This is the time of year when year-end lists start appearing. Just the other day, for instance, I read through the list of New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017. As interesting as it was to see which books made the cut, it was also informative to learn why those particular books were chosen.
As editor Pamela Paul explained in a Books Briefing email, the top ten are selected for overall quality, not necessarily for their relevance to current political or social issues. "These are books we think should and will endure, books that transcend the current moment and will be read for years to come," she wrote. "That said, it so happens that the themes considered in this year's 10 Best happen to touch on very urgent issues: migration, gender inequality, identity, civil rights, Brexit."
The list inspired me to think about the books I've read this year. But when it came to ranking them, I had to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who put it this way: "Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Yet while I'm reluctant to choose favorites, certain books do stand out in my mind—some because the writing was exceptional, others because the topic was intriguing or the story was told in an unusual way.
So I compiled a list, but I'm not sure what to call it. My 10 Most Memorable Books of 2017? My 10 Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2017? Or simply Ten Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About? Maybe I should just go ahead and share the list and let you decide what to call it.
Incidentally, none of the books on my list was published in 2017. Their publication dates range from 1991 to 2016; I just got around to reading them all this year. And like the writers and editors who selected the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best list, I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I think back on my stand-out books, I realize that issues of identity, gender, clashing cultures, coming of age, and complicated relationships run through most of them.
So now, may I present:
My List of 10 Something-or-Other Books I Read This Year
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard. I read this memoir just before attending a masters writing workshop in Tucson, for which Maynard was the instructor. Though the story itself is engrossing—at age 19, the author entered into a destructive, year-long relationship with J.D. Salinger—I was equally intrigued with the way Maynard wove disparate strands of her life before, during and after the Salinger affair, into a compelling narrative.
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. This is another book I read before heading to Tucson, because Beauregard was also one of the workshop instructors. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have picked up the book, and I would have missed one of the best reads of the year (oops—did I just indicate a favorite?). I didn't think I cared for historical fiction, and I've never read Moby Dick, around which this story centers, yet this tale of Herman Melville's passionate relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne harpooned me and wouldn't let go. Through Beauregard's skillful writing, Melville, Hawthorne, and their cronies come to life as witty, brilliant, complex characters—not at all the stuffy literary figures I had pegged them as. Beauregard even manages to convincingly channel Melville's inner voice without sounding archaic or imitative—an impressive feat of literary ventriloquism (a term I learned from reading reviews of The Whale).
Fakebook: A True Story. Based on Actual Lies by Dave Cicirelli. I downloaded this memoir onto my Kindle for airplane reading, thinking it sounded like a light, enjoyable—perhaps even goofy—read. It was enjoyable all right, but also thought-provoking. The story: Feeling inadequate after reading friends' Facebook posts about their accomplishments and adventures, Cicirelli concocts a wildly uncharacteristic online life for himself, posting about such fictitious exploits as trashing an Amish buggy, running away with the Amish farmer's daughter, and falling in with a religious cult. Before long, the ongoing prank begins to complicate his real life and leads him to explore his true identity, as well as the ramifications of social media.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. After enjoying The Whale, I was emboldened to take on another historical novel. The blend of art, science, and South Seas setting (for at least part of the book) made this story particularly appealing. It's the tale of a sheltered woman who, yearning for freedom and intellectual stimulation, ventures into a world where assumptions are being overturned at a dizzying pace. Like Cicirelli in the book mentioned above, the character of Alma Whittaker discovers much about herself as well as the world she explores.
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. The sheer economy of this book impressed me. In just six chapters, Franzen immerses readers in his growing-up years in the 1970s. From the torment of church camp to the exhilaration of an elaborate prank involving ropes, pulleys, and a stepladder to accessorize the school flagpole with steel-belted radials, Franzen depicts coming of age in all its excruciating and hilarious aspects.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. Well, for one thing, I just never knew there were so many ways to describe waves without being repetitious. For another, South Pacific settings (including my personal favorite, Samoa!) lured me in again. Plus, winning a Pulitzer Prize and being on President Obama's 2016 reading list were pretty high recommendations. In the words of the Sports Illustrated review, "Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery. . . A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard."
