The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Monday, May 1, 2017

On Food and Eating

For many people, the 1990’s in California were an extravaganza of good food and a growing understanding of how to eat well. They certainly were for me. I had just moved back to San Francisco after a decade in the East Bay and it turned out that many of my friends were food connoisseurs. It wasn’t that we had a lot of money, but that we knew how to spend it!

Sean Thackrey, courtesy of DineGirl
Dinners turned into a discussion of each item in front of us, including its provenance, how it was being cooked and why. The food was often simple, in the Italian manner, relying on produce and meats from the organic farms which had grown up in response to the needs of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and other restaurateurs. We drank the Orion and Pleiades blends of the great Sean Thackrey, still one of the best winemakers in our area, as Michael and Chris told us everything they knew about them. Chris worked as the sous chef for Robert Reynolds’ Le Trou and I shared several wonderful meals there. Reynolds was a born teacher who wanted people to “cook, taste and think for themselves.” He served Edward Espe Brown the radishes featured in Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings.

Many delightful restaurants surrounded us. In my journals, I find this about an evening at Café Jacqueline, a tiny place on Grant Avenue where Jacqueline Margulis herself still finishes every soufflé served: “Sharon chooses a glass of cote du Rhone that isn’t on the menu. The soup is spinach with a thick ladle of cream on top. Both Sharon and I know that the cream is what makes the soup. When the soufflé comes, the waiter carefully loosens it around the edge. It is Gruyere made with leeks, like ambrosia to me. We eat every bit of the soufflé, scraping the brown edges from the bowl.”

Another group of friends introduced me to Zuni, the quintessentially San Franciscan restaurant from whose wood-fired brick oven come perfect roasted chickens, gratins and savory tarts. I loved the feeling of the odd triangle-shaped building with the beautiful windows and its many levels and locations providing a perfect atmosphere for talk. These friends also hosted many Chinese meals for the shifting group of tai chi scholar warriors, teaching us to love the light Shanghai food of the best Chinese chefs in the city.

In the second half of the decade I lived on Russian Hill, a neighborhood full of tempting, intimate restaurants, such as Zarzuela, Frascati and the very Italian Amarena where we ate luscious pasta dishes such as homemade ravioli stuffed with butternut squash, sage and ricotta. We often went to I Fratelli, “so homelike with its blue checked woven tablecloths, strings of lights in the trees, delicious, unpretentious food.”

Cafe Jacqueline, by John Storey
But Hyde Street was also a good place to cook. Farmers’ markets were thriving and I tried to go whenever I could, buying organic produce for the sake of health and taste. I also loved the Real Food Company, a couple of blocks down the hill. I learned to bring my own cloth bags to the store and bought my first All-clad pan. In my notebook, I write that I served “fish steaks with baked celery root in olive oil with lots of herbs. Also winter salad with asiago cheese, toasted walnuts, sliced pear and fennel.” In the spring I served “penne primavera (asparagus, baby carrots sautéed in olive oil with garlic, fresh thyme and oregano) with Pugliese bread, Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County and a favorite salad of butter lettuce with fresh mushrooms, avocado and pistachios.” It was all new and exciting.

As my understanding progressed, I also tried to buy local things, preferably from within 100 miles of where I lived to save the environmental cost of shipping. This was easy to do in the Bay Area, though I still hold out for a few things, Italian pasta, certain cheeses that are made better in Europe. But there is no need to buy wine from Europe, New Zealand or Chile when you live in California!

Real, organic produce. Grains and legumes sold in bulk. Artisan breads. Local wines. Tea from leaves bought in Chinatown. It became a healthy platform upon which to build when I married Don Starnes (who cares even more about food than I!) at the end of the decade.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Tai Chi

I started practicing tai chi in October of 1989. Very quickly it became the answer to needs I didn’t even know I had, and the antidote to the obsessive word spinning which has been both gift and weight for me. I picked out two tai chi groups to investigate, but once I watched a class which was taught by students of Master Kai Ying Tung, I did not even visit the second one. The simple structure of the class, which began with a slow set and then moved on to pushing hands and other sets, did not betray its depth. Senior students taught beginners, everyone at different levels of accomplishment, one’s involvement ultimately up to the student.

Master Kai Ying Tung, ShanShui-TaiChi, 2012
MasterTung has taught thousands of people all over the world, knitting his teachers and students together with banquets, workshops and camps at which he is a friendly, accessible presence. In his words: “The goal is not to demonstrate strength, power or violence. The goal is to attain serenity, tranquility, and the discovery of oneself. It is truly an exercise of the mind.”

