My husband has described his customer Vern as a guy who “can’t find anything good to say about life.” When Vern called Jon’s cell tonight (in the middle of our Date Night) pleading for help with his broken-down truck, I got to experience his outlook first-hand. Jon being Jon, we went to help—which meant giving Vern a lift home and promising to look at the truck in the morning, when it’s light and hopefully up to double-digit temperatures, and when Jon can be dressed to climb underneath.
I scooted to the middle of our truck-seat and Vern hoisted himself up into the passenger seat (the first time Jon picked me up for a date in this truck, I asked him to throw down a rope-ladder!) and we steered our way through the icy neighborhoods toward Vern’s house with his querulous running commentary.
“Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s a hundred and fifty. I don’t know what I’ll do. My property tax just went up, and with all these other bills I have… If it’s not one thing it’s a dozen. I don’t know why that truck won’t start, and you just did the new points too. But the city plowed us in with snowbanks and I can’t get my car out, so I’ve got to drive the truck. I tried to dig out the car and I just tore up my left arm. And my power bill just went up, I guess I’m just not fit to live. Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty….”
Well, you get the gist. As we drove away after dropping him off, I found myself contemplating the idea that there can be a difference between a person’s circumstances and a person’s experience. And that difference might just be outlook. Which brings me to… Continue reading “Internal Geographies”→
Boise Idaho is bearing up under record-breaking conditions this week. We have more snow on the ground than EVER. (Well, at least the “ever” that dates from 1875 when someone started measuring.) We have wind-chill warnings for -25F and more snow on the way, possibly to be followed next week by rain, of all things, and likely flooding… All that to say that I’m not going out much this week!
Aside from my “commute” to the RV park office (thankfully, only a three-minute walk) I’m playing Hobbit and holing up in the cozy confines of our RV! Nevertheless, my mind is free to wander. No, wait—that’s not what I meant. My mind is free to travel, and I’ve decided that this is going to be my Year of the Travelogue.
My mom & Jon & I watched “The Way” (Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez, 2010) during our Christmas visit, and it fired up my already-engaged gears on the subjects of Travel and Experience. I’m ultra-aware right now of the possibilities inherent in living-on-wheels, and the travel-bug isn’t new to me… Even more than GOING places, though, it’s an urge to EXPERIENCE places, which is what that film really explored (in my opinion). And that’s not to exclude whatever place I am right now, even when that might be holed-up-at-home.
For over a week now, I’ve had the Wikipedia-page for “Rihla” open on my iPhone, and it keeps drawing me back.
… the genre of work called Rihla … or the creative travelogue: a mix of personal narrative, description, opinion and anecdote…
I abhor travel guides, but I love travelogues. And I think this excerpt from Arabic culture has nailed the distinction: a travelogue is a creative and personal work. It’s a work about a person’s experience, rather than merely about a place. (It’s what this blog is for me.) Continue reading “2017: A Year for Reading Rihla”→
My mother used to joke that as far as holiday cards were concerned, “the Holidays” should mean not just Christmas, but also New Year’s—and probably Martin Luther King Day, Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day as well. In other words, if the holiday cards got sent out before the end of February, they shouldn’t be considered late. On reflection, it’s interesting to note how frantically guilt-ridden people can become about the Christmas-card “deadline”—particularly given that it truly isn’t a mandatory activity in the first place. It’s a pleasant one, though, and (especially before the advent of Facebook) it certainly used to serve as a way to keep tabs on distant acquaintances and relations.
There’s the potential down side as well: the “traditional” Christmas letter about which people joke (often with gritted teeth), the epistle in which a family boasts of how well everyone is doing, painting accomplishments in rosy hyperbole that leaves the recipients rolling their eyes or gagging… I’m actually blessed with a number of friends and family members who write wonderfully anecdotal and amusing annual letters, so I’ve largely been spared the competitive clashings of those clandestine Christmas combat-cards…
In my turn, I’ll shy away from Tradition by calling THIS our Holiday Card for 2012.
