. If you’re a couple, you have seats side by side and can sleep draped over each other. But the conductor sat me next to another single person rather than giving me a window seat because he was “saving” those seats for the couples who might board the train later. Also the tables in the lounge car were reserved for two people, which meant I was scolded for sitting at a table with my laptop. I must admit most people used the lounge car as an opportunity to meet and talk to new people and the most interesting conversations were going on all around me. One woman was practicing her Spanish with a Spanish speaker.
However, I’m one of those introverts who is totally drained by too much socializing. I need my time alone to recharge. So the train is not really ideal for me. Also I am no good without sleep and I’ve never been able to sleep in cars or on airplanes, so it’s likely I cannot sleep on a train, even if I had one of those coveted window seats.
I arrived in Oakland totally fried, way too tired to think. Now it’s two days later and I’m sitting in a charming little coffee shop one block from the Haight and three blocks from Golden Gate park and drinking a great latte (all the lattes in San Francisco are served in glass carafes! very European). And doing all the writing and reading I thought I would do on the train.
Tomorrow night I get back on the train for a 22 hour trip to Seattle. I thought about ditching the train and buying an airplane ticket but I just can’t convince myself to get on an airplane. Not since I’ve seen what it’s like to travel along the ground, seeing the landscape through which you’re passing, the junkyards and the fields of grass, the glacial rivers and the back yards of little wooden houses, elk in the meadows and deer in the woods.
The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
For the past month I’ve adopted a new practice of writing down at least one unique moment in every day. I already keep track of my appointments in my calendar, and my accomplishments in my journal. And I record phenological events, year after year, by noting events, like the linden trees that are just beginning to blossom, in a Book of Days.
But I was looking for something different to record in the weekly planner, Leaves from the Tree of Time, that I created for 2010 and so I decided to start recording unique moments, those moments in each day, never before experienced and not likely to be experienced again.
I’m enjoying the fruits of this practice. It helps me notice what is going on around me in an entirely different way. I know poets who write a haiku every day and photographers who take a photo every day (I love Doug Plummer’s daily photos; also the photos of Cate Kerr). And I also benefit as a writer from the time spent choosing just the right words to capture these images as if they were snapshots. In that sense, they are like haikus. I am trying to capture a particular moment (not always seasonal or natural) but in as few words as possible.
Here are some of my favorites:
April 6: A guy walks into Online Coffee and announces that Jesus blesses all of us
April 7: Pepe (the Chihuahua) licks a cherry blossom fallen in the parkway
May 1: I startle a crow, so close I can feel the wind from his feathers
May 2: A bald guy reading by flashlight behind three umbrellas in the doorway of the shoe shop
My recent trip to the beach was full of unique moments. Here are a few:
May 8: A black swan flies over my car on the Astoria Bridge, going south
May 8: Steam rising from the asphalt, sunshine on rain-soaked pavement, Route 26 between Astoria and Portland
May 8: After the rain shower, a coyote in the bushes shakes water off its fur like a dog, Route 26 between Portland and Astoria
May 8: Crossing the Astoria bridge north, it looks like I am driving into the sky
May 9: Floating on my back in the swimming pool, overhead white clouds float by in a blue sky, four birds fly by, high as the clouds and going the same direction. Long Beach, Washington
I spent this past Saturday at an Environmental Writing workshop sponsored every year by the Burke Museum. There were many unique moments in this day as well, for instance,
The pink blossoms in the hawthorn tree after the red-winged blackbird has gone. Union Bay (once know as Tucked Away Inside), Seattle
I haven’t participated in a virtual blog tour before but I’m delighted to be able to feature Mary Sharratt’s historical novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. Yuo may not know this but I’m a devoted fan of historical novels (long ago I wrote historical romances under the name of Nancy Fitzgerald). For over fifteen years I’ve been working on a novel about a witch living in 1642, during the middle of the English Civil War, but I’ve had a hard time with the darkness of the plot and the themes of betrayal and abandonment. So I was eager to see how Mary Sharratt handled this material in her book.
I had even read one of the many earlier novels written about the very Pendle witches on which Mary Sharratt focuses. As with many earlier novels about witches, they are portrayed as evil women who gather in covens to plot the destruction of their wealthy neighbors.
The Pendle witches were victims of one of the first waves of witch hysteria in England, when James I came to the throne, following the death of Elizabeth I (who had her own astrologer on staff, the famous Dr. Dee). James had written a book called Daemonologie, calling for the denouncement of witches and describing how to recognize them. The lurid imagery in this book informed the subsequent trials during which over 500 English men and women were condemned and executed.
I also read the books written by sociologists and historians trying to explain the witch craze. Unlike the fiction writers (who chose the most lurid of details, like naked dances around midnight bonfires, and thus accepted magic as real), these mostly academic writers never considered the possibility of magic. Instead they pointed to changes in society, like the dissolution of the monasteries which had provided care and healing for the sick, and the additional burden on society of the old and sick, especially older widows with no visible means of support. Accusations of witchcraft were blamed on cultural changes, misogyny and greed.
Sharratt has taken the middle way. She absolutely accepts the fact that Bess Southerns (also known as Demdike), the most notorious of the Pendle witches, the matriarch of a family living on the edge of poverty, known throughout the area as a blesser, could heal the sick with charms, what Sharratt calls Catholic folk magic. She quotes several of these in the book; they remind me of the equally fascinating jumble of Catholic saints and pagan charms found in Carmina Gadelica, a collection of hymns and incantations collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Hebrides during the 19th century.
Sharratt also accepts as valid Demdike’s belief in her familiar, who sometimes comes to her as a beautiful young man, sometimes as a brown dog or hare. Sharratt based her descriptions of the magical practices of Demdike and those accused with her on the account of the trial written by a court clerk. In deciding which elements to use in her story, she had to discern the true beliefs from wilder and more sensational statements which were probably coerced during the interrogations the accused underwent at the hands of the local authorities.
While Demdike first uses her powers for positive purposes, eventually she is asked to use her powers to harm and to repel, for instance, to protect a daughter from the unwanted advances of a nobleman’s son. Gradually she becomes as feared as she is appreciated. All the time, Sharratt makes it clear how precarious is her very existence and that of her family, totally dependent on the good will of others, as she has no property of her own, choosing to live in an abandoned, and reputedly, haunted stone tower. It reminded me of the homeless people in my urban neighborhood. Contact with their poverty evokes hostility and fear as well as pity.
Sharratt captures the atmosphere of the place, the flavor of the time, and the sound of the language, both the dialect of Lancashire and the tone of conversation. She tells the story from the point of view of Demdike and her grand-daughter, Alizon, who tries to resist the pull towards using magic, but ultimately brings down the authorities upon her family when she curses a peddler who refuses to show her some pins and he falls down, paralyzed, obviously afflicted by a stroke. The language is colorful and authentic throughout, with a lilt to it and many old-fashioned expressions, for instance, “I made to follow,” “Upon a dark moon,” “Well important it was, that someone remained to tell young folk that the world hadn’t always been the way it was now.”
I asked Mary if it was hard to write the story, knowing the end, that Demdike, her daughter, and her two grandchildren would be tried and die, condemned as witches. She said; “Although it was harrowing to write of the injustice they suffered, it was my duty as a novelist to serve their memory and bear witness. And not just that—to me, their story is transcendent rather than purely tragic.”
If you’d like more information about Mary’s book, she’s created a beautiful book trailer available on youtube: Daughters of the Witching Hill. I’d love to hear about your favorite historical novel and why you love it. And if you post your comment below, I’ll send one person, chosen at random, a copy of Daughters of Witching Hill.