When I started, Emilio Gonzalez was usually the leader of two evening practice sessions during the week, and exuberant Saturday morning sessions in the ballroom at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Other senior students taught as well and there were often twenty of us, working at different levels. Master Tung did not encourage competition, telling us that the person who began tai chi first would always be ahead of the one who had begun practice later.

At the beginning I strove to practice every day, often going to the arboretum in San Francisco as soon as I woke to do the sets that I had so far learned. I was thrilled with the poetic names for the movements, from “white crane spreads its wings” to “two birds parting” and “cloud hands.” Many of the movements were counter-intuitive, such as placing your weight on one leg and turning on that weighted foot; keeping a “channel” between your feet for stability; and the roundedness of every movement, during which one’s whole body is “full,” pushing out in every direction.

Learning took a long time. Often as you worked to gain mastery of one thing, you lost the previous thing! Only continued practice allowed you to gather up all the pieces into one fluid set. For myself in particular, tai chi helped with emotional problems, such as the fact that I “over-identified” with others. In the grid in which we stood to do tai chi, each person was related to his own source. “Energy comes up from the ground, gets directed by the waist and expressed in the hands,” we were told.

I found that the intense physical efforts we put out, often finding ourselves wringing wet at the end of class, grounded me in my tumultuous emotional life. The early years of practicing tai chi was a time of great opening for me, in which I understood myself better and achieved at least some mastery over my intensity. Practice became the discipline which allowed me to keep to the aspirations I had set for myself.

By the time I began tai chi practice, I already felt that Taoism was the religion closest to the way I saw the world, particularly in the sense that spirit and matter are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. John Blofeld’s charming writing, particularly in Taoism: The Road to Immortality [1978], was my guide. I also read Deng Ming Dao’s romantic The Wandering Taoist [1986], which, though discredited as to its authenticity, described a Taoist education. The meditation method I’ve used ever since, based on the microcosmic orbit, I learned mostly from this book.

Tai chi itself cannot be learned from books, however. Only with reputable teachers in long, earnest practice does one study tai chi. Over the years, in the dynamic Kai Ying Tung Academy, I learned many sets, both fast and slow, including weapon sets and two-person sets. After much intense practice, my body was light, flexible and anxious for more! Though we all knew the health benefits of full-body circulation, the way the sets stimulate the energy or “chi” which flows through the meridians in the body, there was no way to compare it to what one would be like without it!

Despite what I gained, I learned that you must give yourself to the practice. People who tried to make it into something they thought it should be did not succeed. It is, in a way, a method of learning not to have intention, to experience “choiceless awareness.” I also found it impossible to write about tai chi! Or to watch it if one is not a student! The fact that tai chi is a primary experience is one of its gifts.

Though my practice is no longer as avid as it once was, it is still sustaining. Involved in the lives and experiences of many fine students and teachers, I have counted myself lucky to be part of a tai chi community which points the way both in practice and in life. It is impossible to come to the end of practice. There is always more.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Moon Every Night

While waiting for final edits of Nature’s Stricter Lessons to come in, I’ve begun to work on the next book in my series, to be called A Moon Every Night. The title is from a quote from Su Tungpo, a Song dynasty Chinese poet who lived from 1037 to 1101 A.D. Su Tungpo, also known as Su Shi, was a statesman, writer and painter, whose brilliance and insouciance endeared him to his times, and ever after. I’ve seen several translations of this bit of writing, but the following is taken from the biography of the poet by Lin Yutang, The Gay Genius [1947]:

“I was going to bed when the moonlight entered my door. I got up, happy of heart. There was no one to share this happiness with me, so I walked over to the Chengtien Temple to look for Huaimin. He, too, had not yet gone to bed, and we paced about in the garden. It looked like a transparent pool with the shadows of water grass in it, but they were really the shadows of bamboos and pine trees cast by the moonlight. Isn’t there a moon every night? And aren’t there bamboos and pine trees everywhere? But there are few carefree people like the two of us.”

I have often thought of this passage in the many years since I first read about Su Tungpo. It is true that we can see the moon most nights, that we can follow its monthly circuit around our earth. Its beauty is dependable, as are the trees and luminous clouds which set it off against the night sky. We have only to lift our eyes.

The decade which A Moon Every Night chronicles is one of increasing global ties between nations. The Cold War is declared over, though ethnic conflicts continue. Communications technology grows exponentially, with satellites, the Internet and cell phones. Container ships continue to reshape global trade and passenger travel between countries reaches new highs. All of these things lead to increased cultural exchange, of which our characters, the Mikkelsons, take full advantage.

