Places – Tucson High Desert

Saguaro Near the Catalina Mountains

Tucson, High Desert – 2006

Across the desert floor saguaros bake in the hot, dry air. It is the time when the saguaro fruit sets and ripens. Birds, bees, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats – and people – dine on the sweet red fruit. The Desert People will make syrup or jam and ceremonial wine for the rain dance inviting the wind and clouds to bring the precious gift of water once more.

After the harvest is the time of waiting and watching. We see voluminous clouds pile up over the mountains – swirling dark clouds over a living desert. Even their shadows cast welcome relief.

We wait … immersed in an ocean of heat. We sweat and burn in light that cuts like a hundred blades into unprotected skin. On the Fourth of July midtown rockets burst on an obsidian sky while desert creatures prowl in the cool moonlight.  This day marks the arrival of the monsoon. Even the word, its utterance, a desert dweller’s mantra, offers relief:  monsoon!

And then it happens … the first dollops of rain splash down! Perhaps we see it far across the valley falling in just one particular area. We are jealous, but encouraged, for we know that soon it will fall on us, too. Our lives are made more certain with the rain. No creature can live without this precious rain. No, none.

The summer rhythms of this desert remind us of our vulnerability. That is the gift of the Saguaro season. We are dependent. Humbly we may realize it. We stand outside like fools and let it fall on us, run down our faces and spine where its coolness makes us shiver when only a second ago we were sweltering.

People in their cars, navigating flooded intersections, are amused. In washes, valleys and hillsides the shallow roots of columnar cacti, the ancient trees of our land, pump in the crystal substance as it trickles or gushes through the sand and stone. Their fluted forms expand with the tidal rhythm.

It is a desert baptism among people who still appreciate the desert’s rhythmic character. They catch rainwater in barrels and dig wide basins in the earth to hold the precious rain and prepare the soil for native seeds saved from last year’s harvest of squash, beans, corn, melons, and greens. They collect the mesquite beans and pound the pods into sweet flour to make bread that heals the body.  The harvest is bountiful when the gardening is blessed and prayers go forth in gratitude and hope.

When the big clouds roll up from the Gulf of California, the old women lift their harvesting sticks to pull down the clouds and bring the rain. The Tohono O’odham, The Desert People, keep vigilance over the city and the land around it and even the Europeans are learning to pray, in their own way. The Mexicans and Spanish have always kept the seasonal rhythms of land and seed and they pray to their spiritual guides, and all together raise their faces in prayerful patience as the clouds move up from Mexico over the Santa Catalinas swirling dark and black over the Old Pueblo. Somewhere I imagine there may also be a jaguar looking up in want of rain.

 

Places 2

 

My Grandparents’ Hill Top Home

I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) 

The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers.  They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.

I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay.  But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck.  When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base.  Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.

A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door.  Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.

I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.

Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses.  Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.

These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Joy of Reading a Really Good Book

My life is bountiful. I am surrounded by great books, talented writers whose sweat and tears have brought me a pleasure beyond words: worlds unto themselves, characters that are real and redeemable no matter what they do or have done, and a story that seizes my imagination.

As Tom Hanks’ rich voice delivers The Dutch House (Ann Patchett) into my living room, I chop veggies and set them to steaming, make a salad, or sit in my fav chair with hot tea, curled up under a yummy throw, the narrative rolls forward, jumps back, jumps forward, twists and turns, resolves, unwinds — windows opened to the full narrative of The Dutch House. Danny and Maeve are siblings who experience a tragic turn of events and are thrown together to survive. The narrative loops in long conversations between brother and sister — sitting and smoking in the car watching the moonlit house long after they were booted out of their family home. They return to The Dutch House at many points in their lives as a sacred space, a return to the scene of the “crime”.

The house is the center of gravity in the centrifugal forces of their lives into which we are invited to observe, consider, wonder where its all going. Hoping. Brother and Sister over their lives, work out what happened to them and how their lives have unfolded through the decades. Maeve’s coping is funny, maddening, and finally restoring while Danny lives on a stream of anger and resentment.

Maeve is the center force of Danny’s youth painted in realism so layered I felt I knew her as a sister. Danny’s very different way in the world is counterpoint, funny, and defining through whom the writer adds shading, depends a line in Maeve’s portrait. We can see its gonna be a masterpiece. I felt it coming.

Folks, it’s life presented just as it is, all its colors and shades, all its flavors. Life. I believe it’s the best book Ann has written — a culmination of all she has learned about life, marriage, and family and sibling relationships, about the unexpected, about serendipity and forgiveness. Danny tells the story of his sister, Maeve, and what a woman she is. Their continuous conversation over five decades of their lives, forms the stream of consciousness of writer and subsequently readers.

It is deftly delivered. Listen to an excerpt here.

To writer friends: Ann wrote the story, hated it, threw it out, and rewrote it which she shared in an interview recently.   Listen here. 

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Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and  19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).

Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife,  and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’

Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”

For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con,  Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.

This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!

Leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A book for our times

The great historian and writer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, has gifted students of American history with a rare treasure. Leadership In Turbulent Times, is a masterwork by one of America’s preeminent presidential historians. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson are examined through three lenses: 1) Ambition and Recognition of Leadership; 2) Adversity and Growth; 3) The Leader and the Times: How they Led

Goodwin has written biographies of each President, and she worked in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration as a student fellow and later helped him organize his presidential library and archives which are extensive.

I highly recommend this book for its relevance to present turbulent times. How can we recognize a great leader? What do they share in common? How do their leadership qualities emerge over a lifetime, and how do they use their particular talents to lead the largest democracy on Earth?

Goodwin is a great storyteller. The intimate portraits she paints for us are gritty, truthful, and surprising. In the last section on Visionary Leadership Goodwin becomes a classroom professor subheading points she wants to make clear such as 1) Make a dramatic start; 2) Lead with your strengths; 3) Simplify the agenda — and so on. One critic felt this was too elementary. But I like to think that Goodwin, out of her concern for the state of leadership in Washington was giving us a primer on how to identify a true leader. And for younger men and women who are coming up in the political ranks in their counties and states, she may also be showing them how the greats managed to bring our country together in times of very dangerous challenges such as the Civil War, the Depression, WWII, Civil Rights and Vietnam.

Call it a primer on Leadership. Here is an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about the book.

 

 

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.