Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: The Painted Drum (fiction)

Click here to order.
I've been looking for stories about fascinating women doing interesting things where the love relationship wasn't the only thing going on. This definitely filled that bill. The Baltimore Sun says it is "Her most gloriously lyrical and harshly beautiful book." It is definitely both.

This may not have been my favorite book but I knew from the beginning that I was in the hands of a master story teller and a verbal artist.

I was drawn to the subject and I loved that part of the story even when it is very harsh. And the author's and thinking is captivating. For instance:

"Ravens are the birds I'll miss most when I die. ... If only we did not have to die at all. Instead become ravens. I've watched these birds so hard I feel their black feathers split out of my skin."

I was fascinated by Faye's life as an estate appraiser. The idea of sorting through the detritus of a life is probably not as glamorous as it sounds, but it sounds like a treasure hunt. Faye sounds weary, though, as she says, "All I have is other people's lives."

When she takes an action that is very unlike her normal self, she states, "I have stepped out of rules and laws and am breathing thin, new air." I think all of us have that yearning, once in awhile, to breathe thin, new air.

I had difficulty connecting with Faye's life although I recognized her statement about her complicated relationship with a professor when she states, "I am not inexperienced in love, I just haven't been successful at it ... "

The book is filled with nuggets:
"Today, my art is blackberry jam." "Brush jewelweed and its seeds pop six feet." "The mind is a wolf." "The knowledge was there, in the tiny black eyes sharp as bitter stars.

The Washington Post Book World reviewer Donna Rifkind makes a comment that I think captures the flavor of this book: "Her (Erdrich) fictionalized version of the real Ojibwe tribe is a brilliant creation: it possess the instantly persuasive strangeness of something faithful to life."

The Painted Drum: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – August 22, 2006 by Louise Erdrich (Author) 4.3 out of 5 stars 128 customer reviews
Amazon writeup: When a woman named Faye Travers is called upon to appraise the estate of a family in her small New Hampshire town, she isn't surprised to discover a forgotten cache of valuable Native American artifacts. After all, the family descends from an Indian agent who worked on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is home to her mother's family. However, she stops dead in her tracks when she finds in the collection a rare drum—a powerful yet delicate object, made from a massive moose skin stretched across a hollow of cedar, ornamented with symbols she doesn't recognize and dressed in red tassels and a beaded belt and skirt—especially since, without touching the instrument, she hears it sound. And so begins an illuminating journey both backward and forward in time, following the strange passage of a powerful yet delicate instrument, and revealing the extraordinary lives it has touched and defined.

Compelling and unforgettable, bestselling author Louise Erdrich's Painted Drum explores the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters, the strength of family, and the intricate rhythms of grief with all the grace, wit, and startling beauty that characterizes this acclaimed author's finest work.

Useful review:
4.0 out of 5 starsSlow start, but then beautiful writing and storytelling take over
ByKindle Customeron May 3, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The novel starts in the present day and is very sluggish at first. Erdrich assumes too much and does not clearly place the reader in an understandable community -- at first. The same is true of the narrator's living situation. She is clearly a grown woman, living with her mother, carrying on a discreet affair with a neighboring sculptor. But why is it so discreet? This is never made clear. One is far into the book before beginning to understand why mother and daughter are together. Indeed, the answer to that question is central to the plot yet it is answered very abruptly, I thought.

Nonetheless, once the drum is introduced, the writing and the story jump to a whole other level. The stories about the drum are truly magical, mesmerizing. I went from slogging through the first part of the book to not wanting to put it down. The creation of the drum and the way in which it is imbued with the spirit of a young girl are the heart of the book and beautifully written. I highly recommend this book, even though you may have to do some work at the beginning to get into it. 