Line’s kids are now young adults. Christopher spends a couple of years in the Peace Corps and Heather takes a winemaking internship in Chile. Fern and Ivy go with their parents to Edinburgh, where Stephen has taken a lectureship. Fern becomes captivated by archaeology. We cannot follow all of this activity, but it echoes throughout Line’s world. Though she faces very physical manifestations of homesickness, Line studies the gardens, herbal healing and Celtic history available to her in Scotland. When at home in Santa Cruz, she becomes involved in the growing hospice movement.

Marty’s interests have turned toward the countries on the Pacific Rim. She travels to China and returns home to study tai chi, calligraphy and tea ceremony. These interests help, but do not assuage the pain of a bittersweet love affair with someone who is married. Paul goes back to teaching when he realizes that Mother finds it hard to live at the lake by herself in the summers. Thus he spends more time with her on the Minnesota lake that is the Mikkelsons’ heritage. Paul and Marie perform as a musical duo throughout the state, but Marie’s light is flickering and Mother’s goes out during this decade.

Line, Marty and Paul Mikkelson are well aware of the moon’s path across the sky at night. Endowed by their parents and Scandinavian ancestors with a strong sense of connection to the natural world, they are sometimes more carefree, sometimes less. As they grow older and their children grow up, they confront themselves and the lives they have made for themselves, mindful of place, of the world evolving around them. Hearts and minds united, they are each in their different ways open to the “thin places” where the core of reality shines through.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

First Draft Finished

This week I completed a draft of the fifth book in my series, Nature’s Stricter Lessons. It has taken longer than the first draft of other books, but this was a busy year. After a couple of edits, I plan for it to be published some time in February. Deo volente, of course!

Because of my reading of E.O. Wilson and Frederick Turner this year, I’ve begun to look at the series So Are You To My Thoughts differently. I found the form for it seven or eight years ago, but I didn’t know what I was doing. The books don’t feel like novels, but they are fiction, a kind of family saga. Looking at them through an anthropological and evolutionary lens, however, helps me make sense of them.

E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature [published 1978] sets out the views of a scientist who believes that “the evolutionary epic is the best one we will ever have.” Looking at the objective facts about the social animals we have become, he describes how aggression, sex, altruism and religion have all served the necessities of diversifying the human gene pool and adapting ourselves to our environment. We share a single human nature and develop socially along the dual tracks of culture and biology. Family is one of the universals of our social organization.

Wilson is a prolific writer who is still making major contributions. In this brief interview, he discusses how little we still know about the world and how the extinctions which are going on in the natural world may affect us. He writes that science and the humanities must come together, that neither is complete without the other. He shows how empiricism destroys “the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the center of the universe in order to serve as the summit of Creation” [Consilience, published 1998].

I was thrilled to find that Wilson doesn’t think the post-modern turn literature has taken of much value. When he quoted the poet and professor Frederick Turner, I immediately went out and found the only book by Turner I could get my hands on, Epic: Form, Content, History [published 2012].

Turner was raised in Africa, the son of anthropologists. He believes the current culture is trying to break out of social and political fallacies that proclaimed authority over human life. In literature, art, music and architecture, the mediums of production became fetishized, turning a spiritual gift into “a work of art, a collector’s item, a connoisseur’s pleasure, a critic’s meat, a statement of the most recent and ‘novel’ frame of reference and model for fashionable behavior.” He sees epic, the story of human evolution, as the solution. “It is story that opens up the world, that truly represents the world as branchy, free and full of surprises.” You can get a glimpse of Turner’s wilder side here.

All of this has helped me see the work of my series So Are You To My Thoughts with new eyes. I had no idea, for instance, that my books are about “exogamy,” the attempt of Line, Marty and Paul to find mates far from their kin-group. They are stories of growth, in which the siblings negotiate the need to find employment and build families of their own in precise social environments not known before their time. Though some of them do not have children, their altruism helps their relatives to pass on their genes.

I don’t expect that thinking about these things will change my work very much. When I started, I imagined how plants in a garden, given good soil, plenty of rain and sunshine, still bloom in very different ways, depending on their inherited color, leaf structure, height and type of bloom. No one of my three intertwined characters is privileged over the other. Line hopes to do good in the world, Marty wants most to make beauty and Paul is dedicated to truth. Do they succeed? Do they become more integrated and productive as they grow older? And what of their parents and children? And the places they call home?

People are not as complex as we make ourselves out to be. As Wilson says, early humans invented the arts to express and control aspects of the environment “that mattered most to survival and reproduction. … The arts still perform this primal function, and in much the same ancient way. Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Twelve Steps

In the 1980’s it seemed that many people had some familiarity with the famous Twelve-Step program promulgated by Alcoholic Anonymous. It was used to recover from addictions of all kinds, as well as to help those who were in a family system with an addict. I was no exception, spending the late years of that decade going to the meetings of an Al-Anon group in Walnut Creek.

