Friday, November 8, 2019

Bear With Me--book(s) review


A cascade of coincidences. Kyle White and Jane Hertenstein, both writers of flash and THE SAME BIRTHDAY.

I discovered Kyle’s work, Wisconsin River of Grace, when he was doing a reading at Everybody’s Coffee. I never intended to buy the book, but had to once I opened it and read a snippet (the good thing about flash is you can dive in anywhere and get a taste). Since that 2012/2013 publication he has continued fermenting flash.

Bear With Me is a field journal that reads as a contemplative children’s book. In the sense that I could see it being shared with the whole family, the meaning explicit on so many levels. Just like a good Jon Scieszka book—there is something there for the adult and younger folk to hang their hat on. Mostly I enjoyed the pace of Bear With Me: short, pithy haiku-type entries with a unspoken “selah” at the end where one can sit and pause, ruminate over the importance of hibernation, relaxing, listening to your body, nature calling, living in tune with the seasons. Such as a bear drinking coffee in a birch grove puffing on a pipe. Giving space to ourselves to think and breathe deeply.

Sky getting lighter.
Finally back to sun’s warmth.
But naps end, sadly.

Or this:

Solitutde: pipe smoke,
Morning prayers, walks, sketchbook,
Coffee, toast, butter.

The simplicity of the lines is like a spell, a kind of wake-hibernation. Bear With Me is a cozy read. *Illustrations are also by Kyle L. White

Neighbor As Yourself (2016) is a collection of flash observations. The subtitle explains: Midwest essays, poems, etcetera.

It is the act of knowing we are not alone, that all around us are people—some lonely, solme frustrated, some frustrating.

One essay details a spring break to remote Washington Island in—let’s be honest—winter (as soring breaks are wont to be). The writer discovers an Eastern Orthodox monastery chapel and spends time each morning just being in that sacred (unheated) space before joining the party of others, his friends gathered to grill and vacate during a vacation. I sense the quiet, the candlewax, the rough wood board walls. I see tiny rabbit tracks in the snow which refreezes every night. Another selection enumerates (get it!) the writer’s brief career as a census enumerator.  

Winter is Scissors (2018) is his latest project, consisting of 31 flash essays or “daily” readings for winter. The daily is not tied to any particular day, so can be randomized. Dipped into. I’m particularly looking forward to Winter is Scissors because of the fact that winter has come early to Illinois/Chicago. Last week we had a Halloween snowstorm and this weekend we will have a double-dip Artic blast (two in one) with forecasts into the 20s. Brrr. I can just imagine the Bear in Bear With Me shivering inside his furcoat and snuggling deeper under covers. There are so many life analogies one came make about enduring winter, watching the titmouse peck up and down the walkway for a crumb, the lonely tree branches dark against a winter sky. We see these things and know that if we can just hold out that the sun will return. To cold, barren fields, to the winter-bleached concrete buildings with “smoke” coming out of the stacks on frigid mornings. We wait in hope, because spring has always come before.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

A note from an occupier


Last night I heard the most disappointing news about Abraham Lincoln. As an Illinoisan (formerly Ohioan) this was really bad. I mean I always knew as a lawyer he defended corporations and slaveholders, but he also fought a case in defense of a black woman.

There are at least two cases where Abraham Lincoln worked both sides of an issue. In 1841 Lincoln argued before the Illinois Supreme Court a case involving a slave girl named Nance. A man by the name of Cromwell sold Nance to his neighbor, Mr. Bailey. When she left Mr. Bailey’s service after six months declaring herself free, Mr. Bailey refused to pay for her. Lincoln argued that the girl was free because in the state of Illinois it was illegal for a slave to be bought or sold. Lincoln won the case.

On another occasion, though, in October 1847 Abraham Lincoln defended a slaveowner. Every year Robert Matson brought his slaves up from Kentucky to harvest his fields in Coles County. They were only in Illinois a short time before returning to Kentucky. When a family of slaves escaped with the help of abolitionists Matson sued for their return. The judge ruled against Matson and Lincoln lost the case.