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo. Another master of economy, Harjo blends poetry and ancestral stories into her 176-page memoir of early years characterized by neglect, abuse, and confusion. She found solace in painting, music, language, nature and spirituality and grew up to be an award-winning poet and musician. Also, she's from Oklahoma, which wins bonus points from this Okie girl.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. In simplest terms, this is the coming-of-age story of a transgender girl, set against the backdrop of transgender rights in this country. Even more, it's the story of a loving family making its way through an exceptional situation. In particular, the evolution of Nicole's father Wayne—Air Force veteran, Republican, macho man—from denial to acceptance to activism—is deeply moving.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. Dumas paints an affectionate portrait of her family's life after moving from Iran to Southern California in 1972. From hot dogs to Bob Hope to infomercials for weight-loss products, Dumas and her family navigate the American experience with humor and insight.
Plain and Simple by Sue Bender. A display of Amish quilts in a New York men's clothing store so intrigues Bender, a ceramic artist, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the Amish way of life. After finding two Amish families who agree to let her visit for extended home stays, she leaves her mile-a-minute urban life and settles into a quieter existence where no one rushes through chores to get to the next thing on the list and community is valued more than individuality. Work merges with play, sacred with ordinary. Returning to her regular life, Bender searches for ways to piece together—like quilt patches—her striving, busy nature and the calmer way of life she enjoyed with the Amish.
One lesson she learned really struck home with me: Having a multitude of options often makes life more scattered, rather than richer. Something I'm trying to keep in mind as I head into a new year of possibilities.
Now it's your turn. Tell me about a book you read this year.
Other books I read this year (All good, even if I didn't list them above):
Oh, I hope this doesn't come off sounding like a rant. Because I'm talking technology here, and that's a subject that can easily inspire wrath.
I know you've all got your own hair-tearing stories. Me, I've been dealing with a balky internet connection for a several days. Thanks to a lengthy phone session with a charming and patient young tech support guy named Brandon (I'm confident saying "young," because Brandons, Ethans, and Austins are always young, right?), it's working again. Sort of. Sometimes.
These bollixes never happen on days when my online needs are purely recreational. It's always when I'm trying to do Important Things. In this case, I had spent weeks polishing submission materials and was all fired up to start sending out queries to a painstakingly-researched selection of literary agents, hopeful that the just-right agent that I know is out there will offer to represent me and my memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta.
Now, however, the time I'd planned to devote to that endeavor is being eaten up with tech support, shut-downs, and reboots. I could go on—and on, and on—venting about my particular problem, but that's really not my purpose in this post. Instead, what I want to discuss is how technology affects our lives when our devices and connections are working just fine.
I've been considering this matter more than usual after coming across several articles on the subject.
One, titled "Smart Phone, Lazy Brain" grabbed my attention with its title. Written by science writer Sharon Begley and published in Mindful magazine, the article describes a number of studies aimed at understanding how all our Googling, surfing, and flitting from app to app affects our brains, as well as our productivity and creativity.
Perhaps you've heard of the Google Effect? If you can't quite remember what that is or where you heard about it, just Google it.
Ha! Gotcha! Instead of wracking your brain for that information, you let Google do the work. In the process, you undermined your ability to recall a week from now what you just looked up. That's because when you use your brain to remember things, you follow a path of mental stepping stones. Every excursion down such a pathway strengthens connections between neurons and makes future travels on that path go more smoothly. As Begley puts it, "The very act of retrieving a memory therefore makes it easier to recall next time around. If we succumb to the LMGTFY (let me Google that for you) bait, which has become ridiculously easy with smartphones, that doesn't happen."
Then there's the matter of attention. Begley cites this astonishing statistic: Computer users spend an average of only three to five minutes working on an actual task before peeking at Facebook or some other appealing website. Such fractured attention makes it difficult to accomplish anything. Yet ignoring those tempting distractions saps brainpower, too—the same kind of brainpower needed for judgment and problem-solving.
