READING LEIGH NEWMAN

EACH TIME I pick up a captivating memoir, I’m further convinced of the value of books that share pivotal pieces of our lives. Memoirs that elevate the conversation, that provide thoughtful insight into what it feels like to experience something universal yet only vaguely understood, that shine a light on an author’s decision-making process.

“Moving from place to place, you develop routines to ease any confusion. Like never opening your suitcase your first day home. An open suitcase only leads to long hours doing load after load of tedious laundry… .” ~ Leigh Newman, STILL POINTS NORTH: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home (Dial Press, 2013).

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I also find it fascinating how so many of us manage to stumble across books we end up reading, and loving. Call it serendipity, chance, good fortune, dumb luck, spiritual intervention, the manifestation of mysterious energy patterns, or even destiny, but rarely do I read a book that seemed to simply walk across my life path and not enjoy it. Trusting these intuitive nudges, this gentle guidance from within, could be the key. I try to take those nudges seriously, don’t you?

When I saw the cover for Still Points North, for instance, I immediately thought looks interesting. A young girl near a body of water. A small plane. A man with his head bent, busily doing something. A blue cooler planted on the shore. And the young girl was wearing an orange hat, standing beside some yellow wildflowers. Intrigued, I soon tracked down a copy of the book and discovered the world of Leigh Newman. Yes, she was somewhat known to me before, but only cursorily from social media outlets. One day though, she posted something on Facebook that touched my soul. I sensed empathy and understanding from her post and knew this was someone I wanted to know a bit more about. Then, of course, I discovered her memoir.

Having published a memoir myself recently, I am drawn to books in this genre that capture life experience in a way that is somehow unforgettable. Certainly many of the details in books don’t “stick” (and that’s okay and normal and good), but in the end, I still want to find something lasting in any book I devote my time and attention to. If I can’t sense the author’s spirit coming to life as I read, I won’t keep turning the pages; more importantly, the story will fade from my awareness very quickly.

Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.
–John Green

In her memoir Leigh writes about her wedding: “The minister stands beside him, adorned in casual interfaith raiments. Daisy garlands and twinkle lights distract from the broken boards and gutters. A bug-bomb jammed down the pump has wiped out the wasps.”

Doesn’t sound like the traditional church wedding, does it?

Rather, it sounds like something real … something without the familiar trappings of feigned perfection so many traditional ceremonies seem intent on projecting. Fortunately, there are many other distinguishing elements of the author’s story that make Still Points North a most compelling read. Universal feelings and events shaped by unique personalities and circumstances…the kind that helped me connect with well-remember feelings of confusion, quiet despair, and innocence common to every childhood.

  • How, for instance, would you navigate the turbulent, somewhat dark and frightening, waters of your parents’ divorce as a young girl? How would you love and learn from a beloved grandmother, a final and inevitable good-bye hovering in the background? And while you are busy growing up, you learn a troubling fact: that your grandmother lost a child, your father’s sister, to suicide. How would you make sense of such a troubling event when it’s not openly discussed by the adults around you? And because of your fiercely independent spirit (Alaskan style!), you wonder how to survive an American culture of tradition and conformity, a world that expects you to behave in predictable, possibly less-than-satisfying or inspiring, ways?

On a purely fun level, given my first name (my grandmother was also a Daisy), I loved the many mentions of “daisy” throughout Leigh’s memoir. “I drew a daisy on the waiting list.” And her mention of “ding-dong” also resonated with me. I thought I was the only one on the planet who used the expression! Not so, apparently. “I stared at the untied lace of my wader boot. I knew what I looked like to him: a big liberal ding-dong from Baltimore, a hypocrite who no longer understood the reality of the food chain.”

Long story short: read Leigh’s book. I believe you will find yourself on the pages of this beautiful memoir, and that is a good test of most any book. But especially of memoir. Too often misunderstood by critics who miss the point entirely or reviewers who lack the empathy or compassion to take an authentic interest in how others suffer, struggle, grow, or simply manage to navigate profound life challenges, I believe a well-written memoir is an important bridge to understanding the intricacies of the world around us. Offering insight into the vagaries of the human condition, we are permitted a genuine glimpse of the human soul.

What more could we possibly want … ?

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Out walking our dogs one summer day, I noticed this chalk art on the sidewalk. Most children love to draw, and maybe the straightforward message here is a good reminder. Maybe love is what really carries us through our early days. We may not see it that way at the time but, in retrospect, love probably helped us power through difficult days that, as kids, we typically thought should be more fun, more better, more something.