My then husband had been experimenting with drugs from his teenage years, but it was really alcohol, its easy availability and the fact that his mother was a savage alcoholic, that undid him. He began going to AA meetings, though he was quite capable of going to four of them in a day and still drink.

I did not know what I was up against. I had always thought that the unconditional love I brought from a Christian upbringing could save him. Al-Anon recommended “tough love,” which requires a person to take responsibility for his actions. In the end, my husband’s problems turned out to have more to do with him than with me, but I was certainly at the affect of them for quite a while.

The group meetings of Al-Anon were a revelation to me. The intention was that those who were feeling lonely and frustrated from living with an addict, and often trying to hide or cover this up, speak, showing each other that they were not alone. The patterns they shared emerged from talk at the meetings. I had no idea, for instance, how much I was trying to control the situation, how much I was invested in rescuing my husband, who enjoyed being out of control in order to be saved. Listening to other people’s stories, I was able to discern the pattern of victim, rescuer, persecutor that gets set up when someone’s brain has decided it needs alcohol and will do anything to get it.

The Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions and the Al-Anon slogans, all of which are also associated with AA meetings, are meant to assist in changing these patterns. I found anonymity, the insistence that none of us know each other’s last names or what status we had in the working world, helped to take the group directly into discussion of intimate dynamics and subverted any attempt to hold yourself above others in the group.

The Twelve Traditions were read at the beginning of each meeting, reminding us that Al-Anon was not a professional group, that it was self-governing and self-supporting. It had no opinions on outside issues and did no promotion. The Twelve Steps involved turning one’s affairs over to a higher authority, as one understood it, making a moral inventory of one’s defects, humbly asking for help and making amends where possible. The program was seen as “work” and slogans were used to help when you found yourself in a compromising situation: “One day at a time,” “Let go and let God,” “Together we can make it,” and the serenity prayer, “God grant me the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can and Wisdom to know the difference.”

Twelve Step programs were the obvious antidote to the collective binge of personal exploration and selfish indulgence my generation got itself into. Few people were completely immune. David Foster Wallace was a little younger than we were, but in his book Infinite Jest, published in 1996 and hailed as “a momentous literary event,” he showed exactly how much the culture was addicted to “television, drugs, loneliness.”

Infinite Jest is a long, complicated work, but Elaine Blair sees its moral center as Don Gately, who is based on Big Craig, a supervisor at the halfway house were David Foster Wallace resided while he overcame his own addictions. He writes: “The palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of [AA] … then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work.”

“That clichés contain truth might not seem like a startling observation in itself, but it’s a startling thing for a novelist of the first order to make a point of telling us—especially this particular novelist,” writes Blair. “He is not, of course, celebrating clichés in general; he is issuing a corrective, one meant mainly to address the biases—the fixed ideas—of his own generation of readers: don’t be too quick to dismiss what sounds obvious, familiar, or unsophisticated.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Into the World

About this time of year, I begin to have discussions with people about whether it is fall or not. By the Japanese calendar, in which seasons surround the solstice and equinox instead of begin with them, autumn begins the second week in August. This corroborates my Pacific Rim sense of things. Trees are drying up and even starting to turn here. We have a bit of fog in the mornings, which keeps the days cool. And the sun sets earlier every day.

I have just finished the first draft of Chapter 17 of Nature’s Stricter Lessons and put it up for my first readers. This puts me about two thirds of the way through the book, which will be the fifth in the series about Line, Marty and Paul Mikkelson. I’m not rushing it, since the first four books of the series are now out in the world, but I am happy to be moving forward.

Lightly Held Books also has some news. We held a short advertising campaign, using Google AdWords and the ad you see here. The idea is that each ad bids for space on web pages as people are reading or surfing the web, particularly literary web pages. For a relatively small amount of money, in July, there were 56,492 “impressions” seen by people in the ad space at the edge of their web pages as they browsed. 92 people clicked through to see the website http://lightlyheldbooks.com/. It doesn’t mean that anyone bought any books! Or that 92 new people became aware of our site, or looked at it for more than a cursory minute. But it might mean something. It is an axiom of the public relations world that a person must hear about something seven times before he actually purchases it. I have Don Starnes to thank for making the ad and getting to the bottom of AdWords.

