Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

What the Hell are you doing, Pa? OR Top 10 Influential Life Books

 

Sometime ago, I was tagged to answer What are your 10 Top Influential Books? Now that’s a serious list and I needed time to mull it over. The moment came last night when I was in bed with insomnia, tossing and turning and trying to quiet my mind. I didn’t succeed in quieting it down but I did feel the glow of satisfaction in coming up with 10 books and authors I cannot live without. Here they are, mostly in order.

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison. I read this book three times before I finally understood anything in it. And what I did comprehend changed my life. And it keeps changing my life. Paradise by Morrison is another that does the same.
  2. The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery. This was the first novel I read (age 11) where the gift of storytelling was viewed as life’s highest honor. Its set among children on a family farm and is still my favorite escape read.
  3. Violence by James Gilligan. I read this when I had a semester abroad at Oregon Extension many years ago. I reread it this year when I was full of grief and anguish over the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and all the others who fall to police violence that we sometimes hear about and sometimes do not. This book aided me in understanding the rampant violence in our society and how our justice system fails to truly address or prevent violence. Violence is our national tragedy and the legacy we must address and heal.
  4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This is a favorite book for so many reasons. Wharton’s critical gaze never flinches or falls aside. While she was a product of her time (unfortunately), she was also a sharp critic, superb writer, and craftsman. Her prose is some of the best—like drinking a biting cool drink in a crystal glass.
  5. Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is a hard one to admit. I tried to reread the Little House a few years ago and was floored by the strong libertarian tones and blatant insanity of Pa. Uh, illegally dragging your family full of little children into another nation’s land so you can bag better game? Your whole family nearly dying from malaria and no one noticing because you’re all alone (in a land you have no right to) and it’s better that way? Wrong, Pa. So wrong. But anyway, I read these books obsessively as a kid and I will say, they’re all about women getting through bad times and being tough. Every girl needs to read about other women surviving bad situations. I learned about survival early on, thanks to Wilder.
  6. Agatha Christie. The Murder of Roger Ackyrod was the first mystery I ever read (I was 12). And I’ve been obsessed with Christie ever since. I still read her for pleasure but I love to take her plots and paragraphs apart. No one has a character to leave a room and a new one enter as smoothly as Christie. The reader never notices it happening. Christie’s a workhorse and a cunning master.
  7. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Her novel opened up a whole new way of writing and viewing the world. People can be terrifying and awful but still be magical.  Love Medicine haunts me.
  8. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Eliot’s love for her creation spills out in every sentence of this book. I read her for courage and compassion.
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Another writer I struggle with as an adult. But every time I write a new story, I can hear Lucy stepping into the wardrobe, brushing past the fur coats, and into a new world. Much of my desire to tell magical stories comes from him.
  10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. In a fit of thirteen year old boredom, I opened my mother’s lime-green college copy of P&P. I burst out laughing when Mr. Bennett wryly and verbally tangoed with his wife. And that was just the first page.  I couldn’t stop reading and I’ve been laughing and taking notes from Austen ever since.

 

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The Taste of Tea

A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.

The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.

When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.

I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.

 

Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.

 

The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.

A Tale of Two Worlds

I walk past a window on my way to get a glass of water and note the snow falling outside.  As I fill my glass at the sink, my thoughts have already turned back to my work on the computer. I’m wrestling with the household budget, when I’ll fit some reading in, how to get on with my writing work, when I’ll exercise, when I’ll catch up with email correspondence and the list goes on and on.

Anytime I stop my work and look up, past the chatter in my mind, the snow catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’m seeing it. I debate whether I can put off the grocery store to avoid driving in the snow.

This is the world of the everyday. It’s full of a thousand petty cares, some essential to living, others not as much but all in a lump group, tugging us along.

But there are times my mind needs something more refreshing, and it’s time to take a break. And that’s where music comes in—as powerful as Circe creating a circle of magic with her staff. I pick out music without words (or words I don’t understand). Today is Rimsky-Korsakov, tomorrow might be the film Phantom Thread’s soundtrack, or a piece of jazz played by Lucky Thompson.

As Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden starts, the circle opens. I come out of the everyday world and enter somewhere extraordinary, where beauty converges with life and cares and worries exit for a time. And all it takes is a little music, a little snow, and entering the moment that is now.

I watch the snow falling, noting the wind direction as the snow blows southeast and then drops and then exhales again southwards. I note the density of the snow, how it’s light and sparkling and then downy, heavy, and wet.  My thoughts finally still and I turn off the music. A heavy relief passes over my body and mind and I am still, watching the beauty of the world.