If you’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be a kid in a grown-up world, Still Points North will take you back, while still  managing to release you intact and renewed in today’s current. The stream of life rarely stands still, except when we manage to capture moments and hours within the pages of a book. The gift of connection offered by artists and authors like Leigh Newman is another reason we need and benefit from memoir. To appreciate life stories we merely have to care about our fellow man and woman in a world that often sidesteps the profound importance of knowing and practicing genuine concern for others. Though our contemporary culture often seems intent on producing the steady drumbeat of narcissism, reading memoir can help us to remember our shared journey to the same final destination.

As I wrote in The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, a memoir about my spiritual quest to understand the deeper message of loss, the very mysteries of existence, “We are all challenged, through the various life catalysts that show up, to find peace, contentment, and greater spiritual awareness in a world focused on everything but.”

So in the end … it’s not about getting the challenges we face “right” … it’s about something much more profound and lasting. It’s about encountering ourselves in those steep life passages and discovering that we are multi-dimensional and forever connected to the human family. ~ dh

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can
only think what everyone else is thinking
.
–Haruki Murakami

img-20120929-00295How do you make sense of your younger years, or is this ever really possible?
Describe a moment in your life that you now view as pivotal.
What life experiences remind you of the collective nature of existence?
Does memoir help you understand the human condition?
What insights are you seeking; what puzzles you about your life?

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
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READING EDWARD HIRSCH

His son was named Gabriel, and when esteemed poet Edward Hirsch decided to write about his son’s untimely death, the elegy grew into a book-length poem. Of course, it is called Gabriel.

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For me, this was a captivating piece of work. Like an artist painting a portrait with features so very real, Hirsch describes his son in vivid detail, often including snippets of conversation. The words exchanged with Gabriel are telling. I sensed the energy of the continual “trying” that seemed to envelope their relationship; Gabriel’s restless behavior patterns encumbering them like an unwanted third party in their familial relationship. Attempting to  connect with someone in this context can be exhausting. Like trying in vain to see a person’s face through a dense fog. Like imagining personal lifelines that are frayed, or nonexistent. I also sensed the love that existed between father and son. Despite it all, there was enormous caring and concern. I hope you’ll read this book. Offering profound insight into the human condition, Gabriel: A POEM, is much more than a wonderful literary contribution. It is a story of loss that conveys the tragedy of what can’t be fixed or healed for reasons unknown. And many things in life are like that. Human limitations abound. It’s just who we are: all of us. ~ dh

Edward Hirsch has published eight books of poetry, five books of prose. He is also president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. From the book jacket (Knopf, 2014): “His landmark poem enters the broad stream of human grief and raises in us the strange hope, even consolation, that we find in the writer’s act of witnessing and transformation.”

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Has grief shaped your artistic efforts?
Has loss found its way into your life?
Can poetry help us to better understand the fragility of the human condition?
 
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
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NOTICING THE HIGH NOTES

I always start a new blog post with only a whisper of an idea. I could never plan it all out in advance. Nor would I want to. Creativity, for me anyway, demands a certain willingness to allow my subconscious to deliver something unexpected … something I hadn’t even fully considered myself, until  sitting down to put words on the page. Eagerly awaiting fresh insights makes writing its own reward: the unique puzzle that offers endless potential for discovery. Today is no different. Though I began to casually remind myself earlier this week that I would be writing a new post today … I left it at that. No outlines, no brainstorming, no purposeful pondering.

  • So what did I come up with?

Something that seems to fit the month of August — a series of pictures that express summer’s high notes in a way that words might not convey. I’ll let you find the take-away in each, imagining why a certain photo was a high note in its own right. Seemingly small things can be “high notes” when we are truly present for the moment. We are inundated with endless streams of information on a multitude of subjects each day. It’s extremely important to consciously allow more “open space” into our lives. Photos without words of explanation are simply one small way to do this. A breather before we head into autumn …enjoy!

— how often do we miss the “best” in life because we are waiting for the “best” to arrive?

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AND … if you care to leave a comment sharing why you think a certain photo was a “high note” (definition up to you!) … I will send the BEST comment received a complimentary copy of my new memoir (see cover below), THE SILENCE OF MORNING: A MEMOIR OF TIME UNDONE.

Have a little fun with this!  (NOTE: You’ll have until September 1st … ) 

If you already have a copy of my memoir, I’m happy to send you a copy for a friend or to donate to a relevant nonprofit. 

