The Remarkable Diana Gabaldon

When I was at work at Arizona State University, little did I know that I was crossing paths with a person who would soon become an internationally known author with a fan phenomenon that continues to grow. Diana Gabaldon is author of the Outlander book series.

The first book which set off the chain reaction, Outlander, was published in 1991. Probably I felt the Earth tremble but didn’t know what it was. I was crossing a river of my own, thinking about writing a book, but didn’t get around to it until 2003. Literally, I crossed the Colorado and would eventually find my way to Phoenix and Arizona State University still clueless of the Gabaldon earthquake. Her eight books have sold over 35 million copies in 26 countries and are printed in 23 languages.

Outlander was a phenomenal success; 7 sequels rolled-on-out into eager fans hands all emanating from an incredible mind — with the 9th in the series due in 2020. See Diana’s website for updates. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/

Diana is a generous writer, sharing more information with her readers than any other author I’ve ever read, and actively engaging them on her website, in literary groups, her blog, and more, answering questions and engaging readers the world over. She has also published tomes called Outlander Companions that give readers a lot of background information on history, medicine, time-travel, etc. (Well, she was professionally a science historian and well trained to record and report with deep attention to detail, and also the weird little anomalies in human affairs.)

I’d heard about the TV adaptation from my daughter in law but didn’t get around to watching it until the 4th season, which in turn sent me on a wild adventure watching all the previous episodes and season, then buying and reading the entire series of books. I’ve started to reread book 5 and 6 in anticipation of the 5th TV season on Starz.

What prompted me to watch the Outlander TV series was a novel I was drafting about a young doctor whose mother’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Wales. [This is partially my own heritage along with Scottish and Irish ancestors who emigrated, and traveled down into the Appalachians where they settled.] My character  is an intuitive who wishes to learn more about natural remedies and practices of her mother’s home country especially after she has just finished a long residency and is deciding on her path in the practice of medicine.

In the fall of 2018 I was taking a course in Arthurian Legends, and reading about Welsh and Scottish history when I happened to stream Outlander to see what it was that had millions binging on Starz.

Diana’s mind is vast. That is the best way I can explain it. Matched with master storytelling which from all I’ve read is a natural gift, I could not stop reading, and when one book was finished I felt like my oxygen mask had been yanked from my face. I literally crawled into the closest book store gasping for the sequel! Later I ordered ahead so that there would not be days of blue lipped waiting. This was behavior never observed in myself before. I’ve become a fan of both Diana and now the Outlander cast members and writers of the adaptations.

What is it that has seized my mind and heart with such power, joy, and keen interest? I cannot express it yet but its something like this: characters that lift my spirit reminding me that we can be better than we think we can, and we can end up doing good even when we just stumble into it. It’s about intent. It’s also the story of a great love that stands the test of time and tragedy and never seems to be shredded or dulled by it. It’s the story of my family’s emigration, it’s the story of our nation’s early history, it’s about science (which I love and have worked in for my career) and it’s about a woman whose mind and skills are challenged to help others.

Finally, Diana has created a woman, Claire, who is a sort of hero for me and many women in even this modern day, maybe more so in our time. She says what she thinks, she never goes back on her word, she is imperfect and vulnerable, and she wants to be loved through and through by her man. Diana has created that man for her in Jamie Fraser who matches Claire’s strengths and provides a protective and totally absorbing love affair whose flame is inexhaustible.

And there is lots of humor! Thank you Diana for making fun of us along the way. If we can’t laugh then it IS a tragic affair, this life we all strive to live and make some meaning out of. She possesses a great sense of humor and puts her characters in numerous embarrassing situations.

I find the books healing in a way, like a balm for my tattered soul — tattered by the banal world I’m living in, the broken hearts, the disappointed people, the loss of a framework in which to live in this fractured time. The story is stabilizing. The people care about and love each other and even when the way is not clear, the characters choose a safe way forward. And to think, Diana is still rolling-out their lives,  showing us a way forward. The fact that Claire and other characters time-travel adds a mystery to it all and opens up unique possibilites for the author to explore and compare historical times and mores, and ask interesting questions such as, “Can history be changed?”

What can I tell you. I am a goner. Diana Gabaldon has captured my imagination and my heart for the time being. And I am grateful.

