Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Afterthought #18 – Working on the Side of Local Business

The journal I took to Fishtrap’s Outpost (see Prairie and Poetry) is filled with quotes from workshop leader Scott Russell Sanders, starting with this one relevant to the workshop theme, “Giving Voice to Earth”—

Every piece of the earth needs hearts and minds attending to it.

A series of questions Scott posed on the first day continue to guide me as I seek clarity about how to respond to the many concerns in our world:

What are the forces I want to work on the side of?
What possibility do I want to work on behalf of?

These queries have relevance for any number of conflicts, crises, and problems including the environment, health care, and war. I also thought of them last week when I read in the book trade newsletter Shelf-Awareness Pro that has started to offer even larger-than-usual discounts on many bestselling hardcover books.  And I returned to the queries days later when I learned that President Obama would speak about the economy at an Amazon warehouse.

I don’t begin to understand the complexities of the company’s business model, but I do know that there are concerns about wages and working conditions in its warehouses and that its tactics have driven away business from independent booksellers.  So, instead of working against a company and an approach that I believe is hurtful to local businesses and possibly to its own workforce, I’m more committed than ever to work on the side of places like my community’s local book store, Lopez Bookshop. It’s a small gesture, but one that works on behalf of a business that serves a little piece of the earth.

What are the forces you work on the side of; the possibilities you work on behalf of?

Beginning in January 2012, I instituted posting an “Afterthought” on the last day of each month, fashioned after a practice in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, some groups continue in silence for a few more minutes during which members are invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rediscovering the Throughline

A musty smell floats in the air as I flip the pages inside the maroon covers of my high school yearbook. Cathy sits on my left, Julie on my right on my living room couch, all three of us reminiscing about people and events more than forty years ago in a small, Midwest town. This year, everyone in the Class of ’71 (the three of us included) turned sixty; last winter we three cooked up the plan to celebrate this milestone in July at my home on Lopez Island, WA.

Living as I do nearly two thousand miles from the home of my youth in Southern Illinois, and with no family members still there to pull me back, I’ve returned just a handful of times since moving west in 1981. The two women poring over the yearbook with me are the only people I still have regular contact with who knew me and my parents well during my teen years.  From our first meeting, we three shared the bond of being only children and formed a kind of sisterhood. Now, we scrutinize pictures of the concert band, in which we all played the flute; the Top Hatters precision dance team with us kicking our black, fishnet-stockinged legs high; the Foreign Language Club (I studied French; Julie and Cathy took Spanish); and the 219 portrait photos of each of us in the graduating class.

 Tucked inside a manila envelope in my yearbook are four yellowed strips of newsprint, clippings of “Let’s Talk It Over,” the column I wrote for the school newspaper. The byline lists my former name (Stacey Northcote—that’s a story for another time). A couple columns reflect the Midwest values I grew up with—patriotism, school spirit, community. 

I’m surprised by the column published a week after the first Earth Day in 1970.  I have no recollection of being aware of that event or of the research I obviously did to be able to quote an article in the April 19, 1970 Chicago Sun Times:

Not a river or stream in Illinois is safe for swimming.

It will cost $6 billion by 1980 to clean up the state’s   waterways.

I’m surprised by the prophetic warnings I quoted from Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb:

It may be too late, no matter what we do, because we’ve already added so many poisons to the ecological systems of the planet.

We may, for instance, have already started changes in climate which will destroy so much of our food-growing ability that we may be inevitably on a downhill trend that cannot be reversed—at least not until a terrible cataclysm takes place.

I’m surprised that as a high school junior I used (at least sometimes) my writing to raise awareness about social issues.

Most of all, I’m surprised to discover that writing really has been a throughline for me. Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski coined the term in the 1930s to help actors explore the central impulse or desire that connects all of a character’s individual motivations and objectives together. The term also is used to describe a theme or thread that runs through the plot of a film or other dramatic or literary work.

As my two friends and I continue to turn the pages, I come across a photo of me with other members of Quill and Scroll (international honorary society for high school journalists).  I remember the profile I wrote for the school newspaper of a classmate who collected antiques (a foreshadowing of my book, Hands at Work?). Memories of the newspaper I helped produce at Vincennes University journalism camp the summer before my senior year re-surface, too. More evidence of this thread of writing running through my life.

Throughlines.  I suspect we all have one, whether we know it or not. For so many years I believed that nursing was the single thread that connected all of my actions, but perhaps, unlike novels and plays, we can have more than one. Although I’ve identified myself as a writer for only the past fifteen years, these musty newspaper clippings, the yellowing yearbook pages, and high school chums remind me that the writing throughline reaches back to a much earlier time in my life.

What is the throughline in your life?  Is there more than one thread that connects all of your drives and aspirations?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Prairie and Poetry

I’m still shaking the dust of the Zumwalt Prairie out of my shoes after a week in northeastern Oregon at the Fishtrap Outpost workshopI spent 5-1/2 days there with 12 other writers, a naturalist, and essayist Scott Russell Sanders, “Giving Voice to Earth.”

Despite efforts to write fresh descriptions, it’s hard to avoid over-used superlatives like magical, awesome, and incredible. Here’s one of my attempts to put the experience into words.

Tent lodging on the Zumwalt Prairie
View from Buckhorn Lookout

Sunset on the Zumwalt
Out on the Zumwalt, Jan peppers us with the vocabulary of the prairie. Each day, this biologist answers our “What’s this?” with terms new to me:  gum weed, creamy buckwheat, prairie smoke, vesper sparrow, Belding’s ground squirrel, rock jack, exclosure, desire path.  I scribble the words in my notebook, just as I did in January at the start of my first poetry craft class.  Then, my teacher peppered me too, with iambic pentameter, off-rhyme, sestina, slant rhyme, terza rima, and trochee.  All semester, writing at my home in Washington’s San Juan Islands, I wrestled with these forms, as unfamiliar to my prose pen as the buttes, grasslands, and draws of this Oregon prairie.

At the end of Outpost, I joined other writers for the conclusion of Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers. There I sat propped against granite rock beside the Wallowa River, on its race toward Wallowa Lake.  I washed the prairie’s dust from my hands in the river’s icy flow, strong enough to skirt a 24-foot remnant of a tree that once shaded the river’s banks.  I wished Jan had been there to name the squirrel exploring the tree’s roots and the bird skipping and chirping across the ridged bark. However, that landscape of pine-robed mountains surging upward from the river valley is more akin to my spiritual home in the North Cascades. It was there, in a tiny village on the Stehekin River, that I sought direction about vocation. I encountered teachers on mossy outcrops, in glacier-fed creeks, and on switch-backing trails shared with marmots and black bears.

As I wrote in my journal at river’s edge, I thought of the next day when I’d return to a different landscape, one with salt- and seaweed-scented air, tides and rocky beaches, Madrones and Nootka roses, bald eagle trills and blue heron squawks. Just as at the end of my poetry class in the spring, I closed my time on the Zumwalt with new sources of inspiration and appreciation. Poetry’s rhythms and shapes inform my prose. The prairie’s sounds, smells, textures, and terrain spur my awareness of earth’s beauty, power, and fragility. They also renew my commitment to give voice to the places I call home.

Last moments of sunset on the prairie