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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Winter Aconite & Snowdrop

Spring is whimsical and wary right now, first appearing in a patch of sunlight and then fleeting away in an ice-cold breeze, only to reappear a little later in the liquid song of a redwing blackbird. I wear my winter coat one day, a hoodie the next, and then it’s back to the winter coat the next morning as a heavy frost sparkles on rooftops. Only recently have I given up my thick scarf, though if there’s a wind tomorrow, I may have to pull it out of the closet and wind myself up in it once more.

None but the bravest flowers are blooming, the winter aconite and snowdrop. Winter aconite is a small yellow flower that’s easy to overlook; it remains shut until the sun has deeply soaked its petals, then pops open like a tiny jewelry box to reveal gold petals centered on delicate pistils and stamens. The snowdrops this spring huddle close to the ground, nearly lost in the mud and dead leaves. As of yet, there are no daffodils blooming—their leaves have come up only an inch or so out the brown ground. They are cautious and since it freezes each night, I cannot blame them.

Beyond the flowers there is the ground itself: a muddle of browns, thick with the rotted tree leaves and the dead foliage of last year. There is nothing lovely to see here, only the form of the land itself. It swells and slopes up from the river, lies low along the horizon, and finally drops into a ditch.

On an unexpected day in early March, once the snow disappeared, city workers came to clean up the young trees and invasive species that have been growing avid and unchecked along the creek near my home. It is the first time I can see the contours of the land clearly in all the years I’ve been living here, and I’m struck by the curves and lines that slope down towards the creek, a rollicking bed of dark brown that makes a strong contrast to the bright blue overhead. The undulating land here is small but it’s a dream, a reason, a mysterious being that wraps through the neighborhood’s mind. Soon enough, this dark and curving space will be clad in green, heavily wreathed by plants, bushes and eager saplings. But for now, it is bare and exposed, revealing the dark space between winter and summer. This is where the wind snaps cold like a knife, but the brilliant sunshine keeps calling everyone out despite the drear.

Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.