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What high notes have come into your life this summer?
Why do they feel like something a bit out of the ordinary?
How deeply did you notice, and appreciate, the high notes?
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
 
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DISCONNECT FROM CHAOS

YES, the world seems a vast sea of uncertainty and chaos. We clench our teeth and hold our breath. We mutter about “how bad things are” and we worry about tomorrow. We wonder if it has always been “like this” or if the world is tilted in a vastly new direction of unseen consequences. And, often, our customary reaction to the next crisis (or shocking development) launches yet another cycle of concern, anxiety, or even … depression. All of this hand-wringing clouds our vision, though. We don’t see the rose in our path. Not really.

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“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
–Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden                                                               

Yes, we’ve heard this sort of thing before. And we know we shouldn’t let external events fog our inner vision. But … we do, don’t we?

At least most of us do.

I watch the tide go in and out with every new media story hyped beyond reason, and I marvel at just how easily we tend to give up our personal equanimity. And, for what, exactly? We literally have no control over 99% of what the media focuses on; our level of personal involvement is slim to none. Still, we watch, we listen, we react, while squeezing in our own precious lives around the edges. I guess I just don’t get it. Are we so bored that we are willing to pretend the nightly news is “truth?”

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“I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

During the month of July … my suggestion is simple.

Refuse to be drawn in. Stay intent on your own life. Let most of it go by, because a reactionary posture is exhausting for one thing. It merely drains the life from your day … from your soul. At least pause long enough to realize that external events will always fall short of our expectations. And if you must turn to external events for entertainment purposes, please limit your gazing, inhibit your ruminating about any, or all, of it.

What good could it possibly do, in the end?

Yes, we need to be informed … to a point. Yes, we are concerned about the human condition … so we want to “know.” And, yes, we have issues that are close to our hearts for various reasons. All of this is understandable. But too often we are simply gazing at life from afar instead of staying focused on what is right in front of us. The cost is enormous. We feel agitated, annoyed, and perplexed. The peacefulness we felt is suddenly gone. We also put useless energy into a constant cycle of reaction. Step away in July. Step back and see if anything changes. 

roses“It’s amazing how confused and distracted and misdirected so many people are.”
–Stephen Covey

When I wrote ALWAYS RETURNING: The Wisdom of Place (first edition, ’99; second edition, 2014), I was already contemplating these things. I’d grown up with open spaces and generous landscapes that seemed “complete” and “life-sustaining” without anything more. This book, my first, resonates with me more and more each day.

“In a place where very little stands between an individual and his or her innermost self, the chances of a genuine encounter are greatly enhanced, and it becomes incumbent on a thinking person to do some soul-searching around the issue of happiness. Contemporary society, with its many bells and whistles, offers a different fare, and while it can create an image of abundance, its impact is faint, more like a mirage.”  —d.a. hickman, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place

Always_Returning-SmallAnd then when I wrote my memoir, not surprisingly, I found myself returning to my roots — geographically, spiritually, and emotionally. Loss is like that. It shakes us about like a rag doll, drops us back at the beginning of our remembered history. Without the simplicity of open spaces and poetic grasslands standing tall in my memory, I’m not sure how I would have had the courage to confront the greatest life mysteries … the ones that loss seems to suggest and point to. In a chapter called “The Way of the Sage”, I wrote:

“Windows open, we listened for a red-winged blackbird, relished the smell of fresh air, its absolute freedom as it connected with our weary, time-bound faces. Maybe we would spot a stunning blue heron in flight. It was the way of the sage. To perceive deeply, to acknowledge the divine oneness of the universe, our inherent, ever-changing role as imperfect life custodians. The life that we are … in countless forms. Temporary yet timeless. And when I am fully aware, not absorbed, or sidetracked, by the dictates of mind, time, or circumstance, I not only see beyond this paradox: I see into it.” —D.A. Hickman, The Silence of Morning:
A Memoir of Time Undone

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SPECIAL NOTE: The Kindle version of The Silence of Morning will be offered at reduced prices from July 3rd through July 10th. Happy 4th of July everyone! And please remember that while uncertainty and chaos may seem like reality, only our inner dimensions tell a true, personal story. So if you prefer calm and knowing and peaceful, tune out the endless steam of external events for a while. It’s amazing what a profound difference this can make.