I’m happy to report that Keoni and I finished 2012 Sober (a little over two years now) and Joyful. We’ve been blessed with a great deal more time with our three youngest children than we were able to spend in 2011. If anyone wanted to see the antics we’ve been up to, I’d just refer them to the Kanacles (er, chronicles?) archive here… My only boast is that we keep finding fun in our life!
“Yet time, and showing up, turn most messes to compost, and something surprising may grow.” ~Anne LaMott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
Keoni and I drove our two youngest kids north to spend Christmas with my parents—the first time in a decade that I’d been Home for Christmas. The kids were excited about this, but if it came to a contest of who was MOST excited, I suspect it was a tie between my mother and myself! She posted on Facebook: “The only thing better than going over the river and through the woods… is being the Grandma!”
My family is definitely one for Traditions, so I knew I could anticipate all the same things that made my childhood Christmases so special: baking my Grandma’s vanilla-with-home-made-apricot-jam sandwich cookies, the Christmas tree with all the decorations we picked up in our travels (memories attached to each one), my mom’s Coconut Orange rolls on Christmas morning, the fireside Christmas-caroling-party my parents host every Christmas Eve… And the added layer of enjoyment: watching my kids enjoy the same things.
A visit to my parents is one of the rare occasions when I don’t pack books for a trip—because I know there’s plenty of reading-material to browse at their house! I picked up Anne LaMott’s “Plan B” from my mom’s shelf (a book that’s on my to-read list but not on my own shelf) and enjoyed not only her insights, but the myriad of little ways in which my reading intersected with my life…
One of the topics that regularly features in Keoni’s and my prayers together is giving thanks for the opportunity to regain and re-earn my parents’ trust after our relapse of two-plus years ago—the chance to rebuild our relationship with them. It’s a process that takes time (and showing up), and a process only made possible by their willingness to forgive, and to accept us and love us now, even with our messy past.
My dad (a retired Professor of Agriculture and a dedicated gardener) used to have a hat that said “Compost Happens.” If I were to add a tag-line to that hat, it would say: Compost Happens. But look what can grow from it!
“Things are not perfect, because life is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it’s amazing a lot of the time.” ~Anne LaMott
Breaking Out the Bubbly (no, not the alcohol)
“Another secret [of life] is that laughter is carbonated holiness.” ~Anne LaMott
I’m not a great fan of snow, but the kids adore it. We don’t get a lot of it at home (“high desert” climate–we don’t get much of any kind of precipitation), but 300 miles north we were greeted by a sizable dump of snow the day after our arrival. (Hmm, do you think my word choice—“dump“—reflects my own feelings about snow?) The kids, of course, were delighted, and asked Keoni if he’d join them for a snowball fight after they built forts.
He good-naturedly agreed, and we expected he’d have an hour or so of fort-building time before his snowball services would be called for. Five minutes later, little voices at the back door announced their readiness. Wait, what? You built snow forts already? Well, not precisely snow forts… They tipped the pair of patio tables on their sides, each of them standing behind one, ready to get right to the snowball fight.
Having grown up in Hawai’i, “snowball fights” were not a part of Keoni’s childhood memories. In fact, he shared at dinner that this was his first one. Thinking of the hour’s worth of giggling in the back yard, I once again blessed Keoni’s Hawai’ian-sized heart (and his arthritic bones) for his willingness to play.
“You want to protect your child from pain, and what you get instead is life, and Grace…” ~Anne LaMott
A Welcome Ghost of Christmas Past
“Here’s what the priest said: ‘I promise you it will all work out, in its own perfectly imperfect way.'” ~Anne LaMott
We lost my Grandpa this summer. I still haven’t been able to write about him—largely because there’s so much to say. Maybe I’m not meant to write a single, all-encompassing “Grandpa post”—maybe he’ll just find his way into posts-about-life. He was very much present this Christmas, maybe in part because so many of my childhood Christmases were spent with him (and of course my mother’s as well)… Grandpa was the son of German immigrants (didn’t speak English until he started school), so my mom grew up with delightful German Christmas customs. Real candles on the tree, her grandfather dressed as Santa (she says she never wondered why Santa had such a strong German accent), and O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht (Silent Night) sung in German. And the Christmas-tree pickle: a glass pickle-ornament on the tree, and whoever found it first would be the first to open a Christmas present. (Elena Grace found it this year.)
