Today is my birthday! I was going to be all low-key about it—just let it slide by without a mention. But when I noticed it would fall on a blog-posting day, I couldn’t resist sharing some birthday thoughts with you.
Besides, this one’s a biggie: 70. Just typing that number makes my jaw drop. Me?? 70?? With the dicey health history I had from age 17 on, there were times I doubted I’d ever see this many candles on my cake. Yet as the years piled up, I allowed myself to hope—and then believe—I just might.
When I did envision myself at 70, I imagined I’d be living a slowed-down, reflective life, sifting through mementos and old photo albums, processing the past, while practicing meditation and yoga to keep me grounded in the present. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d be so involved in new projects and interests and so jazzed about what’s still ahead.
It helps that we live in a community of energetic, engaged people around my age and older who are doing interesting things: playing and recording music, making art, writing and illustrating books, tending gardens, devoting time and talents to worthy causes. (By the way, if you missed my post on Bea Cordle, an inspiration to us all at 90+, be sure to check it out.)
Last year, the stars aligned to make good things happen with my writing and photography. Now, looking forward to the publication of my memoir, Mango Rash, later this year, I’m loving the idea of being a debut author at 70. Toward the end of last year, I also achieved my goal of hiking 50 miles of the North Country Trail, earning that coveted patch for the vest I wrote about in a previous post. This year, I’ve signed up to try for 100 miles (and another patch!), and though sub-zero temperatures and icy trails have set me back lately, I’ve at least made a start toward that goal.
Yet in spite of my undampened enthusiasm for projects and passions, this time of life does feel different in some ways from my earlier years, and I do feel the need to take time out for reflection, for putting things in context and looking back as well as forward.
In that spirit, Ray and I have been looking through all my photo albums, in order. They start with photos from before I was born—ancestors, my parents’ early lives—and continue up to 2003, when we switched from film to digital and I got tired of sticking pictures on pages.
Though I’ve dipped into these albums from time to time over the years, I’ve never gone through them this way, one after another, in the span of a few weeks. Doing that now, I notice threads that run through the decades. One is my love of nature, from childhood romps in the woods to more recent treks on nearby trails. Another is appreciation of art, evident in snapshots from settings that range from tony sculpture gardens to funky street fairs. Travels—around Michigan and beyond, by motorcycle, RV, or other conveyance—are another theme.
Most meaningful, though, are the faces that keep showing up, year after year, in different situations and places: the friends and family members with whom I’ve shared both celebrations and somber occasions. It's gratifying to realize how many of these people I'm still in touch with and have talked to or exchanged email with in the past week alone. Remembering the roles we’ve played—and continue to play—in one another’s lives gives me a deep sense of connection.
Within the pages of my photo albums, I also find reminders of the losses that come with a long life. So many faces in those photos belong to people who have passed from this life and whose presence I miss. At this time of life, the losses come closer together, and the bonds among those of us who remain grow stronger.
When I embarked upon this photographic time trip, I didn’t give much thought to its significance. It was just one of those “someday, I’ll . . . ” things that I felt like doing now. Now, as I pore over pages, I realize what a profound experience it is to look back over a lifetime and contemplate what it's all been about. At a time when it sometimes seems things are falling apart, there's also a sense that everything's coming together.
As I anticipate the coming year—and years—it's with a keen awareness that there's really no way of knowing what may come, and no point in either worrying or fantasizing about what-ifs.
All I can say for now is, "So far, so good."
Share your thoughts about the stage of life you're experiencing.
Today’s visitor, Kelly J. Beard, is an author whose writing I have admired since we met in a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books two years ago. Along with the other members of the class, I was a finalist in the festival’s literary contest, and Kelly won second place for an essay later published as "Os Sacrum" in Santa Ana Review.
When I learned that her memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. The book, which debuted last November, is a remarkable story of finding her way in the world after growing up in poverty, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion. The story is compelling, and the writing masterful.
I’m delighted that Kelly has agreed to answer questions today about the writing and publication of An Imperfect Rapture.
Writing has been part of your life for a long time, yet your career was practicing employment discrimination law. Are there skills you developed as a lawyer that also serve you well as a writer?
It’s funny, but my latent love for writing probably served my legal work as much as (or more than) my legal work served my writing. A huge part of my litigation practice was writing motions and briefs, basically marshalling the facts and law into a persuasive story. Thinking about this has just reminded me of a legal writing technique I used while writing my memoir, An Imperfect Rapture. As you know, the writer’s ability to infuse her story with insightful reflection is the very essence of memoir. As opposed to the kind of writing approaches one might take in writing biography (“Just the facts, Ma’am”) or fiction (“Show don’t tell”), memoir’s marrow requires a measure of telling beyond the facts.
