The Life in the Studio, Nancy Hale

Hale's memoir is a charming tribute to her parents, artists in New England as the 19th century turned to the 20th. As she clears out their studios following their deaths, she meditates on what remains and how to protect what's good. A rumination on trying to keep up with her mother's gardening was particularly touching:

The garden casts a hush in early morning, as if some old forgotten secret were being silently exposed once more. ... The white maple a neighbor predicted would die has doubled its size in three years, and waves large, silver-green leaves in the little breeze. Instinct says, Do nothing; stay perfectly still; barely breathe.
But there is danger everywhere. At any moment, something can filter through the green wall of leaves, or the blue wall towards the sea -- aphis, green worms that drop by a thread, earwigs, a driving rain to penetrate the windowsills, the ivy under the threshold. At every portal, fortify with shears and secateur, with spray gun and worn-out Turkish towels, to hedge around -- set free? -- what's trapped within this place.

The Toast also recently published a piece on Hale's fiction, which has fallen more or less into obscurity -- a couple titles to add to the reading list!

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, Christine Byl

In keeping with my interest in all things outdoors (while being trapped in the confines of a city), I checked out Christine Byl's Dirt Work. The memoir recounts Byl's days as a trail dog in Glacier National Park and Denali Nature Park & Preserve. It serves as a good complement to Cheryl Strayed's Wild, I suppose---who helps build the trails that we traverse? My heart belongs to Yosemite, but now I'm itching to visit more national parks. And in addition to explaining the uses of a shovel and a clinometer, Byl has some wisdom to pass on.  

On parts of speech and finding what's real:

An authentic life will be built, at least in part, of ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift, listen, season, note, bake, chop, store, stack, harvest, give, stretch, measure, wash, help, haul, sleep.

On finding your way in a new situation:

The only way to enter a new world without humiliation or offense was to keep ears open and mouth shut. Quiet is better than stupid.

On the changing of the seasons, and how being attuned to them affects us:

I love fall in part for its contemplative underpinnings, the way it makes me notice the concrete world (everything's dying) and think about the abstract one (everything dies). When trees and brush go aflame right before leaves and blooms pale at winter, I also wonder: will I have even minutes as full of purpose as these plants do, when my hue is tinted by the tasks of my hands?

Lovely. The rain falling on the concrete this morning smelled, just for a second, like sweet pea; then the tangy metallic of industry overwhelmed it---a fleeting reminder of the powerful call of nature, of what I miss about the Northwest and the Sierras, always in my thoughts when I read books that invoke the great outdoors.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson

I'm going to be thinking about this one---the story of Winterson's growing up adopted, and finding her biological mother, but about so much more than that, too---for quite some time.

One of the most powerful aspects was her emphasis on reading as redemption, as a means of expanding one's world when it feels impossibly small. Read broadly, she says:

Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become.

And read to unleash yourself; let literature take you in a new direction:

There's a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett

truth and beauty.jpg

It was serendipity that I read this after Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, but I couldn't have planned a better counterpoint to that book if I tried.

Like Heti, Patchett uses notes from life -- weaving Lucy Grealy's letters into her reminiscence of their friendship. It is heartbreaking (because, of course, Grealy's end is untimely), and it is hopeful: "It takes a certain amount of effort to be miserable," Patchett writes, "and another kind of effort to be happy." She chooses to try and be happy, and to build happiness into the lives of others. Watching the rises and falls, the ebbs and tides of a friendship over the years, is surprisingly poignant, and though I will not try to emulate their relationship -- that would be a folly, obviously -- there are many things to learn from Patchett's quiet wisdom.