Book Review: Creating a Life Together (Co-Housing)

Click here to order.
In my travels, I find more and more of us "of a certain age" are talking about ways to build community, live together, support each other ... and avoid the dreaded institutionalized lives that face so many people.
I'm exploring a local co-housing project focused on expressive arts and the organizers insist on all interested parties reading this book.
It is a bit daunting as it rigorously strips the romance away and puts all the financial and organizational challenges in the spotlight.
I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities but am gradually becoming a little more informed about the pros and cons. More to come. 
 Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities Paperback – 2003 by Diana Leafe Christian (Author), Patch Adams (Foreword)
4.8 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

Amazon write up:
Creating a Life Together is the only resource available that provides step-by-step practical information distilled from numerous firsthand sources on how to establish an intentional community. It deals in depth with structural, interpersonal and leadership issues, decision-making methods, vision statements, and the development of a legal structure, as well as profiling well-established model communities. This exhaustive guide includes excellent sample documents among its wealth of resources.
Diana Leafe Christian is the editor of Communities magazine and has contributed to Body & Soul, Yoga Journal, and Shaman’s Drum, among others. She is a popular public speaker and workshop leader on forming intentional communities, and has been interviewed about the subject on NPR. She is a member of an intentional community in North Carolina.

Useful Review:
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a member of a group of folks currently planning an intentional community, I can testify to the fact that a million and one totally unexpected questions (not to mention the expected ones!) leap up to bewilder anyone thinking about creating an alternative living experiment. There are philosophical questions--what do we stand for (not just what are we against)? what's our vision?--and there are the nitty-gritty questions that have to do with land ownership, trusts, zoning permits, nonprofit status, and so on. Until you're actually in the process, you have no idea of how complicated the creation of an intentional community can be. No wonder fewer than 10% of planned communities actually get off the ground!

That's why Diana Leafe Christian's book is so invaluable. Written by someone who's been part of the intentional community movement for years, and a member of an ecovillage, "Creating a Life Together" could easily be subtitled "everything you always wanted to know about forming an intentional community but were afraid to ask." Especially valuable is its discussion of composing vision statements, thinking through what kind of land is right for your group, dealing with bankers who are likely to be wary of intentional living in the first place, and different strategies for conducting initial meetings and making group decisions--you'd be surprised how foreign consensus-style decision-making is to most of us.

A growing number of folks are searching for meaningful, peaceful, self-sufficient, and eco-friendly lifestyles-in- community that offer alternatives to the consumer-driven world. But building these communities is hard and sometimes perplexing work. Take all the help and advice you can get-and Christian's book is at the top of the list.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Miracle of Failure

There's Always One (Click for more info)

For almost ten years now, I have failed at something I wanted a lot.

Actually, I don’t like the word failed. Let’s say that through the process of not achieving the goal I had set for myself, I learned a lot.

The thing I learned that is most relevant to this post is: I want my life to be about something other than searching for someone to live my life with. Most of this searching process has been done through OKCupid.

This morning I deleted my account.

The problem wasn’t with OKCupid. I love OKC and it’s basically free.

The problem wasn’t with the guys I met. There are amazing people in the online dating world and I never met anyone who wasn’t who he said he was in his profile. I made some great friends and learned more about the world and the challenges of relationships in this stage of being a “modern elder” (a term I just learned).

The problem is time. And vision. And statistics. I don’t know how much time I have left on this journey, but I know it’s less than I had ten years ago. The question I’ve chewed on for the past ten years is, “What do I want to do with the rest of my one wild and precious life.” (Thank you, Mary Oliver, and please forgive the adaptation.)

One of the best gifts of OKCupid was reading the profiles of people who are living very different lives and being able to ask myself if I would want to live that life. Would I want to expat to Panama? Would I want to live on a houseboat in southern France? Would I want to be an activist in the intellectual milieu of the Bay area?

This morning, and a long time coming, clarity arrived. Bless her soul.
I now know what I want. And, I also know that the chances of finding someone whose life dovetails with what I want are somewhat like the odds of winning the lottery, the mega-million kind.

I believe in an abundant, miraculous universe, though, so I’m not ruling out the possibility of finding a life partner whose path is compatible with mine. However, I am giving up the search and the time consumed by it. If there is a match in the cards, the Universe will have to make it happen.

The miracle in all of this is that I’m pretty sure that, had a “match” happened before now, it would have been before I was clear about what I truly want for my future. Therefore, it probably would have been doomed.

In case you’re wondering: I want to spend the rest of my days writing stories about issues that I’m passionate about. This means spending a lot of time researching, thinking, writing. It’s time to minimize draining distractions in order to focus.

Boulder: 2016 Winner - US Earth Hour Capital

Boulder's multi-generational approach to action
While politicians at the national and state level bicker over the existence of climate change, cities are quietly working to implement real change. World Wildlife Federation (WWF) calls cities "the frontlines of climate change hazards and sources of climate leadership."

