Back in One of My Happy Places

The view from my apartment at the Collegeville Institute.

After three Covid-forced years away, I’m back at the Collegeville Institute this week and next, leading a workshop called Apart and Yet a Part. I couldn’t be happier.

For the next ten days, I’ll be meeting individually with writers who will spend their days with no commitments other working on their own writing. Evenings, we’ll have dinner together and post-dinner discussions about writing and life, a book exchange, a meditation walk, and a final-night reading of new material.

This is the land of Minnesota Nice, which isn’t as glib as it sounds. Our power was out this morning and it strengthened my belief in humanity just to watch the staff here interact with the physical plant workers who came to get us back online. Everyone was respectful and helpful and thankful and had a good sense of humor. Why aren’t we all this way with each other all the time?

New WritingtheNorthwest.com Post: Nature, Stereotypes and the White Default

Fishing, ca. 1920, Asahel Curtis, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed: 11-4-21

The photograph here is the illustration for my second post on the new website, WritingtheNorthwest.com. The post is called, “Visions of NW Writing: Nature, Stereotypes and the White Default” and addresses the relative lack of writing by people of color in what we think of as “Northwest writing.”

You can read it by clicking here:

“Visions of NW Writing: Nature, Stereotypes and the White Default”

Joy Encased in the Covid Night

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
                                                                                              Psalm 30:5
This image is from an ice storm we had in Portland a few years ago. It seems an apt reminder that encased within this Covid night is the joy of the coming thaw. We need only endure a while longer.

Preparing To Be Free

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC
photo © Michael N. McGregor

STUDY that which you would like to see in this world—peace, truth, faithfulness, community, economic fairness, good government—and it will have a better chance of coming to be.

On this day of hope, let us all prepare our minds and hearts to work for a better world when we are free again.

Happy Easter to all!

FDR on a President’s Priorities in a Democracy

FDR Presidential Library & Museum photograph by Margaret Suckley [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

I haven’t added a new post to this site in a long time, and I’m not going to promise to be consistent about adding posts now. But I’ve started working on a new project, centered in the first decades of the 20th century, and some of what I’m reading for it is worth posting about because it relates to what we’re living through in the US today.

I’ll try to say more about what I mean by that in future entries, but for now, just to get started, I’m going to simply post a quote about FDR from a book published in 1937, when his policies were showing some signs of working but the Depression was far from over. The book deals primarily with his policy toward electricity and public utilities in general.

Here’s the quote:

“The President’s thinking goes first to government–democratic government–and after that to economics…In the prodigies of effort he put forth to lead the country out of the bogs of depression he therefore sought, and seeks still, more than what he has termed ‘a purposeless whirring of machinery.’ It is important that every man have a job, that every factory have orders to fill and that business as a whole earn profits. ‘But,’ as he said in his annual message to Congress in January, 1937, ‘government in a democratic nation does not exist solely, or even primarily, for that purpose.’ The factory wheels ‘must carry us in the direction of a greater satisfaction in life for the average man. The deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible–especially those who need it most–to improve their conditions of life, to retain all personal liberty which does not adversely affect their neighbors, and to pursue the happiness which comes with security and an opportunity for recreation and culture.'”

pp. 292-293, Pyramids of Power, M. L. Ramsay

Great New Books for Your Reading List!

Every year around this time, it seems, friends, acquaintances and former students publish a bunch of wonderful books. To help get the word out and give you some reading ideas, here are brief descriptions and links:

1. TWO of the best books of ROBERT LAX‘s poetry are being reissued in paperback after many years of being impossible to find for a reasonable price:

33 POEMS (my favorite Lax collection), New Directions–out today!

LOVE HAD A COMPASS, Grove Press. This one came out last week.

2. THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by my grad school classmate Devi S Laskar, Counterpoint Press. This chilling and deeply personal novel shows the ramifications of racism in this country. It has been praised everywhere. Published in early February.

3. MOTHER WINTER by my former student Sophia Shalmiyev, Simon & Schuster. Another book being lauded all over, this one is a feminist memoir about Sophia’s harrowing early childhood and the move to America that meant leaving her troubled mother behind. It’s also about becoming a mother herself. Released two weeks ago.

4. SURVIVAL MATH by another former student of mine, Mitchell S. Jackson, Scribner. In this memoir/social investigation, Mitchell looks at the various members of his African-American family and the different ways they dealt with and were affected by the poverty, violence, drugs–and community and love–in his North Portland neighborhood. This one doesn’t come out until March 5 but it’s already receiving all kinds of press.
(If you haven’t read Mitchell’s prize-winning novel, The Residue Years with a similar theme, do that too!)