His decision to free the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation was more a matter of keeping the Union together. That was always his priority instead of the ideological argument that all men are created equal.

I remember reading in his biography that Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk War on the western border of Illinois in April 1832. From Wiki: Black Hawk’s motives were ambiguous, but he was apparently hoping to avoid bloodshed while resettling on tribal land that had been ceded to the United States in the disputed 1804 Treaty of St. Louis.

Such a simple sentence for a tragedy.

Again from Wiki:

The Sauks were divided about whether to resist implementation of the disputed 1804 treaty.  Most Sauks decided to relocate west of the Mississippi rather than become involved in a confrontation with the United States. The leader of this group was Keokuk, who had helped defend Saukenuk against the Americans during the War of 1812. Keokuk was not a chief, but as a skilled orator, he often spoke on behalf of the Sauk civil chiefs in negotiations with the Americans.  Keokuk regarded the 1804 treaty as a fraud, but after having seen the size of American cities on the east coast in 1824, he did not think the Sauks could successfully oppose the United States.

Although the majority of the tribe decided to follow Keokuk's lead, about 800 Sauks—roughly one-sixth of the tribe—chose instead to resist American expansion. Black Hawk, a war captain who had fought against the United States in the War of 1812 and was now in his 60s, emerged as the leader of this faction in 1829. Like Keokuk, Black Hawk was not a civil chief, but he became Keokuk's primary rival for influence within the tribe. Black Hawk had actually signed a treaty in May 1816 that affirmed the disputed 1804 land cession, but he insisted that what had been written down was different from what had been spoken at the treaty conference. According to Black Hawk, the “whites were in the habit of saying one thing to the Indians and putting another thing down on paper.”

Black Hawk was determined to hold onto Saukenuk, a village at the confluence of the Rock River with the Mississippi, where he lived and had been born. When the Sauks returned to the village in 1829 after their annual winter hunt in the west, they found that it had been occupied by white squatters

Abraham Lincoln was part of a frontier militia that formed. On August 2, U.S. soldiers attacked Black Hawk’s band at the Battle of Bad Axe, killing many and capturing most who remained alive. Black Hawk and other leaders escaped, but later surrendered and were imprisoned for a year.

One thing Mark Charles said was the deeper he dug into history, the worse it got. A bit like watching the movie The Mission over and over. Plus, he told us last night: There are no winners. Even the perpetrators of violence on marginal or indigenous people were left traumatized. He tried not to boil things down, but one thing he feels sure of is that white people carry trauma of the genocides their ancestors perpetrated or condoned. Christians, in particular, are guilty for rationalizing their actions by saying what they did was in the name of God or Jesus.

Wow—what a weight, the heaviness of history toward native peoples. We took their land and the best we can do is name a subdivision after the original hamlet or use their names—such as Sauganash or Somonauk Street in Sycamore, IL.

I can’t wait to dive into his book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles, Soong-Chan Rah, InterVarsity Press
PW Starred Review: “This sobering critique presents a disturbing yet welcome analysis of how the Doctrine of Discovery has split American church and society along racial lines...”

Be prepared to have the top of your head blown off—in a “good” way. Also recommend, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, another depressing read where you cannot turn your eyes away from the foundational truth that humans have created a lot of chaos. Acknowledging this is the beginning to conciliation.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

This Does Not Belong to You/My Parents by Aleksandar Hemon


Readers of this blog know I appreciate Aleksandar Hemon’s writing. I re-read his novels and loved The Book of My Lives—so much so that I recall passages from it at random moments (especially since I live in Uptown where he based some of his observations). He has the peculiar ability to offer a surprising word in a sentence. I owe this to the fact that English is his second language. He uses it to its fullest.