To highlight and support local action on climate, WWF has created the Earth Hour City Challenge,
The central goal of the City Challenge is to highlight and reward city governments that are making substantial long-term efforts to combat climate change such as transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, preparing for the impacts of extreme weather, and working with residents to create programs adapted to their specific needs.
 This year’s U.S. winner in the World Wildlife Federation sponsored initiative is Boulder, Colorado. (Runners up: Evanston, Illinois and Boulder has set a goal of powering the entire community with 100% renewable electricity by 2030, one of the most ambitious targets of any city in the country. To get there, Boulder is addressing both how electricity is produced, with, among other programs, a community solar strategy process, and reducing demand for electricity through new energy efficiency standards for commercial and industrial buildings.

“The wellbeing of our community and of future generations depends on our willingness to take action now" said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones. "We have not just a responsibility but a great opportunity to rise to the climate challenge and power a vibrant future, and we hope what we do here in Boulder inspires other cities to do the same." Details here.

Earth Hour Participating Cities
Boulder is one of more than 120 cities that joined the challenge this year. For more information about Boulder's approach to climate change, click here.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I Crave Stories

Update: After ranting that I couldn't find a book, today I picked up one that satisfied my story-tooth. The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg is a brilliantly conceived, beautifully written story about a woman's journey, from what happens to us at 12 to the transformation that comes with our 50s. Nan is none of us, yet my guess is that each of us will find something to identify with as she goes walkabout from her marriage. She doesn't leave her husband as much as she goes looking for her lost self.

Talking about being part of the "bridge" generation, she says, "We flowered in the sixties, but the spirit of the fifties was deep in us." As Nan travels about, she connects with strangers who help her find pieces of herself that got lost along the way.

One of the heart-breaking stories she hears comes from an 86-year-old farm woman who shows her poems her husband wrote to her. After he died, she found them buried in a drawer, apparently not thinking they were actually good enough to give to her.

I take back my rant ... apparently I haven't been looking in the right places.

PS ... if you look at the reviews, they are pretty split. Some people think Nan was a spoiled, self-involved whiner others think she was a courageous explorer into her own self. Which side you come down on might be related to age and generation.

My morning rant: (which, thankfully, has nothing to do with politics): I can’t find a book!

Of course, that’s a galloping overstatement. I can find a book, millions of books, millions of books coming out every year. 
What I’m having a really hard time finding is a well-written, intelligently researched, fresh and interesting story relevant to my life.

There is a rumor going around that the baby boomers are a significant segment of our population, and they are now in the process of retiring. Unless I’m mistaken, somewhere close to half of that group is women.

My rant seems to be related to the common wisdom in the book world:
- women buy most books
- women under sixty buy most of the books sold to women
- women readers don’t want heroines who are over 50, therefore, publishable books need to focus on issues common to readers under 50, or better still 40 … or 30 … or, hey, young adult fiction is HOT!

My problem:
- I am a reader, a life-long, books-were-my-best-friends-and-taught-me-most-of-what-I-know reader.
- I am a mid-spectrum reader, to the right of romance novels and fluffy mysteries; to the left of literary explorations of the rarefied machinations of the universe in story-less prose.
- I am 70-years-old … and, believe it or not, I’m still engaged with life, interested in new adventures, and would love to read stories about what other people my age are doing with their lives.
- I am no longer interested in the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lives of infantile souls; or the tribulations of the young-way-too-tired married, the bored-into-cheating married, or the vengeful divorced; or thriller stories of macho, know-it-all heroes of any gender; or disaster stories focused on the fifty ways to destroy the planet; or fantasies about the superpowers of vampires, werewolves or a teenage spider.
Question: Do women over 60 stop buying books because we suddenly aren’t interested in reading anymore … or because there are so few books that offer us anything relevant to our lives? Movies seem to be able to successfully tell interesting stories about older people. Why can’t books?
What I crave: Stories. Stories of triumph over the conditions that are part of life … death, disease, disappointment, delusion. "Coming of age” stories where the “age" is the incredible approach of the end of life, what I now think is far more interesting and challenging than merely “growing up."

I want to read stories about women over 50 living interesting lives that include service, adventure, romance, humor, both success and failure, grace under pressure, wisdom, learning and contribution to the world.