 

A Celebration of Friendship and Community

Photo by Susan Feathers

Tomorrow I am flying to New York for the 39th Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger. This year’s race is very special because the community of Croton-on-Hudson is honoring the life and legacy of Carol Falter, daughter of my friends Betty and Bill. Carol lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at age 39, in the fullness of her life as a dynamic leader in education and youth development.

The race, which is run to honor the legacy of Harry Chapin, who was also taken in the prime of his life, is a fitting place to celebrate family, friends, and the principle that any one life can remake the world through passion for a cause greater than themselves. Below is what I will share with the community on October 20 – Race Day:

Thirty-nine years ago, this race was born in the office of Pastor Sandra Myers at Asbury United Methodist Church. Sandra called me to her office one Fall day in 1980 to help her establish a fundraising event for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Later that day I met up with my running buddies, who are here today, to celebrate the life and legacy of Carol Falter and this amazing community in which she was nourished as she grew.

Molly Connors, Kate Glynn, Betty Falter, Dot Janis, and I were training for a Leggs’ Mini-Marathon in Central Park. Let me set the context for you. Women were just discovering they in fact could run long distances without their uterus dropping. Yes, that was a falsehood perpetuated during the women’s movement to keep her out of the long-distance running competition. Katherine Switzer broke that barrier in 1967 — with the aid of a man, I might add — who held off a race official who sought to kick her out of the Boston Marathon. It would not be until 1972 that women were allowed to run that race.

On our run that day, we discussed a 10K race for Pastor Myers’ idea as a community project. Croton had long been a running community. The first U.S. chapter of the Hash House Harriers took root here. The dream of a race over the iconic dam and backroads of this beautiful place hovered in our minds. Pastor Myers named it the “Run Against Hunger” or RAH.

In July of 1981, Harry Chapin’s life ended in a car crash on Long Island. Harry had helped establish President Carter’s Commission on Hunger and Poverty, donating a third of his band’s earnings to charity, and established World Hunger Year. In his last three years, he raised $3M to end poverty.

A Croton resident and producer of Harry’s music asked that we make the RAH a tribute to Harry’s life and work, donated t-shirts, and that is how this race came to be in October 1981. We marvel at this community’s commitment to continue the work.  Carol Falter loved this race.  She later became an ultra-marathon runner herself – maybe because she first ran in the Fun Run here with her parents and brothers. She herself left an abiding legacy of work on behalf of youth and education, answering Harry’s challenge when he wrote these lyrics:

Oh, if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world*

                                Carol and generations of women have since changed                                                                     the pronouns to be more inclusive!

*Lyrics from the Chapin song: I wonder what would happen (Gold Medal Collection Album)

Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall KimmererRobin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Dream Acres

DREAM ACRES FARM

Holding-Out and Holding-On in America’s Heartland

Dream Acres Farm in Bowling Green 2018

Golden meadow grasses wave in the afternoon breeze along a far bank of dark green pine and hardwoods aflame in fall colors. The trees form the meadow’s northern border. Lover’s Lane, Old Towne Apartments, and Interstate 65 serve as other borders to Dream Acres Farm—a sliver of Kentucky farmland and noble hold-out against development.

The white picket fencing, farmer’s house, and rolling green lawn that face Lover’s Lane were built when this land near Bowling Green was “the country”. I imagine teenagers romanced in a car along a moonlit dirt shoulder, and that dense forests still grew to the horizon. The farm’s 15 acres are worth millions now that the town has grown up around it. Everyday another few acres of Lover’s Land churn under the blade in becoming hotel, medical center, nursing home…

Cutting the Meadow

Every day I thank the farmer for holding fast to his farm amidst the pressure of land sales. He tends a dozen fine steer and occasional cow and calf to graze and grow in his meadow. Because the windows of my small apartment face the meadow, I am a constant observer of the herd’s movement, their presence or their absence. When the first hard frost arrives, they are gone to groceries and restaurants, and suddenly the meadow feels abandoned. Slowly, I’ve learned much about bovines: how they form attachments with the farmer, running and frolicking around him whenever he drives his rusty tractor out to inspect fences. I never knew cattle could move so fast. I’ve sketched their charcoal-black postures in the emerald grass of springtime and photographed them hip deep in a field thick with golden grasses in the fall.

This spring a community of swallows took up residence at my apartment complex, nesting on windows and gables facing the meadow and from which they emerged and returned with lightening-speed, providing me with more entertainment. After some time, I realized why they had come. As the cattle moved in the high grass, grasshoppers and gnats rose in swarms. The swifts careened in and around the thick calves and heavy hooves like fighter pilots after targets. When the insects’ life-cycles ran their course, the swifts disappeared into thin air.