As I struggled to find ways to add reflective texture to my story I sometimes used a loose version of a writing technique taught in law school called the “IRAC” method. In short, the IRAC method requires the writer to identify the issue (describe the facts) and then to analyze those facts in light of the law. The analysis part of the IRAC is really quite similar to the memoirist’s reflection.
But to get back to your question, the real skill I developed as a lawyer that served me as a writer was self-discipline; the day-to-day commitment to sit at the computer (or wherever) and work on something you know won’t be finished that day (or year, or maybe even decade) because you believe in what you’re doing. That’s the real work of both practices.
How deeply did you have to dig to bring forth the memories you recount in An Imperfect Rapture? Were they close to the surface or submerged? What helped you access those memories?
I started writing An Imperfect Rapture in my early-to-mid 50s, so the events I was writing about were anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. Like a lot of people—particularly, I suspect, people who had difficult early experiences—I submerged so much of those early years under layers of busy-ness, mostly trying to be a decent mom and lawyer. I hadn’t really thought about writing memoir. I used to write poetry and short fiction, and had started a couple of novels before practicing law. So my thought was that I’d write a novel when I finished practicing law.
All my life I’ve struggled with depression, but for most of my “mom” and “lawyer” years it was easy to stay distracted. I think I was also invested in trying to give my daughter a different experience than I had, so I never talked to her about the events in my memoir. She hadn’t lived in the shame of poverty or experienced the confusion of wildly erratic and unstable parenting, or the violence of their religious faith. When she left home, I fell into one of the worst depressions I’d ever had. And that’s saying something.
I finally found a brilliant therapist who is probably responsible both for saving my life right then and for getting me to write the memoir. I remember sitting in his office one day weeping over the distance between my daughter and me. My expectations of her and our relationship was unhealthy, I realize now, but at the time I felt utterly abandoned by her and betrayed by life. I told the therapist that I was thinking about writing to her—telling her how much I loved her, how irrelevant I felt in her life, how sad I was. I expected him to say, “Good idea, even if you don’t send the letter.” Instead, he looked at me and asked, “What doesn’t she know about any of that? What could you tell her that she doesn’t already know?”
And that’s the book, really.
In the book's acknowledgements, you mention “that first scary thought, maybe I'll write a memoir . . . ” What scared you about the prospect?
The scariest part was knowing I’d have to reveal this whole other life, this person and past no one—not my friends or colleagues or even my own daughter—knew about. I also have a pretty fractured birth-family. Only one of my siblings still talks to me; two haven’t spoken to me for decades. Although my father died in 1996, my mom is still alive, and I didn’t want to hurt her. It felt a little like deciding to pour gas on the charred remains of our family.
How did you move past that fear enough to write your story?
For one thing, I pretended I was writing for the very limited audience of my daughter and perhaps any child she might have, and that they would only read it after I was gone. I focused on telling the truth with as much beauty (skill) as I could muster. And I figured I could keep it from my mom. She’s 90 and doesn’t use the internet. Also, the more I wrote, the more committed I became to that Aristotelean ideal of truth and beauty. That ideal was hugely important in helping me work past any lingering sense of grievance and find a way to be honest with the reader about these deeply complicated people and experiences.
Take us through your journey from initial idea to publication. How long did you spend writing and revising the book? What avenues did you explore in pursuing publication? How did you come to be published by Zone 3 Press?
As I mentioned, the initial idea occurred to me shortly after my daughter started college in 2010. I was still practicing law, but I had my own practice and was able to scale back. I read somewhere that Virginia Woolf wrote two hours a day, always in the morning. She claimed not to have enough creative steam to carry her past the two-hour mark. I took her cue and wrote for two hours each morning (except Sundays—some things never leave us) and always before work or even reading email. The few times I tried to change this schedule either by working first or peeking at email before writing, I lost my creative energy for the day.
After a few years of working on it, I thought I had a pretty solid manuscript. In the summer of 2013, I attended a Master Class with Emily Rapp Black in Taos. The manuscript was 450 pages long. Emily critiqued the entire manuscript (as did the other workshop participants). Emily’s critique was brilliant, and I spent the following year working on the areas she suggested.
Then, in the summer of 2014, I attended a workshop in Tucson. It was affiliated with the Tucson Book Festival and the workshop leader was Rigoberto Gonzalez. It wasn’t a Master Class, so we submitted short (20-page) essays rather than entire manuscripts. I submitted a section of the manuscript. Again, here I was with a truly amazing teacher giving me advice I couldn’t have come up with on my own. As a consequence of those two workshop experiences, I figured out I was not one of those (lucky!) people who can write themselves into the craft. I needed a good teacher (or teachers) or I’d be stuck—never really knowing what or why parts of the manuscript weren’t working.