I want to read stories about women having conversations with each other about something other than their "boyfriends" (or "girlfriends") … and, if at all possible, featuring women who would never even use either term.

I want to read stories about women who are wrong, misguided, misinformed, maybe even temporarily stupid but not irredeemably fucked up or mean and bitter because they're old.

I want to read a story about my friend Maggi who died recently. I couldn’t be there at the end, but I would bet money she had a bright scarf wrapped round her head, four giant rings on her fingers, and cracked a joke on her way out. 

I want stories that help me know how to dance the end of my life like Maggi did. If you know of such a book, please let me know.

End of rant: I’m now going to go write a book I would want to read.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Probably one of the least admired birds around, cowbirds have neither color nor character ... at least according to some observers. Female cowbirds drop their eggs in another bird's nest and jet off to the next fling. Of course, the male had long since moved on to greener pastures, so what's a girl to do?

Actually the story has little to do with character, as is almost always the case in the world of the undomesticated. 

The way some tell the story, cowbirds like a moveable feast ... seeds and insects in the coats of buffalo, cows and so on. Long before there were fences that kept the feasts in a confined area, cowbirds got used to being transported long distances away from a home nest. 

With a choice of either commuting home every night or changing their child rearing methods, they opted for change. They outsourced their nesting chores and gained a sullied reputation.

Why am I going on about cowbirds?

Several years ago I was sitting on my front porch when I heard an enchanting bird song. It was like a watery, gurgling whistle. I went searching for it and found ... a black bird. No color or beauty. Just that sound that seems to touch some part of me that isn't quite domesticated either. 

The video above will give you a sense of what the cowbird song sounds like ... and just to make things interesting, think about how the baby birds learn "their" song when they're being raised by who-knows-what birds singing who-knows-what song.

As I've been researching my new novel, Yellowstone Howling, and looking at more animal symbolism, I wondered what the symbolism would be for this less-than-admirable bird. Here's what I found at
The cowbird, like the cuckoo, deposits its eggs in other bird's nests. This totem reminds you to ask yourself: how are you dealing with abandonment? Are you paying enough attention to your parents, or children?

What about your relationship to your inner child, inner parent, and inner adult selves? Imagine a grounded, golden, triangle between the three. What does the relationship look like between the lines of communication? The first step in establishing healthy inner spaces is to say hello to what is already present.

The cowbird reminds us to take care of responsibilities and to stay grounded.
Interestingly, the character I was thinking about in relationship to cowbird was abandoned as a child and, decades later, is still working through those issues. And, while I was never actually abandoned, I know those feelings are part of my make up.

So, first, cowbird speaks to me in my front yard, and now he comes to me in fiction. I just love this stuff. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Niki de Saint Phalle

Several years ago, in San Diego’s Balboa Park, I fell in love with the mosaic work of Niki de Saint Phalle. She has inspired me in so many ways and I’m delighted that Artsy now has a Niki page and encourage you to check it out.  

Niki’s work is playfully and magically mythical and mystical. Her huge installations overwhelm our senses, but you can look at the tiniest piece of any one of them and find absolute perfection. If you’re ever in the Escondido area, I highly recommend checking out Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.  Here’s a description and an image from the Escondido city site
Snake Wall ... Queen Califia's Magical Circle
Queen Califia's Magical Circle is the only American sculpture garden and the last major international project created by Niki de Saint Phalle (born France, 1930-2002). Inspired by California's mythic, historic and cultural roots, the garden consists of nine large-scale sculptures, a circular "snake wall" and maze entryway, sculpturally integrated bench seating, and native shrubs and trees planted within the interior plaza and along the outer perimeter. The garden bears the brilliant, unique mosaic ornamentation that is an unmistakable part of Saint Phalle's later work.

Queen Califia's Magical Circle is situated within a 12-acre natural habitat in the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park on a parcel of land donated by the City of Escondido. The park's entrance is located five minutes from I-15 (Via Rancho Parkway Exit) at the corner of Bear Valley Parkway and Mary Lane.
There are repairs going on in the garden so be sure to check the site, to make sure it’s open.
Coming Together

Coming Together: This huge piece of hers at the San Diego Convention Center became part of a montage I did called City Dreamtime. 
City Dreamtime
Thank you Niki … and thank you Artsy for honoring her.