A number of years ago, my mom taught me a soprano descant to “Silent Night,” and the two of us have always sung it together at the Christmas Eve church service. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the high soprano notes carry so well that two voices are all that’s needed to make it soar through the whole church. The thought of Singing the Silent Night descant with my mom is the single thing that has made me most sad every Christmas Eve that I have not spent at home. This year the two of us knew that we’d be singing it for Grandpa—his favorite song, even in the English.
Things don’t always go the way we imagine them… “Silent Night” has always been done at my parents’ church with guitar accompaniment (it was originally written when a church organ broke), but the new music director used the organ—and at a pretty quick clip, too. We were a little breathless at the end, and pretty sure that we were the only people who could hear the descant with the organ drowning out voices. But hey, what we wanted—what we’d been looking forward to—was singing it together, for Grandpa. I’m sure he heard it.
Joy in the Little Things
“My pastor, Veronica, says that peace is joy at rest, and joy is peace on its feet.” ~Anne LaMott
Our family enjoys a lot of Blessings–but “money” hasn’t been among them this year. Our gifts were of the home-made and hand-made variety, of necessity. But a couple days before Christmas, Elena Grace crept up to me with a distressed expression and whispered to me: “Mommy, I don’t have a present for Christian.” I asked if she could find him something he’d like if she and I went to WalMart with ten bucks. After a similar conversation in the other direction, we ended up taking both kids to WalMart, each with ten bucks for a gift for the other.
I confess I went on Mom-alert when Christian came back with a Beyblade—one of the battling tops he collects—but my suspicion (that he might be giving her something he wanted) proved entirely unfounded, based on her squeals when she opened it. “She’s always wanted one,” he told me, with a smug certainty that I admit he’d earned. She picked a Hot Wheels ramp that had him bouncing on his knees and swooping in for an impromptu hug (which he promptly disavowed—“You did NOT just see that”—so you’ll just have to take my word for it).
The two of them took off downstairs to play with the Beyblades Arena, leaving Keoni and me to reflect that—despite their day-to-day snarking at one another—they’ve each got a pretty good line on the other. That’s a little shot of joy right there.
Hamming it Up
The first essay in Anne LaMott’s book was titled “Ham of God” (a play on the “Lamb of God” lines of church-liturgy), in which she wrote of a day when she unexpectedly won a ham at her supermarket, and didn’t want it, but figured she shouldn’t turn down whatever God sent her way. In the parking lot she ran into a friend who had gotten Sober with her, and who was in tears because she couldn’t afford to feed her kids. LaMott gave her the ham.
The same day I read that essay, Elena Grace and I curled up to read “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”—a favorite from my childhood. A family of six rowdy kids (the Herdmans) show up at church and bully the other kids into letting them have the lead roles in the Christmas Pageant. Unlike the kids who have been hearing the Nativity story their whole lives, the Herdmans are hearing it for the first time—and they have a lot of questions. They raise some good points. They end up reminding everyone of the human element at the heart of the Christmas story.
And when the three Herdman-Wisemen come down the church aisle, they aren’t carrying the prop-jars for gold and frankincense and myrrh; they’re carrying the Christmas Ham from their own welfare basket.
And as we were about to pull out with the packed minivan to head home again, Dad wondered if we’d like to take the extra ham from the freezer. Hey, we don’t turn down whatever God sends our way. God has sent us amazing gifts—starting with family. Ham is welcome, but family is wondrous.
Our chickens won’t be winning any intellectual awards. Ku’okoa (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “freedom“) is brighter than the rest—she spends a fair bit of time outside the chicken-yard, but she always returns when she’s done adventuring. The other girls, though… Maybe I’m too much “Mother Hen” with them, but I just don’t trust their capacity to figure out where they’re meant to be.
Their general lack of imagination is evident in how INfrequently they get out, not to mention their behavior when they do. Last time one of the Stupid Chickens blundered out of the chicken-yard, she tried to return by running through the fence. Repeatedly. Like some kind of wind-up chicken-brained battering ram.