What to do? Author Stephen Elliott took the drastic step of disconnecting from the internet for a full month and described the experience in an article in Poets & Writers magazine.
First came a period of withdrawal, quickly followed by crushing boredom. "I realized I hadn't been bored in years because I'd gotten in the habit of never giving myself the chance," Elliott writes.
Avoiding boredom may sound like a good thing, but boredom leads to daydreaming, which enhances creativity, research shows. In one study, subjects who were bored did better on creativity tests than participants who were relaxed, elated, or distressed. In other research, half the participants were asked to copy numbers from a phone book, while the other half were spared the dreary task. Then both groups were given a creativity exercise. Who came up with most creative solutions? You guessed it: the ones who'd been given the boring chore beforehand.
Elliott didn't resort to copying phone numbers to fill the time he'd previously spent online. Instead, he found himself spending hours absorbed in activities he'd been too scattered to engage in before: reading the New York Times cover to cover, tackling challenging books, writing for hours without interruption.
"I could feel my attention span lengthening," he writes. "I would think about problems until I figured them out."
Eventually, Elliott got back online. The 370 emails that had accumulated during his month of disconnection were mostly junk, but he did appreciate having once again an easy way to promote a fundraiser he was hosting and communicate with contributors to an anthology he was editing. Still, he didn't plunge right back into his old habits. He came up with some guidelines for himself and anyone else who wants to rein in the constant-connection habit and actually get something done:
As for that smartphone that's become like an extra appendage, you don't have to give it up. Just pay attention to how you're using it, suggests University of Michigan psychology professor Ramaswami Mahalingam. His research, featured in a recent article in U-M's LSA Magazine, shows that whether your smartphone use affects your life positively or negatively depends on how mindful you are when you're using the device.
"On the one hand, there is a humanistic impulse to say, 'Oh, it’s awful. The machines are in control,'" says Mahalingam, who teaches an undergraduate course in mindfulness. "But the challenge lies in creating an awareness about how you think about everything, so when you do something habitual you become much more aware of it. As you become more deliberate, you use the phone more deliberately, too."
He recommends loading apps that prompt you to notice and record thoughts, feelings, and things happening around you, especially instances of kindness and generosity. Students who do this find themselves feeling less compelled to look at their phones. That frees up their brains to think about other things and have deeper face-to-face interactions.
"Ultimately," says Mahalingam, "technology creates a broader set of tools to foster interconnection. It should help us see the expanse of who we are, and to adapt to changes with magnanimity and grace."
Is technology a tool or a trap for you? Have you made any changes in your online habits? How's that working for you?
All images used with this post are stock images.
I know. Thanksgiving was last week. But let's carry that spirit forward for awhile. Here are some thoughts about gratitude to keep us in that frame of mind.
Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.
-- William Arthur Ward
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
-- John F. Kennedy, November 5, 1963
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
-- Melodie Beattie
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
-- Albert Schweitzer
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.
-- Marcus Tullius Cicero
"Thank you" is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.
-- Alice Walker
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life . . . and the world.
-- Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude
I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful - for all of it.
-- Kristin Armstrong
One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.
-- Carl Jung
Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.
-- Lionel Hampton
What are you grateful for today?
The 2017 National Book Awards were announced last week, and while I'm always interested in checking out the winners and finalists for additions to my To-Read list, I paid more attention than usual this year. That's because I was rooting for one particular book on the nonfiction finalist list: David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Although Grann's book didn't win in its category, its selection as one of five finalists speaks to the story's significance and the skill with which Grann researched and wrote it. That's reason enough to take note, but there was also this: Killers of the Flower Moon is the book everyone was talking about on our recent visit to Oklahoma. Cousins, classmates, complete strangers—all had read or were reading or were about to read the book and wanted to talk about it. Having just read it ourselves, and still feeling stunned by the story, Ray and I wanted to talk about it, too.