This is also the fiftieth year since I graduated from Luther College. As a result, I was asked by the bookstore if I wanted to do a book signing. Yes! I do! Thus, early October will see me flying in to Rochester, Minnesota, and heading down to Decorah, Iowa. My sister Ann will ferry me about and possibly there will be another book signing in Mankato. I haven’t tried to compete for book signings in the busy urban bookstores in my area here in California. In fact I am pretty poor at competing at all! But it doesn’t mean I take my work any less seriously.

I couldn’t tell you why I feel it so necessary to write this series of books, but I have wanted to contribute to culture in some way since I was a very little girl in North Dakota. Finally now I have the time to show, in the way that I want to, something about wholeness.

Essentially, as Christopher Alexander describes in his four books on The Nature of Order in the physical world, wholeness is recursively induced from wholeness. Alexander points to a cathedral, for example, “in which the properties create life innocently, in centers, and in which the centers themselves are multiplied, each one made deeper by the next.” Crafted by people who were steeped in one thought, to work to the glory of God, the recursion in the glass and stonework becomes more intense and the structure becomes a unity.

Athletes perform with more excellence out of pride in the team or country of which they are a part. The “strangers” who come together to make music in the Silk Road Ensemble exhibit the uninhibited joy of participation in the group. The soundness, the sustainability of our institutions, our families, even our personalities are informed by the context from which they come. Only now, I believe, when we see fragmentation all around us, are we willing to look at this.

In art people are still excited by the shimmering edges of things. But one day they will want to get back to the trunk, the base, the roots. When that happens, they might want to know about the culture which sustains our three siblings, Line, Marty and Paul, a wholeness which induces their abundant lives. Steeped in this family culture, they embrace new cultures, make their own families and the difficult choices which our rambunctious, rapacious and freedom-loving global culture requires.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

No Nukes

When Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant partially melted down in March, 1979, it touched off a decade of protest against the use of nuclear power for energy consumption. Radioactive gases were released into the air in a densely populated Pennsylvania and cleanup took many years at a cost of a billion dollars.

In California, the Abalone Alliance (named for the red abalone who were killed in Diablo Cove) began fighting the construction of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 1977. This power plant was constructed on the Pacific coast near San Luis Obispo over a Chumash Indian burial site. It was located on the San Andreas fault, as well as the Hosgri fault two and a half miles offshore. Seawater is used to cool the reactors and on several occasions, jellyfish, marine animals and kelp have obstructed operations. Blockades and occupations at Diablo Canyon from 1977 to 1984 failed to stop the construction of the plant. According to David Hartsough [Waging Peace, 2014], “the original price tag for the plant had been estimated at $300 million. When it finally opened in 1985, construction costs were $5.8 billion, with an additional $7 billion in financing costs.”

Concerns about the Diablo Canyon plant have continued, particularly after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011, as Diablo Canyon is also in an area prone to earthquakes. After the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 1913, Diablo Canyon was the last nuclear power plant operating in California. PG&E said in June, 2016, that it would not seek to renew the Diablo Canyon reactors’ operating licenses past 2025 and will replace its power with renewable energy sources.

While in jail for their protests at Diablo Canyon, activists formed the Livermore Action Group which tried from 1981 to 1984 to shut down the Lawrence Livermore National Lab where nuclear weapons are designed and tested. The group was organized into 20-person affinity groups which could act flexibly and independently. To be part of the protest, one had to go through non-violence training and be a member of an affinity group. Groups took on various levels of risk, appealing to a wide public, though it failed in its stated purpose. Barbara Epstein [Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 1993] argues that it succeeded in its demonstration of the principles of egalitarianism and nonviolence in political activism.

In April of 1986, an explosion and fire in a nuclear plant in Chernobyl Russia spread radioactivity over much of western Russian and Europe. It was the worst such disaster to that point, leading to the abandonment of the town of Pripyat and many claims about the consequences in terms of damage to humans. It forced the Soviet Union to become less secretive and was a factor in “glasnost,” which paved the way for the Soviet collapse. After this, reliance on nuclear power for energy consumption was slowed or reversed.

In March 2011, an earthquake and the resulting tsunami perpetuated an accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. One of the reactors overheated, leading to meltdown and the release of radioactive materials. An investigative committee concluded that “a culture of complacency about nuclear safety and poor crisis management led to the nuclear disaster.”

In the July 14, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books, Governor Jerry Brown of California recently reviewed a book by William Perry here. Perry notes: “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” Clearly, complacence about nuclear weapons and safety are still a part of America’s culture as well.

Of our three protagonists, Line is the closest to anti-nuclear activism. Her husband Stephen is involved in the Diablo Canyon protests, and she and the whole family attend the blockade at Lawrence Livermore Labs on the International Day of Nuclear Disarmament in June, 1983.