They remind me of nothing so much as a sleepy toddler who falls out of bed, too groggy to navigate back to the starting point. So when one of the Dumb Clucks “fell out” of the chicken-yard yesterday, I felt compelled once again to round her up and tuck her back in.
She sped away from me, dashing along a narrow stretch between our fence and the pond behind the house. I ambled along after her, confident that I would scoop her up where the fence and water converged to cut short her runway.
This is where she proved me wrong in my assumption about lack of imagination. Instead of the dithering disorientation I expected, she took to the air!
Clearly she can achieve enough lift-off to hop the short fence around the chicken-house, but I really didn’t think she had enough flight-power to make it across the water… And this time I was right. She managed half the distance, ran out of juice, and splash-crashed right into the drink. It was unkind of me, but I couldn’t stop laughing while this poor soaked, bedraggled, panicking chicken thrashed her way to shore. Ducks make it look so easy!
I looked up “swimming chickens” on the internet when I got back inside (the waterlogged and baffled bird returned safely to her enclosure) and found quite a few videos of serenely swimming chickens. So they CAN swim—but apparently someone needs to explain that to OUR chickens. Maybe I’ll show them the video…
In other animal antics… I’ve been in a fever of anti-packrat cleaning-up this week. Cleaning junk out of drawers, cleaning old documents off the computer, uploading photos into our online album (I learned that lesson when a laptop died and took a load of family photos with it!), filing the stacks of paper that have been accumulating on the kitchen counter where I drop the mail…
And I’ve had “help!” Our ferret Niele (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “nosy“) was particularly useful when she climbed into my accordion folder. Evidently we need a new filing system: “Kids’ school.” “Medical.” “Utilities.” “Insurance.” “Ferret.”
Filed in the category of “new knowledge”… Our son Christian has me reading the “Ranger’s Apprentice” series of books—great read, by the way!—and he brought home #4 and #5 from his school library for me this weekend. What an “aha!” moment I had when I got to this passage, about a knight riding through a snowstorm:
“His surcoat was white and his shield was marked with a blue fist, the symbol of a free lance–a knight looking for employment wherever he could find it.”
This freelance writer had never wondered about the etymology of the word that describes what I do! I exclaimed aloud at my discovery, and earned a look from my son—the kind of look that pre-teens have perfected. Half affection and half disdain, the kind of look that says “Duh” without a word spoken. “Seriously, Mom? You didn’t realize that? It’s kinda obvious.”
I jinxed myself, no doubt about it. When I wrote last week about our growing tribe of pets and animals, I ended by saying I hoped we wouldn’t be floating away like Noah’s Ark. Just a couple nights later–Saturday night, to be specific, or rather, the “wee hours” of Sunday morning–Keoni woke me to say there was a distinct sound of gushing water beneath us. Oh, that can’t be good.
Bundled up in bathrobes and sweatshirts, we emerged from our back door with a flashlight, stepped over the rivulets of water streaming out from underneath the trailer, and pulled the skirting off the side beneath our bathroom. Sure enough, the main water line was in free-flow.
Our favorite neighbor, Bill, is also the maintenance guy for our trailer park, so Keoni was knocking on his door as early as we deemed decent. (The sun wasn’t quite up, but the sky was light… All three of us realized afterward that the nation’s clocks had been set back during the night, so we really woke him at an earlier hour than we’d intended…)
Bill answered the door in his pajamas; Keoni greeted him brightly with the observation that it was Sunday at our house, and he just wanted to see if it were Sunday at Bill’s house too. Oh, and by the way… Our trailer was now sitting in a veritable lake, and could Bill come take a look?
Times like this, we’re glad that our home is propped up on cement blocks ABOVE the ground. We’re also glad we’re on a well, and not paying for all the water that was suddenly surrounding us. (Not even feeling guilty; it’s headed straight back to the water table it came from.)
Keoni whipped up some French Toast for all of us while Bill crawled underneath to wrestle with our pipes (and modeled his sense of humor along with the life-jacket I jokingly fetched for him)… Before noon we had running water IN the house again, and our moat gradually began to recede.