In fact, we wanted to do more than talk, so while in Oklahoma, we made a pilgrimage of sorts to Pawhuska, the town where many of the events described in the book took place. More about that in a moment.
To bring you up to speed if you haven't read the book, it's the true story of a series of murders of wealthy members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. Forced onto seemingly worthless land in northern Oklahoma, the Osage had the foresight to secure collective mineral rights to the property, which turned out to be rife with high-quality oil deposits. By leasing the drilling rights to oil companies, the Osage made a fortune—more than $30 million in 1923 alone. (That's the equivalent of more than $400 million today.)
At the time, the Osage were, per capita, the richest people in the world. They built mansions, owned fancy cars, sent their children to prestigious schools—and attracted the attention of schemers intent on separating them from their money by any means necessary, including mercenary marriage and murder.
Whole families turned up dead from mysterious illnesses, secretive shootings and suspicious fires, as did investigators sent to look into the killings. With more than two dozen people murdered between 1920 and 1924, the killing spree became known as the Osage Reign of Terror.
Eventually, agents from the newly reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation solved the murders. Grann details that investigation and its devastating revelations, then—with the help of Osage Nation members he met while researching the book—goes on to unearth a deeper conspiracy. As Dave Eggers wrote in his New York Times review of the book, "Among the towering thefts and crimes visited upon the native peoples of the continent, what was done to the Osage must rank among the most depraved and ignoble."
Growing up in Oklahoma, I heard stories—both official and personal—about injustices and atrocities committed against indigenous people. In Oklahoma History classes, we learned about the Trail of Tears (as well as the accomplishments of such leaders as Sequoyah and Quanah Parker). Yet I never heard or read a thing about the Osage murders, though Pawhuska is only 80 miles from my hometown.
Apparently, neither did most Oklahomans—including some you might think would have been well aware. At the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, I overheard a conversation between another visitor and guest services representative Pauline Allred, an 87-year-old Osage/Ponca woman.
"I guess you grew up hearing about the murders," the visitor said.
"No," Ms. Allred replied. "We knew something had happened, but no one would say what had happened."
Today, the horrific story is no longer kept quiet; copies of Grann's book are prominently displayed in the window of The Water Bird Gallery in downtown Pawhuska. A monument on a nearby hilltop marks the spot where the Million Dollar Elm once stood. In the shade of that tree, auctions for oil and gas leases were held in the 1920s, with such notable oilmen as J. Paul Getty, Harry Sinclair and Frank Phillips bidding the big bucks that brought prosperity—and eventually tragedy—to the Osage Nation.
Steps away from the Million Dollar Elm monument, exhibits in the Osage Nation Museum document that awful chapter, but place it in the context of a long history and rich culture. When we visited, the museum was preparing to open an exhibit by renowned Osage artist and activist Gina Gray, whose distinctive style blends traditional images with contemporary style. The nearby Osage Nation Cultural Center offers classes in traditional skills such as fingerweaving, moccasin-making, beadwork and ribbonwork, and the Nation's language department is actively engaged in revitalizing the Osage language through classroom and online courses.
Encouraging signs of the Nation's resilience. Yet we also saw signs that controversy continues today, once again involving energy production.
Approaching Pawhuska from the west, we drove through a vast wind farm. In town, we saw placards reading "NO TURBINES." We learned that the Osage Nation has been fighting wind development in the area for years, asserting that the enormous turbines—located on privately-owned ranches to which the Osage still retain mineral rights—are a "scenic blight" on the prairie landscape, and that the wind developments could disturb graves and archaeological sites.
"They're eating up the landscape," said one Osage man quoted in a 2015 Tulsa World article. "They're devouring our history and culture."
Several years ago, the federal government, acting on behalf of the Osage Nation, sued the wind farm developers, arguing that the construction process interfered with the Nation's mineral rights. Turbine construction involves digging a large pit for the foundation, crushing the underlying rock and using the crushed rocks as structural support. Though not a typical mining operation, the removal and altering of rocks does constitute mining, government lawyers maintained, and should not be done without obtaining mineral permits from the Osage Nation.