Daily observation helped me discover the diversity of life in the meadow beyond the obvious farmer-bovine-grass relationship. Black silhouettes circled in the late afternoon sky portending prey moving in the grass sea: rodents, rabbits, snakes, perhaps frogs. I am sure there is an owl perched in the far border of trees whose throaty hooting I cannot hear over the constant roar of I-65. The life in the meadow also includes a neighbor’s acre of goats attended by sheepdogs that escort them in and out of a sagging, grey barn. Dream Acres Farm has its own barn from which the cattle emerge and return, but most days they sleep out under the stars.

When the farmer dies, will his heirs sell the farm and make millions? Probably—in the way of progress. When they do, I will disappear as the swifts to find another teacup of wild. And then, when no teacups remain, shall we all disappear like the swifts, into thin air?

I pray for the old farmer to live another day—my knight, my muse.

Replenishing the Earth – Wangari Maathai

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.

In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.

In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!

Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.

Listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai on OnBeing.org.

 

 

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a YA novel for our time.

It deals with injustice and racial profiling but in the most personal manner. Stone used newspaper articles, and stories from real teens who have faced similar injustices to develop her story. Stone writes a nuanced plot and characters as real as the people around you. Everyone is welcome in Justyce’s story because diverse perspectives are represented in the characters, their thoughts and responses to events in the story.

This is a national bestseller. Free copies were distributed by the Warren County, KY library in my home town of Bowling Green, KY. Nic Stone will be here in October and I cannot wait to meet her.

The novel is a short book (less than 200 pages) but it moves powerfully along to an ending that made me weep with joy, sorrow, and HOPE!

It is my wish for this coming year that Americans will read it because it shows a way forward in addressing injustice in our law enforcement as well as in society in general–what we must finally deal with to complete the Long Road to Freedom.

Some books are necessary. This is one of them. A brilliant achievement.

What the Eyes Don’t See: Everyone Should Read!

Chemical Symbol for Lead

What the Eyes Don’t See is a book written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As a pediatrician and Community Health Residency Director at Hurley Center in Flint. Dr. Mona (as her tiny patients refer to her) learned from a high school friend, an environmental scientist, that she should be concerned about lead in the water in Flint. She was surprised. The Flint authorities told everyone the water was fine to drink. Like most of us, she expected the people “in charge” to protect the public. Isn’t that what government is for? But, Dr. Mona’s friend said no — it is not safe. That began an 8-month odyssey that grew from a conversation between two friends to a consortium of doctors, scientists, activists, and  parents who exposed the cover up and righted a huge wrong.  Dr. Mona knew all too well what lead exposure does to developing children.

I highly recommend this book for its depth, its fluid story development, and its educational value for every adult in the U.S. and for the sake of every child. I read it over two days, hardly able to put it down. See Dr. Mona on the web.

Exposure to high lead levels as infants and children can cause irreversible damage to their brains and other organs. Gray matter in the brain is eroded so that the child has problems with attention and impulse control; it affects white matter in nerves that carry signals in the brain; it is suspected of having epigenetic effects – changing a child’s DNA which means it can be passed to future generations. People exposed to lead as children show higher rates of crime and addiction as teens and adults. Lead in the body can erode eyesight and affect other organs.

Dr. Mona encapsulates the story in 1) the political policy — austerity; 2) the socioeconomic history of the city and those most affected by the lead poisoning — an environmental injustice; 3) the U.S. practice of requiring the victim to prove harm first rather than using the Precautionary Principle: when danger is suspected, move with caution, using science to understand the risk.

In 2014, due to Flint’s bankruptcy, the state assigned an emergency manager who alone made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the more expensive fresh water of the Great Lakes to river water.  The Great Lakes water was treated with a corrosion control to prevent leaching of chemicals like lead into the drinking water. The new manager decided to not use corrosion-control treatment of the river water as a way to save money–his primary mandate.

Dr. Mona points out that the city lost democracy with the assignment of an emergency manager appointed by the state.  The city was in free-fall economically not by the fault of any of the families and small businesses that were struggling economically in Flint. The wealthy either moved out, or changed the housing and voting districts to wall themselves off from the poorer workers and neighborhoods. The people were essentially punished for being poor. Extreme austerity was what they got, a short-sighted, unjust policy.