His newest volume is non-fiction comprised of flash memoir pieces. The book is divided between memories of his parents, perhaps their memories, and his own thoughts back on his life—including preambles on mortality, writing, and other philosophical meanderings. Early on he riffs on Robert Shields who recorded his life in 5-minute segments, accumulating eventually more than 94 cartons of diaries. It is like always being “on.” It also begs the question: Who cares?

This work reflects a kind of Bosnian nostalgia=meaning there is no Yugoslavia. It is a pragmatic look back at something no one can no longer conjure. When I reminisce about the Ohio of my youth—there is at least a Ohio to refer back to. We take so much for granted, such as childhood. It vanishes along with childhood friends, places, and culture. Childhood culture of the 70s meant running the sidewalks with your pals until the street lights came on and then coming inside to the family.

We are so far away from that point in time—see Parent College Admissions Scandal, see Life360—an app that allows you to track your offspring, even if they are in their 20s and in college.

Here’s a small excerpt—it leaves me in a nostalgic mood.

We’d drive back home on a Sunday afternoon in early September, the experience of my time in the countryside ebbing already, the cherry stains on my hands fading like misremembered jokes. The last stretch of road, before Sarajevo opened like a palm of a hand, went through the Bosna River Valley. The sun would already be tucked in beyond the hills, a blue sky turned gray, the river fading into black, the cars would have their headlights on, ready for the onslaught of darkness. Summertime shuddered, quietly awaiting its end. We would see the rash of feeble fires on the slopes where the peasants scorched the summertime grass and dry bushes. That smell of burning in the Bosna Valley is the smell of coming back home at the summer’s end, a few days before school started, before my birthday, before the rains, before everything stopped being what it was. The smell of home, however was different: when we walked into our apartment, it would have the fragrance of our absence, of silence and cleanliness, of no one being there. I’d always be the first to inspect the apartment as if to see if something had changed, if somehow the order of things as we’d left them was altered, if something other than our life had taken place in that space, if someone had slept in my bed, touched my toys, read my books. But nothing, if course, would ever be different: when we were not there, and I always found comfort in that. Home is a place where there is void when you’re not there; home is what your body fills out. Nowadays we live elsewhere and otherwise, but there is still nobody in our place when we are not there. When I visit, that’s where I may be. I’m always absent somewhere. Home is fragrant nothing where I am not.

--and this from a guy who left home and was unable to return because of a war, suddenly seeking asylum in Chicago.

Absent from this volume are political analogies or observations. Perhaps because Hemon surmises that whatever he writes today will within minutes change—as current political news moves so fast. Suffice it to say: there are correlations between blind, obedient populations willing to follow a leader into oblivion.


I highly recommend this divided memoir of flash memoir.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What's Wrong With You?

Over the weekend I got hit on my bike--

I'm okay.

It was by another cyclist at a 4-way stop. I stopped and he came around me to pass into the intersection as I made a turn left. Definitely it was an accident. As I picked myself up off the pavement (he was able to stay up as he was skirting by; I hit his back wheel and fell) he immediately said: You didn't signal.

True, I thought, but you didn't shout out "passing." Then also thinking these things take a while to sort out, I guided my bike over to the curb and out of the intersection. Once off to the side I asked him his name. "Why do you need to know?"

Hmm, okay, I thought, this guy's a jerk. He was a middle-aged white guy and I immediately picked up a whiff of privilege. I also surmised he wanted to control the narrative--even though the only thing I'd said so far was to ask his name.

"Are you okay?" I knew he wanted me to be okay so he could keep going and get on with his day. But as someone who has been riding for over 50 years (I know, I'm pathetically old) I knew that I needed to access myself and the bike before letting him go.

I answered him by saying, "You didn't want to give me your name." I thought maybe adrenaline was making him present as a jerk and he'd snap out of it. No.

"Jeremy. What's yours?" His tone was demanding. I stood there staring at him. Really?

I got on my bike and rode away, disgusted. There was no way I wanted to continue looking at this bully. Later at home I bandaged my scrapped elbow. I'm okay, but angry.