The initial court ruling came down in favor of the wind developers. But the Osage Mineral Council appealed, and while we were in Oklahoma, the original decision was reversed. For the wind farm already in operation, the developers must negotiate a new lease with the Osage Nation, and any future developments must have the Nation's consent.
How the situation will play out remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, it will be one more chapter in the compelling story of the Osage of Oklahoma.
The bearded man with the gray ponytail sits at a table, alone and looking like he wants to keep it that way. When he speaks, it's to talk about a time in his youth when he decided "I should not befriend new people, because they're likely to die." Even now, he goes on to say, "I still don't get too close to many people."
Flash forward to another scene. Same man, same beard and ponytail, tattoos visible on his forearms, but now he's prancing around in a red tutu over striped pants, sporting a red nose, a pink ball cap and an oversized, polka-dot tie and yukking it up with a gaggle of kids and a bunch of other burly guys who are just as outlandishly attired.
What accounts for the shift between scenes? The man in the red tutu is 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Mike O'Connor, who summoned a different kind of bravery to take part in an experiment in humanitarian clowning, traveling to Guatemala with a group of other veterans to spread smiles in hospitals and orphanages. In the process, he and the other Vets stepped out of the "suffer zone" into a more playful, loving space.
Clownvets, a program of physician Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute, is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, and in a bit I'll tell you how you can help the filmmakers finish, distribute and promote the film.
But first, a bit of background. I first heard about the Clownvets project from my neighbor Mark Kane, a licensed psychologist who has seen from his work with veterans how trauma affects the mind, body and spirit. In fact, it was Mark's exposure to Vietnam veterans as a conscientious objector working with the American Friends Service Committee years ago that prompted him to become a psychologist.
"Post-traumatic stress, in a variety of names, has been with us since the beginning of time," says Mark. "It's not really a disease like polio is . . . It's normal people reacting normally to very un-normal circumstances."
Statistics on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sobering. In the U.S., more than twenty Veterans commit suicide daily. Many more experience physical and psychological symptoms that ripple out to affect their families and communities. As a step toward relieving some of that suffering, Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute came up with the idea of introducing Vets to humanitarian clowning.
Known for his work with warriors experiencing PTSD, Mark was asked to help recruit Vets for the Gesundheit! project. All he knew about Patch Adams at the time was that Robin Williams had depicted him in the eponymous 1998 movie, but Mark quickly learned more about the clowning physician and got onboard with the project.
Getting Vets into tutus and rainbow wigs isn't as crazy an idea as it may seem. The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute bases its holistic brand of medical care on the notion that the health of the individual is closely tied to the health of the family, community, society and world. A leader in the development of therapeutic clowning, Gesundheit! has been sending trained volunteers around the world since 1985 to clown in healthcare settings and distressed communities. They soon learned that it wasn't only the people on the receiving end who benefited from silliness and "spontaneous, interactive play." The clowns themselves—even those who'd started out depressed—came home happy.
In 2015, the first cohort of Clownvets traveled to Guatemala, and the experience was transformative.
"They saw that they could be part of the solution, instead of causing devastation," says Mark. In the film, several of the Vets, including Mike O'Connor, reflect on the experience.
"I never thought that I would interact with people the way that I did," Mike says. "It's probably a good thing for me, because I do like to isolate, and I couldn't there. It brought me a little bit out of my shell and helped me to interact with people once I got back home."
When the first group of Clownvets returned, they helped recruit volunteers for a second trip in 2016.
That's when Chilean filmmaker Esteban Rojas, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Gesundheit! Institute, got involved. What Esteban saw "blew his mind," to quote from an online write-up about the project. "Listening to their life stories, hearing the horrors that they went through, but also seeing how their faces changed while trying the clowning, convinced him that this story needed to be told."