I’ve had the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” song stuck in my head ever since. That’s absurd, of course, since our home was mercifully NOT “beneath the waves”–but somehow that song is sticking with me anyway. I think it’s not even about the flooding.
I have (at long last!) begun writing a book. A book of my own—which is a topic we’ve talked about every time I’ve been commissioned to ghost-write an e-book for someone else. Hell (we keep saying), if I can knock out a book on astrology or vitamins or the Foreign Exchange system (topics in which I really have no interest or background—just solid research skills), why am I not writing the book I want to write? So now I am. Working title: “Your Backyard Homestead: Sustainable Living, Wherever You Live.”
And still humming “Yellow Submarine”…
“…and we live a life of ease; every one of us has all we need…” I’ve always associated the phrase “life of ease” with affluence, but that’s not necessarily so. After all, I’m paying the bills by doing the one thing that comes most easily to me: wrangling words. And I get to spend my days in this home I love (moat or no), with my husband and our kids (and the cat and the ferret and the chickens and the mice)… I love my life. I am happy. No, more than that. I am joyful. The official U.S. “poverty line” is still a target way above our heads, but we have all we need. And right there we have the heart and the core of my book!
“…and our friends are all onboard; many more of them live next door…” I’ve been reading Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss. It’s a humorous and insightful look at the nature of happiness, and the things that actually make people happy. He observes, among other things, that people often say “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but then proceed to behave as if it did. Social science studies show that money does affect happiness–but only up to a point. And that point, he explains, is a lowly fifteen thousand dollars a year. With the basics of security (and, interestingly, dignity) taken care of, additional funds don’t translate into additional levels of happiness. This idea, too, fits in with the premise of the book I’m writing.
Weiner also illustrates that many factors that do add to people’s happiness are tied to social interactions. Trust. Family ties. Cultural connections. Community identity. Neighborliness. He observes at one point that when we get money, we tend to use it to buy walls. Richer people are likely to have taller fences, essentially–and poorer people may have known neighbors instead. Which of those things make us happier? Why, the people-connections! When I shared that bit with Keoni, he pointed out that the thought was exactly in line with a blog-post I write a while back, on the Dying(?) Art of Knowing Your Neighbors. As I think about it, our neighbor-relations have also contributed substantially to our “homesteading” lifestyle—everything from our ability to scrounge and barter to our collaborative efforts last summer in Bill’s vegetable garden.
The “Yellow Submarine” song, after all, isn’t about getting overwhelmed or swept away by flood. It’s about living joyfully among other people in a state of satisfaction. Small wonder if that’s been playing in my head all week.
Come to think of it, even Noah’s Ark (the original “swept away by water” story) ended with a Rainbow of Promise.
I’ve been re-reading (actually, it’s more like re-re-re-re-re-… well, you get the idea) the Harry Potter series this week, occasionally swapping volumes with one of my kids when our progression through the books overlapped… This is the first time through the books for Elena Grace, who (at age eight) is well acquainted with the film versions–but as Readers know, the books (particularly as you get further on in the series) contain a great deal more than the film-makers could have hoped to encompass, so she’s coming across numerous discoveries in her reading.
And at the same time (not unlike Harry and Hermione when they use the time-turner and end up watching themselves-of-two-hours ago from the shadows) I’m running across myself-from-other-years in the pages of these books. Though I was properly brought up never to mark a book’s page, or even to turn down a page-corner or place a hardbound volume open-and-facedown to mark my place, I admit that I am now a hopelessly addicted marginalia-ist. (No, I don’t think that’s in the dictionary, but in my case it would mean a person who is unable to read without a pen—or, in the case of iPad-reading, a stylus-–in hand, ready to underline, highlight, and scribble up and down the sides of any page that gets me thinking.) So here I am, this week, engaging in a little time-travel by interacting with versions of my former self in the margins of these books.