When Dr. Mona and her team began to contact authorities to alert them and request data, they were met by silence or by bureaucratic barriers. They had to “prove” the harm done to children before the authorities would agree there was a problem. To protect industry, the U.S. requires harm to be proved first unlike all other nations in the world. Instead, Dr. Mona points to the Precautionary Principle.

Everyone in America knows that lead is dangerous, and officials in government know that corrosion-control in municipal water quality prevents leaching of lead. So why should she need to prove anything. Shouldn’t the authorities move with caution first to protect the possible harming of children? Again, in policy, money came before the kids.

Dr. Mona worked with data experts, scientists, policy makers, and many others to pull data, analyze it with rigorous methods to be sure the increase in lead that they were seeing was true. It was far worse than they expected. Thousands of children in the prime months and years of their development were impacted. But, just as you can’t see lead in the water, you won’t see the changes in the children for months or even years. So, one has to be cautious, right?

This book is something more. It is the story of an immigrant family who fled a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein) to live in the U.S. Mona and her brother were natural born Americans but her parents brought the traditions of their country and lives to their home in America. I was fascinated to learn more about the history of Iraq. Instead of the war-torn, fearful images I have only seen through U.S. media during the Iraq war, I learned about the Iraq Republic before the revolution that installed Saddam. Women had similar freedoms to American women today. It’s hard to imagine that such a complete transformation of the country has happened in such a short period of time and a warning to our country to watch for destabilizing influences on our democracy. Mona describes her parents and grandparents, the food, language, and story traditions from Iraq that are lovely and that I related to my own familial traditions. Her family members, each in their own way, emulated qualities of citizenship and justice that Mona clearly inherited.

Dr. Mona opened the world a little more to me. This perspective of the immigrant is vital to understanding other nations and our role in the world. I kept thinking as I was reading, “Thank God we let her family immigrate to America. Look what she and her family have contributed to the welfare of our country!”

Landing in the America that made it possible for Dr. Mona to be a doctor, she began to see that there were “two Americas” – the one that worked for her and her brother, and the one that doesn’t work for most of the residents of Flint. The families most affected by the poisoned water were the same ones who could not pay for bottled or filtered water. Children impacted by the poisoned water were already dealing with major stressors such as malnutrition, neglect or abuse–all the impacts of poverty.  Dr. Mona explains what we know about the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, of A.C.E’s which cause such ailments as chronic asthma. Dr. Mona teaches the reader about Community Medicine that looks not just at physical health but also zip code–the socio-economic correlates of health. The book is annotated and provides references for professionals and parents in the back of the book. It contains an excellent summary of Flint’s history from the heyday of GM’s dominance to the disenfranchised neighborhoods of today. This gives readers a setting in which to understand how and why the story unfolded as it did.

Dr. Mona works in a public hospital so she sees and cares for the poorest residents. Her amazing story is about the indignation of one doctor who would not stop until she exposed the lead levels of kids she saw at Hurley. She tells the story of the coalition of friends, fellow professionals, legislators, and parents who managed in only 8-months to expose the truth. Ultimately, the governor mandated the switch back to fresh, Great Lakes, corrosion-treated water. It was a victory but it is also powerful implication of America’s environmental injustices. And it is an ongoing effort to stay with all the kids affected to make their futures as bright as possible.

Direction for Communities Across the Country: As Dr. Mona travels around the country to introduce the book, she is teaching all of us about community resilience and how coming together we can provide buffers to poverty and neglect that will help stabilize children, and how we can all work together to provide kids in low-income neighborhoods with books, with mentors., with education, and a social fabric that helps each child and parent be more resilient to stressors.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is just one child of immigrant parents who has become an amazing advocate for American children who is also showing our nation where we must re-examine our policies at least as they affect the very young.

Dr. Mona is exposing much more than lead in the water. She is showing us a direction to live up to our creed that all people are equal and deserving of equal rights and protections under the law. Her book is a call for government to live up to its mandates and for citizens to make sure they do. Ultimately, Dr. Mona explains that she is a believer in the role of good government as opposed to extreme policies of austerity which are often short-sighted and basically unfair. I agree.

See Dr. Mona on the web.

UPDATE: Frontline Article July 25, 2018 about death toll from Flint Water Crisis, specifically from Legionnaire’s Disease.