That’s when I decided to go into an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program. Please hear me when I tell you that I realize some of the most talented writers I know (and have read) didn’t go through MFA programs. I don’t think they’re for everyone. But at that point (I was moving into my later 50s), I didn’t think I would learn the craft sufficiently without significant guidance.
That winter, I entered the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. It was a pretty mixed bag, and while I had two fantastic advisors during my tenure there, I also had a couple that weren’t worth the tuition. But I went to tons of craft talks, studied work I might not have found otherwise, and worked diligently at learning the craft and revising An Imperfect Rapture. I ended up submitting the manuscript—essentially re-written and 100 pages “lighter” than what I’d submitted to Emily three years earlier—for my creative thesis in 2016.
At that point I thought, OK, this guy is ready to go. I started querying agents and submitting to a few contests. I don’t know how many agents I queried, maybe 30 or 40, but no one was interested. I think to a certain extent the gatekeepers—the literary intelligentsia, if you will—have a bit of a herd mentality. And, of course, it’s all about making money in that world, so increasingly agents make “safe” choices, a fact evident by walking into any bookstore and seeing how the genre has been cannibalized by celebrity memoirs.
So I started sending queries to independent and university publishers and also entering a few contests that were being judged by people whose work I loved. I don’t know how many contests I entered (not that many because it costs money to enter and it too often felt like a boondoggle), but An Imperfect Rapture was a finalist in two other contests before I submitted it to Zone 3 Press. Janisse Ray was the judge that year (2017). I’d read several of Ray’s books, and she was one of my idols. Her work is not only breathtaking, but important. By Important I mean necessary. So, when I saw the ad for the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, and saw Ray was judging, I knew I wanted to enter.
Actually, I almost didn’t. By the time I saw the ad, the deadline was only a week or so away, and there was a page limit of 300 pages. I’d spent two years largely re-writing the manuscript, but also cutting, culling, and winnowing it down from 450 to about 385 pages. The thought of getting it from 385 to 300 pages seemed impossible. Let alone doing so in such a short period of time. But I did. I killed way more darlings than I would have dreamed possible.
So there it is. Ray did love it! The darlings weren’t missed. Zone 3 Press is the press of my dreams. But that’s the contest I almost skipped.
What parts of the book were most challenging to write? Were there parts you enjoyed writing?
The hardest part to write, by far, was the end. Mostly because I didn’t know what I was writing about, and I kept trying out possible ends. As you know, the story in An Imperfect Rapture ends when I’m in my mid-twenties. I tried ending at later dates and with later events closing the final scene. I remember that in the third semester of my MFA I was trying to work out the ending, and not to sound all woo-woo or anything, but in addition to writing, I was spending a lot of time practicing yoga, meditating and praying. And at one point while trying to write the ending, I went into a kind of fugue state and wrote the end scenes. (It was the one and only time this has ever happened to me while writing, so I’m not sure I’d want to rely on it as a strategy for finding my way to an ending, but who knows?) I subsequently edited the heck of the rest of the manuscript, but the ending is the only part of the manuscript I could never really edit. It put itself on the page, and I had to leave it alone.
One of the cover blurbs calls An Imperfect Rapture more of a "coming to terms" story than a coming of age story. Do you agree with that description? What does that mean to you?
Oh, I absolutely agree with that description. I couldn’t pin down what the difference is with any precision, but “coming if age” conjures the idea of mastery: “I came, I saw, I conquered,” as opposed to the idea of “I came, I saw, I understood.” I understood. But I’m not sure I conquered.
You write with honesty about living in poverty. What do you think people who've never lived in poverty don't understand about people who are struggling to get by?
The shame of being poor. And the rage. I read somewhere that the average age of death for men who work as coal miners in Appalachia is 46. There’s a reason for that. Poor people are dispensable in this system, and they know it.
At a few key times in your life, someone challenged you to be more than you thought you could be. At other times, people told you that you weren't good enough. Both experiences seem to have motivated you. How did that balance play out in your life?
That’s the mystery, isn’t it? When I was writing An Imperfect Rapture, I spent a lot of time wondering what my life would have been like if just one or two more kind, empathic people had shown up to mirror someone to me I could love and root for, or if one or two more tough-love kind of people had shown up to mirror someone to me I could admire. So, I’m not dead. I had the life I had, good and bad, so at the end of it all, I feel like it was exactly what it was meant to be. One more kind person (“angel”) or one more challenger (“worthy adversary”) and I might be—who knows, on the Supreme Court? The author of ten or fifteen important books? But one fewer kind person or challenger and I wouldn’t be here, I suspect.
What's next for you as an author?