At the end of every novel there’s a scribbled date with my initials—or in the case of these particular books, now, an entire column of dates—accompanied sometimes by the location where I was reading, if I were away from home. At the end of number five, the first read-through (June of 2003) I noted “Boise National Forest,” and I remember now my relief when my pre-ordered book arrived on the morning we were departing to go camping–I’d so hoped I wouldn’t have to wait another two days for the long-awaited next installment. My handwriting hasn’t changed much over the years, though my initials have. I read this particular book five times as J.V.–during a different marriage and while I still went by my first name…
The when-I-read lists at the end of the books, however, are far less interesting to me than the how-I-read notations in the rest of its pages–and it will be interesting in future (when Elena Grace is able to read the handwritten script as well as the printed story) to see what additional questions I might end up fielding from her.
In the ink that matches the reading-sign-offs from 2005, my attention was captured to references of Hermione (who comes from a Muggle, or non-wizarding family) trying to explain her world to her mystified parents. “Maybe not unlike a school for the deaf…” I wrote in one margin. Elena Grace was born deaf, and I had been overwhelmed by the prospect of learning an entirely new language to communicate with my own child. (And—having just taught her three-year-old brother to read—was entirely mystified about how I’d be able to go about that process with someone for whom the words on the page had no connections to the physical language of Sign, which we expected she would be using.) I’ve written previously about how that story turned out for us (“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the SOUNDS“), but coming across my own notes from the time transports me back with a jolt.
There are bemused notes about parenting among these pages, and about teenagers (I was teaching teens during many of these readings, but didn’t anticipate at the time that I’d soon be catapulted into parenthood-of-teens via stepmotherhood) and classroom dynamics, about some of the perplexing metaphysical questions raised by the uses, abuses, and limitations of magic as it is presented in this series, and a whole slew of comparisons between the Ministry of Magic’s responses to rising danger and the Bush-II administration and Patriot Act, Hitler’s Regime, and the U.S.’s shameful internment of Japanese citizens during World War II… A note in the sixth book reminds me that (the week the book came out, and I knew my class of Physics students had been just as engrossed in reading it as I) my extra-credit question for the week was to answer Mr. Weasley’s dearest wish and explain how Muggles make airplanes stay up! (Answer: Bernoulli’s Principle…)
And there’s commentary here, too, on the deepening seriousness as the series progresses, from the almost-silly first story to a death-strewn finale in number seven, nearly worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy… (Our eleven-year-old son, Christian, just saw Hamlet performed, and compared its ending to the aptly named Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “This book is definitely NOT happy-happy-cupcake-unicorn,” is his precise characterization of HP & the DH… Which–having just finished it yet again–I believe to be its strongest charm.)
Since I started out writing here about my own marginalia in the books, I can’t help but be bemused by the role which marginalia-in-books plays within the stories themselves… The entire sixth book (HP & the Half-Blood Prince) centers on Harry Potter’s relationship-through-marginalia with a previous student who left behind a Potions textbook filled with hand-written notes. And the finale itself, in the seventh book, is unraveled thanks to a clue left behind in the form of marginalia in another book, this one filled with the Wizarding World’s fairy tales. (Christian just recently introduced me to the related series of books by Rowling–she has gone ahead and written some of the Hogwarts textbooks and storybooks referred to in the main novels. And fittingly, the fairy tales of Beedle the Bard are reproduced with the annotations and Marginalia of Professor Dumbledore’s copy–including that clue… Fun extra read!)
Some critics turn up their noses at these books, point to them as a mere pop-culture fad with sub-standard writing… I can’t say I agree–I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the writing, myself, so they must be applying different standards than mine.
But more to the point, whatever a person’s opinions about the writing, I dare anyone to debate J.K. Rowling’s genius for capturing people. Wizard or Muggle, she deftly portrays the nuances and challenges and humor of human nature–up to and including the fact that the character we most fiercely loathe throughout our reading (well, with the possible exception of Dolores Umbridge) is, in fact, one of the noblest and bravest and best people of all–though he remains loathsome right up to his death. Tucked somewhere in the depths of the fourth or fifth book (though featured somewhat more prominently in the film) is one of the truest observations of all time: “The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.” Nothing is that simple–in life, or in Rowling’s writing.
