Monday, March 30, 2009

Living Color

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore

This is a postcard I bought when I was at the coffee shop in Taos. Then, in the bookstore, I found the book.

Living Color
- A Writer Paints Her World
by Natalie Goldberg

"I realized nothing I have ever created held the light the way a leaf did or caught the shadow in a white room. No painting I've done matched the peace I've felt at twilight or the feeling of loss I've experienced at bleached high noon in New Mexico. But I wasn't going to let that stop me. I was crazy about the wrong color sky and the heart-sinking beckoning of headlights on old cars. I painted for that terrible overused word that a writer should never utter: love. For that reason, I kept trying to catch up to the picture just ahead of me in my mind and before me on the porch."

One of my favorite authors and Buddhist friends writes about her life and illustrates it 'in living color'. Here is a tiny excerpt to give the flavor "I noticed that the blue of my paints wasn't blue enough to get the intensity of that New Mexico sky. I painted the sky red instead." Tender stories of family and friends ... the paintings of her father are extraordinary.

After knowing Natalie as a writer, author, and teacher ... Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, Long Quiet Highway and The Great Failure, I was happy to discover her paintings and life stories. The colors, oh the colors, a purple adobe house in Hopi Land, blue and green skyscrapers in New York City, a blue adobe house in Santa Fe.

There's a chapter devoted to her grandfather and a series of paintings of trucks.

If you own this book now, you probably shouldn't lend it. You may never get it back again.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold

This book belonged to my father. I found it recently while cleaning out the storage closet. It's a gorgeous 1911 edition ... thick creamy pages and decal edges.

Robert Service was born in England, raised in Scotland, farmed in Duncan, British Columbia, banked in Victoria, drifted in California, wrote in Whitehorse, married in Paris, hid in Vancouver, died in Brittany and was buried in Monte Carlo. He dedicated this book to "C.M." I wonder who that was.

In San Francisco, he drank in seedy bars, got into street fights and was virtually in the gutter. Desperate for money, he took a labouring job that required him to move to Los Angeles, only to find that he was a strikebreaker. That didn't bother him, but the back-breaking work on a tunnel and the danger he faced to life and limb made him quit. He drifted from job to job as a dishwasher, a sandwich-board man and an orange picker. An ad he had put in the paper seemed to be his answer - a resident handyman was required in a high-class establishment. Eagerly, he took the job and moved in. It was a brothel.

After more wandering in Mexico, Utah, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, he returned to Vancouver Island, having been away for 18 months. He prospered in Victoria. While working at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, he was leafing through the bank's ledger one day and spotted the name of a customer - Sam McGee. Perfect! Using the name of the unsuspecting gentleman, he published the ballad that, along with several others, propelled him to fame and fortune.

He served as an ambulance driver in the First World War, then settled in France.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a wanted man by the Nazis for mocking Hitler, but managed to escape to Vancouver in 1940 with his wife, Germaine, whom he had married in Paris in 1913.

His biographer, Enid Mallory, wrote, "Words were his lifelong passion ... he could make them dance, shiver with cold or choke with loneliness and despair ... but they danced their best on the wide white stage of the Canadian North."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Isabel's Daughter

Judith Ryan Hendricks writes of the southwest, particularly New Mexico - of food and cooking, kitchens and corn, and the dusty smell of dried chiles. This story of a foundling's search for her mother is her third, preceded by Bread Alone and The Bakers' Apprentice

“The first time I saw my mother was the night she died. The second time was at a party in Santa Fe.”

Avery James spent the first 13 years of her life in a foundling home in Alamitos Colorado, near the New Mexican border. Her best friend was Esperanza Verdug – a round person with long gray braid, snapping dark eyes, smooth brown arms, and a gold front tooth. The cook at Carson. Not a housemother or a teacher or a nurse. No degree in psychology or social work or early childhood eduction. No counseling credentials. If the truth be told, she couldn’t read or write, and her English sometimes sent me into fits of laughter.

But of all the Carson staff, it was Esperanza who always seemed to be wading through a river of kids. They’d hang on her arms, grab at her skirts, cling to her legs. She was the one who tied shoelaces, wiped runny noses, smuggled bizochitos into the library.

After Esperanza died, Avery ran away to Florales where she finds a rural haven provided by an eccentric old woman called Cassie, a curandera, or healer, who teaches her how to concoct remedies from wild plants. She lived with Cassie for many years, until the old woman died, helping in the garden and with the cooking.

Eventually she finds her way to Santa Fe and the famed art colonies. Working for a trendy caterer, she sees the portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her in the home of a client. Avery's search for her mother is revealed in flashbacks.