Right now I’m trying to give An Imperfect Rapture a chance to breathe. Maybe all authors feel like this, but I can’t imagine writing anything I love as much as this book. So, I’m trying not to pressure myself about that. Some readers have asked if I’ll be writing a sequel (a lot of years between 24 and 60), but right now, I really don’t know. I’ve written a few essays I like, but the essay form feels a little constraining to me. I’m moving toward another memoir, I’m pretty sure, but I just don’t know what slice of life is calling me to investigate it yet.
Mālo le onosa’i
-- Samoan proverb loosely translated as “patience is a virtue”
I’ve been thinking a lot about patience—and its payoffs—lately. About the years I spent writing and revising and polishing my memoir, and the months of researching agents and publishers, pitching at conferences, and sending out queries.
Friends praised my perseverance, but I sometimes wondered if they were secretly thinking, Isn’t it about time she gave up on this thing and got on with her life? Sometimes I wondered that myself.
At the same time, I kept reading about authors—many of them famous now—who traveled the same plodding path, encountering rejection after rejection until finally they hit publication pay dirt. So I waited . . . and waited . . . and kept doing everything I could to improve my odds until, miracle of miracles, I had my own book contract in hand.
And then I found out still more patience is required. My memoir, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, is due out in October of this year—a wait of another nine months, made up of a multitude of mini-waits. Right now, I’m waiting for my editor’s notes so I can begin another round of revisions. Then I’ll be waiting for more editorial input on final tweaks. And so on, and so on.
Meanwhile, I’m suppressing the urge to fire off nervous-newbie question after question to my editor, knowing that she’s swamped with other projects right now and trusting that she will provide whatever information and guidance I need as I need it. Patience. Patience.
In that spirit, I’ve rounded up an assortment of wisdom on the subject to share with you today.
Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.
- Samuel Johnson
Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.
The creative people I admire seem to share many characteristics: A fierce restlessness. Healthy cynicism. A real world perspective. An ability to simplify. Restraint. Patience. A genuine balance of confidence and insecurity. And most importantly, humanity.
- David Droga
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
- Lao Tzu
Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.
- John Quincy Adams
The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.
- Arnold H. Glasow
Having patience is one of the hardest things about being human. We want to do it now, and we don't want to wait. Sometimes we miss out on our blessing when we rush things and do it on our own time.
- Deontay Wilder
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
- Saint Francis de Sales
If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.
- Hal Borland
Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.
- May Sarton
Patience is the companion of wisdom.
- Augustine of Hippo
Despite the common misconception, having patience doesn't mean making a pact with the devil of denial, ignoring our emotions and aspirations. It means being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that's unfolding, rather than yanking up our carrots, ripping open a budding flower, demanding a caterpillar hurry up and get that chrysalis stage over with.
- Sharon Salzberg in “The Power of Patience,” Awakin.org, February 10, 2014
The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.
- Erik Erikson
Born and raised in Michigan, photographer Malia Rae has returned to her roots for an exhibit at Artsplace in Fremont. Roots have an even deeper meaning for Malia, whose fine art photography stems from her love of nature.
The daughter of Sue and Al Schneider of Newaygo (Sue is one of the Monday morning yoginis, by the way), Malia has shown her work at the city-wide, international art competition ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. The Artsplace exhibit, “Photography from the Heart,” which runs through February 2, is her first in Newaygo County. A meet-the-artist reception is scheduled for Thursday, January 24, 6:00-7:30 p.m. in the Jansma Gallery at NCCA-Artsplace, 13 E. Main St., Fremont.
I’ve invited Malia here today to tell us about her work.
So much of your work is nature-inspired. How did your appreciation of nature begin, and how has it developed over the years?
It definitely started with my parents, my dad in particular, because it was his upbringing. My father’s love of nature influenced and shaped our entire family. Growing up, we spent a lot of time in the woods. We didn’t get a lot of TV time, we were always told to go outside and play. Every vacation we took, we were camping—roughing-it camping with no running water, no bathrooms, no “campsites.”
As I got into high school, I resisted and pushed against spending time in nature. I wanted to hang out with friends, go to games, and be social. In college, when I was on my own, I quickly came back to my roots, enjoying spending time adventuring in the woods. I spent 10 years in Chicago, and Lake Michigan was my saving grace. When I moved to Texas, I bought a state park pass and started spending as much time as I could in nature. It was just like coming back to myself. Then I really appreciated all the time we had spent in the woods growing up, and I had more appreciation for my parents and what they did with what they had.
Now I feel like nature is my church, where I go for sacred space.
How did photography become your life’s work?
I went to school for photography and received my BFA in Advertising Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. After graduation, I worked for other photographers, learning the ropes, assisting with everything from architecture to food photography to regattas.
Then I moved to Chicago and started shooting on my own. Around that time, all my friends in photojournalism were getting laid off from newspapers, so they started doing wedding photography as a source of income. I had assisted on a couple of weddings when I was in school, and it was horrible. Not fun. I remember saying, "I’ll never in a million years do this." But then once the photojournalists started doing it, and I started seeing the documentary-style shooting they were doing, I reconsidered.