Purists may also turn up their noses at the films, which necessarily omit a great deal of the detail, but I’ll say that–with the unforgivable (according to Christian) exception of an entirely omitted battle at the end of number six–they’ve done a pretty good job of encapsulating the themes, the characters, the messages… and don’t forget the fun! Still, there IS a great deal more to be enjoyed in the books–so if you’re one of the few remaining Muggles who hasn’t yet picked up the first Harry Potter book, I’d urge you on.
Imagine, for a moment, a musician who’d been named to the list of “100 Greatest Living American Songwriters” before the age of thirty, whose albums are laden with lyrical language and layers of literary and intellectual references… And imagine that same musician writing two hundred pages of fiction with all the lyrical allure of his song-smithing. That’s exactly what we have with Josh Ritter’s first novel, Bright’s Passage.
Henry Bright comes home from World War I with an angel in tow. An argumentative angel, who takes up residence in his horse and meddles in Henry’s life. I’d suggest that the best way to read this book is simply to let the story and the language flow. You could inflict your own analysis on it by worrying about the “whys” of what’s going on–maybe a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to explain away that absurd angel–but doing so would only distract from the experience of the story itself.
Bright’s life is artfully interwoven in three braided strands throughout the book… His passage from his isolated mountain home after burying his young wife, journeying with a newborn son (and a goat, and the persnickety horse-angel), trudging toward a town and “feeding the child with his trigger finger dipped in the goat’s milk”… His experiences in the trenches of France, where the angel first attached itself to him… And his memories of childhood in a mountain mining community–memories of his mother, who raised him alone after the mines crushed his father, and of the girl Rachel who would (briefly) become his wife when he returned from the war.
A reader determined to dissect might decide Bright is a damaged and delusional man who imagined that bossy angel into his horse. I’m actually inclined to think Bright himself is perfectly sound–although his angel could certainly benefit from some time on the therapy couch. Whatever conclusions you draw as you read, they’ll be yours to keep; Josh doesn’t contaminate his story-telling (or insult his readers) with explanations.
I just looked up Josh’s own comments about the book on Amazon, and was disgruntled to find the exact phrase I’d just written, about the angel who “takes up residence in Henry’s horse.” Dangit, now I’ll have to edit so people don’t think I was cribbing. Or… I’ll leave it as is, and have a laugh. We did have the same English teachers, after all… Josh was a few years behind me in school, and one of my memories (brought to mind by Henry Bright’s recollection of a childhood Christmas program in which he played the donkey and Rachel the angel) is of junior-high Josh dressed as Joseph, across our church’s prop-manger from my little sister in a blue veil.
Our hometown of Moscow Idaho is the kind of small town where folks showed up spontaneously when the locally owned BookPeople moved to a new location across the street; Main Street shut down for the length of a summer evening while a bucket-brigade of volunteers passed books across the street from hand to hand until the move was compete. Which is probably why my favorite publicity shot of Josh is this one of him singing in front of our own BookPeople store.
I can honestly claim, though, that the hometown connection played no part in my first fascination with Josh’s music. I was fooling around on iTunes a few years ago, whimsically searching for songs with “Idaho” in the title–and fell in love with his, making no connection at the time between the name on the album and the kid from my sister’s class. I downloaded the song–and everything else of his that I could find–and the very next morning when I started up my car it kicked the radio to life in the middle of this same song, which Josh was performing live on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Crazy synchronicity, I was thinking, when my cell phone rang and my mom asked if I remembered Josh Ritter from our church… Oh. That Josh Ritter. (I’d just thought the name was familiar because… well, because CDs are made by famous people. Bright one, I am.)
If you’re not familiar with his music, check out “Kathleen” or “Good Man.” I’ve posted “Idaho” below because… well, because it’s Idaho.
A person who wants light fluffy lyrics would probably find Josh’s philosophical lines frustrating–and the same might go for his novel. For the reader or listener who doesn’t object to thinking, however, Josh’s writing–whether song-lyrics or novel–is an absolute treasure of the mind. This a book I would happily read just for the language–he’s truly a word-wizard.