A month later, Esteban traveled to West Michigan to film Mark and some of the Vets in their daily lives and interview them about their experiences. Mark took on the role of producer and has been working closely with Esteban, co-editor Luis Bahamondes, and executive producers Charlotte Huggins and John Glick on the film, which includes material filmed by a different camera crew on the 2015 Veterans clown trip. Veteran Mike O'Connor has signed on to the film project as a consultant.
Another friend of ours, Eldon Howe, is also involved with the film. In his day job, Eldon is owner of Howe Construction, a company that builds ecology-based, disaster-resistant homes all over the world. But he's also a talented singer-songwriter who expresses himself musically through guitar compositions. Some of his music is included in the film's soundtrack—the perfect accompaniment to footage of our West Michigan environs.
I had a chance to view an early version of the film, and to say I was impressed and moved is a huge understatement. Though I had talked with Mark on many occasions about the Clownvets project, I never quite grasped the enormity of its impact until I saw on screen how the Vets and the people with whom they interacted were lifted up through clowning.
Wearing silly hats, splashy costumes and of course, red noses, the Clownvets and Gesundheit! staffers gently coax smiles out of children and adults who are living with serious physical and emotional conditions. They hold hands, play with puppets and blow bubbles and kisses.
As Mark puts it, "the red nose works as an excuse to connect these men and women with love, compassion, laughter and friendship, things that for these heroes seemed forgotten."
"Clownvets" is well on its way to becoming a high-quality, 90-minute feature film, but it has hit a roadblock. Funding has run out, yet there's still more work to be done: filming additional scenes and interviews, finishing the editing, tending to other technical details.
That's where you can help. First, view the movie trailer here. Then, please consider making a donation in support of the project. Visit the Gesundheit! Institute's "Donate" page, and under the heading "How would you like to support our work?" select "Support the Veterans Clown Trip Film Project."
You're also invited see a preview of the film and meet some Clownvets in person at a "Fun-Raiser" this Friday, November 17, 6-10 p.m., at Ferris State University's University Center, 805 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Short of cash? Too far from Big Rapids to make the preview? You can still help by spreading the word about this project on social media. The Clownvets will reward you with a slew of heartfelt smiles, and maybe they'll even blow you a kiss.
* Photos: Gesundheit! Institute
You were all such excellent traveling companions last week, I've decided to invite you along on another excursion. Bring some snacks, settle in, buckle up, and off we go . . . !
First, a bit of whimsy to get us all in good spirits:
Next, we brake for wildlife:
Now, a detour down Memory Lane for some Route 66 nostalgia:
Can't visit farm and ranch country without seeing a few of these icons . . .
. . . and admiring some metal-smithing artistry.
Time to wrap up this tour with a little local color:
Every good trip ends with a peaceful sunset. Here you go:
I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: No matter how alluring your destination, the stops along the way are often just as memorable.
That held true on our recent travels. In between our longer stays in Stillwater, Albuquerque and Memphis (yes, we covered a lot of ground!), we found fascinating diversions in such places as Elk City, Oklahoma; Tucumcari, New Mexico; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. More about those discoveries another day; today we're visiting a couple of places that are even farther off the beaten path.
We happened upon the first while trying to find our way to Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, southeast of Albuquerque. Even with a GPS, it's a confusing undertaking, because the monument comprises three separate sites: Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira.
It helps to get your bearings at the visitor center in Mountainair. After driving so long we were sure we must have missed a turn somewhere, we finally arrived at Mountainair. I figured we'd buzz through the visitor center, pick up maps and move on. But a glance around town convinced me to linger a bit longer.
Though the business district is only a few blocks long, Mountainair is clearly a haven for creative souls. Mosaics and murals decorate walls and fences; sculptures stand in parking lots and protrude from building fronts.
I was particularly taken with one mosaic installation, Reptile Rendezvous, in front of the national monument's visitor center. Created by artists Samantha Baumgartner, Rebecca Anthony and Tomás Wolff, the piece features a larger-than-life snake stretched across the top of a curvy, concrete bench, with smaller ceramic lizards scattered about.