I had been photographing dogs for fun, and for my love of them, which lead me to doing photography for PAWS Chicago—Pets Are Worth Saving. People who saw the dog photos had been asking if I ever shot weddings. Once I saw what was going on in the industry with wedding photography, I thought, “I could try this.” So in 2007, I launched my own business, and it took off from there.
On your web site, you say that you’ve been studying love for some time. Tell us more about that.
Sometimes when you’re involved in what you’re doing, you can’t see the bigger picture. There was a time when my life took some drastic turns, in terms of everything changing as fast as you can snap your fingers. Within a year after that, I began looking at things with a broader perspective, and I realized that the whole time I’d been shooting weddings, I was actually studying love. Every couple communicates differently and shows love differently, even within their families. No two couples are the same. It really showed me a more dynamic range of what it’s like to show up and love someone or be loved by someone. Love is this intangible thing, but it’s also very real. Around the time I started having a new perspective, I also began the quest of finding hearts in nature, and it started to all make sense: I’d been studying love for a really long time without even knowing I was doing it.
It’s so interesting how it all dovetails.
I never would have chosen weddings. I never set out to do them. I resisted them at first, then fell in love with them and the people they brought into my life. And it wasn’t like I set out to do this whole thing with hearts. That came about because I was so down and depressed and struggling to find my way, and I knew there was something bigger and greater, and I knew I was capable of more. I was reading human potential books, listening to interviews, and looking for direction when I came across the phrase, "What you look for in life you find." Something nudged me to explore this concept more in my life. I decided to start looking for naturally formed hearts in my daily life. Initially I couldn’t even find one heart, not one. For three months I searched desperately everywhere I went. At that point, I was thinking, “This is total BS, they are all making this stuff up, I’m going to burn all the human potential books, and stop listening to the interviews. This is not working.”
It wasn’t until I left Chicago, on the first hike I did on my own in Austin, that I found a heart-shaped leaf. When I saw it, I had chills up and down my spine. What I’d been desperately searching for, I found in this one leaf, and all of a sudden that started to change everything.
Do you find that different people respond differently to the various heart images?
Yes, for sure. Sometimes, interestingly enough, it takes people a couple of minutes and then it’s like, “Oh wow, all of these are hearts.”
At ArtPrize 2016, we had 150 heart images, and there was definitely a handful of people who came through and took a while to figure it out. But yes, different images speak to different people. That’s the beauty of it all. These hearts transcend race, religion, gender, and politics. They have the ability to speak individually to each unique heart of each viewer.
What I’ve also found since I’ve been doing this project is that a lot of people have different things show up in their lives, whether it be hearts as a symbol or something else. I met a couple who find nickels everywhere. After their daughter died really young in a hospital, they walked out and they found a nickel, and they felt it was her speaking to them. Now they find nickels everywhere. To me, that’s amazing—I’ve never found a nickel in my life.
In that way, this project has opened up a way of communicating with people who also have a sign or a symbol or something that speaks to them, letting them know they’re on the right path, they’re loved, or that there’s something more, and to keep moving forward.
What was the experience of being in ArtPrize like?
It was so fun because that was the first big installation I did with the hearts. We had a 10 x 15-foot wall, with 150 8 x 8-inch metal prints of hearts mounted to float off the wall. That was the first time when, assembling all the pieces, I felt like it was bigger than me. Once they were up, I was like “Whoa! They’re mine and I photographed them, but they almost don’t feel like mine anymore. In a large collective, they took on a life, a pulse, and a breath all their own.” The people that came and that I connected with, some of them I’m still in touch with to this day. That’s where I started to be inspired to do more installations—trying to get into hospitals and other healing environments or public spaces like airports, to send more pieces of love out into the world.
I did have a 70-piece installation in the Austin airport. That was just fantastic, too, a space with that much traffic. The pieces just take on a life of their own once they’re out there. I’m trying to find out more ways to get them out there. They keep evolving, too, as I keep moving forward with them.
Are you still finding heart images?
Yes, all the time. I mostly only post and share ones in nature, but I also find them in other places. In fact, there’s not really a place in my life that I am not finding these signs of love.
I think what’s surprising me the most now, though, is the people that find them and take a picture and send it to me. People I don’t actually know that well personally, and also other people’s kids! I had friends who were vacationing in Alaska, and their son was scouring the beach. He finally came running to them with a black, heart-shaped rock and said, “This is for Malia.” My niece and nephew, also will find them on their own and grab their parents’ phone to take a picture and send it to me.
That stuff blows my mind. It’s shocking. Because in some ways I was the anti-heart girl, and the fact that now people see a heart and associate me with it, that’s wild. It warms my heart, makes me smile, and inspires me to keep pressing on even when I’m not sure where I’m heading.