Paint the day … stay inspired … look for the deeper story of landscape, art, and daily life. Even the challenge of sorrow and loss can lead us to a deeper life story. –dh

My recent book interview on Richard Gilbert’s blog, can be found here WE NEED MEMOIR.
Thanks again, Richard!
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again Friday, August 5th.

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THE SPIRIT OF SUMMER

THERE is something about summer that frees our spirits. Something that insistently beckons us to look at life and nature more closely, more intently. And, indeed, more extensively. The lake we’ve never visited. The trail we’ve never walked. The plant we’ve never grown. The important project we’ve managed not to “see” or acknowledge. The book we’ve never read. The artist we’ve overlooked. The recipe we’ve wanted to try for the longest time. The daring article or poem we suddenly want to write. You have your own examples, I’m sure.

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Feeling freer, less confined and withdrawn, we seem to almost merge with the spirit of summer.

Growing … doing … exploring … experiencing … creating.

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees,
just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning
over again with the summer.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

But sometimes things happen that dampen our spirits, and we struggle to find our usual enthusiasm for summer’s endearing vibrancy. It can make us feel pretty miserable to want to do the usual things (or new things) without the energy or desire to make it happen.

Who hasn’t been there?

Unless you live a one-dimensional life on a one-dimensional planet … you’ve been there.

We lost our beloved schnauzer, Noah, in June of 2015. My beloved son, Matthew, in June of 2007.

So I’ve been wondering about this fanciful month of June. Why has it delivered such harsh blows amidst the greens and blues and pastels that flow like rain during a month when many parts of the world seem reborn. Promising, comforting, and certainly pleasant. And then I noticed a quote on a good friend’s (thanks, Cynthia!) Facebook page that gave me pause yet again.

  • “I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June.” ― L. M. Montgomery
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NOAH … the Zen master
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NOAH                                                                       

If the world was always June … yes, there would  be the magic of nature … but, for me, there would also be poignant and powerful reminders of loss. Days very difficult to peacefully, and fully, remember; days when beating hearts grew still: the silence deafening. But June takes me there anyway, even as I resist, cringe, try to run away.

So do I turn away from the lovely month of June, or embrace it?
What would you do?

“It was June, and the world smelled of roses.
The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.”
Maud Hart Lovelace

To say I have mixed feelings about June would be true. The calendar, the season, draw me closer to events that feel “outside of time” … but the days of June also sharpen those painful memories anew, serving them up like a sad story ending one can never quite escape. Matt_FruitFarmOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA_Matt_Lake

I guess the only thing I can do is broaden my view, allowing June to merge with my memories of summer, in general. By acknowledging the month of June as intrinsic to summer’s spirit, I can consider it from a slightly different vantage point. Reflecting on this … I am also reminded that summer’s spirit is not entirely blissful. When summer ends, it takes with it warm, carefree days, and announces the arrival of a new season. Cooler weather, a more subdued season, less fresh and invigorating. By framing June this way, it becomes part of a bigger story—one less focused on daily events, specific time frames, and so on.

  •  ” … the final twist descended like a malicious fire. An unyielding weapon and an uncompromising shot shredding time, and all variations of hope, as it penetrated and absorbed the utter fragility of a precious human life in a secluded meadow on a faded summer night. An unbearable image. An anguished landing during the seductive month of June–nature in full bloom–made death even more startling, incongruent. I wanted to hate the sixth month of the year.” —D.A. Hickman, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone

When painful memories surface, try to frame them anew … bring them into a slightly different light, look at them from a perspective that isn’t quite as personal. After all, nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected. Dreaded days on a calendar can be looked at in a broader context … allowing for space around the event, the moment, the feelings we instinctively shy from. So here’s to the breezy days of summer, the tantalizing mix of life and loss the season ultimately delivers. Matt and Noah, for me, you ARE the spirit of summer. ~

How do you feel about June, about summer?
Any complications around this particular landscape of time?
What memories do you shun, or treasure … or simply not understand?

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again Friday, July 1st.

“Drugs and guns aren’t the real problems; they are only symptoms.
The deeper issue is the human condition, the trauma of life on this planet.”
9780990842361-Front-TheSlienceOfMorning13_RGB_300dpi_6x9“Despite a crushing loss … here we have a warmth of spirit,
understanding and compassion in a distancing world.”
Madeline Sharples, Leaving the Hall Light On
My recent book interview on Richard Gilbert’s blog,
can be found here
WE NEED MEMOIR.
Thanks again, Richard!

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