Sunflowers show up in a number of murals around town, a nod to Mountainair's annual Sunflower Festival. With a juried art show, live music (this year by groups including the Folk City Hipsters and Nervous Nation) and a sunflower hat contest, it sounds like a can't-miss event.
Unfortunately, we did miss it, by a couple of weeks. But we weren't too late for lunch, and we were ready for a refreshment break by the time we finished looking around town. We found just our kind of place: Alpine Alley Coffee Shop. The friendly folks, outstanding food and artsy, eclectic décor reminded us of our hometown hangout, Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
The next day, we found another treasure along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail. You may already have read my account of visiting Leroy Gonzales in Golden, but there was more up ahead in Madrid. Though a bit more touristy than Mountainair, Madrid still has a funky, handcrafted feel.
I especially loved the colorfully decorated mailboxes that lined the road.
Ray especially loved Maggie's, the movie set diner where scenes from the 2007 comedy "Wild Hogs" were shot. The building is a gift shop now (Wild Hogs t-shirts anyone?), and the haughty woman selling souvenirs the day we visited was no Marisa Tomei. Still, it was a kick to see the place—and the Wild Hogs Adopt-a-Highway sign on the way out of town.
One of the most memorable highway highlights wasn't a sight at all, but a sound. Just west of Tierjas, New Mexico, we detoured off I-40 to travel over the Singing Road. On this short stretch of old Route 66, rumble strips are configured to play "America the Beautiful," but only if you drive over them at exactly the speed limit, 45 miles per hour.
Having traveled through quite a few amber waves of grain, admiring purple mountain majesties and fruited plains, we felt like singing along. But before we knew it, the rumble strips had run out, the road was back to humming its usual monotone and we were off to see what other surprises the highway had in store.
This month's collection of wisdom is a mixed bag, a reflection of what I've been thinking and doing since we returned from vacation. First came the obsessing over all the things I needed and wanted to catch up on, then the realization that I didn't need to do them all at once. When I settled down enough to set priorities, it was with a renewed commitment to my creative projects, both ongoing and new.
I also spent some time reflecting on our travels and on the benefits of travel in general. And then, because my daily at-home routine involves at least a little attention to the news of the day, I sought guidance to help me keep distressing events in perspective.
Finally, travels over and routine restored, I found comfort in being right where I am, right now.
We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.
-- Etty Hillesum
I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.
-- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave
Work is love made visible.
-- Ama Ata Aidoo
We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist's vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson
You throw an anchor into the future you want to build, and you pull yourself along by the chain.
-- John O'Neal
The more I traveled, the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.
-- Shirley MacLaine
We say, "Seeing is believing," but actually . . . we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can't believe.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.
-- Baruch Spinoza
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is stay home, so we can learn the names of the plants and animals around us; so that we can begin to know what tradition we're part of.
-- Terry Tempest Williams
The little things? The little moments? They aren't little.
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn
What's on your mind as this month draws to an end?
I had barely stepped out of the truck when . . . "GOOD MORNING!"
The voice filled me with warmth on that damp morning when I'd stopped for a better look at an unusual roadside assemblage along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
"Come on in! Take all the pictures you want." The man with the welcoming voice emerged from behind a rustic fence of planks and crooked tree limbs, decorated with railroad spikes, old tires, metal barrels, cast-off toys and colorful bottles and jars.
From there, he hustled me over to the "gold mine," a mirror-backed tunnel that Leroy winkingly told me extends all the way to the Ortiz Mountains in the distance. Then a stop at the cantina, another trompe l'oeil façade of corrugated metal and cow skulls.
When he invited me to step inside a small structure behind the cantina, I didn't hesitate, even before he assured me, "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe." Inside, the walls were covered with tacked-up notes that previous visitors had left in the spiral-bound guestbook Leroy keeps on a table out front. I read a few, then he showed me a plastic storage tub filled with more notes and letters and a collection of photos visitors have taken of him and his surroundings.