Your Soul Nature project offers a unique perspective on both human nature and Mother Nature. How did that project come about?
Even when I was back in school shooting film, I always loved alternative processes like multiple exposures—shooting one frame of film and not advancing the camera and then shooting another frame over it. I had experimented with taking parts of a human body, like somebody’s legs or knees and putting them with, say, a cactus. So I always had this idea of wanting to mix Mother Nature and human nature, but I never really had the time or resources to do much with it, and with film it was so different. When Canon came out with their Mark III cameras, it became possible to do multiple exposures in-camera. At that time I was ready for an upgrade. As soon as I got the digital camera, I started playing around with the technique.
At first I thought I could do it on projects for my client base, but that did not work out very well. So I decided, if I really want to do this, I need to take time. For one whole month I got up every single morning a couple of hours before sunrise and went out to the state park. At first I was using myself as a subject, with a self-timer. I kept testing and testing and testing. As soon as I got the first image that actually worked—that wasn’t just muddy and gray—it was like finding that first heart. It was like my whole body and soul went Yes! Let’s do this.
I haven’t really found an avenue for putting these images out in the world, so really it’s just a personal project. I’ve always said if I could paint, I would. But for some reason I chose a camera as my medium, so I manipulate the camera to do what I would if I could paint or draw. By layering human figures into these natural settings, it’s my attempt to convey the mystical experience I have when I go into the woods.
Even when I think I have the process “figured out,” it’s always surprising me. I expect things to layer up certain ways, and then they come out totally different and it surprise me. I feel like I’m collaborating with Mother Nature. A lot of what’s involved is me just showing up. And then having the courage to ask people to come out to be photographed—that interaction with people is a vulnerable space for me.
Sometimes I have an idea that I think will work, and it might take over a year to actually make it all come together. So then I just keep playing with it and practicing and going out to create new images. In this series, I’ve been able to layer up things from Austin, Texas, from Chicago, and from Michigan. Right now I have four shots that literally encompass the four places where I’ve spent most of my life. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling of that. That starts to stitch together the threads of my life.
How do you feel about showing your work at Artsplace?
I’m so excited. I think it’s just the perfect fit. In my life I appreciate and value places that create community and bring people together. Artsplace does that, not just for artists, but for anyone who wants to be creative or wants to learn different techniques.
What kinds of things do you do to recharge your creative energy?
Yoga is big in my life; I love the body movement connected with breath. It’s like kinking and un-kinking a hose. It really fuels so much creative energy for me. Being in nature is another big one. I try to be mindful and aware of what I’m taking in, so I stay away from negative news. I also try not to look at other photographers and what they’re doing so I don’t compare myself to them. But surprisingly, one of the places where I get so much inspiration right now is all the science that’s coming about our bodies and our hearts and the heart-brain coherence. That you can be within a few feet of somebody and your hearts start to synchronize. The heart’s intuitive intelligence will actually try to get in rhythm with those around you. That blows my mind! So I go to lectures and workshops and try to saturate myself in information that feels good while continuing to learn and evolve myself. I get so excited, it makes my heart explode inside out with happiness.
What I want to do is create art that ignites the soul in that way. Sometimes it can be just one little thing that sparks the fire inside that makes you feel Yes! Anything is possible.
We’ll replace our old, slothful habits with shiny, new diet and exercise regimens. We’ll be kinder, calmer, more generous and patient. We’ll work harder, or work less, depending on our situations and motivations. We’ll see new places and learn new things.
In short, we’ll be far more fabulous in 2019 than we were in 2018.
It’s an appealing fantasy, and I’ll admit, in past years I’ve made long lists of goals that ranged from personal improvement (find positive ways to deal with conflict; let go of resistance and cultivate lightness) to artistic (make a dozen new collages; take a dance class; write a poem every day) to niggling tasks (keep up on paperwork and email; sell or donate excess stuff).
The trouble was, year after year, I grossly overestimated the amount of free time and energy I’d have to devote to all my aspirations and underestimated the time that would be taken up with doing the same old, necessary things week after week. I also tended not to take into account how little enthusiasm I'm able to generate for such tedious tasks as the aforementioned paperwork and email.
Reviewing my list at the end of each year became an exercise in frustration. While I made progress on a number of projects and even finished some, I found myself carrying many of my goals forward onto the next year’s list, year after year after year.
So just as I scrapped my bucket list, I resolved to stop making resolutions.
Still, a new year seems to warrant some kind of intention-setting ritual, even if it’s nothing more than a mental exercise. In that spirit, I’m making a new kind of list, a modest tally of five things I want to carry forward with me from last year into this year and five things I want to let go because they no longer serve me (if they ever did).
Here goes . . .