When she was living with Cassie, she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Recovering in hospital- "When they stuck needles in my arm I knew it should hurt, but I couldn’t feel it. I remember Cassies’ face hovering over me in a blue cloud, then her hand on my forehead.

"It was still dark, and I wondered what time it was. I started to call for a nurse, but the sound died in my throat. A woman was standing in the doorway. She was wearing a black dress with white sleeves. The multicolored beads on her dress caught the dim light from the hall and made it sparkle. She had long black hair and her face was shadows. I figures she was an angel, and that seeing her meant I was going to die. Except I didn’t think angels wore black, so maybe she was a bad angel and I was going to Hell for not believing. I stared harder, trying to see her face, but I couldn’t. She just stood there like she was watching me.

"All at once I know, and the knowing made the hair rise up all over my head.

"She was my mother."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

There's a (Slight) Chance I Might be Going to Hell

This story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, my home ground. It's very very funny, and I enjoyed it thoroughly ... listened to it as an audiobook. The author describes people and places so well that I thought I could see them and hear them.

When her husband is offered a post at a small university, Maye Roberts is only too happy to pack up and leave the relentless Phoenix heat for the lush green quietude of Spaulding, Washington. She's a freelance writer, and works at home, so making new friends is quite a challenge.

Spaulding is a quintessential college hippie town, laid-back and full of quirky characters. The town is founded on a sewer pipe manufacturing company, though it's been closed for years now. The big annual event is the Sewer Pipe Festival, complete with the crowning of a queen. This is a recycling, no-meat-eating town, and Maye resorts to telling lies to find friends. This, she reflects, is earning her places in the different degrees of hell. There's an intermediate hell where one is forced to live out eternity in Wal-Mart "the day after Thanksgiving as shoppers jostled, pushed and rubbed against her to secure the cheapest things hellishly possible, while their children, also known as demi-demons, cried, screamed, and begged for hell's cuisine, corn dogs and Mountain Dew."

After narrow escapes from a coven of witches, a cult of vegetarians (she loves a good steak) and an alcoholic who humiliates her on a friend-date, she decides to enter the town's Sewer Pipe Queen pageant in hopes this will help her attract friends.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm said she would devote the month of April to reading Eudora Welty. I have a treasured copy of "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty" that I bring out from time to time to re-read some favorites. Her vision is sweet by nature, and she writes with a fine, pure, and gentle voice about the American South. This year will be her 100th birthday

I posted an entry in My Reading Diary a few years ago, and mentioned her connection to the email system that bears her name

The Birth of Eudora

Originally developed as a freeware product by Internet pioneer Steve Dorner in 1988, Eudora broke new ground by combining the best attributes of various emerging email technologies. The program did not spring from a traditional center of high-tech innovation such as the Silicon Valley, but rather, from a college campus in the nation's heartland.

Eudora was developed by Steve Dorner at the University of Illinois, where Mosaic was also eventually developed. Dorner was a computer programmer working on TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) applications and servers for the computer science department on the Urbana-Champaign campus. This was his first exposure to Internet protocols, chiefly file transfer protocol (ftp) and telnet, before he moved on to developing "ph" for Net directories.

After growing bored with building directories, Dorner turned his attention to email. Although electronic messaging was still in its infancy, Dorner realized that an elegant email system could greatly enhance and facilitate communications among students and faculty on campus.

The Name

After working on the new email program for a year, Dorner was ready to release it for free to the Internet community at large. The working name was UIUCMail, which Dorner realized was a tongue twister. Then he remembered a short story written by Eudora Welty (1909-2001) titled "Why I Live at the P.O." It's a story about a woman who decides to live at the post office where she works rather than put up with her family at home any longer. Dorner was processing so much email at the time that he felt like he lived at the post office, and his program used a "post office" protocol to fetch mail, so he saw a metaphorical connection. Since the programming and naming took place a decade ahead of the phenomenal growth of the Internet, Dorner hadn't anticipated Eudora would eventually be used by more than 20 million people.

Naming the program after a living author could have become awkward for Dorner and any future licensees. Fortunately, Ms. Welty was flattered and amused by the allusion to her and her work.

I love this anecdote about Eudora Welty and the email system ... it's the same one I've been using for many years now

A short story writer and novelist, Eudora Welty wrote poignantly about the men and women of her native American South, the traditions and changes that influenced their lives, the intricacies of their relationships and their difficulties and failures in understanding themselves and communicating with each other, passed away on July 23, 2001.

Miss Welty and other Southern writers of her generation such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Allen Tate, Tennessee Williams and Robert Penn Warren, were key figures in the movement that created a Southern literary renaissance during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and made Southern writing a dominant force in 20th century American literature.