"Stay as long as you want," Leroy said as he headed off to tend to his creations. "Just let me know when you're leaving."
By the time we said goodbye—me with a bunch of photos in my camera, Leroy with a few bucks I left in the tip jar, along with my promise to send him some pictures—I was in high spirits.
In just a short visit, this man whose main mission in life seems to be welcoming people into his world, had cast a colorful light on my day. I hope I carried some of that color and sparkle away with me.
We're back from our travels, and do I have a lot to tell you! In coming weeks, I'll share stories of people, places and experiences on the road, as well as some closer to home.
First stop: Stillwater, Oklahoma, my home town, where we attended my graduating class's 50-year (!!!) reunion. I reconnected with friends I hadn't seen since high school and strengthened ties with those I've stayed in touch with.
Every time I meet up with these schoolmates, I feel comforted by our shared past. Many of us have known each other since kindergarten or first grade. We lived within blocks of one another, knew each other's parents, siblings and pets, played countless backyard baseball games and croquet matches, and giggled through many a sleep-over. Other longtime friends I came to know through church groups, scout troops and other clubs, where we learned values that shaped us into the grown-ups we became.
At the reunion, my school friends and I pored over old pictures, remembering carefree days, favorite teachers and a few who were definitely not our favorites. That was fun, but I got just as big a kick out of finding out what my classmates are doing in this current phase of our lives.
Many, I was delighted to learn, are using the freedom of retirement to explore their creative sides.
Terry, who retired from the florist business a few years ago, now applies his artistic talents to stained glass. His wife Robin stitches stunning quilts. The couple hosted one of the informal open houses that are my favorite events during our reunions, and Robin showed us the sunny studio they recently added onto their home. That's where Robin's quilting group gathers and Terry does his glass work (probably not at the same time, I'm guessing).
At another open house hosted by Keith and Holly, Keith told us he spends his time these days "fixing things and making things." When we asked what kind of things he makes, he took us to his workshop and showed us the wood and metal creations he's working on, as well as a few finished pieces. A former CPA, Keith always yearned to work with his hands. Now he's satisfying that desire, and from the way his face lit up when he showed us his projects, it was clear how much pleasure they've giving him.
Kay, a former school library media specialist, spends many hours tending to her flowers at Lily Hill, a 13-acre spread north of Claremore, Oklahoma. Somehow she also finds time to make lovely things, like the striped socks she knitted for me. The colors are inspired by the peacocks that roam around Lily Hill, and the package she surprised me with was decorated with a few of their feathers. Those colors just happen to be my favorites, and the socks were a perfect fit.
Cindi, a longtime dear friend, insists she's not creative. Yet her talent for nurturing friendship takes just as much energy and attention as making physical things. Over the years, we've diverged in many ways, but Cindi's steadfast allegiance has kept us close, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
Which brings me to another thing I want to share about my classy classmates, another thing for which I'll always be grateful.
Our last year of high school was a challenging one for me. I wasn't even supposed to be in Oklahoma, attending Stillwater High School. A year earlier, my parents and I had moved to American Samoa, where we planned to live for two years (that's a whole other story, and trust me, the memoir will be published someday). I was supposed to graduate from Samoana High School and then return to the States for college.
My diagnosis with a life-threatening illness cut short our stay in Samoa, and we returned to Oklahoma at the beginning of my senior year. All of a sudden I was not only the girl who'd lived in a faraway place and returned with a weird accent and strange habits, I was also the girl with the scary disease.
My classmates could easily have shunned me, not out of unkindness, but out of fear. I was a reminder that life was not all parties and pep rallies, that even our young lives could be in jeopardy. But not once did I feel anything but unconditional acceptance. My Stillwater friends sent me cards when I was in the hospital and welcomed me back when I was able to return to school.
Looking back, I realize now just how much open-heartedness it took for them to treat me the way they did. Talking with some of my old friends at the reunion, I expressed my wonder at their compassion.
"It never occurred to us to treat you any other way," one said. "We were just so glad to have you back."
See what I mean about classy?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.