FIVE THINGS I WANT TO BRING WITH ME FROM 2018:
FIVE THINGS I WANT TO LET GO OF:
What do you want to hold onto and get rid of in 2019?
Do you have your own year-end or year-beginning rituals?
All images used with this post are free-use stock images.
It's a busy time of year, wouldn't you agree? You've got places to go, people to see. I've got stuff to do. So instead of burdening you with blather, I'm making my holiday gift to you a visual one. Today I'm sharing some favorite photos from our trip out West last fall.
But before we head West, some photo-related news: Copies of my photo book, "Nature by Nan," are now available for purchase at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Cafe in Croton. The 8x8-inch hardcover book contains 20 of my photos of local flora and fauna.
I hope to soon add copies of my second photo book, "Nature by Nan, Volume II," and to make both books available for order on this website. Stay tuned.
Now, let's head out West!
What are some of your standout memories from the past year?
Around this time last year, inspired by year-end "Best of . . . " lists, I compiled my own list of standout books I'd read during the past twelve months. I didn't rank my books—on that point I have to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who has compared picking five favorite books to "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I listed ten books I found memorable for any number of reasons: the writing was exceptional, the story was engrossing, the tale was told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I couldn't explain. That's what I'm doing again this year. A couple of the books on this year's list were written by friends, but that's not why I'm including them. They're on this list of books I want to tell you about because that's where they deserve to be.
Last year I limited my top-whatever list to ten books. This year I'm being more generous and giving you a baker's dozen. About half were published in the past year; the rest have publication dates ranging from 1960 to 2017. I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I look at the choices on my list, I see that several deal with pivotal periods in history, people making a life in unusual situations, and the challenges of overcoming adversity and finding a place in the world.
Just as I wrote last year, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2018? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
A Baker's Dozen Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2018
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. Burdened by crushing student debt and inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas took off to Alaska, where he scraped together enough money from odd jobs—cook, tour guide, and the like—to repay his loans. Finally debt-free and determined to stay that way, he enrolled in graduate school and bought a used Econoline van that became his mobile dorm room for the next two years. What began as an experiment in frugality became much more: an educational experience in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You might think the title and subtitle say it all: American boys, boat, epic quest, 1936, Berlin, Olympics. You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, right? But how it turns out is not the whole story. The beauty is in the details of this tale about a ragtag team of working class kids from the Pacific Northwest who learned—literally—to pull together, challenging elite rowing teams from the East Coast and Great Britain and ultimately defeating Hitler's vaunted rowers in the Olympics. Like a good novel, this saga portrays characters in ways that make you really care how things turn out for them. And just as I couldn't have imagined—until I read Barbarian Days last year—being engrossed in descriptions of one surfing wave after another, I could not have imagined—until I read Boys in the Boat this year—getting so wrapped up in descriptions of boat races. Yet I found myself riveted until the last page.
Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes. One reviewer described this book as a "fairy tale turned survival story," and that's an apt characterization. Barnes's childhood world of opulence and privilege in the Philippines is shattered when a monsoon hits with destructive force, her father leaves, and her mother takes up with a shady character. Still a child, Barnes is forced to fend for herself, navigating not only complex relationships with flawed people, but also such practicalities as finding fresh water. Hers is an inspiring story of resilience.
Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson. This book is also a story of resilience and adaptability, but it's almost a mirror image of Monsoon Mansion. Rickardsson, née Christiana Mara Coelho, was born into abject poverty in Brazil and lived with her loving mother in forest caves for the first seven years of her life. Her mother did the best she could, but eventually Christiana ended up in an orphanage. Adopted by a Swedish couple and taken home to Sweden, she was swept into a life that could not have been more different from her earlier years. The story of how Christiana/Christina adapted and came to terms with her dual identities is both heart-rending and heartening.
Listening to the Bees by Mark L Winston and Renée Sarojini Saklikar. I am truly blessed to have so many talented friends who find the most interesting outlets for their creativity. My bee buddy Mark Winston just keeps amazing me with his ideas and output. You may remember Mark from his guest post on collaboration, "Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs." Listening to the Bees is the delightful fruit of one of his collaborations. Merging Mark's scientific knowledge with Renée's poetry, the book explores the challenges to bees in the modern world—and to humans living in complex societies. That's all I'm going to say about this book right now, because I've promised to devote a more space to it in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. Not long after seeing the film "The Post," which dramatizes The Washington Post's struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, I was browsing at Flying Bear Books and saw a stack of copies of this autobiography by Katherine Graham. Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) was at the helm of the Post during both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate exposés. I snapped up the book and devoured it, fascinated not only by Graham's accounts of these two infamous periods of history and their relevance to current times, but also by the insider's view of a bygone era of journalism and the story of Graham's own evolution from awkward child to overshadowed wife to confident and competent businesswoman.
Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll by David A. Carson. I didn't live in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, but the city and its music were certainly on my radar and in my record collection, even when I was more than six-thousand miles away in the South Pacific. Carson's chronicle of Detroit's music scene and its ties to the culture and politics of the time makes for an engrossing read—especially fun for me because when I finally did move to Detroit in the early 1980s, I came to know some of the people who are mentioned in the book. Though I knew a bit about their roles in the music and political scenes of those earlier times, Carson's comprehensive account filled in the blanks.
The Chicken Who Saved Us: The Remarkable Story of Andrew and Frightful by Kristin Jarvis Adams. I learned about this book when I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle a few months ago, where The Chicken Who Saved Us won the Nancy Pearl Book Award for memoir. I would have bought it and read it for that reason alone, but the cover and the story behind it also drew me in. In this memoir, Adams relates how her son Andrew, who has autism, formed a close bond with a pet chicken named Frightful, and how Andrew's conversations with Frightful ultimately saved the boy's life.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. In this age of fractured attention and information overload, it's sometimes hard to commit to reading a book of four hundred pages or more. Yet that's not the reason I find myself increasingly attracted to extremely short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I delight in the authors' skill in telling a complete story in very few words, and I've started playing around with flash nonfiction myself. In this collection, Fennelly celebrates childhood memories, cultural observations, glimpses into domestic life, and other moments that make life rich.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Yes, I know I just extolled the virtues of short works, but there's also a place for mega-books like this 528-page political thriller. Mysteries and thrillers are not my usual fare. However, the idea of a former president collaborating on novel intrigued me. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton—and I realize there's quite a range of opinion—it's fascinating to read details that only a president would know, and to get a glimpse into how a leader's mind works in a crisis.
An Imperfect Rapture by Kelly J. Beard. I met this author when we both attended a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books, and when I learned that her memoir was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. Kelly has kindly agreed to an interview for an upcoming blog post, so I won't go into detail about the book here, except to say that the writing is exquisite, and the story of finding her way in the world after growing up poor, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion, is remarkable. Stay tuned for more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oh, man. This book sounded so far out when I read reviews of it, I just couldn't imagine getting into it. I know, George Saunders is no slouch, and the book was acclaimed by The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. But come on, a bunch of ghosts—who don't know they're ghosts—gossiping, griping, and skim-walking around a graveyard where they're caught in a sort of purgatory and trying to help Abraham Lincoln's recently dead son Willie escape such a fate? Really? All I can say is, I was hooked from the first page. The fact that I loved the book so much is a reminder that it pays to step out of my literary comfort zone (which for me would be reading yet another Anne Tyler novel—see list below) and take a chance on something completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods—on purpose—and lived alone there for twenty-seven years. Not exactly self-sufficient, Knight broke into nearby cottages for food and other necessities (including lots and lots of batteries), and though locals knew he was around, he and his secluded encampment remained out of sight for all those years. Journalist Finkel pieced together the story from interviews with Knight after he was found and arrested for the thefts. The story of how Knight survived, and the difficulties he faced in trying to readjust to the life that most of us consider normal, is revealing.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
- Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
- A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
- Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love & Vodka by R.J. Fox
- Awaiting Identification by R.J. Fox
- A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
Some place names just make you wonder how they came by those monikers. Take Tongue River, for instance. Or Fourth of July Creek. I Googled that one while working on this piece and didn't find out the origins of the name, but I did discover author Smith Henderson's 2014 novel by the same name. Looks like another book worth jotting down in that little notebook and adding to my to-read list.
In Kellogg, Idaho, there's a circular building topped with an oversized miner's helmet and lantern. Built in 1939, it was originally a roadside diner where workers from nearby lead and silver mines stopped for Coneys and beers. After a stint as a 1950s drive-in restaurant, it closed in 1963, but reopened in 1991 as a realty office, which is what it remains.
Even highway rest stops can serve up some smiles. Weary of construction delays toward the end of our travels last spring, we came across this jaunty fellow in one rest area.
And on our most recent trip, we encountered this frighteningly funny chap at a pit stop. Two truck drivers were preparing to station the skeleton at the controls of a piece of equipment they were transporting. They told me they planned to put a sign on Mr. Bones's back reading "I WAS TEXTING."
I'm not about to change course here, but I do want to remind readers that we have an important midterm election coming up next week. I encourage you to vote!
In case you need more encouragement, here are some other people's thoughts on voting and democracy.
-- Sharon Salzberg
-- Larry Sabato
-- Abraham Lincoln
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
-- Christine Pelosi
-- Dalton Trumbo
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
-- John Ralston Saul
-- Thomas Hauser
-- Jesse Jackson
-- DeForest Soaries
from the heart of the woods
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.
Last Wednesday Wisdom