The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Summer's Bounty

Having finished a first draft of Chapter 12 this week, in a book (A Moon Every Night) with 25 chapters, I feel justified in claiming that I am almost half finished. A minor milestone. When this book is finished, only one will remain in the series So Are You To My Thoughts. Since my method is to try to stay close to the time about which I’m writing, I am sometimes surprised by what gets into the book. In this one, in particular, I am impressed at the cultural richness, matched of course by family depth, which I find in the lives of the Mikkelsons.

Line moves to Edinburgh, as her historian husband is doing a lectureship and research at the university for two years. The interest in gardens, herbs and healing is even greater in Scotland than what she found at home in Santa Cruz, California. Her daughter Fern is caught up in archaeology and the subtle drama of the dig. Line’s other kids are all developing their own passions, Christy for politics, Heather for viticulture and winemaking and Ivy for textiles. Pleased by these young adult involvements, Line and Stephen follow as best they can. Poppa, Stephen’s father, lives in Santa Cruz and runs a film club, which a local theater supports.

Marty has immersed herself in the practice of tai chi. Master Liu, who comes out of a powerful Chinese lineage, is developing teachers who continue to study with him and also have their own students all over the world. She is learning many sets, including weapons sets and two person applications in a setting which supports a complex social network as well. She is introduced to the five arts of the Chinese gentleman, poetry/calligraphy, music, medicine, martial and painting. Marty continues to work at a large architectural firm in San Francisco, and falls in love with a winemaker, learning the all-consuming poetry of wine.

The charms of the North Woods do not disappoint Paul. He and his wife live and work in Ely, Minnesota, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His many family ties bind Paul, to Mother in particular, who is getting on in years. And to Marie’s daughter, who marries and has five kids in quick succession! Living near the Mikkelson home base also ties Paul to his sisters: Hanna, whose partner Faith, runs a cheese-making operation in New York; Ellie, the eldest, who teaches English in St. Paul; and Kristen, a nurse married to a farmer. He finds he must also pay attention to his legs, since he had polio as a child and has been active all his life.

At our house in San Rafael there have been lots of things to watch this summer. One day recently I found the mother rock dove or pigeon and her two scrawny fledglings sitting on a fence not five feet from my front door. We’ve been aware of them, as the nest was in a gutter at the edge of the roof. Last night I walked up the hill a little ways with the doe and her two fawns we’ve been watching just ahead of me. The fawns still have their spots! I saw a jackrabbit, with its incredibly large ears at the edge of a stand of manzanita, which pleased me. I hadn’t seen one for a while. We also love the crickets, who begin to sing in the middle of July and continue into November. A few owls are around too, as the moon comes into its fullness.

I’ve been re-reading the entries Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard selected from her voluminous notebooks and published in 1954 as A Writer’s Diary. In late November of 1932, she conceived what she first thought of as an essay-novel and finally became The Years. She was terribly excited by it, wanting to write into it some of the things she felt about women. “It’s to take in everything, sex, education, life etc: and come, with the most powerful and agile leaps, like a chamois, across precipices from 1880 to here and now. That’s the notion anyhow, and I have been in such a haze and dream and intoxication, declaiming phrases, seeing scenes, as I walk up Southampton Row,” she writes. It is a wonderful book and has been of much inspiration to me.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wisdom and Information

"When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the Worldwide Web ... Now even my cat has its own page." Bill Clinton in October 1996.

The 1990’s was arguably the decade in which communication technology grew by leaps and bounds, spreading into all corners of the world. At the beginning of the decade, I worked in a small help desk company called Computer Hand Holding. It was sort of a computer lab, hiring geeks involved in both hardware and software. I was the only woman my boss could find to hold her own in this environment. I could take phone calls, answer the easy questions, passing the harder ones on to my colleagues. And I did have a few women melting down on the other end of the line, happy to talk to me.

Our boss encouraged us to get on Compuserve, an on-line provider that allowed people to sign in to their servers (located in Ohio) via a modem, and leave messages or participate in forums. “I am about to become a ‘lurker,’” I write in August 1992. I didn’t do much of that, as there were few forums on literature and I wasn’t much for gaming. A woman in my writer’s group had been given a subscription to the Well as a present. The Well hosted conferences on writing as well as many other topics, but these things were expensive at the time. I also insisted to myself that I was more interested in wisdom than the information computers could provide.

I did love the email that came with Compuserve, private conversations with friends and relatives who were far away. By the next year, I had an IBM computer with a modem in my home for the purpose. On Compuserve, you paid for the time used. When AOL showed up in the mid-1990’s, people shifted over because AOL used monthly rates. About this time I left the country for a year. When I got back, I worked in a big architectural company which was Mac-based. I bought a small portable Mac computer and got an email address from my Internet Service Provider. Service was still too slow to send photographs easily. When free email service came out, from Microsoft, I was quick to get a hotmail address, which I still use.

People had used answering machines for quite a while by this time, to take phone messages when they weren’t at home to answer their phone. I waited until AT&T added centralized messaging. How wonderful it was to come home, pick up the phone and hear the tones which indicated someone had left a message! Sometimes I would play and replay a message, just to hear the person’s voice. You could pick up your messages from a pay phone as well, which I sometimes was impatient enough to do. The concept of store and forward, for both voice mail and email was new and helpful when people were so active and running around.

Mobile phones really got going in the 1990’s also, using second generation networks with digital technology. Not being a freelance worker, or one who traveled to different sites, I didn’t get a mobile phone until much later. Working in administration, however, I had a drawer full of non-working ones at the office! They were heavy and clunky, but it was a status symbol. All the principals at the firm had to have one. I recall when the president of the company came to me in 1996 and explained that his phone was fine, but he wanted to replace it with a tiny “clamshell” phone, the Motorola StarTAC. He demonstrated how big it was and how he would put it in his pocket! He wanted to be the first to have one.

Working for a big international firm, we sent a great many documents back and forth. At this time I developed my theory that people always trusted the next to the last technology the most. We were all using email, but didn’t trust it as much as the fax machine! People would follow up an email with a phone call to see whether one had gotten the item, and often fax it as well! A fax could also provide a signature that an email could not.

Though the World Wide Web got going in the 1990’s, sophisticated searching, blogging, sending photographs, video conferencing and streaming were all to come. They arrived as transmission rates increased and storage capacities grew. Websites such as MSN and Yahoo for news, Amazon and Ebay for purchasing things, and Google for searching began in the 1990’s, but they came into their own in the following decades.

I feel lucky to have experienced this growth, while at the same time remembering what it was once like to wish that you knew more about something contemporary, to laboriously look up articles about it in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and then hunt down the referenced magazines in some cardboard box in the dusty library stacks! At the time, the idea of Google or Wikipedia would have sounded like Wonderland to me. It is still up to me to process information into wisdom, but perhaps a little more information helps!

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.”