Angry at myself for giving up and not letting him know then and there that I was a person. Angry at him for his smug privilege. Are people so afraid to be real and show authentic concern without automatically assuming I'm going to sue?


Monday, October 28, 2019

Ann Patchett, everyone’s BFF


I need to start this entry with an admission: I have not read a single Ann Patchett book. I have heard her name come up in literary circles for over a decade and it is “on my list.” FredShafer uses her material in his workshops at OCWW, but I just haven’t gotten around to reading Bel Canto, The Commonwealth, and—now, The Dutch House.

I moonlight At Wilson Abbey an event space and especially show up for book events put on by The Book Cellar and Women and Children First, as well as book launches held there. As much as I’ve decried buying more books, I am packing out my shelves more than ever.

Back to Ann Patchett who had a Chicago appearance to support The Dutch House at Wilson Abbey last week. I wanted to hear this woman that everyone talks about so glowingly. There were 350 people in the auditorium. I stood in the back. When she came on at exactly 7 pm she apologized for being late??? Then told us that she’d missed an earlier flight and had to take the next one out of Nashville, being United that was 3 hours delayed. Okay, this sounds like a kerfuffle—then she shared why she missed that first flight. She was able to get into the dentist office to repair two crowns that had broken.

Okay. So now the stage is set for a brave, high-functioning woman, not only a writer. She was only a smidgen sedated.

For the next 90 minutes she stood and spoke non-stop without a moderator or the benefit of an interviewer to carry part of the load. She spoke extemporaneously and with great wit and clarity. We were held in the palm of her hand.

She seems to be everyone’s best friend. She lauded friends’ books and promoted various writers, not just for their lyrical voice but because they are wonderful humans. She is someone who can wrangle a favor for you and give one in return.

Ann Patchett reminded me of Charles Dickens on a speaking tour. Because little money was made in publishing (then and now) he converted his fame into a speaking tour. Imagine the Beattles in Yankee Stadium, now picture Charles Dickens coming on stage. He was greeted like a rock star, once of the most famous people of his day.

“As painstaking a performer as he was a writer, Dickens had prepared diligently for the tour, rewriting and memorizing key passages from his books especially for these engagements. He used a book only as a prop; he was so familiar with the material that he could improvise with ease.” He spoke for over 2 hours most evenings.

Patchett then took question from the audience before going to a back table to personalize books. I had to leave early so did not stay till the end. She outlasted me—and I hadn’t been to the dentist and rushed to an airport.

Ann Patchett is a class act.



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Keeping a Blog during the Trump Impeachment


Okay, maybe it was the wedding. Last week my daughter got married, but, seriously folks, I have not gotten a lot done these past few months. When all else fails, blame it on T-rump.

I owe people I love, fabulous writers, reviews of their books. There is flash articles queued up inside my head to be written. I’m also working on a sudden book—a manuscript that has lain dormant for a while and perked up suddenly asking to come to life. Then there is the other bits of life such as relationships that needed attention. Coffee conversations, birthday, etc etc.

The etc is what has crowded in lately, usurping the plan. The pan being to be on top of things. Which is always going to get inconveniently interrupted.

Then there’s the constant computer card playing, checking Facebook, commenting on stranger’s posts, ugh! The impeachment.

The messing around before buckling down to put words on the page. I promise to be better.

As I drift off to favorites: Pinterest, crazyguyonabike.com—when all other distractions fail, I plan a bike trip.

Prayers, light and love, good Zen thoughts appreciated.

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

New Work (out soon)



Sorry MIA--crazy last coupla weeks--
daughter got married
the house was full
now--
      empty

should I write a poem about white roses?

NEW WORK will be up soon at  The Blue Pages Journal http://bluepagesjournal.blogspot.com/
which accepted a weird piece, a flash series called Tiny, Little Horrors about intersectional moments
flash memories of being suddenly scared or grossed out and how those memories have never left me--or left me scarred.

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