5. THE GOSPEL OF TREES by yet another former student, Apricot Anderson Irving, Simon & Schuster. I wrote last winter about this beautiful memoir of growing up in a missionary family in Haiti and the questions about faith, cross-cultural interactions and one’s own place in the world it addresses. I’m including it this year because the paperback comes out March 26.

6. HALF THE CHILD by another grad school classmate, William J. McGee, William J. McGee. This novel takes you inside the relationship and struggles of a divorcing dad and his toddler son–a rare, compassionate view. Already available.

7. PLACEMAKER: CULTIVATING PLACES OF COMFORT, BEAUTY, AND PEACE by Christie Purifoy, Zondervan. I worked with Christie during one of my Collegeville Institute writing weeks. Starting from her restoration of a Pennsylvania farmhouse and the idea that we are all gardeners in one way or another, Christie writes about the need to create and live within beauty. Comes out on March 12.

8. CONFESSIONS OF A BAREFACED WOMAN by Allison Joseph, Red Hen Press. Allison was my colleague at Southern Illinois University two decades ago and has sent many beautiful poetry books into the world since then. This is one of her most personal, “highlighting in turns light-hearted and harsh realities of modern black womanhood” (says the Amazon description).

9. LOSING MY RELIGION by William Mills, Resource Publications. I worked with Bill at Collegeville too. This is his story of taking over as the priest at an American Orthodox congregation and the chaos that ensued.

10. INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro, Knopf. I taught with Dani in the Manhattanville College MFA Summer Writers’ Week last year. If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know about this memoir of learning through DNA testing that her father wasn’t her biological father and the upset that caused in the life Dani had made for herself. It came out in mid-January and has become a bestseller already.

11. REAL DAUGHTER by Lynn Otto, Unicorn Press. Lynn was in the poetry program at PSU but took a couple of classes from me and has become a good friend. I heard her read from the book and it is lovely. You can hear her read poems from it yourself here: https://player.fm/…/flash-briefing-lynn-otto-reads-yolked-f…

12. SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok, William Morrow. Jean was my classmate in the MFA program at Columbia. This novel doesn’t come out until June 4 but it is already receiving HUGE press, including appearing on many “most anticipated” lists. It looks amazing.

13. I AM A STRANGER HERE MYSELF by my former colleague in the nonfiction program at PSU, Debra Gwartney, University of New Mexico Press. It comes out March 1. This book won last year’s River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. I’ve read excerpts and it’s wonderful. It’s a researched meditation on Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman in the Northwest, and a memoir of the strong women in Debra’s family, who have lived in the NW for generations. (If you haven’t read Debra’s last memoir, the popular and intense Live Through This, go get that one too!)

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

I keep thinking about Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who died at 83 three days ago. He was the first African American to manage a MLB team and the only man to be named MVP in both leagues. I’ll list some of his other achievements below, but first a personal story:

The 1970 Baltimore Orioles (with the two Robinsons, Frank and Brooks) were one of my favorite teams of all time. That October, when they beat Frank’s old team, the Cincinnati Reds, in the World Series in five games, I had just “purchased” a tiny, tiny transistor radio, probably with Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrappers. In those days, Series games were played during the daytime during the week. I took that radio to my grade school and listened to the Series in class, with the left side of my head turned away from the teacher so he couldn’t see the thin line of the wire attached to the earbud in my left ear. I never got caught.

That 1970 Orioles team had seven All-Stars on it, and except for Frank, who was paid $125K, none of them made more than $65K. The Series that year, by the way, featured the first African American ever to umpire a Series: Emmett Ashford.

Okay, here are some more of Frank Robinson’s achievements:

1956 Rookie of the Year
1958 Gold Glove
1961 National League MVP (Cincinnati)
1966 Triple Crown (tops in HRs, RBIs & batting average)
1966 World Series MVP (Baltimore won it that year too)
1966 American League MVP (Baltimore)
12-time All-Star
1975 1st black MLB manager (Cleveland Indians)
1989 American League Manager of the Year (Baltimore)
2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom

Career stats:

1,829 runs
2,943 hits
528 doubles
586 HRs
1,812 RBI
204 stolen bases
.294 batting average

RIP, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for giving so much pleasure and inspiration to a little white boy with a tiny radio.

“The Story Catcher” is a Best American Essays 2018 “Notable Essay” Selection

I just learned that my essay on Brian Doyle, “The Story Catcher,” published in the Autumn 2017 issue of Notre Dame Magazine is listed among the “Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction 2017” in Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als.

A piece by Brian called “Everyone Thinks that Awful Comes by Itself, But It Doesn’t,” published in the February 2017 issue of The Sun, was selected too.

It makes me very happy to see Brian honored in this way.